How to Paint a Background

Cropped rearview of an artist
Ron Koeberer/Aurora/Getty Images

Whether it's a still life or a portrait of a person or pet, having a relatively simple or uncluttered background allows the focus to fall entirely on the subject. Oftentimes, though, beginning artists paint the subject first and then don't know what to do with the background. To avoid that problem, paint the background first. If you do that, then you won't struggle to figure out what to paint in the background or worry about accidentally painting over a bit of your carefully painted subject. Then as you paint the subject, you can work in a little color from it into the background to help unify the painting if needed.

This sequence of photos by artist Jeff Watts shows an effective way to paint a background that is simple but has visual interest and impact.

Still life painting composition
Painting © Jeff Watts

Artistic license means you can have the light coming from whichever direction you desire. You simply decide where you want it, then paint in the colors at their most saturated closest to the light and weaker furthest from the light.

Jeff said: First, find your light source. In this painting, it's coming from the left. So that’s where I started with the darkest color, black, and alizarin crimson, using criss-cross strokes. More »

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Paint With the Direction of the Light

Painting a background
Painting © Jeff Watts

Don't paint random brushmarks, but use them to enhance the sense of direction in the light. Your brushstrokes don't need to line up in a rigid row like brand new fenceposts but can be a little higgledy-piggledy like a fence that's weathered some storms. Think of them as dancing rather than marching.

Jeff said: Moving across the canvas in the same direction as the light is traveling, I lightened the paint mixture with cadmium red.

Painting a background
Painting © Jeff Watts

Remember the effect of light isn't constant, it changes as you get further away from the source of the light. Exaggerating this change a bit when painting a background can be very effective as it provides a contrast in tone.

Jeff said: I continued to lighten the mixture by adding white as I got to the other side. This is the lightest part of the background because this is where the light is shining to. 'Dark where the light starts, light where the light goes' is a good way to remember this.

Then I added the foreground, which is just a light gray and Naples yellow. I kept it a bit lighter where it's the closest to me. I don't really clean my brush much through this process. At most I will wipe off excess paint when changing colors.
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Painting a background
Painting © Jeff Watts

Adding a shadow anchors the subject. Without it, things all too easily look like they are floating in space. For this style of background you're not after a detailed shadow, just a darker tone where the larger shapes of the subject would cast a shadow given the direction of light you've chosen.

Jeff said: I blurred the horizon line and added the cast shadow of the cat. I think the blurring of the horizon line is the 'magic' of this type of background. More »

Painting a background
Painting © Jeff Watts

Once you've got it all working to your satisfaction, it's time to shift onto painting the subject. Don't stress about it being totally "right", you can adapt and make adjustments later.

Jeff said: Painting a background this way creates a sense of atmosphere and perspective in your painting. It also puts the light side of the subject next to the dark side of the background, and the shadow side of the subject next to the lighter side of the background. This contrast of light against dark makes for an interesting painting.

The background and foreground done, I roughed in the cat itself.
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Painting a background
Painting © Jeff Watts

Jeff said: The next day, I went over the entire background again with different colors (I changed my mind that's all.) When I ultimately finish painting the cat (it isn't yet, in the photo), I will go over the background again. I may well change some colors again. Sometimes I do it because I forget what I used in the first place, and sometimes because I like to work the fur into the wet background.

This style of background works well for portraits or still lifes. You can blend it as little or as much as you like. I find short brushstrokes work best. You can use whatever colors you want, though I try to get some of the subject color into the background (and vice versa). It’s not always noticeable as it gets blended away, but it's there.

Updated by Lisa Marder. More »