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Traditional Art Week

        Background is called the matrix of a painting. Something that holds the foreground or main subject to our focus. Even though, we often neglect this stepping stone. And this element should be discussed separately because this the principle step that even comes before the composition sometimes. If you have nothing to hold it, what fate becomes of your precious creation?

        Before we analyze the elements of a background, we must understand what is background actually.
Background is not a solid object or patch of colour which you must put behind your painting to support it. No. Background is the space that surrounds your painting. It is the only way with which your painting relates to the surrounding at the very first place. It is where your sight is tricked into distance.
While we are talking about backgrounds, we should introduce the terms of positive and negative spaces. Positive space is simply the thing you are painting, where negative space is the space between the object and the rest of the scene. In an example, if you are painting a jug - the jug itself is a positive space, where the part of the wall that is being seen through the hole of jug's handle is negative space, which is a sole part of the background. Negative space is what shapes the object in focus, i.e. foreground object. But that does not mean background is negative space and vice versa. Background a is a bigger thing. Negative space is a part of it. Better said, a working hand.

Negative Space

        Negative space gives a shape to your object. Think like, the space around the object is another object which you painted, resulting in the shaping of a hole in middle which you will fill with paints. If there is no background, you can not shape your object.
You may think that if you just paint an object and introduce no background, where is the need of it? Well, you are drawing/painting on a surface which has a single colour, mostly white. Now your drawing on that surface can be simply explained as repainting the hole we mentioned before - the negative space and the hole it created has the same colour - so you can not distinguish them and hence you simply defined the edges with lines and recoloured, having the impression that there were never any background! It may sound brain-melting, but that is how it really is.

Notice how the background is shaping the foreground.

        I mentioned in previous articles, there is no lines in reality. We use lines to define the edges - edges that are created at the point of two matters meeting or overlapping. The matter in the back gives the shape to the matter in the front. If they are indistinguishable for hues, lights or anything, then we introduce lines to define them. So you see, that no foreground can exist alone without a background.
Back to the painting on a white background - is a plain bad choice. Specially for amateurs. Skilled and professional artists who has a clear and vast sense of contrasts and spaces, can paint on any surface. Not only you are making the background boring by a single patch of colour, also pushing your object into the background like the white is engulfing it instead of shaping it.
Same with using other colours plain as background. They are boring as well, just they do not engulf your foreground. Also unrealistic and if put randomly, then a perfect painting destroyer.

        If we think and imagine - can an object have lights all over it equally, unless it is itself is emitting light? No, right? Same with the backgrounds. How can they be defined with just one patch of colour without any shades or values? There are differences of backgrounds, but for the sake of understanding, we can think it as the wall behind your object. If you use a one-sourced light, the wall will have its own shadowy and lightened part. Establishing that difference of light will only bring forth your foreground more prominently and with a sense of reality. So it is worth enough.

Red Blue Yellow and Earth by Goodnight-Melbourne
The wall is a sole part of background in this particular painting. But it got its share of lights and shades. That's very important, because background is not just a supporting element. It's a missing piece of the puzzle. Without it, the painting will not be completed.

Still Life by bauderart Still-Life With Grapes by Lefthand666
Notice the light works in the background

        The importance of backgrounds can be realized very well while painting still lives. Because there we paint it as its simplest form - as another object. (This is the part where artists talk about 'the big picture'. Considering the entire subject as an object instead of putting details to individual things.). There we have not much visual trickery to imitate depth, not much gathering of many objects, and thus not much colours to confuse ourselves. Hence the wall behind the still life object is a perfect example of simple background.
However, there is non-negligible space between the wall and the object but that as not as vast as in a landscape, and can be established easily.
        Now, what is our priority? The foreground of course. The background is the only way to shape it. So if we need to draw focus on the foreground, we need to work on the thing that shaped it. 
If you paint your background and foreground with same hue, there will be no contrast, hence no focus and no interest. You need to choose your background colour very wisely, analyzing what possibly can bring forth your prioritized object. It is like wearing the proper tie. For example, a neutral hue an define the the shape of your object in foreground very well because there is nothing to clash with. A light neutral for a darker background, or a dark neutral for a lighter background. The second one is the most practiced approach, as because dark tones defines things prominently without reflecting lights.

[value studies]
Darker background for lighter objects and lighter background for darker objects.

Eagles by pSarahdactyls

Still Life by EuroFoxxStill Life Chardin Study by SILENTJUSTICE

To bring variety, one may choose the complementary colours to create a High contrast and draw focus that way. For example, a cerulean blue vases infront of a lemony yellow wall would come forward striking! Cerulean blue, Prussian blue, Phthalo blue and their kinds are stronger than yellow. One may use a stronger yellow for background like a Cadmium yellow or a darker yellow-earth like Yellow Ochre, but those strong blues will overpower them anyways - just using so much strong yellow will cause unnecessary disturbance in the painting. If you are painting fro real life, you need to organize your setup wisely, considering the object and the wall and the light etc. Similarly, a pale but contrasting background brings forth the darker and stronger foreground. As example : red foreground on a pale blue background.

Cardinalis cardinalis by Goodnight-Melbourne
Here the entire light blue sky, which acts as the background and also complementary colour, supports the dark red foreground to just pop out!

        Some artists establish a highly decorated backgrounds with drapes and etc and place a simpler objects in foreground. Thus such objects creates an effect like isolated contrast. The viewer's eyes will go on the simpler object in a background with overly decorated items - creating a successful paintings.

Still life with Gnome by JessicaEdwards

      Another example that comes in my mind at once is Karen Budan's 'Reflections of Red'. I don't know any source form where I can copy the link of the work legally, so I can not show the example. Just Google it. It is a silverware in font of a decorated drape.

        Now, for landscapes or wherever the depth of space is too vast: where the background is established to to trick our sights into thinking of distance, the rules of background are different, slightly. 
In such case, the establishment of the background depends on the following elements -

  • Perspective
  • Hue
  • Value
  • Intensity of colour
  • Placement of objects
        Because these elements define depth. The background in an open space is like a missing piece of jigsaw puzzle. It has no exact position to be exact, but it must fit to your foreground to give it the complete look.

Perspective: We have talked a lot about perspectives and there are a great deal of tutorials on deviantART to clear you the idea of perspective. So there is nothing new to tell about perspective. Only I must say, that you must treat perspective as a wire-frame model; and you need to put elements on it create depth. Along a perspective can not invoke the feeling of life, in this case realism.

Hue: The distant objects often reflects as a different colour specially if the objects are white in real. Best example is a mountain. Mountains' tops are mostly snow covered and thus white. From a great distance, the lights reflects almost totally on a white surface and as that reflected light passes through various layers in our surround atmosphere, some parts of the lights are absorbed in those layers by dust particles, gas particles etc. At the end, the wavelength of the reflected light reaches our eyes, we see that colour that bears that wavelength. Mostly it is blue, because blue light scatters most than any other wavelengths of lights. That is why we see the sky blue and that is why we don't see the Sun blue! (Sun is the prime source of light at day time. Its blue lights scatter far away before reaching our eyes, where only red and yellow reaches our sight. Due to the scattering, the particles in air reflects it all around - for the reason we see the sky blue).
Here we must talk about the various colours of the sky because when you see upward from the horizon, you will see the sky changing colours from dark red to red to yellow to slight greenish to blue and purple and darker and darker above that (because of the absence of dust particles above troposphere). Establishing these colours correctly will give the distant feeling of the sky like a dome that is covering us.
Also the foreground should be warm coloured and as the distance increases, the background should be colder and colder in hues' temperature. Cooler hues give the feeling of distance.

Still Life-Oil Painting by ketari

Values: The values decreases to light as far as the scene goes. The objects gets paler and paler until you can't see anything else anymore. By making the distant objects lighter in value will succeed you in creating the illusion of depth.

Intensity: This one is similar to values. The nearest object will be more darker in tone, more saturated in hue; but as the distance grows, they tends to 'fade away', and thus the colour intensity decreases. Saturated and secondary colours degrades to less saturated hues and in primary colours.

The Hue+value+Intensity creates a very real like imitation of depth and distance. The application of these three together is called Aerial Perspective.

 The Bridge At Narni, 1826, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot

Examples of Aerial perspective.
[Artists' attribution is in embded html acronym tag.]

Placement of objects: To depict depth, you must do some overlapping in the distant objects. This is actually depicting the narrow vision. Also the objects should be less and less detailed and textures as far as it goes than the nearer ones.
And for the weight, if the scene is considered a 3D box, the bigger and heavier object will be far from the centre and the smaller will be closer to the centre, have the impression of exact opposite. i.e. Bigger will look smaller and smaller will look bigger, because sitting in foreground. The bigger is the object the more it should be overlapped by other objects and sit farthest. This does not only creates the sense of weight, but also the sense of distance. 


            While painting landscapes, most of the beginners paint all the clouds in same values and hues. Not only the clouds look flat, but they also look like they are floating in a same surface or layer marching one behind another. But in reality, the clouds are scattered here and there in the sky, going further away in distance. They are never on same surface.
            The funny thing with clouds is that, to define these depth and distances in clouds, all the above mentioned rules flip upside down. The rules are opposite for clouds. They gets darker and darker as far they go and lighter as near they come. Also the hues change intensity as they go further in distance. But the clouds that are so near you like they are almost above your eyes and thus missing the cone of your sight, will be darker again. This makes the clouds near about in the middle to be lightest.
Famous painter John Constable was a master in cloud studies. He made numerous paintings to study the clouds.

Harwich Lighthouse, 1820, John Constable

Match the diagram with the painting above.

Cloud Studies by John Constable

    One last thing:
            Detailing is a thing that clashes with background rules a lot. 'Normally', the background should have less details, but the artist can keep a great deal of details and also make the background contrasting with the foreground with proper placing of elements, and lights. 'Las Meninas' by Diego Velázquez is one of the most important paintings in Western art history. It shows how much details an artist can put while still having every other elements of composition precisely.

Las Meninas, 1656, Diego Velázquez

            So treat the background with respect. It is the matrix of your painting. The womb where your painting may grow. Take care of it before everything and all will be well.

Until Next Time.
Happy painting.


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Traditional Art Week, January, 2015

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Add a Comment:
stephenshawart Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2016   Traditional Artist
Hi, would you mind sharing in this in the landscape painting group? really helpful
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner May 11, 2016  Professional
I think you already did that.
Good luck. :TipOfTheHat: 
Tudalia Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2015  Student Traditional Artist
Great article! Was helpful a lot ! I never knew what was aerial perspective! The examples are awesome! Great work put on!
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Mar 31, 2015  Professional
Glad to know it was helpful.
All the best :thumbsup:
Tudalia Featured By Owner Apr 1, 2015  Student Traditional Artist
Same to you!
ambarluna Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2015
Fantastic! I hate backgrounds because I never know how to do them correctly; from a while I've know the backgrounds are a key part in the whole work, but I had no idea what was the right way to do them so I'm returning to this article several times. I'm more in human drawing, portraits and all that, the same principles apply for them, I suppose.
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Edited Feb 9, 2015  Professional
Quite true. Mostly for portraits, the background is a solid one, in most cases. In those cases, they are treated similar as in any other still life.
If the portrait is outside, one seldom will need to establish the entier background. Studying of portrait photographs are very useful in this case. And if the portrait has abstract background, one needs to make it contrasting to the foreground as well as contrasting to the lights.
There is no genre like human drawing. Artists do those to practice human anatomy to apply somewhere else, in other paintings or drawings - even so, they practice the other elements like the seat of the model, the drape behind the model and the wall and most importantly lights.
ambarluna Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2015
I didn't recieve your answer! Just because I'm re-reading the article I realized you responded me. Well, I'm struggling with backgrounds right now so let's see how it goes. 
I like your articles, so well explained and full of useful info. Thanks!
Rhyn-Art Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2015   General Artist
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2015  Professional
Thanks. :TipOfTheHat: 
Rhyn-Art Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2015   General Artist
Agaave Featured By Owner Jan 21, 2015
Very informative and demonstrative! :la:

I am usually very lazy with my backgrounds but next time I draw, I'll keep this article in my mind.
It was a good reminder how important hue + value + intensity are when creating feeling of depth! Now I just should bring this great theory you wrote into practice... :D
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Edited Jan 24, 2015  Professional
I'm glad to know you found it informative.

Well backgrounds are still BACKground, so unless you are a master realistic painter, I don't think one should put much effort to it. Just we need to put effort on establishing an appropriate background. Which makes sense. Which relates to the foreground in almost every possible way. Not much need of being detailed or something. See Frans Koppelaar's painting. The background is not detailed but it's appropriate and relates to the foreground and doesn't seem unnatural.
PolarisAstrum Featured By Owner Jan 21, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Great article, lots of helpful info here. I had actually never noticed that about clouds! It probably explains why I just never seem to get them right. Pretty much gave up on trying to make them look like anything more than "just like clouds", but now that I've read that nifty little part, I definitely have a better understanding of what I've been doing wrong.
Backgrounds are also something I cannot live without, but that are frustrating because I'm never satisfied with how they look, mostly because I should pay more attention to all those points instead of just wanting to stick my subject into something else other than blank space. Thank you for writing this :heart:
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Edited Jan 21, 2015  Professional
I am very glad to know it was helpful :)
Yes clouds are pretty tricky but not impossible. There is an easy method of painting clouds (semi-realistically though) by using your thumb. I tried that once or twice and the result came satisfactory. Have you seen the paintings of Arnold Lowrey? In his books, he often suggested painting the clouds with one's thumb. You can read his books in spare time. 

If you are having a trouble establishing satisfactory backgrounds and if you paint landscapes, I will suggest that you do some real life study from real scenes or photographs. See how it is in the farthest and try to replicate it. After doing a lot of real life studies, you brain will have enough data to construct an appropriate background for your imaginary scene.
Also note that backgrounds shape the foreground - true but foregrounds also need to relate to the backgrounds. For example. If the background is dark, the foreground can't be so bright either. They need to relate as well as contrast to be distinguishable.
PolarisAstrum Featured By Owner Jan 21, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I will have to try that out whenever I get my paints out again, I'm mainly a colored pencil artist, so using my thumb for clouds won't do me much good :giggle: It does seem like a neat technique!

That's exactly my problem, I need to make a lot of background studies and draw from photos and such, because not only will that help me improve, but it will also expand my horizons. The problem there mainly lies in laziness though, which is easily fixed anyway. I've always been more inclined to draw from my mind than from real life/references, so I get easily bored when I have to base what I'm drawing off of something else other than what's floating around in my imagination. That makes it so that many times, I'd just rather slap in a generic looking background just so I don't have my subject hanging on empty space, instead of actually putting effort and thought into the scenery. This article really makes me want to break out of that habit though and drive myself to improve on my backgrounds, which is something I've been meaning to do for some time now, so I really have to thank you for that.
Goodnight-Melbourne Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2015  Professional
Ask me, laziness can't be easily fixed :D :rofl:
You are welcome :handshake: keep up practicing and experimenting !
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