Well-known member
I just thought I'd throw this question out there: "How do you approach backgrounds in your work?" What do you paint first/last? How important are they? What are your thoughts on them?

I have some definite thoughts on backgrounds that have changed greatly over the years... but I thought I'd wait 'til others make some comments. :)
When painting landscapes, I always paint the farthest background first and then come forward with each layer to the final foreground. With portraits, I'm all over the place. I always paint the eyes first, then give the face some form, then the background gets covered. After the whole canvas is covered I let it dry for a while, then go back and finish the background so it stays behind the portrait. Then the eyes get completely finished then the face and the hair. I know, I'm weird but it works for me. :giggle:
I think I like to do the backgrounds last since I paint in oils. I do try to go from left to right in general because of everything being wet and me being right-handed, but I usually get the insides of things first before doing the background. The one I'm (supposed to be) working on right now, the background will be last, especially because it's all blues and greens, and most everything else will be white on the insides of the outlines. I'll be able to do all the color mixing in a couple of/few days for the background.
I am all over the place in terms of position but generally I work .... Darkest, lightest, middle. Then I start fine tuning leaving the highlites for last. I paint into rather that to.
I remember reading an interview with Matisse in which he was speaking of "Expressionism". He suggested that the German Expressionists thought the expression... the emotion lay in the main emotion-laden subject: a face or a figure. He, on the other hand, felt that the expression lay in the whole of the painting... that the background which some thought of as little more than a mere setting was every bit as important as the face or the figure. This whole is what made him an "Expressionist".

At the time when I first read this, I was not of a like mind. I thought of the background in a manner akin to Rembrandt or Velazquez or even Michelangelo: it was of little importance other than isolating the subject... the figure or the portrait. My own approach to painting was similar.

A good number of years ago I lost my studio space. I was forced to create whatever I was going to create in my small apartment at the time. I made an attempt at very small oil paintings, but even working on a diminutive scale the turps, linseed, and damar were overpowering and I ended up with a mess. Realizing my messy nature, I realized acrylics were also out of the question. I was never overly fond of watercolors either. I made a few small woodblock prints but didn't like the water-based inks as opposed to the smellier oil-based inks. Around that time I was pushed to create a couple of collages as part of a professional development class. I actually found that the result had potential. At the same time I was reading a good deal about Joseph Cornell and felt that collage and assemblage were an ideal art form under the circumstances... and perfectly suited to an exploration of my passion for books.

My approach to collage did not involve the usual figure-ground relationship as found in my paintings. Rather, I was forced to think of the whole of the image. Nothing was less or more important within the image as a whole. When I again abandoned collage and started painting again, I began to think of the "background" as just as integral to the work as a whole as the figure. I begin working by drawing the figure as a two-dimensional shape within the field I am working in. Once that is established, I focus almost exclusively on the "background". I may enjoy the process of drawing the figure more than drawing/painting the background... and it may be more demanding. Nevertheless, I think of the figure as just part of the whole.
I was thinking that is true of your paintings. But not true of everyone's


Raphael's portrait is stunning... but the background is little more than a setting for the figure.
I think of a background as being the same thing as a foreground. Both are on the same plane so I generally disregard (IMO...irrelevant) “sacred rules” about depth and perspective. For me, it’s simply...shaped outlines, filled in with color forms, which are composed inside a border. Ideas are imaginary and so, “pure fantasy,” until they appear on the surface (or plane) of the canvas. And even the end...the image is only 2D fakery.

So why pretend (anymore) that a background is anything more than what it is?