Hints and tips when choosing a background for your painting:

As a special Festive Season thank you to you all – below are some invaluable painting hints, tips and breakthroughs that I am sure you will find helpful on your painting journey!

Ask yourself:
What does the background you are contemplating say about your subject?

We generally want a background to be a foil for the main subject. We don’t want it to command attention. We want a background to support the foreground subject. We artists have many tools that will ensure we can allow our subject to be all we want it to be:

I will use my painting ‘Time For Reflection’ to show how we can push/pull our subject and background into different planes within our painting. I use many tools to do this.

Keep a background simple.

One ‘trap for young players’ is that we can often make a background too busy. If you fill the background with:

  • ‘things’
  • too much detail
  • too many sharp lines
  • too many bright colours
  • too many light colours
  • or great contrast in tonal value (light and shadow)

Any or all of these can allow the background to dominate the painting and take the focus off the main subject.

A busy background can cause confusion and lose the interest of the viewer. Why? Because the foreground and background will  both be vying for attention. The viewer can then become unsure of  where to look first.

Why go to all the trouble of filling the background with the bullet point items above, when simplicity will be far more appropriate for some, but not all, paintings. (There are wonderful exceptions where we wish to pull the viewers attention through to the background.) I digress…..let’s get back on track!


My painting Time for Reflection has the perfect background for the message I wish it to convey. However, I will make changes to this painting to demonstrate the power of the lessons I will share below. You will find the lessons I share here can be applied to any subject and any medium.


How do we simplify a background?

  1. Blur any edges and lines. This will throw the background further back in the composition – as well as out of focus. ‘Out of focus ‘ colours, objects, lines, edges etc all send messages to the viewer that “these are further back in the composition than the more refined detail, lines, edges and objects in the foreground”.

Can you see how blurring the background  contrasts against the  more defined edges of our main subject – Shelley? The blurred areas recede further into the background.




     2.  Keep the colors cooler in the background.

Can you see how this is creating a great contrast between Shelley and the background? The greater the contrast – the greater the distance we can achieve. However too much contrast can bring an uncomfortable situation where Shelley would appear to be too far forward – as you can see in one of the examples below.

     3. In general, cool, cooler and very cold colors (blues, greens, cool greys) will always sit further back in a composition than any warmer colors used in the foreground.  







I have now darkened Shelley a little. Can you see how she now appears to be sitting further into  the background?

     4. Remember warm colours advance in a painting. Cool colours recede. Therefore if you use cooler, darker, more greyed colours in the background than those used in the foreground – you will find the background/object will sit beautifully behind your main foreground subject.







You will see how comfortable the greyed-off red house roof sits in this scene. 








Now see how a warm red projects the roof forward in the composition. This is a great example to demonstrate how warm colors advance and cooler, greyer colors recede.







5. You can clearly see how I have darkened the background greatly. It has receded much further into the background. I have lightened Shelley. You can see how out of kilter this looks. Shelley looks as if she is levitating. However this is a great example of how light colors advance and dark colors recede. The greater the contrast between light and dark – the greater the distance between the objects and where they appear to sit in the composition.

You can also see another great example. I have lightened the tree foliage in comparison to the previous example ‘4’. I have also brought sharper lines and detail into the tree foliage. Can you see how this allows those specific leaves and those branches to jump forward in the composition?

Now you can clearly see the power we artists have to push/pull a subject within our composition. How far you move a subject is in your hands.





Light areas advance forward – Darker areas recede

It is not necessary to go very dark at all if you want your background to recede.

If you ensure your background is slightly darker than the main subject – you will find that is enough for your background to sit comfortably behind your foreground subject. The darker your background – the more it will recede.

A great tip:

When I learn something new I love to ponder the uses of such discoveries. Now is a great time to think of the applications you would have for these lessons. Think about how you could apply this push/pull to the painting you are currently working on? Maybe you would like your background flowers to be further back in the composition? Now you have the knowledge to do that with confidence! Maybe your main subject feels a little too far forward – what do you think you could do to make your subject more integrated – further back in your composition?

What to do if you want your background to be relatively close to your subject? You would create a slightly darker, slightly cooler background (as mentioned above).

So, if the background is:

  • cooler
  • more blurred
  • less sharp
  • darker
  • less colorful

the further back it will recede, and the further forward your main subject will advance in the composition.

Maybe you want to create a simple wall behind your subject?

Maybe you would  like to create a nebulous meld of soft or dark colors flowing into each other?

  • Both of these things above will push your subject forward and give all the focus to your subject and emphasize what you want to say about it

You may like your main subject to emerge from a dark luminous shadowed background.

Think about the message this would create:

  • mystique
  • atmosphere
  • mood  

Can you see how the time-worn leather bound books emerge from the luminous dark shadows? This creates atmosphere and a mood reminiscent of the ‘old masters’ palette. 

We artists can change the atmosphere completely by understanding how we can push/pull our subjects within our composition. But these same lessons also teach how you can create mystery, emotion, mood and a certain feeling in your work.

It is hard to believe but this painting is a watercolor! The skills I have shared above can help you to create such things in any medium: oil, watercolor, pastel, acrylic etc – any medium at all!

There are so many options available to you.

In Conclusion:

These are the decisions to make before you begin:

Be clear in your mind’s eye what you want your background  to say about your main subject. Think about where you want your background to sit in your painting:

  • Close to the foreground?
  • Further back?
  • Or right back – in the far distance?
  • Maybe you would like your main subject to be enveloped in luminous transparent shadow as in my painting titled The Scribe above?

You can see from the images above, a background wields a great deal of power in a painting.

Remember – you are in control of what you want to say. You are the artist. The information above will give you the power to create paintings that allow your main subject to be gentle, tranquil, harmonious, strong, powerful, dominant. It is your choice and all in your hands now! Have fun! Enjoy this gift of knowledge – it has the power to transform all of your future work.

Happy Festive Season!


To return to my 2017 Festive Season Newsletter please click on the following link: https://www.susanart.com/newsletter/

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