Plan the Best Background for Your Still Life Painting

Two Pears Background Test

After setting up my subject, I shot and printed a large reference photo. Then I used scissors to cut out the main subject, in this case, the white table and the fruit. Next, I painted three different backgrounds on three primed matboards. Laying my photo cutout on the different backgrounds allowed me to see which worked best.

Plan the best background for your still life painting

Red Background Test
I mixed a dull, neutral red color with alizarin crimson and sap green. Then I thinned the mixture with medium to get the lighter value for blending the left side of the background into the right side.
What happens? The red background complements the green pear nicely, but the background is too similar to the red pear to create enough contrast. Also, the cool white table conflicts with the red background choice.

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Plan the best background for your still life painting

Black Background Test
Here I mixed a dark black mixture with equal parts alizarin crimson, sap green and phthalo blue. (Keep in mind that you can easily adjust the dominant tone of a black mixture by using more red, green or blue.)
What happens? Though the black background is full of drama and contrast, which helps the eye stay on the subject, there’s no value movement and there’s too strong a contrast with the white table.

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Plan the best background for your still life painting

Blue-Black Background Test
Using the black mixture from my black background test, I added a bit of phthalo blue for the left side of the background. I blended that mixture with a lighter color—pure alizarin blue lake—to achieve a value change from left to right.

What happens? The dark value on the left of the two-tone background contrasts well with the green pear’s stem highlights. There’s also a pleasing visual contrast between the lighter blue background on the right and the cool purples of the red pear. Good contrast is also evident on the dark shadowy side of the subject. The light blue works with the blue cast shadows on the table. This is the best background choice for my painting Two Pears.

To read the entire article, click here and download the October 2010 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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