The Importance of the Background

Many artists make a mistake in putting all the emphasis on the foreground. I pay at least as much attention to the backdrop as I do to the actual elements. It’s exciting for me to shift my focus from the careful attention required to paint cherries or glass to a different challenge. To paint the background, I have to switch gears and think abstractly. The background creates the context; it imbues the elements with an atmosphere. The cast shadow on a wall, the repetition of a pattern—every subtle element is crucial to the effect. For me, a good backdrop serves two functions: it’s beautiful and it relates visually to the subjects in the foreground. In a way, the landscape has never really left my work. I want my backgrounds to have the same kind of light, depth and visual appeal of a good landscape. It’s not a huge stretch to see my backdrop cloths as a kind of patterned sky or vista of rolling hills. The light blazing through a vase is simply the sun brought indoors.

Garden Medley #21 (watercolor, 19 x 20)

I’m faithful to the reality of the elements in the foreground, but for the background I allow myself a great deal of latitude. The background complements and it’s also a supplement. The light reads from left to right, with the more intense light on the left. There’s a related movement from warm to cool, which I exaggerate. When I work on a full sheet the changes involved in a 30-inch space don’t seem that dramatic, so I observe what the light is like across a five-foot span and paint that. Warm and cool notes are everything in a good painting. Whether I have a simple cast shadow or a full cloth background, there’s nearly always a subtle movement from warm to cool from left to right. I also love to emphasize the interplay between complementary warm/cool notes within the elements of the composition. For example, the Snowberry pattern Roseville vases we have in our collection exhibit a lovely change in glaze from red-orange (warm) to green (cool). Green stems and leaves are an obvious complement to an assortment of fruit and flowers. Remember that “warm” and “cool” are relational properties that are affected by surrounding hues. For example, green is cool compared to red but warmer than blue.

White Lilacs with Cherries (watercolor, 17 x 18)

When I arrange the elements in the set-up, I think in terms of the composition: primary shapes and placement. For the backdrop, I think in terms of repetition—of patterns, motifs, folds. A fold in the backdrop might be like a high note in a symphony—the “ting!” of a triangle, a small but essential element that completes the work.

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