One way to have your art feel more finished is to really assess how you’re using the backgrounds in your art.
Hi, my name’s Carrie, and today on Artist Strong we’re going to talk about how making very thoughtful, mindful choices about the backgrounds within our artwork can actually enhance and really help round out and finish this work. Why don’t we get started?
Today I’m going to highlight several different artists across history who have very different uses of background and make very different artistic choices. I want to help you see the varied ways you can make use of your background as an important part of your composition.
The first artist I’m showcasing you can see on the screen here is Hieronymus Bosch.
He’s got very busy, active work. I’m going to click and show you one specific piece of his in a minute. If you just scroll through, you see closeups. You see lots and lots of things going on. Because there’s so many objects and so many actions going on, do you think that the background should be as busy?
Let’s look at one of his pieces here, The Garden of Earthly Delights. You can see, because there’s so many people and so much happening in every single panel, I’d argue that it was a very smart artistic choice for him to keep the grass in the grounds on which everyone was interacting very simple.
You’ve got simple, consistent colors. Even though things move into the far distance, you don’t need to see colors fading until well beyond some of those odd structures along the back. You can see some blue mountains in the far distance. Everything’s blocks of color. You do have some shading, but again, the background choices are very simple. The sky’s filled with other objects and creatures doing things just like in the foreground. The sky itself also is very basic.
This is a conscious choice. You already have so much going on to look at in the foreground and middleground, as well as towards the back of the painting, that you don’t want the base layer, the foundation of this artwork to be distracting from all of those other events going on in this artwork.
I’d argue that Hieronymus Bosch made some very smart decisions when he made the landscape his background for all of these activities and kept the colors simple, the lines clean. It allows us to really spend time looking at and trying to engage with all of the many activities going on in this image.
Another artist that I’d like to showcase and discuss is Mary Cassatt.
She’s from Impressionism. She often showcases and focuses on the relationship between mother and child in her work. It is portrait work.
Some pieces will have very finished and refined backgrounds and other pieces don’t. The question becomes, which pieces are studies? Perhaps some of the work that you see here is a study and it’s a drawing to help her understand likeness and understand or work on her skill around proportions, while other works are finished artworks.
I selected one piece of hers here — it’s entitled Breakfast In Bed — because I like how the background is actually … I don’t know. It’s placing us in this environment. You see this little kid and the mom cuddling in bed. Most of the background are simple marks and lines, and some very basic colors. All you really have are green, gray, and white. The focus then becomes the flesh of the figures and you really see this mom and little kid cuddling together, and the child eating.
The background is simple in its own right and there’s still lovely textures. You really have a sense of space. You feel like you’re sitting in the room with this woman. There’s an intimacy that we experience. Part of that’s because you really feel like you’re right next to them or even seated on the edge of the bed being witness to this.
That’s very different than the background Hieronymus Bosch created, which was also simple, but in a very different way. This would not be as effective for me if the person had just blocked in color behind the pillow or really simplified all of the environmental clues that give us the sense of being in the bedroom with the mom.
What about artists who are abstract in nature? Let’s talk about Mark Rothko.
His work is part of the Color Field movement. It’s really, really large artworks with stained, layered paint on canvas. It’s kind of this existential experience to stand in front of his works and be exposed to the color. Does he really have background in his work?
He usually covers the canvas all with a color and then places and layers colors on top, or places a color and then covers lots of that color, and has other colors mask it. It creates this glowing quality. The color relationships here are really important. If he didn’t have a base color coating his entire background, the surface of the artwork, you wouldn’t have these kinds of color relationships that create this very visceral experience for the viewer.
Alex Katz is another portrait artist.
I selected him because his work is more simplified and it’s not as realistic in some ways as we might describe Mary Cassatt’s work. I want to show you that even when you keep things simple, there’s conscious decisions being made that can improve the quality of your artwork.
For example, you can see in his work he has lots of very blank backgrounds. They’re just bold colors. However, there’s conscious choice about the color used in the background.
In all of these cases you’re seeing that none of the artists just leave the paper showing, or the canvas exposed. I want to challenge you to really think about how you’re utilizing the background or the base of your artwork to really emphasize and enhance the quality of your finished product.
Here I think the color choice is really nice. There’s some nice contrast. It really brings the figure forward more. With the woman’s really dark hair, there is this contrast. If her hair was blond, I’m not sure that that color choice would be as powerful.
Because of the value of these two different colors — if you squint your eyes, the hair is really, really dark, and that orangy, peachy color is more of a gray tone — it creates some variety and creates a dynamic feeling when you look at this image. And this is even though there is nothing going on in the background aside from the color.
You can keep things simple, but I want to encourage you today to realize that you should really be making conscious choices about the background of your art.
If you want to look at some additional work to get inspiration and ideas, I really encourage you to go to the Instagram account for The Jealous Curator. She finds all kinds of contemporary work and showcases artists that inspire her. It shows you how different artists are making use of the background.
The first artist on the top left, if you look very closely there’s letters that are kind of hidden in the background in the black. The one in the middle I really like because the photograph’s been cut up into lots of little pieces. It’s pinned to a surface. There’s not necessarily color on that surface, but there’s shadows created by the way they’ve pinned it.
Take a scroll through. I’ll make sure that this is linked below the video so that you can see how different artists are making conscious use of backgrounds to enhance the quality of their finished artwork.
Be Creatively Courageous: Tell me in the comments below how a background of one of your artworks has really defined the success of your work.
If you found this video helpful, please share it with someone else who could also benefit. Thanks, guys, for watching. Have a great day.
There is a formula to improve your drawing skills...but are you using it?
Join Drawing Drills: a FREE 7 day art challenge
uncover the research based strategies that experts in every field use to improve their skill.
Draw better, draw faster, draw from your imagination!
Enjoy this free bonus when you sign up for Artist Strong's weekly newsletter.
We honor your privacy - read more here.