Loose wet in wet first layer of painting the background
Loose wet in wet first layer of painting the background


Painting the Traditional Way

– Part 4 –

The Background

After painting ‘the Dead Layer’ and refining the anatomy of the figure, I had to start on painting the background.

Why paint the background first in oil painting?

Sometimes, depending on the composition of the painting, it may be necessary to paint the background before the main subject or the foreground objects.

It also depends on the objective the artist is trying to achieve. How detailed or important should the background be, relative to the foreground, the subject or the focal point?

Of course, an object would look weird just floating in space. So even very minimalist surroundings add credibility to your subject. Cast shadows and perspective help to ground the subject and create three dimensional space.

It helps to think of the painting in layers. (I’m not referring to physical painting layers here, although that is always part of the formula and the decision-making process.) I mean thinking in layers of depth or distance from the farthest objects to the nearest.


Blocking in the first layer of the background

I decided that it was important to finish the background and the water before working on philodendron leaves, the parrots and the woman. So I started painting the basic shapes of the rocks, the waterfall and hints of foliage in the darkness with broad, loose brush strokes.

I was trying to be more mindful of tonal values or contrast in this painting and achieve a chiaroscuro effect; the Italian term for dramatic light and dark in a painting.

I enjoy it when a painting seems to be painting itself in sense. While painting the rocks, I didn’t have a clear idea of their ridges, edges and shapes, so much as I allowed those things to reveal themselves to me.

Filling in colour and textures quickly with broad strokes, I used a very basic palette of burnt umber, burnt sienna, ultramarine, yellow ochre, sap green and white. I filled in the first layer of the water around the woman’s body too.

The pink-toned ground was still able to show through the transparent layers above. Once I had blocked everything in, I allowed the painting about a week to dry.


Loose wet in wet first layer of painting the background
First blocked in layer of the background.


Defining the details of the background

In the next layer, I started adding more definition to the rocks and foliage.

I thought about and researched the kind of tropical plants that would work in this scenario. Bird’s Nest ferns, creepers, bushes, palm fronds, etc.

I picked some fern leaves from the garden to draw from. Slowly I starting building up the feeling of space in a dimly lit forest with shadows and light, with leaves and plants overlapping and crowding each other.


Painting rocks, moss and ferns
Defining the rocks, moss and ferns.


Painting the water

Painting the falling water was a challenge, and I had to keep stepping back to the end of my room to see how the painting looked from a distance.

Sometimes, when you’re too up close while painting, you can lose the general forms. I painted parts of the waterfall quite thick, giving it an impasto effect so that the paint physically captures and reflects the light.


Painting a waterfall
Painting a waterfall with thick impasto.


I mixed some ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, sap green and white again, creating a kind of turquoisey hue and painted another layer to the pool of water, adding some ripples, splashes and waves.  I like to try and mix colours from the same pigments throughout a painting in order to give it unity.


Painting water wet in wet
Painting water with the wet in wet technique.


I left some of the pink hues shining through the turquoisey green colour beneath the woman’s butt so that the water looks more transparent and reflective.

Once I had filled in all the colour for the second time, I took an earbud and cleaned up the edges of her body where I had accidently brushed over – her hips, sides, her fingers and arms.


Painting water in oils
The next layer of the water completed.


In the next layer, after a few days drying, I’ll start glazing the shadows of the background and try to complete the water.


Check out my figure paintings here.



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