Painting the Traditional Way
– Part 4 –
When Should You Paint the Background in Oils?
After painting ‘the Dead Layer’ in the previous post, and refining the anatomy of the figure, I had to start on painting the background. But when should you paint the background in oils?
When should you paint the background in oils?
Sometimes, depending on the composition of the painting, it may be necessary to paint the background in oils before the main subject or the foreground objects.
If you paint the background before the foreground, you are able maintain clear edges around your main subject if you need to.
Painting the background first also allows you to add details in the background more easily too. It makes it easier to paint lines and forms of continuation behind the main subject, such as the horizon or a tree branch, etc.
Another benefit to painting the background first, is being able to control and work with colour harmonies, values, contrast, lighting and compositional elements.
A painting needs to be balanced as a whole. It looks strange when the main subject seems separated from its surroundings because these elements are not in balance.
It’s generally a good idea to tone the canvas or paint an imprimatura in order to start off with a balanced colour harmony and middle tone. This sets the ‘key’ for the painting.
But if you’re painting wet into wet (alla prima) on a white canvas, you still have options as to when to paint the background around the main subject.
Usually, I would suggest, painting the whole artwork as one; getting your background in pretty quickly because of the way it changes the look and feel of the painting.
It 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.
With oil painting, there are many factors to consider, before making hard and fast rules about when to paint the background.
Oil painting is not like watercolour or tempera (where you usually paint in flat-looking, carefully planned sections, dark over light). It is a lot more versatile than that.
Although, you could paint with oils in a similar style to watercolour or tempera if you wished to.
Unlike most other mediums, oil painting gives you the ability to paint light over dark (with scumbling) or dark over light (usually through glazing, but not necessarily).
It also allows you to control edges very easily; sharp, crisp edges, or soft and blurry.
So depending on your style of painting — whether you paint alla prima, or indirect, tight and detailed, or impressionistic — there are many determining factors as to when you should paint the background. See also: Old Master Approaches from Oil Painting Techniques
It depends on the subject matter as well.
Practically though, I prefer to paint the painting as a whole. Going from background to foreground and ‘back’ again. This ensures harmony and balance, and allows me to control my edges so that the subject doesn’t appear like a cardboard cutout.
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.
If you want more general info about blocking in and painting in layers, check out a blog I wrote: Weird Questions Beginner Oil Painters Ask.
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 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.
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.
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 accidentally brushed over her hips, sides, her fingers and arms.
In the next layer, after a few days drying, I’ll start the final glazing and scumbling of the painting and start bringing everything into completion. Exciting!
Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share this painting tutorial or ask me any questions that you may have about these painting techniques if you need help.
You can also check out some more of my figure paintings here.