Painting backgrounds.

When do you paint a background?

Some prefer to paint them first, leaving the subject of the painting for last. Some prefer to paint them last, leaving the subject floating in a blank field until they are satisfied. Admittedly, there are advantages and disadvantages to both — though I still have my preference.

Personally? I like to paint them last.

One reason to paint them first is to more easily incorporate colors from the background into the foreground, creating a balanced, cohesive painting where everything looks like it belongs together. Highlights and shadows make sense, they are the same shades and hues. The subject of the painting looks like they are part of the world they inhabit.

I haven’t really had a problem with the reverse, though. I enjoy choosing colors for highlights and shadows without worrying about being true to the background. I don’t mind if my subjects don’t quite look like they fit — sometimes, it’s even preferable.

My biggest reason for painting backgrounds last is that I often prefer to use paint straight from the tube, to get the highest color saturation I can. Most of the brightest, most beautiful colors have relatively poor opacity, so, if I paint the background first, I run the risk of background colors encroaching on the space left for my subjects. If I paint the subject first, it’s easier for me to both fit the background around them, and get the saturated colors I prefer.

Painting the background last can also be helpful if you’re working on a painting for an extended session. Backgrounds are often relatively simplistic, they don’t take very long to paint when compared to the subject. By spending my time on the subject first, it’ll probably be dry by the time I get around to the background… and I won’t have to worry about smudging anything!

I have to confess, though, that I find backgrounds relatively boring. Subjects are more fun for me. I also like to avoid wasting time and materials, and backgrounds are easier to paint over. So, if I can see a subject isn’t turning out quite the way I wanted it to, I’ve saved myself a lot of grief.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to finish a painting. There are as many reasons to complete the background first as there are last, it’s a matter of preference. As I mentioned in a previous post, a major component of creativity is play. Experimentation is part of that.

Play, experiment, see which yields you the kind of paintings you love.

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