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Backgrounds!

May 28, 2013

Rose watercolor, 6x6 inches

Rose watercolor, 6×6 inches

One of the most persistent problems you hear beginners as well as more experienced painters complain about is ‘ backgrounds’.  In realistic painting, the subject is painted somewhere in the middle of the paper or canvas (since I’m talking about watercolors here I’ll talk about ‘ paper’), completed to satisfaction then oh, oh what to do with the  ‘background’.

It  is something like the dilemma of people cooking for vegetarians- they leave out the meat and all they have on the plate are the potatoes and beans!  You take away something and try to create a meal out of what’s left, instead of starting out with the idea of creating a vegetarian meal as a whole, using lots of different ingredients.

Are you still following me?

The way to solve the ‘background’  dilemma is not to try to figure out what to do with the background once you’ve completed the main subject but to treat the background as an essential ingredient, already integrated into the painting from the beginning.

Rose in process, working across the whole subject including background

Rose from above in process, working across the whole subject including background

It can help to decide on an overall color palette for the painting before you even pick up a brush. And look at the negative spaces, how the light falls, and try to shift how you see. Try to move away from perceiving just an object against a’  background’  to an intricate interplay of puzzle pieces- each equally important.

Anne's kitchen

Anne’s kitchen

Pears in sunlight 2

Pears in sunlight 2

These are basically travel sketches and I’ve been trying to keep my work really loose, so it only partly illustrates my point here.

This penny just recently dropped for me, so I’ve included some of my attempts in watercolor above. But it would be good to look at some classical oil paintings by Cezanne, for example, where the negative shapes are more clearly defined.

my trusty little traveling watercolor set

my trusty little traveling watercolor set

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13 Responses to “Backgrounds!”


  1. Love the rose! I didn’t know a watercolor set could be so basic! Thank you for sharing, Sarah!

  2. Jeanie Moran Says:

    I love your loose watercolors & your process.

    • Sarah Says:

      thanks Jeanie, I’ve broken through to a new level with my watercolors, it feels good to let them evolve and not try to control so much.

      > New comment on your post “Backgrounds!” > Author : Jeanie Moran (IP: 166.137.191.23 , > cncmspsrvz6ts109-dmz.mycingular.net) > E-mail : jeaniemoran3131@gmail.com > URL : > Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/166.137.191.23

      • Tom Says:

        For the time being I am trying to learn oil pastels, but before that I (briefly) dabbled in water colors. I put them aside because I do have issues with control in my creativity. Perhaps some day soon I will come back to watercolors, hell bent on just letting them do their thing as I paint. Your style with them is really nice, keep showing us more! I am over on wetcanvas.com as ‘thevaliantx’. They would LOVE to have you there!


      • Tom, thanks.
        Perhaps it is easier to start to let go with watercolors when you’ve been working with them for a long time. In the beginning it is natural to try for some control.
        Would you please send me a direct link to your work at thevaliantx on wetcanvas, the site looks interesting but I really don’t want to join just to view some art.


  3. Nice article. While it’s something I don’t do consistently, I do try to create interest in the paintings including the background. Not enough to draw too much attention, but enough to have it be more than bland and flat.

    Nice watercolors indeed! Thanks for the article! Good luck!


    • Robert, thanks for commenting. I like your paintings a lot, the colors in your boat scenes especially. So great you’ve followed your ‘second career’.


      • That’s too kind of you, Sarah. Thank you for stopping by and taking a peak.

        I do enjoy boat and harbor scenes. I dream of the pacific and atlantic coast all the time. I sometimes wish I was even homeless in Laguna, Monterey, or Kennebunk! Just me, a carpet bag of art supplies, and the ocean!

  4. Betty Pieper Says:

    So refreshing to hear again what my mentor said in a slightly different way…It is about honoring the whole (canvas), painting the whole, not pieces. I feel contaminated with rules of traditional painting because it feels like paint by numbers compared to a way to SEE and be gestural! Love the words and the work.
    Betty Pieper


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