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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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Following on from the previous post, ‘Limited space and no time..’, here are 5 things you can do anywhere anytime which will help to get you  creating again. I find that if I’m antsy and want to get materials in my hands but don’t know what to do, or am not feeling inspired, these little gestures can trick me into getting more involved than I intended to when I sat down. And if they stop with just the first part of the assignment (which only take a few minutes), fine, give yourself credit for accomplishing one creative act that day.  (This last idea is from Eric Maisel’s. ‘The van Gogh Blues’  Highly recommended to support your creative self at all times).

Assignment (Step) 1

Cut out a 1 x 1 inch (2.5 x 2.5 cm) square from a magazine, any magazine, part of a photo or part of the text.  Paste it down on a page of your sketchbook or another sheet of paper. Be selective where you paste it- in the middle is good, but so is on top, bottom or side. That’s all. Done.

If you are moved to continue, add more squares letting the first one inspire you either by color, theme, or design.

Assignment 2

Draw a small shape on a piece of white paper and color it in with anything you like- watercolors, felt tips etc. Done.

To continue building on this,  draw a 3 x 3 grid of these little shapes and color each one in as you like. They can all be dotted, striped, in one color, different colors. You can fill them in with bits of cut paper (old postage stamps are good), use pastels, whatever.

Now do one more 3 x 3 grid.

Collage and oil pastel

Assignment 3

Ok, take one of the grids from Assignment 2 and cut it up and rearrange it on another background. Done.

Assignment 4

With scissors or a knife cut a small shape out of some not too thin white paper. Color that shape in with pastel or soft colored pencil or graphite.

Shape cut from some scrap paper

Place the shape on a white background sheet of paper, and rub the pastel you applied to the shape out to the side so that it creates a shaded outline of your shape. Lovely.

Inspired?  keep applying pastel, oil pastel or some other soft medium to the shape and keep placing it on the background and rubbing the pigment onto the background with your fingers.

multiple shapes

Assignment 5

Take soluble watercolor crayons or any other media and just make stripes of different colors across the top of a white page. One row is fine. Done.

Want to do more? fill the page with little soldierly rows of stripes using any colors that strike your fancy. If the rows start to change or the strokes start to change shape follow that development and see where you end up!

(Optional follow-up assignment)

Combine any of these techniques and make a new mixed media piece on any of the given themes:

a city, fantasy animals, strange beings, cosmic landscape, secret garden, castles, towers, abstract forms, mystery alphabet, underground cave, deep sea scape, …..

Keri Smith’s ‘How to be an explorer of the world’ is a great resource for finding creative moments almost anywhere, anytime.

van Gogh still life taken by me standing in front of the original

No, sadly enough the above image is not my new still life. It is an early van Gogh.

I treated myself to a midweek excursion to a museum I’d wanted to visit for years, – the Kröller Müller  in the Veluwe area of Holland. It is a 3 hour train journey from up here in the north. I found a good hotel deal and took off on Thursday.

It is a lovely museum, if you are into museums. I don’t know what was wrong with me that day, but all the glass, white walls and modern art were oppressive. (Whereas in England and Scotland, the often historical buildings which house their art museums are magical just to enter.)

I went mainly for painting inspiration. I wanted to be taught by 19th and 20th century masters how to handle paint in a more spontaneous way. Well, the only moments of awe or magic I had were in front of the van Goghs.

Helene Kröller-Müller started collecting his paintings early on, and these less known works are just so beautiful. (Amazingly, this museum allows you to photograph the art as long as you don’t use flash. I think they just gave up the fight, how can they take everyone’s iPhones away?!).

So the photo above was made in front of a real van Gogh, the canvas bearing the marks of his hand and eye and heart. It was extremely moving to be in the presence of this work, it is so sensitive and full of love for the object, for life, for colors.

The way of working is delicate but strong, and the strokes, though stylized have not yet evolved to those whirling impasto strokes characteristic of his later work. I must say though, that some areas of some of the paintings were so thickly applied, they looked sculptural. This is completely alien to my way of working,  I really have to get my head around it before I can experiment with it myself.

Luckily I just signed up for a full day workshop on how to handle paint more spontaneously. I’m looking forward to loosening up!