Beating the Background Blues
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - November, 1988
When setting up your still life arrangements, do you give as much consideration to backgrounds as to the objects in your picture? Do you vary the kind of lighting that illuminates your subjects? Do you approach the background with a sense of adventure and experiment with different kinds of drapery and props? If the answer is no to these questions and others like them, you're missing out on possibilities that could improve the quality of your paintings.
It's natural to be more concerned with the objects you're painting than the background that surrounds the objects. One reason for this is the centuries-old tradition of underplaying backgrounds. This was established by painters whose main concern was the realism of their subjects. The backgrounds, then, were neutral backdrops that acted as good foils for showing off the subjects. The Impressionists liberated us from the bondage of fool-the-eye painting-they worked with bold strokes against white or pastel-colored backdrops to better reflect the color of light they were so fond of But there are still a number of still-life painters who haven't taken advantage of these innovations and continue to limit their painterly repertoire.
DRESSING THE STAGE
Formal arrangements tend to be triangular, symmetrical or balanced in a more strict way than casual settings. Informal ones often use different viewpoints and less careful ordering. There aren't specific rules about what's formal and what's not, but a thumbnail sketch will quickly help you find what's appropriate for a certain subject.
On the other hand, you may not need a contrived background. I paint many of my subjects just as I happened upon them. There's also the elegance of a pure white background, be it a wall or drapery. For my painting Indian Corn (above), a white wall proved to be just the solution for the contrasting bright kernels.
When I've determined the objects that I want to include in the painting, I make a few value sketches, testing different ways of arranging the tones so that I convey an appropriate mood. The value sketches also help simplify the scene. If I painted the tones as I saw them in nature, there would be hundreds of value changes. The piece would take on a confusing complexity, and not be likely to convey any personal expression or artfulness.
So I visualize every setup in three values: light, medium and dark. Using these three values, I explored the tonal possibilities of a simple arrangement of fruit, bottle and backdrop in the illustration above. When seen side-by-side, it becomes obvious how the moods differ in each picture. The dark background in Sketch One appears dimensional and melodramatic. The second sketch looks fresher, with the patterns of the object and background making a more obvious shape. The third sketch appears lighter yet, with the objects taking on an even stronger silhouette against the light background. Of the three, Sketch Two does the best job of solving the problem of integrating foreground and background, allowing the subject to stand out.
To make the background appear to recede, many artists handle the shapes behind the subject with softly painted edges. While this is an effective way to emphasize the more crisp objects that form the picture's center of interest, it's not the only way to deal with background edges. To reveal interesting background shapes or patterns, you can render them with hard edges. But you'll need some way to make the subject stand out, such as using more intense colors in the foreground, or more detail.
Most paintings demand a variety of hard, soft and lost edges. The trap to avoid, however, is using the same combination of edges every time you paint a similar object or background.
THE POWER OF LIGHTING
Different lighting conditions can actually solve many of your background problems. A strong source of light can decide your value pattern and can integrate subject and background for you. The traditional light for still lifes comes through a north-facing window. The values are evenly graduated with no stark light and shadow patterns camouflaging the subject. But there are numerous other types of lighting you can use. For example, bright, outdoor sunlight provides brilliant highlights and interesting shadows. These elements alone can form the basis for a fascinating piece.
Another interesting way to light your setup is by using a hanging lamp. This creates a directional effect, with values darkening gently as they move away from the source of light. The overall effect can be simplified into three concentric rings of value-the lightest is in the middle, and the darkest is on the outside. I try not to put too many contrasting tones in any one of the three circles, or the effect will lose its drama. I've dubbed this the "spotlight effect," and it works nicely with other types of lighting, particularly candlelight.
Other lighting possibilities are the cooler illumination of fluorescent light, and light from more than one source, such as two lamps or windows. The success of this effect, however, depends on the predominance of one of the sources. When all sources are equal in strength, light and shadow patterns criss-cross one another, vying for attention, and the effect appears contradictory.