Friday, 23 March 2012

Backgrounds and Clothing

When painting a portrait I am always confronted with the question of how much background to put it, whether to keep the focus on the face and just suggest the subject's clothing and hair or to pull out all the stops and put detail in across the painting.  The background question is often dictated by the quality of the background in any source photo I might be using, sometimes it seems unsuitable for a portrait, or looks like it may distract from the main focus of the painting, and I end up just filling the background with one colour.  This choice of colour varies from painting to painting, I might try meditating on a colour wheel for a while to pick a contrasting colour, or alternatively choose something that is already in the painting in order to highlight it.  Sometimes I just pick a pleasant light tone such as a light green or blue, if it doesn't work then you can always paint over it, occasionally I end up trying various colours before settling on one.

In the case of the painting at the top of this post, All Hair and Elbows, the background in the photo was quite dark and a bit gloomy, a yellow-brown.  The grey I've used looks somewhat similar but a bit lighter and with the colour neutralized it makes the figure stand out more.  I also chose to show some brush strokes, I usually prefer to do this rather than paint everything in a flat plane of colour (as I did in the painting of my brother which can be found in the Family Portraits post) but this is a personal preference.

Flat planes can be very pleasing especially when painting with acrylics (as they tend to flatten upon drying anyway). If you do the whole painting like this then it has a cut-out paper effect or something which looks like it has been done on Photoshop using a filter.  I do quite like this style but if everyone is just using Photoshop and printing onto canvas with a giclĂ©e printer then I'd prefer to do something which doesn't look like it can be achieved so easily.  One of the beauties of paint is the texture and the possibilities of expression it has in every brushstroke.  Although I am not a particularly expressive artist, mainly because I can't really evaluate or appreciate my own paintings when they are too abstract, the human imprint on a painting is something which my soul delights in. I would like all my brushstrokes to be unlaboured and harmonious like movements in a dance and yet in conjunction to provide a window to a moment that is authentic and real.  I am always improving and working towards this ideal but usually fall short on both of these points to varying degrees, I suppose that is what keeps me painting: the desire to do it better next time.

Some painters choose to do a graduation of colour from dark to light in the background, maybe I'll try this one of these days but until now I seem to have unintentionally avoided this, either prefering to put in one tone or suggest the background as I did in Worried Maybe in the Creating a Scene post.  I seldom paint everything in great detail behind the subject although I think this might be a good idea as I've seen a lot of portraits by professional artists where they do this, although in these cases the background is usually relevant or reveals something about the subject's character or profession.

The same question applies when approaching the detail in the clothing of the subject, whether to go to great lengths to describe every fold and crease of their attire or just suggest it with a few loose brushstrokes.  In my experience I've found that although it can be nice to focus attention on the face and maybe hands with more detail than the clothing, a big difference can make it look unbalanced or like I got bored or ran out of energy (as is often the case).  Some artists of the past and present graduate the detail so that it becomes more hazy as it moves towards the edges of the painting, I've tried this but usually end up finishing it off otherwise it looks too much like a sketch.

In the painting which heads the post I meticulously painted all the little rings in the dress, each one has a slightly different tone and shape and the result is a 3D effect on the arms and chest.  I could have worked on it a bit more but I found myself going a little crazy staring at each circle and pondering how different it looked from its neighbours.  It took about three passes over the painting to reach this point, the first to get the shape and colour and and then two more to get everything the correct tone relative to everything else so that it didn't look flat.  It's always possible to keep working on a painting, getting it closer and closer to what is in the source photo, but you always have to stop somewhere, sometimes you feel that it looks finished or that any more work you put in will get you no better a result or sometimes you just feel bored and burnt out.

The best feeling is when you are pleasantly surprised at what you've achieved: the painting is better than you pictured in your head when you started out, you've taken the image in the photo to a whole new level by rendering it in paint, and you are afraid to touch it because you have no idea how you got it to this point, as if something magical had just happened when you were lost in concentration and the folds of a dress.

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