Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing?

[Backgrounds are] my weakness. I have a little confidence in drawing and painting subjects but have no confidence at all with backgrounds and don’t seem to have many ideas as to what to do. How can I tell what is the best background?

All too often, artists tend to think of the background as serving a minor role in their artwork. They may ignore it altogether, or skip over it quickly to get to the “fun part”: The subject.

But part of what makes good art good art is the way the subject and background work together to form a cohesive “whole”.

The Role of Background

The background should support the subject of the drawing. Whether you’re drawing a still life, a portrait, or a complex action scene, you should choose a background that “sets the stage” for the subject you’ve chosen.

I’m going to show you the five types of backgrounds I do most often, and explain why that type of background works with each subject.

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing

Five Types of Background and How To Decide What is the Best Background

There are more than five ways to do a background, but I want to focus on the five I use most often. I’ll explain each one, then share a couple of tips for when you should consider each background–and when you shouldn’t.

Plain Paper Background

This portrait has a plain paper background. The color of the paper is the background. I did nothing else with it.

What is the Best Background - The Plain Paper Background

This used to be my favorite type of background because it’s the easiest to do. Choose the right color paper, and you’re done with the background!

But it gets rather boring rather quickly, and there are subjects for which a plain paper background just doesn’t work. So although I still use a plain paper background sometimes, I use it sparingly.

Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a simple portrait or still life
  • You don’t have much time to finish a drawing

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The composition is very complex. It’s more difficult to make a plain paper background work well with complex designs.
  • If the only color paper you use is white

Tinted Background

One step up from a plain paper background, this background is essentially a plain paper background with a little bit of pencil work in selected areas. For Blizzard Babe (below), I shaded darker grays into the corners to focus the attention on the gray mare.

What is the Best Background - Tinted Background

The beauty of using this type of background is that you can let the color of the paper carry the weight of the background until the subject is finished or nearly finished. Then you can tint the background with a color (or colors) that go with or accent the colors in the subject.

You can also add color to the corners as I did here, or add color around the subject. In either case, you should use the background to spotlight the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • The subject needs a little more than a plain paper background, but would be overwhelmed by a more developed background.
  • To soften or reduce the starkness of a plain paper background

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject is very complex.

Tonal Background

The drawing below shows a tonal background. In this case, I wanted to create the illusion of a blurry landscape without actually drawing a landscape, so I used the same colors, but applied them randomly, then blended them until there were only color and value patterns.

Think of it like the backdrops used by portrait photographers.

What is the Best Background - Tonal Background

This type of background is more labor intensive than either a plain paper or tinted background, but it is very useful if you want to add color without getting into the detail of a more complex background. It’s very useful for portrait work, still life drawing, or a number of other subjects, so long as the subject is not overly complex.

Use This Background If:

  • Your subject benefits from a more varied background than tinted or plain paper, but not from a more developed background
  • You want a colored background, but prefer using white paper

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject of your drawing is very complex
  • You need to establish a setting for the subject

Nearly Landscaped Background

This background is the half step between a tonal background and a fully landscaped background. As you can see below, the landscape is more clearly a landscape and not just a mottling of color and value.

What is the Best Background - Near Full Background

However, it’s nowhere near as detailed as the fully landscaped background in the illustration below. This type of background is a good way to place your subject in a setting without having to draw a complete landscape. It’s also a great way to suggest mood, though you can do that with a tinted or tonal background, as well.

Use This Background If:

  • You would like the look and feel of a landscape, without all the detail
  • If a setting adds to the composition, but you don’t need a full landscape

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a portrait with a single subject shown “up close” because the increased detail could detract from the subject.
  • The drawing is a “moment in time” drawing, in which you’re attempting to capture not only a subject, but the setting as well.

Fully Landscaped Background

This is just what it sounds like: A landscape with your subject in it.

What is the Best Background - Fully Landscaped Background

In a drawing like this, the setting is just as important to the drawing as the subject. It’s like a meal in a fancy restaurant compared to the same meal at home, on the couch, in front of the TV.

The subject paired with any other type of background would not convey the same emotional message to the viewer. Especially with portrait work, the background is just as much a part of what your client wants to remember as the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • You want to create a scene or tell a story with the artwork
  • The setting is as important as the subject

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The drawing is a basic portrait such as Joker, or Blizzard Babe above
  • A full landscape will distract from the subject

Want to see how to try different backgrounds on a drawing?

Check out this video by Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art. She shows a step-by-step tutorial on trying different backgrounds with your subject before you start drawing. I found this video informative and helpful if you happen to use Photoshop.

Additional Reading

On EmptyEasel: Fast & Easy Colored Pencil Backgrounds

How to Draw a Dark Background with Colored Pencil

How to Draw the Focal Point in Your Next Drawing

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4 Comments

  1. Melinda BC

    Comment: Carrie, this is REALLY useful! I’ve been afraid to stray much beyond the first two options, but I think I will get a little more adventurous. Thank you!
    Question: have you worked at all with pastel pencils? I bought a set recently and really enjoy using them…very similar to colored pencil but in some ways a little more forgiving, a little more flexible, and brilliant colors.

    • Melinda,

      I’m glad to have been of help.

      I haven’t used pastel pencils, but have watched some excellent speed drawings by artists who do. Pastels and I have never played well together. I like more control in my art work, which is why I prefer oil painting and colored pencils! They pretty much stay where I put them!

      Carrie

  2. lou

    you say don’t use these backgrounds if “The subject of your drawing is very complex”. When?what is an appropriate background in that case?

    • Lou,

      The answer to your question depends a lot on the subject.

      If the subject is a complex still life, you might consider a background made up of lights and darks simulating light and shadow on a wall or the shapes of drapery in the background.

      If the subject is human or animal, you might consider a background like the nearly fully landscaped background or the fully landscaped background.

      Take a look at Arlene Steinberg’s work (http://www.arlenesteinberg.com/ArlenesDrawingsNew.htm) and you’ll see how she handles the backgrounds for some of her more complex compositions.

      Carrie

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