How to Decide Background Colors for Portraits

How to Decide Background Colors for Portraits

One of the most important decisions for portrait artists is choosing the color of the background. Especially if the background is a simple color. So today, I’d like to share a tips on how to decide background colors.

While these tips are directed at portrait artists, they work equally well for any non-portrait subject with a plain background. Yes, even a still life!

But first, here’s the question.

I just finished a colored pencil portrait. I now [need] to add some background color. How do I decide what colors would compliment the portrait? And is there a “theory” on how to properly do a background, such as lighter values around the face, or darker values? I am a bit puzzled as to which direction to go.

Your help is much appreciated!



Thank you for a good question, Teresa!

I spent over 40 years creating portraits of horses and other animals for clients. Many of them were simple backgrounds, so I learned what worked and what didn’t.

Let me assure you it isn’t as complicated as it seems at first glance.

How to Decide Background Colors for Portraits

Choosing the Best Colors

One way to choose a good color for the background, is to choose a color that’s in the portrait itself, but not necessarily a main color.

For Portrait of a Black Horse below, I decided in advance to draw this black horse on medium gray paper. The paper color provided the middle values and base color for the horse, but also made an excellent background. It also saved time because I didn’t have to do anything with the background!

If you’re working on white paper, though, use a color that appears in the subject. In the illustration above, I might do a medium or low brown background with some of the colors in the bridle if I chose white paper.

Or maybe a light blue background with some of the colors in the blue accents.

Another way to decide on background colors is to choose a color that contrasts with the subject. Portrait of a Bay Quarter Horse was drawn on white paper, but I made the background dark to throw all the light on the horse. The black mane and forelock serve as transition areas between the dark background and brightly lighted horse.

While this method can be very effective, it requires a well-lighted subject for best results. Using a dark background like this on a subject that’s moderately lighted results in a ho-hum portrait, and I’m sure you don’t want that!

Highlighting the Subject

Another thing to consider is how you highlight the subject. You don’t have to highlight the subject at all, and can instead do a plain background such as the two examples above.

But you can also use values within the color you choose to throw the spotlight on your subject like I did with this oil portrait.

How to Decide Background Colors

The horse is a dark brown, so I used lighter values around the head and upper neck. The values around the rest of the horse are darker. This puts the emphasis on the head and especially the eye, which is the center of attention.

But also notice that the darker values around the lower neck and shoulder offset the bright middle values in the lower neck and shoulder. The combination keeps that part of the horse from disappearing altogether.

The shift in values is less dramatic in this portrait, but the slightly darker areas in the right upper corner and lower edges still makes the head the center of interest.

How to Decide Background Colors

If your subject is lighter in color, you might consider making the background darker around the head and lighter around the edges. That’s what I did with this dog portrait. Combined with a backlit subject, the mottled background puts all the attention on the white dog.

Eye Appeal is Also Important in Choosing Background Colors

Those principles are sound technical advice, but in the end, my decisions on background color usually come down to one simple thing. Eye appeal.

When two colors work equally well, I always choose the one I like the best.

And sometimes, I just go with a color that appeals to me, and let the rest take care of itself.

If you’re new to portrait work, that probably doesn’t help you much right now, but choosing background colors will become intuitive. It did for me and it will for you, too.

Thank you again for the question!


  1. Patricia Wilson

    Although I am a card maker and use many mediums, I find this article helpful. I know that I have basically ruined a good card by making a bad choice for a background color. Thanks for all your tips as they have certainly helped me to make my cards more outstanding.

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