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Thursday, February 12, 2015

What About the Background? Pet Portrait Tips

'Maya'                 8x10             pastel               ©Karen Margulis
available for purchase $95
Painting animals is always a fun change of pace for me and my pastel classes. The same questions inevitably come up during my demos. "What do I do with the background? " or "I can never figure out how to treat the background". Ahhhh, the Background Dilemma!  We often agonize over the background choices and treatment forgetting that the animal is usually the main event!

I have an easy way to resolve the Background Dilemma. It involves asking myself a few questions before I begin the painting.


  • What kind of painting is it? Is it a traditional head shot type pet portrait? or is it a painting of the animal in it's environment? 
  • How important is the background to the painting? Can it be just a color or do I want to show how the environment around the animal?
  • Is the painting about the landscape/environment with the animal only secondary in interest?

Once I answer these questions I can plan my background attack!

If the painting is a traditional portrait where the environment around the pet isn't important,  I either leave the background alone (leave the paper color showing....which only works if you are very neat) Or I choose a color that works with the animal. I usually like to put the same colors that are in the animal into the background. This way there is a nice harmony and color relationship between the animal and background.

Sometimes I like to SUGGEST elements that are in the background. I paint them loosely and without a lot of detail. For today's Siamese cat painting I wanted to include the rich red blanket. I chose to loosely interpret the blanket.  Whenever I paint objects in the background I make sure they have soft edges. I don't want them to draw attention away from the animal.  I also like to 'share' the colors between the animal and the background objects. (notice the hint of red in the cat's fur in the top painting)

I hint at a chair, blanket and pillow

TIP: Whatever treatment you decide for the background it is important that you develop the background AT THE SAME TIME you paint the animal! If you wait until the animal is finished you may end up with an animal that looks pasted on or not integrated into the background. You might also be afraid to paint too close to the animal leaving a halo effect. Remember that every color you put down will effect the existing colors so waiting until the end of the painting can change the whole look of the painting!  

TIP: My preferred paper for animals is Sennelier LaCarte. I like the softness and the variety of colors. I also like Pastelmat. If I use any white or pale  paper for dark colored animals I make sure I tone it a middle value color so I don't fight with the light bits peeking through.

1 comment:

robertsloan2art said...

When you brought the red from the blanket into the Siamese cat's fur, I immediately thought you did that as reflected color. There's always reflected color from background areas onto the main subject and slightly enhancing it really ties subject and background together. Where you placed it was perfect for that too.

So it's something that can be observed, sometimes in the photo reference, more often in life. I have a red blanket and have seen those red cast soft glows on Ari cat's fur even on his mid brown areas, though it's most pronounced on black or white or light fur.

Beautiful Siamese paintings and a great lesson! Sometimes you can change the color of the blanket or pillow to suit the cat or to fit the recipient's room decor better. I usually discuss that with their owners if I'm doing cat portraits. Sometimes a background element like a favorite chair ought to be brought in because it's part of personality and the happy memory. It's like any portrait really. Showing a bit of the environment can make it a little personal or just support the model artistically.

Thank you for doing these cats articles! You're right in my heart-territory now, touching on my favorite subject! Ari and I purr at you! He sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration, though you probably get plenty at home too!