From the Window to the Wall

I've always wondered how an artist decides how to paint the background of an artwork. Did Sargent–who painted everything, even air, with volume and texture–employ certain painting techniques for this section of his works? Are there actual painting art philosophies on backgrounds? Well, I haven't found any historic treatises, but there are definite underlying schools of thought. Here's my interpretation:

Giubbetto rosso by Felice Casorati, painting, 1939.
Giubbetto rosso by Felice Casorati,
painting, 1939.

Brushy, brushy. I've seen this approach most often in contemporary portraiture. There's a semblance of space made with stray brushstrokes that are usually in a fairly muted, neutral color. The color is perhaps chosen as complimentary to the figure's skin tone or the color of their garments.

Eye-crossing patterns. Artists can choose to flatten the picture plane with paint texture or heavy pattern in the background of a painting. This can sometimes suck figures in, so that it is hard to figure out where the sitter ends and the wall of pattern begins. But it can also create an all-over sameness that allows the depicted figures to jut forward, depending on color and composition usually.

Formed…but not too much. Early 20th-century painters like Modigliani, Vanessa Bell, and Felice Casorati were adept at creating a balance of forms in their backgrounds without putting in too much detail. Their works, therefore, seem to strike a harmonious balance and allow a certain mutuality to all the spaces they depict.

Interieur by Edouard Vuillard, oil painting, 1902.
Interieur by Edouard Vuillard, oil painting, 1902.

Everything in sight. Painting everything in a composition with detail and exactitude is often a way to create a realistically represented environment. Surroundings can play a significant part of a narrative or the painter simply believes that realizing those elements on canvas makes the work come alive.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.