Portrait Background Ideas

This video provides ideas for how to create backgrounds for portraits so that your compositions are visually dynamic and engaging.

Backgrounds are often neglected, especially in portraits where the focus is usually on the face.

However, backgrounds can have a great impact on the way a portrait comes across, especially in terms of conveying a specific narrative.

Discussion led by Art Prof Clara Lieu and Teaching Artists Cat Huang and Alex Rowe.

Drawing a Male Portrait in Soft Pastel, Clara Lieu
Drawing a Male Torso & Portrait

Video Walkthrough

  • Many artists leave the background for the last minute.
  • The background is often not considered, or totally empty.
  • In portraits artists tend to think that the face is the only important part.
  • Backgrounds make for a cohesive artwork.
  • Don’t just “fill in” the background
  • The background enhances the portrait and shows space.
  • If you don’t know what to put in the background, think about the person.
  • Plan your backgrounds ahead, do thumbnail sketches.
  • Backgrounds don’t have to be recognizable objects.
  • Backgrounds can be abstract.
  • Backgrounds change how you perceive the figure.
  • All backgrounds are important in all art fields: comics, painting, and more.
  • Watching movies is a great way to understand backgrounds.
  • Balancing the background with the portrait, is the background too busy?
  • Try making the background overlap with the figure.
acrylic portrait painting banner
Portrait Painting in Acrylic

Prof Lieu’s Tips

Clara cartoon

I think the mindset of “I can’t create a narrative drawing until I learn [insert skill]” Often that people don’t realize that your technical skill is just one piece of being an artist.

Anatomy Resources
Artistic Anatomy Lecture: Front Torso Muscles

I know people who have insanely amazing painting technique, who can paint circles around me, but often subject matter of the painting is boring! Your formal skills (lighting, anatomy, shading, etc.) are not as important as you think they are.

Clara watercolor painting aloe portugal banner
Lisbon Botanical Gardens: Plein Air Watercolor Painting

When you start digging into content you realize that skill is just along for the right.

I know a lot of artists who don’t have the most dazzling technique, but what they have to say is very compelling, and that in some ways trumps the technique.

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