There’s no such thing as ‘background’

A Brief Stop coloured pencil drawing

A Brief Stop
coloured pencil drawing, 2008

The subject of background comes up quite often in art groups which I belong to on Facebook.  Now and then a person laments that s/he is not keen on doing them.  The person wants to get straight to the main subject; therefore the background is rather a nuisance – something boring to be ‘got through’.

At the risk of sounding dogmatic, I don’t believe in the word ‘background’ in art.  I like to think that subject and surroundings are equally as important and interesting as one another.  The composition is one whole as opposed to an important part with secondary parts tacked on.

Au revoir coloured pencil drawing 2009

Au revoir
coloured pencil drawing 2009

Perhaps every drawing is like a theatrical performance.  I just saw the film “Mr. Turner” a couple of days ago.  It is about the English painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner.  What a magnificent film.  The acting was superb but just as stunning was every single cinematic shot.  There was no background in this film; every landscape and interior was conceived with care, sensitivity and deliberation and was of equal importance to the actors.

Out and About on a Gion Afternoon Coloured pencil drawing from 2009

Out and About on a Gion Afternoon
Coloured pencil drawing from 2009

Set, lighting, costume, actor, plot, narrative – each one of these essential in performance art .  Consider a concerto; the orchestra must be as riveting as the soloist – each supports the other.   No different in visual art.   So please, drop the word ‘background’.  It would be a four letter word if it wasn’t 10 letters long.

ps …and see “Mr. Turner”.

NOTE:  I am not saying that every space needs to be filled in.  A work with NO background is complete if that was the artist’s intention.  You can think of a musical sonata or an actor on an empty stage or a study of something on paper by itself.  It is background as afterthought that I am complaining about.  Treat all the space you work on as first class; not some first class and some in steerage.

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22 thoughts on “No Such Thing as ‘Background’

  1. Sherry Telle

    It is studying your work that has made me take much more time on the rest of my drawings, it is funny, I only do this when I am working on coloured pencil pieces. Every other medium I work in I look at the painting as a whole.

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      Yes, Gina, I think my motto is to be deliberate with your intention, whatever that is, rather than taking pot luck; ie drawing a main subject but then not knowing how you want to proceed after that.

  2. Vicki Lee Johnston

    Loved this post Julie – being a botanical artist we usually leave a white background so I appreciate your comment about intention. However I would like to work more with backgrounds so this post is very timely. Your work is extraordinary!

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      Vicki, thank you so much for leaving this comment. Very much appreciated. Botanical art is an incredibly disciplined type of art – a mixture of art and science don’t you think?

  3. Jennifer Rose

    One of the things they really pushed in college was treat every part of the work as important and not to treat different parts of a piece as separate, (unless they are actually separate :p). The background on a painting can be just as important, actually in some cases more important as the main subject as it can set the tone/mood of the whole thing. Too many people, guilty of it myself, just ignore backgrounds when they are really really important.

  4. Robyn Varpins

    philosophically speaking, we can’t exist without our environment, which is the “background” of our lives. The more we are in harmony with our environment, the deeper we belong. You depict your geisha comfortably enveloped in their “background”….their grounding and their belonging. The background describes their story and gives their living meaning. They are much more because of the reverent detail you apply to their environment. We are all one. But it is genius that makes them stand out against such complexity… without either losing.

  5. anna warren portfolio

    It is all about intention – the last minute ‘Oops what should go in the background?’ means that the work will almost always lack cohesion. If the intention was always for a clean floating image that is one thing, but if there is a story to be told, the subject matter needs to be placed in context and generally that context is its surroundings. Of course, there are many and varied ways an image can be made complete, but the form needs to be considered at the time of conception, not at the end. I particularly like the first image at the top – it really captures a moment in time, and can’t wait to see Mr Turner!

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      I sure have missed your comments, Anna. So glad you are back. “Mr Turner” seems to polarize people. I will be interested to see whether you like it or not.
      I completely agree with you that INTENTION is the key in this discussion about background.


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