landscape painting oil on canvas art

How to paint the background

Painting the background should not be an afterthought - it is as important as painting the subject.

The first few lines can make or break a composition - in a landscape those first lines are invariably the horizon line and the background.

You need to give thought to the background of your painting - without looking like you gave it a lot of thought.

We think a lot about the subject of the painting in the planning stages, the viewpoint and the palette we will use. We may even do several sketches, giving  consideration to where we are placing our subject, but we have to also consider the scene as a whole.

You want to draw the eye into the painting and have your viewer take in the entire composition - including the more basic details in the distance - while drawing the eye to the focal point, but you have to get the balance right. How can we do this?

Always keep the background basic. You are painting from general to specific - leave the detail for painting your subject not the background.  Have a narrow contrast of value, hue, intensity and temperature in the background compared to the foreground.  

Most landscape artists start at the top of the canvas - which is generally the sky. The sky is usually the lightest part of the painting so don't start too dark and don't automatically think blue for the sky with fluffy white clouds - a mixture of light and mid tone greys are usually more realistic. Give the sky depth -  white clouds become warmer and darker as they recede into the background, dark clouds become bluer and cooler and lighter as they recede.

You might want to paint the background a little out of focus which mimics how our eyes see things, unlike a photo - your camera puts everything in focus, but this is not how our eyes work. When looking at the focal point, usually the mid section of the painting, the background will be out of focus. Put sharp detail at the focal point, not the foreground or the background.

Keeping the back ground slightly out of focus mimics how our eyes view the landscape - unlike the camera image which puts everything in focus.

Due to atmosphere perspective, objects in the distance can appear blue. Yellow fades from the distance first, then red, leaving blue, Objects in the distance should be lighter and cooler than objects in the foreground. For example, grass in the foreground will have more yellow than grass in the background which will take on a blue hue. Bluing due to atmospheric prospective has more effect on dark masses such as trees and mountains, rather than a distant meadow which will be more subtle.

oil painting landscape abstract

Note how there is very little detail in the hills in the background so the eye is drawn to the middle ground and then travels around the painting.

Your background is not specific from the subject. Your subject is part of the background and should not stand out... it should not look pasted on which is will if the edges are too hard. Softening the edges around the subject will give it a more natural look and it will sit more naturally into the background and be a part of the painting as a whole.

Let light in your subject blend into light in the background and dark in your subject blend into dark in the background - remember - nothing should look pasted on or unnatural.

Most importantly - step back from your painting and view it as a whole. The background, middle and foreground should blend into each other. Nothing should look as if it doesn't belong. 


The details should be in the middle and foreground. Note the bluing of the distant hills due to atmospheric perspective.

Happy painting!

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