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In the Background – What to Put Behind Portrait Drawings

May 26, 2010

Once you get a handle on how to draw portraits, it’s time to start thinking about the backgrounds of your drawings.

When you’re just starting to learn how to draw, backgrounds can be overwhelming and just plain annoying. As you start to develop your techniques, you begin to see the importance of considering what is behind your portrait.

Using seven examples of my own portraits, here are some options for portrait backgrounds.

portrait background white1. White

This is the most obvious and the most easiest, but it isn’t always the most effective. The problem with a white background is that the white of the paper remains on the same “plane” as the white highlights on your figure. This means that the background and the foreground merge, and your subject doesn’t pop forward.




portrait background shaded2. Shaded

With this portrait, I opted to shade the entire background in a mid-tone gray. By doing this, I pushed the background back, letting the subject come forward. The dog’s face pops on the darker background and it looks more three-dimensional.




portrait background gradient3. Gradient

This is another way to dress-up the shaded background. You can manipulate the background in a way that suggests a light source, that emphasizes your subject, and creates direction and focus. Here, the highlight is behind the subject’s head, drawing the focus there.




portrait background simple4. Simple

In this portrait, I’ve taken the natural background and simplified it. Behind the subject was the beach, ocean and horizon. I’ve simplified it so that it’s easier and quicker to draw, but is still recognizable to the client who knows what it is. It adds a little extra interest to the portrait without taking away from the subject.




portrait background blurry5. Blurry

This type of background is similar to the previous one, but it creates more of an atmospheric setting. Here the background refers to nature, trees, and foliage. To create this effect, shade the whole background and then pick up random highlights with a kneaded eraser. Then go back in with your pencil and darken some areas. The key is to make the patterns of light and dark unpredictable.




portrait background realistic6. Realistic

Using a realistic background is a good way to communicate something about your subject or their personality. In this portrait, my client asked me to draw a wheat field in the background to relate to her dad’s life as a farmer. When drawing a realistic background, remember that you will have to simplify the details to a certain extent. Here, the wheat gets less distinct as it gets farther away, creating a sense of distance and depth.




portrait background montage7. Montage

This type of background is gives you some freedom to play with the elements of your portrait and create meaning in a more creative way. In this portrait, I’ve used the image of a medal that the subject won at a marathon. Although the medal is much bigger compared to the figure than it would be in real life, it becomes a part of the overall composition and adds context to the portrait.



Each of these techniques serves a purpose and will suit some portraits better than others. Whatever you do, don’t forget to consider your background. Your drawing is your whole page and you need to think about how best to use it!

Don’t be afraid of backgrounds, jump in and experiment!


From → Drawing

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