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Readers Respond: Do You Paint Backgrounds First or Last?

Responses: 60


From the article: How to Paint a Background
Do you paint a background first, before you start on the subject. Do you paint it last, when you've finished everything else? Or do you create the background at the same time as you paint everything else? Which approach do you find easiest, and why?

Vote in the Poll: When Do You Paint the Background? First thing I paint / Last thing I finish / Mostly first / Mostly last / As I'm painting the rest / Something else

Background First

It's logical and easier to paint the background first. The word 'back' establishes that. Attempting to put it in behind foreground elements, is nearly impossible. It never comes off. Imagine painting a sky, around the fine branches of a tree. I use a variety other mediums. So there often is a struggle between mediums themselves. Elements in the foreground being superimposed over the background are tricky. Pens, pastels, and paints used in the foreground, won't cover as well and 'clog up' as soon as they contact the background. OK, let me change it . . . the foreground first. No, a back and forth process. I have a variety, including I don't know. Currently, it's background first, middle-ground next (formerly the foreground), and the most important elements on separate papers. Besides problems with blending, adhesion, and cutting, the isolated papers, or surfaces, achieves great depth and reduces conflicts between materials.
—Guest lingcod9

There is no foreground or background

It is all one piece of work, there are only primary and secondary focal points, both deserving of the same amount of effort. I paint everything in order of its importance to the final piece. I paint the main subject (or focal point last) as that is the first paint I want the viewer to see. This method works extremely well and reduces any confusion of the viewer. This goes so far as to plan and execute the main focal point of the main focal point! For example, when I paint portraits I paint the nose last as it is the first thing I want the viewer to see. Painting this way gives an enormous amount of depth to your painting. It's all about layering and painting about 7-8 steps ahead knowing full well that much of what you paint will not even be visible in the final piece as it has been painted over maybe up to 20 or 30 times by then.
—Guest Whitetailrancher

As it Goes

In some cases,the entire support needs to be covered with one or two washes after the initial sketching. For portraits,the first wash of the background is done after partially completing the main subject and the background is finished before the subject. A confident artist makes the background and uses the wet paint to create shadows on the subject. For flowers in watercolours, the background is made first leaving white spaces for the main flowers. The background flowers and foliage is picked from the background colours. In case the background is the main subject, it has to be made first starting from the sky, the middle ground and then the foreground. For example, I made a painting of a lonely cyclist on a rainy night, the cyclist was added last. In another painting, a family was shown to be waiting for the father against a mud wall. Since the texture of the wall was thick, the figures were added later.

Background Rule

The rule I use.... if the creator made it first then paint it first. Background sky, grass etc, then the objects added later trees, people, flowers, animals etc. You then have little to worry about like painting a background up to the edge of an object.
—Guest Brian

Depends on Medium Used

While it is frequently easier to paint the background first, particularly sky, or from top to bottom, with watercolour as opposed to acrylic or oil, one can use masking to protect either white paper, or previously painted focal points. Then paint backgrounds over everything.
—Guest Bella

Tough Call

I usually try to wet a canvas completely with what I think the complementary colors will be for both foreground and background, then equally work on them. It seems to help me keep my subjects more in 'tune' with their world on the canvas as opposed to being separately worked on. I do see the merit in finishing the background first and then filling in the subject afterwards, but even if I paint that way I still tend to work the background a bit.
—Guest NightMareStudio:606

Background first

I paint the background first. I find it easiest to see what I paint after. Sometimes I retouch when the main subject is finish but it's rare. I tried to do it after the main subject but it was a kind of disaster.

Background First

I cover the canvas, first, with areas of different colors. Then I put patches of gesso and a new layer of color. Superposing two colors, you get a third. In places where there are the gesso patches, the second color does not mix with the first. The result is a canvas covered in many colors.

Is the sky considered "background"?

That's always the first thing I put in. I don't fight to get it to look a certain way, though. I've found that the sky often dictates the landscape, and it's not unusual for me to paint a wholly different landscape than I envisioned if the sky creates a different mood. If the foreground is going to have water or ice/snow, I'll underpaint some areas with some of the sky color to unify them. Then I start at the horizon and work my way forward, imagining myself walking backward toward the picture plane.
—Guest Edward

Back and Forth

I usually start with the forms of the major planes. Next I fill in the background and then I go back and forth between the foreground and the background as the relationship between them is very important.
—Guest Arthur Oster

Chinese Composition

I took up Chinese ink brush. They invariably begin with the foreground, and then, as the ink on the brush becomes lighter, they move to the background as they exhaust the brush. Then, reload, and back to the foreground
—Guest Michael

Half Completing Background First

Starting and half completing the background is better for me, and then focus on the foreground till I'm satisfied that the overall picture will be better.
—Guest Odile Pereira


I suggest to work on background first. Painting is always layering. The same process as you set up your still life; you have to find a good background (place) first before setting the middle ground (subject) then the foreground (the subject) towards the viewer.
—Guest AcCF Malubay

Background First

I chosen a color that I like for background first, thinking that it would look good with the object that I choose to do; and then sometimes, I regret the choices that I made. I have to change the way I'm doing it.
—Guest Good sobject

Foreground First

It depends upon the subject being painted. I always taught my students to start by painting the background first as this will alleviate many problems. I have noticed that when my students started working the foreground first they met some difficulties in really matching elements in the foreground and background. Once the elements in the foreground were painted, difficulties aroused as to pay heed to the contour lines of the different element painted. An example to illustrate the said, suppose they had to paint a red circle on a green background. They will first of all paint the positive shape of circle paying heeds to the contour outline of the circle. I said " good, and now paint the background and tell about the difficulties you encouraged". Many responses were similar and one which kept on repeating was when painting the green background they had to pay caution to the edge of the already painted circle so as to avoid overlapping of green on red. Paint background first is better.
—Guest Ali

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