Dark or Light Backgrounds?

I have been exploring the ‘Colored Pencil Painting Bible: Techniques for Achieving Luminous Color and Ultrarealistic Effects’ by Alyona Nickelsen with much interest. As a consequence I’ve done some thinking about dark and lighter backgrounds and how to fill space.

‘ (…) Busy backgrounds, filled with bright colours that compete with your focal point, will make your viewer tire quickly. There are a number of ways to avoid this potential pitfall. One of the most common solutions is to carefully consider the effects of negative space in you composition. Planned use of negative spaces can help to highlight your main idea- and in effect both unite and balance your composition’.

Nickelsen shows a drawing done by her with a black background and recommends; ‘ The strong black background creates a quite area, allowing the eye to glide playfully along the edges of the three pieces of fruit (….)’.  I see this often: compositions with strong black backgrounds.

I see so many art blogs with black backgrounds and I am afraid I feel rather ‘negative’ when I see a potential lively background showed as a negative black space.  It makes me think of what I have learned studying Golden Age floral art. The artists of that time started with dark backgrounds and it worked. Floral paintings were much admired. Nevertheless after a while lighter and deeper background became fashionable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Tulip, oil paint, by Paula Kuitenbrouwer)

I like to show a flower painting that has a dark background. The flower vase stands deep in the dark and there is a strong focus point. It is pretty but after a while you start to question: where is the flower vase positioned? I would like to walk around it, how would the back look? Wouldn’t it be pretty if the viewer (me) is able to imaginary walk around it without having the feeling to disappear into the night?

Here is a fabulous flower paintings by Jan van Huysum with a dark background.
A negative space works, but it has a limiting effect: your view is directed and focused yet lot of the painting remains a mystery and stays hidden in the dark. After seeing many black backgrounds, I like to see a flower bouquet in a large open space. I like to look at it from all the cardinal directions. Because I can not step into a painting I like the painter to suggest to me how it would be if I would walk around the flower vase and enjoy even the tiniest flower at the backside. Have a look at later floral paintings by Jan van Huysum that deliver that effect..
This bouquet is situated on a balcony and the viewer enjoys a view on a garden. And so it this painting by Jan van Huysum…

I agree with Nickelson that the eye needs a focus point. It need to be guided to the most outstanding or interesting part of a painting. But the mind can handle much more than a focus point; the mind likes to explore and wander. After being glued to the focus point my eyes need a horizon, a different perspective, a bit of an adventure. The Golden Age floral painters understood that and experimented with lighter backgrounds and far horizons.

The viewer needs a focus point, yes. But is he is also able to handle much more as long as the background is in harmony with the rest of the painting. Be aware. Don’t choose automatically. Consider all your options. Do you prefer darker or lighter backgrounds? And why?


Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Paula Kuitenbrouwer sells original drawings at http://www.paulaartshop.com

6 thoughts on “Dark or Light Backgrounds?

  1. This is a great post… really interesting Paula! I find that so many times the negative space doesn’t get a thought. I particularly like dark backgrounds, because for me I like the mystery. As a botanical illustrator it makes a nice change too, as in the strict sense of botanical illustration the backgrounds are always kept white. I think it is time to experiment!


  2. I wish there was a way to show you my orchid drawing I call POTINARA…Hisako Akatsuka “Volcano Queen” from a photo I took at an Orchid and Butterfly Exhibit
    at the Smithsonian done in half-color, half-grays and known as “Grisailles”. It’s on my website http://www.suzcreations.com. I think it works well, because my idea was to highlight the orchid, because I didn’t want to do an all-color background or draw just the orchid. I think the Grisailles works.


    1. Suzanne, I had a look at your Pontinara and the background looks 3-dimensional. You can ‘walk’ around the orchid, see it in the front while the background is clearly positioned in the back.
      Thank you for your comment and contribution to the discussion on dark or light backgrounds.


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