Process - How I Create an Abstract Background for Portraits

One of the things I'm experimenting with is how to create an abstract background for my portrait paintings. I'm exploring how the features on a face can interact with the multiple layers of the painting and how those layered relationships can create a sense of depth. The challenge is figuring our how to integrate the intuitive and unpredictable marks into creating a portrait that has a strong likeness to the original subject.

In this article, I break down the step-by-step process I used today to make the current canvas background. I've added a factual description about the materials and gestures I used at each stage. I saved my opinions about the results for the Reflection section at the end. I also include notes to myself for what I want to try next.

Current State

This is current result of the time I spent today. This came out at the end of painting session as I swiped the remaining blobs of paint from my palette and smeared them directly onto the canvas, It is primarily a dark composition with a combination of scraped edges and etched lines that I created with the palette knife.

Stage 5 Blocking Out

This is what the canvas looked liked before I smeared it with paint. I blocked out some larger shapes with a a Bright. I made some hard edges, but most of this is the image has soft edges because I used a dry brush with little paint. At this point of the process, I was working on simplifying the values and looking for ways to bring similar values together into a larger shape that relates to the whole canvas.

Stage 4 Color Experiments

Before I started building the big shapes, this is how the canvas looked. This phase is about experimenting with different colors and seeing how the colors looked next to each other. I put little swatches of paint everywhere with a brush. I liked find places where a softer layer contrasted with the harder edge of a swatch.

Stage 3 Mark Making

Before the color experimenting phase, I played with mark making. In this phase, I tried to find as many different ways to make a mark on the canvas. I used a bright, a flat, a round brush. I used a couple of scrapers. I used an eyedropper full of ink. And I also used a spray bottle to thin and drip the paint.

Stage 2 Initial Layers

Before I started with paint, I tried using watercolor crayons.I used a Marabou crayon to draw random lines into the raw canvas.

Stage 1 Pencil Marks

In this stage, I used a 3B pencil to make marks and warm up.

Original Stage - White Canvas

And this is what it looked like at the very beginning - 20x20 cotton duck canvas. Full of possibilities and intimidating at the same time.


Looking through these photos now, I see a lot of energy and movement. I felt uncertain about what was going to show up as a composition. Today, I went from making many marks to blocking out larger areas. I felt overwhelmed trying to groups colors and shapes into larger value areas. I noticed that I feel raw and intense when I make my marks. I like shapes with soft edges instead of ones with hard edges. I like lines that are organic and expressive instead of geometric and straight.

At this point, I could continue to add another layer to the surface. I am thinking about making a layer using lighter values to contrast with the existing dark ones. I could add some collage elements. I could also experiment with adding a ground and then drawing on top of it with pastels. I could also try building up the surface using molding paste.

I want to play with the texture of the canvas so it has areas that have thick, creamy areas next to thin, delicate areas. I also want to experiment with putting muted colors next to high saturated colors. I like how certain color combinations appear to vibrate or glow next to each other. How do I make that happen?

How do you treat the backgrounds in your portrait paintings?

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