How to paint a background for an oil portrait

Written by cynthia reeser
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Before photography, the only way to preserve a likeness of a person or beloved pet was to render the image by hand. As a result, the many sculptures, illustrations, carvings, prints and paintings of political, cultural and other figures that are in existence comprise a significant portion of the body of artworks in almost every society. Often, the portrait in oil is executed by way of remembering the subject or otherwise preserving their image; other common reasons artists create portraits are to portray the subject's personality or simply to include them as part of the composition.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Canvas
  • Gesso
  • Fine-grain sandpaper
  • Oil paints, colours of your choice
  • Paint medium, such as linseed oil or Liquin (optional)
  • Paintbrushes
  • Foam brush
  • Palette

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  1. 1

    Prepare the canvas with three separate layers of gesso, brushing on each layer with a foam brush. Allow each layer to dry completely before adding the next. When the final layer is dry, lightly go over the surface with fine-grain sandpaper until it is smooth.

  2. 2

    Sketch the image lightly in pencil or charcoal directly on the canvas, or on a separate piece of paper to guide you in predetermining the composition. If you are drawing from a photograph, you will already have a good idea of the general composition, unless you will be altering it.

  3. 3

    Choose background colours that are harmonious with the tones you will use in the subject's image before mixing your paints. If you are painting from a portrait, look at the subject's skin tone, hair colour and clothing. Refer to a colour wheel if necessary. Use neutral shades to bring out the subject so that he is not overpowered. According to, matching the background colour to the head's darkest shadows is effective.

  4. 4

    Mix your main background colour first, and then consider creating versions of it that are slightly lighter and darker than the base colour. To achieve the best results, keep in mind that a lightly textured background is more interesting than a flat one―but be careful not to make it too busy.

  5. 5

    Paint the first layer of the background, covering the canvas entirely. Keep the final composition and placement of the subject under consideration. Alternatively, paint only the main portion of the canvas that will serve as the background, leaving blank the general area where the subject will be painted.

  6. 6

    Paint the entire background from start to finish while the paint is wet to paint in the alla prima style (Italian for "all at once").

    Allow one layer to dry before adding the next if you are using a "textured" background---one that includes irregular areas that vary from light to dark; then add glazes on top of the first layer. To create a glaze, thin the paint with an oil medium, such as linseed oil or Liquin, so that it retains pigment but provides transparency. Allow each glaze to dry completely before adding another.

Tips and warnings

  • Use a colour wheel to determine your colour scheme. Complementary colours are those directly opposite one another on a colour wheel; for example, orange and blue are complementary. Analagous colours are three colours side by side on a 12-part colour wheel, such as Kelly green, lime green and lemon yellow.

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