Background Elements

All images ©Bivenne Staiger

Because we are often focused on subjects, backgrounds are sometimes not a major factor in deciding on, planning, or even painting a motif, which often leads to problems in painting. The above image of a female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), almost camouflaged in its natural wetland reeds habitat, shows the painting about half complete. (Males are much more showy and vocal.) These birds are welcome harbingers of spring, but here, though placed at a power point with linear shapes directing the eye to it, the bird is not actually particularly consequential to me. Rather, I find the pattern created by the reeds and the variety of greens and browns intriguing. Color varies from yellow to blue and orange to purple, and of course from pale to dark, and there is a beautiful, dominant line direction.

Paint is first loosely applied to wet paper. Light and mid-value negative space shapes are added gradually, layer by value layer, on dry paper, suggesting nuances in depth. Dominant vertical reed line elements are enhanced by diagonals that harmonize in general direction, while some are broken by a few perpendicular elements. The bird contrasts in shape and pattern.

All images ©Bivenne Staiger

As you can see, darker negative space shapes bring paler reed shapes visually forward.

Almost Incognito, Watercolor, 15×22″ © Bivenne Staiger 2020

10 thoughts on “Background Elements

  1. Beautiful! A question…so when you are painting each strand of grass, each strand has multiple colors. Which from having taken your class, each brush has a different color. There must be at least 5 colors…how are you juggling all those brushes? Is there a technique to brush management? PLUS using a brush with clear water to enhance flow.


    1. I use a large brush for large spaces and smaller brushes for tiny ones. Key is to first apply local color, pale and bright and from warm to cool, beyond shape edges wherever possible with a large brush while temporarily ignoring shape elements within. Leave some areas paler – for shapes that are lit or less in shadow – and let one temperature dominate. Once dry, paint the next value layer (same as the first) in similar colors behind palest shape elements – those that are lit or less dark – and continue to vary color in each successive thin layer so that nuances in color and value are perceived as depth is suggested. Change brushes from large to smaller as the shapes diminish in size. The larger the shape of each value layer, the more likely color is altered with dry-on-wet applications. Avoid having too many hard-edged shapes by applying dry-on-wet applications here and there to soften them. The darkest value shapes are often the smallest in this setting.


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