How I Create Surreal Backgrounds for my Paintings

Hi there, art lovers.

Over the last few years, I’ve fielded a ton of great questions from artists, collectors, and generally curious folk. The conversations have been awesome and engaging, and I’m truly grateful to take part in any conversation about my art…or really anyone’s art, at all.

But…

There is one question I’ve long struggled to answer.

Just one…

“How do you create your backgrounds?”

So…yeah. It’s a solid question, and it’s something I’ve not done a terrific job of answering. Until now, my answers have usually been, “It’s complicated,” or, “I’ll get around to making a process video someday,” or something entirely too brief, such as, “I use wet brushes. Lots and lots of wet brushes.

Yep.

It’s likely, after all these years, people are beginning to suspect I’m hiding some big, dark secret. Or that I don’t want to share some proprietary artistic discovery. Or maybe that I’m just a jerkface who avoids direct questions.

Nope.

None of those. I hope.

About a month ago, I decided to try something to answer this question once and for all. “Okay,” I told myself. “I’m going to make a time-lapse video. It’s time to show the process. A video will tell the whole story.” 

I started the video. And after much cursing, several awkward angles, and the worst lighting setup ever, I fell prey to frustration and gave it up. Between you and me…it was a total fail. My camera setup was weak, my video skills frail, and my process…well…it’s even more of a beast than I already knew it to be.

So…

Here’s what I’ve decided.

I’m going to do my best to describe, step-by-step, how I create the swirly, surreal, and often strange backgrounds featured in most of my artwork.

Swirls, whirls, and surreal madness…

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Okay then.

Let’s jump right in.

Step one, and it’s very important, is to start with a high-quality canvas stretched on sturdy wooden-panels. I typically get mine from Blick Art’s premium canvas collection, but I’ve also scoured Michael’s and a handful of local art supply stores, including JoAnn’s. Now, there are several keys to a canvas being ‘high-quality.’ No nicks or scuffs in the canvas. No flimsy panels. But the number one most important quality for this particular process is that the canvasses are flat. As in, very flat. No warping. No bends in the wood. No dips or loose, flappy canvas stretches.

Flat. Flat. Flat. 

Why? We’ll get to that later.

Step two. Acrylic paint. Lots and lots of acrylic paint. Especially white, black, unbleached titanium, and Payne’s grey. These are your most important weapons. I use Liquitex Basics, never the heavy-bodied stuff. You can use any brand you want, but whatever you do, don’t use different brands of paint while working on the same painting. The varied consistencies will cause awkward color blends, and the varied dry times will wreck your process.

Step three. A big, flat table. The flatter, the better. For your first several (or several hundred, in my experience) attempts, you’ll probably make a mess. So maybe choose a table you like, but don’t love. I use two different tables. A heavy Home Depot workbench and…perhaps surprisingly…the granite countertop in my kitchen.

Step four. Brushes. For these kinds of backgrounds, you’re going to need several sizes of brushes. Big (1″ wide) trim brushes. Fat-bottomed brushes that can hold a bit of water. Slim, knife-like brushes for detail work. Itty bitty pointy brushes for blending in tight spots. For background work, I don’t use anything fancy. Save your best brushes for the post-background subject work. Just buy a ton and keep extras on hand (I mostly use these.)

Step five. A jar (or jars) for holding water. As you likely know, acrylics dry fast. And your biggest enemy in this process will be time. You need to keep your brushes mildly wet (but not soaking) at all times. If the paint dries, the artist cries.

So…

You’ve got a canvas, a flat space to work, brushes, acrylic paints, and water.

Now it’s time to work.

Step six is key. This is the underpainting, the core of your color base, the background to the background. With a un-wetted brush, using un-watered acrylics, apply your various acrylic colors to the canvas in a single not-too-thick layer. Use whites and unbleached titanium in the areas of your painting which will be light, and darker tones in areas of shadow. Between these, you’ll use the actual non-neutral colors you want your painting to contain.

Here’s an example. This is my painting ‘Born of Fire,’ in which I used about ten different color hues to create the background. Ignore the tree and moon on this piece. Focus on the general layout of the background colors beneath.

 

What you want to do is apply the colors in roughly (it doesn’t need to be precise) the areas in which they’ll appear in the finished background. It’s just an underpainting at this stage. Precision isn’t as important as general location.

Step seven. Wait for the underpainting to dry completely. One or two hours should be enough. If you’re in a rush, run a fan nearby to whisk fresh air across the canvas surface. In any case, do not begin the next step until the underpainting is finished drying. Else you’ll get weird pops and textures you might not want. (Although, for advanced painters, you can actually time this to create the textures and pops on purpose.)

Step eight. The background. This is where the magic happens. You’ll need your brushes, your water, and patience all on hand. What you’ll want to do here sounds complex, but it’s really not. I’ll break it down in a bulleted list:

  • Starting with your lightest color, and ending with your darkest, use a larger water-wetted brush (1/2″ – 3/4″ wide) to apply your colors in the precise areas you want them to appear in the background. Remember…light to dark.
  • When applying each color, continue dipping your brushes into the jar of water between each brush stroke. The key: only a little bit of wetness. Too much will make the colors run wild across the canvas.
  • Work quickly. While the water will slow the drying of the acrylics somewhat, it’ll still start drying after about 15-20 minutes.
  • In any area where two or more colors meet, use wetted knife-edge brushes to apply narrow lines of water. The colors will begin to blend. The smaller the brush you use, the more control you’ll have. If you want your colors to be a bit unpredictable (which is just fine, by the way!) use larger brushes with a bit more water. More water will make the colors run wild.
  • If you want to smooth out brush strokes or make them disappear altogether, pat down the area using the flat side of a mildly wet brush. Or…for a cool stippled effect, very lightly pat the area with a dry paper tower.
  • Third reminder: Always work light to dark. If you jump back from a dark area to a light area using the same brush, you’ll lose the explosive lighting effect.
  • The reason using a flat surface and a flat canvas is key? If your workspace and canvas aren’t flat, your colors will tend to run downhill…literally. Colors you didn’t intend to combine will tend to mix, and murky patches could form. Flat, flat, flat!

Step nine. Now your painting, plenty damp and crazy looking, will begin to dry. But your work continues. You’ll need to babysit your painting at this stage, using smaller, mildly wet brushes to carefully blend areas of color you may have missed the first time. Also, sometimes tiny pools of water will form, which can tend to make patches of your background look murky. In these cases, use the corner of a paper towel to gently soak up any excess water. Or…carefully use smaller brushes to manipulate the wet paint for a better color-blend.

Step nine is usually the most challenging part of this process. Depending on the size of the painting, you may need to hover over your painting for ten minutes…or several hours, correcting murky patches, refining color blends, and building up your background to look exactly how you want. Patience is key here. Attentiveness to detail can make all the difference between creating a swirly, colorful landscape…or a murky, too-wet swamp.

Step tenonly if needed. Often, with larger backgrounds, doing step nine just once isn’t enough. Acrylics can be cranky, and sometimes, even with underpainting and a full second layer of paint on top of the underpainting, pale patches can emerge. In this case, what I do is wait for the canvas to completely dry…and complete step nine again. Sounds tedious, right? But in truth, adding another layer can result in a truly deep, vibrantly colorful background. Powerful colors are your friend, and often the best way to achieve it is in layers.

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For fun, here’s three before and after photos. The first photo is after the backgrounds are applied, but before drying. The second is the completed painting with full details.

‘Let Us Be Shadow’

‘Dark Desperation’

‘Bridge of the Broken Moon’

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With your background complete, your paints dried, and your brushes cleaned, you’re all ready for the fun part. Step eleven is all yours. Paint atop your background as you would any other acrylic piece, paying attention to the light and dark areas, and you’re sure to create something spectacular.

And most importantly, have fun!

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For a closer look at all my crazy backgrounds and completed works, head here.

Thanks for stopping by.

J Edward Neill

New! ShadowArtFinds Digital Art Downloads!

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Low cost, no shipping times, worldwide availability!

And…

If you see an art print for which a download is not available, please let me know. I can add it pretty much instantly!

(Friendly note: art images downloaded from ShadowArtFinds are for personal use only. No commercial use or sales of these images permitted.)

To see the art downloads I have available, click the giant pic below!

What are the Different Types of Art Prints?

So…

You say you’re in the market for some art prints.

First of all, awesome. After all, art prints have great upsides. They’re an inexpensive alternative to buying original art. They’re typically smaller than big canvas paintings. They can be put into stylish frames. They’re easier to handle, and even replace, than larger, hard-to-ship art.

Sounds great, right?

But there’s just one question.

How do you know what type of art print is right for you?

Now, when we talk about the ‘type’ of art print, we’re not looking at the art style. That’s a entirely different conversation. Maybe you like kittens, or watercolors, or abstract art, or…if you’re looking at my work, crazy dark surrealism. It’s all good. But what we’re talking about today is the material of which your future art print will be made of. Be it photograph paper, inkjet lustre prints, velvet giclees, canvas prints, or mounted canvas, there are more styles of print than most people realize.

Many, many more.

Which is a good thing. It’s always nice to have options, right?

Let’s get straight to it.

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The Different Types of Art Prints


Style 1 – Photographic Prints

Photographic style prints are your entry-level art print. If you buy from most artists, this is the basic style they will offer. Photo-style prints are inexpensive, durable, and provide a quality that most art-lovers find very much acceptable.

What’s the scoop?

This type of print typically uses dyed inks on digital photograph paper. If you’ve ever held an actual photograph in your hand (I say this only because so many photos these days are strictly digital) then you have a general idea for the quality of a photo print. The paper stock used is thicker than standard printer paper. It’s durable stuff, and the colors of most paintings (especially line art or art with plenty of strong, bold colors) will look good. It’s easy to frame, easy to ship, and not particularly pricey. What’s more, this style of print can be made to be glossy, semi-glossy, matte, or even metallic, depending on the artist’s (or buyer’s) tastes.

In short, it’s versatile stuff. And in today’s ever-growing art market, it’s what you’ll see a ton of.

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Style 2 – Fine Giclee Prints

Suppose you want to step up your art print game. You want better color saturation. Better paper. Something longer lasting.

And more than anything, you want an art print that picks up every detail of the original artist’s work.

Giclee prints might be for you.

In today’s world, there are many styles of giclee prints. There’s deep matte, a printing process which carves out any hint of shine, leaving only the deep, dark details. There’s somerset velvet, a smooth, luxurious-feeling print, capturing the subtle color notes in a detailed piece of art. If you see words like Lexjet, Lexjet matte, Somerset velvet, or 100% cotton, then you’re dealing with a high-quality giclee.

In short, giclees are gallery-quality prints printed using pigmented inks (instead of dyed inks) on archival (typically cotton) paper. If the original is unavailable, and a buyer, gallery, or even the original artist wants an excellent reproduction, giclees are most likely what they’ll go for. The paper is much higher quality than photo paper, which allows excellent color saturation and detail. When framed properly, a good giclee will resemble the original painting in almost every way (unless it was a highly-textured original.)

The only drawback? With giclees, buyers should expect to pay two to four times more than the price of a standard photographic print.

As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

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Style 3 – Canvas Prints

Still further up the art print ladder, we find canvas prints.

Similar to giclees (and made using the same pigmented inks) canvas prints typically are excellent, top-notch reproductions of art. Whether created by traditional artists after their originals have sold or by digital artists who desire a physical copy of their work, canvas prints are a superb method of displaying art.

Firstly, they’re flexible. Printed on the thickest, most durable materials, canvas prints are bendy, tough to damage, and easy to trim/manipulate for framing. Even more than giclees, they’re a long-lasting print style, and can be varnished with protective coatings to last many decades (or possibly even centuries…given that the technology used to create them is still relatively new.)

If you’re a collector who wants the best possible reproduction of a piece of art, canvas prints are likely for you.

The good news? While pricier than inkjet or photo prints, canvas prints are typically only 10-25% more expensive than giclees.

The challenge? Canvas prints come loose and in need of (usually high-quality) framing.

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Style 4 – Mounted Canvas Prints

Mounted canvas prints are quite simple, really.

They’re the same as canvas prints, same material, same color quality, same durability.

But they’re stretched and mounted on a wooden frame, and are 100% ready to hang.

For collectors who don’t want to pick out custom frames, and for art-lovers who like to hang art just as it looked in the original artist’s studio, mounted canvasses are a great option. Like standard canvas prints, they can be varnished. The wooden frames (typically 1/2″ to 2″ thick) offer stability, ease of hanging, and true-to-life colors which often match the original work.

Personally, I’ve hung multiple mounted canvasses of my own work (after the originals are gone) and I can’t really tell the difference between them and the original paintings.

They’re that good.

The good part? Original-looking art which typically costs far less than original paintings.

The only drawback? The cost of stretching and mounting the canvas is significant, meaning these are usually the most expensive print option.

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Of course, there are other print options out there. Custom paper styles. Custom finishes. But in general, 95% of what collectors will see in the market today will fall under these four art prints styles.

I hope, for all you art-lovers and artists out there, this article proved helpful. If you have questions or want to chat about print styles, reach out to me at any of my social media links right here.

And of course, I invite you to take a look at my own selection of art prints. Click the pic below and fall into my surreal world.

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Until next time…

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J Edward Neill

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Thy Winter is Forever – The Making of a Huge Skeleton Painting

For many days, during a stormy autumn week…

…I locked myself in my studio.

This is the progress of a large new acrylic-on-canvas painting titled ‘Thy Winter is Forever.’

Please enjoy…


It began with the background. Two coats of heavy acrylic paint. I used a wet brush to blend the colors together. Blue, green, purple, white, cream, grey, black…and more. This took about two days, and another half-day to dry.

 


Next, I began sketching, sketching, sketching. I used a black (soft-nose) colored pencil. Easy to erase. Easy to paint over. For the hands, I photographed my own fingers in various poses. In truth, this was one of my favorite parts of the process…

 


It looks like matte black paint, right? Only, it’s not. The subtle greys I added to the skeleton undertones show up better when viewed in-person. For my painter friends out there, I recommend rarely using straight black. Add a second & third color, mix well, and achieve a nice texture which black alone cannot match.


I sketched in the birds, and then painted them using the same black/grey mix as the skeleton. The wings were hard, but fun! For this entire painting, I worked right to left. Which…normally…as a predominantly right-handed artist, I’d recommend the opposite. Whatever…


 

More sketching, sketching, sketching. I paused to add the foremost tree to make sure my birds ended up in the right spot. And who doesn’t love a nice dead tree? Am I right?


Next, I went in with a few soft details on the skeleton and several background elements, including bones and distant tree limbs. Those poor birds. They’re still waiting on me…

 


Ah ha! Finally, the birds got their due. And look! Snowflakes! The birds swooping into snow was the original idea for this painting, a scene imagined by my lovely bride. Thanks, Heather!


The snow begins to settle on the branches. And the details on the skeleton begin to emerge. This is no evil creature with which we’re dealing. He’s giving winter its essence, its lifeforce. An important task, yes?


A close-up of the left side. Still a ways to go…

 


And a close-up of the right side. Such a gentle giant, Skelly is…


And finally, we arrive at the end. Tiny touches of white for the snow and the crisp winter light falling on Skelly’s bones. And most importantly, the painstaking details of the snow settled on each branch, big & small.

I hope you like it!

(To see even more pics, click the final image below.)