Our Cat and the Importance of Painting Backgrounds

A few posts back I mentioned a new painting I was working on for submission into a juried, cat-themed exhibit. I finished that painting prior to going on holiday last month, and just last night received a call from one of the jurors that my painting "Lilly Mesmerized" has been accepted into the exhibit. Here is the painting.

She’s 24 inches long by 12 inches high (the painting not the cat) oil on canvas. The exhibit she’ll be in is called “Hello Kitty”, and it will take place at a local library called the Sewickley Public Library. The exhibit runs from July 9th through August 31st.

That venu may not sound real impressive, but I know from prior experiences that the old and nice neighborhoods in my neck of the woods tend to have really sweet libraries with good display areas, along with substantial foot traffic who enjoy and appreciate nice art. Among the best places I've had one man shows in the past, is the public library in an area near where I live called Mt. Lebanon. And when I say “best” I’m talking in terms of both sales as well as publicity.

In any case the subject of this painting to me is not really the cat or the toy, but the tension that exists between the two. However I wanted the cat to stand out more than the brilliant red of the toy and be the focal point of the painting. As a result, the biggest challenge for me in executing this piece (and so many other pieces) was how to treat the background. The photo reference I shot and worked from, had our blurred stairwell as a background. I actually liked that because the horizontal lines tied her and the toy together. But I decided to go with a more loose and abstract background. I attempted to use gradated intense color and a bit of texture to visually tie the two together.

Backgrounds in any paintings - particularly still-lifes, and portraits, may seem simple, and to some viewers insignificant. However, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. A background can easily make or break a painting. It’s one of those challenges that you actually have to be involved with in order to appreciate how tough it is.

The background is the most important element of this particular painting. Had I decided to go with a smooth, dark, and cool colored background, the focus on the cat would be totally gone and the toy would become the subject. Using the blurred stairwell from the photo may have worked, but with this tight of a crop would have become too complicated. So a carefully executed, warm, intense, and abstract background with loose brushes of complementary blue near the cat, was the definitely the way to go.

As I mature as an artist, I’m realizing that the tough, “down and dirty” planning stages of the painting process are just as, if not more important than, the actual execution stage!


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