Free background ideas for artists

Starting a painting on a blank piece of paper or canvas can be daunting. When you start your project by adding an interesting background surface you make a very unique piece of art. Creativity knows no bounds, when it comes to bending the rules. There are many ways to do this in whichever medium you choose.

Here are a few examples of background effects you can create in your art work.

Stick newspaper onto a canvas board, stretched canvas or a piece of MDF (medium density board). You can use Medium to do this. When this has dried, you can coat the surface with plain or slightly coloured Medium and when dry, you have a very interesting surface to paint on.



Paper sorts

Apply different sorts of paper for your background. From packing paper to tinted paper sorts, black paper, tan paper and many more. Stick them to a canvas, paper or MDF and when dry you can paint or sketch on the surface.



Tissue paper
You can crumple up tissue paper and stick it down with medium on a canvas board or MDF (Medium Density Fibre) panel can make very interesting effects. Use either coloured or white tissue paper. For a smooth background surface you can flatten it with a roller or cardboard tube.



Apply a layer of Gesso to boards, paper, canvases or MDF panels to create a unique background for your art work. You can make a smooth surface by using a roller or use a palette knife to produce a rough and textured finish. When it’s dry you can paint on it. You can use water colour on roughly applied gesso. Make sure to apply it on a flat surface and allow some time for it to dry. This technique is well worth the experiment.


Texture your paint with sand, finely crushes eggs shells, rice, salt or other small substances to produce an interesting effect for a background.



Stretched paper, can be stained with tea, coffee or red wine to colour the paper, or you can paint on plain stretched paper with the chosen liquid to great effect.



Rice and salt
Rice and salt, soak up water colour to make mottled effects on backgrounds. The bigger the salt grain, the bigger the effect will be. Salt and rice soak up the ink or watercolour to produce a light corral effect when dry.



Cling Film
A diluted acrylic or oil painted board, ink or water colour base, can be covered with household cling film. While it is still wet, you can manipulate the clingfilm into abstract shapes. When the paint is dry and the clingfilm removed, you are left with beautiful abstract shapes.



Use ordinary candle wax to create a resist for watercolour, ink or diluted oil paint. When it has dried and hardend you can paint over it with water colour, inks, acrylic paints and see the resist effect of the wax.




Apply drops of alcohol to water colour or diluted acrylic paint. The reaction of the alcohol makes unexpected circular marks on the paper.




Use a straw to blow wet ink or water colour over your surface. It makes interesting lines and marks. For more force, you could also use a dry blower to spread your diluted paint over your surface. Play about with it and see what interesting effects you can make.




Ink effects
Black ink dropped into wet water colour can produce some spectacular results.




Metal leaf
This shiny material is spectacular! You can use it in small pieces or in larger squares. Before you use it, make sure you have the correct glue and varnish. Be sure to apply the glue with an old brush.




Guaze or cheese cloth
Use pieces of gauze or cheese cloth on backgrounds for water colour. Paint over these and wait for them to dry. When you remove them, it causes some fairly unpredictable marks. It can also be left to dry being impressed into the wet oil or acrylic paint.



A spray bottle used for spraying water, can cause unusual effects for both acrylic and water colour.




White spirit
Spray white spirit onto charcoal also makes interesting marks. When sprayed on and left to dry, this can be re-manipulated. Make use to ventilate your room when you use white spirit.




Charcoal and varnish
When you have finished a painting, sometimes outlining an object with charcoal and then manipulating this with varnish or medium creates exciting effects.




Wet in wet
This technique of dropping two or more colours of water colour in to each other creates nice patterns and colours.




Collage used on backgrounds can also be very effective. The materials that you could use are numerous! Use your imagination… different paper sorts to bus tickets, ribbons, material sorts, pieces of flat metal, plastic and many more.



Pencil shavings
Soluble water colour pencils can be scraped with a knife and the scraps shaved off, can be dropped into wet water colour to produce a very subtle effects.




Dabbing with tissues into wet water colour can produce some unusual round cloud-like effects, handy when you are trying to paint skies. Rolled up tissues dragged through wet water colour can also make interesting sky marks.



When you score into wet water colour with a sharp object it will leave permanent marks, which cannot be removed.



Sponging with water colour or diluted acrylic paint, either onto wet or dry paper, makes some interesting marks. One has sharp edges and the other has soft edges.




One final tip for your backgrounds
Sometimes, especially when painting a large picture, it’s often sensible to paint the background first, then paint the subject on top. This saves trying to get round fiddly edges.