The background of a portrait, like the foundation of a building, should do its vastly important work unostentatiously. It may be light or dark, it may be plain, graduated, or have some pattern or design, but in no case should it compete with the portrait. Now the two things which attract the eye are extremes of definition (i.e. sharpness or fuzziness), and extremes of chiaroscuro (light and shade). We must, therefore, be at some pains to avoid these extremes.
For example, if we have a portrait slightly softened in definition against a sharply-defined wall-paper pattern, or unintelligibly-out-of-focus object, then the background will assuredly attract to itself far too much attention. Or, again, if the portrait be sharply defined against an equally sharply defined background, then they will compete with each other, and the background, instead of attending to its own business and doing what its very name tells it to do, viz. to keep back, will seem to come as forward as though it were on a level with the figure.
Then again, if our background exhibits strong light and shade contrasts it will unduly attract attention. For example, framed and glazed pictures on a wall often reflect strong light patches. Similarly the shiny leaves of foliage, patches of sky showing through openings of buildings, or leafage, etc.
Lininess is a quality better absent in a background. A gate, or row of palings, a wall showing regular lines of masonry, a bookcase, or panelled woodwork are better avoided, unless the worker has experience and skill enough to put them into a duly subdued tone, or light and shade value.
In general, where strong contrasts are thought desirable, it will be found better to put a light figure against a dark ground, than a dark figure against a light ground.
The question of a flat (even in light and shade) or graduated background is a matter which must be left to the taste of the worker as the occasion may demand ; both are useful and desirable. In general, it may be said that a slightly varied ground is more decorative and more likely to harmonise with and therefore help the figure than a flat ground, which, by its very monotony, may attract attention. Again, a background varying somewhat in light and shade enables one to accentuate a contrast here, or subdue a contrast there as occasion may demand.
In general, one may say that a ground if varied should have more of its light tones in the upper half, otherwise it is liable to give a top-heavy and dramatic effect—a style not uncommon in the crude early Victorian days.
The amateur will be wise to hesitate before spending much money in the purchase of commercially-made backgrounds. They are right and proper, and most useful in a properly-equipped studio ; but for the domestic studio something more homely is preferable. We can only offer a few suggestions that may serve their intended purpose, viz. of stimulating the reader to be on the look-out for things suitable and ready to hand. An open doorway often forms an excellent dark background. Again, by suitable choice of angle the door itself may be made to act as a graduated ground. Some excellent studies may be made with this hint as a starting point.
Curtains as free of pattern as possible and of a soft non-shiny material are often useful. A grey or yellow blanket again may be used often with excellent effect.
Brown paper some 5 ft. wide or so is sold in rolls at a few pence per yard (used for underlaying carpets): this makes an excellent background. A duster folded up into a ball and dipped into a plate of powdered whiting enables us to lighten one part, and lamp-black applied with another duster gives us a means of darkening others. The paper should be laid flat on the floor or nailed up against a flat wall. If the steam of a kettle of boiling water is allowed to play briefly on the applied white or black it will prevent so much powder falling off when the background is moved. A thin wooden lath should be nailed to the paper at the top and bottom. This prevents the paper tearing quite so readily.
We have not space to describe how this may be made, but content ourselves with the alternative hint that a large clothes-horse may be used, and our background fixed to this by means of a few tacks or drawing-pins. If a curtain is used it is convenient to have small brass rings sewn to its edges at six-inch intervals and hang these rings on to French nails. A material called "art serge " is made about 5 ft. wide, in various colours and at a moderate price.
When working in an ordinary room one can alter the light and shade value of the ground by so turning it this or that way that more or less light falls upon it. This is a point of great practical importance. And to get this to full advantage the background should be as large as convenient, say 7 ft. high and not less than 5 ft. wide.
In general it is best to have the background a couple of feet or more away from the figure. This will serve as a reminder to get the background just slightly out of focus.
It is sometimes possible to arrange a small screen so that it casts a little shade on the background, and converts what might be a monotonous blank space into something slightly more interesting, but not sufficiently so to detract from the portrait.