My Nemesis

Mary Liz Ingram —  January 24, 2013 — 3 Comments

You know the feeling: your nemesis approaches. You want to cringe away; your eyes narrow, lips compress. Your palms might begin to sweat, or you get fidgety, anxiety rising. The dreaded moment draws near when you and your adversary are forced to interact.

It’s time I confess my greatest enemy.

In art, that is: backgrounds.

Yes, those infamous backgrounds that must be created behind a subject, when the provided image is insufficient or desires change. The scourge upon my portrait painting, when the drawing has been sketched, and there’s nothing left to be done before filling in that blank space, with its invisible, ominous question mark.

Here, I must digress: I know that many serious, professional portrait artists look down upon drawing portraits from photos. But I am a serious and professional artist, and I think drawing from photographs is fine…but we’ll save that chat for another day.

Back to my nemesis: Many, many photographs come my way in which the subject is posed perfectly, laughing, sparkling, just right, but an old blanket composes the backdrop. Or that elusive perfect pose of a beloved pet, captured only by phone as the pet sits by the trash can. This will not do! In these scenarios, a background must be created.


Sometimes, I get a gift: a ready-to-use, perfectly suited background, such as this. These I enjoy!

11x14 Pastel

But if not, which is so often the case, I must take a breath and weigh my options.

Over my years of portraiture, I’ve wrestled through several phases. At first, I just put some squiggles and marks to serve as the background, such as in this piece (one of my very first portraits!):

11x14 Pastel on paper

Sometimes, the background just takes a bit of tweaking from the original photograph:

photo 1

Tessa, 11x14 pastel on board
Other times, I create a completely different background:




Boy, 12×16 Soft Pastel on Pastelbord, private commission

Whether I like the end result or not, it is always a struggle. On my newest piece, I wavered back and forth on what to do with the background before I began the furry little guy. I started one way, and then changed direction, building on the pillows that were already in the original image.

11x14 pastel on board

So, now you’ve met my nemesis. What’s yours?

I’m always working to improve, and I welcome your input on “the art of choosing a background”!

Mary Liz Ingram


3 responses to My Nemesis

  1. I’ve had to play the background game! You do it well. My nemesis is that point in a painting where I like what I have but it’s far from finished. Especially if there’s some aspect to it that I know will be very difficult to recreate if I mess up. You know what I mean?

    • I do know what you mean! There’s always a point of struggle in art, where you have to wrestle out the final product. “No pain, no gain” 🙂

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  1. Surprise! | Mary Liz Ingram Art - April 15, 2013

    […] the sweet little boy; feel pretty good about feature placement. Now it’s time for the dreaded background. In my mind’s eye, I see a light, wispy something or other, which is not much help. Instead […]

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