Speckle—Fleck—Blot! Backgrounds

specklefleckblotbadgeI introduce myself these days as a recovering creative (ala Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way).  I'm on a learning journey as I explore what it feels like to wade into this arting thing ("So much fun!...uh, most of the time) and generally what I'm learning (so much!) So here you'll find all the speckles, flecks and blots of my learning process (that is, skills, techniques, solutions to problems...) I hope I can help you learn, too.

Today I'm going to talk about Backgrounds.

When you're first learning how to work in mixed media, the first layer to master is the background. It's the first layer (or set of layers, actually) and the background ends up making the subject/focal point.  At least for me, it's the layer that causes the most anxiety when you're first starting out.

If you jump on the internet and explore how to make mixed media backgrounds like I did, you will quickly discover tons of tutorials. Which is so great!  I can get lost for hours on YouTube watching art journal and mixed media tutorials. And backgrounds seems to be a particular hot topic.

When I first started art journaling, I studied those background tutorials and I learned all kinds of ways to lay down a background.

But then there's overwhelm, which happens on this internet thing. There are so many people teaching their art journal techniques. And like I said, backgrounds are popular tutorials because, I think, there are a lot of people who are new to mixed media who want to learn and there are all kinds of people willing to teach. There are a million background techniques and a million people willing to share their background techniques! (Okay, maybe not a million. I'm known to exaggerate now and then.)

So how do we cut through the clutter and find the best mediums/techniques/methods to make backgrounds that work for us? Acknowledging of course, that we're all different so "best" is definitely personal criteria.

I'm far enough along in my own arting journey to know that learning new mediums/techniques/methods is a lifelong learning process. It's not like there's one list that we master and that's that. Also, every artist-like person seems to have their own bag of tricks. That is, as we learn we pick and choose the things we like to work with, and how we like to work. Pretty soon we have a subset of backgrounds  mediums/techniques/methods we use most.

But when you're new to this arting thing, it's good to know how to cut through the clutter (through all those millions of tutorials, you know) to find what works for you. So here are five general suggestions from what I've learned so far.

  1. Get to know your mediums and tools and how they work together.
  2. There are all kinds of mediums.  Different paper options (or other "substrates"). Different paints and other color-making mediums like ink or dye or markers or chalk or...Different mark-makers from markers and pens to etching utensils...Different texture-makers like gesso or molding paste or crinkled paper...Different background image/shape makers like stencils or stamps or collage...and the list goes on. And then, within each category of medium (like paint or markers or stencils, for example), there's a whole slew of product options.

    I have been gobbling up instruction in books and online, but the real learning happens when I play with the materials themselves. I find that it's really important to know how different color-making mediums react on paper and how they react with each other and most importantly, if they're water soluble or not. Key.

  3. Know the general elements of a good background.
  4. The one thing I know about visual arts I learned from Wikipedia (just kidding—but it's a good place to get the quick low down.) The main elements we're working with in mixed media piece are color, texture, tone, line, shape and space. When we're talking backgrounds, we consider (both consciously and intuitively) how those elements layer together and beneath the next layer (or set of layers). I know I have A LOT more to learn about how to successfully use the elements of good design in my backgrounds.

  5. Find a few artist-teachers whose work you admire and learn from them.
  6. Other artist-teachers have been my number one resource for learning how to make backgrounds and I'm sure I'm not alone. There are some amazing mixed media artists out there who generously share what they know on their blogs and vlogs for free. Search "art journal backgrounds" on Google and YouTube. Find the ones you love and subscribe. Consume.

    And then when you really want to go in-depth and you know you admire their work, pay for some classes online or in person. That's when learning soars!

  7. Pay attention to process and learn yours.
  8. There are many ways to approach making a background and I'm learning that over time you figure out the process that works for you. So, for instance, some people like to make a bunch of backgrounds ahead of time and then when they go to complete a piece the background layers are ready for them. Others go from blank page to finished page. Some have an idea about what they want to express so create a background to support the top layer. Others work intuitively from beginning to end and lay down color and lines and textures as it feels right. There are many other processes, of course, but my point is: watch for process. Study other artist's processes. Try out a lot of different approaches and then choose those that feel right to you.

  9. Keep learning and adding mediums/techniques/methods to your bag of tricks.
  10. Like I said before, there really is no end to the learning. As I look to other artists I admire, they are always trying new things. So once you have a few backgrounds you know how to do well, keep going. There are never enough mediums and techniques and methods to learn.