How to Separate the Subject from the Background in Collage Painting

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How to Separate the Subject from the Background in Collage Painting

Collage painting is a busy medium. It is important to focus on how to make sure your subject stands out from what is around it and in the background. Elizabeth St. Hilaire, artist and author of Painted Paper Art Workshop, guides us through how to do just that with stunning, gorgeous examples from her own collage painting portfolio.

Light or Dark

To simplify your collage painting, choose whether your subject will be darker or lighter than the background, and work accordingly. Contrasting colors can also help separate the subject from the background. Contrasting or complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. (You can find color wheels online in the form of charts, or you can purchase one from your local art supply store or view one online. It is very helpful to be able to determine opposite colors when you are painting.)

Detailed or Simplified

Another technique I rely on for separating the subject from what’s behind it is the level of detail I use. Generally my subjects are pretty detailed and my backgrounds are more simplified. The details help to make the subjects more prominent, especially when placed against a simple background.

BLUE CRAB TRIPTYCH Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic, colored pencil and postage stamps on wood panel

BLUE CRAB TRIPTYCH Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic, colored pencil and postage stamps on wood panel

Contrasting Colors

Using contrasting colors for your subject and background not only creates contrast but helps your subject stand out from the background. The yellow bottom of Blue Crab Triptych is lighter and warmer and also contrasts with the darker, cool-colored crabs.

EMILY'S APPLE Collage painting with hand-painted paper on wood panel

EMILY’S APPLE Collage painting with hand-painted paper on wood panel

In Emily’s Apple, the red and green colors are not only opposites on the color wheel, they are also opposite temperatures.

More Color Contrast

Orange and blue are opposite colors on the color wheel, and this contrast helps the flowers to stand out from the background in Indian Paintbrush #2.

Color looks most vibrant when juxtaposed with its opposite color. This is also an example of a detailed subject (the flowers) against a simple background (the blue paper and blue wash of acrylic).

INDIAN PAINTBRUSH #2 Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic on wood panel

INDIAN PAINTBRUSH #2 Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic on wood panel

In Nautilus, we have a subtle example of opposite colors. The sandy background is in a slight yellow hue, and yellow is opposite of purple. Additionally, the shell is much darker in contrast to the lighter background, which also helps to separate the two.

NAUTILUS Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic on wood panel

NAUTILUS Collage painting of hand-painted paper with acrylic on wood panel

Using White

Maps, old book pages, paper doilies, sheet music, menus, handwriting, your grocery list … all are wonderful papers to use for white areas in your composition. Squint and look closely. Which whites are dark and which are light? You can create all the shading you need in white areas from text and type without ever painting any white paper at all.

LEMON ON LAVENDER Collage painting of handpainted paper on wood panel

LEMON ON LAVENDER Collage painting of handpainted paper on wood panel

The meringue on the pie is a good example of utilizing a variety of text and type in sizes and densities for white. Also note the oxidized (yellowed from age and exposure to air) papers from old books I used to create shading and establish values of white without paint.

More Collage Painting

Add color, depth, and texture to your collages by hand-painting paper in a variety of different ways. Elizabeth St. Hilaire’s eBook, Painted Paper Art Workshop, is just a click away. Enjoy!

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