Using Light on Dark and Dark on Light for Dramatic Effect

Recently, a technical challenge forced me to try something new, and what I learned has completely changed how I do backgrounds.

The challenge was in completing the below portrait of Tag, a 14 year old bright white Labrador Retriever.


After putting together a composition from several different reference photos, a process I discuss in this post about compositions and the portrait process, we looked at what could be done for the background.

Up until this point, I had been using primarily white backgrounds, with a slightly darker vignette around the edges to make the subject pop and keep the viewer’s attention.

But with Tag, that wasn’t going to work: she was effectively white herself. If I’d continued with a white background, we might have gotten something like the image below, which is disappointingly flat.

White Portrait Background with a Vignette:

Where’s the contrast??

Apart from her nose and eyes, there is very little excitement here. With no sharp edges around her head, our attention wanders from there in search of interest, and we find… her armpits. Why? Because they have a lot of contrast, and contrast holds attention.

This is really not what I wanted to happen with the portrait, so I needed a way to make her head a stronger focal point, and minimize contrast in areas that are supposed to be in the peripheral, such as her feet and legs (and armpits).

Introducing Colour and Light Contrast to the Background

With a simple change to the background, suddenly we can see her face!
Here, the contrast under her belly is minimized, and her face is dramatic and three-dimensional.

The dark background means the shadows on her lower body aren’t the focal point any more, because they don’t stand out. Instead, her face is highlighted and made more interesting by putting extra dark behind the bright areas and bright background behind the dark areas.
With the variable green background in place, her well-lit right side is vibrant against a near-black patch behind her ear, and the shadows on the right are made deep and multi-dimensional by the brightness behind them.
The blue-green also contrasts her warm nose, and between the two I get a rich range of warm and cool tones in her face, body, and the surrounding area.


More Light on Dark, Dark on Light in Action

Here is another example, where you can see how much depth is added by having a contrasting tone behind the subject.

The black behind this corgi’s white bib really makes it pop, and brings your eyes over to the left instead of letting them wander lost in the middle. It also adds a second point of interest at her hindquarters, which might otherwise be boring and flat.

In the example below, black is used to draw attention directly to the face, but where the body is dark enough to show up clearly on white the canvas is left bare.

More examples of dog art using this background technique can be found throughout my portfolio.

Other Background Considerations

I also want to make sure that the light in the background looks like it’s coming from the same source or sources as the light on the subject. That means if you have a cool light above your subject, you’ll want a cool light in the background as well. If you have a warm reflection in the subjects’ eyes, that that warmth should also be present somewhere behind them as well.
Before choosing a background, I always ask for my clients’ input as well. As with a frame, a portrait background needs to fit in with the room it will hang in, and will have a big impact on the overall mood of the portrait.
If you’re interested in getting a pet portrait of your own, or have any questions, please get in touch at [email protected]. For recent work, visit my Pet Portrait Portfolio.
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