There are several prominent commercial portrait photographers who I’ve noticed rely on an advantage over the rest of us: they have beautiful, custom-painted portrait backgrounds. Sure, there are plenty of background options from a number of resellers, and at a variety of affordable price points. But as is so often the case, you get what you pay for. And if what you want is something very precise, custom and unique, you’re unlikely to get that from any mass-produced background source. I am aware that photographers in New York and Los Angeles have more options too, as they can rent beautiful hand-painted canvas backgrounds at reasonable prices (if you’re a big commercial production, that is), and these backgrounds are made by artisans who surely are able to craft backgrounds of considerably higher quality than us amateurs will ever be able to match. That said, what do the rest of us do? What if we don’t want a mass-produced ho-hum background, and what if we don’t live in the Big Apple or have a few hundred bucks to drop on a one-day background rental? Easy: just paint your own custom portrait background.
In my case, I have a couple of 4×8 wheeled flats that I’m always painting and repainting in my studio. They’re the perfect portrait background—as long as you’re shooting verticals and fairly tight compositions. If you don’t have a flat, but the format is appealing, consider creating a paintable V-flat made out of foamcore, or even using a thin piece of plywood that’s affordable, easy to store, and can be repainted time and time again. If you’ve got the space and you don’t mind painting on an actual studio wall, go for it. I’m a big believer in the idea of paint being temporary. When you’re done with one look, simply repaint for another.
To make a subtly textured background, look for one of the many faux finishing options available in big box hardware stores and paint supply retailers everywhere. I’ve seen crackle finishes, pottery finishes, suede finishes, metallic finishes, fabric finishes and many more. When in doubt, just check out what Martha Stewart’s working on these days. There’s sure to be a faux finishing paint option to be found.
I lucked out on my most recent background painting adventure when the helper at the Home Depot paint counter mentioned that they had some expired faux finish quarts on a back shelf. She climbed up, retrieved the cans, and marked them each $1. For the price of a cup of cheap gas station coffee, I was in the custom painted background business.
The quart size is the perfect size to start with, unless you’re painting a whole room. For everyone else painting up to 200 square feet, a quart is probably the perfect place to start. Not only is a gallon is going to cost considerably more, but there’s going to be a whole lot of waste if you’re planning on a small or temporary portrait background. Mine are both, so a quart is perfect.
The next and ultimate step in the process, once you’ve selected what you’re going to paint and the type of special finish you’re going to give it, is simply to follow the instructions particular to the type of finish you’re using. In my case, with a “Potter’s Clay” thick textured finish, and a “Suede” finish with a heavy matte quality and subtle texture, in both cases the instructions called for a fairly typical faux finishing approach: roll on a base coat of one color if desired, then apply a top coat of the specialty paint using a large (5-inch) coarse paint brush, and using an X-shaped crosshatch approach. It’s a technique that makes your wrist tired, but in the end you get one of the best benefits of a custom portrait background that’s so hard to find in mass produced backgrounds: the exact color you want, and a super-subtle amount of texture and pattern that doesn’t happen any other way besides a custom hands-on approach.