Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Practicus In The Studio: Backgrounds

           The modern photographer regards the background of a picture in a very different light from his predecessor of twenty, or even ten, years ago. Then it was the custom to use elaborately painted scenes, which were supposed to be more or lees suited to the social standing of the sitter. Usually they were highly incongruous, and we often found such combinations as a butcher-boy in a tropical conservatory or a lady in evening dress waiting by the banks of bonnie Loch Lomond. I well remember one enterprising firm who went so far as to have the entrance to Hyde Park accurately reproduced with real posts and rails for church parade sitters, and an interior of one of the salons in Buckingham Palace for court dresses. This sort of thing was borrowed from a certain school of portrait painters who considered it necessary to depict their models in what they considered an appropriate entourage. Fortunately we have changed all that, and the scenic background is rarely used except in the "while-you-wait" studio, where it serves to cover up finger-prints and stress markings in other words, it has almost entirely "retired into the background." The painter had one reason for introducing scenic effects into his pictures which does not apply to photography, for his subject being fully coloured often called for a foil, a warm-toned curtain, or sometimes even a conflagration, as in some naval or military portraits being used to modify a rubicund complexion, while a delicate sky or light foliage served to enhance the charms of a blonde beauty.
           The modern photographer has evidently taken a lesson from stage lighting, in which a concentrated light is often thrown upon the principal character, while the garish colours of the scenery are allowed to remain in semi-obscurity; and this has been all to the good as far as the artistic nature of the result is concerned. Many photographers now confine themselves to plain backgrounds. It is a safe course, although one sometime, (eels that a little relief would often be acceptable, especially for half and full length poses. Hence a dark cloud or suggestion of foliage is often useful, as it allows the figure to show more relief by opposing a light portion to the shadow side of the sitter. There is one disadvantage in using this class of background because it is not always possible to bring the light patch into the desired position. This was overcome by a device, little known in this country, which consisted in having the background made in an endless belt running over two rollers, something like a roller towel, by which the height of any portion of the surface can be adjusted to a nicety. Such a background may carry foliage suggestions, clouds, and plain surfaces in various sections, as the length of 16 ft. affords ample room. Another device for securing gradation was to have the ground made in the form of a shallow saucer, which gave a perfectly natural effect of light and shade just where it was wanted. Such a construction was found in practice to be too unwieldy for general use, and a more convenient way of carrying out the same idea is to have a tall screen made of narrow strips of wood glued to an ordinary plain canvas background of a medium grey tint. This can be placed so as to form a kind of alcove behind the sitter, more or less concavity being given as harder or softer gradation is required, or even be used flat, while when done with it can be rolled up and put in a corner. To make the method of construction quite clear, I will compare it to the roller shutter of a studio dark slide, the wooden slips being, of coarse, turned away from the sitter. Tapestries and curtains form effective backgrounds if judiciously used, but neither the pattern nor the folds should be pronounced in character, only enough being shown to break up the flatness of a plain surface.
           The illumination of the background has an important effect upon its depth of colour, and much may be done by turning it to or from the light, while the distance it is placed under the drawn blinds gives somewhat similar modification. Thus, to obtain the darkest effect from any given tint of grey, we keep it well back from the sitter and bring the edge nearest the side light as far forward as may be, the reverse being done when a lighter tone is required.
           In the case of white backgrounds for "sketch" work it is usually recommended to light these independently by opening the blinds behind the sitter. This is all right in a dull light, but on a bright day the flood of light so projected into the lens is very likely to cause a general fog over the negative. Certainly if the quality of the work is to be considered it is better to secure opacity by Mr. Adamson's method of using red ink and seccotine on the back of the negative. A common error is to paint sketch backgrounds a bluish-white, the idea being that a denser deposit will be obtained. This is quite wrong ; nothing can be whiter than white; the blue only masks any yellow tint in the distemper, and there is no gain by adding it.
           From time to time attempts hare been made to print in backgrounds from film negatives interposed between the portrait negative or to put in backgrounds on the back of the glass. These plans are rarely satisfactory, though in some cases excellent results have been obtained. As a rule, however, the general effect is not so good as from a background which has been photographed with the sitter.
           The materials used for backgrounds are various. For plain tints Melton cloth is excellent when it can be obtained. Failing this, distemper on canvas or stout sheeting is very suitable. For graduated backgrounds distemper may also be used, but it requires a considerable degree of skill to apply it, so that the necessary softness is obtained, and for this class I therefore prefer flatted oil-colour, which does not alter in depth upon drying, and which can be easily worked and softened while wet. Aerograph work upon a plain grey distemper foundation answers very well, but it takes some time to cover so large a space. The aerograph is also excellent for subduing contrast in scenic backgrounds which are too contrasty. I have also improved such by rubbing on black chalk powder exactly in the same way as in finishing an enlargement, but care must be taken to avoid patchiness if there are decided brush marks on the surface. For small grounds up to 54 in. wide dark green or red serge is very good, and a little light may be introduced by dusting powdered French chalk on where required. This is easily removed with a clothes-brush if the plain surface is again required. If you wish to distemper your own backgrounds it is better to purchase one of the many ready-made distempers or to use the Kalko powders (Vanguard Co.). which are specially prepared for this work. Oil-colours should not be purchased ready mixed; they should be procured "ground in oil" in a stiff paste, and this should be thinned down with turpentine or on of the current "turpentine substitutes."
           Lincrusta and Anaglypta are useful for making imitation panelled backgrounds. The latter, being a kind of embossed papier mache, is the cheaper, but will not stand knocking it so well as the Lincrusta does.
           Now that we do not require so many backgrounds the old-fashioned multiple stand should be discarded and the material should be stretched upon light wooden frames fixed upon feet with castors, so that they may be moved about the studio easily and used at either end or diagonally, as may be desired. It is a good plan to have the ends of the studio finished so that they may be used as backgrounds. This has also the excellent fleet of preventing the space behind the movable screens being used as a receptacle for lumber. The oak paneling comes in very well for this, and if the entire end be covered a large group can be accommodated without having to eke out the ordinary-sized ground with curtains, side slips, and other make-shifts.
           As a guide to those who are attempting to make or renovate their own backgrounds for the first time, I give the following hints. Do not expect to get an even surface with one coat of distemper. You may do so but, if not, do not be discouraged, apply a second coat rather thinner in consistency. If working on new canvas or sheeting it is a good plan to give a first coat or filling of thin size, or even starch or flour-paste. Tins prevent the distemper from being sucked into the material, and makes it easier to apply. For oil colour, ordinary glue size is to be preferred. A large paint brush, about three inches across, is easier for the amateur to manage than the orthodox distemper brush, and should always be used for oil. Work quietly, and do not slop on too much colour at once. A good grey can be made by mixing a little Venetian Bed and blue with the black and white. This looks warmer, and photographs better than black and white alone. Remember that distemper dries many shades darker than it appears when wet; therefore before using your mixed colour try a patch' on brown paper and dry it before the fire: you will then know what your background will look like when dry. A very little white will turn black into a light grey. Do not buy black in a dry powder, as it is very difficult to mix; ask for black ground in water. Always strain your distemper through muslin before using, or eke you will get streaks which are caused by unmixed particles of colour which break up under the brush.
           There is a right and a wrong way of nailing a background on to its frame. The wrong way is to fasten all four corners and then to go round the sides. The right way is to drive a strong tack in the middle of the top edge, then to pull the canvas as tightly as possible and drive another tack in the middle of the bottom; then fasten the two sides in the same way. Having got a straight pull these two ways, begin driving in tacks about one and a-half inches apart towards the corners, always working from the centre. In this way any fulness is drawn out as you go on, and the background will be perfectly flat and free from wrinkles. It is a good plan to fasten a loop handle tit iron or brass at each side of the frame; this obviates the necessity of handling the edge of the wood, and keeps the background in much bettor condition. If the frame is wider than you can stretch, a loop of webbing or cord, about eighteen inches long, should be fastened to one of the handles. Holding this and one handle, you can easily move an eight-foot frame single-handed, although if good castors are fitted it may not be necessary to lift it very often.


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