For most of my shoots, I use a white or black foamcore v flats for my backdrops. It’s versatile, stands on its own and is just plain simple.
But sometimes that gets boring so I wanted to add a painted canvas drop a la Oliphant to my studio. Oliphant has been painting backdrops for 36 years and they are the creme de la creme of fine art backdrops. Annie Leibovitz, Irving Penn and other greats frequently use their drops. I’m not nearly as experienced but I did paint throughout high school and have missed it fiercely so I decided to give it a go.
I wanted a mottled neutral gray backdrop with a vignette. Again, I always want to think versatility. I don’t want 10 weird backdrops I only use once in a blue moon. I’m minimalist, I like to have as little equipment as possible, just whatever is necessary.
Now there is no right or wrong way to do this. Instead of thinking about this like a photo backdrop and getting all technical, think of it a painting, a work of art. YOUR art. I researched painting backdrops obsessively before I started but ended up forgoing any technique I read about and did it my own way. It took a few hours from start to finish.
I got nearly everything from Lowe’s and some of the paint I already had. You can use any colors depending on the effect you’re going for. Just make sure it’s flat and you have colors that will allow to create highlight and shadow.
1 gallon of medium gray latex interior paint
1 gallon of black latex interior paint
1 gallon of white latex interior paint
1 large plastic tarp/drop cloth
1 9×12 canvas drop cloth (or whatever size you want)
1 bottle of laundry fabric softener (I got the cheap stuff)
1 3 inch paint brush (doesn’t really matter what kind since you will be blending)
several plastic bags
iron or steamer
Step 1 – Find a clean surface to work on. I cleared out my studio and put down the plastic to protect my floors and then put the canvas on top. It’s going to be super wrinkly and won’t take paint well. I spent about 45 minutes steaming it. An iron would have been much easier.
Step 2 – Wet the entire canvas. Not soaking but decently wet.
Step 3 – Mix the paint with fabric softener. I did about a 50% paint 50% softener. You’re not going to need a lot of paint to cover the backdrop. Probably 1/3-1/4 gallon of each color.
Step 4– Start painting. I mixed the white with medium gray and put that on in the center with random brush strokes. I didn’t wait for it to dry before putting the medium gray around the lighter part. I didn’t do much blending and at this point I thought it looked really ugly and almost stopped. But I figured with all this work, I should keep going. Once I added the darkest color the form the vignette, it really started coming together and I was much happier. To achieve the mottled effect, I put the paint on haphazardly, not paying much attention. Putting some lighter gray in the medium part, adding some dark gray in the medium, etc.
(Looking back, next time I will first paint the darkest all over and then put the medium gray on top, and then the lightest in the middle and then blend so I get more depth and more mottling.)
I didn’t take many pictures while painting so I drew up how I applied the paint more or less.
Step 5 – Don’t let it dry, immediately begin blending! I didn’t want to spend $10 on sponges so I just used some plastic shopping bags I had around the house and I really liked the effect I got with them. Again, there isn’t a real technique, just play around and see what gives you the look you want. I didn’t want to see brush strokes and I wanted it to be really soft, so I blended until I got that result.
Drying – It took about a full day to dry. I had a shoot scheduled the day after I painted and it was still a little wet in places, so I had to put a tarp down on part of it so the model could stand and pose without getting her feet dirty.
Here’s my finished backdrop. I really should have ironed it but you couldn’t tell in my images that it was a little wrinkly. It’s also bigger than I think is necessary. I’ve since cut it in two along the seam in the middle so I have two backdrops now. I have them both hung up in my studio and I am steaming the back of them so they are nice and neat looking. It hasn’t affected the paint and even if it does, I won’t mind. The steam will just soften and blend even more.
And here it is in the final image
I had to do a little cleaning up in PS on a few places, but in all it photographed really beautifully. The color is perfect and very neutral. I know I’ll be using this on quite a few shoots. I plan on painting another thin layer of medium gray so the lighter parts don’t pop so much, but I’m happy with the result and plan on making a few more soon.