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What's Up with White Backgrounds?

violet iris painting, botanical painting
Iris, Late Spring by Jennifer Gillen (18"x30" watercolor)

The straight-forward, no-nonsense appearance of white backgrounds is really appealing to me now. No, I'm not just being lazy! Keeping the background completely white is a difficult task. It takes patience and precision to keep the paper pristine behind the subject. I use multiple layers of waterproof paper to mask off the backgrounds while I'm working. If a little drip occurs, it has to be carefully removed with a razor blade or gentle sanding.

White backgrounds are the equivalent of no background at all. And artistically, that is the way I sometimes feel when looking at extremely showy flowers. It seems to me that everything in the background pales in comparison to the beauty of the bloom.

For this painting (Iris, Late Spring), I focused on an iris that I found at a garden party. Being a mild introvert, I found myself wandering through a group of irises, taking photos for references instead of chatting with people. The social exuberance of the party faded into the background and all I saw was this iris. There was definitely no need to include a background. In other paintings, the background provides context and anchors the subject. Sometimes, the leaves and shadows are as beautiful as the subject.

And then there is the poetry of a white background. In poetry, words are meticulously chosen and phrases are linked together with minimal elaboration. There is no need for massive amounts of background information. The beauty is in the present word. In the same way, botanical paintings on a blank background isolate the most poignant and beautiful parts of the flower.

Psychologically, a white background feels freeing. It has a free-floating, uncluttered appeal. When life gets really crazy with too much to do, too many bills, problems and complications, the tidiness of a plain space provides relief. It is an empty space, breathing room. I hope that you feel that room to breathe when you look at this painting.

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