Painting a Background


Back in the early 1970s when I worked for Monte Zucker his studio consisted of a pair hand painted backdrops painted on eight-foot wide roll-up linen window shades, a 30"x30" silver reflector and whatever North facing window was available at a clients home; he did all of his formal portraits by window light.

After 20 years of back and forth moves to Manila as a printing specialist for USIA and the State Department I finally had space for a permanent studio so I bought a set of lights and finally had the need and motivation to paint one myself. I got 10' wide fabric from Walmart and use latex wall paint. I worked on my driveway over plastic and first applied a coat of shell white with a roller to seal it. I didn't take a photo of that step, but is photo taken later in the process shows how it was laid out.


Painting a background is similar to faux painting a wall. There aren't any rules and therefore just about anything goes and nothing is a mistake. I wanted a low-key background in random earth tones. Rather than using crumpled rags, sponges, or other faux painting tools I got an idea for a faster method I swirled brown and shell white paint together in a tray, not mixing them completely then dipped in a deep nap roller and rolled it lightly across the top of the paint, loading the roller with a random pattern of brown, white and a little of ever tone in-between.


I applied the paint in random directions, not attempting to cover it in a single coat. When the pattern was too distinct I feathered the paint out using a dry 4 inch brush.

I did this in several coats, making each a bit darker and vignetting towards the edges; no background light needed that way. I found it easier to swipe the surface with the roller in a random pattern if it was hanging so I suspended it on a pair of light stands.


Finally I added in some random highlights with just the white, feathering them in.


The completed result is shown below and on the top if the page. The total cost was about $40 and about five hours of my time.


My background holder is also DIY.


The cores for the backgrounds are 2-inch PVC pipe; which is light, strong and at about $5 for 10-feet lengths very inexpensive. The red chucks are expandable plugs plumbers use to pressure test pipes during construction. When the bolt through the center of plug is tightened the plug expands locking it securely (more or less) into the pipe. In retrospect, a simple cap with a hole and a bolt would have actually have worked better because the plugs have a tendency to slip out.

Also in retrospect I would have just purchased the Bogen auto-pole system with chain drives instead because it is a PITA to roll the background up. Down is gravity assisted and easy, up is the chore; especially for the painted one which is quite heavy. To prevent the background from unrolling by itself I attach a big A clamp the end of the pipe. The clamp hitting the ceiling stops the rotation.

The PVC was a good idea (it will work with the Bogen system) but I do not recommend you try this hanging method if you change backgrounds frequently.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

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