How to Paint Foliage Backrounds that don't look like camo

How to Paint Foliage Backrounds that don't look like camo

How to Paint Foliage Backgrounds that don't look like camo
A Modern Nest - Watercolour and Gouache painting featuring blurry natural background

I love teaching art students. Often students have insightful questions that make me much more aware of the processes I take for granted. By paying attention to and working through student problems, I can fine tune and improve my own process.

Last year, one of my private coaching students asked an interesting question that I thought would make a fascinating blog post. (Interested in private watercolour coaching? Contact me). This student was painting a nature scene with a blurry foliage background, and thought her background kept looking too much like camo. She asked what I would recommend for painting natural foliage backgrounds that don't look like ...military clothing masquerading as foliage backgrounds.

Although as a botanical artist and illustrator, I don't always paint backgrounds at all, I definitely remember as a young artist painting backgrounds that looked more like military camouflage than I would like. How did I solve this problem?

The first step to learning how NOT to paint camo backgrounds is to figure out what makes camo look like camo.

What does camo look like ?

Camo (military camouflage) describes a series of patterns which have the following properties:

1) Evenly distributed pattern of coloured shapes
2) Random shaped/sized areas of different colours and saturations
3) Mostly midtones, no very dark or very light colours
4) Usually all colours from the same colour family, most frequently greens and browns
5) Traditionally crisp, distinct divisions between flat areas of different colours

By knowing what makes a pattern look like camo, we can avoid these attributes to make a pattern that doesn't look like camo.

From camo to not-camo

Using the descriptions of camo from the previous section, I painted a series of patterns. My goal was to start with a camo pattern and then change one aspect at a time until I arrived at a background pattern that didn't read as camouflage.

First, I painted a classic "camo" pattern in green and earth tones. This is the top right pattern in the image above.

Next, I painted a very similar pattern, using a range of magenta through violet colours. Already this reads less as classic camo, although novelty pink "camouflage" pattern clothes are fairly common still

Next I tried mixing both magenta and green colours in one pattern block. This pattern looks quite garish, as the colours I used are nearly complimentary, and a similar saturation. However, it does not look like a recognizable camo pattern.

For the final pattern on my first sheet, I created a gradient using the same classic "camo' colours as in the first image. This has a bit of a paint by numbers look, but doesn't look like camouflage due to the uneven distribution of the colours.

Bringing it all together

Next, I combined the variations shown in the previous section. I also added more tonal variation (from paper white to nearly-black masstones).

This way, I was able to create the pattern at the top of this second page. The distinct, even shapes of this pattern lend a "paint-by-number" look, but by varying both colour families and tonal value across the page, I have eliminated an obvious "camouflage" look.

Finally, to create a convincing natural background, use a mix of softer and sharper areas of colour. Make these look natural by painting in a variety of shapes. I used the same colours and general tones in the two patterns above. I used wet-in-wet effects as well as sharper, more defined areas in the second image. In this final image, I created a convincing natural background.

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