Wednesday, July 2, 2014

D I Y: Painted Backdrops for Studio Photography

I've loved shooting with backdrops since the start of my business, but I have yet to buy one. Most of my backdrops have been fabric. When I was just starting, I used the incredibly high-tech method of using pushpins to pin my fabric onto a bulletin board. Eventually I got my own studio and graduated to a more legitimate backdrop setup when I sewed my own casings to slide onto a premade backdrop stand. I store my backdrops rolled up on PVC to keep them wrinkle free, and it works wonderfully for me!

It wasn't until I discovered Oliphant Studio that I began to lust after a textured, painted backdrop. Oliphant's backrops are without equal, and for that reason they are expensive. If you are an established photographer, a backdrop like this is an awesome investment. I'm still in the early stages of my business, and I love making things, so I figured rather than buy a backdrop for around $1000-$2000 or rent one for $400-500, it was worth it to try and make my own. 

Enter the DIY! I bought a 3.5 yard stretch of canvas material from the craft store with a coupon for $20. It was 45 wide, making it almost 4 ft by 10.5 ft. With my operatic background, I've known folks who have worked in theatrical paint shops (my husband included). I knew the best paint to use would be that made for theatrical/scenic purposes, but after some research, decided the price point wasn't practical for this experiment. So, I read about some alternatives and ended up going with flat latex paint, which I thinned slightly (NOT that much) with water. You don't want to go overboard with your mixing ratios, or you'll mess with the ability of the paint to adhere to the surface. My main focus in adding water was to make the paint more flexible (and therefore less likely to crack), which was advice from a scenic designer & painter of 20+ years.

Materials needed:
3.5 yards Canvas or Muslin (I used raw canvas, purchased in the fabric section, 45" wide)
1 gallon latex paint (in a mid-range color)
Paint pans
Plastic dropcloth
(See below! I had to buy more materials to get the look I wanted)

In keeping with my budget, I opted for an inexpensive latex paint, at just $12/gallon. I only used about half this gallon of paint for this project.

Before I started, I steamed the wrinkles out of the cloth as best I could. You could also iron it and even prewash the fabric. I chose not to prewash.

I used the roller to apply a fairly thick coat of paint. I only needed one coat for good coverage.

After that part of the project, the steepest learning curve came in. I originally bought two colors of latex paint thinking I'd be able to create texture with just two colors. I was wrong! First, it was incredibly hard to get that soft, airbrushed look I was going for with dry brushes and with a dry-brush technique, the lines from my wood-plank floor were showing up. I hated it. It had kind of a neat chalky effect, but it really wasn't what I was going for. I also realized I was in desperate need of a darker color to create depth and to mix mid-tones. So I had to paint over it and start over with texture.


I took a trip back to the craft store and decided I'd take a stab at mixing deeper colors and making my own acrylic spraypaint.  

Second list of materials:
Acrylic artist's paint in a variety of colors (pictured: raw umber, primary yellow, primary magenta (red), primary cyan (blue), raw sienna, and white)
Spray bottles (the smaller ones worked best)
Airbrush medium

I mixed up a cocktail of paint, a little bit of water, and a little bit of airbrush medium. I can't give exact ratios, because it was honestly different each time. I ended up with a different color each time I mixed, too, which gave my backdrop more depth. I mostly used raw umber, raw sienna, and white, with a little blue and yellow mixed in for coolness because I got a gray-green base.

In the early stages - way more depth! I feathered the "spray paint" & splatters with a dry brush as I went and as I desired.

I added several rounds of different dark and light colors to create an uneven, more stone-like texture.
It isn't perfect (it isn't mean to be) and I love it! It came out looking just as I wanted it to! I store it rolled up, as that is the best way to prevent cracking and keep it looking its best.

Below, see a few shots of the backdrop in action. These were shot outdoors on an incredibly windy day. The backdrop is easier to work with indoors, where I can stretch it more easily on my background frame, but in this shoot I liked some of the wrinkles and textures created.

Total cost of this project: $50-80, depending on the painting supplies you already have at home. I'll be painting many more of these!

If any of you are considering painting your own backdrops or have done so in the past, I would love to hear from you! If I can answer any questions I'd love to do that too. Have an excellent day, brave friends!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow! That is a great behind the scenes look and such really nice backdrops. A pretty comprehensive one as well, not only with the cost breakdowns, but with all the materials itemized. Nowadays, photographs seem so much like instant info online that we don't get a good bead on the backdrops needed to shoot good photography. All of which involves costs that can be then summed up by professionals in the know, so you can move on in the literal business of creating visuals. Good day!

    Rebecca Cross @ Advanced Accounts

    1. Thanks Rebecca! I'm so glad you found this helpful! Have a wonderful day!

  3. Hey Kelly! Did you use primer before you began painting? Is primer necessary when using acrylic and/or latex on cotton canvas? Thanks and such a beautiful backdrop!

    1. Hi there!

      No, I didn't use primer, but it would probably be smart to use it. I would thin the primer in the same way that I thinned the latex, just to keep it from cracking. Primer will also probably keep your colors truer. I didn't apply the paint in a particularly thick manner, so I don't anticipate cracking - but only time will tell!

    2. Thanks, Kelly!

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