by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

I just got a catalog from a major craft show and as I went through it, I realized just how many artists still use "wacky" backgrounds for their jury submissions and even for advertisements.

By wacky, I mean those where a lovely scarf is half buried in autumn leaves or a gorgeous pearl necklace sits in a shell on the beach. While pretty pictures, these are visual clich├ęs and, in a way, demean the work. Worse yet, they distract the viewer! Unfortunately, that's the idea with most advertising, isn't it? It's about creating strong images that distract you from what is being sold. We've all seen the fashion shots with an extraordinarily beautiful model wearing jeans. The pictures are lit so you see the model's face and not the product! Sometimes the jeans are so dimly lit you can't even see the details.

You can't do that with craft and artwork! You really have to make the work central to your photos. The problem is, it is hard enough to create good crafts--sticking to the basics will get you through with much less grief.

Backgrounds are simple--they are just the space around the work and should not call attention to themselves. Instead, they should frame and support the subject. However, simple solid-color backgrounds don't work well and here's why.

Crafts presented on a solid white background don't work because the subject is darker than the space around it, making it appear to sink or recede into the background. And the white around the piece can be so bright that it creates its own glare.

Black is just as bad. I see an object on black and don't feel comfortable with it. Objects pop out of black backgrounds, which can be very dramatic. But most craftwork isn't "dramatic" enough to call for black. (Especially an object with a reflective surface--the black sucks light from the work.)

Solid colors are also dangerous territory, because colors carry emotional baggage. We see a color and it has a feeling attached to it. There are bright colors that are "happy" and desaturated colors that are "solemn" or "earthy." And while one of your pieces might look good on a tan background, others might not. Put together a jury submission where every piece is photographed on a different colored background and you will automatically receive -10 points for most jurors.

All of these factors combine to make me a graduated background fan. Whether called graduated, gradated or gradient, these backgrounds are black at the top and white at the bottom and go from one to the other through a continuous range of grays. You can buy one of these backgrounds (the simple route) or use lighting to create one (the more difficult process).

I've used these backgrounds for a long time and have thought a lot about why they work well for jury submissions and advertisements. They work because of our visual perception system, or the way we see.

Seeing is made up of two completely different components: the sensory component made up of our light-sensitive eyes, and the perceptual mechanism in our brains.

Light reaches our eyes and fires up the sensory cells lining the back of the retina. These cells turn the light into electrical signals that go to the brain for processing (kind of like a digital camera!).

Each eye sends a slightly different package of signals but, interestingly, the image sent to the brain is upside down, one-dimensional and usually very off-color. The brain then takes this information and turns it into what we see--color corrected, right-side-up, three-dimensional images.

A graduated background provides information that the brain uses to better see the subject of the photo. Giving the brain information about the dark and light range of the background gives it a sort of "reference" to more accurately perceive the object.

Remember, we have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and have evolved in response to the natural conditions in our world. For example, light skin for gathering vitamin D when living in the short, sunlit summers of the Northern Hemisphere, and a darker, more protective skin color to survive the blisteringly bright sun of the South.

Looking at a graduated background, the lighter bottom reminds me of a campfire or a black-and-white version of the evening sky with the light of the sun at the bottom. Or, to our modern eyes, it looks like the light from a spotlight focused on something. I like the spotlight effect because it says to the viewer, "Ta-da, here it is a great craft object!"

There are some variations in graduated background. You can get some that are not white to black but white to red or blue. And there are some that are light gray to dark gray. Each has its own use, but a good white to black is probably the best place to start. Graduated backgrounds also come in many sizes, from about 5 feet wide to ones that are merely 1 foot wide. A great source of smaller backgrounds is, or try for larger ones.

There's one more thing that happens, which I think is the most important aspect of the graduated background. Because it gives the brain those white and black markers, the graduated background works with any color craft--including silver, gold and even black. It you are a jeweler and you work in silver and gold, the graduated background is the best (if not the only) way to create a uniform jury submission.

Take a look at the image of the necklace by Angela Jones, a Northwest jeweler (photo above). Can you see how the graduated background supports and focuses our attention on the silver but also frames the colored stones? You can't get that with a solid white, grey or black background, and that's the power and the effect of graduated backgrounds.