Saturday, July 25, 2015

{Weekend DIY} How to paint photo backgrounds for food photography

I've been making my own tabletop photography backgrounds since the early 90s. Back then it was mostly for studio work for my day job and to use in creating my photo illustrations with hand-painted backgrounds like this one and this one. Continue reading for complete tutorial …

A few years ago, I posted a tutorial for these bright boards that I'm still using all these years later:

You can find that tutorial here.

Eight weeks ago, I posted a quick video on Instagram and Facebook early one evening as I was finishing up painting the first two of four new photography background surfaces. I got some interest in them on my social media streams so the next day, I began my painting early enough to take photos of my progress so I could create this post with my behind the scenes tips and tricks.

Here are my new boards paired with a few examples of how I've used them:

This one is a little crazy and I wasn't sure how I'd use it but I loved it in this scene.

This one has become my favorite of the four surfaces I made. It looks very much like slate in most of the food shots. Like the first surface above, I used a crackle paste to build up texture before painting.

I've used this ombre board several times for my day job shoots and love it! It's totally subtle but adds just enough interest.

This is the backside of the ombre board. I use this one a lot. As a surface for top down shots, it's quite elegant and as a backdrop for eye-level shots, it adds a lot of depth.

OK, let's get started!

What you'll need for this project

  1. Two 24x30-inch masonite boards. Masonite boards are my favorite to use for these kinds of backgrounds. I buy the kind that are relatively smooth on both sides (one side is shiny and one side is dull but overall texture is smooth). Having them both smooth means that I can paint both sides thus getting two surfaces in one! These dual smooth side boards are available at art supply stores (home goods stores sometimes have them on hand but they are smooth on one side and distinctly rough and patterned on the other side, think peg board). Locally, my preferred place to shop is Artist & Craftsman Supply on Fourth Avenue in Hillcrest. I buy several at a time in different sizes to have them on hand for when I have time to paint new surfaces. Although I have used 16x20-inch boards, my favorite size is 24x30-inch. This bigger size isn't so huge that storage is an issue but they are large enough to create a scene for an overhead shot.
  2. Small paint roller
  3. Two Foam craft brushes (I like the 2-inch size)
  4. Palette knife
  5. Bench scraper
  6. Old t-shirt, cut up into 5-inch squares
  7. Small plastic container 
  8. Spray bottle with water
  9. A paint tray (I bought a cheap disposable one from Home Depot) 
  10. Plastic drop cloth to protect your work surfaces
  11. Latex gloves (I buy a huge box of food handlers gloves from Smart & Final to use not just for food prep -- like chopping chiles -- but for my arts and crafts to protect my digits)
  12. Paint samples. I use FLAT paint. Semi-matte, satin, semi-gloss are all too shiny for photography backgrounds. You will constantly be fighting hot spots while shooting. I tend to get Behr because their flat base is pretty darn flat. Samples are usually between $3 and $4 depending on which base you get. And as an aside, Home Depot will let you use any color swatch from any paint maker with any sample base as they use a paint analyzer on the swatch to come up with the color formula. The grays I used here were actually Gideon paint swatches but Behr flat paint. For this project I used a medium gray and light gray that I bought specifically for this project and black and white paint samples that I already had on hand from previous projects. 
  13. For texture, you'll need a gel medium. Golden is the brand I use. For this project I used Crackle Paste. Michael's and Artist & Craftsman both have a good selection. You can get fiber, sand, molding paste, and different kinds of gesso. All of them will give you different texture results.
  14. For finish, you'll want a matte varnish. It's matte enough to not add overt shine to your nice flat boards but trust me, you're going to want to use it to protect your hard work from moisture, spilt sauce, grease, etc. It provides just enough protection to allow you to wipe most things off before they stain. I use Liquitex Professional and it's available at Michael's or Artist & Craftsman Supply (or online, if you prefer)
Ready? Let's start with the boards I don't have step by step photos of:

Surface 1: I painted light gray on the left, medium gray down the middle and a dark gray on the right. Start working from light to dark. Wearing protective gloves, add a scant two tablespoons worth (I am calling out tablespoons so you have a general idea of how much paint to use; I didn't actually use tablespoons, just eye-balled it) of light gray paint to the painting tray and then add about two tablespoons of water. Stir well and then use a roller to apply to the board. Next, add some of the medium gray to the painting tray (it's OK if there's still some of the light gray in the tray). Add some water to thin, stir and paint the middle of the board with the roller. Lastly, add black to the painting tray along with a drop or two of the light gray to lighten the black. Add some water to thin, stir and paint the right side of the board. While the paint is still wet, use a wadded up piece of damp t-shirt and smooth out the areas where the light and medium grays overlap. Repeat where the medium and dark grays overlap. Turning the t-shirt to a clean spot, wadded up again, and working from light to dark, start dabbing around the wet paint to create texture, rubbing some paint away in the lighter areas so that the tan of the board peeks through, then moving to the middle of the board and to the right. For distinct texture, dab straight down, then pull straight up. For even more texture, use your latex covered fingers to add swirls (like finger painting when you were a kid!). Stop whenever you are happy with the texture and allow to dry completely before flipping it over and painting the other side. I think I let it dry about 1 hour and then it was ready for me to flip. 

Surface 2: For this one, I started with black first then added texture with the roller using a light gray. Dip a foam brush a third of the way directly into the black paint. Evenly paint the surface of the board. Add a tablespoon of light gray paint to the painting tray and dip the roller into the paint and then roll it back and forth a few times on the bumpy part of the tray to remove excess paint. With a very light hand, just barely touching the surface, roll only once in either an upward or downward motion onto the black board, lifting the roller off the surface completely before moving to another part of the board and repeating. Mix up the direction and the pressure of the roll in order to build up texture. Those lines you see on the board? I made them by doing a quick straight down then up bang of the roller brush onto the surface of the board. Stop when you are happy with the texture and allow to dry completely. 

Textured boards using gel medium

Surface 3: This is my crazy board. Initially, I wanted it to look like old, abandoned concrete that has been painted over several times. I didn't really get that look but it does have a grungy industrial vibe which I think is kinda cool. Let's get started:

Scoop up some of the crackle paste with a palette knife.

Randomly spread it onto the board in varying degrees of thickness, leaving some of the board showing through with no medium.

Add some white paint to a small plastic container, thinning it out with a little bit of water (eyeball about a 2:1 ratio of paint to water). Using a foam brush, lightly coat the entire board with the white wash.

Next, dip the palette knife into the black paint and randomly apply to the surface of the board with varying pressure. If you keep the palette knife at roughly a 45 degree angle while applying paint, it will be easier to control the application by just skimming the surface to create texture with the black paint.

Next, we're going to work in sections to build up paint and texture. Add some medium gray to the painting tray and use the roller to roll just one third of the board with a light coat of paint without completely coating and filling in the crevices. Using a small spray bottle filled with water, give the newly laid down paint a quick spray. Using a wadded up piece of t-shirt, wipe in the paint in some areas and wipe away the paint in other using light to medium pressure in order to leave some of the white and black paint to peek through the gray wash.

Repeat with the middle section. See here, I left a good amount of just barely covered white surface between my first section and next section. Repeat the steps from above. Then repeat all of it for the final third section of the board. Wiping in and wiping away until you're happy with the result.

Surface 4: This is my slate board. I didn't know what I was going to get when I started out but as I worked the board, it started to reveal itself as wanting to look like faux slate. In the photos that I've taken using this background, it definitely gives that look. Let's get started:

Using a palette knife, apply crackle paste to the surface. Use a bench scraper to skim some of the surface to smooth small areas, but still leaving it built up higher than the board. Vary your pressure and leave some paste untouched by the scraper. If you look closely, you'll see the areas that just have paste applied with the knife and other areas that have been smoothed with the scraper.

Use the edge of the palette knife to make random slashes through the paste, revealing the board beneath it.

Using a foam brush, paint the surface of the board with black paint.

Working in sections, lightly spray areas of the board with water. Using a wadded up piece of t-shirt, wipe away at the black using varying degrees of pressure to reveal the white below. Varying pressure will give you different shades of black from medium and light grays to the white base below. Stop when you are happy with the texture and mottling. If you paint away more than you want in any particular area, simply paint more black onto the area and wipe away again.

Final step

After all the boards are 100% dry (about two hours later), the last thing you want to do is seal your boards. Pour some matte varnish into a small plastic container. Using a clean, preferably new, foam brush, lightly paint the entire surface of the board in an even coat. Don't be too concerned about those brush strokes. As the varnish dries, they will smooth out and virtually disappear. Allow each side to dry for at least 30 minutes before flipping over and varnishing the other side. 

I hope you liked this little tutorial with some of my tips for making your own DIY photo boards. If you make any, put 'em on Instagram and tag me (@afotogirl) so I can take a look and see your lovely creations.

Now go out and paint! 


Laura @ Family Spice said...

Very cool boards! I have some stainless sheets from my husband's collection of pieces of metal (don't ask!) and although they are cool to shoot with, they are very heavy and have sharp edges. These faux metal and slate boards are MUCH easier to store and use. Love them!

Liz Schmitt said...

Love your boards and am impressed by all the work you put into them. Lazy Liz just spook around my husband's garage -

Anita L Arambula said...

@Laura -- Thank you! When I started out looking for paints, I had metal and concrete on my mind so that's why I went with the grays. So glad you saw that in these. I love the look of metal but boy! Not the weight. :)

@Liz -- Thank you - and LOL! ;)

Fran @ G'day Souffle' said...

Ani, I'm so glad your post came along. I just bought some 'texture paint' yesterday to try this sort of thing, but didn't know here to start. I'm a bit tired of photographing with only fabric backgrounds, so this will give me a change. QUESTION: what sort of artificial lighting do you use (what brand of lamps do you use)? I do all natural lighting but it's not always convenient. Thanks so much.

Anita L Arambula said...

@FRAN -- The right timing counts for so much, doesn't? :)

As for light, I'd say 80% of what is on here is natural light but you are right, sometimes it just ISN'T convenient. The majority of the artificial light photos here I used my Alien Bees strobes. Usually one 800watts head shot through a huge 48-inch circular translucent diffusion panel (the large area better mimics window light). On this post the salsa photo was shot with the alien bees. The strawberries and the carne asada tacos on this post were shot in natural light. The photo of my vintage props was the second time I used my new Polaroid 350 High Powered Variable Dimmable Super Bright LED Light ( and a 36-inch white umbrella. The first time out with it was the key lime pie post right before this post. I'm hooked on these LED lights. When you shop for them, be sure that it's dimmable and even more important, that the Kelvin is adjustable (the color temperature of the lights). This one I have is adjustable from 3200k all the way to daylight setting of 5600k (which is what I normally shoot even in natural light). Hope this helps!! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. :)

Abby of Baby Birds Farm said...

Thanks for dropping some knowledge. Always love your photos, and it's awesome to have some of the inside scoop!

Lisa said...

What an amazing tutorial - and as always, your photography is amazing. It's incredible what we can do with paint and a little elbow grease!!

Anita L Arambula said...

@Abby and @Lisa -- Thank you ladies! I love making backgrounds. I get to exercise my rusty art school painting skills... LOL xo

Anonymous said...

Great - very helpful. Ill do this tomorrow

Mandy said...

Love your tutorial on making the board for food shoot. Did you tarnish their plate and cutlery or did you buy them? They are lovely!

James said...

Wow, this is such an amazing tutorial and your photography is amazing. Thank you, I will putting this into action over the next couple of weeks!

Ani L. Arambula said...

Thank you! Hope you have fun making some cool new backgrounds. :)

Ani L. Arambula said...

Hi Mandy, they already had the nice patina so no tarnishing on my end! :)

Ani L. Arambula said...

Hope it was a success! :)

Frances said...

Hi Ani,

I followed your instructions with the crackle paste and varnish and made an ombre board of my own! I absolutely love it! At first I was really worried about the varnish and brush stroke because I had gone over a spot multiple times trying to get in the cracks, but I left it overnight and like you said, the stroke disappeared!
I used the new board in my food shoot here:

Thanks for the awesome Tut!

Ani L. Arambula said...

Frances, your board came out so beautiful! So glad you enjoyed the tutorial! Yay!

Margaret C. Mack said...

Very nice background, thank you for sharing. I think it's great idea to use such way to have unique background. Did you apply some filter to the back ground in Photoshop? Because they're looking so sharp and contrasted. I'm using to make something like this.

Ani L. Arambula said...

Thank you! No, I didn't use a "filter" per se in Photoshop to alter the photos other than my normal editing which includes adjusting the histogram if needed, adding clarity, color balancing if needed, and some sharpening (I shoot RAW which means the files HAVE to have sharpening applied to them in post).

Anonymous said...

i've never heard of masonite boards (i'm from the UK) do you know if there's any other name for them???

George Dolgikh said...

Try HDF board

Ani L. Arambula said...

Thank you, George!

Tash said...

Thanks so much for this tutorial - the list of stuff and step by step is hugely useful. I really love the slate one, it really does look like slate. Followed you on Instagram too x

Ani L. Arambula said...

Awesome! Glad you found it useful. If you make one, post it on Instagram and tag me so I can see your results! :-)

Anonymous said...

What kind of paint did you used? I try to work with water and t-shirt and do not have the same result (surface 4). Only black color or white color. No different shades of black from medium and light grays to the white base below.

Product Photography Brisbane said...

What a great article! I'm always looking for ways to come up with new exciting surfaces for my product and food photography.

Time to pop down to the local hardware store and relive my childhood memories from art class I think!!

Thanks again!!

Anonymous said...

I would like to ask you what kind color did you use. Is it interior color or color for wood or some other?

Thank you


Ani L. Arambula said...

Hi Tommy, I use interior and exterior wall paint, whichever has a color I love and can be bought in small sample sizes.

Ani L. Arambula said...

Yay! Share your finished project on Instagram and tag me so I can take a look (@afotogirl).

Ani L. Arambula said...

I used flat water-based interior paint from Behr. The key is to not let the paint dry before wetting and wiping with the t-shirt. As soon as you finish painting on the black paint, start spraying and blotting. Hope this helps.

Stephanie said...

Does the molding paste work on any kind of wood or specifically masonite?

Ani L. Arambula said...

Hi. I’ve had good luck with it on many different wood surfaces. Even used it on gator board with good results (it’s a thicker, stronger kind of foamcore board).

Anonymous said...

I know that this article is 2 years old but still want to leave a comment. You're the best!! I've been looking for this :x Thank you and happy new year :D