An Afternoon With Backdrop Artist Sarah Oliphant

Sit down, strap in, and buckle up. This video is a long one but for those who can find 47 minutes to spare and watch this video you'll be rewarded with a casual insight and genuine conversation into the work space of premier hand-painted Backdrop Artist Sarah Oliphant alongside world-renowned Headshot Photographer Peter Hurley. If you've ever considered shooting on a painted backdrop, you'll undoubtedly find this video an interesting watch.

One thing that is abundantly clear from the conversation between Oliphant and Hurley is that Oliphant is a genuine master of her craft and completely passionate about what she does. The descriptions of different colors and textures is particularly interesting. I really liked hearing her conversation with new clients and how to feel out what it is that they're looking for. Over the course of a phone call, details like what kind of texture someone is looking for, the specifics about color (how it will “read”), and vignetting are hashed out. Reference images from previous backdrops unsurprisingly make getting on the same page an easier task, though with a hand-painted drop there is the benefit of each one being a one-of-a-kind piece even when trying to reproduce an existing color and texture palette.

Oliphant comes across as a real down-to-earth person who is just plain old great at what she does. On top of that, over the course of a career as a backdrop painter, she has clearly come to understand marketing her work and getting the most use from each drop that she creates, hence the backdrop rental service that she offers. Oh, and memorable quotes? Yeah there is one of those too: “Talent doesn't mean shit. You've gotta have like. . .that little bit of luck.”

After watching the video, chime in and let me know your thoughts on using backdrops. Have you shot on them before or would you like to? How about a quality difference from a hand-painted drop versus one that's machine made and mass-produced. I've already started thinking about the pros and cons of using backdrops, what color would interest me the most? What about texture? I really found the idea of a burlap backdrop to be really attractive; all that texture so readily accessible. Seamless paper is one thing but I can only imagine the experience about unrolling a hand-painted drop and setting up for a stylized portrait concept. What color and style would you go for?

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6 Comments

very cool!

"Talent doesn't mean shit..." Gold!

Evan Kane's picture

I know right?! haha!

Joshua Mattox's picture

I'd love to be able to afford one of her backdrops. They are on another level.

Dan Howell's picture

I don't know if your question is specifically about using Oliphant backdrops or backdrops in general, but as I mentioned in my article I had the fortune to be next-door-neighbors with Oliphant studio before they moved to their current Brooklyn location for about 6 years. I had the opportunity to use literally dozens of her backdrops both canvas and muslin (2 shots in my profile are on Oliphant backdrops). My selections were based the needs of my clients and were mixed about 50/50 between specific scenics and abstract textures (which Oliphant is more known for). I have even rented a backdrops from her out of the new location.

Purely coincidental just at the time Oliphant was leaving the building, I made contact with another backdrop painter of similar quality, though not quite as well known, thru a client who was reducing her inventory of rental backdrops when she decided to focus on her gallery painting. I had the opportunity to buy 10 canvases and 5 large scale muslins. Four images on my profile are from this group. One large concrete-grey muslin has been so popular with my clients that it alone has made the investment in the whole batch worth it. I also have a cool grey (blue-ish) muslin and a sand colored muslin which are also useful. Of the canvases I have one classic silver-grey textured one that has been used many times, and I have two different gold textured canvases that I have taken advantage of. Because they were offered in a group, I did have to take a couple of backdrops that I wouldn't have naturally selected on my own. I'm still looking for the right shot for a couple of backdrops that I haven't yet shot, but overall I am very pleased to own this selection of artist-painted backdrops.

I very much wish I would have commissioned Sarah Oliphant to make a custom backdrop for me before she left my building, but she really isn't that far away still, so I can still do it. I do have to say that the trope of putting one smaller background in front of a larger similar toned background has become a cliche just has taking an Oliphant backdrop into a forest and setting up a studio scene pulled back to show the edges. Sorry Peter, but that is very 2016. Ms. Leibovitz put her stamp on that a few years ago.

Evan Kane's picture

Wow, that's really awesome Dan! Thanks for commenting!