How I’m Improving on Backgrounds

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Someone in a Facebook Art Group I’m a part of asked this question:

“How do you improve on backgrounds”?

And man, as much as I wanted to save the post and add nothing to the conversation out of laziness, I needed to make some sort contribution. I’m not alone in the pursuit of illustrating believable backgrounds. While I am still very much in need of getting my environments down-pact, I offered some advice on what has helped me so far. And this is what I’ll share onto you. 

1. Go outside and observe

Annoying as heck, I know. But this is really helping me see why certain places and certain spaces are more aesthetically pleasing that others. If you turn in one direction and find an interesting layout of trees and foliage, and turn another direction and find what you see is flat and uninteresting, that’s a good start.

2. Copy.

Like, literally copy. Trace if you so dare! I do this with my favorite artists, commercially free stock reference photos (Pexels is my go-to, all the time), my favorite movies, animated ones especially, and so much more. I have over 15 PSD files of stills from Kung Fu Panda, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Studio Ghibli movies, you name it. Netflix, Full Screen and ‘Print Scrn’ are your friends.

The reason why I trace stills from animated films is simple. Teams of people spend years deciding on what frames to use and what to animate. There is a reason why certain background shots make it in movies in the first place. This works with compositions, color schemes, color keys, and character designs as well. Take and absorb everything you can from this.

You’re learning from the best. 

3. Books.

‘Nuff said. I bought a few books that really made me look at the ins and outs of background design. “Art of” books always makes me feel tingly inside. Literally, any big-budget animated movie will have one. Because of that, whatever movies that really make an inspirational impact on me will be rewarded with physical space on my bookshelf.

I own the Art of Moana, the Art of Rio, and even the Art of Song of the Sea. Do this for whatever field you are in. Game Designers and Concept Artists, I’m looking at you, too. 🙂

Another book, (and it’s BIG) is the Disney Layout and Background book. It covers environments and background stills from movies, short animations, and short films dating from their early, early work, to their more recent movies. With this book, I can take a look at the background for what it is without the characters in it. Even with environments, they have their own visual language and attitude. Environments are practically treated as characters, themselves.

4. Monthly challenges.

If you’re really serious about improving your backgrounds and you want to see improvement over a short period of time, I suggest doing a monthly challenge. I did one for Inktober with interiors (and it wasn’t pretty), but the more practice you give yourself, the better you will become. Try it for Huevember, Mermay, or any other monthly challenge and taper it to your background-improving needs. I’m currently working on a list of challenges for each corresponding month on my blog. It’ll be updated soon!

If you’re looking for something a little outside-the-box, I have a free downloadable on my website of a PSD of random thumbnails I created and I’m encouraging you to experiment and create backgrounds of your own from these. Feel free to use this any way as you see fit. Results from this can be for personal and/or commercial use.

I hope this helped. And while I’m learning just like everyone else here, I’m all for sharing what I know.

Have a PrettyKitty Kind of Day,


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