Hello all,

I met some of you last year at illustration boot camp in KC, but this is my first time posting on this board.  I have been concentrating on putting a portfolio together, and one thing I really struggle with is backgrounds.  I tend to find that when I put a background in, the spontaneity goes out the window.  So my idea was to do something very light and suggestive in the background, rather than too structured.

I’d appreciate your thoughts on this, or any other element that occurs to you.

Thank you!Image


16 responses »

  1. Hey Lisa, Thanks for mentioning this. I’ve thought about it ever since– at the library and while working. I’ve made a shelf/ list of my favorite illustrators on goodreads. And I’m going to go back and look that backgrounds. I’m so glad to get some new thought in this area where I haven’t known what to do myself. Thanks.

    • I have been looking at Quentin Blake in more detail lately. In some of his picture books like Clown, he does more backgrounds, but they’re kind of sketchy and suggestive. Also I have recently discovered Simon James, who is quite similar to Quentin Blake in style, but his backgrounds include just enough information to set the scene or tell the story. Sometimes they are fully detailed, others nothing at all.

  2. You have such a finely drawn, delicately exquisite inking style, conveying lots of character and action, that I think plays nicely against very simple, merely suggested backgrounds. I like how the the softer watercolor plays second fiddle. Good storytelling quality, aids concentration on key parts of story. I like your illo as is. Reminds me of some classic British illos.

  3. I don’t think you have to have backgrounds, if you don’t like them. What about Serge or Quentin Blake? The cat and the stick are the best part of this one, the motion is so clear. I love the lines. I wonder about the story of the dog and the cat. Is the dog shy, catlike, jealous, or just absent minded? I have a cat who is like a dog and even fetches, but then pretends it never happened, so I can understand the cat.
    I think backgrounds are for clues. If all the answers are in the picture why do you need them? But then something in the background might answer if the man meant to throw the stick to the cat, what kind of relationship they all have, if they live together?, where?, or if the cat was a stranger who got in between the dog and his owner?.
    Would you still like the picture if it were cropped very close and enlarged without much background?
    I think I’ll read all these comments again, because I have the same issue. I think the drawing does look spontaneous. Even though the background is bare, it does look labored. Try Mo Willems too. His backbrounds aren’t there, but there at the same time. Very zen. 🙂 Good luck.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Polly. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Serge, but Quentin Blake is the king in my book. I certainly never miss backgrounds when he doesn’t put them in, but he is Quentin Blake after all…I suppose it is all about what works for any particular project. I like your idea about backgrounds being for clues; that’s a good point to keep in mind. Thanks!

  4. Thank you everyone for your comments and suggestions! They all sound like good advice. It looks like I should buckle down and work on just backgrounds until I have something I like.

    I am currently working with india ink pen and watercolor. I don’t have photoshop, and wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. (Not that I am opposed to learning–I can see that it adds lots of flexibility–I just have not had the opportunity.)

    I agree that David Small is terrific, he is so skilled at leading the viewer’s eye just where he wants it, and in a nice loose style. I also really love Matt Phelan, who really studied David Small while he was starting out. Matt Phelan has such expressive illustrations with lots of movement. I will revisit both of these guys.

    I, too, have an extreme soft spot for The Little Prince:) I am not familiar with much of Sergio Ruzzier’s work, except Hey Rabbit–which I really enjoyed, so I will look him up as well.

    Thanks again for the help–it means a lot!

    • Well, Adobe Photoshop is REALLY expensive. If you’re just using it to adjust the colors in scanned watercolors, adjust sizes and resolution, or to use layers to merge two images into one, then Photoshop Elements would probably be sufficient. That’s about $100. Or, maybe your current graphics program can handle it? Either way, it’s definitely worth it to become familiar with some type of graphics program.

      If you decide you want to actually create the entire piece digitally, then the full Photoshop CS5 (or whatever is the latest version) is probably worth it. Or maybe Autodesk SketchPad or something. Those have better brushes to use than Photoshop Elements. There are lots of professional graphics programs out there. I know Corel also has one that’s supposed to be good. I’m sure others here could recommend other programs to try. But my understanding is that Photoshop is kind of the standard.

      What I like about working digitally is that I never have to throw out a copy when I flub something (just undo or erase and try again) and you can work on it anywhere that you can drag a laptop.

      I’d also like to say that I love my Wacom graphics tablet. 🙂 That’s the thing that lets you “draw” with a “pen” on your computer. Very useful, but also expensive.

  5. I enjoy this delicate style, which reminds me of The Little Prince (one of my very very most favorites). Perhaps you could look there for inspiration? Implied backgrounds are OK, or ink and wash, perhaps a few salient trees or buildings.

    One tip, perhaps, is to start with the background for fun. You have this character. You like her. For fun, draw her bedroom, or her breakfast, or her favorite hat. Begin to collect her world piece by piece in your sketch book. Then, perhaps, when you are ready for a composition, you will come “filled up” with those pieces already.

  6. Hi there! It’s been ages since I’ve commented on anything, but glad to be back and see so much new work up here! Lissa, I really like this piece. Personally, I think the background is absolutely beautiful. It’s simple, yet not simple–the smoothness of blue to green is lovely and peaceful, while the black figures of the girl and animals gives it life and a fun, loose feel. Also, the figures are balanced nicely on the plane, and that subtle hint of an arch in the earth of the background connects the figures without taking away from them or competing with them. I’m not sure what medium you’re working with. I’m not digitally savvy, but if this was done in watercolor, kudos to you for making such a nice background. It’s also hard to comment on your struggle with background when this is the only piece of yours I’ve seen, since I think this piece is working. I think Karen’s ideas are good for trying to work on backgrounds until you feel what you’re comfortable with.

    Check out the illustrator David Small. He’s a Caldecott award winning illustrator, and one of my personal favorites. He is a master at suggested backgrounds done in loose watercolors, with beautiful, strong ink drawings applied on top that give energy and life to his pieces. He is amazing! Two of his books are The Gardener, and The Man Who Walked Between Buildings (think I might have last title off a bit). If you can do simplistic, suggested backgrounds with ease, then focus on really making those ink (if you’re using ink?) drawings move! Good luck, and thanks for sharing!


  7. It’s nice to “meet” you, Lissa! My favorite part of this illustration is the cat leaping in the air after the stick. Your lines are lovely and the colors are vivid and crisp. And I love the pup’s expression–he looks so inquisitive.

    I can certainly understand your desire to keep the spontaneity in your art. I think half the fun of illustrating comes when the medium or the characters surprise you.

    May I ask whether you have trouble creating backgrounds or are simply concerned about the spontaneity disappearing once the background is in place? If it’s the latter–and you prefer to explore the lines, colors, saturation, etc. that are unique to the watercolor medium as opposed to sketching in pencil–perhaps you could work out some rough watercolor sketches on a white background before moving to the final piece? Or, as Karen suggested, create the characters and background separately and then layer them digitally?

    Thank you for sharing your art with us. I look forward to seeing more of your work!

  8. By “leave a space for the subject” I don’t mean leave a white spot. Just make sure not to fill the scene with so many details (toys on the floor, trees in the meadow) that there’s no room for the subject to stand/sit later. 🙂

  9. Very nice! Nothing’s going to be obscured by the center line. I like the loose drawing style. Very playful and I like the color choice. I especially like that dog’s face.

    What could use some work would be the little gir’s pose. She’s almost straight on to the camera and the pose doesn’t really communicate the action of throwing very well. If not for the flying stick, I wouldn’t have been sure she just threw something. If you cover the right half of the page, she looks kind of like she was half-heartedly trying to catch something and is a little surprised/disappointed that it landed just out of frame a few feet from her.

    Now I like the girl’s face, clothes, the ribbons in her hair, etc. It’s just the pose that could have been better.

    An inability to do backgrounds is a problem you need to work on. Sometimes you can get away with a minimal impression of a background. Other times it feels like something’s missing. This one feels like it needs something. Even just a line of fringe for grass and part of a tree on one side or the other. You don’t have to go overboard with details.

    A challenge: Do some images that are just backgrounds with no subjects in them. Work in the same style as this, but don’t work with any plan of a specific character or scene you’re illustrating. A spring meadow with some cheerful flowers in the grass and a tree off to one side and some puffy clouds in the sky. Or a summer day at the beach with a beach chair and umbrella to one side and some shells in the sand. A living room with a couch, end table, a lamp, a couple throw pillows, toys on the floor and a picture on the wall. Things like that. Remember to leave a space where the subject would go, but don’t add the actual subject. And draw the scene a bit wider than what you would actually plan to use in the story so you can shift it left or right, up or down, or crop it as needed to accommodation the as-yet-unknown subject.

    Only after the background is created are you allowed to draw the subject. Combine the two in Photoshop, if you’re working with real paper and pens.

    I find that I often have trouble doing backgrounds and foregrounds at the same time on the same piece. So, I usually do them separately. I work digitally, so it’s easy to hide the foreground layer so I can focus on just the background layer. Then I can tweak them both independently and together to make them look the way I want them to.

    Another thing I’d point out. You’re outlining your characters in black. You don’t have to outline the things in the background if you don’t want to. You can just do a watercolor painting of the background without lines, or just a few key lines for the closest bits of the scene. That might help retain some of the loose feel that you’re having trouble with.

    I don’t know. But if you feel you’re weak on backgrounds, then you need to go practice backgrounds. 🙂


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