Telling A Story In Your Paintings or Drawings Using Backgrounds (With Examples)

2015 Artwork Storytelling and backgrounds article sketch

I’ll be the first to admit it, the backgrounds in many of my paintings and drawings are often something of an afterthought. Usually, I focus most of my attention on making the foreground interesting and tend to devote less attention to my backgrounds. I’m sure that I’m probably not the only artist who does this.

Still, although it can be easy to overlook the backgrounds in your paintings, you’d be surprised at how much more depth and interest you can add to your artwork through the careful use of background details.

A typical figurative painting or drawing is essentially a snapshot of a moment in time (whether real or imagined) and this means that paintings and drawings can be a surprisingly effective storytelling medium – even if they don’t contain any dialogue.

Because the audience only gets to see one moment from a longer series of events, it’s up to them to work out what happened before and what will happen afterwards.

This is where backgrounds can be so important. If you pay careful attention to the background details in your artwork, you can provide a lot of extra “clues” that help your audience to work out the story behind your painting or drawing. You can make these clues subtle or you can make them obvious, but they will still add something to your painting or drawing.

For example, take a close look at this 1980s cyberpunk-style painting of the university library in Aberystwyth that I painted from memory and posted here in mid-December:

"Aberystwyth - Cyberpunk Library" By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Cyberpunk Library” By C. A. Brown

Although, at first glance, it just looks like a cyberpunk version of a real place, there are a few interesting background details that help to add a small amount of story to the setting.

It’s kind of hard to make out, but the green hills which you can see from this part of the university campus in real life have been replaced by the silhouettes of towering skyscrapers in my painting – implying that the town has become a giant sprawling metropolis.

Likewise, there’s a flying police car in the mid-distance which seems to be landing somewhere near the campus. There’s a robot that recycles things. It’s hard to see, but there’s also a robot behind the counter in the library. Plus, all of the signage in the painting is implied to still be in both English and Welsh.

With just a few carefully-chosen background details, I can show a lot more than I actually show in the painting.

Another example of this can be seen in a digitally-edited painting that I originally posted here back in August:

"VHS 1988" By C. A. Brown

“VHS 1988” By C. A. Brown

Although the red, green and orange colour scheme helps to emphasise the fact that this is a horror painting, there are also quite a few intriguing background details which help the viewer to work out a story to go with this painting.

As the woman in the foreground looks at the VHS tape with bewilderment, static crackles ominously on the TV screen in the near background. An abandoned wine bottle sits next to the chair in the lower right corner of the painting. A wilted plant sits on the windowsill. In the neighbouring house, a mysterious figure stands silhouetted in front of the window, watching silently…

These are just two examples but, if you put a bit of thought into what you include in the backgrounds of your paintings and drawings, then you can add a fairly large amount of storytelling and depth to your paintings.

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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