How Much Background Detail Should You Include In Your Art? – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about background detail and how much of it you should include in your art. I ended up thinking about this topic because I made a silly (and heavily digitally-edited) time travel-themed painting a few hours before writing this article. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 20th February.

Although this painting had many influences, one of the inspirations was my favourite webcomic (“Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree). Although I mostly took inspiration from the eccentric way that this webcomic handled time travel, I also tried to emulate the comic’s tendency to include lots of amusing and random background details.

However, this part of the painting didn’t really “work”. In the entire painting, there are maybe 2-5 amusing background details at most. Although I’ve had some practice at disguising undetailed backgrounds, this one is still quite undetailed (eg: just take a close look at the empty buildings in the background etc..). But, why?

Well, it’s because of time, practicality and inspiration. Generally, I tend to be at my best when I’m making smaller (eg: 18 x18 cm) paintings relatively quickly (eg: within 1-2 hours). Likewise, when I get inspired (or when I don’t), I usually try to make a painting in a single session. These factors mean that most of my paintings generally tend to have a fairly low level of background detail.

In some way, this approach is a good one since it means that you can produce more art more regularly and it also means that you have to think more carefully about what background details you want to include. For example, this is one of my most detailed paintings – but there are only about three really interesting background details (eg: the computer screen with BASIC code on it, the portrait and the “Backup Brain” billboard).

“Slow Night” By C. A. Brown

Taking this approach (especially if you know how to disguise less detailed areas of the background) forces you to only include important background details and to make sure that each one actually matters.

This “low-detail” approach can also be used to either draw the audience’s attention to the foreground or to ensure that the audience looks at the painting as a whole (in a vaguely similar way to old impressionist paintings). But, whilst this means that your painting makes more of an initial impact on the audience, it also means that your audience will spend less time looking at it because there’s less to see.

On the other hand, the main advantage of highly-detailed backgrounds is that they invites the audience to look closer. It means that people can notice new things every time that they look at the same picture (because there’s so much stuff in the background). Not to mention that highly detailed also a good display of technical skill and imagination too. It also means that you can include lots of amusing in-jokes and additional visual storytelling in your artwork too.

However, making this type of art takes quite a bit more time and planning. Not to mention that, in order to cram a lot of background detail into your art, the original image usually has to be fairly large too. This can cause issues if, say, you only have an A4-size scanner. Likewise, if you’re posting the art online, then you’re probably going to have to shrink it (or let it be automatically resized) for file size and/or computer screen size reasons.

What this can mean is that all of the amazing background details you’ve spent so long drawing can be rendered almost unreadable. Although some sites, and most image viewer programs, have a “zoom” feature, this isn’t always there. So, you can sometimes end up wasting time adding details that no-one will be able to see properly. This is especially frustrating for the audience since they can tell that something is there, but they can’t quite tell what it is.

But, at the end of the day, each artist has their own preferred level of background detail. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and each approach has both advantages and disadvantages. So, choose a level that works best for you in terms of time, overall “look” and practicality.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One comment on “How Much Background Detail Should You Include In Your Art? – A Ramble

  1. Alisa Carpenter says:

    Magnificent website. Plenty of helpful information here. I’m sending it to several friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you in your sweat!

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