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 🙂

Three Strange Tips For Improving Your Backgrounds If You Paint Or Draw From Imagination

2017 Artwork Improving backgrounds article sketch

Painting or drawing interesting backgrounds is fairly easy if you’re drawing from life or painting from photographs. After all, all you have to do is to copy what is right in front of you. However, if you’re painting or drawing from imagination, then coming up with interesting background locations for your artworks can be significantly more challenging.

So, I thought that I’d offer you a few unusual tips that might help you to think of more interesting background designs.

1) Play a lot of 3D computer games: This may sound counter-intuitive, but playing a lot of 3D computer games (particularly those that don’t use hyper-realistic modern graphics) can give you a greater understanding of how three-dimensional spaces “work” in a way that you won’t get by looking at rooms, buildings etc.. in real life.

Or, more accurately, it will change how you think about the three-dimensional locations in your own art.

After all, although the locations in a computer game might be three-dimensional, you are seeing them on a two-dimensional computer screen. Since your drawing or painting will also involve turning an imagined 3D location into a 2D image, repeatedly seeing a fully interactive version of this process can help you to think about your location design in a slightly different way.

Likewise, exploring a 3D area in a computer game (with the full knowledge that it’s been artificially-constructed, and that you can spend as long as you like looking at it) will mean that you’ll start to get a sense of a location as a whole. This is kind of hard to describe, but thinking of your imagined locations in a holistic way (as if you have a 3D model of them in your mind) can seriously improve the design of the backgrounds in your art.

2) Layering and verticality: Before I go any further, I’m going to show you a reduced-size preview of a painting that I’ll be posting here in full later this month, see if you can spot one of the ways that I added more visual appeal and visual interest to this picture.

The full size version of this picture will be posted later this month. But, see if you can spot how I made this picture more interesting.

The full size version of this picture will be posted later this month. But, see if you can spot how I made this picture more interesting.

In case you didn’t spot it, the picture contains two vertical levels. There’s a balcony/ staircase on the far right of the picture and a street in the middle part of the bottom of the picture. Here’s a highlighted version of the preview to show you what I mean.

 The upper level (on the far-right of the picture) is highlighted blue and the lower level (at the bottom of the picture) is highlighted green

The upper level (on the far-right of the picture) is highlighted blue and the lower level (at the bottom of the picture) is highlighted green

One of the simplest ways to cram more interesting visual detail into your art is simply to include more than one vertical “level” in it. Include balconies, windows that overlook streets, shelves filled with interesting objects etc…..

Obviously, this works best in large, expansive outdoor areas – but it’s certainly something worth thinking about if you want your backgrounds to look more interesting.

3) NPCs: If you aren’t familiar with computer gaming jargon, “NPC” stands for “Non-Player Character”. In other words, it’s a geeky-sounding term for the people in the background. If you’re making art fairly quickly or are focusing entirely on the foreground, then it can often be easy to just draw a few generic, undetailed people in the background.

However, if you have a bit more time and if you think a bit more carefully, then you can add a lot of visual storytelling, humour, visual interest etc… to your background by showing the background characters doing all sorts of intriguing things.

Here are two examples, which will include close-ups of the relevant background details.

Here’s the first example:

This is a reduced-size preview of another painting of mine. I'll include a close-up of one of the people in the background.

This is a reduced-size preview of another painting of mine. I’ll include a close-up of one of the people in the background.

This is a close-up of the mid-background. As you can see, there's a "point and click" game protagonist in the foreground (trying to combine a pirate hat and a feather, presumably for some obscure puzzle) and someone walking a dog in the distant background. A pirate's skull sits menacingly at the bottom of the picture.

This is a close-up of the mid-background. As you can see, there’s a “point and click” game protagonist in the foreground (trying to combine a pirate hat and a feather, presumably for some obscure puzzle) and someone walking a dog in the distant background. A pirate’s skull sits menacingly at the bottom of the picture.

And here’s the second example:

Here's yet another small art preview. Now, let's take a look at the mid-background...

Here’s yet another small art preview. Now, let’s take a look at the mid-background…

Two "film noir" detectives in trenchcoats stand over a dead body. One of them is smirking, as if he's just made a tasteless joke. The other detective glares at him sternly.

Two “film noir” detectives in trenchcoats stand over a dead body. One of them is smirking, as if he’s just made a tasteless joke. The other detective glares at him sternly.

So, if you do something a bit strange or interesting with the characters in the background, then you can instantly make the background of your drawing or painting significantly more interesting.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Making The Locations In Your Art Look More Realistic (Plus An Art Preview)

2016 Artwork Realistic Backgrounds article sketch

I’m not sure if I’ve talked about this topic before but, since I can’t think of any other ideas for today’s article, I thought that I’d talk very briefly about a mistake that people who are new to making art can make (and which I still make occasionally too).

I am, of course, talking about making the locations in your artwork look too “perfect”. It’s an easy mistake to make – after all, it’s easier to draw a pristine room or a perfectly-organised bookshelf than it is to draw something a bit more realistic, for the simple reason that “perfect” locations often contain a lot less detail.

Yes, there are some situations where using “perfect” locations can be justified, but there aren’t that many of them. One example of a situation where even a more experienced artist might use “perfect” locations is in a daily comic. Since there is a strict time limit, the emphasis is on getting the art finished as soon as possible – so, making all of the locations look “perfect” can be a good way to speed things up.

But, for stand-alone works of art, the background locations should actually look like places that people have actually, well, lived in.

So, how do you do this?

There are several ways to do this. The most simple is just to add clutter and mess to your artwork. Draw a few everyday objects lying around randomly, like they might be in somewhere that has actually been inhabited by someone. Here’s a preview of part of one of my upcoming paintings that contains an example of this:

Notice the random piles of books lying around on the floor (the bonsai tree might have been a bit too much though).

Notice the random piles of books lying around on the floor (the bonsai tree might have been a bit too much though).

Another way to make your locations, especially outdoor locations, look a bit more realistic is to make everything look a bit worn-down. In other words, if you’re drawing or painting a city street, then don’t make everything look new, clean and/or “shiny”. Show the advertising posters on the walls, show the rubbish on the ground, show the chaotic crowds etc…

With rural locations, remember that every tree should look at least slightly different and remember that, in the wild, the grass isn’t usually neatly cut to a single length. Basically, when drawing natural locations, add some variety and variation to all of the things that are growing there.

The thing to remember here is that “perfect” locations don’t usually exist in real life. When they do, they’re usually the exception rather than the rule (which is why they can look so strange and/or creepy).


Sorry for such a short and basic article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

When NOT To Include A Background In Your Artwork- A Ramble

2016 Artwork when shouldn't you add backgrounds article sketch

Although this is an article about compositions and backgrounds in art, I’m going to have to start by talking about my recent cyberpunk art series (again) for a while because it provides an example of what I’ll be talking about.

Anyway, here’s a cyberpunk painting that I made the night before writing this article:

"Blue Light Lab" By C. A. Brown

“Blue Light Lab” By C. A. Brown

And here’s another painting from the series. You can probably see the obvious difference:

"Strange Case" By C. A. Brown

“Strange Case” By C. A. Brown

Yes, there’s no background! Whilst virtually all of the paintings in the series have large detailed cityscapes and/or rooms in the background, this one painting doesn’t.

Why was that? Well, it was to do with the fact that adding a background would have completely ruined the painting. If you don’t believe me, then just take a look at the original line art for the painting and you’ll see a couple of my failed attempts at adding a background.

"Blue Light Lab (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Blue Light Lab (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

Because my original idea for the painting was to have the entire picture lit by a glowing blue orb, I quickly realised that this would probably only illuminate things close to the light source. Although I later added orange light to the painting too (to compliment and contrast with the blue light), I realised that the low light levels in the picture would be great for emphasising just one part of the painting.

As such, I had to leave the background out – since it would have distracted from the more interesting parts of the picture and it would have also ruined the gloomy atmosphere of the painting too.

But, when shouldn’t you include backgrounds in your art?

Generally speaking, if you want to emphasise something you’ve drawn or painted- then the easiest way to do that is not to include a background. Likewise, if you have a limited amount of time to work on a piece of art, then the background can often be the first thing to go in order to save time.

In situations where a background would be expected, an easy way to get around this is to – if possible – use a solid colour background, rather than just leaving the background blank (personally, I like to paint it black – but you can use any colour that compliments the rest of your picture). This gives the impression of a background, without actually including a detailed background.

As for learning when it’s right to include backgrounds and when it isn’t, the only real way to learn this is through trial and error. Of course, since every drawing or painting is different, you can only learn a few general guidelines rather than a specific “one size fits all” rule.

But, this isn’t as bad as it sounds – if you’re more of a traditional artist, then just experiment with backgrounds in your preliminary pencil sketches (they can be easily erased). If you also work digitally, then backgrounds can always be added or erased later (although it’s obviously much easier to erase a background – I mean, you can do this in MS Paint – than it is to add one digitally).

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Emergency Background Ideas For Drawings And Paintings (With Examples)

2014 Artwork Emergency Backgrounds sketch

If you’re the kind of artist who, like me, hardly does any planning before drawing or painting something, then you might have run into this problem before.

I am, of course, talking about drawing an absolutely amazing foreground and then suddenly realising that you have no clue whatsoever about what to put in the background. This can be one of the most annoying problems that any artist can face.

But, if you’re faced with this problem, there are at least three tried-and-tested emergency background ideas that you can use. I’ll also include some examples from my own work too:

1) Abstract backgrounds:

"Aura Bloom" By C. A. Brown

“Aura Bloom” By C. A. Brown

I’m much more of a figurative artist than an abstract artist. To be honest, I still don’t quite “understand” abstract art completely. Still, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve used an abstract background of some kind or other when I couldn’t think of a better idea for a background.

Abstract backgrounds are extremely simple to draw or paint. You can either just draw a few brightly-coloured shapes against a dark background, draw a pattern of some kind or even just start doodling until something interesting appears.

Since the focus of your picture will be the foreground that you’ve already drawn, your abstract background doesn’t have to be especially complicated or wildly inventive. As long as the colours in it don’t clash too much with the foreground, then it’ll probably fit in fairly well with your picture.

2) Solid colour:

"They Call It Sorcery" By C. A. Brown

“They Call It Sorcery” By C. A. Brown

If you can’t even think of a good idea for an abstract pattern for your background, then don’t be afraid to just use a solid colour background. Personally, I tend to go with darker backgrounds but you can obviously use brightly-coloured ones too.

The advantage of a solid colour background is that, as opposed to just leaving the background blank, it gives the impression that you’ve put some work and creative thought into the background.

Again, just make sure that your background doesn’t clash with your foreground. And, if in doubt, remember that dark backgrounds go with pretty much anything.

3) Recycle:

"Crystal Cavern" By C. A. Brown

“Crystal Cavern” By C. A. Brown

"Glowing Crystals" By C. A. Brown

“Glowing Crystals” By C. A. Brown

This is probably the best way to add a background to your picture when you can’t think of one – just borrow a background from one of your other pictures. It’s usually a good idea to change at least a few parts of it or even to just stick to the general theme of your original background. If it gets you inspired enough to draw a background, then go with it.

In fact, if you do this often enough, then these “borrowed” backgrounds will probably eventually end up becoming part of your art style and your artistic vision too. Seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of tropical beaches, cyberpunk cityscapes, sunsets and old cities I’ve drawn and painted over the past couple of years.

If you use the same background for literally every one of your pictures, then people might start to get bored – so, if you have to recycle more than once, then be sure to “borrow” from a variety of your old pictures.


Sorry for another short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂