It seems that most people in the various online art communities tend to focus on drawing characters. That is pretty understandable, since characters tend to be a more interesting subject for viewers than say, landscapes or inanimate objects. I think we tend to be more drawn towards images that show humans and creatures because we are naturally programmed to do so – it is naturally more interesting to us.
Character-focused digital art can typically be designated into a few distinct categories. There are the “concept” images, which usually focus on a single character design without much or any detail put into a background. Then there are the “illustrations”, where a character is immersed in an environment that tells some sort of story about the character’s life or current situation.
Many concept-type images are of someone standing or posed, with very little effort put into a background or environment that would surround that character. And you know what? That is a perfectly fine thing to do. Character design and concept art is something that is in high demand. Drawing characters with no surrounding environments can be relaxing and enjoyable, plus it is a great way to practice figure drawing, anatomy, and clothing/weapon design.
Check out these images above, see how awesome they are? No backgrounds were needed for them since they are focused more on the design of a single character or creature.
Now to bring some attention to what I think is an important point: Backgrounds make images better.
The strengths that concept art has are offset by some weakness; they lack a story. In general, concept art is less captivating than similarly-themed illustrations, because artworks that tell a story are some of the most captivating images that a viewer can see. So what exactly does “story” mean?
When writing a story, an author is trying to create a believable world that readers can experience. “Setting” is the time and place that a particular scene or a whole story occurs. It is a crucial part of the writing process, be it a tale that takes place in a sci-fi future, a high fantasy world, a historical period, or modern-day. Settings are important because they can communicate so much to a reader. They can set the tone and mood of a scene, create an emotional response, influence a character’s behavior, metaphorically link to the scene, and foreshadow events. They ground the visions of the author into a reality that the readers can imagine.
If an author fails to consider setting, a story won’t be as believable as it could be. Without a rich environment, characters are simply “there”, and everything that happens to the characters will take place on a washy, featureless landscape.
In short, a good setting will help tell a story that will hook readers into the author’s world. The same goes for illustrations.
Check out the examples below that show how much stronger and more interesting images become with an environment that tells a story.
#1 – This is a great painting of a mech, with a pleasing mix of mechanical and organic design. There is no denying that it is a pretty awesome concept art piece (source)
#2 – This robot is amazing too, but now it is incorporated into an image that is much more interesting. It seems a creepy alien-looking life form has invaded a Japanese subway system, it’s rootlike tendrils perhaps being controlled by the strange thing in the glowing, translucent bulb. The image is twice as interesting as the plain mech because of this story it is telling. (source)
#1 – This little owl bear creature is absolutely adorable! It is the perfect blend of animal design to create the cutest owl bear package ever. (source)
#2 – Meet the Catowl, another incredibly cute critter! This little animal has an environment that it is interacting with. While image #1 is absolutely adorable, image #2 is more interesting thanks to the environment that surrounds it. It is draped on a sun-speckled tree branch, presumably in its natural habitat, with a little fish in it’s paws. The artist went through the effort of adding a depth of field effect to the whole image and a blurred “bokeh” background, giving the image a happy fairytale feel. (source)
#1 – This knight looks absolutely awesome, and it is one of my favorite realistic medieval warrior-type concept artworks. (source)
#2 – Here is another awesome badass fantasy guy, but in this image he is interacting in an environment that gives us a sense of time, place, and story. It seems he has slain a good number of people who are sprawled behind him on the ornate tile floor of a palace or castle as he strides on confidently.(source)
#2 – This fantasy fella, although not so impressively decked out in armor as #1, is peacefully leading his horse through a warm, sunny, bustling market area. The other image may win the armor design category, but image #2 wins in the interesting-ness category. The illustration has so much more feeling to it and it reveals a snippet of the world the character inhabits.
Both concept art and illustrations have their pros and cons. While it can be nice to focus on characters and their designs, sometimes the results can be a bit boring and forgettable. Creating environments makes images more interesting, but they can be challenging and time-consuming. There are tons of skills that an artist has to practice become any good at backgrounds. You have to worry about composition, perspective, architecture, mood, lighting, materials, and rendering. Plus it takes much longer to create an image with a solid environment than a blank background.
But dear artists, it is worth it. I encourage concept-prone artists to push out of their comfort zones and include some environments into their images. Really cool concept art is great, but try building a world around the characters that your viewers enjoy seeing. Doing so will make you a stronger artist and make your images more compelling and interesting, which will draw in and captivate your audience.
Tell a story. People enjoy stories.