Background Stars

Only one of them gets the prize…

…but in my book, everyone that entered the backgrounds contest is a winner. Why? They all used different ways to create a story by making the setting a star! So today, we’re going to make THEIR work the star, and demonstrate three things YOU can add to your own backgrounds.

1. Texture and Lighting

John’s entry shows demonstrates the importance of lighting and texture in creating a scene that draws the viewer in. By making the cave lit, it invites you to wonder where that light is coming from, and who might be responsible for it! The texture also adds an element of realism. Your mind instantly can conjure how each surface might feel – sand between your toes, gritty rock at your finger-tips. If I trace the lines, you can see how much the extra impact the inking effort has.

John’s “Cave at Night” uses attentive line work to create a scene with a lot of character.

Without the texture and lighting, the line-work loses most of its mystery!


Every environment has its unique surfaces. The grime of a city slum, the dust and disarray of a sloppy college door room, the rugged earth of freshly tilled farm land. If these settings are portrayed with clean, clinical lines, we lose a lot of the sensation that those scenes can conjure.

Lighting is also key for not only mood, but time and weather. Take a moment, and think about how each of these make you feel:

  • Skulking about in the light of moon on a foggy moor.
  • Strolling down main street at high noon, without a cloud in the sky.
  • Awakening with the first rays of the sun, as it parts the clouds of a dreary rain cloud.

Think about an emotion you’d like to convey — how could you get that feeling across with lighting?

2. Conflicting Elements

Lexia’s background sets the scene with little details that have a big impact, particularly since they are contrasted so starkly.  The broken columns, indicating age and/or destruction, next to what appears to be relatively new and untouched structures.  The wisp of smoke curling from the dark, sinister hand-shaped tower, next to innocent, brightly-colored, and fanciful buildings.  It instantly gives the mind something to wonder about — how did these very different elements end up next to each other?  What’s the story here?

The mind has been trained from an early age to pick out things that don’t “belong” in a setting.  “One of these things is not like the other!” as they sing on a certain street of a certain seed.  You as a visual artist can use this to your advantage.  An ancient temple in the middle of a street of skyscrapers.  A mangled statue surrounded by meticulously tended gardens.  A disaster-zone cubical next to fastidiously kept office space.  Each one hints at a story, without you having to tell the reader about it.

Look around your room right now.  What contrasting elements do you see, and what story do they tell about you?

3. Color

Mariah’s “Ice Bridge” showcases the power of color.  The domination of the deep blue instantly creates a mood.  Something magical is happening here!  It might even be a little scary — but what balances out this darkness are the hint of warm colors — the red and yellow reflection on the ice.

Colors have a “language” all their own.  While there are some differences from culture-to-culture on what some colors mean (such as whether black or white signify death) you can still learn to use the local color lingo to your advantage.

I’ve mentioned the language of color for the purposes of webdesign, it bears repeating.  Below are some common color associations.  In Mariah’s  entry, we can see how her color choices might influence what we’d imagine about this story.  That it might be spiritual in nature and a little sad (blue), involve magic and mystery (purple), be fraught with the unknown (black), and yet the character is still confident and hopeful (red and yellow) enough to carry on.

Look at the cover of a favorite book — what does that cover “say” in the language of color?

There can be only one…

While I must thank John, Lexia, and Mariah for their great entries, there’s only one prize, and it’s going to…


Mariah, please email me at so I know where to send your book!

Posted in Drawing, Featured News, Helpful Hints and tagged , , , , , , .


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *