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  • Leo de Wijs

Almere, a great inspiration?

I think it's a common misconception that it's somehow necessary to seek out really exotic and remote locations to find interesting material for background art. Of course, visually interesting stuff is easier to find in such 'hot spots'. But you know, there's probably some interesting stuff to find just around the block wherever you happen to live. In order to spot it, you do really have to 'open your eyes' ...I know, it's a cliché, but it's true.

I'm pointing this out because I recently found some really interesting things in what I thought was boring beyond redemption: the relentless sameness of the endless sea of suburbs that make up Almere, the town I grew up in. For those who don't know, Almere is a modern city built on reclaimed land from the sea, to relieve Amsterdam of its population surplus by building endless suburbs that are very pragmatically designed with a high degree of uniformity in architecture and street plans for maximum efficiency in storing people.

These are some snippets of the booklet my parents decided to buy their new-to-build home off in the mid-eighties. I think it illustrates the conservative urban planning and monotonous uniformity quite well.

Now, 30 years after these houses were built, I'm starting to notice some endearing 'cracks' in the dull top-down uniformity whenever I visit. And I think in order to 'see' the cracks you have to see the shapes that are there, not just what the objects meant to look like in theory. (This is a house, this is a shed, this is a tree, etc) I would like to to make an effort to break down what most of you perceive as samey modern suburbs and see the personal, organically grown side of it as I learned to perceive it recently.

1. The premise.

So the architects and city planners of Almere built the houses of the Molenwijk in one 'grand' (ahem) vision. What was, however, not in included in this vision was the fencing of the gardens. All new home owners got a slab of freshly reclaimed mud behind their neat little house and then had to decide how to fence it, one homeowner at a time. Interesting to realize that this decision to leave the fencing open for interpretation would ensure, over time, a unique form of personal expression.

Before we dive into how this expression takes shape, let's first have a quick look at how architects and planners combatted this 'unseemly' heterogeneous sprawl in later-built neighborhoods – this is the kind of neat fence work you expect to see with modern planned housing, right?

On the left is a photo I took of the garden fences in a nearby neighborhood build in the late nineties, note how uniformity is enforced by the builder by placing pre-build sheds on the outside border of the gardens. I took a shot at bringing more 'life' to this scene by drawing a watercolour study of it (on the right), but in the end I felt there's just not much to work with here.

To quickly break it down in shapes:

2. Exploration & Visual research

Okay, let's go back to the mid-eighties Molenwijk and what happened to the garden fencing there. Keep in mind that we are really looking for personal expression, variety and (if possible) even a sense of mystery and adventure. So I made a little excursion to this little-advertised Almere landmark...

Walking for about an hour in a circle of just 800m around my parent's home reveals an exciting, almost medieval city scene of variety of shape, texture, colour and composition.

Are you starting to see what makes these alleyways so interesting and inviting? Just take the sheds and fencing – I started to see playful patterns of vertical and diagonal lines, squares, triangles, and arcs. I decided to make some sketches of this emerging visual language.

These are just simplifications of the most prominent recurring shed and fence themes I found during my walk. I could do similar studies just on doorhandles, drainage pipes or weeds, but let's not get too crazy here. (if I were to produce backgrounds for an animation that was set in these alleyways I would of course explore those visual elements further if time and budget allowed it.)

3. Designing a background art piece.

So now we have experienced the hidden world of personal expression that this modern suburb hides out of sight, lets condense it to a single piece of background (concept) art. I could start from scratch and 'build' an imaginary alleyway using the shape language I uncovered (usually the way to go for backgrounds in animation that need to be specific to layouts of characters and action), or find a shot that 'says it all' and enhance it a bit with your visual research findings (usually the way to go for concept artwork, just for finding the tone).

So, let do another water colour study...

Now does this seem like a pretty straightforward interpretation? Yes and no. Let's have a quick look at some key visual aspects I took into consideration for choosing and 'heightening' the scene.

Alright. I could end this exercise right here, but for the sake of argument let's push it even further. Based on a study like this, I could tone the shape-deformation and colours down to create a really subdued 'realistic' rendering that works well for serious animation or concept for live action. Or I could 'push' the deformation more and make it more cartoony and cheerful. Let's go for the latter for now.

I first made this quick layout sketch in Photoshop, playing with exaggerating the shapes but what struck me is how much of coziness is due to the colour scheme. I could easily use this layout to make it a scary, haunted place. Maybe something to get back to as an exercise some other day, still, let's go for enhancing the coziness for now.

So there we go. I'm not saying it is always necessary to do such extensive research before making something like the background artwork above; usually time and budget restrains put severe restrains on visual research. But my advice is to fight for it – do as much of it as you can. Because, as I do strongly believe, looking is as much part of drawing as listening is of conversation.

Until next time!

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