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  • Leo de Wijs

BG art tutorial 2 - Design through visual study

Hi, my name is Leo de Wijs and I'm an art director and concept artist from the Netherlands, specialised in background design. I usually work on commercial projects that are difficult to share with the world. So when I find the opportunity to do some personal research and artwork I like to share what I learned.

Part 1. Inspiration.

Visiting the other kind of zoo.

For a recent animation project I was involved in making and supervising a lot of background art set in nature. This makes you think hard about what shapes, structures, colours and textures you can find in trees and plants. The sheer depth, variety and elegance I soon discovered astounded me. I think it's a resource largely untapped by a lot of artists and a must for anyone seriously interested in concept and background design. And if you're serious about studying a variety of plant types and shapes I recommend you visit a botanical garden. It's like a zoo for growing things. And they don't move much, which is also great for drawing.

I paid a visit to Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam: a very old botanic garden with a great range of palms, succulents and flowering plants. Here's a little impression:

You never know when you might encounter something that'll set something off in your mind and gets you really inspired. I got lucky when I walked in on these guys:

Big umbrella-like water plants that seem almost alien and out of proportion. I took some photo's, sat down in front of them and drew them on location as best I could.

However, once I was back home and compared my water color sketch with the photos I noticed an apparent difficulty in capturing the shape and lighting on these things. Even though the sketch was nice, it was also one big mass – not nearly as impressive as they looked when I saw them in real life. I decided to take a closer look at the photo's I took to try and find the essence of these weird plants...

Part 2. Study.

When you feel an itch, scratch.

First off I wanted to get a grip on the shape of this plant – it seems to be all over the place until you make a simple breakdown:

Next up is the colour. What makes each part the shade of green that I'm seeing?

From what I've read over the years on the subject, this (below) is what's sort of happening here...

After looking for clues and finding some satisfying answers I made another – this time digital – sketch of the plant, trying to push the shapes as well as the lighting up to a 120%...

Works great, right? This is what artists generally do all the time when drawing from reference – simplify what you see, enhance what you like and ignore what's not helpful. (Like the building in the background in this case.) However, the more that you are aware of this curating process the more you can use it for specific direction.

Part 3. Final art.

Expanding into the fantastic

This was a cool study, but I felt it had potential to become more. I would really like to imagine that these plants are as gigantic as towering trees, somewhere you can walk through them like a nature resort. So why not give that concept a try?

I made some really rough concepts with this idea in mind. I was happy with this direction, but more visual input (like looking at those plants up close) would be really helpful. Usually I have to work with what I can find online, but I just had some time off planned so I found the opportunity to visit another botanical garden and have a closer look at my side-project's subject...

Cool stuff. I'm putting it into action. Is combining elements from real life photos for artwork 'cheating'? I would think not. Looking up and using the visual vocabulary of the world out there is just a smart move. There's enough challenge in filtering, merging, adapting, rendering what reference you've found into something interesting and personal.

Setting up the final art concept.

First, when I got the composition the way I want it look (above left), I did a contrast-pass (above middle) I want it to look impressive, hence the big dark-light differences and the real sense these colossal plants are casting shadows on the path below. But I also want it to look cozy, natural and optimistic, so when blocking colours on top of the contrast-pass, (above right) the feel of bright sunlight is very important – emphasized by a warm palette in contrast to shadowed undergrowth where I picked a lot greyed blues.

When in 'sketch mode' I usually work loosely on a few layers in Photoshop, in 'final art mode' I like to work 'non-destructively' – almost all drawn objects have their own layer with details and effects masked/linked, clustered in groups that make sense in distance from the camera – BG1, MG1, FG1,2 etc (I've worked on enough 2D animation projects to always have a little compositor on my shoulder) So at first the shapes (above) and the 'fun' part: the lighting. (below)

So.. with some lighting this scene really came to life, didn't it? Well, yes - but no. This scene clearly lacks people in it for scale and liveliness. I tried to add some characters to this scene several times over the weeks (mind that I only worked on this thing on and off in my very rare spare hours) but nothing really felt 'right'. This piece needed an infusion of new ideas and passion – maybe from someone who's really into designing characters – come to think of it - why not just collaborate on this? So that is what I looked for the final steps.

Part 4. Finishing touches.

Adding a crowd.

I made a briefing/proposal of what I wished to see added in terms of populating the scene and asked around for someone up for the task. I was pleased that Jessy Jane Suharyanto, animation colleague and dear friend was more than up for the challenge.

After a brainstorm on what would work best for emphasizing the plants' 'specialness', regular people on a day trip seemed to be the best way to go. Jessy came up with an adorable cast of children, families, couples and a bunch of animals to make the park come alive in a style that was in line with the balance of realism vs. cartoony of my background art style. (above left) I was very happy with Jessy's ideas on direction lines (above right) guiding the viewer, where people are pointing, looking and moving towards can greatly emphasize and contextualize the space to the viewer.

What worked really well for the workflow in this particular case was that Jessy would provide the characters - after the sketch was approved - in flat mid-tones (above left) so I could add the lighting I deemed ideal (the 'dramatic' effect being more important in some cases then 'correct' rendering) (above right)

The level of detail Jessy put into the characters was higher then I expected, but it was very welcome. This level of refinement in the characters pushed the scale of the set even more. But the unexpected side-effect was that it made the background feel very sketchy and rough in some places when looking a bit closer...

Because of the non-destructive set-up it was quite easy to draw in some detail just where it was needed, as you see above. It helped greatly to make the world of the scene look more seamless. Of course it's not perfect, but we're not making a feature animation here, are we? ;-)

And at last - here is the final result:

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