If you’re looking to work as a background artist in the animation industry, your portfolio is by far and away the most important factor in landing a job. Perhaps you’re deciding on which works to include or maybe you’re looking to create some new portfolio pieces. Either way, here’s some of my tips based on my experiences getting hired in the past and what I look at when reviewing other people’s work.
The two most important things
Art might involve a lot of different skills, but a recruiter/art director/background lead assessing your portfolio will be asking themselves two main questions.
- Do you know how to draw well in perspective?
- Will you be able to match the style of the show?
With this in mind, it’s crucial to assemble a portfolio that will answer those two questions with as convincing as a ‘Yes’ as possible.
Perspective is king
Perhaps the most important skill for a background artist needs to have, your perspective skills will make or break a portfolio. It’s one of the more difficult things to master, so good perspective is solid proof you know your stuff. Amazing perspective will really wow people.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to include as many perspective examples as possible in your portfolio. It may be tempting to fill your portfolio with paintings of landscapes, skies, hills and forests if that’s a subject matter you enjoy most and you have pieces you’re very proud of, but they can be less useful for an employer trying to gauge your background art skill.
Even if you’re applying for a background paint job where you’ll have layouts done by someone else, strong perspective skills are still needed to understand the spaces you will be drawing and an indicator you’re someone who’s comfortable at drawing backgrounds already.
I’d recommend having at least 70-80% of your portfolio being interiors (or exteriors or buildings) rather than the opposite. Locations like a bedroom, a kitchen, a restaurant or a shop are all great choices. Include at least one outside background of a city street. Don’t ditch the nature stuff completely though, having at least one forest or jungle in there is essential!
Backgrounds are often painted in a variation of one of two different methods: lined and lineless.
Lined background (such as these examples below I painted for HBO Backstories: Watchmen and Shopkins: Wild) first have line work drawn, then color fills are done underneath, and lastly lighting/shadows or highlights might be added.
Lineless backgrounds (such as my examples from Animaniacs and Mystery Skills Animated below) are drawn by first drawing shapes which have shading or texture added to them with transparency lock or clipping layers.
It’s a good idea to show a little of both in your portfolio. The lined backgrounds will be useful for demonstrating you can do clean as consistent linework while avoiding tangents.
If you’re stuck for ideas on how to include different styles, a fantastic exercise is to pick a few different shows and try and create some backgrounds mimicking the art style as closely as possible.
Put down all those brushes
Perhaps you’ve got a huge selection of custom brushes that you like to use. This may be true if you take a lot of inspiration from other types of art such as concept artists, who utilize many different brushes to quickly and efficiently render an idea. But an over-reliance on custom brushes can harm a background art portfolio particularly if all your work is also in the same style.
Most productions use a very limited brush set. This is to keep the backgrounds streamlined for mass production and simple enough for an entire team to paint in an identical style. You’ll be using specific brushes given to you by your art director or lead. Your portfolio should show you are a bit of a blank slate when it comes to style, flexible and adaptable to fit with any production rather than entrenched in your own individual style.
The ‘Life After Death’ pilot used 3 custom brushes in it’s backgrounds
Composition, color design and lighting are all other great skills to show too.
Consider including backgrounds lit at different times of the day such as day, sunset or night.
Lastly, if you can show you have an enthusiastic and passionate attitude towards backgrounds, that could be the cherry on top! This might be easier done outside your portfolio, such as painting lots of environments and sharing them to social media or participating and creating backgrounds for animation jams.
In other news, thanks for the user of the day today Newgrounds, What a fun surprise!
ALSO I'M WORKING ON SMILING FRIENDS!!! Been pretty excited about this for a while but had to keep it under wraps until the full show was announced just recently!
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my one about my process: How I make an illustration from start to finish.
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