A couple of people have talked to me about "backgrounds" lately, so I thought I might do a bit of series about my thoughts on the kinds of painting I love doing.
First of all, backgrounds are just one kind of environment painting. They give context to characters and to action. Although in film keyframes and such they may be equally important, in general, in illustration the space is designed and created to support the characters and the story. They literally are "back" grounds.
...they are also not my favorite. I much prefer establishing shots. Establishing shots make the space the primary focus, and they do a number of things:
Establishing shots set a mood.
This can be an emotional mood, like how a dark and stormy night can prepare you for conflict. Batman feels like Batman because of how Gotham city is portrayed. As I've said before, one of the biggest failings of the last Nolan movie was that it didn't establish locations as Gotham, but rather as just "a city." More on that later.
It can also be a "style" mood. Particularly in animation, the treatment of the establishing shot sets the stage for the style and tone of the cartoon. Are the angles "wonky" and the buildings curvy and "charming?" That scene-setting shot is going to tell the audience something very different than a realistic, hard-edged shot with photo textures.
Establishing shots set a "specific" location.
A friend of mine once said that when a concept artist paints the door to a bedroom, it's can't be "any" door, it has to be the only door that could be attached to that bedroom. This CERTAINLY applies to good establishing shots. In a "background" illustration, you can afford sometimes to be a little more generic, and just show trees to indicate you are in a forest. When the goal of the shot is to establish a place, it needs to be unique.
The way I like to think about it is, "If you were giving directions to get to this spot, how would the person know when they got there?" What makes this angle unique? It could be physical characteristics, like signs, buildings, cliffs that look like skulls, or other geo-spacial markers. It could be unique weather conditions, or a very particular time of day. It could be evidence of history, past events that happened here that left their mark on the environment. Ideally, it should be several of these things all at once. The point is, when you see the shot, you should always feel like it could ONLY be this location. If you have to establish a generic location like a WalMart, try to think of what makes *this* WalMart different from all the others...no two places are ever exactly the same, and it is your job to point out the special things about this one.
Establishing shots tell a story.
A great establishing shot moves the story forward and helps you tie into what is happening in the narrative.
This Death Star tells a *story* We know from looking at it that it is still under construction. We know what is happening here. It doesn't look complete, and it doesn't look ruined.
We've all heard the "If there is a gun on the mantel in Act 1, someone shoots it in Act 2" - Your establishing shot should at least give clues that there is a gun out there.
Your painting also needs to be clear enough that it can be understood and absorbed in about 2-4 seconds. Crazy dynamic angles and mountains of detail aren't needed here unless they are absolutely required to set your stage and tell your story...and even then, you probably need half what you think you do.
Tangenting briefly here - One of my biggest problems that I try to remember is that you aren't painting a real location, or even a realistic location....you are creating an element to further the story. CHEAT. Do what you have to to make it work. A little knowledge of how forests grow and the kinds of trees in them is great - but never let that knowledge keep you from doing what the story needs. Think of the times plots simplify "hacking" in movies and TV...we know it doesn't work that way, but the story needs it. Exact same things happens with painting locations. Sure, the botanists will roll their eyes, and the geologists will have fits - but the story is a harsher master than either of those groups, and it is the one you owe fealty to.
Alrighty, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on good establishing shots. Obviously, different people are going to approach them differently, and many of the same rules here apply to so-called "backgrounds"...and sometimes the line between the two types of shots will blur.
Have a great day, and I hope you paint some great things to establish the locations and mood of whatever you are working on!