We always think about what’s at the forefront, don’t we? Our eyes focus on the image that seems closer to it and don’t really notice the rest. But what’s that, slightly out of focus, where everything else seems to be happening? You got it, that’s the background, and no animated feature, video game, web video, or illustration would be worth anything without it. Today, we’ll learn all there is to know about background designers, why you need ’em, and where to find ’em.

What’s Background Design, Anyway?

In the world of animation, illustration, and gaming, if you see it, someone’s designed it. Sometimes we like to gloss over the basic stuff but, even if something’s not immediately noticeable, an artist had a hand in its creation. Spontaneous generation is not a thing, as far as I know; everything from characters, effects, objects, and, of course, backgrounds, requires hard, painstaking work.

A background artist or designer is the person responsible for creating amazing backdrops for media and multimedia projects. They design the scenery on top of which the animation takes place, the setting, so to speak. When a storyboard’s ready, they use it as a basis for their work. Of course, they’re also in permanent liaison with the art director, as requirements may change from scene to scene.

Sometimes the background changes from scene to scene, and sometimes it stays the same for several. First off, background artists have to understand how many backgrounds the project requires before starting their work. They also have to make sure that their art style matches the general style and tone of the project. Big games, movies, and animated features typically have several artists doing backdrops. That means that what’s a simple task for small teams becomes a much more collaborative endeavor.

Background designers also have to be mindful of things like light, color, and objects in a scene. They also have to pay mind to the way objects and characters move. The idea of the background art is to be unobtrusive and not draw too much attention to itself.

What’s the Process Look Like?

Typically, the background designer comes in when the storyboards have been signed off on. Then, they base their work on them while collaborating with the rest of the art department. Typically, backgrounds are revised many times before the final product is ready. The director has to provide feedback and make sure everything lines up. Then, layout artists typically put on the finishing touches.

The “animation” pipeline is a way to describe the design process. Typically, things have to follow a certain order, and background artists don’t come in until later in development. Here’s what the process looks like.

  • The creator(s) develop(s) an idea.
  • Then, they develop a script based off on the original thought.
  • After, a storyboard artist creates panels to describe the action.
  • This is the stage where the background designer comes in.

Background designers create the backdrops, whereas character designers create the characters. Once every element is established, the layout artist decides the final foreground/background scene composition.

The Skills of a Background Designer

While these are not universal and 100% required, a good background designer should have:

Excellent art skills. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re looking for a background designer, they’d better have some jaw-droppers in their portfolio. Great technical skill, being able to work in varied styles, a keen understanding of composition (color, light, texture) are absolutely necessary. Always look for what they have to show, never for what they’re selling. A great artist’s work speaks for itself.

An understanding of different environments. Architectural and environmental skills are mandatory. While no one’s going to ask a background designer to be an architect, they should know plenty about building and urban design, as well as how to create nature settings. Some artists are also well-versed in surrealistic or more creative designs that are typically the province of sci-fi and fantasy. Always look for background designers that fit your project and can match your intended style and tone.

Having a creative outlook is also an in-demand skill. After all, you can only make so many cityscapes and forests. When a director or creator has a more out-there idea, it’s up to background designers to bring it to life satisfactorily.

Communication skills. No one’s an island, and this is doubly so for background designers. While they may be tempted to run with their own ideas, they have to listen to the director and the art department’s input. Feedback is king, and a good artist often goes through several revisions before turning in something that matches the original vision.

Passion. No one wants a killjoy, a jobber, or a 9-5 person who is looking at the clock all day. True love for animation, gaming, or whatever industry they’re working on is a must for background designers.

What Do They Use For Their Work?

While many background designers use analog tools like brushes, pencils, ink, and chalk, most today are purely digital. Knowledge of bitmap editing software like Photoshop, Corel, and others is de rigueur; 3D Modeling is also very much in-demand, with software like 3D Studio Max, Maya, Quixel, Unity, and others; 2D animation software like ToonBoom Harmony is also often necessary.

Always assess what type of artist you need before moving ahead with a project. Some artists are great at using some tools, others a few, and others are multi-talented wizards. Always have a look-see at their past work before you move on with the process. If they fit what you need, great. If not, you may have to train them in the use of a new tool or make a different hire entirely, setting back your project considerably. Always work efficiently.

background for artists

So, What’s the Money Like?

If the background designer is working for a big studio or a good-sized project, it’s a pretty well-paid profession. As with all design jobs where freelancers are the most prevalent workforce, though, the pay can vary by a great deal.

I’ll let ZipRecruiter work out the math for you on this one:

As of Jan 4, 2021, the average annual pay for a Background Artist in the United States is $47,251 a year.

Just in case you need a simple salary calculator, that works out to be approximately $22.72 an hour. This is the equivalent of $909/week or $3,938/month.

While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $109,500 and as low as $16,000, the majority of Background Artist salaries currently range between $29,000 (25th percentile) to $52,000 (75th percentile) with top earners (90th percentile) making $83,000 annually across the United States. The average pay range for a Background Artist varies greatly (by as much as $23,000), which suggests there may be many opportunities for advancement and increased pay based on skill level, location and years of experience.

(…) A Background Artist in your area makes on average $47,251 per year, or the same as the national average annual salary of $47,251

Of course, it’s up to you to see whether you need an experienced (ie: expensive) or a wet-behind-the-ears freelancer who’s learning the ropes. If you’re savvy, though, you can find a pretty good balance between quality and price. But we forewarned: great quality often comes with a respectable price tag, and that’s no exception for freelance background artists/designers.

How Do I Hire a Background Designer?

Easy! Nowadays, you don’t have to go through lengthy job searches like before. The internet’s made access to a near-infinite workforce easier and more democratic than ever. Your main  two choices are going to be:

What’s my recommendation? Just go with a freelancing platform. You’ll have many more guarantees, a wide pool of talent to choose from, a pretty good price/quality ratio, and escrow payments. It’s safer, more efficient, and generally works best for everyone involved.

Now, of course, not every freelancing platform’s built the same. All of them have advantages and disadvantages. Ideally, you want to be able to create a job post, have a good amount of options available, choose the best one, and get cracking, right? The question you might want to be asking is the following:

“What’s the best “bang for my buck” option, and why?”

Read on, then.

The Bunnies: A Commitment to Quality

Bunny Studio is a great freelancing platform, no two ways about it. It’s got an edge on other similar platforms and studios, and I’ll be happy to point them out for you.

  1. A vetted staff. No one comes into the platform without going through a rigorous examination. Mediocrity does not get in the door. Only great, committed talent may enter.
  2. The prices are good. While you can choose from a wide variety of background design pros, we make sure our prices for projects big or small are fair. Sure, you want “great,” you’ll have to pay for it, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t do better than the competition in most actual price metrics.
  3. We deliver fast. Just how fast depends on the size and scope of your project, of course. But be mindful that our typical turnaround time is of just 12-24 hours. You can’t beat that with a stick.
  4. We give you as many revisions as you need before we call it a day. We don’t rest until the job’s done to your satisfaction.
  5. You get to keep the full copyright to your work. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
  6. Oh, did I mention satisfaction? If you don’t like the final results, you get 100% of your money back. No tedious, belabored arguments and backs-and-forths between you and the freelancer. We pay them out of pocket, and we give every last dime back to you, no questions asked.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, huh? So, if you’re thinking about hiring a background designer, just click on the following link and we’ll take care of everything for you!