How to make your character stand out from the background?



Hi everyone.
Here is a video in which I talk a lot about backgrounds and ramble a little too.

So basically the best way to make your character stand out from the background it's creating contrast!

Let’s quickly go over a few of the most important that you can use.


Blurring the background gives a similar effect like when you are staring at a specific object and in consequence, everything around it looks out of focus.

I know it doesn't seem like it, but contrast it's also very present in this method, since it creates a focused vs unfocused kinda contrast, in which the focused element (even if its in the background rather than the foreground) will always have the attention.

The good thing about it, its that is very simple to use, and you can have a great control over it.

1- You need to make sure your background is in a different layer.

2-You can paint your own background, you can use a photograph or you can just simply put shapes in the back that suggest objects like buildings or trees.

3-Then you go to

Filter -> Effect -> Blur

There are many options from this point.

Blur and Blur strong will give you a predetermined amount of blur in your layer. This can be stacked, so you can repeat the process a couple of times.

You will need to experiment with it and figure out if any of this works for you, because as you can see in the next sample, it can look very subtle, depending on the quality of the picture and other factors.

The screenshot that shows the blur menu, obviously has way less pixels and there is also text in it (in my opinion, text is one of the things that blur the easiest), so here is a comparison on how this effects would look.

(So for reference, the original illustration is 3657x3657px/300 dpi, while the screen shot is 514x275px/72dpi)

Next, in the video I'm using Gaussian Blur, and its the one I recommend if you'd like to have more control over the blur effect.

You only have to move the pointer to the strength level you like the most or just works best for your drawing.

Once again, this can be stacked and it might be very subtle or really aggressive depending on the art piece you are working on.

Actually, for the next couple of options, Motion and Radial Blur, the menu its quite similar, its just different the way it applies the blur, since Motion and Radial allows you to give some direction to it.

Motion emulates, as its name implies, movement and you can control the direction of it.

While the radial blur applies literally following a radius so it has kind of a circular final look.
As you can see, it lets you control the strength and direction, but it also lets you place the center of the circle wherever you want.

So here would be the final result with each filter in the same drawing.

Finally, you can get help from the Blending tool to Blur certain parts of the background more than others!

The mist

The mist is one of my favorite ways to create contrast with the background and your character, because it can be very subtle and integrates really well, particularly if we are talking about paintings realistic or semi realistic that have a really complex background.

(shout out to my unfinished painting)

For this, we want to take some color in the background or a neutral/unsaturated color and paint behind our character, very softly.

You need to slowly apply layer and layers of paint, and pay special attention to the elements in the back.

In here, we need to have in mind the distance of the elements in the painting. The farther away they are from the viewer, the less visible they will be since the air particles will be denser.

So before you jump to paint, you can start by determinating your background, middleground and foreground.

So here are a few cloud and soft brushes that I found and you might find quite useful for this. Just remember that even if you have a cloud brush, your might need to edit with the airbrush, blend, erase and soften the mist.

Cloud brushes are usually very aggressive in their shape and we don't want to have literal clouds in the background for this.

Also big kudos to these creators for sharing their brushes!

Contrast by color

This is very flexible depending on your style and usual color palette, but here are a few tricks that might be useful and a bunch of color theory.

---------Saturated/Unsaturated colors-----------

In simple words, saturated colors are pure versions of the selected color, they are bright and very pigmented, while desaturated hues tend to go towards gray, so they have quite an opaque and dull look.

You can think that half the color square is desaturated while the other half is saturated.

Also, saturation only refers to the amount of gray in the color, not the brightness of the color.

Brightness is all about the light or dark. So you can have, for example a very saturated dark red hue or an unsaturated light red, depending on which side of the color square you are.

So for all of this color contrast applications, you either paint your background a very bright color and a soft dull character, or the other way around.

While painting your character in bright colors will make them the spotlight of the drawing almost 100% of the time, when its the other way around, it creates a weird effect.

So, when a bright saturated color is predominant or if there are many of them mixed together, it kinda strains the eyes. So if you place your character in unsaturated colors, the viewer will look for that spot to rest their eyes from all the color around.

-------------Monochrome vs colorful ---------

It follows pretty much the same principle as before.

I guess I'd only add that monochrome means you can use the whole color square, since you are still working with the same hue. So you can add as much brightness or saturation to the monochrome element in your drawing.

And the other way around too, the colorful element doesn't mean it has to be saturated.

----------Complementary colors -----------------

Complementary colors are the ones placed on the other side of the color wheel. We tend to simplify in three groups: red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange.

It can change of course, depending on how complex the color wheel is, but generally speaking, we tend to talk about complementary colors using only the primary and secondary colors.

So, like the other samples, you either color the background or the character in a color and its complementary.

Once again you can use the whole color square and adjust the saturation and brightness of your colors, but also, you can add a few more other hues, you only need to make sure the predominant color in the background or the character are the complementary tones.

Also, black and white! They are not complementary, but they are opposite and they look great together.

--------Warm and cool colors------

This one is simple as well, and it means that most of your character or background should be painted in cold or warm tones.

Like in the complementary section, it doesn't mean you have to paint your whole character a certain tone, but only the majority of it. All my examples are very exaggerated, but you can tone it down a little bit.

Actually, if your character is supposed to be integrated in the background, you might need to tone it down a lot, since it can isolate the character very easily and make it seem also like it doesn't belong in the background.

Contrast by light

As a general rule, it is pretty simple: you either have a dark background and a light character or a light background and a dark character.

This is a very crude example, but it's easier to appreciate the difference in gray scale.

The important thing to have in mind for this are:

-If the shadows are dense enough, the element in shadows will lose details.
-You can be really intense with this. Usually the stronger the contrast here, the more striking the drawing ends up being.

In this colored sample, you can see that our character, in a light background lost a few details in the face, and that its alright, since they are supposed to look as a silhouette with a strong light behind them.

The final thing to have in mind, is that light can be blinding so its really common to use light to erase details from the background, kinda like the mist.

Usually for this illustration, the character stays in their normal color palette or in slightly darker tones, but that would be it, while the background is heavily illuminated.

In this samples, I just slightly adjusted the brightness for this painting and finished it with either a multiply or a glow/color dodge layer, but it still needs some adjustments, so I would recommend that you do first some value and light thumbnails of your drawing before actually painting it, that way, you'll know exactly where to apply the light and you wont need to make as many adjustments as this example needs.

You can also mix this a little bit and place your character partially in the light.

So even if half their body is in shadows, they will still be the star of the drawing and attract the viewers eyes.

This is really interesting tho, since the contrast will be higher and it will directly interact with your viewer, since you can direct how their eyes explore the drawing, making them start in the light, being this the point of strongest contrast, and slowly go towards the darkest parts until there is nothing visible.

In this example, I just increased the shadows in the character using a multiply layer and the airbrush, since this painting already kinda followed this rule.

So what if your character has dark colors in a dark background?

Another common trick is to create thin rays of light behind the character, or maybe as if the light was catching on the air particles, for which we can use The Mist method from before.

I ramble a lot about this in the video, but this is used frequently in splash art.

This samples are very subtle, but you can make the light really strong in the background, since it al depends on the style and your intention for the piece.

The rays of light are directly applied using the airbrush or a soft brush in a low opacity, yo just have to draw the lines and let the brushstrokes stack with one another.

(Also, I decided use a cloud brush in here, for the mist method, but didn't fully blend it. So do you see how the clouds are pretty much distinguishable and even distracting? Blending the shapes by the contours would help to avoid this!)

Contrast by texture

So either your character has a visible texture or your background does.

This is very stylistic and it can look pretty cool but can be tricky as well.

So the first thing to have in mind it's that we are going to count patterns, crosshatching and brushstrokes as texture too!

Second, usually is easier to place a lot of texture in the background, since you can abuse some elements that already have texture in them, like clouds or bushes. As I use in this example.

Third, the brushes and patterns are your friends! Remember that you don't have to paint every single leave or texture, but you can get help from brushes too.
So I highly recommend you to start a nice collection of brushes and invest in them if possible.

For example, all of the heavily elements on the background in the drawing above, are kinda made with the help of brushes.

While our fox friend is mostly brushstrokes. (also, shout out to contrast by warm and cool colors!)

So yeah, brushstrokes are really powerful for this style, in the sketch above i try use less texture in the character than the background, since that can be helpful if you want to use patterns or texture in both elements. Just make sure that one dominates the other, and you can also use the help of other types of contrast.

Remember that you can also use the blending tool to create brushstrokes and actually the
Painterly blender its an absolute wonder for this. Just avoid to overly blend the element that is supposed to have texture.

If you would like to see some cool examples for textured paintings, look for the traditional old painters. In specific, impressionist artists. -I ramble about this for hours in the video but they are really good and a great source of inspiration if you'd like to try this style!)

Quality of the line

This is for a very specific style, and it all about line art.

So as simple as this might sound, by simply making your line art a little bit thicker in your character's contour, it will make them stand out right away.

In this same line, there is another trick used commonly in the comic and manga industry, in which they would place a white line around the character that needs to be highlighted.

This is specially used if the background is complex and detailed.

It can be really subtle in a "barely there" kinda way, almost like trying to blend in (my background here doesn't have that much detail, tho) or it can be really explosive and saturated, it all depends on your style and aesthetic choices, but it will definitely help to make your character stand out.

Final notes

So here are a few things that I consider important to add, but I didn't know where to place them.

-First, you can use one or more of these methods at the same time, there is no strict rule for this so use as many methods as you want at the same time. Usually they boost each other! (As showed in the many examples in the texture section)

-Second, in many of these, specially speaking of color and texture, you don’t have to do the whole character or background, sometimes even a small touch is enough.

-Third, contrast is the key word. There are many ways to apply contrast, and the ones I listed here are only just a few, but there is also shape, position and size. I just didn't think those would be as relevant as the ones we saw before, but definitely they can help as support elements in your general composition!

And that would be it, I think!

Any doubt I would be happy to help if I can do so!

EDIT: I added the information and some extra samples here. Just to complement the video.



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