In the middle of my Virtual Art Exhibit, I participated in a portfolio review. She absolutely loved my Frog Pirate. Everyone does from my fans to my portfolio reviewers. I have been having a tough time figuring out why everyone feels that is such a refined piece compared to my other pieces. So much for an artist’s eye right?

I created that piece for a class at UVU that I had with Richard Hull. I worked hard in that class and took everything he said to do and did it. The problem is, I can’t just pull Richard Hull out of my back pocket every time I’m working on a piece and say, “What does it need?” Instead, I need to become my own Richard Hull. And I think this Art Director may have just helped me.

Frog Pirate by Pamela Hanks

Frog Pirate by Pamela Hanks

She told me that I had specific details that made the Frog Pirate unique from the feather in his hat to the toe-less boots. Then she gave me the piece of advise that was worth what I paid for her review: my backgrounds.

She told me that I needed to have my backgrounds work for me. At first I thought that meant I needed to clutter up the backgrounds. But as I look at the Frog Pirate’s background, I see clouds in the sky, the ocean with a single wave, and a ship on the horizon. That’s it. Yet all of the pieces in the background work to tell the story of where the frog pirate is. This same stance of the Frog Pirate with a different background would tell a different story. If there were trees, a school, wood chips, and maybe a few fellow frogs jumping around the background, the story would be different….maybe I should write a story like that.

I started looking through children’s magazine’s looking for backgrounds and looking for how the background was working hard for the illustration. One of my favorites came from Ladybug Magazine in a story called Fifty-Fifty Friends by Bernadette Lambert, Illustrated by John Nez. He has 5 spot illustrations and in each illustration, the background is working hard for him.

The first thing I noticed was the buildings in the background. They tell us where this park is. It is in a large city. Maybe Central Park in New York, although the story doesn’t say. These buildings show up in 4 of the 5 spot illustrations. Let us know that we haven’t left the park, that the story happens all in the same place.


The background also tells us what the weather is that day. In all but one picture, there are people interacting in the park. This one has adults, but the others have a variety of children and even an ice cream truck. There are trees in the background, and from the trees we know it is either Spring or Summer because there are leaves on the trees. There are small flowers in the grass everywhere. It looks like the grass in my backyard right now. Little yellow flowers dot the grass in every image and in one image, there is a bird. These all say it is a spring day. In two images, there is an old fashioned looking lamp post. Not quite Narnia, but definitely something you would see in a large city park. The last image has a wishing fountain, true it is central to the story, but it is an important detail in the background of the story of these two kids as they learn what it means to be a friend.

The backgrounds work hard in providing interest too. If John Nez had left out the backgrounds, the illustrations would be pretty boring. The whole story is basically two boys talking about splitting a quarter, they look for another quarter and then they come to a fountain and throw it in. Not a lot of action there. But in the background, John provides the action that he can’t with the main characters. In the backgrounds, we see a man out walking his dog, a woman on her lunch break reading a book on a park bench, birds singing in the trees, a boy playing soccer with his dog, a group of children getting an ice cream from Joe’s Ice Cream truck, and a happy girl with an ice cream running after her dog. That’s a lot of action for a cerebral story about friendship. All that action keeps the kids attention.

Then I look at my wonderful pieces and see, I could do so much better. In fact, there are a few pieces that I am going to redo and add details and have my backgrounds work for me. I’m going to take out the Richard Hull out of my pocket, and ask, “What do I need to do to make it better.”

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