Background as Character

Researching background for my final paper I have chosen the topic of background as character. One of my bad habits as a comic artist has been surrounding my characters in blank, white backgrounds. I would joke that my characters lived inside their heads, but the truth was that I did not picture backgrounds for my stories. Like many comic artists, I was very character driven. Backgrounds are the world that characters live in and without backgrounds, the comics become less captivating, encapsulating. The suspense of belief can be ruined by a bad background. I eventually came to the realization that backgrounds are their own characters. Some comics have their own assistants or specialists to work on the background, but for now, I just have me. The three segments of background that I will look at in this essay are architecture, landscape, and perspective.  

The focus of artists can be an indicator of style and personality. Some artists have still characters with intense facial expressions and thoughts as if time has stopped. Other artists might focus on dynamic perspective to show intense action and a sense of things happening quickly. I tend to overthink things, so, maybe that is why I draw so many characters without backgrounds as if they are living inside their heads.  

Characters living inside their heads...

Characters living inside their heads...

I am writing about architecture because I wanted to show that I am serious. After all, learning about math and history is the extra mile that many amateur artists do not go through. Plus, European art history is a topic I have neglected, but learning about this topic can give me a chance to connect with a wider audience and keep my comics connecting Indigenous and mainstream histories. Indigenous erasure is a big deal to me because I grew up as an urban Native with little representation in comics.  

A paradox for me was that I could paint landscapes, but struggled with drawing backgrounds. It turns out that the ways a person paints and draws can be very different mental activities. Paintings fills the space with solid colors that gains shape the longer the artist paints. Drawings, on the other hand, create shapes through line and require more exact measurements or composition. After all, paintings can use colors and shadows to distract from the misshapen figures forming the background. Monet "concentrated his attention less on the architecture of the bridge itself than on the spatial relationship between the unpaved road across the bridge to the town beyond and the road leading down to the river" when painting the landscape The Bridge At Bougival (Belloli 88). Monet's emphasis on "the spatial relationship" over the architecture reflects the difference between painting landscapes and drawing backgrounds.  

Quote from Belloli 88.

Quote from Belloli 88.

French nationalism, or a sense of pride in France, inspired French impressionistic landscape paintings (Belloli 27). The French landscape "inaugurated in the seventeenth century and constructed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a landscape of communication through transportation" (Belloli 32). When highways were added in seventeenth century France, the highways were lined with trees for the aesthetic aspect of the French landscape (Belloli 32). The aesthetic and function of the background are important factors when planning out settings for stories.  For example, French tourist pamphlets and advertising had made the promotion of French architecture a tacky concept to Impressionist painters (Belloli 34). The Impressionists were choosing to ignore French history and look forward to the future. I am looking to do a similar thing with my comic Oak and Wendy. I want to imagine a fantastical future, instead of simply romanticizing the past. The train was personified as the "human beast" and the "hero" in Zola's 1890 novel, matching the common themes of "speed" and "change" in nineteenth century France (Belloli 48). The function of the background is an important factor when thinking about how technology influences the setting. Transportation can help determine background.  

Architecture is a significant part of everybody's background, whether they are aware of it or not. As a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts that majors in studio arts with a minor in Indigenous liberal studies, the book Native American Architecture stood out to me. There were multiple copies of Native American Architecture in the architecture section of the library, which made me think that for somebody this book is important. Reading something described as "Native American" worried me. I am wary of pan-Indianism, but at least I could learn about architecture, if anything, from this book. Maybe the anthropologist that helped make this book is more aware than I expect, but I am wary. The term "Central Eskimos" is used which makes me doubtful of this book's credibility (Nabokov 28). 

Different people and nations of the Americas have various building forms including domical, conical, and rectilinear (Nabokov 16). Some Indigenous domical building forms are the iglu, wigwam, wikiup, grass house, ki, cribbed-log hogan, and barabara (Nabokov 16). Some Native conical building forms are the tipi, forked-pole hogan, earthlodge, and pit house (Nabokov 16). Plus, some Native rectilinear building forms are the chickee, longhouse, plank house, pueblo, summer house, winter house, and King Island house (Nabokov 16). Of course, there are many diverse Indigenous building types all over this continent. These buildings fit their environment and climates (Nabokov 24). Something that I appreciate about this text is that credit is given to Indigenous peoples' technology, instead of the usual Indigenous erasure. Another refreshing feature in this book is seeing the variety and diversity in buildings and structures of Indigenous nations.  

Our "experience of architecture is not one of static images" (Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo 10). In other words, the human eye experiences "an infinite number of impressions" depending on our distance from the building (Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo 10). The human relationship with space and time is a philosophical topic that impacts political and social discussions of our institutions. Prisons and many other institutions can be inhumane, because institutions tend to cause the occupants to lose a sense of space and time. Having stark backgrounds for characters can show a numbness and lack of freedom. Having characters with large, dynamic backgrounds, such as Spider-man, can show life and freedom. Without a dynamic perspective, Spider-man is no longer Spider-man. How we depict architecture determines our perception (Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo 10). 

Quote from Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo 10. Spider-Man art by Martin Ansin and Djibril Morisette-Phan.

Quote from Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo 10. Spider-Man art by Martin Ansin and Djibril Morisette-Phan.

The question of the origin of perspective means looking for "historical specificity", the invention of the rule, perspective in practice and theory, knowledge and truth (Damisch 75). To question the origin of perspective is to question the origin of geometry (Damisch 75). Philosopher Kant has credited Thales as the inventor of geometry, the "Thales theorem, and the concept of similitude that follows" (Damisch 76). Questioning origins brings up the perception of "absolutes" (Damisch 77). As an urban Native that grew up in a town where many white people are in denial of their own history, I can relate to anybody that questions historical absolutes. After all, if my family's history is up for debate, then all history should be up for debate. Brunelleschi has been credited as the inventor of perspective (Damisch 77). As early as Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 1344 painting Annunciation, perspective has been used, though not completely, in art (Damisch 80). 

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Then reading David Jacobs' description of history gave me more examples of how background is a character that interacts with the human characters, because the author states that "primeval man's solutions to the problems of devising shelter were indeed indigenous, but they were not necessarily evidence of the superior intellect that was making him master of his world" (Jacobs 7). Jacobs is literally claiming that it's a man's world in the beginning chapter of his book on architecture. The name of this first chapter is "Who's in Charge Here?" (Jacobs 7). Not only is saying that the world belongs to man patriarchal, but it is also less respectful to the favors that earth gives humanity. Perhaps, society is a depressing place because we live in a world where violent, industrial institutions teach us to take the world for granted. I am not saying that we need to all become Amish or anti-industrial, but that we should live more in balance with green energy and sustainable solutions.  

A possibly depressing topic of background is that "for nearly four hundred years Gothic style dominated the architecture of Western Europe" (Branner 10). Gothic architecture influenced "town halls, royal palaces, courthouses and hospitals", but arguably Gothic architecture was influenced by the church and religion (Branner 10). Apparently, "the Gothic interpretation" of church was that it be "a monument that seems to dwarf the man who enters it, for space, light, structure and the plastic effects of the masonry are organized to produce a visionary scale" (Branner 11). The writer goes to claim that "the Gothic style is essentially urban" (Branner 12). The Gothic style allowed light to come in, sometimes through stained glass windows (Branner 12). Gothic architecture impacted France, Germany, and England from around 1100 to the 1400s (Branner 10).  

I find stained glass windows pretty and associate them with the movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. There is a fight scene in an abandoned church where a character leaps with the backdrop of a stained glass window. I enjoyed that religion is not imposed on the characters or the audience in this movie. The fact that characters can exist in pretty backgrounds and be somewhat oblivious to their setting makes me feel like I can draw pretty backgrounds for the sake of drawing pretty backgrounds. 

I'm not an ultra nerd on Final Fantasy VII, but I love Tetsuya Nomura's art.

I'm not an ultra nerd on Final Fantasy VII, but I love Tetsuya Nomura's art.

Background is a character of its own that can have many different types of relationships with the main characters. Background can be influenced by art mediums be it pencil, paint, or digital. Background can reveal the artist's personality and style. Background is significant. 

Works Cited

Belloli, Andrea P. A. A Day in the Country: Impressionism and the French Landscape. Los Angeles, Calif: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984. Print.  

Branner, Robert. Gothic Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1961. Print. 

Damisch, Hubert. The Origin of Perspective. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994. Print.  

Jacobs, David. Architecture. New York: Newsweek Books, 1974. Print.  

Kostof, Spiro, and Greg Castillo. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.  

Nabokov, Peter, and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.