Playing with backgrounds: giraffes

Hardly a day goes by when my coloring team (and beloved FB community admins) Lora King, Betty Hung and Paul Stone Leach and I don’t hop on WhatsApp for a few minutes to say hi and share everything from gardening pics to funny stories, colorings and ideas, and updates on social media. A few days ago, we were talking about background options for the Botanical Giraffes coloring Lora was working on. She said that she had started with a pale blue background, then started adding brown and wasn’t too thrilled with it—shit brown, she called it. She shared a pic of her progress, and honestly, I liked the way she blended her browns into blues, but she didn’t (and that’s what ultimately counts).

So I asked her, half-jokingly, “Do you have an X-Acto blade?”

“You want me to cut it out and put on Holtz paper?” she asked. Since we have all been playing around with printing out coloring designs on scrapbook paper, I thought it might be a fun technique to explore.

“Scratch that idea,” I said, “too much cutting, lol!”

“So cut the sky out?…. that’s what I’d cut out right?”

“Yep, cut the sky out. But there are too many little vines and leaves—you would drive yourself mad, Lora.” The thought of superimposing the giraffes and vines over a piece of scrapbook paper was intriguing, though.

We then went back and forth with Betty about blending pencils with Pitt pens to create a dark background (and coaxing Betty to make a video tutorial for us). Lora disappeared from the conversation for a bit then came back and asked me to send her some .jpg designs that would look nice as a background.

“You cut that out already? I am impressed!” I said, then realized she had probably scanned her giraffe coloring into her computer and pulled it up in Adobe Photoshop. She removed the background using the magic wand and eraser tools—brilliant! So I did a quick search for free backgrounds and patterns online and started sending her a few.

In the meantime, Paula popped into WhatsApp and shared a screen shot of her phone—we racked up 130 messages! Yep, we get a bit chatty some days and those messages can pile up fast. And then Lora’s giraffe images starting appearing in our feed and we had  fun voting on our favorites and talking about the way a background can change the look and mood of a coloring. Here is how Lora’s coloring looked with the background cut out in Photoshop—the background is empty space—not white, but transparent:

First Giraffe_RubyCharmColors

First she placed a vintage flowery pattern behind her already-colored giraffes layer that was tinted with greens, blue and purples. It looked pretty nice. Busy, but pale enough to contrast with the giraffes and it worked nicely with her green leaves.

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Next came the old map background and we all loved it right away. Lora manipulated the map so that the African continent created a halo around the face of the middle giraffe and the theme and colors seemed to work really well together. Betty said it gave the piece a safari feel which fit perfectly. With the map, not only is there a visual impact, by intellectual as well—the map imparts meaning.

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After the map, Lora tried a layer of colorful, dainty flowers—pale and very feminine. We liked it (despite how busy it was), but the map was still our favorite.

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Then she added a layer of pale grey flowers. It offered a little more contrast, and might have worked even better if the opacity was reduced a bit so the pattern was more faded.

The great thing about Photoshop is that you can experiment till your heart’s content, though it does take some skill to use all the tools in the program and it’s expensive to purchase outright.  More on that later.

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Next came a series of blue backgrounds. The first one, with faint vertical stripes, made Lora’s colored giraffes stand out so much more clearly than the patterned backgrounds and it picked up the blue in the flowers she colored and made the pink flowers pop more prominently. And though this seems purely visual, the deep blue elicits meaning since we associate it with a night sky.

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The blue splatter background had a nice effect, too, but you can see the giraffes sorta blend back into the background again. Not bad, but they don’t stand out like they do with the deeper blue above.

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And finally, the blue paisley-style background. I like the way the blue is lighter in the center and darker around the edges because it highlights the circular feel of the composition and draws your eyes to the center giraffe.

Slight differences in background can make a difference in how we “see” a piece and this concept can be applied to how we color our backgrounds with pencils or paints as well.

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When we started talking about sharing these experiments combining coloring with technology in a blog post, Betty reminded us that Photoshop is an expensive program / app but suggested people could still cut out open spaces on paper with a knife.

Physically cutting paper would be a very time-consuming process depending on the amount of detail and desired background space in a coloring design, but a fine X-Acto blade would work well. Printing and coloring your design on card stock would probably work best, of course, but there could be problems with the cut edges of the paper curling a bit and not laying flat on the chosen background paper—whether it’s scrapbook paper or some other special paper you are using. But maybe a thin layer of Mod-Podge over the whole thing would help sandwich the papers together? At any rate, it would be wise to experiment with all of this before committing to trying it on a prized coloring especially if you plan to coat or glue layers of papers together. You could even cut out shapes of scrapbook (or other) paper to add over your coloring design I suppose—as a collage effect. Another thought: a number of craft stores like Michaels here in the USA carry float frames that would be perfect for holding and flattening coloring cutouts since the two pieces of glass would essentially sandwich everything together.

Some of my favorite scrapbook papers are made by Tim Holtz, but there are lots of beautiful sheets and pads to be found online and in craft stores including Simon Says Stamp. If you do not have scrapbook paper at home, do a search on Etsy for “printable digital paper” and see what comes up. Lots of shops have gorgeous floral, vintage and other designs you can download and print or use digitally right away. You can also find patterns online, too, but be sure they not protected by copyright and truly free to use.

If you have the means to pursue the digital route (i.e. a computer or iPad, an art program that lets you edit like Photoshop, and the ability to use it or patience to learn how to use it), it can open up a world of possibilities for playing with backgrounds to create the perfect coloring art piece based on your personal tastes and needs.

Adobe Photoshop is amazing but it can also be overwhelming to learn if you are not comfortable with computers and the terminology used with this software. Photoshop used to be available on CDs as Graphic Suites, but now you can purchase an online subscription for a monthly fee if you don’t want to purchase the software outright. Unless you plan to use it daily for photo edits and graphics, though, I would look into other programs. If you have an iPad, I highly recommend checking out the Procreate app. It takes a little getting used to, but it is more intuitive than Photoshop and far less expensive. Basically, for a one month Photoshop subscription you can purchase Procreate outright and have plenty of change left over for a few colored pencils. And I can do almost everything I do in Photoshop in Procreate. And if you have an Apple Pencil, even better!

Betty mentioned that there are free background app for phones, but I can’t comment on them here since I haven’t used any myself. They would be fun to explore, though. The big take-away here is that I think experimenting with backgrounds using either physical or digital “cutouts” could be creatively rewarding for colorists.

Placing Lora’s experiments side-by-side offers an interesting overall perspective. From a “distance,” there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between the first four patterned pieces aside from the more pronounced yellow hues of the map background, and the fact that the map elicits a more intellectual connection to the art.

4 Giraffes RubyCharmColors

The blues give us a whole new perspective. If we had more time, we probably could have gone on even longer playing with different background colors and patterns, but hopefully this gets your wheels turning a bit to play around with whatever you can get your hands on—whether it’s scrapbook paper or digital. Experimenting with color and different media can take your creations to new levels, and as always, the process of getting there can be enjoyable, too.

3 Giraffes RubyCharmColors

I have a collection of designs for printing on scrapbook paper, and the “Botanical Giraffes” (aka the Three Amigas) can be found in the RubyCharmColors Etsy shop if you are interested.

That’s all for now! A big thanks to Lora for sharing her art and time, and to Betty and Paula for adding to the conversation and making art talk so much fun! Love you ladies!