Illustration Styles: Backgrounds

Illustration Styles: Backgrounds

Ikon Images
"One reason that illustrations as a medium make such good backgrounds is their capacity for abstraction."

The humble background. It's so important but doesn't usually get the attention that other images do. Here, we take a closer look at this unsung hero of great graphic design and how Ikon can help you find the background illustrations you need for your next project.

About backgrounds

Quite literally the foundation of graphic designs, backgrounds hold the other elements or a work together, setting the mood and feel. While any image could potentially be used as a background, Ikon has a selection of dedicated background illustrations from our handpicked artists that will help you meet your design needs.


One reason that illustrations as a medium make such good backgrounds is their capacity for abstraction, which means Ikon's images will suit a wide range of subjects and applications.

"Abstracts are the perfect choice to convey a mood or feeling, if you just want to suggest something without having to be too literal or specific," says Sarah Parris of studio Parris Wakefield.

London-based artist Matt Lyon adds: "They can also be used to promote a certain aesthetic, demographic or value. Such designs are ideal for use in fashion and branding, editorial and publishing, as well as a variety of specific markets."

Background illustration used on brightly painted train carriage
Bright background illustration on HN tea products

Ikon's artists have seen their work turn up in unique places as well, such as Matt Lyon's work for an AT&T advertising campaign, which brightened the commute on the outside of train carriages. Product design is another popular place for artist's work; keen snowboarder Sean AKA Aeriform whose designs have featured on a few boards, while studio Parris Wakefield designs have graced product packaging for Harvey Nichols. Says artist Philippe Intraligi, who has designed apparel Missy Elliot by adidas originals and who once saw one of his sneaker designs 'live' on the Berlin subway: "I'm always amazed where my work ends up."

Background illustration used on snowboards
Background illustration used on snowboards
Background illustration used on Missy Elliot by adidas hoodies
Background illustration used on Missy Elliot by adidas hoodies

Artistic Achievement

Another advantage that illustration has as a medium for background images is the way the images are created, using traditional as well as digital media to achieve an artist's vision. Each approach is as unique as the artist. Matt Lyon starts all his work by drawing with pen and paper before moving to Adobe Illustrator, where he adds colour and texture.

Meanwhile, visual artist Vicky Vougiouka approaches her digital designs as if they were canvas paintings. "Of course, the result is very different because the tools used are a lot different - undeniably a hand-made image makes a much different impression than a digital one. Still, the main idea that abstract art is made through the painting process remains the same," she explains.

Often, artists find themselves creating the unexpected. Studio Parris Wakefield, who have used Adobe Photoshop for over 20 years, start their work with a photograph or colour palette: "We have a good idea of what we can do and how to achieve it, but happy accidents have a tendency to happen and it is exciting when that occurs."

Background Themes

Below, we look at some different background themes and hear more from the artists who create the unique and evocative backgrounds in Ikon's collection.

Light Background Images

Light is integral to most kinds of art, and background illustrations are no exception. Luminescent, flowing and ethereal, light adds a subtle energy to an image, which lends itself easily to backgrounds.

Artist Sean Rodwell, AKA Aeriform often uses light to create abstract studies of colour and form. "The images start with building an abstract form in 3D. Then, using a combination of lighting and interesting textures, the camera will probe around the form to find interesting compositions that take my eye. There is very little planning, more is left to chance."

Geometric Background Images

Geometric shapes are another popular choice for background illustrations for good reason. Some shapes - such as circles or spheres - offer designers simplicity and symmetry, whilst others - especially three dimensional (3D) shapes - give a background structure, adding complexity or architectural elements to the overall design.

Philippe Intraligi explains his particular approach to pattern design: "My abstract backgrounds start normally with a shape, and some basic colours, then I duplicate the shape, arrange them in different methods, and create a pattern repeat. Once the pattern repeat is set, I play around with size and orientation. Later on, I change colour within the pattern repeat and apply the different colour versions into the final background pattern design that I prefer. Due to the fact that I work a lot with patterns, it gives me a lot of flexibility."

Textured Background Images

Textured backgrounds are great at adding interest to a design in a subtler - but no less effective - way. Whether soft or hard, tactile surfaces can make the perfect foundation without overwhelming the overall design, or can be used to call out a specific detail.

Artist Gary Waters, who lives and works in France, explains how he uses texture to add to his illustrations: "I may photograph light trails or folds in a piece of paper and then put things together in Photoshop. Or just draw with crayons on some paper. I have been known to put sugar on the scanner, take rubbings from a wall, really anything."

Natural Form Background Images

Often evoking themes such as growth, serenity, beauty and abundance, natural forms lend themselves well to illustrated backgrounds.

"Nature is a huge influence and inspiration," explains Howard Wakefield. "Whether it be from our travels, our beautiful Suffolk, England countryside where we live, to our garden - all are a constant source of inspiration."

Natural forms can be made big and bold as well. Matt Lyon describes his backgrounds reflecting nature and organic forms, landscapes, and fantastical vistas as "colourful and maximalist".

Data & Tech Background Images

Data and technology themes create intriguing backgrounds. Whether it's the intricate patterns found in science - think networks, tessellations, or enhanced microscopic images - or the familiar form of a double helix, virus or atom, these images are not only interesting but can enhance your design by giving a subtle nod to the topic at hand. This subtlety can be especially useful in editorial design, textbooks, and scientific journals, as well as in the communications and technology sector.

Much of Gary Waters' work looks at these themes. "When creating backgrounds I usually start with a category that I find interesting. This could be 'the mind', 'AI', 'biotechnology', 'spirituality' - something along these lines which doesn't really require a figure to be present. It's basically creating a sense of the subject without being too specific," he explains.

Colourful Background Images

Like light, colour - or lack thereof - is an important element of most artworks. Simple or complex, colour can be used to create particular moods, feelings and visual effects when applied to backgrounds. For example, red backgrounds may project energy, while blue background evoke a sense of calm. Green backgrounds for freshness and naturalness, yellow backgrounds for cheer and warmth. Finally, not to underestimate the white background: clean and bright, a white background may be all you need to make the foreground pop.

Artist Vicky Vougiouka describes her approach to her vibrant, colourful backgrounds. "I keep in mind the central idea is to create a sense of movement, light, and balance in my images by using geometrical shapes and contrasted areas through bright colours. I start by making a basic shape and I progressively work through many layers to create the final image. The tools and filters that I use give me the freedom to distort or alter in size or colour a specific area."

Backgrounds may be a basic part of any good design but Ikon's backgrounds are anything but basic. So whether you're creating editorial or advertising content, product design and packaging, covers for books or albums, or branding, let our collection of background illustrations provide the right foundation for your project.

Header image: Philippe Intraligi | Ikon Images

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