When it comes to individuals who have no experience with the animation industry, the odds of finding someone who knows about background painters and color key artists are minimal. After all, courses on this topic are not mandatory on any level of education. It is not shocking that many individuals believe everyone who works in animation is simply an animator. In reality, however, this market includes a lot more than professionals who merely animate projects. Some examples of the supporting cast include the lighting artists, character riggers, and composition editors.
Ironically, even seasoned veterans of the market struggle with understanding the main differences between background painters and color key artists. Due to this, a lot of creators tend to use the names of those two positions interchangeably. Shat would be the most obvious discrepancy between background painters and color key artists? Is someone who puts both of these jobs in the same group making a mistake?
The Process of Animation
Before diving into the details of each of the two positions in question, it is important to understand how the overall process of animation operates. Grasping the concept from start to finish will make it easier to differentiate between creators.
First, regardless of whether it is a two- or three-dimensional project, creators must make a detailed plan of the venture. This is fairly similar to every other industry as it accounts for sensitive deadlines, progress checkpoints, expectations, and other important factors. Afterward, those who are working with two-dimensional, or 2D, projects will begin hand drawing everything. In case that the animation will feature three dimensions, which is known as the 3D perspective, the brunt of the work is done via computers.
Subsequently, specialists such as character riggers and lighting artists enter the equation to handle the actual process of making a convincing animation. At the same time, background painters and color key artists are making backgrounds for each scene of the animation. Finally, when the modeling, layout, and animation process is finished, the composition artists look over the final result. Their responsibility is to ensure that the overall flow of the film or video makes sense and that there are no mistakes. If they find something that needs to be fixed, they make the necessary changes themselves or communicate with the appropriate artist.
Where Background Painters and Color Key Artists Come In
As per the aforementioned, background painters, which are also known as matte painters and color key artists both operate in the same realm of the animation process. Hence why a lot of people tend to get them mixed up. During their joint efforts, they design backgrounds from scratch, ensure that the composition for the animation is appropriate, and choose the most fitting color patterns. They must also work with other creators to guarantee that the background complements the characters and the storyline.
Responsibilities of Background Painters
According to Animation Career Review, a typical career profile for a background painter showcases them as experts who make backgrounds for both animated and live-action projects. They can work across a wide range of fields, including gaming, animation, and movie sectors. While it is usually dependent on the type of project that they are engaged in, background painters can choose to either hand draw everything or leverage advanced computer editors. Generally speaking, the vast majority of background painters use computers to save time. It is also not uncommon for them to find temporary jobs within the marketing industry where they can design advertising campaigns.
Responsibilities of Color Key Artist
Similar to the aforementioned, color key artists also create the background. The main difference is the fact that they are more concerned about the details, not the overall flow. While background painters focus on achieving smooth, natural character integration within their surroundings, color key artists prioritize details such as lighting and materials. For instance, a color key artist would be the person that determines how a yellow balloon might be a good color key element to help soften the overall presentation. The background animator would subsequently take the yellow balloon and try to figure out where they should position it within the frame.
Meanwhile, In The Real World
While it would be nice to have strict segregation of duties, that is not realistic. Instead, background painters and color key artists frequently cross into each other’s areas of expertise. Consider the previously mentioned ballon. Although the background painter should be the one to determine where the balloon should go, color key artists tend to take care of such tasks. Fortunately, this helps the production process as it eliminates downtime and helps companies stay on track with their deadlines. If every color key artist had to wait for a background painter to finalize an idea, there would be a lot of wasted time. After all, both of these professionals are extremely busy as they are responsible for the largest area of the frame throughout the entire animation or film.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for craft and fine artists was a little under $50,000 in 2018. Sadly, the BLS does not provide a category-based breakdown of each particular job that went into their calculation, therefore, it is impossible to determine how background painters and color key artists stand in comparison to the said figure. Nonetheless, the fact that the overall industry is earning fair compensation is certainly promising.
Although these two professions get put in the same group extremely often, doing so is not exactly a mistake. Based on how the animation industry is evolving, background painters and color key artists may eventually have the same responsibilities anyway.