A background designer has two tasks: to design backgrounds for new scenery and to draw/paint those backgrounds for the final animation.
Some studios hire background artists who solely paint the final backgrounds. And sometimes background painters also fill the role of a designer where they create new locations with guidance from the art director.
All background painters & designers follow a specific style based on the animation.
You can see the differences when you compare the backgrounds from old Road Runner cartoons to modern TV shows like Adventure time or Family Guy. Each cartoon has its own unique style and the background designer needs to create places that can be real and that blends into the cartoon’s artistic style.
You probably won’t find much of a difference between jobs for background painters, background artists, and background designers.
But there is a slight difference between a background designer and a layout designer. The layout designer(or layout artist) creates fully-rendered black and white versions of the final backgrounds taken from storyboards for each shot of the animation.
Storyboard artists draw the individual scenes of the animation. Each scene includes character poses with backgrounds. This acts like a rough blueprint for the layout designer to copy and refine the background into the cartoon’s art style.
Then the art director critiques these layout comps. If everything looks good the layouts go on to be painted and fully rendered.
It’s also common for background designers to do all of these jobs. That’s why background work can be so intense because you’re imagining new locations, then drawing them, and then painting them for the final animation.
And even though these jobs can be done by the same person they ultimately happen at different phases of the animation process.
If an episode requires a new background then the background designer needs to first create that location. This design gets handed off to storyboard artists who can use it as a reference in their boards.
Then once the boards are complete they’ll be handed over to the layout artist who then refines each background with line and tone. And if the layout artist is lucky enough they’ll also get to paint the background!
So much goes into this process which is why animation typically costs more to produce than live action.
If you want to become a background painter then you’ll need to study environments and landscapes. Painting from life is the cornerstone of building a visual library to help you invent new places that feel realistic to each animated world.
You’ll obviously need strong fundamentals because backgrounds use a lot of perspective along with atmospheric light/shadow. But you should also read through plenty of art books on background & layout design to understand the process and terminology.
Most background designers start as background/layout artists where they just draw or paint an existing design. But with enough practice you can become a paid background designer or even an art director.
The Animation Network Podcast has an incredible interview with Clarke Synder, a background painter for Cartoon Network. It’s so cool to hear his story about breaking into the industry and how the process of background painting works.
And if you’re looking for more info on background design for animation check out this post written by Steve Lowtwait, an original board artist & layout artist on Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold cartoon series.