In my last post, I talked about the importance of setting up a perspective grid as the first step in making an illustration.
The other important first step is research. (Exactly which of the two, grid vs research is step 1 and which is step 2 varies for me, depending on what I'm working on.)
Research can be looking up photos on the internet or visiting similar locations and taking photographs of my own. Either way, I'll collect a whole bunch of photos. And then I won't copy any of them, exactly. But I will use them to help me figure out what might be included in the background when I design my locations. If I do use photo reference, it's as a reminder of what kinds of things are visible on a rooftop, for example, and then I make up my own versions of those things.
Even if I am using my own photographs for a specific location, I won't make quite an exact copy. In this example, I copied but greatly simplified my photograph of the gates at Trinity Bellwoods Park to set up a specific location, including just enough detail to be recognizable and believable, but without being slavish to the photograph. I didn't want to put so much detail in the background that it became distracting, because the picture is about the white squirrel, not the park gates.
When I was working on Grawlix #2 (which got renumbered as #3 by the time it was released) I used a pillar from one room, and a table from another, and windows and decorations that I completely made up, and combined them to design the bistro where our characters get together on page 2 of my story.
Set dressing helps to establish the story, and the character. You can use subtle details to support the story and move it forward, or to tell the reader something about the person in the room.
When I was given the job of designing the personal office space for Number Two in issue 2 of Holmes Incorporated, I looked up a lot of images on executive office space and furniture, as well as what other artists had drawn in issue 1.
Then I took all of that, looked at all of it, and let it influence but not dictate my designs. I used what I already knew about the character to create a space that specifically appropriate to him.
Good background and props design provides an extra layer of communication and another reason for someone to re-read the story, and handled properly it can also help establish and maintain the pace of the story, guide the readers along, and help them get to know the people that inhabit the story world.