Oh how simply dreamy to have the chance to crit Sarah's work from an easy to manage forum style format. <3
Well, even though I agree on needing to get out of your "comfort zone" and try other sorts of content, I would say that you should try to hang on to your style of coloring. It's sort of a driving force behind the idea of the environments being "pretty", but certainly not what makes them "generic". Regardless of whether or not your characters need work on their design, if your worlds are nothing unique, or if any of your pieces are more or less the same thing, the diverse situations you lay out color wise are more than enough to draw me into the piece all the same, and often times not notice this lack of diversity you're trying to tackle. It kind of... hypnotizes me, y'know?
Now, I definitely notice what you're describing with the way that your characters seem to just be... standing in the environments, and I do think the scenes you make would be a lot more engaging if the people themselves were more engaged? You like to create fictional worlds, and illustrate the lives of the people who live inside them, and there's not really a problem with that. The problem is how they're shown to be so "meh" about their surroundings, because they live there, they're used to their surroundings, they're all just going about their daily business with no particular goal in mind. This is where I think you should try to have some fun with things! I'm guessing that you're probably already familiar with the work of Paul Felix, but I think that looking at the figures in his concept drawings for some of the Disney Works he's helped create would give you the kind of human interaction I'm talking about. Many of his compositions remind me of the ways that you lay out your pieces, with the high amount of detail, incredible sense of value and depth and so on, but look at some of his pieces that have characters in them. In this
piece, for instance, Lilo and Stitch aren't all that detailed, but they are full
of personality. Even someone who'd never heard of this movie before can get figure out so much
about the two of them from the way they're interacting with the environment. Try and think about this kind of interaction. Lilo is a native to her little town in Hawaii, she's perfectly used to what's around her, but she still manages to have fun with the various antics she gets up to, particularly when something unusual, i.e. Stitch, is thrown into the mix, so you could also try something like this, where these characters are experiencing something that they are not
used to. Having more character-on-character interaction would be good too, I personally felt like you made a huge step forward with the sketches for your "Snowfall" project, showing all the ways in which those two characters interacted with one another. (Except they weren't put into an in depth environment in these sketches!) And of course, don't limit it to just two characters. It'd be quite interesting to see an entire group of characters, kind of like the dynamic you have in your zoo Illustration with the child looking at all of the animals. Oh, and varying up the body types of the people you draw could help too, but you probably already know that. This could mean anything from drawing more masculine figures, to characters that are completely non-human. Try asking Alex about this stuff, he's good with working personality into nonhuman characters!
Maybe a more speculative suggestion, but seeing as you're so good working with perspective and fields of depth, you could try using this to your advantage for the content of the piece? Like, in most of your Illustrations, we're getting a semi-arial, fairly human sized scale, like we're just kind of hovering in the air and looking down on the scene and what your characters are doing. I think this is also what contributes to the "generic" feel of many of your environments, being that we're seeing things from the kind of perspective of, like, a photographer taking a photo of one of the great wonders of the world. But what if you tried putting some of them from a point of view that gave the viewer more of a connection to the scene/the figures in the piece? Like positioning us directly behind one of the characters, or directly in front of them? Perhaps reverse it and have us very close to the ground, staring up at the figures? I want to avoid saying that you need to switch over to painting things that are dirty and grungy, or entirely different kinds of fiction, because while that can
help diversify your portfolio more, it kind of seems like a cop out way of making it diverse. You could make a scenario that seems completely un-Sarah, like a... death metal... robo nazi... battle sequence, or something, but if it's composed the same way, I'm not sure that it'll feel all that different in the long run.
Hope I threw a couple of helpful new suggestions out there for you, and I can't wait to see what you make in the upcoming year!