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Submitted on
August 3, 2011
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Hey all!  I've gotten a few people asking me about advice for drawing backgrounds.  So instead of being a true gentleman and writing each person back separately, I figure it's easier to tackle this with an nice, impersonal journal post!  Maybe one day I'll shoot a tutorial or something to actually demonstrate what I'm talking about, but for now a quick list will have to do.

*Before I start, a quick disclaimer—by no means do I have "it" figured out.  My opinions on backgrounds and how to tackle them are always changing.  And a lot of what I think is based on the artists on whose shoulders I stand upon.  Feel free to disagree with any of this.

Remember those point-and-click adventure games from the 90s?  I loved those games!  Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Flashback, Full Throttle, Space Quest, Hero Quest—adventure games blew me away by how beautiful, imaginative and expansive the background designs were.  The point of the designs was to trigger your imagination and give your eyes something to do, because you usually ended up returning to the screen-shots to find missing keys and other things you needed to complete the game.  And that's what I advise for background drawing in comics: design it in a way where readers will enjoy coming back.  DO NOT just draw backgrounds to get them over with.

Do not draw backgrounds as an afterthought.  Plan the designs as carefully as you plan drawing the characters.  The two exist within the same panel and should be planned accordingly.

I admire the shit out of artists who thoroughly render ever square inch of a background.  But I know that I'm not that artist—I prefer to render around the focus of the panel, and then let the detail fade away as you move to the less important parts of the panel.  This helps the reader "scope in" on what they should be looking at as you attempt to control their eye.  This will also help save your energy.  And it saves the reader's energy—looking at awesome backgrounds is great but also exhausting.  Do yourselves a favor and keep it in your pants until you need it.

Don't draw generic objects, draw specific ones that appropriately fit the characters' environments.  A plain, wooden chair might get the job done, but those chairs are boring.  By drawing a specific chair—like a creaky, green office chair from the 60s—you're more likely to trigger your reader.  You want him to go, "I KNOW that chair!"  You should be presenting objects that invest the reader.

*Also, try and stay away from EVER having to draw a generic chair.  I know—a lot of middle income people live in generic homes and have generic chairs.  But no reader wants to spend time in those generic settings.  Better to make that chair more specific even if the script isn't calling for it—go for a beat up chair or a slightly nicer one with a stiff, high back.  We're going for "hyper" objects, not boring and nondescript ones.

Try and add things like bridges, doors, catwalks, ladders, ramps, and anything else that characters can climb on.  Even if the characters don't use them, seeing that those characters COULD use them makes backgrounds more interesting because they're offering the characters AND the readers something to be explored.  What's more interesting: a plain room or a room with a spiral staircase leading off panel?  What's more interesting: a river or a river with a hug log over it—one that you can walk across to reach the other side?  Even if you're drawing a dump truck, draw one with a ladder going up the side.  I love shit like that.
There's no way around it.  My advice is to pick up a book called "Perspective! for Comic Book Artists" by David Chelsea.  I had a professor in college who used to illustrate for NASA and he challenged us with a perspective problem that he was never able to figure out.  I showed him the answer after class and got an automatic "A" for the semester.  He asked me where I learned it, and I told him about that book.  BAM.

If you don't like drawing backgrounds, then you need to find a way to approach them where you DO enjoy drawing them.  If you're not interested in your art then it will show.  From what I understand, Mike Mignola isn't a fan of drawing perspective, but he found a way to approach backgrounds without having to do a whole lot of measuring.  And he's a master—his settings are beautiful and have that "point-and-click" aspect that I love.  DO NOT steal from Mike—find your own way of doing things.  The goal is for readers to instantly recognize your work by your distinct way of imagining your backgrounds.

If you don't need a background, don't draw one.  Zoom in on a face instead.  Better to have NO background than a crappy one that you don't need.  Or if you find yourself out of energy at the end of the day, re-imagine your panel and find a way to cover up the fact that your tired.  Let your design senses work for you.

If you've kick the ass out of a bunch of backgrounds in the previous 3 pages—give me a page with some space to breath.  Either use minimal background or none at all.  I try to have at least ONE background per page, but there's no need to overwhelm your reader by slamming him over and over with page after page of amazing backgrounds.  We want to show the reader that we know what we're doing, and then we're not afraid to draw backgrounds.  Once he gets the idea, give him a break.

I feel like artists should nail at least 5 "wow" backgrounds per book.  These are the backgrounds that make people stop reading and that help to set the stage (especially if it's a new setting).  They also help with storytelling be adding clarity.  By drawing the "wow" background sooner in the scene, you'll also be working out the logistical problems in your own mind.  Then it'll be easier to use smart short-cuts later in the scene.

Artists in the past used to work in studios and have a shared catalog of organized magazine clippings.  We've got the luxury of Google and Flickr.  In other words, there is NO excuse for not researching.  If you truly want to earn the respect of the artists of the past, then you'll put your time in.  If you're not the type to research a page THE DAY you're drawing it, then research an entire issue on a Saturday.

You know that game The Sims where you control your character's world?  And every time they see something they like, a green PLUS sign appears over their head?  And every time something bad happens, a red MINUS sign appears over their heads?  That's your reader.  The more you trigger him with good things, the more invested he is in your story.  The more thoughtless you are with your background choices, the more likely year reader will have a MINUS sign over his head.  I recommend flipping through your page layouts before getting started.  Make sure there's an even smattering of green PLUS sign material in your pages.


Hope that helps.  Other things to look up if you're interested: the rule of thirds, the golden spiral (or rectangle), and the 75/25 rule (here's a… you need to go 5 minutes in to see it) .
  • Mood: Neutral
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ShetchHobo21 Featured By Owner Aug 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
thank you soooooo much that helped alot!!!:3
SeeSamSketch Featured By Owner Jun 3, 2014  Student General Artist
This is so incredibly inspiring and helpful! Thank you so much.
Miss-Amanda-Stars Featured By Owner May 2, 2014  Student Traditional Artist
I stumbled upon this while researching for my current project. Thank you so much. I read this and then took a look at your art. Your work is breath taking and your backgrounds truly are impressive. I've learned a lot from this and really look forward to practicing your advice in my own work.
Thank you for the time you took out of your day to write this (several years ago).
RyanBlack13 Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2014
I love drawing backgrounds in my pin-ups but sometimes I kind of let it slide in my books.  I do enjoy doing a few really killer, highly detailed BGs throughout a book.
Hunter407 Featured By Owner May 5, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I love drawing characters and is very hard for me to do backgrounds. This article has definitely pointed me in the right direction. I really appreciate it!
toshi13go Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2012
wow this is good
giadrosich Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2012  Professional Traditional Artist
Another interesting read. I get a lot of queries from beginners who are primarily doing pinups, and want some approaches to backgrounds (not necessarily for comics). I've mentioned many of the things you include here, and always reiterate that backgrounds are the environments that characters live and breathe in. They should fit one another like hand-in-glove, unless, of course, one is going for juxtapositional shock.

Keep up the fine work! :D
SAIDESTROYER Featured By Owner Oct 2, 2011  Professional General Artist
I wish more artists posted journals like this, and not so many "uhuhuh look at me, fave my shit / uhuhuh, thanks for teh viewz".

Your tutorials are always appreciated, Sean. I'll be looking forward for some video-tutorials, whenever you feel the time is right to do them :)
Novanim Featured By Owner Sep 29, 2011  Professional General Artist
As always your journals are so valuable for me to read, in the way to become a better comic artist. And this background tips are no exception. Thank you very much.
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