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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
  • Listening to: Charlie Rose
  • Reading: Trotsky
  • Watching: Top Gear UK
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iNfiNityFUNk Featured By Owner Edited Nov 5, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
That helps so much! I don't even know how to do it. I'll practice though. :/
GraphicGinger Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2015  Student General Artist
Thanks :3
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 Digital 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.
tanqueta Featured By Owner Sep 14, 2011  Professional General Artist
Helps me a LOT! Thanks, Sean! I'm not a great background artist and I like the way of Mignola with his backgrounds. But also like the way you work, I'm going to put my efforts to improve my Backgrounds work.
PD: Sorry for my english! :)
Excalibuur Featured By Owner Sep 12, 2011  Student
Awesome tips, thank you so much for sharing.
AppleSnake Featured By Owner Sep 10, 2011
you've totally changed my way of seeing backgrounds. Your tips journals definitely make my day everytime :)
Please keep going !!
mariankiller Featured By Owner Sep 5, 2011  Professional Filmographer
very helpful advice
thecarrierone Featured By Owner Sep 4, 2011
What are your feelings on the use of sketchup and other 3d programs? I could build out an entire scene with perfectly posed characters and perfect perspective and just draw over the renders. This is something I have actually done. But it feels cheap. The renders themselves have no life or flow to them so I spend all of my time bringing life into the scene.

This is my position on it now- Treat it as previz for movies. Render everything out quickly to just block out scenes. I then use the renders as reference to the final drawing. This allows me to be bringing life into the page with the first lines that hit the page. I'm still working out my position on the issue of tracing over 3d renders. The fact that I have to think about it makes me less likely to use it. Maybe when push comes to shove on deadlines I could rationalize it. I have no problem using the 3d tools as reference tools so that is how I use them.
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Sep 5, 2011
To be honest, I'm not a fan at all. I guess it's okay if it's just for laying things out, but if it's no quicker than doing it by hand, then why bother? Of course, if it IS quicker, then by all mean do it. Tracing over sketchup and using sketchup for machines or ANY trace of sketchup in the final piece, for me, ruins the page.
bonesdeviant Featured By Owner Aug 30, 2011
Whoah. That took the guess work out of a LOTTA sh-t.

First: Big-ups to the makers of Full Throttle! I love when I purposely click somewhere too far and he's not on his bike and he's like: "I don't walk". LOL!

Back to business...
I always had a little background phobia, and it's kind of frustrating as I KNOW it's what's keeping my work from looking "full".

I read works from guys like yourself and this Swiss dude, Enrico Marini, he drew (Gypsy: the Wandering Star) ...and while there ARE times I see you guys render these LUSH BACKGROUNDS, that make me want to head to staples and blow it up as a vinyl banner on my wall...(Like your JOBAR stuff)

the REST of the time you guys just IMPLY and SUGGEST some stuff just with brush strokes

...and it lends to an illusion that the page is "filled up" and ads this verisimilitude to your work and everything in that universe you created looks like it belongs.

When I try to do that, for MY style it just doesn't the style I work in doesn't seem like it lends well to negative space and sparse yet strategic, suggestive detailing.

However the concepts and ideas you mentioned in this guide gives me a lot of hope. looks like they're solid concepts that'll work regardless of style, so I'm definitely going to do the work and incorporate some of that.

Thanks again, as always, you demystified (is that a word, yo? LOL) a Lot of things for me that I wonder about.
Jam-Wah Featured By Owner Aug 25, 2011  Professional Digital Artist
I missed this at first, but it's one of the best journals I've read in ages. You have a way of explaining things which just clicks with me. I actually want to draw comics now and that hasn't happened in years.
taytay101 Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2011
Awesome. Thanks a bunch for sharing. I'm always motivated as hell after I read advice from my favorite artists and authors. Gonna go draw now....
drewerd Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2011  Professional General Artist
Thanks for the helpful insight and great instruction. always a pleasure reading your journals.

Mercurio2539 Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2011  Professional Filmographer
Someone told me about your journal, and he was right, it is very useful. Thanks a lot for all the wonderful comments! I'll use them in my next works. :worship:
richard-chin Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2011
that's a mouthful of info. But very useful. thanks for sharing it
phildunne Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2011  Professional Traditional Artist
Brilliant journal, great for any artist, not just in comic books!
RyanOttley Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2011  Professional Artist
Awesome tips!
mistakendestiny Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
asertijo Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2011  Professional Filmographer
Jason-Pedersen Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Reading American Vampire Number 1 and I'm noticing what you're talking about here. Slick stuff.
JosephLSilver Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Traditional Artist
Much appreciated Sean, I'll save this info, and Richard's. Lot's of vital stuff here.
JCoelho Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional
thanks for the tips Sean, Perspective's on it's way ;)
augustustodopoderoso Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Traditional Artist
I hate when youre right. I gotta improve my bg drawing, and make it interesting for me to work on, and for the reader to take interest. Im gonna get my mitts on that book you mentioned, as well. :)
Thanks for sharing, Sean
Stephen-Green Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
This....This is why I can't wait for new blogs. I love the rants, but I love when you teach.
Spacefriend-KRUNK Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Artist
listening to you play Full Throttle was far more entertaining that ever playing it myself.

and don't tell me what to do. i'll over-detail everything and then put a ladder coming out of river. yeah, bitch! where's that ladder go?!!
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Remember that line the dude kept saying when I clicked on the dumpster? "I'm not putting my lips on THAT." Hysterical.
Spacefriend-KRUNK Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Artist
the height of comedy, my amigo.
Masilustradora Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Great telling.
Detailed and clearly. Fantastic!
Pachycrocuta Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Thank you for sharing this!

"a perspective problem that he was never able to figure out" - that makes me really curious as to what that problem was.
urban-barbarian Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Well spoken, you beautiful bastard!
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
I'd love to see your list too.
urban-barbarian Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
It mirrors yours completely but you put your list into practice. I skimp here and there. But no more! No more I say!
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Dude you DO NOT skimp. I buy most of your books and for reference.
boston-joe Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Traditional Artist
another great thing about backgrounds is you can break the rules of perspective (to a certain degree) to add to your composition or to frame a character better. gabe and i had a long discussion about backgrounds a while back. he showed me an example of a room he had drawn, basically in 1 point perspective. but the floor, the table and the kitchen cabinets in the panel all had different vanishing points AND horizon lines. it was all to better lead the eye. when i had flipped through the book and read the pages normally, i never picked up on it. it was a great example of breaking the rules because it didn't jump off the page and say "hey this room is crooked". i wasn't taken out of the story by it. of course, after further inspection, you notice it, but it didn't disrupt the flow/pacing of the story.

backgrounds are a great area to flex storytelling muscle too. you do a fantastic job with that, along with guys like mignola, stelfreze, etc. i appreciate when artists use the background to tell a story during heavy dialogue scenes. its WAY better than just a bunch of "talking head" panels. and it shows your being creative.

you forgot to tell the readers they could always pay someone to do their backgrounds (like some cats like to do) ; )
OrionSTARB0Y Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Writer
You should take what you've written here and make it a dA News Article, complete with pictures -- like examples of good and bad backgrounds from different comics, and some "progress" pieces where the artist shows how he/she created a stunning background. It would surely attract a lot of aspiring artists!
thousandfoldart Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Professional Digital Artist
I always thought of adventure games in relation to backgrounds as well...
Thanks for sharing!
patbollin Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
Great stuff, man. I too, am curious about what perspective problem you solved for Hudson. This isn't because I think you "schooled" Mr. Hudson, but because I'm a perspective nerd. I know that book from cover to cover.
seangordonmurphy Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
He didn't know how to draw a perfect cube in two point.
The-BenShaw Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2011  Professional Traditional Artist
lol!!! that's excellent! I also have Chelsea's perspective for comic book artists and read it constantly. I can't tell you how excited I got when I read down to that point. kudos!
TheLastInterceptor Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you so much for this amazing advice, man!
geduliss Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2011
realy great stuff, thanks a lot!
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