Drawing Backgrounds

  • On April 16, 2010 ·
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The bane of many a cartoonist’s existence is drawing backgrounds. Some don’t draw them at all. They can add hours to working on a page and usually take about 2 seconds for the reader to glance at before moving on. So why include them? Because when they’re done right it’s the difference between having a comic in a featureless void and building it a world. It’s the stuff that makes a reader’s eye go back over the panels once they’ve already read it just to admire the details. So how do you handle backgrounds? Here’s some of my thoughts on the process.


This is an important step many people gloss over. Consider what sort of world your characters live in. Does your comic take place indoors or out? If they live in a specific city during a specific point in time then you can narrow down your search. Of course then you invite people who know that area to pick apart any inaccuracies they find. Even if you decide to make your world it’s own unique place, I still recommend doing research to find places that look similar to your location. It’ll give you ideas for the final layout of your setting and it’s good to have something to go back to.

Google Image Search

This is my weapon of choice when it comes to finding reference. It’s not perfect since it feeds on what’s out there based on the parameters of your search, but it’s a very useful tool. I like to search for certain styles of buildings, certain locations, then use a number of images to put together a scene. Like the sky scrapers of one city and the concert halls of another? You can combine them to form the city in your mind.

Freehand sketch of some buildings

You might recognize this scene as I cropped it and used it in the first page of the prologue to 2071. I found some buildings I liked and started drawing them. Notice the entire image didn’t make it into the final panel. I narrowed down the things that worked about the sketch and focused on them. Architecture isn’t my strongest skill or my deepest love, but I tried to keep my attention on things I liked. The more you can connect the ideas in your head with objects in the real world, the more your readers will feel like they’re part of the story.

Floor Plans

A real challenge of drawing the same space over and over again is consistency. It’s easy to throw a room together once for the purpose of a panel. It’s entirely something else to draw it again from multiple angles. Doing simple floor plans can help when staging a scene and figuring shots out. How much of the furniture is hidden behind other furniture? How does the lighting change depending on what’s in the room?

Quick floor plan of Max & Virgil’s workshop and Commander Kane’s study

Floor plans are simple diagrams which lay out where everything is in the room. Windows, doors, furniture, what have you. I sketched these a few pages into the prologue when I realized I had no real idea where everything was. When I have the time I’d like to try doing them inĀ Google Sketchup to make visualizing different angles easier.

Background Studies

Sketching is something I encourage everybody to do as often as possible. I know when you’re on a production schedule you lose the time to let your mind and pencil wander. I like to look through reference images and doodle designs for props and settings.

Studies for the interior of the Poplicola

It’s usually a good idea to drop some people in your studies to keep scale in mind. The drawing on the left was influenced by some photos of art deco factories with wide open ceilings and arched railings along the walkways. The other drawing, a closeup of one of the passage ways, is a nod to classic scifi corridors.

Simple Techniques

I spent some time working in black and white trying to shore up my drawing skills and my use of light and shadow. Even if your backgrounds don’t contain much detail you can still use them to move the comic along. One technique I stumbled upon was spotlighting. I’d fill the entire background of a panel with black and then white out a circle behind whoever was speaking. Sometimes I’d get more elaborate and cut out lines to hint at walls or use two spotlights if both characters were talking in one panel. I use it a bit more subtly now in my shading. It’s a narrational device for focusing attention on the important object in the frame and occasionally conflicts with the light source in the image so it can cause problems if you’re trying to work in a more realistic style. If you’re going for simplicity, however, it’s a useful technique.

Example of spotlighting in conjunction with a simple background

In this example I was really attempting to limit my palette to something manageable. There’s only a handful of grays actually used here and their opacity is lowered so the characters stand out. I was going for an aesthetic similar to Seth’s work on the Complete Peanuts. There was a lot of copy and paste going on here and the layering sort of got out of control eventually with different objects taking up different layers of different blending modes. Of course I was also doing like 3-5 comics in one file at a time and that’s a lot to keep track of even for a style this simple.

10+ Tips to speed up/improve your digital art production

1. Start with print resolution files first

Yes I know web res is smaller and easier to work with. But if you want to use something again for print you’ll thank yourself later if you have a print-ready version. Having to recreate art you’ve done before eats time and sometimes you can’t remember what you did to make the magic happen that first time.

2. Work larger than the final piece

This is an old artists’ trick for tightening up your work. When art is shrunk down for reproduction it looks slicker. Also drawing things at actual size is a pain because smaller details can require a smaller brush that’s difficult to work with. If you’re working traditionally before scanning in there’s only so small you can draw.

3. Don’t over-saturate your color choices

The first time you select colors you may be a bit unsure of the palette. Don’t use the most saturated colors because those won’t translate well into print later if you have to convert to CMYK from RGB and they can look really amateurish. One way to avoid this in Photoshop is to make a saturation layer, fill it with black, and adjust the transparency.

4. Use layers

Photoshop and most image manipulation programs today offer layers. This lets you focus on detailing one element without changing another. So you can color a file on a lower layer without running over the inks on an upper layer.

4.1 Use different layer types

When you render something play around with the type of layer and it’s opacity to give a more subtle effect.

4.2. Use layer styles

Creating effects like a uniform glow or stroke around an object can be tedious. Use layer styles to do this for you. They can recreate the same effect again and again and be easily changed/archived for later use.

4.3 Use layer groups

If you’re using a lot of layers after awhile even labeling them doesn’t help much in keeping organized. Use layer groups, folders of common layers, to organize your art structure

5. Flatten before you resize

If you’re using layer styles or text it’s really a good idea to flatten files before resizing them. That way dynamic effects won’t change with the different versions you save. It’ll also take less time than resizing multiple layers at once.

6. Use actions for repetitive tasks

Actions are little recorded tasks you play back on a file. They can be as simple as flattening an image or adding a watermark to automating a majority of your workflow with batch files. Just be careful because actions don’t think. It’s always a good idea to save your starting point in one place and the result of an action in another.

7. Make and use template files

If you know you’re going to need a lot of something, make a template. This can hold preset layer styles, fonts, guides for ruling things out, and anything else to make your life easier.

8. Use keyboard shortcuts

In Photoshop you switch between tools with certain keys. The ones I use most often are “B” for the brush/pencil, “E” for the eraser, ( with “[” and “]” resizing either one up or down) “G” for the paint bucket/gradient fill, “I” for the eyedropper, and “W” for the magic wand. When using the lasso or marquee tool you can hold down Shift to add to a selection or Alt/Option to remove from it. There’s plenty of other shortcuts that can easily be found online.

9. Use photos for reference and creating palettes

If there’s an image with a specific color scheme you like, use the eyedropper to pull colors from it. One trick in Photoshop is to run the Stained Glass filter to make blocks of the most prominent colors. I’ll bookmark images I find online all the time. I keep them organized in folders and use XMarks to synch them across my browsers and over the web.

10. Use the proper filetype for the kind of art you’re doing

Making something with a lot of blurs in it? That’s a .jpeg. Using limited colors in flat fills on black line art? That’s a .png or .gif. (.png gives you more colors – both will give you a transparency layer using an alpha channel – .gif is popular for animations though .png has some abilities there as well) Saving print-quality black and white line work? Then .tiff is your friend. It’ll even handle layers.

Team Coco

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they wanted – but if you work hard and stay positive, amazing things will happen.”

Those are some of Conan O’Brien’s parting words on his final episode as host of The Tonight Show. As I watched it on Hulu the other day, I was reminded what a class act he is. He refused to compromise the integrity of a show he loved doing even at the cost of leaving it. It’s a shame NBC didn’t give his show the chance it deserved. He grew his fan base over the years on Late Night and put in a lot of work to earn Leno’s seat. Jay Leno’s a decent guy, too, but I’ve always found Conan’s show funnier. Maybe it’s because he was the underdog working hard to make you laugh and having fun. (A reason why I enjoy catching the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.) I know I and the rest of Conan’s fans look forward to following him onto whatever project he pursues next.

Something I like to take from all of this is try to be happy with your lot in life. Don’t settle, keep working hard to reach your dreams, but don’t forget what you do have and appreciate it. Some people let what they could have been in life overshadow what they are and it bums them down. Your dreams should be a goal you strive to obtain, not some specter of failure to haunt you. Rather than being bitter about his situation O’Brien chose to be happy that he got to host a show he dreamed about hosting his way and had no regrets for it. Now that’s the way to live.

I put this blog on the main page to share and learn from my experiences. Some of it’s technical concerning software, tools, or skills, and some of it’s philosophical and life lesson-y. Lately I’ve had a lot on my mind. Drawing/inking is usually a quiet zen-like experience where it’s just you reacting to the work and you can dwell on things. So I’ve jumped into other projects that have been more about problem solving and keeping my mind occupied. I’ll share some of these in future posts but right now I’m trying to focus on cartooning again. I’m almost done inking the section I’m working on. Once it’s scanned I’ll be streaming the digital side of the work and I hope some of you can join me. I really recommend you follow me on twitter so you’ll get the updates from the site, any links or other stuff I put in the feed, and if you’re on twitter you can comment on the blogs I post here.

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