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.