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Drawing Backgrounds

HippieVan at 12:00AM, Aug. 18, 2016

Earlier this week, I completed the prologue for my new comic. It's been several years since I completed a full issue of a comic, and I'm putting in a conscious effort to improve on something I've been lazy about in the past: backgrounds.

With earlier comics, I generally relied on a few pre-drawn backgrounds as much as possible, but the results were never great. When I did put in the effort, I was never all that pleased with the results. I'm trying a few new things this time around. Most importantly, I try to remember that the background exists without my characters in it. If I take them out of the picture just keeping in mind a vague idea of where they are for purposes of perspective, I can look at the background as a composition of its own and it seems to come together more naturally. When I'm drawing around a character, the background tends to be a bit piecemeal. Trees only exist when the character isn't in front of them, so why bother figuring out where they would be? Working in this way my perspectives tend to get skewed and things don't look quite natural.

My other new approach is allowing myself to be looser with the background than with the foreground, allowing colours (which I enjoy) to play a larger role than inks (which I struggle with). I think one of the things that has made this part of the process frustrating for me in the past was putting a lot of effort into little details in the background while still being displeased with the overall result. Allowing the inking in particular to be less precise than it is for the foreground speeds things up and, at least in my case, seems to look better anyways.

When I look at my favourite comics in terms of art, though, I suspect that their creators approach each panel (or even each page) as a holistic composition rather than thinking in terms of foreground and background. I find that really difficult, but maybe it's something I'll be able to do with practice. In general I'm still finding backgrounds more tedious than foregrounds/characters, but my hope is that as I continue to work at it, composing backgrounds will become a more natural part of the process.

How do you go about drawing backgrounds? Is it something you enjoy as much as drawing your characters and the main action? Or have you come up with clever cheats to avoid spending too much time on them?

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Ironscarf at 8:12PM, Aug. 20, 2016

I like to draw fully realised backgrounds but it can be time consuming, not so much in the drawing but in getting together all the reference material. For an upcoming project I'll be drawing the same complex wrought iron gates several times from different angles. My plan is to create a 3d model of the gates in sketchup and use that as a template. My expectation is that this plan will fail!

KAM at 6:46AM, Aug. 20, 2016

Depends on the picture. I rarely hand draw backgrounds. Sometimes I'll take the easy way out, "My characters are standing in front of a wall" Boom! Flat color. ;-) Other times I'll paint a background in photoshop. That can be fun. Other times with multi-panel comics the characters will be in front of a complex, but unmoving background, like a kitchen, or bar, or bookshelves, etc. There I'll create a graphic, then past it on a layer behind the lineart and erase the parts covered by the characters & word balloons. A bit tedious, but effective.

ozoneocean at 5:29AM, Aug. 20, 2016

I was thinking of Torn Vines in relation to this subject actually!

Udyr at 3:34AM, Aug. 20, 2016

I love doing scenery, absolutely hate doing backgrounds of the same place over and over (Considering one of the stories i write is based inside a cafe at all times). You definately get tired of having to draw it from all angels and you need to find new ways to present each scene. BUT, its also a great practice to remember small details. I'm very visual and got it all in my head when i draw out scenery, the location has alot to say with the stories. Designing a town or a world is alot more than just designing the main characters. I spent a week in the library and in front of nature-channels to get inspiration for design of an entire planet. But making-wise I think the best results is when you draw the backgrounds first, then the characters in it after. They blend better into the environment. Another thing is its ALOT more fun doing backgrounds when you know perspective drawing too! I think inspiration (finding stuff on pinterest etc.) is maybe the main fuel for doing good backgrounds.

usedbooks at 7:29PM, Aug. 19, 2016

Here's an example of a tagged location using the Comic Easel plugin on WordPress: It has been really useful for getting a handle on consistency.

usedbooks at 7:16PM, Aug. 19, 2016

I've come to really enjoy drawing the settings for my comic. It used to be an afterthought or a chore. I found the more effort I put in, the more I really like it. I often draw blueprints and scenes at the same time I brainstorm scripts and characters (in other words, far in advance). My newest trick is that I found with WordPress I can tag locations and any word I want, which makes it so much easier to reference scenes (or difficult objects like motorcycles) so I can make sure I get them right/consistent in the future. I've also taken to adding dynamics to the scene. "Extras" doing things in the background or animals. (Animals are my favorite background details. They make it fun for me.)

Mika_yi at 6:19PM, Aug. 19, 2016

I used to avoid backgrounds as much as possible, which I do remember getting comments about the comic having low or little backgrounds. I hated drawing them and felt like I could never get it right. Recently though when k forced a redo on two of the comics I forced myself to do backgrounds even if it ment I had to go out and look at images of nature or buildings. I'll randomly sketch a building and then draw it later. It did help me add detail to the comics I drew. Although very time consuming for me because I still don't think I draw them well or very good at it. The third comic k work on actually has a lot of background in it. It's full color so being as much as I don't want to I'll draw a very detailed picture background so the reader knows where the charcters are and the. I can draw parts of it here and there so that the reader knows and also that way if the page goes back to where it is I don't have to redraw massive background just the top of the building side ect.

Stellar at 5:03PM, Aug. 19, 2016

I make my locations (backgrounds) like I make my characters. I plan them ahead of time to ensure different sets are distinguished from anywhere else the characters will end up. And just like designing characters, I design a location with simplicity in mind. Some of my locations look like they're filled with stuff, but really there's just common things filling the space. And if it's a residence, like the few I've included through Ink and Madder Affairs, it has to fit the characters personality. There's something about set pieces that I never really understood until I read the Dresden Files and Harry's house burned down and in Serenity when the Firefly was destroyed. Certain locations can be another character in the story, and deserve the same love and attention you pour into walking talking characters, because when they come to a flaming end, you'll make some people have some feels.

KimLuster at 11:35AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Paul: I've used that 'establishing shot' thing many times as well... an example: on page 320 of the Godstrain there's a full panoramic shot of the cosmic 'strain-henge', but in the subsequent pages it is becomes more and more reduced to nebulous background shapes as the focus moves toward the Godstrain encounter...! It's a technique that works!

PaulEberhardt at 9:45AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Bruno: I can recommend background jokes - and that's not just because I enjoy them a great deal myself: They're fun, readers appreciate them, and they make drawing the background less boring. ;)

PaulEberhardt at 9:40AM, Aug. 19, 2016

To my mind, all the subtle changes and incongruities make the whole thing look more alive, too. As a favourite "cheat" of mine, I often start a page or scene with a highly detailed "establishing shot" and then slowly reduce the level of detail in the following, save perhaps for an occasional "reminder" - [url=""]like this[/url]. The basic idea is that the more familiar a reader is with a setting the less details does he or she need to fully visualise it. In the extreme version, all you need to do is draw a few props to get e.g. [url=""]a completely furnished living-room[/url]. So leaving stuff to your readers' imagination the way writers do is quite possible. I think the natural limit is only when it gets into the way of pacing. That has to come first.

PaulEberhardt at 9:40AM, Aug. 19, 2016

I can't say I always enjoy doing backgrounds, as they eat up a lot of time. But then, they're essential, even if you leave them out. That's because of their importance for focusing and pacing. Leaving out a background (or replacing it with a monochrome one) in strategic places is a great way of focusing on the action or the characters (Lucky Luke or Danielle Dark are prime examples of how to use that to maximum effect). Then there's pacing: a panel with a highly detailed, complex background takes much longer to absorb than one without, and that can be used to speed up the action or slow it down. I often use that as a tool for comic timing. It's the main reason why some pages of mine have no background at all, while others may have a lot. By the way, I actually bother to draw the same background over and over again instead of pasting in a pre-drawn one, (a) because I feel it's worth it, and (b) because I'm an unteachable computer-illiterate who prefers drawing everything by hand anyway.

Bruno Harm at 9:17AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Zimeta: I draw mine in pencil too. and since I do small panels, I really have to work everything together. Background, characters, word bubbles. At some point I started doing the word bubbles on the computer, and I found myself drawing more background, even though most of it gets covered up in the end.

Bruno Harm at 9:13AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Ozone: That's true. Plus, Sometimes the Background is the "character" in a scene. Like establishing shots, or setting mood. all kinds of things. @HippieVan: That's what I'm talking about! awesome edit: also it was #26 when I had Brady flirting in the background, not #27

HippieVan at 8:28AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Zimeta: I love your backgrounds on that page! You've really mastered the art of keeping it simple, but still making it feel like there's a whole world that exists there.

HippieVan at 8:25AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Bruno Harm: I love the idea of background jokes! I have a little one in my comic, where the slogan for the space agency changes just about every time you see the logo. Usually to a different stupid pun.

HippieVan at 8:24AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@KimLuster: You have exactly pinpointed what I find frustrating about backgrounds!

Zimeta at 7:37AM, Aug. 19, 2016

I approach it as a whole composition. Mine tend to be very simplistic unless it's a bigger panel. Since all my lines are done in pencil I have to be careful not to overwhelm the characters.

ozoneocean at 7:32AM, Aug. 19, 2016

@Bruno- it really heavily depends on the type of comic you do. For some comics the backgrounds are a primary part of the story- not just setting the scene, they ARE the scene. Cochlea and Eustachia is a good example.

Bruno Harm at 7:05AM, Aug. 19, 2016

Back grounds are important, but they are not as important to readers as they are to creators. We beat ourselves up all the time over them. I know I do. however, I think in all honesty, as long as you have a background that isn't jarring in some way. It stays in the background. people acknowledge it in some way, but that is not the focus. Plus, an overly busy background can be distracting, so I think there is a balance. Having said that, I've been trying to up my background game as I go. I think It's hard not to, because we are our own worst critics. I've also toyed with the Idea of having little visual jokes in the background. two characters far away having a funny interaction that you don't need words for. but that's a whole other level I can't get to at the moment. I tried it in #27. Not sure people even noticed.

ozoneocean at 6:56AM, Aug. 19, 2016

Good point Kim! Art takes a huge burden of the writing.

KimLuster at 6:27AM, Aug. 19, 2016

Background bugs me so much - certainly one of my shortcomings... In written literature, we have the "Chekhov's Gun" principle (remove everything that has no relevance to the story)! You don't have to describe everything on the kitchen counter... With visual art that is just impossible! In literature you can say a character is walking through a beautiful park, and not go much beyond that, but if you translate that scene to a webcomic, you pretty much have to draw a frickin' beautiful park (trees, lakes, birds, happy people). A picture really is worth a thousand words (cuz it'd take a thousand (or more) words to describe in its full detail)!!

Gunwallace at 1:46AM, Aug. 19, 2016

I have recently started drawing my backgrounds separately, then exporting them to GIMP, using blur and lighting effects on them, and then re-importing them and placing them in a layer behind the character art. This seems like an overly complex process, but it is making for better backgrounds than my previous efforts.

ozoneocean at 12:11AM, Aug. 19, 2016

I don't really think about them too much when I do them, but I think I follow a similar process to you, in that my art does best when my characters populate the scene rather than have it drawn around them. I often draw the things through and behind them.

plymayer at 11:48PM, Aug. 18, 2016

All great points. One could also say that for some comics (more than others) the backgrounds can become almost like a character in and for the comics.

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