You’ve seen them a million times, and in many circumstances, they have helped create that perfect touch to the setting within the comics you’re reading. Backgrounds seldom receive much attention, but are vital part of adding depth and mood to your comics artwork. Here’s a few pointers on how to develop the right backgrounds and make your work more realistic.
Seek Out Reference Material
We can’t stress this enough when you’re trying to develop a scene, use as much reference pictures as you can. Build the scene in your head and in roughs before you commit to putting it on paper. Some of the best reference pictures come from stock photography sites – they’re free to browse, and you can often save low-resolution ‘comp’ photos for your photo library. Here are a number of stock photo resources we’ve used for building backgrounds.
You can also rummage through Google’s image search option as well. The results aren’t always the greatest – but sometimes you can come up with user-based pics that can fit the bill better than a stock resource. Remember, don’t try to take these photos and repost them as your own – that isn’t cool – nor is it legal!
Draw Rough Sketches and Establish Perspective
Is the frame a birds-eye view or a street-level view? Do you require one, two or 3 point perspective to get your idea across? Where are your characters standing? Is this an establishing shot? Do details matter? Is the focus on the foreground or the background?
These are all questions you should be asking yourself prior to working out your composition. Having these all answered will make background drawings very easy. Sometimes, all it takes is a mere blend of colour or simple linework to get your point across. Other times, you need to have immense detail in order to build the mood or add depth to the story.
Establish where your horizon line is, and your focal points. From there, build your images according to the focal points – remember that the horizontal lines lead towards the focal points, and create a sense of depth. Practice this with photographs – determine where the focal points are, where the horizon line is, and how the lines in structures and objects all lead to the focal points to create depth.
Kevin Hulsey has a great primer on perspective drawing here.
Simplified, or extremely detailed… the choice is yours – and its dependent on what mood you’re trying to evoke. The important part is to plan it out first.
It’s all in the details…
As mentioned before – perhaps your comic relies on a lot of details in the backgrounds to increase realism, or it is important to advancing your story – or maybe you don’t require as much emphasis on details, and simply use backgrounds to give the viewer a hint of the setting, and allow them the imagination to fill in the blanks on their own. Depending on your style or inclination, background detail is important.
Every leaf, every lily pad, and every blade of grass has its purpose. Its a visual stimulus and the way to establish an exact location and a moment in time.
Fantasy art often relies on intricate backgrounds in order to visually demonstrate the differences between the ‘fantasy land’ and the land we are accustomed to seeing. This detail is necessary to help immerse the viewer into the world that the artist has envisioned.
In these two frames from Kapow Express by Xia Taptara of idrawgirls fame, you can see the simplicity of the backgrounds. Its the interior of a noodle house – with some characters milling about in the background – but as you can see, its merely some blends of soft tones and some hazy silhouettes behind the main character. The emphasis is all up front, yet the feeling of being in a dark, seedy environment is achieved.
The Final Rendering After your Composition
With colour and inks, your background can take a new life of its own and set a dramatic stage for your story – in this pin-up of Captain America – the rooftops are clearly rendered and the details of the buildings are quite intricate – window panes with reflections, dilapidated planks on the wooden water towers, concrete bricks with mortar in the spaces – these elements all add to the overall piece and visually guide the viewer along. With colour and ink work, the background comes alive and enhances the mood – even though its a subtle, drab and dreary shade of grey/blue… We can sense that is probably dusk or close to a night-time hour. We know we’re in a big city (possibly New York) and there is a general feeling of foreboding and mystery. The viewer receives all this information from looking at ONE panel with no descriptive text. Just a super hero hopping across a series of rooftops.
The background is what completes the story here.
In stark comparison, here is Captain America again, running towards the viewer with a look of urgency on his face. If you look at the image overall, it is quite powerful – there is a feeling of strength and intensity. This is due to the emanating action lines and a red wash tone applied to the background. Simple, yet extremely effective at building a mood.
Now if you eliminated both of those backgrounds, all you would have is Captain America running towards you – but add in those backgrounds and their subtleties, and there are two totally different moods achieved. Backgrounds are absolutely essential in trying to build momentum in a story, or establish location, feeling and general ambiance.
Think carefully as you are plotting your comics and your art – make sure you pay attention to the importance of a solid background image or color/linework. It can make or break your overall presentation.