Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

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Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby Harishankar on Sat May 19, 2012 9:35 am

I have a problem which I am not able to define correctly. But it's got to do with backgrounds. And scene composition. And yes, I am not artistically trained. And I suspect that might have a lot to do with it.

Backgrounds - they look really easy and obvious when I see the finished artwork of talented artists. Yet, it's incredibly hard to start drawing backgrounds from a blank comic panel. I know that looking up reference pictures can help, but I am not always able to get the exact angle or background I want. Without references, my backgrounds generally suck.

Secondly middleground - this is where I think it gets really tough. How does the background seamlessly integrate with the foreground character? I know that much of it has to do with composition and perspective, but while it's easy enough in principle, it is so so hard to achieve even when copying from reference particularly for outdoor scenes. Somehow or the other I am unable to put together a composition for a scene I have in mind. Vague ideas of location don't help either. The learning curve seems overwhelmingly hard, particularly composition.

Third - location details. How much of detail do I need in backgrounds to convey obvious information of location? Like for example: this character is standing just outside a court building. Without details, backgrounds look bland and uninteresting. But I guess if I solve the earlier problem, it might be easier to tackle this one.

As a result of the above two I am almost discouraged from drawing any more. I feel I sorely lack the talent to compose pictures, even if my basic drawing skill is improving... I feel that technically I have improved in drawing albeit slowly, but my composition is sorely lacking.

I have a few art books on perspective and such, but even though I get the theory part, it's totally another thing to apply it to the specific scene you have in mind and for which you cannot find an exact reference picture for.

I guess I'll have to practice a lot more, but still, pointers would be helpful. At the moment, it appears like I'm simply stumbling in the dark.
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Re: Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby Mastermind on Sat May 19, 2012 12:25 pm

I also struggle with backgrounds, though I often (very often) just lack the patience. I think the most important rule is to put some effort into them whenever you introduce a new location, this way you can get away with several "talking heads" panels (like here). In these introduction panels, try to show more than just one wall of the room, zoom out a little so you don't have to worry about where to squeeze in the details. In your new comic your characters sometimes talk outside. That's where I like to put a silhouette of the city ;). You can also show them walking out of the building, on the stairs, but be consistent so that readers can become familiar with the courthouse and its surroundings.

if only I would listen to my own advice :-?
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Re: Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby McDuffies on Sat May 19, 2012 3:38 pm

To me characters in foreground are always starting point for the background. They define sizes of objects in background, and also it's position (you don't want something to overlap, you don't want a clutter of background objects around the figure, etc). If I draw background with perspective, it is figures that define first perspective lines I draw, and from them come other lines.
Integrating foreground with background comes to that angles have to match, proportions have to match, and lightning has to match. Angles aren't easy to match but lots of that comes from treating both foreground and background as if they belong to the same space (ie share perspective lines and all). Proportions - well you pay attention to how sizes of objects relate to sizes in foreground, particularly heights. You don't want a cabinet as high as a character or something. Lightning is probably the easiest of all, you just decide where a few light sources are, mark them with a pencil and then shade or vary line thickness based on light sources both on background and foreground. It's also nice to let characters interact with the background.
I don't think that these things are very easy, even for a pro who knows ins and outs.

Amount of details, to me, comes to this: you step back from the page and observe what is looks like from afar. It should not be uniform, which means level of details should vary from panel to panel. It should not look empty, which means you should have a panel or two that are rich with detail. It should also have some relief from that, which means panels that have minimal or no background (because you've previously establishes sense of place, you don't need it in every panel). The hardest thing for many, I think, is to know when to stop. Many of us have fear of emptiness and end up cluttering the page.

Composition, I dunno, I think purely for exercise you could try to experiment with abstract layouts and then fit characters into shapes that you made. Like, make random shapes and circles, have them vary in shape, size and hue, then pick the ones you like the most and try to use them as guidelines, to fit characters and objects into those compositions... Make figures be in different sizes (ie, closer or further from the camera), make some of them in shade, others in light, make some of them standing, others sitting, others yet gesticulating in some way. And so on , play around, try as many things as you can come up with, alternatively pay attention to the composition when you're watching movies or photos in magazines, try to abstract those compositions (ie extract what are the basic elements of it) and see if you can find any inspiration in them.
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Re: Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby Harishankar on Sat May 19, 2012 10:13 pm

Thanks for the tips.

Here's an attempt at a background for the episode I am currently in the process of creating.
sample-bg.png
sample-bg.png (139.71 KiB) Viewed 1170 times


I tried to add a branch of a tree to introduce some interest in the scene. Not sure if it has come out all that well though.

Can you tell me whether this kind of approach works or not? I am not sure whether it works or not. So far, it's been my biggest effort at background in a comic... I made a conscious effort to work in details on this one.
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Re: Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby McDuffies on Sun May 20, 2012 7:22 am

The tree branch is ok. It adds additional level of depth to the composition (figure - branch - couse -city) so that's ok.
The house stands a bit odd, though. If you don't mind me drawing guidelines over your drawing, I'll show what I mean... I apologuise for sketching over your drawing in advance:

The perspective of the house stands at odds with the figure. I extended perspective lines of the house in the first image and they cross somewhere at the lower edge of the image. As you know, they should be somewhere on the horizon. This seems like the house is seen by someone laying at the ground, but the figure and the cityscape don't match this.

In image 2 I tried drawing perspective lines starting from the figure, and admittedly it's a very shoddy job on my part. Red lines connect top of figure's head, his shoulder, waist and feet with the point in horizon, this establishing heights to which to compare background objects. Blue lines were my attempt to, based on things that figure establishes, construct where the house should be and how it should be angled. It appears that it should lie lower on the picture, and perhaps it's basis would not be in the frame. Again, I did a shoddy job which may as well be incorrect.

Third image is about details on the house. Windows and metal fence on them are a nice touch. But edges on the house don't meet in such straightforward fashion. As illustration, note how I extended the roof. Similarly, I added the rain gutter. Rain gutters are always a safe detail for me to add to the house drawing, seeing as how most of houses have them. But there are other things that one may observe on the house and later use to enrich the detail. Finally, I added frames on windows instead of single lines. You don't often see single lines in nature, often they're abstractions of shades or places where two edges meet. Drawing a single line also suggests 2-dimensionality, whereas we usually want impression of three dimensions. So if you want to add more detail to the background, consider going for a more detailed rendering of existing objects instead of adding more objects.

I hope that was helpful.
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sample-bg1.gif
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sample-bg2.gif
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Re: Stumbling block with backgrounds and composition

Postby Harishankar on Sun May 20, 2012 8:00 am

Hey, thanks for those tips. By the way, that was not a house I intended, it was a courtroom building; and also those were not windows, they are supposed to be fenced-off archways with a bit of embellishment. :P

As for the perspective correction, those lines you drew were really useful. I always find it tough to figure out vanishing point on this kind of scene, particularly because I am primarily focussed and far more comfortable conveying simple depth perspective (as it's a lot easier) and not point-based perspective...

Also in my picture the ground is not supposed to be absolutely flat and the courtroom building stands on a little bit of a hump, but I'm finding that REALLY hard to convey in this picture with so little ground to work with. But that may also explain why I unconsciously made that perspective mistake.

Still I thought something was wrong with the scene - particularly the building which I thought didn't convey enough depth - and you have really put your finger on the perspective fault which renders this scene odd. Thanks a dozen for taking your time to help with this.
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