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Backgrounds, part 2: Familiar Locations

HippieVan at 12:00AM, Aug. 26, 2016

Last week, I wrote about my attempts to put more effort into drawing backgrounds. A few people in the comments brought up the settings that they draw repeatedly for their comics.


My main character is a wanderer, so there aren’t a ton of repeat locations in my comic. But while I was in the process of designing characters for my comic, and before I started drawing any actual pages, I did take some time to plan out the only location that readers will see regularly for the duration of the comic: Dee’s spaceship. I tend to work on projects sporadically, so having some reference material to go back to will help keep me from inadvertently moving things around as the comic progresses.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

This is something a lot of people brought up in the comments of last week’s newspost – there’s no need to make backgrounds super complicated. (Although you can, of course, if that’s your thing!) In fact, backgrounds that are too full can sometimes be a distraction from the action in the foreground. I think this is probably doubly important for settings that will be seen over and over again, not least of all because drawing all those tchotchkes on that character’s bookshelf will probably be a lot less fun the tenth time than it was the first.


Stellar made a good point about how a character’s residence has to suit their personality, and how well-designed settings can almost become characters themselves. The Enterprise on Star Trek is definitely a prominent example of that for me, and certainly one that inspires my own comic, but I can think of many others: the moving castle in Howl's Moving Castle, the two apartments and the coffee shop on Friends, Marlinspike Hall in Tintin, and so on. The best settings not only match a story's characters, but also its tone. In fact, sitting down and thinking about settings is probably a great exercise in pinning down exactly who your characters are and what kind of world they live in.

Did you spend a lot of time thinking about regular settings in your comic? Do you keep reference material for these locations, or is it all in your head?


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Banes at 2:27PM, Aug. 28, 2016

I started off trying to establish all angles of The Movie Pit in Typical Strange, thinking I'd just drop the cgaracters in to those backgrounds in every episode and never have to worry about drawing new ones. And some backgrounds I still use regularly, 5-6 years later. But i often prefer to create new bits, even in that oft-used location. Eventually I built part of the store in 3D in SketchUp (just a basic layout, but with racks full of DVDs in there to save redrawing those. I'll build some more stuff from the store at some point...maybe MAX or Blender are worth a look!

HippieVan at 6:18PM, Aug. 26, 2016

@UB: Using Sims is a neat idea, actually! You can't get too specific in it, but for a basic model just to get an idea of how things look I think it would be really fun. :)

HippieVan at 6:17PM, Aug. 26, 2016

@fallopiancrusader: I actually learned how to use Blender (at least a little bit) years ago in a high school digital multimedia course! I had somehow forgotten about its existence. I wonder if I would still remember how to use it.

usedbooks at 5:51PM, Aug. 26, 2016

I also built the UB bookstore in Sims 3. :)

usedbooks at 5:50PM, Aug. 26, 2016

I have maps and blueprints and little sketches. That kind of thing helps psyche me up for a story arc. I also google a lot of details for different decorating styles, and my sister helps me. I call her my set designer. She planned her own wedding, designed the house she's having built, and just finished decorating her nursery. She also throws a lot of themed parties, so she's great at coordinating and decorating with an eye for detail. I also sometimes draw/brainstorm settings that I don't use in my comic to help me brainstorm a character. (Like the house he grew up in.) -- Oh, and vehicles have tons of personality as objects or settings. I live in a camper myself, and it's kinda like an extension of my personality. (Sounds weird, but I don't know how to explain it.)

Z74 at 3:01PM, Aug. 26, 2016

I hate to draw the same thing twice, I even make up new ships and aircraft almost every time (so my characters crash often) but it's something I am going to have to work on to have consistent backgrounds in the future .

fallopiancrusader at 11:53AM, Aug. 26, 2016

@HippieVan: the user interface is of Sketch-up is extremely frustrating compared to a more robust 3D package. I didn't really get the hang of it until I read a guidebook from cover to cover. Even then, the interface still has limitations that hamper productivity. I can build models ten times faster in MAX. Then again, I have been using MAX professionally for 20 years, so it is very familiar to me. Another free 3D option is Blender, which is more full featured than Sketch-up. An inescapable reality with full-featured 3D modeling programs is that they all have a steep learning curve.

Bruno Harm at 9:44AM, Aug. 26, 2016

I got sketchup too! but I'm still learning my way around photoshop. one thing at a time..

Bruno Harm at 9:42AM, Aug. 26, 2016

Almost every good sitcom has that Iconic couch or coffee shop or Jukebox. It doesn't take much for our brains to latch onto.

HippieVan at 9:32AM, Aug. 26, 2016

@Stellar: I think ships/spaceships are especially important settings, because the character is usually going to all kinds of unfamiliar places otherwise. The ship is the only safe, familiar space.

HippieVan at 9:30AM, Aug. 26, 2016

@fallopiancrusader: I downloaded sketchup for a different kind of project a while back and couldn't made head or tails of it. I'll have to give it another go.

Stellar at 9:11AM, Aug. 26, 2016

I learned a new word today =D 'tchotchke.' Howls castle is a great example, and ships in scifi all seem to fantastically provoke feeling, the Normandy from Mass Effect, the Nebuchadnezzar in the Matrix. The greatest example to me personally is the Black Pearl and Jack Sparrow's relationship with her. His first ramble about the Pearl and freedom, then later down the line saying 'it's just a boat,' and afterwards, in the back of his mind the Pearl never stops being Jack's endgame.

fallopiancrusader at 6:37AM, Aug. 26, 2016

For backgrounds that appear repeatedly, I usually build a massing model in 3D. By "massing", I mean that the final output of the model is just line-work of the objects in the scene, and then I draw over them. The big shots on pages 32 and 38 of "mindfold" were set up in this way. This guarantees that I start out with all the object designs and spatial relationships accurate every time, regardless of the camera angle. This doesn't mean that I don't cheat when I draw the final panel. Sometimes, the ideal viewpoint might end up coming from inside a wall, so I just remove the wall. Also, the lighting set-up in the same environment might change a lot from page to page, in order to convey a particular mood. For 3D software, I use 3D studio MAX and Google Sketch-up. Sketch-up is an attractive option because the output is line-work, and it's free!

KimLuster at 6:32AM, Aug. 26, 2016

I love having great-looking backgrounds...if they didn't take so dang long to do!!! As with everything else I do, backgrounds are a struggle between how good I want it look vs. how much time I'm willing to commit to it (with the latter winning far too often... :D)

PaulEberhardt at 2:09AM, Aug. 26, 2016

Fun fact: Not too long ago I met some guy in a London hostel. It turned out that he had just moved back from Bremen, so we talked a bit. After a while and a couple of beers the subject turned to my comic, which he opened on his tablet - this page: He looked at it, rubbed his eyes, looked at it again, then pointed at the screen and said: "Bloody hell! I used to live right there! No, there! These two windows!" Long, long ago, I used to live only a few blocks away myself, see, so of course I'd put some effort into getting the scenery right. Needless to say, I was flattered.

PaulEberhardt at 2:03AM, Aug. 26, 2016

My comic depends on a regular setting, of course. Gundula's house is my own design from basement to attic, based on my own experiences with houses of that particular type (it's called an Old Bremen House, and although similar layouts exist elsewhere, the town of my birth is famous for them). After having drawn it for years now I know my way around it as if I lived there myself, and that tends to speed up things. For the town scenes I took tons of reference photos, while my memory serves to fill in the gaps as well as make other parts up. People thought I'm crazy when they saw me take photos of mundane and ugly buildings - or of better-known ones from unusual angles, but there you go. Another way of promoting your comic, I guess. ;) Anyway, I've since found that drawing something does amazing things to the way you perceive it. I've known these places for thirty years, but in many ways I only really saw them for the first time when I started to draw them.

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