Even if it’s just a blank panel with a line across it to represent the corner of a room or the horizon or even just nothing, every comic has a background of some kind or other.
If you’re just starting out with making comics (whether they’re webcomics or “graphic novel”-style comics) or, like me, you’re still learning how to make them, then it’s often better to mostly draw simple backgrounds most of the time. Although this might sound counter-intuitive, a consistent (but simpler) background often looks more “professional” than a more complicated background which changes a lot between panels and confuses the reader.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t practice new things (although it’s probably best to practice outside your comics or by just doing ordinary drawings rather than comics) or stretch yourself by drawing more complicated backgrounds every now and then – but until you have at least a sense of what does and doesn’t work, then it can be best to make sure that most of the backgrounds in your comics are reasonably simple. This is also a fairly useful thing for many comics artists for several other reasons too – namely for time reasons, consistency reasons and because it can place more emphasis on the characters and/or dialogue.
If you’re producing a “newspaper comic”-style webcomic, backgrounds are much less of an issue since the emphasis is much more on the writing than anything else and you can usually get away with just a few small background details (eg: a painting hanging on the wall) or just a plain background. So, if you’re just starting out in comics, then it might be worth making a few of these in order to practice writing dialogue and getting a good sense of what does and doesn’t work in terms of character design and placement.
However, if you’re producing a narrative comic, then the backgrounds are slightly more important since they help to immerse the reader in the world of your story. But, don’t despair – there are few simple tricks and techniques which can really help you with this:
1) Dazzle your readers with a more detailed first panel and then keep the backgrounds simple: I’ve mentioned this in one of my recent articles and it’s probably worth repeating in this article too: “one good trick is to draw a larger and more detailed panel when you show a new setting for the first time, so that your reader gets a good sense of what it looks like and then either set the rest of that “scene” of your comic in a simpler part of that location (eg: where the background is just a wall or a few trees or something) or to draw a slightly simplified version of the background for the rest of the scene (where the emphasis should be either on the characters or on what is happening).”
Here’s an example from episode four of my “CRIT” comics, note the differences in background detail between pages ten and eleven. Page ten took quite a while to draw, but most of my time was spent with the writing on page eleven rather than the art.
The fact is that this technique is also extremely good for both time-saving and consistency reasons too – since it’s a lot easier to draw the same hotel room wall repeatedly than to consistently draw the highly-detailed and complicated view from the balcony next to it repeatedly.
However, if your characters are standing on a balcony and looking at the view or anything like that, then one way to use this trick is to show a drawing from the perspective of someone standing behind them (so that the reader sees what the characters are looking at) and then, for the rest of the scene, draw it from the perspective of someone standing in front of them (with just the balcony railings in the foreground and the balcony door and walls in the background).
This technique can be used for more than just drawing balconies, but changing the perspective/”camera angle” after the first panel can be a useful way of switching from complicated to simple backgrounds within the same setting.
2) Use distance to your advantage: Things in the distance are obviously a lot smaller and difficult to see, so consistency isn’t quite as important as long as you give a general impression of what is in the distant background. You can get away with things like cityscapes where most of the buildings look the same or forests where most of the trees either just look like squiggles or triangles.
After all, almost everyone knows what a city and a forest look like, so your reader’s imagination will fill in the gaps.
This is important to bear in mind if, for whatever reason, you can’t really use the first technique on this list during outdoor scenes. Plus, it’s just a good artistic technique in general if you want to place more emphasis on what is happening in the foreground. There are some types and styles of art where highly detailed distant backgrounds are important, but if you’re drawing comics then the emphasis should usually be more on the characters and storyline than the details of what’s in the distance.
Plus, you can also use a slight variant of the first technique for outdoor scenes too. Basically just make sure that the foreground is a lot simpler than the (undetailed) background.
If you’ve got a really unusual background (eg: a sci-fi or fantasy one), then it can occasionally be a good idea to show “close up” pictures of a few parts of the background if it’s possible to do this without breaking up the flow of your comic just to give your readers a general impression of where they are without having to draw the whole background in detail.
Here’s an example of this technique from my “Somnium” comic – note the rather undetailed town and procession in the background of the first two panels and the “close up” in the third panel:
3) Draw in black and white/greyscale: I’ve covered this whole topic in much more detail in one of my other articles, but it’s easier to make a simpler B&W background look more “professional” than it is to do the same with a simple background which is in colour.
Plus, if you keep background details to an absolute minimum (eg: just showing a B&W picture frame hanging on a light grey wall), then things like ensuring a decent amount of contrast between different things in the background are much less of an issue too.
4) Digital effects are your friend: This is only really relevant if you’re either drawing your comics on the computer or are scanning/photographing them after you’ve drawn them traditionally.
One basic technique I use after scanning almost all of my drawings is to add a slight blur effect to them, this smoothes out all of the pencil lines and it usually makes the backgrounds look slightly better as a result. Likewise, using things like motion blur effers for fires and sunsets in your backgrounds, adjusting the brightness and contrast carefully etc… can really work wonders for your backgrounds.
Pretty much any image editing program can do at least most of this stuff fairly easily – but, if you haven’t got one, then there’s a reasonably good free open-source image editing program called “GIMP” which can be found here.
As an example, here’s a comparison of a drawing called “Afterimage Aurora” I made in April both with and without effects. It isn’t from a comic, although it illustrates how a few simple pieces of digital editing can really work wonders for your backgrounds and art in general:
Just remember that digital effects are no substitute for good drawing skills, although they can really enhance what you’ve drawn.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful. Good luck with your comic 🙂