In the Background

I love drawing people. I think people are endlessly fascinating artistic subjects, and I love drawing a character’s eyes, mouth, expression and body language. I never get tired of it! But backgrounds? They’re my bête noire. Drawing them almost always feels like a chore.

A very wise comic artist once gave me some very good advice: if the characters are talking about something that sounds cool then SHOW IT (I was trying to weasel out of drawing a background and he totally called me on it) . So what if it’s going to be hard to draw or take a long time? Tough! That NEEDS to be your show-piece panel/page. You better whip out some reference and your perspective cheat sheets because it’s time to get to work!

I always try my best to make the art on the page match the scene in my head, and I think backgrounds are an important part of that. Unfortunately, detailed backgrounds take a lot of time to draw. Which would be fine, except I have a two-hour round trip commute, a challenging dayjob (where thank god my supervisor is very supportive of my at-times hectic artistic schedule), and a houseful of demanding, slightly nutty rescues. Plus I’m human, which means it’s inevitable that I’ll get tired and burned out.

What that all adds up to is the fact that I only have so many hours in a day.

Which means it’s time to talk about cheats! :D

The same artist went on to say that I could continue to sweat every single detail on every single page, but most of my readers were going to blow through a page every 4 or 5 seconds (IF I WAS LUCKY). They were probably never going to look THAT hard at the backgrounds I’d spent so many hours slaving over. His recommendation? Give yourself a break! Let’s say you have a 6-panel page. You can get away with sketching or abstracting away 5 of the panels if one of them has a nicely rendered background. My personal preference is to use this trick with scene establishing shots; in my opinion, once the reader has a solid idea of the characters’ surroundings, they’re more likely to let you get away with employing “cheats” such as dropping the backgrounds while characters talk, or drawing objects from the foreground or midground without rendering the entire room.

So all that said, I’d like to write a series of posts collecting backgrounds I really love that do a great job employing these kinds of shortcuts.

First up? Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki. A LOT of the backgrounds have surprisingly loose rendering.

Whisper of the Heart
The world of Shizuku’s story in Whisper of the Heart / Mimi o Sumaseba
The kitchen in the new house, My Neighbor Totoro / Tonari no Totoro. The kitchen is really well rendered, because this is one of the first times we see it. The forest behind them (which has already been well-established) is a literal wash (that’s some artist humor there, hyuk hyuk…ok, all right, I’ll show myself out, yeesh).
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Nausicaa’s secret lab from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind / Kaze no Tani no Naushikaa

You can see this in the Nausicaa graphic novels, too:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Vol 1. pg 10
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Vol 1. pg 22

Look at how many of these backgrounds are loose or suggestions. And it’s not like he CAN’T draw with an incredible level of detail when he wants to:

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Vol 1. pg 6

What I’m saying is that, clearly, he has the skills, but he also knows the value of cutting himself some slack once in awhile.

You can see this technique in these backgrounds from Miyazaki’s 1979 debut film, The Castle of Cagliotro:

Remember, this was an early movie which means it probably had a pretty small budget and staff.
This is a really good example. If you look closely you can see how much of the detail is suggested in a way that doesn’t detract from the background’s quality.
Lots of suggested elements here, too. I’m willing to bet the artist knew the focus of the composition would be on the clock tower, so that’s where they focused their effort.

The point of all this rambling is a plea to be kind to yourself when it comes to your art. Remember, you won’t be able to tell your stories if you burn yourself out.