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How to draw amazing backgrounds in five simple steps

Former What's Your Story? participant and comic artist Georgia McLellan shares some handy tips for making sure the background sings when you sit down to draw a comic panel or page.

Audience: Writers, Young People

Last updated: 28 July 2022

Loved and loathed, admired and agonized over – background art remains a struggle for many artists. This step-by-step tutorial will help guide you smoothly through the often daunting process, without the fuss and confusion.

Step 1Choose your focus

Firstly, what is the purpose of your background? Is it to draw attention to a character, highlight a piece of scenery, or tell a story? The idea is to draw the viewer's eye towards your chosen focus.

The rule of thirds is a helpful trick for doing this. Divide a piece of paper into six equal boxes by drawing two lines vertically and two horizontally. According to theory, wherever the lines cross over, the eye will be drawn. Keep this in mind when deciding where to position your focal point.

Step 2 – Laying the foundations

Now you can create the foundations for your background.

On a new piece of paper, draw one long horizontal line. This is called the horizon line. If you keep this low, your image will be more dynamic and interesting.

The next step is to pick an area on your horizon line. This is called a vanishing point. From your chosen point, draw straight lines outwards like the rays of a sun. This will help you to create a three-dimensional space where you can place your objects proportionally. Adding faint horizontal lines across the page can also help to visualise the space.

The BBC has a handy video on perspective in drawing and painting(this link will open in a new window).

Step 3 Use layers

Most interesting backgrounds contain three sections: the foreground (the stuff which is closest to the viewer), the midground (the objects in the centre part of the image) and the background (anything in the back of the image). Your chosen focus is usually in the midground, and the trick is to have the other sections help draw your attention to this point.

Why not have a close-up tree in the foreground in which the branches gently bend towards the focal point? Or have the clouds in the background do the same? Adding details like this will help your drawing to stand out.

Step 4The 80/20 rule

Now comes the fun part – colouring your background! A handy tip is to keep 80% of your image in either a warm or cool tone, and the other 20% in the opposite tone. This creates a strong contrast which makes your background more eye-catching and interesting to look at. It can also be a good idea to put the tone you have less of around your focal point, to draw extra attention to it.

Remember! In the foreground, objects will be very dark – or even black. The further away the objects are, the more faded their colours will be.

Step 5Add the details

A background is more than just pretty – it's also a great tool for storytelling! Imagine drawing someone's bedroom. You could just draw a simple room with a few generic items, or you could add photographs on the wall, musical instruments, and some cat toys. Already, we're beginning to create an image of who this character is, which makes your drawing more interesting and helps to tell the story.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you'll be producing beautiful backgrounds in no time, and hopefully you'll have some fun along the way!