Friday, May 23, 2008

More BG Layout Notes - HIERARCHY of Form and Composition

BG Layout artists, or the persons who will help me design the main scenes and setups will have to be able to draw a variety of types of forms, and use some basic principles of design and composition to make the scenes compose well with the characters.

The BGs should provide an instantly readable organic environment for characters to play out their stories.

Hopefully some of these qualities below will help you see what I am aiming for:

TREES - Build Trees out of overall forms, don't start with the details.

Each of these trees has an interesting overall form. Even the foliage is contained in a form; it's not a mess of random leaves.

When you go outside, squint your eyes when looking at trees. Try to see the form of the tree, rather than getting lost and confused in the details of leaves, bark and branches.

Each kind of tree has its own unique plan, and each member of each kind of tree has its own unique variation on the same overall plan.

Buildings/Cars- Man Made Organic Geometry
Man-made objects, such as houses and machines are made of simpler more geometric forms than nature's forms, but to be well-designed, they still have to have appealing, solid forms.

And, they also have to have variety in the shapes, details, textures, arrangement of forms.

Lots of negative shapes!

Composition. The biggest forms in the picture have to make the overall statement instantly. A viewer shouldn't be distracted by a lot of cluttered details and an absence of negative shapes.

What details there are should be much smaller than the bigger forms they help describe. They wrap around the bigger shapes- going in the same directions. Not in a strictly 100% mathematical way. there should be very slight organic imperfections, but not so much that they destroy the forms they are part of.

The bricks, windows etc. on the walls below are not drawn with a ruler; there are no 100% parallel lines. Edges have slight curves. Not all the shapes mirror each other.

The details are not evenly spaced apart.

The background is composed to make the character read easily in his environment.

This is the kind of thoughtful control I would like in the layouts of my cartoons. No haphazard wonky flat modern look.

Stylish but planned.

A car is more organic than a house, but still has an overall form, and again: the details wrap around the form. They don't go off in their own directions.
The door follows the form of the side of the car, the lines on the seats follow the shape of the seats, etc.
Nature - Organic Forms, but still forms
Good BG design makes the largest forms in the picture make a statement: a controlled purposeful instantly readable composition.

The details are less important.
The details follow the same perspective and physics as the larger forms.

Not all areas of detail are filled equally. There are sparse areas or completely empty areas.


This is so important. If the details get too large, or stick out of the silhouettes of the larger forms, they make it harder to see an overall form.
This Frazetta drawing looks elaborate and detailed, but follows the same ideas and planning of the more cartoony art above. All the little details - the bark texture, the moss, the flowers and mushrooms are much smaller than the twisted solid tree root. The tree root is the important graphic statement.

If the details were too large, or didn't flow around the root, or stuck out of the silhouette of the root more, you wouldn't feel or see the root so clearly.

There are sparser areas of detail on the root-between the areas of moss, for example.

I don't need anything this detailed in my cartoons, but the principles are what I am after.

The big picture should be solid, interesting and instantly readable as what it is - and not get in the way of the characters..






Blammo said...

Nice post.
You are a good teacher!


queefy said...

Great post. I finally got around to trying my hand at drawing George. I put it on my homo blog.

John Ward said...

This is a fantastic post, John. I particularly enjoyed/learned from the pictures showing the various levels of forms. Thanks.

AAAAAAAAAAron J said...

"Minnie Mouse and the Antique Chair"--sounds like fodder for another summer blockbuster.

JohnK said...

Thanks John (and jason and queef)

are you Wardomatic?


Colter said...

This is exactly what I needed.. Thanks John.

Kali Fontecchio said...


Kristy said...

Woo, cool post Johnny! It's awesome to see that Frazetta drawing again that was in your Ripping Friends bible!

Colter said...

I'm sure others have done this, but just in case you haven't. Go through and search backgrounds, Art Lozzi, and bookmark all the stuff that John has brought up in regards to backgrounds.

And categorize it in your favorites list, it helps.. big time. In fact, I suggest that you go through and do this for every lesson he has posted, there is so much information buried in his blog. It'll be worth the trouble once you're done.

John Ward said...

Hi John,

No, I'm not Ward-O-Matic. I've seen his blog before though; so, I am familiar with the guy you're talking about.

There's no reason you should know me. I haven't done anything in animation. I have done some freelance illustration work for genre publishers/game companies.

I just a guy who stumbled onto your blog a little under a year ago while doing a google search for something about color theory. One of your posts popped up, and I've been reading the blog ever since.

Everyone always tells you this, but these posts you make regarding the core principles are great. They are some of the best material I've been able to find on the various topics. Thanks for devoting so much of your time to sharing your knowledge.

Nate said...

Hi John -

Here is an attempt at a background for GL.

GL House Concept

I need to digest this post and try another few concepts.

I would like to apply for one of your layout positions. I would appreciate any tips that might get me closer to the style that you are looking for.

Feel free to use my blog or email me at

Thanks a million for these lessons.

Nate said...

Those Eisenberg drawings are gorgeous!

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Wardomatic is Ward Jenkins. He does a lot of stuff for [adult swim].

- trevor.

Deemo said...

Hey John please check out my blog i put some very funny doodles of George up i think youll get a kick out of some of them, theyre pretty hilarious. There are also some Backgrounds. Please if you have any advice tell me what you think of my doodles and bgs. That would be very helpful. And i read what you said about inking and I think that would a great start for me, especially since I am trying to get into the animation world. The whole project sounds great and I would love to be a part of it. Thanks.

Nate said...

Hey John I sent you a response via email (I hope that's cool!)

Racattack Force said...

You are a really great teacher. I've learned so much from this post about background design. Also, take a gander at this:

I actually find it pretty funny, with the artist's portrayal of you. I also find it to be completely dead-on.

Jake Thomas said...

On the Rootie Kazootie cover, the guy on the wanted poster reminds me of Eddie.

Ted Bramble said...

This is so great-- it can apply to everything from bg design to website layout. Dyno-mite piece of knowledge, thanks!

Raff said...

Now that I'm drawing more, I understand this better. It's even in the subtleties of thin and thick lines.

And all of this really hits home when you have a good look at what's on TV now cartoon-wise. You get to see, when it's all in action, how hard things are to read and how little you want to look at the screen because you're bombarded with technicolor junk.

The worst is some geometric-looking short character standing in front of a wall full of gismos and gadgets. Make up your mind, guys - the shot is only 3 seconds long, do you want me to focus on the character or the gadgets?

John Ward said...

Hi John,

I've done another background that I'd like your opinion on. I used one of the layout examples you posted yesterday as reference. Would you mind letting me know your thoughts?

Here's a link:


carlo guillot said...

Hi John.
I´ve just made more drawings of George (and a couple of Jimmy).
I make those today, just trying to understand more the construction. They are intended for storyboards, but you have the final word. Please let me know what you think, and give me any advice, cause I will work harder tomorrow and your guide will be really helpful.
Thanks in advance,
Carlo Guillot

JoJo said...

This is great. A lot of these principles seem universal. Not only for forms in backgrounds, but what you said about character poses too. I'm sure this applies to everything else for maximum readability.


Joel Bryan said...

These have all been some exciting, educational posts. This blog has been a huge influence on me and lately as I'm getting back into drawing again these posts prove timely.

I'm not nearly at a professional quality level to try for a job doing this stuff, but all this hierarchy of form stuff... WOW. I even love saying "hierarchy of form." I'm going to try to use this stuff in my own little projects so that when people see them no one will have to feel embarrassed for me.

So thanks!

Also, I cannot wait for this cartoon to appear. And some of these people with their links and their own work?


Deemo said...

Hey, John

Thanks for your feedback it means alot and I will definitely apply your lessons to my work, and Im pretty sure after I send this ill get to drawing.

Yes I'm currently in school and I go to the Art Institute of Philadeplhia.

I was just curious do you know when you will let people know if they qualify for the job? And do you think I have a chance of becoming one of the inking crew?

Well thanks again ill continue to keep improving and use your knowledege to help me grow as an artist.

J. said...

Your blog should be made manditory material in animation school. This is priceless information.

It's so great that you do this for free, John. It's like a big F-YOU to all the over-priced tuition art schools out there.

The Butcher said...

I'll probably never wind up working with you on anything, or even meet your standards, but this information is gold. Might not turn me into a great artist, but it'll help improve my work. Thank you.

queefy said...

I took another shot at drawing George. This time I went slow and tried to keep my pencil lines from being so loose. If you want to check it out, its on my blog.

Tommy said...

Here's one with a background. George in the Woods.

Arschblog said...

I did some BGs too, please tell me what you think!

if this link doesn't work, it's on my blog anyway.

Deemo said...

I did some more BG's. I think you'll be impressed. Check out my blog and let me know what you think of them. Thanks

Kyle said...

Man, I wish I had you as a personal mentor John. or at least someone who shares similiar sensibilities.

This is kind of off topic but I'll ask anyway. I recently got big old computer desk in my room that Im in the process of turning into an art desk, similiar to ones animators use. Im hoping to even get a light and peg board put in too.

anyway, Im curious if you had any ideas on what kind of art to surround myself with to pin up and look to for inspiration. any suggestions at all? maybe even a specific picture or model sheet I could print out?

Hryma said...

G'day John,
Like most fellow readers I have taken a crack at drawing some BG's.
Slim chance me being down under and all, and having been promoted as a sculpter already, but I didn't want to miss out on any of the fun.

Excellent post,

carlo guillot said...

Hi John
I don't know if drawing backgrounds is my thing, but this is my approach. It's ONLY a tree.

Andy Norton said...

I am always having problems with drawing vehicles in my work because I am always intimidated by the 'details' of them.
Thanks for sharing some really helpful theory, John.

Oswald Iten said...

Hi John, is there any book you would recommend on BG layout or BG composition in general?
I've been browsing Amazon for a while now, but haven't found a book that seems to do for background artists what Preston Blair does for animators.