Friday, July 11, 2008

Painting Technique - Scott Wills

I think one of these is Bill Wray's, but I'm not sure which...
Color style and paint technique are 2 different skills and talents. All these paintings by Scott Wills have very clever color styling and expert technique.
I've worked with a lot of talented painters. Scott stands out as someone who has a really high level of skill in technique.
What I mean by technique (as opposed to color) is the ability to handle brushes and paint tools with:

Smooth control
A wide variety of brush looks- drybrush, airbrush, textures etc...
Control of values and hierarchies of contrasts in the values.
Scott may possibly be the neatest painter I have every known. His work is super clean and precise.

I myself am the sloppiest painter on earth and have the highest admiration for someone who can make brushes do what they want them to do.
Here is a potentially busy BG that is rendered completely readable and fun by Scott's skill in creative decision making. It's very colorful and fun without being stock cartoon colors.

He has broken down the pan into groups of color families and separated each group from the background colors by putting black areas between the foreground groups and background colors. Black, like grays, whites and browns are neutral colors and tend to not compete with brighter more primary, secondary colors.

The background is a slightly grayed purple and olive green in a slightly darker than mid range value.

Any colors placed directly on top of the mid range colors-if they were of similar value would not separate very well. Putting black between the foreground colors an the BG colors separates them without competing with them.

In this mountain range, the values are kept close; not a lot of contrast. The contrasts are supplied by the washy greenish foliage against the pink sky.

Because the contrasts are low, characters or animation levels would read easily against this BG.
The contrasts in the above picture are higher, suggesting that we are supposed to notice the tree branches. The details behind them are much lower in value contrasts, yet have enough detail to make the image atmospheric rather than completely cold and flat.
There aren't a lot of different paint techniques employed in this particular modern cartoon style-mostly drybrush and sponge - harkening back to early Hanna Barbera BGs (and Ren and Stimpy's version of that style).
But Scott's control of these minimal techniques and the clever color choices makes the BGs feel rich and much more colorful than what we normally think of as cartoon backgrounds. In the minds of many studios, cartoon colors mean garish colors. Garish equals colorful. Garish to me means ugly and formulaic.
Painters like Scott have an extra daunting task, having to take super flat and cold layout drawings like these and somehow warm them up and wring some fun and mood out of them.
Painters like Scott are rare. This is not the only style he does, unlike many artists who copy this style.

I constantly challenged Scott (and Bill Wray and my other painters) to experiment with different techniques and moods that would help enhance the stories.

This modern background style (especially in the drawing) is to me a very restrictive set of rules, outside of which the painter can't stray without undermining the "style" of the series.
Personally, I don't want to have a house style or a set of rules for any cartoon series. Every story and gag has the potential of using different paint techniques.

Scott painted beautiful moody and deep BGs for Son of Stimpy that were in a completely different style than the more graphic paintings in say, Sven Hoek.

I'm sure I drove all my talented painters crazy by never settling on a style. I bombarded them constantly with inspiration from illustrations, old movies, kids' books, old cartoons, fashion magazines, nature photography and anything that had strikingly interesting looks that you weren't used to seeing in cartoons.

Scott and Bill in turn brought their own inspirations and ideas to the shows and that's why there are so many different approaches to both color and paint techniques in Spumco cartoons.

Hard to do, stressful but in the end everyone is proud of the experimentation.

Thanks to Pumml for collecting up all of Scott's great work.


Here are some other paintings that have excellent technique in different styles of technique and color.

These colors are more "cartoon standard" than the Samurai Jack BGs, but have great and varied paint technique.
Garish color, amazing technique.

Beautiful color, garish yet expert technique.

Warm and inviting and completely atmospheric. Expensive too.
Completely garish, too much contrast and hard to read, but I'm assuming it wasn't painted that way.

Garish colors, and bland uninspired technique.



Fuzzhound Lluis said...

these are so great John!!! I've gotta go now, I have only had a quick look, but I will be back to study this like a madman!!! thank you so much, this blog is the best in the whole wide world!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I have to learn to paint!!!

All the best!!

Bubs said...

John, I seriously think you should consider opening an animation school in the next 4 years because I would love to attend classes. The blog is great but it can't possibly let you teach and express all the things you want. Maybe you should write a book on cartoon appreciation or make some dvds. By the way, is that last bg pic from Tom and Jerry? I'm just wondering.

PCUnfunny said...

Scott Willis is definetly a modern day genius. I loved his work on Ren and Stimpy and Samurai Jack. BTW, what cartoons were the last two from ?

MasterK said...

Samurai Jack probably wouldn't be as artistically acclaimed as it is if Scott Wills didn't contribute.

Raff said...

Right on time.

I was perusing around in the bookstores looking for new books on gouache BG painting technique, like you see here - absolutely nothing.

Oh there are plenty of books for scratchy-artsy things that look like Bob Ross, or washy watercolor nonsense, but nothing basic with good results like the Blair book does for character drawing.

Are the secrets guarded that closely? Can you only learn by paying through the nose for Atelier Snooté Beaux-Arts with Rembrandt wannabes?

Ted said...

Thumbnail from Son of Stimpy:
See sketch for the screen cap.

Mitch K said...

What is your number one favorite little golden book?

JohnK said...

Pebbles Flintstone by Mel Crawford

trevor said...


I thought I knew what 'garish' meant, but what makes the last three examples garish?

- trevor.

pumml said...

I was hoping you'd do a post like this, John! I'm in awe of the amazing work that Scott, Bill, Jenny Gase-Baker and others have done on Sam Jack and Ren & Stimpy.

Glad you could make use of some of the screen captures, Bill has some superb ones on his blog, too. Here's my link:


Sandy Pants said...

I really thought every background had something nice about it... except that last one! BLEH!

Captain Napalm said...

>I thought I knew what 'garish' meant, but what makes the last three examples garish?<

Nothing specific. It's kind of a subjective impression. The bottom one is pretty generic and the bubblegum pink doesn't look so great, but the one that has "garish colours, amazing technique" looks fine to me. Those colours don't bother me at all, I'd willingly take credit for them.

AAAAAAAAAAron J said...

Beautiful post John!

If you have the moment, on the movie WALL-E, composition-wise--BG and Character, did anything stick out to you as a sore thumb, or anything you would have changed? apologies if this Q has been asked already.

David Gale said...

>I thought I knew what 'garish' meant, but what makes the last three examples garish?<

I think of "garish" as too many different hues at too high a level of saturation, which I agree is the case with the two throne room ones.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Maaaannn! Scott is fantastic, and your commentary was great! Thanks also to Pumml! I pity any artist who isn't a regular on this site!

Aaron said...

so beautiful

PCUnfunny said...

I never knew Dexter's Lab had a golden book ! Going by the cover, it's a ten on the kick ass-o-meter.

Captain Napalm said...

I think a big difference between myself and John is that I don't dislike different hues of the same colour sitting together. Actually I find monochromaticism kind of fascinating for some reason. For example, I find it hilarious that the interior of Ned Flanders' house looks like a cake. It's just perfect. He does not live in the real world, and if you enter his home he will read scripture to you whether you ask to hear it or not. The colours tell you to run away before that happens.

PCUnfunny said...

napalm: That's an interesting comment about a house in THE SIMPSONS. They all look the same to me with the same bland colours.

Captain Napalm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Semaj said...

Scott Wills' Ren & Stimpy work was awesome. So was his work on "Buy One, Get One Free"; he and Don Shank should do more projects together.

And Eyvind Earle had to have been the most complex background painter ever. I'd die of a heart attack trying to emulate his stuff.

PQ! said...

Great post John, I really apreciate your opinion about colour and techniques.
If you have some time pass in my blog to see my stuff, i would really like it!
thanks a lot...

Tony said...

"The "Kooking with Krusty" heart attack is a hell of a lot funnier than some Little Lulu comic, and anyone who says otheriwise is a bald-faced idiot, plain and simple."

I don't think the point of posting those old comics was to say how funny they were but to point out how professional the line work and compositions are.

Captain Napalm said...

>That's an interesting comment about a house in THE SIMPSONS. They all look the same to me with the same bland colours.<

I was thinking of a specific episode. My opinion on the colours on that show vary from scene to scene. I don't really like anything about average episodes after season eight, but in a classic episode there might be scenes where I think the colours are bang-on, even if they're too muted or too garish elsewhere. In my book, The Simpsons is the only classically animated cartoon that can ever, ever, EVER get away with flat acrylic cel backgrounds. Or writers. Well, there's Futurama, but I'm not a huge fan of it. If another show comes along and proves me wrong I'll eat my hat, but otherwise, best stick with John K's advice - 85 or 90 per cent of the time he's right.

Hryma said...

4th one down has to have had a filter over it?
Smart dude.

Guy said...

In my book, The Simpsons is the only classically animated cartoon that can ever, ever, EVER get away with flat acrylic cel backgrounds. Or writers.

Why? Because you like it?

Well, there's Futurama, but I'm not a huge fan of it.


HemlockMan said...

Nice stuff.

In addition to the striking images in SAMURAI JACK, I've also found the choices of voice actors to be exemplary. I especially like the guy who does the voice for Aku, the evil lord.

Captain Napalm said...

Guy, what's your point? OBVIOUSLY I wouldn't go to any great lengths defend something I don't like. I'm not The Objectivator 3000 and niether is ANYONE who has a blog or comments on a blog. Or has a pulse.
Now, this blog is exceptional for how well it backs up it's author's opinions, but educated (not to mention educational!) opinions are still opinions. Have fun deconstructing me -or John, or anyone- if you must, but I don't really see the point.

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous!! Thank you for posting these, I've been scouring the net for Samurai Jack BGs for years.

Guy said...

I'm just annoyed when people go "Yeah, bad art is bad. Except for this badly drawn thing I like, which is artistically badly drawn even though it's the exact same thing."

Palbo said...

Un monje le preguntó a Joshu: "Esta vaca, ¿tiene la naturaleza de Buda?"

Joshu respondió: "¡Mu!"

pumml said...

Hi again John,

I see you added a few more images... that topmost one from the opening credits is one of Bill Wray's, btw. Any plans to do a post like this about the background art from Ren + Stimpy? I'd love to see that. I've got some screencaps of those bgs which I haven't posted yet, but plan to in the future.

SGP said...

what kind of paint do these background artists use?

rodineisilveira said...

Johnny K.,

Jesus! I recognize these backgrounds done by Scott Wills! They're from Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack.
Seeing these backgrounds done by Scott Wills, I could notice that Scott is a new Art Lozzi. Or else, a new Fernando Montealegre.

JohnK said...

To Richard Daskas:

I tried to email you back, but it got returned twice.

what's your real email?


pumml said...

SGP - I believe these are cel vinyl acrylic paint, which is available at It's the best!

Tony C. said...

Great post John! I've always loved the Samurai Jack Backgrounds, but had no idea it was just one guy doing them all.

Captain Napalm said...

Guy, I'm not actually interested in discussing this further, but don't call me a hypocrite. I DON'T think the old Simpsons looked like crap. If I did, I would readily admit it -"yes, it looked like crap." But that's not what I think. I'm not some pussy apologist who goes around making excuses for bad work. I actually disagree with you on the issue of whether it's good or not. And if you think I'm given away by my admission that I don't ALWAYS like something, then I can give you a breakdown on the Ren and Stimpy episodes I don't like and what parts of the design and direction don't work for me. If you didn't hate the Simpsons, you woould't assume I was apologizing for it. It's your bias, not mine.

Also, don't bother responding to this because I truly don't give a shit. I just don't let people call me a hypocrite or an apologist. That I am not.

Kristy Gordon said...

Wow! Yeah, Scott Wills is Awesome!!!!

*daisy said...

I meant to respond to this ages ago, but I wanted to say a huge thank you for posting this- this is such a great post on background painting, and it's been so so helpful- I really enjoy the other background oriented blogs you pointed to as well- they've been so inspiring! Thanks John!!

Keith said...

Great read. I have been heavily inspired by Scott's stuff, but I didn't know his name, so thanks for that.

I never had messed with BG's or even color for that matter much till recently. Been using Samurai Jack stills to learn from. Here

Loving this blog. I will have to donate for sure when I get the money to, it definitely deserves it.