Dynamic Picture Making and Environments

December 2, 2015 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

Dynamic Picture Making and Environments

Environment headerYou want to draw a cool picture but how to do it? There’s nothing’s worse than sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, having an notion of what you want to draw but not knowing where to start or how to do it. How do you draw a cool, dynamic picture?

You also know that in order to draw a cool picture, you’re going to need to create some sort of environment for your character to be in. Creating an environment and drawing a dynamic picture often go hand in hand. Although, most likely, it’s an environment you may not want to draw or create.

Let’s face it, you probably don’t want to draw backgrounds.  The thought of it makes you think it will be boring and technical. It’s no where near as fun as drawing cartoon figures full of character.

When it comes to coming up with interesting, dynamic picture making, there’s a few fun tricks that can get you past that first uncertain stages.

And regarding drawing environments, it can be as fun and rewarding as drawing characters.  It’s all a matter of how you approach them.

In this lesson, we’re going to talk about creating dynamic drawings with characters inside environments.  By the time we’re done here, not only will you be able to “play” your way through creative block, but you’ll also have fun and even look forward to creating cool backgrounds and environments for your characters to be in.

Applying What You Know and Obtaining New Knowledge

If you’ve read all the lessons so far, you’d be surprised to know that a lot of what I’ve written about drawing cartoon characters applies directly to backgrounds and environments.

You are, in fact, already equip to tackle them.  It’s just a matter of showing  you how to apply what you already learned and know.

Also drawing backgrounds and environments require you to learn new things as you go.  This means you need to find ways to obtaining this knowledge.

I will also address a rule of thumb to keep in mind when drawing these things.

So let me give you a quick list of the concepts we’ll be going over when it comes to drawing background and environments:

  • Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background
  • Rhythm
  • Shapes
  • Character
  • Reference

Sound familiar? Most of these things I’ve addressed in previous lessons.  Let me take each of these subjects and show you how they apply to picture making. Beginning with one of the newer concepts…

Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background

A good rule of thumb when approaching a drawing is to attempt to break up the picture plane into three distinctive parts: Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background.

It’s not always possible to have all three elements in a drawing, but it’s always good to try.

Whether you can get all three elements in the drawing or only two, you should strive to clearly show that they’re separated by space.  In other words, make it clear that the foreground elements are closer to us, the middle ground are a bit further away and the background is furthest away.

If it helps, think about these elements like a box diorama. Anything you draw in the foreground is placed closest to the lid of the box.  The middle ground elements are placed in between the lid and the back of the box. And the background is the back of the box:

Diorama foreground background middle ground

Thinking about these three elements in this way from the start, will automatically add interest and dynamism to a drawing.


When drawing organic environments, rhythm lines are you friends.  By “organic environments,” I mean, forests, jungles, parks…anything that is mostly nature.

Lines should flow naturally in and out of each other. Straight lines are not often found in nature. The ideal lines to use when creating organic environments are “c” curves and “s” curves.

Once you start putting flowing lines on a piece of blank paper, the drawing quickly starts “telling you” what it needs and wants to do.

You’re working with abstract ideas here, it’s okay if it doesn’t look like anything at first. You’ll make it look like something later.

Combined with the foreground, middle ground, and background rule of thumb, you can come up with some great looking, dynamic drawings quickly:

Forest Rhythm


More often than not, you’re aren’t drawing organic environments. You’re drawing streets, and rooms.  Man made structures of some sort. That’s when flat shapes come in and save the day.

Remember, we give the elusion of space but we work first in flat graphics. To this end, when drawing something brand new on a blank page, composing the space you’re working in with flat graphic shapes, is a great way to play with dynamics placement.

If you do so, you find out right away if what you’re doing in aesthetically pleasing or not.  This saves drawing time since you’re not drawing pretty drawings. If you don’t like what you’ve done simply toss the drawing away or, if you’ve drawn lightly enough, erase and adjust.

What you may end up with is something you might see an abstract painter do, basically because your are in fact playing with abstracts:

Shapes Environment

The flat shapes can be as simple or as informative as you’d like, but the main idea is to keep it simple. The intent is not to have a finished drawing at first, but to have something you can play around with.

Once you find what you want, you can then go in and start fleshing out the drawing more.


Speaking of fleshing out the drawing, this is where drawing environments gets a bit more like drawing characters.

An environment isn’t just a place.  In your mind, it should have a history. It should also say something about people. Either the people in it, the people who created it, or the way the it makes people feel.

Most environments you create shouldn’t simply exist as a backdrop.  They should tell a story, even if only at a subconscious level.

If it’s a forest, what kind?  Where is it located? Is it a hot climate there? Is it cool? What altitude?  What kind of animals might live there?  What kind of trees?

If it’s a building, what’s it’s purpose?  How old is it? When was it built? What atmosphere are you trying to convey by the way you’ve drawn it?

If it’s an interior, what’s it’s purpose? Who furnished it? What does the way it’s furnished say about the person who either lives in the place or furnished it?  What’s the ambiance you want the audience to take away, by seeing or feeling this particular interior?

There’s so much fun stuff that goes into creating a great environment.  It may say as much if not more about the character who inhabits it than how they look. It’s a characters enhancing tool.

Use it.


When it’s time to start finishing up and putting in the details of a given scene, character, history, story, mood, dictate what best to draw. This is when reference comes in.

What kind of chair would this character furnish their studio with?  What kind of bed would they sleep in? What type of trees make up this forest?

Look them up! Find reference.  See what fits, what doesn’t.  Feed your brain. Don’t draw symbols of chairs, beds or trees, draw actual chairs, beds or trees.

I always find it interesting that, beginning artists assume they should NEVER look at reality or observe the world around them to draw something.

They assume that they should use their imagination alone, never realizing that reality is the very food of our imagination.

Not only that, often the reason we don’t want to create or draw environments is because we simply don’t have a good idea of what to draw.  We don’t know what the place should look like.

Reference fixes this creative block.  It helps you slowly whittle away what you don’t want and slowly guides you to what you do want.  This eventually begins to create a clearer picture in your mind.

It get’s your imagination going and ultimately makes your environments unique.


Alright, it’s time to show you some practical examples.

This time around, I’m using art from one of my comics.  Environments take a bit more time to produce and, as much as I would like to recreate some Disney concept art which might get me in trouble, I just thought I’d use what I’ve already done.

Below is an exterior shot, in a wilderness type of setting:

BTK 3 Pages 01a



As you can see, there’s clearly a foreground, middle ground, and background in the drawing that leads you deeper.  The bush in the corner, the bunnies and the mailbox are the foreground. The house and the tiny bunnies near it, are the middle ground. The cliff, sky and forest are the background.

Below I show you the basic sweeping lines I used when drawing all the nature in this piece. I left out the house and the characters as part of the sweeps since I didn’t take them into account when drawing it:

BTK 3 Pages 01b

Now we have the an interior shot of the house.  It’s a study.

Again notice the foreground, middle ground, and background in the piece:

The Claw'S House Interior EXAMPLE

When drawing this environment, I used mostly straight lines and created it all using flat shapes.

The-ClawS-House-Interior-EXAMPLE rough

Both these environments where put together using reference I’d gotten from my different sources.

Your Turn

Create environments with a character in it using these techniques.

Exercise 1

Rhythm  – Draw natural environment. When faced with a blank frame:

  • Start by breaking up the frame up using “c” curves and “s” curves. Avoid straights. Let these lines flow around the page. Something along the lines of some of the exercises in Level 0 Lesson 1.  Don’t over do it. Make sure you put a few sweeping lines that go across the entire page. Avoid breaking up the picture plane in half.  See the Basic Composition Lesson for more tips. There’s also more tips below in the Pro Tips section.
  • Once you have what you deem to be enough, see what you can make out of the lines.  You may find that the lines are already implying an environment. Start defining the topography of the potential environment by drawing a grid over all the elements.
  • Think about the history, mood, feel,…etc. of what you want to convey with the drawing.  Give it character.
  • Make sure to break up the space into the three sections: Foreground, Middle ground, and Background.  Ideally, you should have these elements in mind before you even begin.
  • Use reference to get ideas and add the right kinds of natural details. This will make the overall drawing more convincing. You can use the reference before or after you start the exercise. If you get it before, you’re more likely to get something far more deliberate and less random. The reference may very well give you a direction to go in from the start.

Like this…

Here’s my preliminary rhythm lines:

Forest Rhythm

And here I define the topography using grid:

Forest forms

Below is my reference. Photos I took in Descanso Gardens:

Trees and Bushes 02 Trees and Bushes 01

And this is what I quickly came up with when I put it all together:


It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be rough.  You just want to get comfortable drawing and thinking in this way.

Your goal is to get good at breaking up the picture plane in interesting and dynamic ways.

Exercise 2

Shapes – Draw a more man made environment. When faced with a blank frame:

  • Put abstract shapes on the page. They don’t have to represent anything. Find a pleasing arrangement for those shapes. Play around with sizes and the position of the shapes.  Play with the shapes themselves. Have fun. It’s like a game.
  • Once you have something that looks right to you, see what you can make out of the shapes. Perhaps you already had something in mind.
  • Decide where the Horizon Line and Vanishing Points are so you can solidify the shapes.
  • Think about the history, mood, feel,…etc. of what you want to convey with the drawing.  Give it character.
  • Make sure to break up the space into the three sections: Foreground, Middle ground, and Background.  Ideally, you should have these elements in mind before you even begin.
  • Use reference to get ideas and add the right kinds of natural details. This will make the overall drawing more convincing. You can get the reference before of after you start the exercise. If you get it before, you’re more likely to get something far more deliberate and less random. The reference may very well give you a direction to go it from the start.

Like this…

This time around I started with the reference first.  Pictures I took in a plaza in Pasadena:

pic-0163 pic-0159

Taking these photos as inspiration, I came up with a composition by breaking up the picture plane with some flat shapes:

Shapes Environment

This was not my first pass.  I drew a few versions until I found something I liked.

Once that happened, I added a Horizon Line and a single vanishing point.

Plaza perspective

Using the reference I then went in a roughed out the details of the background:


I did NOT use a ruler.  I find them confining when I’m creating something like this.  I just eyeballed the perspective as best as I could using the grid lines I placed in.  That’s what they are for.

If I wanted to, I could go over both of the rough drawings from Exercise 1 and 2 and add another polished pass.  Including adding a pass with a ruler for Exercise 2.

You don’t have to do that though.  You can keep it rough in order to get the hang of drawing environments in this way.

Draw as many of these environments as you want until you think you’ve got the hang of it.  You’ll find you’ll want to add environments for your characters to be in once you get used to this.


Q: Can I start with the perspective first?

A: It’s better that you don’t. You’ll find you’ll have a lot less control  over your picture if you do.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t think about perspective when you’re drawing these kinds of environments.

Perspective should be the first and last thing you should really be worrying about when drawing environments.

When you beginning scribbling down anything, think about where the horizon line MIGHT be. This should ALWAYS be in the back of your mind. You don’t need to actually put it into the drawing as you go. Simply keep it in mind.

Leave any actual horizon lines, vanishing points and grids until you’re satisfied with the placement of your shapes.  Keep thing malleable until that point. Give yourself as much space to play around.

Perspective grids and vanishing points are used to generally start locking things in place.

Pro Tips

When in doubt, lower the horizon line.

In Level 0 Lesson 7, I wrote about basic composition.  In it I showed examples creating contrast by moving the horizon line off the center of the picture plane and moving it either further up or further down.

If you’re not sure where to put the horizon line, error on the side of putting it below the center line than above it.  Having a lower horizon line helps create dynamic contrast in shapes and rhythms, almost by default.

For further reading on the subject, I highly recommend you visit my personal blog and read the post I wrote:

A Lesson Indirectly Learned From Brad Bird

I would have simply copied all the info and put it here, but it’s kinda long and it’s just easier for me to link to it.

Also, this info will eventually be printed in a book. I use I ton of copyrighted material in the post that I don’t have permission to reproduce in print.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning drawing environment questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about backgrounds? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

Or better yet, sign up to receive more information via e-mail. You’ll get extra tips and advice.  You can ask me questions that way also.