How to Design Backgrounds
You might not realize it, but drawing a background is one of the most important parts of any character illustration.
Your characters shouldn't be floating in a white background. They belong to their own, unique universe that defined the way your characters evolved up until the point you drew them.
In this Tutorial article, we'll examine how artist Maddy Zoli creates a background. Follow along in Vectornator and learn how to do it yourself!
If you’ve read our first lesson on character design, you know that a character’s backstory is the backbone of every line you draw.
You need to ground your characters in a deeper story than meets the eye; from when they were born, to where they live, what job they have, up to what their favorite food is. Sounds overkill? For us, it sounds more like fun!
Without falling into a deep rabbit hole, think of all these details about your character’s past, present, and future, and manifest them in their environment. In other words, project the story you have in your mind into the character’s background. Using visual storytelling like this will make your characters and worlds feel much richer and more real.
This tutorial was made in collaboration with the amazing Maddy Zoli. We are creating a whole character series together on our YouTube channel, and she’s not only a pleasure to collaborate with, but she’s super knowledgeable about this topic. We could not have worked with anyone better for this step-by-step guide.
You will notice that each step that we mention in this tutorial does not go into the most minute of details. Meaning that we won’t mention a step each time a new layer is created or a new shape is drawn. Instead, we will condense each structural addition to the design process as one overarching step.
• Apple Pencil
• Procreate (or any other sketching software)
• Latest version of Vectornator
• How to sketch
• How to prep your canvas and background
• How to add and manage layers
• Advanced use of the Pen, Pencil, Brush Tools, Node, and Shape Tools
• Advanced use of the Color Picker and Gradient Editor
• How to add light, shadows, and movement
• How to use the duplicate function to ease your workload
• How to create hand-drawn lettering
• How to create complex shapes
We’ve combined practice and theory here, so buckle up!
Get Your References Right
This step is about finding the right inspiration for the type of background that you want to design.
Can you guess where Maddy’s references come from? Her inspirations are pastel cityscapes with neon lights from ‘80s and ‘90s anime like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. She's going to incorporate their aesthetic into her background design.
They're already set up to have interesting lighting, action, and good composition. But you can also just go outside and draw landscapes or urban scenes you see around you.
The most important thing here is to give everything meaning. You shouldn't think of your character and their background as separate things, but as one single unit. You’re not just drawing a background for your character, you’re drawing the scene that happens to have your character in it.
Sketch Your Basic Shapes
A popular style of sketching is to do a few small, 5-minute "gesture" studies from references where you simply block out the major values.
Then pick one or two studies to develop into more detailed sketches that you spend about 30 min to create, just like the sketch that Maddy completes in Procreate.
Thinking this way helps you integrate all your elements in a better and more interesting way. Because your viewer gets me more invested in the environment than if it were just a decorative backdrop.
So in our case, we already know that Jocasta is a teenage girl with superpowers. But what Maddy as the creator knows is that she lives in the future, in a busy city where she has to wait for public transport every evening to go back home.
You can tell by this little eye-catching element—the bus stop sign is actually a space shuttle.
Upload Sketch into Vectornator
From Procreate, simply export your sketch as a jpeg/png and import it into Vectornator. You can do that by drag and drop from the Gallery Tab.
Position Your Character
Maddy placed Jocasta in the scene following the rule of thirds.
There are many ways to create a great composition by using various tried and tested rules (like the rule of thirds) that help you achieve a balanced aesthetic. If you want to learn more about it, check out our video tutorial on creating great compositions filmed by another, amazing illustrator—Soodabeh Damavandi.
Organize Your Layers
It’s important to stay neat and organized with your layers—the extra effort you put into this step will help you tenfold as you progress with your illustration.
So after you’ve placed your character, hide the character layer. Then, lock the sketch layer after you’ve lowered its opacity.
This is also a good time to talk about technique!
There are two ways to design a background: using perspective or layering your landscape. Today we are focusing on the layering technique. If you’d like us to cover perspective theory in another video, please comment below.
So, if we break down the landscape, we have five layers in total. From front to back, so from the closest to the farthest, the layers are:
- Jocasta and the ghost.
- The bus stop and the railway.
- The first row of buildings.
- The second row of buildings.
- Finally, the sky, moon, and clouds.
From this point on, simply remember to always create a new layer for any new design element to your illustration—for instance, the bus stop is on a separate layer, and so is the second row of buildings, and so are the moon and stars, as so on. You get it.
Tell the Story With Colors
Color is another super important aspect that can tell more about your character’s story.
So to recap: this world is in the future, it’s filled with magic, and it’s also inspired by Sailor Moon. No shock here that Maddy has chosen bold colors like neons, pastels, pinks, and greens. Anything but dull!
Here are all the hex codes you need in order to recreate Maddy’s piece:
Dark Purple - 7125D0
Orange - EFB09F
Medium Blue - 869FEF
Dark Blue - 3E6AED
Darker Blue - 4265D2
Teal - 2885C7
Yellow - FEF66F
Pink - F9A3D8
Light Pink - F9DCEE
Ultimately, you have to ensure that you use a color combination that is contrasting enough but remains harmonious with your character at the same time. That is why Maddy picked very similar hues to the ones that she used for Jocasta.
You’ll notice that the shades Maddy chose are going to be used and reused in a wide variety of design elements throughout her composition. Choosing a diverse, yet limited color palette will help you in the creative process, but will also make your artwork more cohesive and identifiable.
Set the Mood With the Time of Day
Stay away from a solid background color and use the time of day as a way to set the mood. For this scene, Maddy chose early evening.
It fits with the way both Jocasta and her ghost friend feel right now. Jocasta looks like she’s already over it, but since ghosts appear at night, he is just about to start his day!
To achieve this look, Maddy creates a purple square that fills up the entire canvas (C18FF0). She then applies a dark blue (3E6AED) linear gradient starting from the upper right corner.
Maddy then duplicates the square, rotates it so that the gradient sits in the opposite corner, and changes the gradient color to a beautiful orange (EFB09F). Did someone say sunset vibes?
Create the Second Row of Buildings
We are going to start with the second farthest layer of objects (the farthest being the sky).
This particular order is not that important. But if you have a cluster of layers that overlap each other, like the buildings, train station, and so on, it’s best to start with the farthest so you can understand how to place your objects in the foreground, how much negative space you have to play around with, and what colors contrast best.
Maddy picks up the Shape Tool and starts creating geometric shapes to define the frontal view of the buildings. The shade of blue she uses is 869FEF.
And to draw the sides, she opts for a darker shade—957AE1.
Not only that, but she also uses the Node Tool in order to change the angle of the top side of the rectangle so that they align with the vanishing point of your composition.
Maddy adds a banner to the buildings that are closer to the viewer’s perspective.
Although these buildings are technically still in the second row, they are the closest of the farthest buildings. So adding any details here will only create a more realistic setting.
Draw the First Row of Buildings
Same as before, pick up the Shape Tool and draw rectangles to fill up the city. Maddy chose 957AE1 again, and 4265D2 for the sides.
To add even more depth to your background, consider including details like the city fog.
Simply draw a rectangle with the Shape Tool and give it a fun linear gradient that fades from the bottom up. The left color (in our case, the bottom color) is a beautiful teal (2885C7) and the left color (in our case, the top) is white (FFFFFF) with 0 opacity. You can achieve this by bringing the A channel to zero.
Add More Details
Bear in mind that the closer you get, the darker and more detailed your objects will be. While the previous row of buildings is going to remain a cluster of minimal rectangles and solid blocks with very few windows.
So in the buildings closest to the character, make sure to add all sorts of details like windows, lights, or billboards. Like this “Coola” sign which Maddy creates with freehand brushstrokes using the second preset from our Brush Selection Pane.
A tip to add multiple windows to the buildings in the foreground is to select multiple objects with the Select Tool and duplicate them in sequence.
Draw the Bus Stop
With the Rectangle Tool, trace all the main shapes that comprise the bus stop.
As before, use the Node Tool to change any angles that need to lead to the vanishing point of your perspective. Here she uses purple for the fence (7125D0), white (FFFFF) and yellow (FEF66F) for the cover, and an extra shade of blue (957AE1) for the sign.
Add More Dimension
The elements of the bus stop are also part of the sunset scene.
To evoke that, we're going to do something about these solid colors. So duplicate the top rectangle you used to create the fence, make it more narrow, place it on top, and give it a gradient that shows the reflected sunset light.
Maddy goes for a linear gradient (the gradient in the center), and changes both the right and the left color to a light orange (EFB09F). Then she makes the left color completely transparent by changing the A channel to zero.
Apply the same effect, in the same way, for each individual rail.
Add Elements to the Sky
Finally, we're moving on to the details in the sky, where we are going to add a few clouds, stars, and the moon.
For the clouds, pick up the Brush Tool and play around with the pressure you apply to your canvas in order to create a shape that starts small and builds up gradually. By changing the pressure, the line can go from very thin to very chunky in a single stroke. To achieve this effect, Maddy uses the 4th brush from our presets with Pressure Sensitivity on.
After drawing the clouds, use the Node Tool to make any adjustments to their shape.
Because the clouds will naturally reflect the sunset light, give them a gradient that goes from an orange hue (F92CEE, left) to a light pink (F9DCEE, right).
As for the moon, create two circles and use the Subtract Boolean function to cut a perfect semi-crescent moon. Don’t forget to hold one finger on the canvas to preserve the aspect ratio.
Finally, add stars with the Shape Tool. Maddy decides on a 12-point-star. You can edit the number of points via the slider on the left and you can change their shape by holding down one finger while dragging your Pencil on the canvas.
Add some Cool Details
Are you also one of those people who save the best for last? Time to add one of the last and coolest graphic elements to this piece.
Create the space shuttle with minimal effort with the Iconator function. Simply tap on the last tab in the Inspector to access Iconator and use the search bar to find what you need.
Maddy picks the space shuttle she likes best, resizes it, colors it white, and centers it in the middle of the sign. Easy peasy!
Add Light Effects
For extra flair, finish off by adding some circles of lights to give a sparkling effect of the distant city. Use the Shape Tool for the circles, of course, and then play with the gradient function in the Style Tab to give it a nicer effect.
Maddy went for a linear gradient with pink (F9A3D8) on the left while the right is left 100% transparent.
Then go to Blend Modes and choose Overlay.
To make the illustration mode dynamic, add a final layer of particle lights that cross the scene. For this, Maddy keeps the same brush as before (the fourth from our presets) to create very fine strokes filled with the same gradient from Step 15. And then set the blending mode to Overlay again.
The moment we've been waiting for: After all these steps, the illustration is now complete!
Why Drawing Backgrounds is Important
Whatever the background of a drawing is, it has a huge impact on the final artwork—whether good or bad!
Once you have learned to draw objects and characters in dynamic poses, the background is the last piece of the puzzle that brings everything together.
Your background acts as a yin to your character's yang. If you have created your character using rounded shapes, use angular shapes will have to represent the background. If your character is dark, use light background colors, and so on. The key is to contrast with your character to help them stand out.
Your background is supposed to highlight your character and its story on a technical and conceptual level. So if you ask yourself whether designing a background is important, we believe that it is actually vital.
We hope this tutorial was helpful for you. In case you haven't already, make sure you download Vectornator so you can design your own stunning backgrounds like the one Maddy created.
If you're new to our tool, check out our Learning Hub or YouTube channel for graphic design tutorials and fresh inspiration; and pick a ready-made template to create designs within minutes.
Don't forget to always tag us on social media so we can repost your work!