Creating Compelling Backgrounds To Boost Your Characters




A Comprehensive Guide by Manny Guevarra


Thank you so much for checking out my very first Clip Studio Paint tutorial! This is a beginner-friendly, step-by-step tutorial on how to draw compelling backgrounds. However, there are several advanced "hacks" that may be useful to intermediate and advanced users who are looking to boost their character art by enhancing their backgrounds. So no matter your experience with Clip Studio Paint, feel free to follow along - if you are looking to get started with or improve your backgrounds, this tutorial is for you!

Backgrounds can often "make or break" illustrations. A well-executed background can not only emphasize but enhance your subject, guiding your viewers' eyes to where they need to go and boosting the overall viewing experience. In this tutorial, we will learn several tips and tricks in Clip Studio Paint that we can use throughout pre-production, production, and post to improve our backgrounds and make our character art "pop."

So let's jump right into #BoostingBackgrounds!

Creating Contrast With Composition

Even before we begin drawing or painting, there are several compositional tips and tricks we can use in the first stages of our illustration to set ourselves up for success. Let's create several thumbnail sketches to block out basic shapes and values for our future background to ensure it will direct attention toward our subject. When thumbnailing, keep in mind the following:


The Rule of Thirds states that, when a canvas is split into thirds, a subject should be placed along the intersection of those thirds.

If the subject is placed too far to the left or right of the canvas, viewers' eyes may not be drawn to them right away. Conversely, if the subject is placed directly in the center, the composition may look unnatural. By placing our subject strategically against the background using the Rule of Thirds, we create juxtaposition and establish a focal point by position alone.

Also keep in mind that negative space can be used to imply movement; in this case, our characters are being placed right of center to show the implied movement of Character A coming from the left side of the canvas and leaping into Character B's arms.

TIP: You can use the [Grid] and [Ruler Bar] options in Clip Studio Paint to help break up your canvas into quadrants. To open the Grid, simply select the [View] menu > [Grid]. To open the Ruler Bar, press Ctrl + R on your keyboard or select the [View] menu > [Ruler Bar].

You can toggle the starting point, width, height, gap, and number of divisions for either tool by selecting [View] menu > [Grid/ruler bar settings].

The Rule of Thirds is a principle of photography, and by applying it to our illustrations, we can create more natural-looking compositions.


Another way we can direct attention to our subjects is by using background elements to frame the foreground. In the case of this nature-themed background, we can use the walking path and tree line to create Leading Lines, which point viewers' eyes in the direction of our subject. Notice how the foliage also frames our subjects in the second and third thumbnails.

In addition to framing the subject, adding Leading Lines can transform the static nature of otherwise aimless lines to create a more dynamic piece.


A third way to create contrast between the background and foreground is by breaking up the Shape Language of our composition. If the Shape Language of your character's silhouette is soft and round, try creating sharp, steep shapes with your background elements. If the silhouette is tall and thin, try doing the opposite.

In the case of our characters here, let's break up the shape language of their upright silhouette with curved lines that more accurately represent the wild nature of organic elements like foliage. Otherwise, the composition may look stiff, and our characters won't stand out as much.

Much better! We can always tweak compositional elements later, but starting off with a strong thumbnail sketch saves us the hassle of having to do substantive edits further down the road.

Creating Contrast With Color

Now that we have our future illustration mapped out, let's draw! Throughout the drawing process, we get several more opportunities to create contrast between our subject and background. We can do this simply by using Color and its various properties:


One way we can distinguish our foreground from the background is by using Value, or the relative "lightness" or "darkness" of a Color. The easiest way to see the Value of a layer is by navigating to [Expression color] under the [Layer Property] tab and changing the dropdown menu from [Color] > [Gray], which converts the entire layer to grayscale. This handy layer property can be toggled back and forth between [Gray] > [Color] at any time.

To distinguish your foreground from your background, use contrasting Values; you can paint your foreground with a "lighter" tint and your background with a "darker" shade, or do the reverse if the background is closer to your light source. If the Value of your background is too similar to your foreground, your subject may be hard to distinguish like in the first thumbnail below.

TIP: Many artists paint solely in grayscale at first, then add color later in their painting process after proper Values have been established. If you are having trouble monitoring the value of your composition, try this hack!


Hue is likely what we imagine when we think of "Color." Hue is Color in its purest form without white, black, or gray added. Using color palettes with contrasting hues from different areas of a color wheel is another way to create contrast in your illustration.

TIP: Once you've selected a color palette you'd like to to use, you can save it in the [Color Set] tab by right-clicking any cel and selecting [Add Color]. From here, you can easily eyedrop your saved colors at any time throughout the illustration process by simply clicking them.


Once we've established our color palette and have begun painting our background, one way we can create further contrast to emphasize our subject is by lowering the Saturation of our background. This can be done during the painting process itself by choosing colors in the above range within both the HSV and HLS color spaces.

However, this can also be done in post-production by selecting [Layer] > [New Correction Layer(J)] > [Hue/Saturation/Luminosity] and adjusting the Saturation slider. This will create a correction layer that can be clipped to any other layer or folder.

De-saturating your background by a small margin helps make your subject appear more colorful and vivid, thereby standing out from the surrounding elements.

Lighting and Layer Types

Alright, now comes the fun part! One of the best ways to make your character art stand out is through smart and purposeful lighting that further frames your subject. There are an endless number of ways to position your light source and light your subject, but one of the best ways to separate your foreground from your background is through the use of Backlighting.


Backlighting can be an excellent way to accentuate the silhouette of your subject. To achieve this effect, place your light source behind your subject. You can also use the placement of your light source to further call attention to your subject, like the sun's placement here:

Next, we need to create at least two separate lighting layers: one to be applied as a clipping mask to our character art, and another to be placed below our character art.

The two main lighting blending modes used in the illustration above are [Glow Dodge] and [Add Glow]. Of the two, the [Glow Dodge] blending mode will create a glow that retains more of the chosen color, whereas an [Add Glow] layer will create a brighter, more washed-out effect.


For the top lighting layer clipped to our character art, let's use the [Glow Dodge] layer mode. By working in saturated, high-value, warm (closer to yellow than blue) colors, we can create a lovely Rim Light to accentuate our characters' silhouettes.

TIP: For more accuracy, draw the Rim Light with the [Pen] tool and blur the edges manually with the [Blend] tool set to Tool Property [Blur].

To intensify the glow, duplicate the Rim Light layer and blur it uniformly via the [Filter] menu > [Blur] > [Gaussian Blur].

TIP: Another method of creating a uniform light halo around your character art is by navigating to the character art layer or folder and selecting the area around the art with the [Wand] tool using the settings depicted below. Then, create a new [Glow Dodge] layer above the character art layer or folder and clip it to the layer below. Next, fill your selection with color and blur using the [Gaussian Blur] filter specified above. The stronger the blur, the more the light will seep in over your character art from the edges.


When lighting your background, you can use an opaque [Add Glow] layer to produce a more washed-out light that won't distract from your foreground. Keep highlights and other details at a minimum the further an element is from your subject, using tools such as the [Airbush] or [Brush] tool for looser, less-defined strokes.

An area we can, however, add details to is around the light source itself - particularly where it envelopes our subject. If your light source is visible in your composition, try adding elements such as lens flares or floating dust motes. The [Airbrush] tool is handy in creating these elements, particularly when set to the [Spray] and [Droplet] tool properties.

We will expound upon these elements in the next section, "Using Atmospheric Perspective: Blur Effects."


Natural-looking shadow can be achieved using desaturated, low-value, cool (closer to blue than yellow) colors in the [Linear Burn] layer mode.

TIP: To create a dynamic look to your piece and further push the separation between foreground and background, try using the [Gradient] tool with the property [Foreground to transparent] to create a fading shadow that stretches from the foreground to the background. In this case, it helps place our subjects under the trees above and emphasize the shadows of the foliage.

Creating Atmospheric Perspective with Blur Effects


Now that the sun is filtering through the foliage and washing out some of the background elements in the distance, we are starting to create something called Atmospheric Perspective.

Atmospheric Perspective is the simple principle that, the further an object is from our viewpoint, the harder it is to see. This is because of components in the atmosphere such as dust, rain, mist, and fog that cloud our view as they compound with distance. Leaning into Atmospheric Perspective is perhaps the best way to distinguish your subject from the background and really make your character art "pop."

This effect can be achieved in many different ways - for example, by placing elements like fog, haze, or rainy mist between layers as can be seen below:


In our case, we are going to be using [Filter] menu > [Blur] effects on midground and background elements to call attention to the foreground and simplify a busy background.

First, let's start out by using [Filter] menu > [Blur] > [Radial Blur] on the layer with our sunlight and lens flares to emphasize that they are emanating from right behind our characters' silhouette. Using [Radial Blur] on a layer attracts viewers' eyes to the center of origin; in this case, if a viewer's eyes catch one of the streaks of light, they can then follow it back to our character art.

Drag and place the red "X" on your light source, or wherever you would like the blur to radiate from.


Next, we'll apply a [Motion Blur] to the dust motes in the midground by selecting [Filter] menu > [Blur] > [Motion Blur]. We'll angle the blur to the right of the canvas to follow the implied movement of the scene (i.e. Character A leaping into Character B's arms). This helps to emphasize the movement, as well as further direct viewers' eyes toward the subject.


Finally, let's use [Filter] menu > [Blur] > [Gaussian Blur] on our background elements to really lean into Atmospheric Perspective. This will uniformly blur all background elements on the selected layer.

If you are unsure of what Strength to use with the [Gaussian Blur] tool, think of your illustration as a cinematic shot. Typically in cinematography, the closer the camera gets to the the subject in focus, the blurrier the background becomes. Here are some examples of "cinematic" shots with varying levels of blurriness:

A "Medium Long Shot" depicts subjects from the knees up. In longer shots, backgrounds may be slightly out of focus, but most details are still discernible.

A "Medium Shot" depicts subjects from the waist up. In medium shots, backgrounds begin to blur as we shift more focus to the foreground.

A "Medium Close-Up" depicts subjects from the chest or shoulders up. In close-up shots, backgrounds become very blurred as the subject in the foreground demands more focus.

A "Close-Up" fills the screen with one or few elements, such as subjects' faces. With most of the focus and screen real estate being taken up by the subject, close-ups and extreme close-ups leave backgrounds extremely blurred.

With our background blurred, we've cemented the juxtaposition between our subjects in the foreground and the forest surrounding them. Simplifying your background - be it through blur tools, simplified line work, or anything in between - also allows viewers to rest their eyes around your character art that now leaps from the page.

For a finishing touch, let's add some falling leaves to reinforce the movement in the piece and employ one last trick to guide viewers' eyes to the foreground. When adding elements such as leaves, snow, or rain, remember to think of your subject in a 3D space and place particles both in front of and behind them. This not only looks more natural, but accentuates the object in the center: your character art.

BONUS: Tips for Using Brushes

As you can see, there are countless ways to approach backgrounds! Throughout the illustration process for this tutorial, various foliage brushes were used to create this idyllic autumn scene. Whether we are painting a forest landscape or drawing a city scene, many comic artists, illustrators, and other creatives use premade assets such as brushes, stamps, and 3D models to speed up and improve our artistic workflow.

And "Clip Studio Assets" has thousands of brushes, pens, 3D models, patterns, and other assets available for download - many of them for free! Other assets can be purchased using Clip Studio "GOLD," or through "Clippy" points that can be earned for free through events or by uploading materials of your own.

Below are some tips for utilizing brushes and other downloadable resources available in "Clip Studio Assets!"


To install a desired asset into Clip Studio Paint, simply click the “Download” button at the top right of the asset listing; this will automatically begin the asset download and installation process in your Clip Studio app. You can then access this material through your [Downloads] folder in the Clip Studio Paint drawing app, where you can drag and drop it into a Sub Tool of your choosing. (If you do not see your downloaded asset, try restarting your Paint program.)


TIP: When working with any brush, you can use the [Layer Property] menu > [Border effect] to create an even border around all brush strokes within the selected layer. In the "Default" workspace, this effect can be found listed below the [Navigator] and above the [Layer] menu. (To toggle workspaces, go to the [Window] menu > [Workspace]).

The "Thickness of edges" and "Edge color" can be easily toggled, and this effect can be turned on or off at any time.

When resizing layers with the [Border effect] turned on, the border will remain at the specified thickness. In order to change this and uniformly transform the border with layer contents, simply rasterize the layer by right-clicking the desired layer and selecting [Rasterize]. This will also prevent the edges of the transformed image from becoming too pixelated, which will adversely affect the border's appearance.

This effect can be extremely useful when working with assets such as foliage brushes. Remember Atmospheric Perspective? One way to achieve that effect is by simply drawing elements with less detail the further they are in the distance. In this case, the [Border effect] layer property can also be an excellent choice in creating a simple silhouette for distant objects, therefore keeping background elements from being too detailed and distracting from our foreground.

Additionally, applying the [Border effect] to the layer containing your foreground can help it stand out from the background, if stylistically appropriate.


Some of the more stylized brushes, stamps, and imported assets such as 3D models may need to be edited to fit the line quality and color palette of your illustration. The [Border effect] tool can be handy in creating line art bordering the contents on any layer, but another handy tool on the [Layer Property] tab is the [Extract line] tool, located right next to [Border effect]. This tool extracts the line art from the entire layer, as seen below:

This can be useful for imported assets such as 3D models whose line art may need reinforcement, or if you need the isolated line art of a layer for any reason. To use the isolated line art and make the white areas transparent, simply rasterize the selected layer and navigate to the [Edit] menu > [Convert brightness to opacity].

Note that that, while the unaltered [Extract line] tool can be toggled on and off, the [Rasterize] and [Convert brightness to opacity] effects cannot. Alternatively, you can set the layer's blending mode to [Multiply] or [Linear burn] for varying levels of contrast.

Once the line art is extracted, it can then be placed over a copy of the original layer to bolster the line quality, or used as line art to color within using your desired palette. This is best for objects in the foreground whose bold details will make them stand out even further.

Regardless of level, experience, or art style, there are bound to be helpful brushes out there that can help you in your artistic journey! Don't be afraid to experiment and see what works best for your unique style!


And that's a wrap!

Thank you again for checking out my first tutorial! I hope you had fun and were able to learn a helpful trick or two along the way. If you did enjoy this tutorial and would like to see more like it, please feel free to let me know and suggest topics in the comments!

If you would like to see more of these characters, feel free to check out my WEBTOON below!

Cheers and Happy Autumn!



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