Drawing Fantasy Backgrounds




Do you want the background you draw to leave a lasting impression? Then you’ll need more than just beautiful scenery.


Pique the viewer’s curiosity and make them have fun imagining scenarios through your art.


There’s a video version if that’s what you prefer!

Elements of Fantasy

When talking about fantasy background, we want it to look magical. And to look magical, we must incorporate unusual elements.

1. Defy physics.

Random stuff floating in the air is a common yet effective way to indicate that this is a fantasy piece.


2. Unusual Objects.

Mythological creatures like dragon is often depicted as a lizard with bat wings. Unicorn is a horse that has a horn.

We can combine the traits of different natural elements to create unusual plants, places and so on.

Say, an apple tree that produces crystal apples. A giant flower which stem grows around a tower. Glowing flowers attached to an unpractical looking staff.

3. Extreme sizes.

Super big has more impact than super small. Take a tree for example, mini tree exist in our world in the form of bonsai.

So, super small is not that impressive. But to make things look super big, we’ll need at least two different items of different sizes to make the size difference clear.


This tree silhouette looks pretty normal, but if we add a person as comparison and now we can grasp how big the tree actually is.

4. Unusual colors.

Normal sunny day sea usually has vibrant blue tint. Purple seawater would be unusual.

Colors are relative though. What makes the purple seawater look unusual is the fact that the sand and sky have normal colors.


But if the whole illustration is in purple, it looks like it was painted with purple filter in mind and thus there’s nothing unusual.

Another example. All the trees in this forest has yellow to orange leaves. If the tree in the middle is black, it looks so out of place.

But if the entire scene is predominantly dark, the tree blends just fine.

Make sure the unusual color pops out well by choosing the colors of its surroundings carefully.


5. Something Out of Place.

Look at the flying fish, there’s a house on top of it.

It brings out questions, like: Why is it on a fish? This kind of placement makes it clear how unreal the setting is. It’s something to strive for when drawing fantasy.

Foreground, Middleground, Background

We can divide a landscape into three different planes to create a sense of depth.


  • Foreground, which is the closest to the screen.

  • Middleground, which a bit further back and is between the Foreground and Background.

  • Lastly, background, which is the one furthest away from the screen.

There’s also what is called atmospheric perspective. I covered it a bit in my tutorial about poses and applied it to characters. It’s inspired by how things look in nature.


I’m sure you have noticed how objects far away look less saturated than the objects closer to us. It’s because there’s a lot of things in the atmosphere.


Not just the gas, but things like dust, fog, smoke, vapor, pollen... all of them layer up and are obstructing our view little by little. The further it is, the more layers of obstruction and the less clear things look.

When the air is clear, we use the sky’s color for atmospheric perspective. Like in this image, the middleground and background parts look more blue.


Thanks to the atmospheric perspective, the foreground pops out more.

I use atmospheric perspective all the time. Especially when there’s no clear perspective or horizon in the illustration.


Here, there are floating islands in the sky. We can pretty much tell the position of the islands by its size, but the scene look cramped because the colors are the same.

If we add atmospheric perspective, we can tell easily that these islands are further away. And the fact that they’re less attention grabbing gives us the room to breathe.

Drawing Ruins

By the way, you can see ruins scattered about in this illustration.

Ruins can seem complicated to draw, but it’s not that hard. There are two points to keep in mind when you want to draw ruins:


1. The original shape before it was ruined. This is important because the original shape will serve as the base logic. For example, the debris should look like it belongs to the building.

2. What or how it was ruined. This can add drama to the illustration. A pillar that was slashed apart, being struck with a brute force, or being shot with a laser beam will all look different.


It adds a lot to the story.

To draw ruins, I usually start by sketching the whole thing first. I prefer to block the shape instead of using line art when drawing background.

By the way, if you want a no-brainer perspective grid, the one I used in this demo is available on CSP Assets.


Perspective Grid by OutlawEric

After the original shape is done, start to remove the parts, draw dents and stuff. This place became ruined after the people left and nobody was taking care of the place anymore, so nothing too dramatic.


I drew this from imagination because it was a free sketch session. But, it’s better to have some references on sight.

Next, add colors to it. I’m using Gradient Map here. Then, add some shadows.


The ruin sketch is done!

Focal Point

A good illustration must have a clear focal point. It’s the main character of the illustration, so we need to make sure that it’s the first thing the viewers see.


To make the focal point clear, there are some strategies we can apply.


Back to the picture from previous chapter. Can you tell which one is the focal point and why?

The focal point is kind of in your face for this one. This small tower at the foreground.


But why, right? It’s not because it’s at the very front. To make it obvious, let’s turn the colors into gray.

The tower and the slope have the darkest color in the picture and it’s against the two lightest colors in the picture. But, it’s not the focal point because it’s the darkest. Even if the colors are reversed, the focal point stays the same.

The answer is, it’s because of the contrast in brightness (values) between the focal point and its surroundings.


To easily check the values as you work on your illustration:

1. Create a new layer on top of every other layer in the file.

2. Fill it with black.

3. Change the Blending mode to Color.

4. Profit!

If the focal point stands out enough, then you’re doing great! Value is pretty much foolproof. But there’s something else you can use.


It helps a lot to place things strategically. In this tower sketch, the sky is too empty. Adding a moon can balance things out.


Back to the floating island illustration. The main character is the fish. So, I used the islands to frame it.

Also, you can move things toward the focal point.

Please, try out these strategies when you draw next time!

Canvas Size and Shape

As the main frame of the illustration, the canvas shape can help emphasize the image. Drawing sea on a wide canvas makes it look more spacious.

Drawing a tall narrow tower in a tall narrow canvas emphasizes how tall it is.

By the way, we can change the canvas size organically without having to input exact numbers. Edit>Change Canvas Size. Drag the crop border to the size you think you want and click OK.


Please note, though. If you’re going to post your art on social media, you might want to keep the size limitations in mind and not going too crazy.

Choosing Colors

I might or might not start with a sketch, but I won’t skip the rough coloring step. When I don’t have certain colors in mind, I proceed by painting with shades of gray.


Then, I’ll go to Layer>New Correction Layer>Gradient Map.


I’ll try out the gradient maps until I find something that click, then adjust the colors a bit until I’m satisfied with the result. That will be the initial base color. Almost always, I’ll change it later down the line.

Colors have hidden meanings and brings out different moods.

Back to the forest sketch I made. By using bright and saturated warm colors, the forest looks friendly and welcoming.

If we change the colors to mainly blue, it brings out a peaceful feeling.

Change it again to mainly red. Something seems really, really wrong.

Lower both brightness and saturation, now we have a fitting location to shoot a horror movie.

Color is a really powerful tool, make sure you use it to the fullest!


After the illustration is done, I like to tweak the colors just to see if there’s a more attractive option. I use Correction Layers to do it.


This is the original illustration.


It’s a fun, quick and non-destructive way to explore our options even after the painting is done.


I started off with Gradient Maps, and then reduce the saturation, reduce or increase certain colors and so on. Each result took about 30 seconds to 1 minute. For something that took so little time, the results were drastic.

This is one way to post-processing the illustration.


Other than overall edit, I also like to color change different parts separately. Since I keep the parts on separate folder, this also took little time.


We can use this method to change the time of day or even the weather. No need to recolor manually.

Anyway, that’s it! I hope this tutorial could give you insight on how to draw a fantasy background and use the tools to imply a story.


I’ll see you next time!



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