Lesson 15: Exploring an Environment

Lesson 14 should be completed before moving onto this subject.

In the previous lesson, we explored how so much of illustration is about flattening down your image into a simple arrangement of 2D shapes, values and colours. This time, we're going to dive into the opposite end of the spectrum - the 3D world in which our illustration exists. It's very easy to forget that the scenes we depict take place in dynamic, bustling worlds, full of life.

Acknowledging this makes you more aware of the subtler things one might experience in such a world. The little details, the scale of things. Even the amount of space that exists between two objects can be something people often overlook, or considering what path a character might actually follow to go from one point to another. These are things you should think through, even if they aren't directly related to your illustration. It's that final grain of believability that will sell your entire universe.

So, in order to plunge ourselves into the environments we design, we're going to jump in and explore.

It's pretty often that I see around the internet, people asking about how to draw backgrounds. They've gotten the hang of drawing characters and objects, but they want to learn how to put backgrounds in their scenes.

As far as I'm concerned, the whole way of thinking is wrong. There is no separation between your characters, your props and your background. They all exist within the same space, and they all follow the same rules. The longer you think about backgrounds as some separate entity that can be pasted in afterwards, the longer you'll go drawing flat, unconvincing backdrops - not unlike those you see in a gradeschool production of a play.

Environment is a far more productive term to use - it encompasses the entire space in which your narrative unfolds. The distant objects (background in a depth sense), the meat of your scene (often but not always, the midground), the objects that sit between the action and the viewer (foreground). There isn't always a clear cut separation between these layers, though we're often forced to fabricate them ourselves. This is because space extends forever, and is continuous with no natural breaks. The objects that exist within that space may break and separate, but the space itself flows eternally in all directions.

In summation, forget about the idea of having characters on one layer, and background on another. Just toss it away.

We never quite get away from boxes, here at drawabox. They're just so handy when it comes to simplifying objects.

When you're blocking in a scene, a lot of people will establish a horizon - which is important, and should always be done. What should also be considered however is the ground plane itself. I find it helpful to put down a plane to represent this.Though I know full well that the scene extends beyond this plane, establishing all four lines allows me to imply two vanishing points that exist far outside of the frame. This, in combination with a horizon line (which I should have included in the diagrams), allows me to roughly estimate my perspective by eye.

But why stop there?

By the same principle, drawing a full box will help us when it comes to walls and other such things. Obviously since a scene extends out of the frame, your whole scene will not sit inside of your box. It still does help to make it fairly large, giving you a more overall sense of the space you're working in.

Now that you've defined a space, you can start placing objects within that space. You can start doing this by laying down the footprint of each major mass, using the defined box to estimate your perspective. You'll notice that even though the defined box implies two vanishing points, I can use the box itself to fairly easily place footprints that don't align to either of these VPs. It's all a matter of having these little helpers that allow you to gain a better and more solid understanding of the space set out before you.

Building from there, you can construct more boxes from these footprints. As I've explained in other lessons, boxes are the simplest, most ideal representation of something that occupies three dimensional space. You can use a box to block out space, and then more easily construct another more complicated form within it. They can easily be carved or subdivided further, while giving you a clear and simple framework on which to hinge all of your perspective estimations.

This is explored in much greater detail in lesson 6 and lesson 7, where we deal with drawing everyday objects and vehicles.

The first step to exploring an environment is to consider how, as a character, you would move between points of interest. This means establishing concrete paths within the scene - whether they're as simple as clear as a paved road, or as bothersome and unintuitive as a series of flaming hoops and a busted suspension bridge. The quality of the paths themselves will tell the viewer a lot about the environment itself, and as we begin considering a greater emphasis on design and concept art, it becomes more integral to actually have some way for an actual character to move through our scene. Even when we're dealing with a simple, one-off illustration, we want the world we're capturing to be interesting enough for viewers to attempt to immerse themselves within it. The more you cater to that desire, the more captivating your piece will be.

In other lessons, we've done a lot of observational drawing. I've always encouraged using reference as helpful suggestions rather than insisting that your drawings look identical to your photos, especially when it comes to attempting to capture an object at a somewhat different angle or perspective than what your photo reference shows you. When it comes to illustrating, the importance of reference has a helpful resource is immense. Especially when we start out, we don't have hugely developed visual libraries, which often causes us to miss important details that help make our drawings more convincing. Absolutely use reference. The very act of using reference is what will help develop your visual library for the future.

When I know what I want to illustrate, I'll always start by hunting for reference images. When it comes to constructing an environment, the importance of this skyrockets. A space cannot simply consist of a few box forms arranged to look like someone could possibly live in them. "Could" is not what you should be aiming for. "Must" is much better.

As a species, we are insufferable slobs, leaving traces of our habitation in our wake wherever we go, be they scraps of food, scuffs on surfaces, litter, containers, decorations, graffiti, stains, or whatever else. Every part of the world has a distinct flavour in its architecture, and every society attempts to solve the problems it faces in different, often ingenious ways. If you want to make a place look occupied, look for photo reference of all the props you can use to fill in the little nooks and crannies.

It's not even just about explicit objects - your reference can give you information about shapes, forms, rhythms and patterns. Often when you're just doing rough thumbnail sketches, you may not even consider specific details, but just having a general sense of the kinds of shapes you'll find can make those sketches carry far more weight.

If there's one challenge I've always faced, it's knowing how to fill the space. There's just so much of it. Reference gives you a big edge on this challenge.

For a goddamn long time, I looked for a good solution for displaying/organizing my reference. What I found earlier this year is about as close to perfect as I expect to come. PureRef is a fantastic piece of software that allows you to gather image files onto a board. In essence, that's its main function, and it does a great job of this. You can move them around, scale them up/down, flip them, etc. You can drag images right out of your browser, use copy/paste, and even double click on images to focus on them temporarily. Even if they've been downscaled, they still maintain their original resolution so you can get that detail when you need it, or zoom out to get a nice even overview of everything.

It's minimalist as hell, and even allows you to save out image boards in a file format that embeds every image you've stored. Basically, it means you can send the file (though it does get rather large), reopen it, and keep rearranging/adding/manipulating the images.

I don't have any deals with PureRef or anything, I just happen to love this software a lot. Best of all, it's free. They do ask for a $5 donation, if you're a decent human being who shows apprecation for wonderful little pieces of software like this!

If you are going to use PureRef - and I hope you do - there's one setting you should change as soon as you load it up. Right click anywhere on the blank area, go to Customize, and set Scroll Click Functionality to Pan Canvas. For some reason it defaults to deleting images, which is total nonsense, and annoyed the hell out of me the first time I used it. Once that's changed, it's amazing.

Just for reference (partially because I keep forgetting this, so I have it at least for myself), here's a quick cheat sheet of important hotkeys/controls:

  • CTRL+SHIFT+DRAG: Scale image
  • SHIFT+ALT+DRAG: Flip image in the direction of your drag
  • CTRL+SHIFT+DRAG: Rotate image
  • DOUBLE CLICK: Focus on image

So, we've reached the main focus of this lesson. I want you to design an environment, and give me several different shots from different camera angles and positions showing off different areas within the single cohesive space. Basically, imagine that this environment exist, and you're walking around it with a camera, taking a few photos. Many of these photos will have overlap - where they capture the same elements. Those elements will however be seen from different angles, giving us a more extensive sense of the overall space.

Why? This exercise forces you to regard your environment as more than just a flat world that can be experienced only from a single angle. It also gives you the chance to see how a scene can be perceived from a multitude of angles, which will help you consider many options when it comes to laying out many thumbnail compositions when working on an illustration. When you are nailing down a composition, it's easy to get your head stuck in the first idea you have. If you can place yourself within the world itself and walk around, you can approach this generation of thumbnails from a more pragmatic direction, placing yourself in the shoes of different onlookers, considering which one will get the most interesting view of what's taking place.

Figure 4.1 is my own homework for this exercise, in James Paick's Environment Design course (Spring 2014). It had a huge impact on how I perceive environments in general.

Below I've got a breakdown of how I approach this kind of exercise. I've also recorded a video demo - freely available for everyone. You can find it by clicking the blue button below.

Free Video Demo (8min, no audio)

This image is a little confusing without some context. As I described in the section about using boxes to define and encapsulate space, I've laid down a ground plane and a few vertical planes. Unlike that earlier example where I drew the full box in view, in this case I positioned the camera within the box itself - so you can't see a couple of its planes. Don't worry too much, the next image makes things a little clearer.

I specifically chose to make this shot from a high angle, getting a nice general overview of the scene. This is because, at the moment, I don't have any clear idea of how I want to lay things out. I know I want to do a bit of a market scene, maybe throw in a fountain/statue - not unlike the homework I did the first time I did this exercise. I happen to really like markets.

When I don't know what to do, I find it best to just start throwing down some major forms. As always, that means boxes. With the original planes I threw into the scene, it becomes very easy just to draw cut lines into them to establish the footprints of some new forms, or to carve in and make simple doorways, overpasses, alleys, etc. Think of it as though you're cutting into a cardboard box.

Since I know I'm drawing a market scene, it's very obvious that I want my big masses to be market stalls. So, without any delay, I start laying in the forms of a drooping canopy and some display stands within those boxes. As always, these boxes are just suggestions - don't be afraid to play with the orientation of your objects. If you notice in the upper left, I experiment a little with angling a display stand slightly.

If everything aligns perfectly to a grid, your scene will look sterile and staged. The real world is full of flaws. That's one of the biggest excuses I use to continue poorly estimating my perspective... It's done well for me this far!

You'll notice in the bottom, where I'm blocking in the simple forms of a fountain, I've got some really clean ellipses. Trust me, I did not freehand those - I used a tool called LazyNezumi. This is primarily because drawing ellipses on a tablet that is not mapped 1:1 is hard as well. Since I don't have a Cintiq (I use an Intuos Pro M - I'd love to one day buy a cintiq, but not yet), I tend to rely on this tool a lot when it comes to ellipses. It allows you to constrain your stroke to an ellipse guide, which you can adjust in terms of degree/angle/position easily with hotkeys. It's able to do far more than this, but the ellipses are really the only feature I use. It's software-agnostic (natively works with Photoshop, but you can use it with any drawing software), but is Windows-only. ... That's really annoying to be honest, because at work I use a Mac, and I can't count on my hands the number of times it would have saved my ass. Still, a great tool to have in your arsenal. Not free, but not prohibitively expensive.

At this point, the sketch starts getting messy, so I've dropped in a few values to separate things out for readability's sake. Everything is obviously rough, but I'm reasonably pleased with the spaces I've defined. There's lots of interesting elements that could be expanded upon, and I've even got a bit of narrative thrown in with some super-foreground characters.

At this point, I've established a space, so now I want to step back and figure out how this space is really laid out, so I can figure out where I can place the cameras for my next few shots.

Depending on how you think, you may want to start off with this step. I decided to just jump into sketching because I find it easier to come up with forms and ideas organically, by breaking down the space itself. Working from a top-down plan right off the bat may suit you better. Either way, at this point you will need the plan in order to keep your next few drawings from deviating from the space you've already defined.

The little X's I marked are potential camera positions, and the triangles that come out from them are a rough idea of what we would be able to see from that location. All of this is just rough estimation, it's perfectly fine to deviate from it - but within reason.

Generally from here on in, you'd just repeat the steps. Establish some basic planes for your ground/walls/whatever, drop in your major forms. Subdivide and refine. There are however some other approaches. I don't think their outcomes are as nice, but they are generally better applied to shots where you have a lot of elements that naturally frame the shot, forcing you to immediately think more about composition.

This is just a breakdown of my major shapes. Honestly, it'd have been better communicated by painting in value rather than sketching with line, but I like keeping things consistent. You've got a simple shape across the top - what will eventually be the canopy of the market stall we're in - framing us across the top. Then you've got a similar shape cutting across the bottom, the display stand. Between them I've thrown in a simple figure and established the planes of the far buildings and a simple box for what will eventually be the statue.

This feels a lot less clear than the previous method - partially because, as I mentioned, it's better done in value-shapes rather than line, but also because so much of the scene is clipped off by foreground elements.

I know I'm skipping ahead here - you can see me draw the whole thing in the video, but it might not help much more. As before, I break down my forms and cut into them. I'm looking back at my reference a lot. Since I'm not diving into any significant kind of detail, it doesn't entirely come through. What I am focusing most on are general shapes. I also pay attention to basic architectural detail - like how an overhang might be supported, either by pillars, posts, buttresses...

This last shot is coming from down the stairs in the back alley. We can see this point from the first shot. Since we're down a flight of stairs, much of the shot is naturally going to consist of, well, stairs. Similar to the last one, we're very much framing our shot, creating a portal (if you remember this from the last lesson) and looking at the main environment through it. Just because this space exists at the fringes of our original area of interest however, doesn't mean that we should leave it loosely defined. This is the perfect opportunity to explore what's going off in this corner.

Since we've defined the main area, I'm not terribly interested in it. Our frame is now becoming our greater focus for this shot, so I'm starting to lay in some vague details along the wall - inset arch patterns and such - that I can expand on later if I want to. If I were creating some sort of sequential art, it'd be nice to know that I could add a little flair here if I needed to - or that I'd have such details that I could apply to any other similar area. After all, it's very common to see repeated elements all over a scene. When an element is repeated, it becomes a motif, a useful tool for defining the general flavour of an environment.

In the first shot, I had hinted at more market stalls down in this area. So, to expand on that a little bit, I tucked one into the foreground. I also took the opportunity of this closeup against a wall to consider what that wall would be made of. Is it layered brick? Plaster? What kind of condition is it in? Might there be any decorations?

At this point, we're focusing almost entirely on design, so you should constantly be asking yourself these questions. Your design is, after all, merely an answer. If you don't know the question you are answering, then your design will lack direction and purpose.

Feel free to use any medium for this exercise. You're also free to draw in line, paint in value or in colour. What's important though is that you do what is most comfortable for you - not what you want to improve at. Right now we are focusing specifically on exploring the 3D environments themselves, so you can think through how to populate them with props, architectural details, and so on.

As homework, I recommend doing at least:

  • 2 sets of the exercise. That means, 2 different environments, 3 or 4 shots of each. A total of 6-8 shots.

As always, there is no need to rush. Be thoughtful about your shapes and forms, and while you don't have to be tight and detailed, be thoughtful. Don't think on the page - take the time to consider what kind of marks you want to make, and take the time to make them properly.