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PROCESS: BG Paint, with Nick Cross

Last updated on September 5, 2010

Nick Cross (Yellowcake, Angora Napkin, Waif of Persephone, Mr Floaf) is a generous soul.  He shares with you, and he shares with me.  Just look at his blog.  See?  Sharing.  Nick has been generously sharing his process in a series of posts, the latest of which exposes the secrets to his succulent background painting.  Nick has been generous enough to share those posts with us, Canadian Animation Resources.  When you’re done wrecking your head with this awesomness, go stick your eyes on the rest of Nick’s stuff here.

My BG painting process 101

As of this week, animation on “The Pig Farmer” is now complete and I have moved on to painting the backgrounds.

For the first background, I chose to paint the opening establishing shot since it contained a lot of the elements that I would be using throughout the film. As I promised earlier, I saved a few versions along the way to make a brief tutorial of my process. It’s kind of a broad overview, in the near future I will do more detailed posts about specific steps as I finish other paintings.

Okay, here we go, first we start with a rough drawing.

By ‘rough’ I mean, tightly drawn but not super clean. Since I’m doing the whole thing myself, I can leave a lot of subtle and small details for later. This saves time since it’s sort of a pain to trace over small details and there isn’t much point doing something twice if you don’t have to.
At the layout stage, it’s important to remember what the focal point of your scene is supposed to be. In this case, it is the farm house in the distance. You want the viewers eye to immediately go to where you want it to, especially since this painting is intended for an animated film. Therefore, you have to be sure to keep in mind that the audience will only get a few seconds to take in the entire image.
As you can see, I made the roadway lead up towards the house. But I also had other elements in the image point towards it as well to keep the eye from wandering aimlessly around. Also, note that the focal point is not in the centre of the composition. It’s a more natural and more interesting if objects are not centred and aligned symmetrically.

The next step is to block in some rough tonal areas.

Since this part of the film takes place in the morning, at sunrise, I had to be sure that the lighting represented a sun just peering up over the horizon. Clouds at that time of day tend to be darker than the sky and shadows are longer. I also wanted to be sure that the lighting didn’t compete with the composition. So I placed the house in a pool of light surrounded by darker shadows. Since this is a cartoon, and therefore doesn’t necessarily have to follow real-life logic, I can put spots of light where ever they need to be. In this case, I wanted to have the house sitting in a pool of light.

Next, comes the colour block-in stage:

In this painting, because it is morning, I kept the colours in the warm range. Even the greens are warm (more yellow than blue). Notice that the sky is orange but not a garish vibrant orange, and it gradates to a warm gray as opposed to a vibrant “sky” blue. The most important thing to remember when dealing with colour is to avoid using intense and saturated colours. Never underestimate the value of using gray. Grays and neutral colours gives the eye a place to rest and this allows you to save the brighter colours to use as an accent. There’s a million other colour theories, but I can get into them more specifically in future posts.

Now I block in the secondary details. I also further refined the sky, adding a sun and lighting to the clouds. Again, notice that the colours in the sky are muted. The ‘blue’ is actually a cool gray. It only looks blue because of the relation to the warm colours next too it. I tried to look this up online, but no one seems to be able to explain it very well. But here is the colour in the color mixer in Photoshop to show where it actually exists value and tone-wise.
The other major change I made at this point was that I found that some of the shadows were too cool, notably the front of the house and the tree. They looked a little too out of place and didn’t suit the mood of a warm summer morning.

After this, I went ahead and added all the finishing details. I forgot to save any more steps, but I’ll try to explain what I did. The main thing is I went into the larger colour forms and added smaller forms of subtly different tints. Here is an example:
Although there are quite a few different colours within the main form of the tree, they are all tonally similar to each other. This helps to give life and variety to the main shape of the tree without breaking it up into separate random unrelated clumps.

Here’s a detail of the road. I tend to avoid using too many textured brushes. I like to use texture sparingly – much like colour – I find a little can go a long way. Here, I used just three tones of the same colour to represent the stylized ruts and ripples of a dirt road.

A detail of the sky to show how loose I kept everything. Again just a little texture for variety.

Well, I hope that this was somewhat helpful. I will be doing more posts shortly as I get more backgrounds finished. Keep watching this space!

Many thanks to Nick for letting us reprint this in its entirety.  More to come.

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