At its very core, drawing comic books is all about the storytelling. And being humans, we like to see stories about other humans. Our minds allow us to instantly put ourselves in a character’s shoes and get caught up in the story. It makes a huge difference if the figures in the story resemble how we see people in everyday life.
To accomplish the task of creating a scene with believable characters, it requires two things:
The ability to draw the characters, props and environments consistently.
The ability to integrate the characters, props, and environments together.
This tutorial focuses on the second task. It is not enough to be able to draw well-drafted figures and environments. You must be able to place these figures in the environments at the right perspective so to fool your readers into each scene’s believability.
This subject is actually quite fun because it is not as challenging as you might think, especially when comparing it to the first mighty task of drawing all the subjects themselves. So let’s have some fun and begin with the rules of placing figures in perspective.
The Horizon is The Viewer’s Eye Level
Since the horizon is actually just a construct of the viewer’s perspective it is logical that the horizon is hinged to the viewer’s sight. How high or low the viewer is, is exactly how high or low the horizon appears to be. It's a fairly cool phenomenon that you can test wherever you are.
No matter if you lie on your stomach or climb a set of stairs, if you look out, the horizon will always be level with your eyes. Note that if you are indoors or surrounded by big objects the horizon will be hidden from view.
Figures Are Bound to The Scene’s Perspective
To create a cohesive scene all the figures need to have one thing in common. That’s right, they all need to be based on the same perspective.
Follow these few steps as I demonstrate this concept.
Step 1: Draw a Flat Horizon
Step 2: Draw in a Simplified Figure
This can be tricky, but just draw a stick figure if my form is too difficult.
Step 3: Pick a Vanishing Point
Draw two guidelines from the vanishing point out to the figure. One guide should meet the top of the figure’s head and the other should touch the soles of his feet.
Step 4: Pick Any Spot Between the Guides
Ok, here’s the fun part. With those guides in place all you have to do is draw a figure that fits in between the two guidelines. Placing the figure anywhere in-between these two guidelines will result in a figure that’s in perspective.
By using guides based on the first figure and applying it to the second, it keeps both figures bound to the same perspective without drawing an entire grid.
This concept works for all objects, like this cardboard box. The objects all look like they belong in the same scene. Great.
This technique always works even when your scene is more complex. Here are three different examples of how the same technique works in different ways.
This setup is very similar to the original example except for the fact that the horizon is not on the picture plane. The technique still works because the guidelines can still be traced back to a horizon that is off of the page.
In this example, the horizon is at a low angle and since we are looking up at the figures, their forms taper as they get higher. I wanted to show that this still does not affect the effectiveness of our guidelines. The first and second figure both fit into the scene nicely.
Just like with the cardboard box, the technique works with any object of the same size, including similar looking heads. These two faces both look like they are in the same scene because they’re both using the same perspective.
There is a second thing to notice here that involves how the horizon intersects the heads. I will explain it in full later, but for now notice how the horizon cuts both faces right at the eye level. This similarity is not on accident.
If you have trouble working with vanishing points and grids refer to HTDC’s tutorials on setting up one, two, and three point perspective grids.
Using a Key Figure
A great way to make all your figures match the same perspective is to set up a “Key” figure. This Key figure operates as a template for all your other figures. Here, I have the Key figure in blue.
Make sure this figure is well proportioned because all of its flaws structurally will tend to transfer to the new figures. Now, one by one I’ve drawn each figure in red, basing them on the Key figure.
To start, I drew guidelines from various points on the horizon to find the position and size of the other figures. For example, for the figure in the foreground I drew an “x” to the left of the Key to represent a vanishing point on the horizon.
Then, I drew guidelines out from that “x”. These guidelines meet the Key figure at the top of the head and the bottom of the chin.
It doesn’t matter what part of the body you measure with these guidelines as long as the new figure is also measuring the same body part. Then, to finish this placement, I drew the new foreground figure’s head within these guides.
Last, I measured my new figure’s body by using the size of its head for a base unit of measure and drew in the rest of the body.
Note: Human figures range from 6 to 8 heads high.
For the other two figures, I found new spots on the horizon for their own vanishing points and used the same process to block in their forms in space.
Hanging Figures on the Horizon
As promised, I’m about to explain how the horizon can be used to place figures with only using the horizon line. Let’s take a look at the first example.
In this beach volleyball scene, we have several figures. There are both standing and sitting figures and they all feel like they match the perspective of the environment. Notice that the only guide I’ve drawn here is the horizon line, in blue.
Now, the way to “hang” figures on the horizon is to place them in a way where the horizon intersects them at the same location. This technique requires each figure to be the same height respectively.
So in this case, we can notice that the girl with the volleyball is being intersected with the horizon right at her belly button. Now, take a look at the man in the volleyball court.
Since he is a little taller than the first girl, the horizon will intersect him just below this belly button instead, but you can see how the concept works. Now, look in the background for the man standing by the net.
The horizon also is intersecting this man at below the belly button. That means that he is as tall as the man in the court.
There is also a woman sitting in a chair. Since she is much shorter than standing figures, the horizon intersects her at her forehead. Any woman sitting in a similar chair will have the same horizontal intersection at the forehead.
The last element in the scene is the man in the extreme foreground. Let’s see if you are paying attention. Can you tell me if he sitting or standing?
Hanging Figures on the Horizon Part 2
In this second example, I am demonstrating how to hang figures on a horizon line that is way above the figures needing to be drawn. If the horizon were able to intersect the figures, it would do so all in the same place because that keeps them all tied to the same relative proportion.
In this situation, we need to create this relative proportion for ourselves. To do this, we will use the measurement of the character’s heads. All the figures will look like they are a part of the same perspective if they are measured in the same way.
In our example, each figure is three heads below the horizon. The important thing here is that you keep to the same measurement unit, in this case the head. That being said, you could use any unit of measurement, whether it be measuring a whole figure length or maybe even a half a figure length.
Placing Figures in a Finished Scene
Here, I will run you guys and girls through the process of creating a scene from start to finish emphasizing how I place the figures into the correct perspective.
Step 1: Set up the Horizon
For this scene I will not be drawing any guides, only the horizon. When creating your scene I suggest you possibly add a few guide in addition to the horizon line, to help you create the background. This two-point perspective is pretty basic so I was able to eye-ball the lines for the background.
To start the scene, simply draw a flat line representing the horizon.
Step 2: Block in the Scene
Using basic shapes block in this scene. Here, I am drawing an auto mechanic’s garage. For now you really can’t tell where this scene is about to go aesthetically but that’s ok since the focus of today’s tutorial is the placement of figures.
Next, let’s do a little more planning.
Step 3: Rough Out the Figures
Here, you can follow my approach on how roughly I’ve marked the page. Make sure that if you are working on paper, to either draw lightly or be ready to light box this rough layout to another fresh page once you’ve got things working the way you want them.
Let me go through my thought process while drawing this rough out. I am using my basic shapes to elaborate on the ideas for the garage. I looked up dingy garage reference to help me eye-ball the proportions of the objects in the scene.
When it comes to drawing the figures at this stage, all I am using is the “hanging figures on the horizon” approach. I used the main female figure (in the mid ground) as my base key figure. I, then, drew the figure standing in front of the door, arms crossed. He is just a little taller so instead of the horizon intersecting him at the neck (like the key figure) I made it intersect him at the chest.
The figure in the foreground is a little tricky since he is leaning at an angle. I imagined he was leaning against a car and so his horizon intersection would be slightly higher on him than the other men in the scene. Here, you will need to go on your feelings a bit. Trust your instincts.
The figures inside the garage are both being intersected by the horizon at the chest level. This works because the man with his arms crossed is also drawn with the same proportions. Make note that these proportions will change because when we have to refine the figures, it will also lead to refining their positions.
For now, this is great. Good job, everyone!
Step 4: Refining the Figures
This is where task #1 comes into play (from my introduction). In order to get figures to be integrated well in a scene, they first must be drawn well.
But don’t fret, at this stage you are allowed to be as gestural with your lines as you like since there will be one more additional stage for the final lines. For this tutorial, all I will discuss here is the refinements to the positions in the scene.
For this scene, I wanted the woman to be in a tough position, even though she is a seasoned detective. She is surrounded by dangerous looking guys and so I wanted their relative proportions to show that danger. For that reason, I made the men slightly bigger in relation to her than I originally intended.
Notice that the horizon now intersects her at the shoulders and the man at the ribs. The man leaning against the car has the horizon intersecting him slightly higher since he in not standing straight up. I also adjusted the men in the garage appropriately.
Step 5: Final Lines on Figures
At this point in the tutorial, you should be satisfied with locations and proportions of your figures. They should all look like they are grounded and not wonky from contradicting perspectives.
Draw nice lines for your figures. I’ve added clothing and props for the characters and a little smoke for the man in the garage. This step is comics at its core so have fun. Render your figures to the best of your ability.
Step 6: Add in the Background
Like I said before, this tutorial is all about getting your figures to look right within a scene and not the building of the scene itself. In order for us to tell the figures are looking right we must do the dirty work of drawing in the background.
Use guides, grids, and reference to draw in the world in which these characters belong. I tried to keep the environment dirty and textured to add to the danger in the scene.
Step 7: Add Line Weights and Shadow
As always, we need to add shadow and line weights to help combine the elements that we’ve added so far. Adding shadow can make or break your scene here. While it will instantly start to give a believable grounding to your characters, it can also mess with proportions and forms if you are not careful.
This is our final step so refine the scene as much as you’d like. The important part is to notice how well your figures are mixing in the scene. If you followed the “hanging figures” and “key figure” rules then you should have great placement of figures.
Great work, everyone! I hope you had a great time working on your creation as much as I did on mine. With the rules presented in this tutorial you should now have a great foundation into the world of placing figures in perspective.
I know that we didn’t use a perspective grid here, but be aware that using one will only help the process, as you will be able to trace proportions over from your “key figure” with way less visualization.
I would highly recommend that you always have some sort of perspective grid in all of your scenes. This tutorial didn’t use one only for the sole purpose of demonstrating the tools presented.
Also, make note that if you are unhappy with your results, realize that the proportions of the figures themselves take a huge burden of making your scene credible.
If your figures are wonky then your viewers will start to be skeptical of the drawing as a whole. Continue to study anatomy and perspective and you will get incrementally better results.
Feel incredibly proud if you followed along and created a scene of your own. Art is all about the baby steps. Each drawing that you do adds to your skill level. Chuck Dixon always said that “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”
Know that what you are learning is one of the hardest things one can do in this life. Most people simply claim they can’t draw so they don’t even realize the complexities that it takes to even finish something like this tutorial.
Take real pride in this journey of learning to draw and tell stories. We are all a part of a brother and sisterhood in learning this.
Realize that if you acquire the skills to draw and tell stories, your individuality will automatically take you to new and original places that not even the masters of old have gone. That's because none of them are you and you are the only one who can do your art.
I’m glad that you are on the journey with us.
Keep drawing and thank you for reading.
- Joe Catapano
Tutorial by Joe Catapano