Foreground example

Adding Depth with Foregrounds

Some Background on Foregrounds

Like so many compositional tenets I’ve learned, this one comes from the world of photography.

Everyone else studied movies; I took 100,000 pictures.

It took me about 95,000 pictures before I started taking this one seriously when I saw its absence in my own pictures.  I was so careful in making sure the hero of the picture was uninterrupted and clearly on display that I would often clear the bottom of the picture where the foreground should be.  Missing that layer meant I had a lot more flat photographs, and shots with dead space at the bottom..

I don’t remember where, exactly, I got tipped off to this idea.  I used to read a lot of photography blogs.  And books.  I listened to the podcasts.  I watched all the videos.

Here’s a quick example from a fireworks display I shot this summer.

Fireworks photograph without a foreground element

This first picture is pretty good technically. I left the shutter open long enough to paint the whole explosion of the firework.  It looks like a neat flower in the sky.  But everything else is solid black.  There’s no concept of how big this burst is, or where it is in the sky in relation to everything else.  (OK, there’s a bit of blue sky in the bottom right, but not enough to make the fireworks pop.)

Fireworks photograph with a foreground element to add depth

This picture has a foreground element. The two people directly in front of the fireworks going off add a new layer of depth to the shot.  It’s a far superior picture, to my eye, even with the blown out white fireworks at the bottom.

There are plenty of references for this topic.  Here are some good reads I found with a quick Google search:

Honestly, it all gets a little repetitious after that. If there’s one thing the photographic world is good at, it’s repetition.  I once subscribed to two or three photographic magazines, and dumped them all after a year.  The annual cycle of articles completed itself.  I don’t need to read the same article every year about capturing fireworks in the July issue or the fall foliage article in the September magazine, etc. etc.

That all said, the concepts of including things in the foreground in photography work just as well for the world of sequential storytelling, i.e. comic books.  In this article, I’ll show you how.


How to Get Depth and Dimension

The best way to create more dimension in a single image is to draw things in the image at different depths.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  You’d be amazed at how easy it is to miss it.

In the world of comics, you can place items at different depths in the scene with pen and ink in a few specific ways:

  • Size of objects (bigger == closer)
  • Thickness of ink line (thicker == closer)
  • Amount of detail (more == closer)
  • Overlap (the unobstructed item == closer)

(I’m sure there are more, but that’ll do for now…)

Artists can use any combination of those tricks to give any given image a more three-dimensional feeling.   Generally speaking, though, something has to be placed in the foreground, middle ground, and background to get that total feeling of depth and dimension.

Let me show you some examples.


Foregrounds in Action

A couple of weeks ago, I did a HyperAnalysis on the cover of the first volume of “Les Godillots” and how it guided your eye into the image.

Today, let’s look at some of the panels from the first three pages of that book, where the artist Marko uses lots of foreground images to help tell his story. You’ll see ways that are both subtle and obvious.


Leading the Eye

Foreground branches lead you eye into the scene

You can use something in the foreground that leads the reader’s eye into the scene, straight to the focal point.  Picture a wall or a fence that angles towards the center of the panel from one of the edges.  You can use perspective to your advantage here and have that guiding image run towards the vanishing point of the scene.

In this panel, the branches sticking out of the ground on both sides draw the eye into the panel and towards the middle ground.  The hill in the far background keeps your eye from dropping off the back of the earth.  (The hill is painted in a much lighter color to help it recede.)


Foreground silhouettes give you a voyeuristic feeling in this panel

You don’t need to show all the information.  If a shape will give away the item in the foreground, you can use that.  Think of a silhouetted tree along the side of the panel, or grass peaking up from the bottom.  The reader will immediately know it’s in the foreground, though mostly because it’s overlapping things in the middle- or background.  The details of the object don’t matter; only its size and position relative to the rest of the scene do.

In this panel’s case, all that extreme foreground detritus also gives the reader a slightly voyeuristic feeling, like peeking through the blinds in the window to see what’s going on outside.  Those implements of war surround the soldiers that we’re following through the scene.  And, ick, there are rats crawling amongst them.

One more example, though it’s a bit of a cheat. It’s a silhouette due to the extreme light source behind it:

Foreground in silhouette after explosion in sky

Notice the silhouetted items in the two lower corners.  They serve as foreground elements to push the rest of the panel back, and also to guide the eye into the middle.

Being so firmly in the corners, they’re acting as a vignette, too. Vignettes are either caused by the natural physics of light falling off from the center of your camera’s sensor, or purposefully by photographers in post-production looking to guide your eye away from the corners and into the center of the image.


Story Up Front

Sometimes, the foreground is also part of the story.  Remember those rats in the foreground I just showed you? Here are the next two panels.  Read carefully:

Foreground can contain part of the story, too.

Foreground can contain part of the story, too.

In the first panel, the soldier sees them out of the corner of his eye. They’re very small, but they are there in the foreground, closest to the reader. They’re adding a layer of depth and also setting up the next panel.

In the second panel, the horse sees the rats and rears up, spooked. The rats are equally scared of the horse and run away. Take a look at what’s going on in the foreground now. The rats are all running from the same point. You can trace a line in reverse of their angle of motion and wind up at the horse. The reader’s eye is led naturally into the scene that way. It’s like the rats are running in one point perspective.


Adding Location Information

Like many of the ways I suggested above, the foreground element may be part of the “background.” It’s another element that adds information to where the scene takes place.  That information isn’t always behind the characters.  It can surround them on all sides.

For example, it’s nice to see an image of a horse with the stable behind him, but it gives you more information to have a fence in the foreground to know he’s contained, particularly if this is a story of a runaway horse or something.

A man sitting on a bench in front of a bare concrete wall doesn’t give you too much information. Add the prison bars in the foreground that the reader has to look through to see him, and you have a story. (You also have a nice frame-within-a-frame, but that’s a topic for a future post…)


Foreground landscape elements

This establishing shot is a minor example, but that ledge in the right corner gives better perspective to the valley below.  It also makes it a much more interesting panel to look at, as do the two trees in the middle and far left side of the panel. Everything frames the story nicely.

The Exception

Adding foregrounds like this adds depth to the image, but it also adds distance from the reader.  If the main action you want the reader to see happens in the center area of the panel, then putting something in front to help distance that will, by definition, push the action back further from the reader.

If you’re drawing a superhero book, for example, and want the reader to feel closer to the action or more involved in the fight, adding those foreground elements will hurt your panel.


Savage Dragon #179 panel with no extreme foreground elements

You’re right in the middle of this scene, by Erik Larsen in “Savage Dragon” #179.  (Lettering by Tom Orzechowski, colors from Nikos Koutsis.)  You could make the argument that SuperPatriot is in the foreground, but it’s not in the same way that I’ve been talking about it in this article.  He’s just not close enough, and it feels like the whole panel only goes one layer deeper than him.  There’s no large foot dangling from the top of the panel to indicate someone flying overhead in the foreground. There’s not the top of someone’s head poking up from the bottom to put them closer to the reader.

Nobody is truly far in front of him and close to the reader.

Artists should deploy all tools according to their best use. 

Don’t, for example, try to cram a foreground item in front of an extreme closeup.  That closeup is already the foreground, and likely blocks out everything behind.  Once there is another layer between that closeup and the reader, it’s no longer an extreme closeup.

It took me longer to find a panel with a good example of an appendage being used as the foreground from Erik Larsen’s work than I thought it would.  He sneaks a lot of those foreground elements in without drawing attention to them.  Watch always for hands sticking out of corners or edges of the panel, for example:

Savage Dragon #179 hand in the foreground

(Of course I picked a panel that included Freak Force characters.)

Note the way that hand in the lower right corner has to just overlap Barbaric to stand out.  Without that overlap, you couldn’t tell if it was laying next to him or being held up in front of him. (The fact that the arm is so large helps, but in a world filled with mutated freaks, characters can be just about any size so you can’t rely on that.)  I could also argue that a little more overlap would have helped here.

Go Forth and See It Everywhere

Or worse, you’ll be amazed at how often you don’t see it, and how flat those panels now look, like the artist’s “camera” started off too close to its subject.  When I started to flip through some comics to pull some images out for this article, everything felt so flat to me.  It’s amazing how many artists don’t use this simple trick.

It’s not always necessary (see above), but it’s something I think could be used more to great effect.  Even if it’s only a silhouette, that foreground element can add a lot of dimensionality to your image.

Or, it might just be one of those things that you’ll see constantly now that you know it exists.


Darwin Cooke Spirit Foreground example

Darwin Cooke and J. Bone, from “The Spirit” #10.


Symmetry #1 Foreground Example from Raff Ienco

Raff Ienco, “Symmetry” #1 (Bonus points for putting that third characters in the middle ground to help further separate the two characters having a conversation.)


Lazarus Foreground Example my Michael Lark and Tyler Boss

Michael Lark and Tyler Boss, “Lazarus” #23.


I Hate Fairyland foreground by Scottie Young

Skottie Young, “I Hate Fairyland” #7


All of these panels have foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds.  It’s like looking into a box and seeing things in three dimensions.  The scene sits just behind the plane of the page and welcomes you in.

Deploying this technique at the right times can add more depth and dimension to an artist’s work for very little extra work, a lot of the time. It’s great for establishing shots and medium shots

Now, they’re all you’ll notice in your new comics today.

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