| | |

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, What I Learned So Far

Gvaat’s Ghibli-like Background style landscape study

In this tutorial, I decided to take a break from drawing the human figure and push myself out of my comfort zone to draw a small landscape in the spirit of Studio Ghibli backgrounds.

Looking through the artwork of Kazuo Oga and other Ghibli background artists, I wondered how exactly do they represent nature in a beautiful, colorful, and serene style.

Ghibli artwork has been on my mind for a while. One day driving from my parents’ house, I saw a scene that would be a great fit for a Ghibli-like landscape painting. So I took a picture on my phone.

Reference picture I took, (left) and final study (right). You can download high-res versions of both at the end of this tutorial.

Here you can see I used artistic liberties to change the time of day, and to try to paint the idea of the tree instead of every single detail in the picture.

In fact, I think Ghibli background artists do just that, they paint an impression of their subject matter (something that feels like their subject) instead of painting their subject directly. Much like the artists of Impressionism.

The difference here is while simplification and stylization take place, in the case of Ghibli background paintings, simplification is done on a more micro level than the paintings of impressionists, leaving the viewer with much more detail to look at.

Disclaimer: the goal here is not to copy Ghibli background artists’ works, but to explore their beautiful visuals as a guide and inspiration for the creation of our own work. Ultimately, I want to believe that we all aspire to make creations uniquely personal to us. To my knowledge, Ghibli backgrounds are painted in poster color, I, however, painted the demo in this tutorial digitally in Procreate on iPad. This tutorial is not about the Ghibli Studio Art process but rather about how I achieved a Ghibli style look in Procreate and what I learned from it.

Without further ado, let’s look at the steps and go over the things I learned in the process of trying to paint a Ghibli style painting.

Ghibli Inspired Background – Step 1: Block in masses.

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, What I Learned So Far - Step 1
In this guide, I use many more steps than I probably should, but it is just to make sure everyone can follow along easily. As you will see the painting went through a bit of a transformation as I was evaluating shape and color to echo the beautiful visual notes found in Ghibli works.

Here I blocked in the masses representing the shadow side of the tree and the light side of it.

Pay attention to the separation of the shadow from the light as it is going to be key to creating depth in a Ghibli style painting.

Don’t worry about the values in the middle, just separate the entire subject into light and dark sides. You can add mid-tones to the light side at a later time.

Ghibli Inspired Background – Step 2: Darker shapes recede, brighter shapes step forward

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, What I Learned So Far - Step 2

In Step 2, I started adding more detail and experimented with a variety of brushes to try to emulate the expressive brushstrokes of Ghibli art. I settled on opaque brushes and later steps used the smudge tool to blend shapes together.

Added detail, and definition to the tree trunk.

I added even more detail. Notice in this image that everything that is darker steps back and everything that is lighter steps forward in space. Areas that you will push back and bring forward must be identified early on.

In this example, the darker the area the further inside the tree it sits, as it is being blocked from the light of the sky.

Ghibli Inspired Background – Step 3: Context helps get closer to the heartwarming Ghibli look

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, What I Learned So Far - Step 3

In this stage, I decided that to achieve a likeness to the Ghibli style I need to place the tree in the context of the surrounding environment.

I then added a background (hills on the horizon line in the distance) as well as an indication of where clouds are going to be placed.

Here I used the smudge tool in Procreate to blend some of the clouds together and into the background of the sky.

Here I experimented some more with a representation of leaves in bunches to show overall form and purposely avoided drawing every single leaf. 

I then started to paint the clouds and I was thinking about how they will peak through the tree.

The foreground and background should be easily identified by the viewer for an illusion of depth and distance. So I also tried to make sure that the edges of the clouds and the tree do not interact in a confusing way.

Here I added a cast shadow from the tree onto the grass. Adding the cast shadow has really helped properly situate the tree in the environment and I probably should have added it much earlier in the process to help me better visualize the rest of the painting

If you are not sure what a cast shadow is, I highly recommend going over my tutorial on drawing light and form which can be found here.

Ghibli Inspired Background – Step 4: Thinking of color as a storyteller

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, What I Learned So Far - Step 4

Here I started to play around with color to get to the colors I envisioned for the painting.

I wanted to see more blues, and adjusted this through the color balance and curves menus in procreate.

While playing around with the overall color of the piece I decided that I’m going to shift the time of day from around noon to closer to sunset so that stars can be visible in the sky.

Working digitally, afforded me the opportunity to change the color palette further in the process. With traditional media, it would be more important to plan colors ahead of the painting.

I tried to think of color and light as a teller of a narrative, it provides for time of day and combined with subject matter hopefully creates a tranquil feel.

The story here is of a peaceful and calm evening delivered by the use of saturated greens and blues.

I finally added a few stars in the sky in this step.

Ghibli Inspired Background – Step 5: details

In the last few process images, you see me adding details to the tree shape established in prior steps. I finally paid more attention to the brushstrokes I left on the canvas as they were likely to be my last layer of (digital) paint.

Finally, I was more satisfied with the level of detail and overall tree shape and it was time to put the brush away.

I found myself thinking about the environment and what it would be like to find myself in it. This was a good sign, since for me, one of the great characteristics of Ghibli backgrounds is the ability to envision exploring in them.

How to Paint Ghibli Backgrounds, final study by Gvaat
Final Ghibli-style painting

Once I was done with my Ghibli style painting, I took it to Photoshop and applied multiple adjustments to try to get an image that is a more exciting in its color without changing much of the subject matter.

Photoshop edited version on the right

You are welcome to download the high-resolution Photoshop file where you can see the various tools I applied to the image to have it look like the finished version you see here. I will also make available all of the steps in this tutorial in high resolution at the download link below.

I hope you enjoyed this guide on painting visuals similar to what we find in Studio Ghibli backgrounds. Drop me a line here and let me know if you want to see a part two to this tutorial exploring further into landscape painting.