Perspective For Comics: Google SketchUp Demo

A few weeks ago, a bunch of us from the Paper Wings Community had a conversation on Twitter about  using Google’s free 3d modeling software Google SketchUp as a way to speed up the process of making comics.

I was amazed to discover that everyone had the same problem I did before I learned how to use the program.  So that got me really excited to teach you all how to use this amazing, FREE tool to help you with perspective for comics.

In This Tutorial:

  • I explain some Google SketchUp basics that will help you draw geometric environments, vehicles and props in perspective.
  • I show you how to choose your camera angle and lens, shoot and save a screen capture (no long 3d renders necessary).
  • I show you how to “clone” elements so you can edit a piece of one clone and all the other clones will update automagically.

Backgrounds are maybe the most obvious application, but SketchUp can also be used to rough-in (or completely design) vehicles and anything else comprised mostly of geometric shapes.

Read on to learn about how I have adapted my character design process at Disney to include Google SketchUp…

Character Design and Perspective For Comics:

Some of you know that I’m currently working as a Character Designer for Disney.  When I want to shake things up (which is often), I change my process and/ or switch tools.

Sometimes I start with Super Sculpey.

I quickly sculpt a very rough maquette, light it, shoot photos of it with my iPhone and email the best ones to myself.  Then, I open the photos in Photoshop and draw over top of them, staying loose and “searching” for the character.

This technique is really fun and particularly useful if I’m designing a character who is difficult to draw in perspective.

I hate drawing in perspective. It’s just something I have always struggled with. So I always just freehand it.  And though I can sort of fake it, I’ve always felt limited by my impatience for perspective and the resulting frustrations.

(Oh, quick side note: The problem with the Super Sculpey technique is that it’s hard to make adjustments to the camera angle and sometimes the clay gets dry and stiff and takes quite a while to loosen up.)

(Bonus side note: Super Sculpey is quite similar, in this way, to turning 30.)

A Google SketchUp Demo From The Heavens:

About a month or two ago, my current Art Director taught me how to use Google SketchUp.

Suddenly and without warning, it was announced at work that he would be teaching a class in the studio training lab.

I can’t even begin to explain how freeing it has been to learn this program.

Much like I do with Super Sculpey, I can rough in a character, prop or set, find the perfect camera angle (which I can easily tweak later on), change the camera lens to get the exact shot and composition I want, take quick screenshot and open that in Photoshop.

It’s a faster and, ironically, more flexible technique than using Super Sculpey.  (However, with organic characters, I’ll still be using the Super Sculpey because Google SketchUp absolutely sucks for organic shapes…)

Surprisingly, Google SketchUp Is Super-Easy.

Including his initial in-class Google SketchUp demo and answering my follow-up questions, I think my A.D. spent about a total of 2.5 hours teaching me.  …a mere 2.5 hours and I was over the barrier to entry.

The program is extremely simple and easy to use, despite the confusing interface and awkward navigation.

And thus, I wanted to share this information with you in hopes that you will be able to use this tool to overcome your own problems with perspective.

Awesome Links:

Navigating SketchUp With A Mac Trackpad

How To Draw Clothes: Different Types Of Fabric

Please share any questions or ideas you have in the comments below and I’ll try to address, answer and include them in future Google SketchUp demos.


  1. Eddie Blake says

    Thanks for this video Chris! I heard about this program and got it all set up but was turned off by the sea of buttons and after i made one shoddy looking bookshelf i just stuck with manual drawing. However im now more inspired to play with it again for layout purposes, but whenever I decide to learn Photoshop, I think this could come in quite handy again.

    • Chris Oatley says

      Yep. It’s too bad the interface and navigation is so dumb. They would probably have a lot more people using the tool if they were better at design. Google is good at many things but their sense of design is ALWAYS lacking.

  2. says

    Thanks for the great tutorial! I can really see myself using this for getting the perspective right on exterior shots I would have really struggled with otherwise.

  3. says

    Great tutorial, Chris!

    I recommend,(though it’s slightly time consuming) going through the full set of official Google Sketchup tutorials online as well. When I was first learning the program I spent 4 hours banging my head against a wall until I broke down and watched them all, and then spent one hour doing very simply what I couldn’t during the first, four hour session. It’s a great program, but has a frustratingly steep learning curve for initial users.

    I’m also told, though I haven’t had a chance to test it yet as my comp simply doesn’t have the horsepower yet, that you can import your 3d models directly into Photoshop 5 as a separate layer. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but I’m itching to try the function out.

    Another resource I’d recommend is the book Successful Drawing by Andrew Loomis. It’s just about the most handy snap reference for by-hand perspective I’ve seen. Gives tons of techniques that, frankly, I never learned in art school (like how to do proper perspective of rolling hills and streets that aren’t level with the vanishing point) along with a wealth of general illustration tips. I think Sketchup is an amazingly powerful tool, and I’m using it more and more, but there’s something to be said for those resources that will still work if the power goes out (or better yet, if you’re at a convention). The Loomis books are being rereleased after years out of print and are available on Amazon (there’s two others for drawing people that are also excellent).

    Anyway, back to pages with me! That drawing must commence!

    • says

      I’ve imported CG models into Photoshop and worked over them. That’s fun but I haven’t had many instances where that was necessary.

      You have to have the “Extended” version of Photoshop which is way more expensive too… …not really worth it for me when I can just open up SketchUp and take a screenshot.

      Does it take a lot of computer horsepower? As with anything, it depends on the complexity of the model.

      • says

        My comp is going on 6-7years, so it’s starting to chug even doing standard stuff to any piece over say 11X17 at 300 DPI. Need to upgrade bad. I do have the extended version, at least I think I do, was able to get it cheap(er) with my Lady’s student discount, which was really just dumb happenstance on my part.

    • says

      Thanks for the recommendation on the book, Jake! I added it to my Amazon wish list.

      I think understanding perspective like what you’re talking about, even if you’re using tools like Google Sketch Up to help with environments, etc, is essential. One of my favorite examples is the work of Ryan Ottley. Every single figure he draws is a lesson in perspective. Everything is impacted by perspective and understanding it will improve everything you draw, no matter how you draw it or what you’re using. You can have a great camera angle of a city, but not understand how to draw your figure from that same angle so they’re “living” in the same space.

      • says

        Agreed. I love Loomis’s books. Eventually I’ll grab all the rereleased ones, but for now I’ve just gone with Successful Drawing as it covers the bulk of my weakest skills drawing wise.

  4. says


    Thanks so much for sharing this! Seeing it doesn’t make me feel like as much as a “Hack” as I think I am :D

    I’ve been using sketchup to help build my environments and build vehicle reference for a long time now, and it is so amazingly helpful to a faster process.

    I also highly recommend checking out google’s 3D warehouse, there are a lot of useful, free to use sketchup models, that can help you get a quick reference. As always we shouldn’t rely too heavily on our reference, but man it can sure make our break the believability of an illustration.

    Thanks again, Chris!

    • says

      Yeah, Lee. Especially when it comes to the webcomics we’re creating on a tight time budget we have to always be asking ourselves: “What’s the goal here?”

      And in regard to SketchUp, the question is:

      “What’s the goal here? Is the goal to adhere to restrictive, time-consuming and antiquated processes so I can say ‘I drew every perspective line myself’ or is the goal to get my comic done and have it look better?”

      • says

        Exactly, we need a tight and well illustrated page, but we gotta do this on a budget, both a financial one and a time one. That is really where Sketchup helps with both!

    • says

      The 3D warehouse saves me everytime I draw a scene with an octagonal gazebo that sits behind my heroine’s house. I’m pretty proficient with perspective and a lot of times doing a simple room is faster to just do it with a vanishing point but not octagons!

      There are a lot of great pre-fab stuff in there you can use and tweak. I think I found a stairwell that really helped me once, too.

    • says

      Thanks for the link Lee! and a big thanks to Chris for the tutorial! I got introduced to the concept of Sketch-up by the webcomic True Magic, but have been struggling to put it to use.

  5. says

    Great video Chris! I just redownloaded Sketch-up a couple days ago too for making some weapons. It’s really hard to adjust to after being taught 3D StudioMAx and box modeling, but your video makes it look really easy. I think I’ll give it another try tonight :-)

    • says

      Yeah. I know Maya really well (I kept saying “extrude” in the video!) and so it was really hard for me to make the change. …but after I realized that they are two VERY different programs with two VERY different purposes, things really opened up for me.

  6. says

    Wow. Just… wow. I’m completely blown away. I was actually made aware of this program awhile ago, and I quickly downloaded it because it seemed so useful. Unfortunately, I never got around to even trying it. (Which, to be honest, was probably good because I’m sure I just would have gotten confused and frustrated!) This tutorial was absolutely perfect. I now feel ready–and inspired–to open up Google SketchUp and use it for my webcomic. I struggle so badly with perspective and buildings (as you can see in my Everdusk pages that feature them); this tool will be perfect for me!

    Also Chris, I LOVE your tutorials. This is actually the first one I’ve watched (for some reason I have trouble sitting down and watching video tutorials), and it was so enjoyable! I’m definitely going to be checking out your painting video tutorials now.

  7. says

    Thanks for the tutorial, Chris! I may take another swing at SketchUp for some scenes in upcoming issues of Bonnie Lass, just some simple stuff to test the waters.

    Every time I’ve used SketchUp in the past I’ve started off simple for maybe 5 or 10 minutes, but then just start getting into superfluous detail right after that—details that just make my basic model clunkier to work with. I just need to go in with a clear head and ready to bust out some simple models that I can use as reference, not necessarily as models to be directly imported into the panels.

    I’ve seen hand-drawn characters set against computer-rendered environments done well, in comics as well as movies. I can almost always notice the difference, but if it’s done right it’s another good way to set the focus on the characters while still having an active, full environment around them. I think back to The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company—2D/3DCG hybrid at its infancy, but the simplicity of the 3D models seemed to make a perfect match for the elegantly simple cel animation.

    I almost decided to completely thrash Bonnie’s ship at the end of the first arc because I’d had so much trouble trying to come up with a working 3D model of it to stage the action, but toward the end I just got really used to drawing it freehand so I let it survive, at least into the current arc. =) I’d still like to familiarize myself enough with SketchUp to at least be able to model it for future use.

    • says

      Yeah, I was actually thinking of Bonnie’s ship while I was making the tutorial.

      I think the main thing to keep in mind is that the challenge is to not have all the backgrounds LOOK like they are stiff and computery.

      That’s why we draw over them but even still, if we’re not careful, we can just kill all visual interest in the name of “accurate perspective.”

      So, as with all things comics, you want to plan, plan, plan.

      For more complex sets (or even simple props etc. depending on how you work) at least do some rough line drawings before diving into SketchUp. You probably need a floor plan and thumbnails to figure out the paths of action and how the set will be used.

      If you just dive into SketchUp, you can easily get locked into proportions you can’t use. That happened to me early on with some Disney work. I had to re-model a huge chunk of a character because of a big mistake I didn’t know I was making.

      Also, for more time-saving, you can combine line art projected onto geometry with actual, modeled geometry. This is a cool way to quickly build, for example, an old, brick building. You can just make a basic rectangle in SketchUp and then have all the bricks and details be a line drawing that you just project onto the rectangle.

      And you can easily make changes to a drawn image and then just update the model by projecting the new drawing onto the surface of the rectangle (or whatever..)

      …without getting into heavy modeling detail…

      Does that make sense?

  8. says

    This is great! I’ve always been intimidated by environments, but this makes it seem less daunting. Just to make sure I understand entirely…

    The main idea with this is that we just use simple geometric shapes to give us an idea where buildings go, yes? So when I put this into Photoshop and draw over it, it’s like I’ve plotted out all the perspective lines and boxes…plus a bit more, if I spend more time on my models?

    • says

      Exactly, Kristin. And you can spend as much or as little time on the SketchUp model as you want to.

      With my character designs, for example, I have gone back into the model multiple times. Modeling a bit, then switching to Photoshop and traditional media draw-overs, then back to SketchUp to make the changes that I worked out while drawing etc…

      Eventually, I get to the finished painting.

      I would advise spending more time on sets you’re going to go back to over and over but just do quick rough-ins for one-offs or single-scene locations.

      It would also help to have a bunch of pre-designed set pieces that you can re-arrange and make them into completely different locations.

      But just try it out and you’ll start thinking of all kinds of good ideas for boosting your comics-making productivity. Feel free to share with the PW community when you do!

  9. says

    Chris, great tutorial. I use sketch up everyday so I just wanted to give you two quick tips to make it work a little better.
    1. Use arrows keys – they lock a command into a certain axis. (when push/pulling something, press “up” to lock into the blue axis, etc)
    2. Multiple copies – after you copy something, type “X” then a number to create an array of that many copies. it works great for rows of windows, fences, etc.

  10. says

    Thanks for firing our assistant at the beginning! Fun tutorial! I will defiantly give this a go as I am slowly trying to move my portfolio towards environment design, every tip counts! Even just the beauty of setting awesome perspective lines intrigues me!

    • Chris Oatley says

      Thanks, Tegan! Remember to share the work here with us if you get these techniques to work for you.

  11. says

    Well, this is the sound of your co-host eating crow. I’ll go back and give Sketch Up another try. Amazing video. What I think I needed to give it another try.

    Thank you!

    • Chris Oatley says

      Yeah. I was in the exact same boat before my Art Director helped me get past that initial learning barrier. If not for his help I probably would never have gotten started.

  12. says

    Great video! Sketchup is such a great tool (and free!), it can be a real eyeopener for artists struggling with perspective.

    One more tip that I find quite useful when I have to deliver several images of the same location:

    “Also, a REALLY cool thing is, you can render out an image from a scene, do an overpaint in Photoshop and then you select that scene, choose “match photo”, you select your overpaint and then you just press done, without moving anything. You can then do a camera projection of your painting! So you can very quickly create several paintings, reusing parts between them.

  13. says

    Thanks for this Chris! I had heard of Google SketchUp but hadn’t looked too much into it. This could be a great tool! And the tutorial is super helpful to get the basics down pat.

    Do you ever use Daz 3D? I just used that for the first time the other day (it’s a free 3d program with models you can pose – super easy to use). It’s great for getting reference for a hard to photograph pose and trying out different angles and lighting.

    Thanks again!

    • Chris Oatley says

      I’ve heard of it but I didn’t know what it is. Awesome. I’ll have to check it out!

  14. says

    Since you seem to have a lot of Sketchup love, you might want to check out Sculptris for your character macquettes, it’s a fantastic organic sculpting program (owned by the Zbrush folks and it is also shockingly FREE! It’s amazing for quick head sculpts etc and you can apply textures and lighting FX on the spot. I’ve done a lot of sculpey works, but with this program you can literally have a 3d model of your character is minutes! It has a mirror feature (if you want everything symetrical) which allows you to just sculpt half of the features and the other side it done at the same time…cutting your sculpting time literally in half!

  15. says

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the tutorial! Yes SketchUp is very useful for quickly creating scenes and environments for illustrations, storyboards……anything etc. Also the plug-ins available these days for more organic modelling are very interesting.


    • says

      I’m just trying out “Artisan” at the moment….a plug-in for SketchUp. I also use key frame animation to create short animations and “Artisan”. If you go to
      you can subscribe to their free monthly news letter and find out about any kind of plug-in you can think of. The user forums are great also………..these guys know everything there is to know about SketchUp….and more! I love Sketchup because it’s so easy to animate with it!


  16. Shannon Beech says

    Thank you so much for this. I hadn’t heard of this program ’til today. As someone who has always struggled with perspective it’s really nice to find something that can ease this process since it seemed that even when I plotted everything out on paper it still didn’t come out right.

    • Chris Oatley says

      Shannon, this is great to hear. Please let us know when you have some visuals! I’m sure we’d all love to see what you come up with.

  17. says

    Great tutorial Chris, I was actually looking for a piece of software that is both efficient and easy to use to put together objects that appear on a regular basis in my comic. So far I’ve been using Swift3d -being a web and graphic designer it made sense at the time- but my version’s not compatible with Lion anymore. I purchased Zbrush a while ago and will hopefully get back into it to use the great new features of version 4 but SketchUp really looks as though it fits the bil to get proportions right and speed up workflow.

    I’ve actually made a couple of videos that illustrate how I’ve made use of 3D software in my own comic endeavours. I can only vouch for the use of tools like these to speed up your work and make sure things look like potentially real objects and it allows you to bring consistency to your environments (if anyone interested you can view some of my video’s here: and here: ).

    If you put the time, you can make sure your perspectives and proportions are correct and drawn it all by hand but 3d software is such a time saver and, as I said, it’s all in favour of consistency. And you’re still only using it as an underlay, most of the work is still there for you to carry out.

    I’ll definitely look into using SketchUp before I invest countless hours getting back into the depth of Zbrush (although, as a sculpting tool, it’s unparalleled).

    Thanks Chris!

  18. says

    Ahoy and thank you Chris!!!

    Ok, i still need to get to responding to all the awesome comments but i wanted to throw in my 2cents.

    I have used SketchUp on and off for a few years due to work situations and it has been a great tool. One very inportant comic-related use is it help we artists to confirm our relative scale. This means that when we are creating buildings, objects and even strange alien craft, we can drop the “assistant” body into the piece to ensure our pieces work together properly. it is also really great for deep perspectives and strange angles, ex: over a charater’s shoulder, from behind and below, looking at a building’s rooftop. And thank you Chris for reminding me of the perspective slider, when used with a properly staged camera, it can take the guess work out of really difficult shots! It is awesome to know that we have a tool like this available to us! We as artists sometimes must “see” a setup before we can truely get it and then draw it. This allows for that without going somewhere and using expensive cameras.

    Also, there is a huge online library of pr-made items ranging from coffee tables to shops on open waters!! I have used this before to design studio space and the difference was priceless!! Another also!: if you know you will be building something complex, you can build in sections and group them before putting it together, then when you need to make adjustments, they are easier to manage! This method alone has saved me tons of time!!

    (Sorry for any typos, using phone and it doesnt like giant man hands! Ha!!)

    Best to ya with love to tha Wingerz!!!

  19. says

    This is a great tutorial. I’ve only used sketch up once or twice and gotten frustrated but loved the results in the end. I haven’t gotten back to it when I’ve had time to really learn it too. I will be fun to try again with some of the things on the video, and the tips I’ve learned from the comments. I only read a couple of them and they have been very helpful. I can’t wait til I have time to read the rest.

    Thanks everyone.

  20. says

    At first I was thinking, “Sketch-up? That silly little program I used to play around with when I was a kid?” But after this tutorial, I think I may have to download it and give it another go. I’ve always struggled with perspective, and now I can see how great Sketch-up can be for guidance. You sold me when you demonstrated how easy it is to manipulate the camera view! That has GOT to be useful…

  21. says

    With all 3D type software, there’s that initial steep learning curve for artists who aren’t used to the controls. I tried using SketchUp awhile back on its initial release. it was great for blocking out scenes, but it can be very time consuming and take you away from actually producing comics once you get the hang of it and have fun with it.

    I’m thinking of giving it a go in my next project, but since I rely on more photographic reference, it may be in limited use.

  22. says

    Thanks Chris! Good tute. Got to play around with it somore, like a lot of folks have been saving, the learning curve is steep for me. This helps me k ow where to start. Keep um coming!

  23. says

    Oh man, I love google sketchup! I use it a lot to figure out layouts and “camera” angles whenever I need to draw geometric shapes like cars and buildings.

  24. says

    OMG MIDDLE MOUSE BUTTON. Thank you so much for that! I reprogrammed my second stylus button to be the middle mouse button and suddenly tumbling and panning my way around the model while I’m building is not so much of a pain. I may actually finally get into building my sets in sketch-up now, instead of just sort of using it for the really hard angles and guessing the rest of the time. Thanks for a great tutorial!

  25. says

    Thank you for this. I’d forgotten all about this program. I’m VERY comfortable with perceptive (13 years of Character layout) but it’s still time consuming when finishing up a tight drawing. This helps speed things up.

  26. says

    I saw designcoyote tweet on this and decided to check it out and was instantly hooked. I’ve never drawn comics but watching this tutorial made me want to play around. So fascinating. Plus, Chris Oatley does a great job and has a really good voice and tone for teaching.

    Thanks, I might just have found an unexpected new hobby.

  27. says

    Wow…I have been struggling with terrible perspective and environments for so long! I always knew a 3d program would help me, but I had no idea it would be that easy to do! I always avoided it because I thought it would take weeks of learning how to use the thing.

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