Sunday Mailbag- Creating Crowd Scenes?

July 20th, 2014 | Posted in General

Q: When you are tasked to draw a front cover with dozens of faces on it (like the Obama inauguration number) WHERE do you start? I avoid such jobs like the plague because I find it too intimidating – trying to get everyone in is a nightmare!

A: As it happens, I did a short tutorial on constructing crowd scenes a few years ago using that same “Obama Inauguration” image as the basis. Here it is:

Constructing a Crowd Scene Tutorial

I’m still not exactly sure how it happened, but somewhere along the line I ended up establishing the reputation of being able to “do a crowd scene”. I am sure my art director at MAD Magazine, Sam Viviano, can sympathize. He is well known for his work with crowd scenes, and all that implies. Simply put, it means you end up getting a lot of jobs doing complicated crowd scenes because… well…. you CAN. In the world of freelancing there is never anything wrong with getting jobs. However when a lot of jobs end up being time consuming crowd scenes, you sometimes just wish for a nice, simple single figure illustration job to cross your path. MAD has utilized me on many crowd scene projects, in particular their “A MAD Look Behind the Scenes of…” features that they have occasionally done. I’ve done a lot of them for other clients as well.

It’s not that I hate crowd scenes. In fact, I like them. They are a LOT of work but when you are done with them they are always something you can sit back, look at and say “whew! That one was tough” but be pleased with the effort. In fact I’ve been known to do much more complicated scenes than the job might necessarily call for just because a really detailed crowd scene is always visually intense and affords the opportunity to make it dense with visual gags, cameos and other fun stuff that makes the viewer really look it over thoroughly. The dense, “chicken fat” technique of filling space with a lot of gags has always been one of my favorite parts of MAD, and is something I’ve always enjoyed incorporating into my work when I get the chance… MAD or otherwise. I’ve also always subscribed to the philosophy inherent in the famous quote by Wally Wood about doing very detailed and busy art: “If you can’t draw well, draw A LOT”.

I’ve been meaning to do a tutorial on how to do a crowd scene illustration, and in late November (2008) I was assigned a tough one for MAD that I thought afforded the opportunity to demonstrate how to approach and execute a crowd scene. In consideration of that thought, I saved conceptual sketches and stages of this particular job for MAD so I could use them to illustrate how I go about constructing a crowd scene.

Design and Layout

Crowd scene or no, the first step is the same as it is for any job… identify the object or end result desired and consider the most effective way to visually accomplish that result. If that means a crowd scene, then in most cases the scene itself is a means to that end. What I mean is that the crowd scene is merely the vehicle to deliver the message and/or the main focus of the illustration. There are key areas of the scene, those that deliver the main purpose of the illustration, which need to be incorporated into the greater whole in such a way that they act like individual spot illustrations throughout the busy main scene. Effectively they act like panels of a comic book page, drawing the reader’s eye across the image. The trick is to blend these areas into the larger illustration but still make them “stick out” is some fashion so they are understood to be more important that the surrounding imagery. I call these elements “principals”. You design your entire image around these principals, setting them up in the layout first and then adding the “secondaries” or “filler” in around them. This simplifies your layout because at first you just ignore the rest of the scene and concentrate on placing the principals.

The most important part of setting up a crowd scene is establishing the point of view (POV). You need to define this and keep it in mind as you set up the scene, and the POV must serve the goals of the project. In this job for MAD, the two page spread called for a massive crowd scene at Barack Obama“s inauguration, made up of multiple principals in the form of written gags/word balloons that would span the crowd. MAD“s original concept was for a POV from the back facing the stage, looking down slightly on the crowd.


The problem with that POV illustrates an important point about doing crowd scenes… “Crowd Mentality”. Crowds have two important elements to their makeup. The second one I will get into later. “Crowd Mentality” means that in a general sense most crowds follow a pattern where are all doing the same thing. Even truly random scenes like the floor of a large cocktail party will result in distinct clusters of people doing the same thing… in that case conversing. In the case of this scene, where Obama is giving his inauguration address, the crowd will all be facing the podium and listening to the speech. Considering that, a scene set up from behind the crowd would mean the viewer would be looking at the backs of everyone’s heads. That wasn’t going to work, so I switched to a POV from the stage, looking out over the crowd.


In general a crowd scene is going to call for a POV that is elevated above eye level. Anything too close to eye level will result it the obscuring of the people in the crowd more than about two people deep. This particular job needs a big crowd with lots of faces, so I will have to use a fairly high POV, looking down on the crowd and not necessitating too much in the way of receding or far distance figures. In fact I ended up going with an even higher POV in the final illustration than the one in the rough above.

One side note: there are many different types of crowd scenes. The crowd in the stands of a sporting event will not be the same as one in the a fore mentioned cocktail party. When laying out a crowd scene you must take into account the environment and purpose of the gathering. To that end the most effective means to do this is to actually imagine yourself in that environment, and take a “mental” look around to see what it’s all about. In the stands of a baseball game or other sport, for example, you are crowded shoulder to shoulder with the surrounding crowd. The stands/seats of the stadium restrict the crowds to rigid spacing and straight rows. Only elements like the height of the person, their posture and how they lean will dictate their relationship to their neighbors. In a more varied environment like a dance floor, the spacing and organization of the crowd is much less rigid, and there can be gaps at random all around. Likewise at that cocktail party, there will be clusters of people of various numbers interacting. What the crowd is there for also makes a difference. Who are they paying attention to? What is the reason for the gathering? Put yourself “in the scene” and try and understand what you are trying to visually describe.

The hardest crowd scene to do is the truly random one. I keep coming back to the “cocktail party”, but that environment is a good example of the most varied and therefore difficult of scenes… one that is without many rules or restrictions. Really dense scenes are also easier to do than more spread out ones. Why? The denser the crowd, the less you have to draw of the figures. It’s tough to have to map out figures that are partially obscured and make sure they are all working together within the same physical space. It’s easy to goof up and draw some figures that are too big or too squat or t0o SOMETHING and do not work with the rest of the group. Think about it… you are trying to draw dozens of figures all standing on the same floor and within the same space and make it all look convincing and natural. That’s hard to pull off. In the case of the Obama scene it would be natural for everyone to crowd in together, standing should to shoulder in a very dense mass. It would not be likely for there to be many gaps between figures. This actually makes things a little easier as we will be concentrated more on the faces and not needing to work out entire figures in the spaces in between.

Balance in Composition- Getting back to our layout, we have several principals we need to set up within this crowd scene. This is always the first step in placing figures and elements within the established POV layout. We need to define what the principal elements are and then place them throughout the layout, keeping in mind how the reader’s eye will be drawn across the scene. In this respect designing a crowd scene is really not much different that designing a comic book page… the composition should draw the eye across the page/scene so that the reader does not get confused as to where to start, what is next or how to follow along. This is accomplished by placing the principals around the page like a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead the reader from right to left across the scene. In the case of this project, we have thought balloons to accompany each principal, so it’s pretty obvious what is important and what is filler. However the same principals would apply in a pantomime scene. In that case the story would be told completely visually through action and expression of the principals.

Balance is important in a crowd scene. It’s easy to cluster too many principal elements together and leave too much of an area to filler. Placement of the principals should create a natural balance across the scene. For this purpose I always start on the outside edges of a scene and work my way in to the center, placing a principal first on the left side and then one on the right. It is NOT necessary (or desirable) to make the placement of the corresponding principals exactly symmetrical. You just need to provide a general balance to the piece. Like setting up a portfolio, it’s also a good idea to start and end the scene with your strongest pieces. i.e. the funniest or most impactful visuals of the bunch. Placing your principals will create a patterned path across your scene. The pattern can be most anything, but usually it’s a zig zag or meandering path that that starts in one of the left corners, instantly works it’s way from left to right, and ending in either of the right hand corners. The one rule that I never break is that I never cross the path. Once a reader has reached a point in the scene you cannot expect them to double back across a principal they’ve read to reach one that they have not read yet.

Executing the Scene

Once we have our principals and path mapped out we can start drawing in the details of those principals.

Principal Function– It isn’t enough just to draw the elements of our principals in isolation. We have to serve not only the purpose they are intended for (in this case to deliver the written gags) but they also must function as coherent elements of the scene itself, AND they must help the readers to follow the path we have established in our principal placement. We have to find a way to accomplish all three of these functions with a single principal image.

Again, the best way to do this is to imagine ourselves in the scene and think about what we would be likely see see there. In our current project the principals are made up of caricatures of various people and their thoughts at that moment. That implies unspoken communication with the reader, but does not necessarily mean we have to draw the principals looking directly at the viewer. If they were speaking to the viewer, then we’d have to provide that visual connection. As it is, they could be “thinking” at the viewer, or looking off at some other person or object, or just sort of retreated inward thinking to themselves. There are a few exceptions, like the appearance of “Spider-Man” in the crowd where the gag requires him to be looking at Harriet Miers. The individual thoughts need to be reinforced by the expressions and actions of those thinking, so we need to work our caricatures up to accomplish this. The McCains need to look unhappy or angry, Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers need to be looking at Obama with a kind of “what the?” annoyance. Paris Hilton needs her trademark empty headed striking a pose look. All these expressions can easily be done without violating their involvement in the crowd itself, so our first two goals are accomplished: delivering the gag and working within the crowd as a whole.

What about goal number three: helping to get the reader to follow the path we have established? That can be accomplished in any number of ways. Like a comic book panel, we can draw our principals so that they lead the reader along the path and across the scene. The eye will naturally follow the direction of a person’s gaze or some sort of action or directional interaction coming from a figure or group of figures. Something as simple as which way the person is facing can direct the viewer’s eye to the next principal long the path. Action like leaning, turning or moving will also move the reader along the same direction. You can also use props or other objects to draw the eye. Paris Hilton might be facing to the right but her dog draws the eye from her face downward and that leads to the next principal on the path. Most viewers will naturally move from left to right, so moving back to the left or downward requires a little more obvious force than just going to the right. Here are the principals drawing in the layout:

inauguration3Click for a closer look…

Secondaries or Fillers- Once the principals are all mapped out and figured out, we can move on to the rest of the image… all the other characters that will make up the crowd scene. Here we must return to our imagining ourselves in the actual scene, and giving some thought to what we might expect to see. Again, in this case we are in a crowd of people here to listen to Obama give his inauguration speech. Our “Crowd Mentality” principal dictates that most will be facing the podium doing just that. However humans are an interesting lot. One can predict with great accuracy what a large group of them will do on an average basis, but on an individual level they are the definition of “unpredictable”. That brings us to our aforementioned second important element in crowd makeup: “Crowd Individuality”. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but what it basically means is that in any large crowd you can expect randomness and individuality amid the herd. In the stands at a sporting event, not everyone will be staring fixedly at the field. Randomly you will see people leaning toward one another, facing other people. looking over their shoulder, putting mustard on their hot dog, taking a drink of soda.. etc. MOST might be paying attention to the game, but not all. Also people in a crowd will not be spaced evenly or hold the same postures or figure dynamics. They will lean. They will turn. they will hunch and crane their necks and scratch their heads. Really great crowd scenes will be made up of individuals that look as if they have their own little backstory should the viewer care to wonder about it.

In a scene like the one we are doing, it’s easier because for the most part people will be face the podium and looking at it. Not everyone, though. In fact those with thought balloons are not really paying attention to whatever Obama is saying, so we are free to make the look away as we want. Likewise some of the other filler characters will also be doing some random things. Here was have an opportunity to add some gags like cameos of other people we might expect to see in the crowd, possibly having them doing something funny.

Laying out the secondaries so they look natural means to avoid any obvious or predictable patterns in placement and look. It’s a little like drawing a starry sky. Drawing stars evenly spaced will not look natural:


Stars appear in clusters:


Likewise people in crowds also appear in clusters, and will vary in height, weight and posture. Making them look random and organic is crucial if you want the crowd scene to look natural… like a frozen moment of time and not some posed and phony picture. It’s a common mistake to draw people in a crowd in positions that are too similar and too evenly spaced. It’s also a common mistake to draw each person separate from their neighbors, when in a natural setting their will be overlapping and partial obscuring of faces and figures. The higher the POV, the less of this will occur, but there is always some.

In placing secondaries, what we don’t want to do is interfere with the principals, but simply add the crowd about them. We can add a little extra space around the principals so they are a bit more visible, but more likely we will just keep the secondaries interesting but not distracting. If we do add gags or cameos, they need to be ones that either are cross overs to be observed while traveling along the path, or else ones that would likely only be discovered with a careful second examination of the entire image. This spread features XX caricature of principals, and another XX caricatures of secondaries that are cameos and/or visual gags. The concept of this scene means we need to keep our secondaries as generally realistic people (Spider-man excluded) so we won’t be throwing Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck in there are random non-sequitors… although did you spot the clown?… and I don’t mean George W. Bush.

Placing secondaries also demands balance. While individually a crowd will have clusters and some small spaces between, overall a crowd scene needs to remain balanced across the image. That simply means to avoid elements like large empty patches or some visually demanding object in one area that is not balanced off on the other side of the image. The farther one of these elements might be to an edge of the image, the more demanding a balancing element is needed on the other side.

Here is the pencil sketch with secondaries in place:

inauguration4Click for a closer look…

And here is our “path” through the crowd made by the principals:

inauguration5Click for a closer look…

Final Art- Other Considerations

Once we have all our principals, secondaries and other goodies drawn out, we will start the finishes. Of course the final style could be anything, and depending on the final execution the “other considerations” will differ. They all have two things in common… they must serve the purpose of describing the crowd convincingly and they must provide (or at least not destroy) that all important balance. In this case it’s an ink line and color job. There are a few elements I will think about as I do the inking and coloring.

Spotting Blacks- Again, this is all about balance. Certain clothes or objects need to be black, so we start out with those and ink them in black. Then we need to sit back away from the image and get a good look at the scene as a whole. If we squint our eyes to eliminate the details, we can see where there appear to be big empty holes of white in the image. Spotting blacks here will balance out the scene. We can try and use black areas to help draw the viewer’s eye as well, but I generally only employ that trick in a crowd scene that has no word or thought balloons like this one has. In the case of a very “deep” crowd, i.e. one with a lower POV where we see out and into the far background, we would want to keep the heavy blacks in the foreground and lessen them as we go back, until the contrast of the furtherest figures are significantly less than the foreground. This is “atmospheric perspective”. In the final inks you can see how I spotted the black areas to balance the spread against the large darks of Obama’s trenchcoat:

inauguration_inksClick for a closer look…

Color- Since we are coloring this image, we need to think about it’s application with regard to the crowd dynamic. Atmospheric perspective applies here as well, and the saturation and intensity of the color, as well as it’s value contrast, would lessen the farther back in the crowd we go. In this project’s case, there is little need for that as the crowd does not recede all that far into the background due to our higher POV. However I still adjust the color a little, and the figures and faces at the top of the page, being furthest back, have a bluish cast to the color that gradually lessens as we move forward.

One question I get a lot is if, when doing crowd scenes, I do caricatures individually and then scan them and place them in the crowd digitally, then draw the figures around them. I sometimes do this, and in this case I did a number of times as I used some caricatures I had already done in my sketchbook for many of the secondaries. However if I do this I always just do it for the rough pencil stage and then draw and finish the caricatures as a part of the entire single image. This is because doing them separately usually results in a disjointed or pasted in look to the caricatures you want to avoid.

Here’s the final of the Obama Inauguration spread for MAD (in case you didn’t see it a few days ago here):

Click for a closer look…

Drawing crowd scenes is fun but exhausting work. Here are a few I have done over the last few years for various clients (click on any of them for a closer look):

“A MAD Backstage Tour of the Family Guy”

“Entourage” parody splash from MAD

“Things Shouted Out to Paris Hilton as She Left Prison” (no larger image)

“A MAD Look Behind the Scenes of the Sopranos”

Poster Illustration

Wrap-around cover of a CD

Poster for Teacher’s Discovery…

Thanks to UK cartoonist Ron McGeary for the question! If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Love the Family Guy scene. Where’s Stewie? Oh. There he is, on the drawing board. I like the kids from South Park peering from behind the wall.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: