Japanese Animation and the Magic of the Middleground

Japanese Animation and the Magic of the Middleground

It was the early 90’s, around my Jr. year of high school. The Japanese kid in my art class lived a few houses down, but we never talked much. Then, the blizzard came. Everyone was snowed in for weeks. At some point he came and invited me to come down to his house and hang out. He was into manga and animae. This was my first introduction to both. Having barrowed several videos from him to pass the time, I eventually ended up buying my own copy of Akira.

It was the first of a new generation of animae. It was all still hand done back then. The thing that set it apart was not the story, which was out there, but tame for Japanese animation. Once you got past the whole psychic children with crazy powers thing, it basically boiled down to the simple storyline of a cool guy on a badass futuristic motorcycle saving the world. Obviously not the height of existential entertainment. However, the visuals were all new to me. I noticed one thing above all, middleground.

Most traditional animation just has a foreground and a background. This had a stationary background, foreground and a middleground with elements moving independent of one another. Not like 3-D, but it created some depth that you don’t get in your standard animation. Soon even more of the animation of the mid-90s began doing it. Vampire Hunter D and Ninja Scroll stick out in my mind, but there are plenty out there. In a similar arena, there are several tattoos that I’ve seen lately that incorporate a stationary element of a middleground using a number of methods to achieve the affect.

I’m just going to go over two of the most basic ways this can be achieved, using line weight and color.


Just short of going through everything in a basic drawing class from horizon lines to vanishing points, which I highly recommend having an understanding of, I suggest keeping it simple by working on your understanding of line weight. In drawing, the general rule is that thick lines come forward and thin lines recede. Most tattooers seem to get a decent grasp of this concept when learning and going through the engagement with outlines using a tattoo machine.

In a basic drawing class, you would do perspective drawings that not only enlist the use of thick lines to create a foreground and thin lines to create a background, but you would also learn to taper your lines from thick to thin to create depth and perspective.

With adding a middleground, the easiest solution to use is to do it with three different line weights. The thickest lines outline your foreground imagery. The medium lines outline your middleground objects and the thinnest lines recede to your background.

With color:

Color can be manipulated and adjusted in more ways than I can count. I would recommend checking out our episodes with Russ Abbot and maybe even ordering one of his digital color wheels. This is specifically designed for coordinating use of color with tattoo inks. This will help you quickly gauge where your colors are on a value scale.


Long story short, think bold. More to the point, think in terms of value with your color. Instead of thinking in terms of light and dark colors, think in terms of bold and muted colors. Bold colors will move forward. Muted colors or washy colors will recede. By adding a color somewhere in between, you can create middleground. Hence, the usefulness of a color wheel to help with choice of middle tones. Using a color wheel to identify the location of all your colors and their values will help you master the use of depth with the objects you are tattooing.

That is it in a nutshell. These are just some extra nuggets to keep in your toolbox to use. It probably isn’t going to be as big as mastering the geometry tattoos or watercolor style tattoos that are popular right now, both of which we have episodes for. However, it will help you expand your thinking and pallet if you are coming from a very rudimentary tattoo training situation with minimal foundation and drawing training.

Till next time,