DIY: a drawing process

The process of drawing comics a la Jessica as of 1998. I’ve noted applicable chapters in Drawing Words & Writing Pictures throughout the tutorial below.

One other note: in case you care, there’s some naughty language in the panels depicted below. Fair warning.

First of all, and I wish I didn’t think I had to say this, this is NOT the only way to go about drawing comics. There are tons of different methods, but a lot of them use some or all of the elements pictured here, so I flatter myself that this may prove useful to someone. In any case, if you have other things that work for you, or these ideas make you think of something else, by all means, feel free to try other stuff. These are not rules. This is just how I personally work, and even I work in several different styles, with different levels of preparation and “tightness” to the drawing. These are tools. Think of them that way.

Second of all, I didn’t pick this particular section of page to illustrate my methods because it’s particularly great; on the contrary, it kinda sucks. It was just the part I was doing when I thought of making this section. On the down-side, it’s a little embarrassing. On the up-side, you can observe mistakes being made, real-time, almost. So that’s good, I guess. Anyway, let’s get to it.

A few basic comics-drawing guidelines for rank beginners:

  • Use gutters (white space between panels) unless you have a really good reason not to (by which I mean a well-thought out artistic reason. These things exist for a reason, and until you can think of why you don’t need them, believe me, you need them. (For example, if your daughter comes to you in a dream and tells you not to use gutters, well, for gosh sakes, quit usin’em right now. It could happen. It happened to Joe Chiappetta). [see Chapter 6 in DWWP for more on layout]
  • Use a ruler to line up lettering (see step 6, below) and to rule panel borders, at least in the pencil stage. You can ink straight lines freehand, but don’t pencil them freehand unless you have a really good artistic reason for it. [see Chapter 7 in DWWP for more on lettering]
  • Use good materials: decent acid-free paper, India ink, steel-nib pens or sable brushes (see materials section for more information). We cartoonists are lucky to be working in possibly the cheapest art form in the world. You, yes, even you, can afford to treat yourself like a real artist and buy quality materials. The pleasure you’ll get from using good paper when you’re erasing over and over, or the interesting line made by an artist-quality pen or brush will be notable. Plus your drawings will reward you in the future by lasting more than a year or two in storage. [more on materials throughout DWWP]

1. The script
I’m better able to write, for whatever reason, when I’m at the computer. So I type my scripts. There’s no reason for you to do this, and, in fact, a lot of people skip the script part altogether and write the scenes in the thumbnail stage (see step 3). [in fact, that’s what I recommend strongly—see DWWP for more, starting in Chapter 3]

2. Script revisions and divisionsscript002
Sometimes the revisions are heavy enough to re-type and re-print the script, but, as you can see, I then almost invariably make further changes as I’m thumbnailing, or even drawing the final page. The lines and numbers on this section are also a vital part of the process. The “22” on the side of the sheet is to tell me what page I’m on. I will usually divide up the whole book into page-sized chunks before drawing anything (assuming I’ve finished the script before I draw anything; not always the case).

The heavy tick mark under the “7” at the top is to mark the page division. Then I divide up the page-sized chunk of script into panel-sized chunks of dialogue. Now, keep in mind that I typically write way too many words in my comics. Ideally, there’d be a much higher picture-to-word ratio here, but I’m always trying to cram more stuff in than can reasonably fit. So do as I say and not as I do: try to think more visually and put less words in any given panel. Anyway, those are the other numbers and long lines (“1” through “6”). I’ve also added “stage directions” that I thought of while mentally picturing and dividing up the page.

3. Thumbnails
This is the word for a small and very rough sketch of a full comics page to indicate who goes where, what they’re doing, and where the word balloons will go. Often, if there are several word balloons in a panel, I’ll number them, and put matching numbers on the bits of dialogue in the script, but I almost never actually write the dialogue in the thumbnail because 1) it’s really small (usually around 5” x 7”) and 2) because I already have the dialogue in the script.

However, I can not emphasize strongly enough how important this stage can be. It’s the rare cartoonist who goes straight from idea to final page. This is the vital working-out stage that the rest of us non-geniuses require. This is where your page takes on a composition, where you enrich the words with deeper meaning in the images, where you make what you’re doing into comics. (I’m using as my definition here that comics exist when neither words nor pictures can stand alone. Of course, there are wordless comics, which is complicated, so let’s just not go there right now.)

Some people, as I have said, make this part the actual “writing” of the comic, and never write a script. I’ve never yet been capable of that on a large scale, but I admire it, and I’m planning to try again on the next Artbabe! [DWWP Chapter 3]

4. Rough pencils
First of all, I should say that I usually use the “industry standard” size paper; that is, an active drawing area of 10” by 15”. This is a multiple of the dimensions 2×3, and any multiple of these dimensions works in any standard-size American comic book (i.e., 8” x 12”, 20” x 30”, whatever), though keep in mind the effects that reduction have on work.

Also, if you decide to work super-large, I pity you on the day you try to get it reduced to send off to some comic book publisher. It’s a bitch. Get yourself a reduction/enlargement scale (see proportion scale, in the materials section); it will come in handy continually.

As for the paper, pencils, etc., there are tons of choices, see materials. [layout, page ratio in DWWP Chapter 6, reproduction, see Chapter 14]

On the other hand, I’m starting to really like other sizes. You just have to be prepared for the fact that your work won’t fit neatly on every comic book page of every anthology you submit to. On the other hand again, a lot of comics aren’t standard-sized anyway. There are no real rules here, just “standards.”

I do my pencils with an erasable “light blue” pencil—it’s a little darker than “non-photo blue” (see materials). I used to use a regular #2 pencil, and sometimes still do, but the blue pencil means everything doesn’t have to get erased, which is handy. Non-photo blue means it doesn’t photograph onto the film when you’re printing the comic at a “real” printer, but it doesn’t mean a photocopy machine won’t pick it up, so be careful! It was pretty hard to get the scanner to pick it up, so these colors look weird, but you get the idea. Basically, I sketch the figures in roughly, and then progressively get tighter. [penciling in DWWP Chapter 5]

**Ed. note: I really recommend that you take step 5, below, and do it AFTER you’ve lettered and inked lettering and panel borders, to avoid a heartbreaking need for re-drawing. So step 5 goes AFTER step 9.

5. Tight pencils
Just what it says. Here’s where the image really takes shape. A lot of times I don’t draw in all the backgrounds at this stage, though. One other note: be sure you get your drawing close to the way you want it to end up when you’re at this stage.

If you draw something really badly, like Lara bending over in the middle panel, it doesn’t ever get fixed. You can do a lot to details at the corrections stage at the end (or in inking, for that matter), but basic bad drawing stays bad. All you can do is redraw and paste down a correction (using acid-free glue, of course), or live with it (which is what I usually do!).

6. Lettering guidelines

I used to do this with a ruler, carefully marking dots every 1/8 inch or whatever, and then ruling across, until I discovered the Ames lettering guide (see materials).

What a great tool. I taped my filthy Ames guide and ruler down on the scanner so you could see what it’s supposed to line up like (image in materials). You can adjust the width of the lines by rotating the disk, make evenly-spaced guidelines (the middle row of holes), or make guides for upper-and-lower case letters (that’s what I do—use the lower set of holes).

It’s kinda hard to explain how to do it, but the guide comes with instructions. It’s great! Oh, and by the way, you can wash it. Something I hadn’t done for a while when I scanned it. [lettering—with full explanation of the Ames guide—in DWWP Chapter 7]

7. Pencil lettering
So then you pencil the lettering, and decide how much space you want to give each word balloon. Sometimes you have to do quick re-writes at this stage if your dialogue won’t fit. Happens to me all the time. I use square word balloons with rounded corners because they take up less space than oval ones, and, like I said, I have too many words in my comics!

8. Ink lettering
Sometimes the length changes just slightly at this stage.

9. Ink panel borders and word balloons
You do this before you ink the drawing so that you know how far to draw the images. It’s a lot easier than doing a ton of corrections. I pencil my panel borders with a ruler, but I ink them freehand to get that oh-so-desirable parkinson’s-esqe line.

10. Ink outlines and finish background pencils

This is where styles start diverging a lot. I tend to do all the outlines, erase lightly, then move more into the drawing, doing black-spotting and so on. Some people do it all at once. Some people pencil very roughly, some way more tightly than me. Some people don’t ever erase at all (they use blue pencil, of course). It’s all about what you’re comfortable with. See materials section for info about inking tools. Notice that that terrible drawing of Lara in the second panel hasn’t gotten any better… [inking in DWWP Chapters 8 and 13]

11. Finish inking outlines

In this book, I did the foreground figures with a brush, but then the background with a steel-nib pen (in previous books, I’d done the whole thing in brush). It’s just a matter of how you like the lines to look.

12. Spot blacks

Depending on what style I’m working in, this might be the last inking stage. In this case, it’s not, but what you’re looking for is a good composition of lights and darks, and a feeling of the image being balanced. It’s all in how you see it, so I can’t tell you more than that. [more on composition in DWWP chapters 6 and 11]

13. Add tone
Sometimes you don’t do this at all. Sometimes you do it with cross-hatching, or with straight hatching. In the case of this book, I did it with a technique called “dry-brush”. It’s actually not dry at all, but it’s drier than when I’m doing the linework.

Anyway, some people are able to leave things very stark, and I admire that, but I’ve always had an unstoppable urge to add a third tone to the black and the white: gray. And here it is. [making tone with a brush: DWWP Chapter 13]

14. Corrections
I don’t remember exactly what the corrections were in this case, but certainly I always have to clean up the lettering, because my lettering sucks. I think I also cleaned up the other waitress’s face in the first panel, and probably a bunch of other little stuff.

My method is extremely un-scientific, so there’re always plenty of corrections. Use professional correction white, not Wite-Out! It’s totally horrible for your health and the health of your artwork. [corrections in DWWP Chapter 8]

And Voilá! a comic page is born.