Tools of the Trade

Posted on February 25, 2015 by

From time to time, I get questions on here or on tumblr about what tools I use or what my process is like for drawing a page of comics. I figured I would do it photoblog style to make the answer a little more interesting, and so that I have a page I can send to people as an answer when this question comes up again, since it seems to every few months.

I never really ‘learned’ how to draw comics. I didn’t even take illustration classes in art school – which seems strange considering I was an animation major. I got into comics by making scratchy little drawings for my old zine, List, and only ever drew cartoony when I was putting out a new issue of that. I never really took it seriously as ‘my art’ until years later, after I had gotten better at cartooning just from doing issue after issue of my zine – and by then I had already scrambled together my own type of work flow and style. I always wonder what proper comics artists use – sometimes I see them using a lightbox to ink, instead of inking right onto their pencils and having to erase, I’ve seen some using tracing paper, many use blue pencils so that when they scan their pages the pencil disappears – etc. All tricks I’ll probably try out at some point, but for now, straightforward pencil with ink on top is good enough for me. My style isn’t super polished anyway, so smudges and pencil marks are perfectly fine with me.

Here’s a step-by-step documentation of a one-page comic I drew last summer.

These are my basic tools – I start out by sketching a really scratchy thumbnail version of a comic on scrap paper or computer paper, or sometimes in a notebook that I use just for thumbnails. This is like the script of the comic, where I spend a lot of time changing wording around and figuring out how to make pacing interesting. Sometimes I’ll restart a thumbnail page several times to try out different ideas for laying out what my comic page will look like. This is the step where I think about what the whole page will look like at once. It’s great to thumbnail because then you don’t get ahead of yourself – when I try to draw a final comic as I go, I’ll often spend a while drawing a detailed frame, only to decide that I want to change the size of that panel later, or that I need to add something in, and end up erasing a lot of time and energy! A thumbnail is like a map. It only needs to be legible to you. I like to draw with a mechanical pencil because my comics have pretty clean lines. I use a Maped Epure eraser. It looks like a flat oval when you first buy it.
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This is my studio. I live in a 7 bedroom group house with friends. I share a bedroom with my boyfriend, Mikey, and we both rent an additional room (the two tiniest rooms in the house) for our own studios outside of our shared bedroom. It’s great to have our own spaces because we make pretty different type of work. He does graphic design and makes music – which is mostly what he uses his studio for. He recorded a whole album in that little studio! It wouldn’t work for us to have a shared creative space. I have this big desk where I do my drawing, and behind me is a big shelving unit where I keep everything else, including a standing desk spot for a desktop computer and printer/scanner setup. I’ll show that later. I like to have natural light in my drawing space, but I like having dark walls. I feel like it gives my eyes a visual break after staring at a white page or bright computer screen for too long.
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After I’m happy with my thumbnail sketches, I’ll work on penciling an actual page. I draw it larger than it would appear in print, so that I have more room for smaller detail and gesture. I draw at 11×14 usually. I used to draw actual size for zines which was 5.5×8.5 and it was a game changer to start drawing at a bigger size. I usually use the edge of a sheet of paper as a straight edge to draw the panel frames.
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Once the pencils are done, which I leave a little loose or sketchy sometimes, but mostly try to block in exactly how it will look in the end, I start to go through and ink the outlines – usually starting with the panel frames and the speech bubbles. I use Prismacolor pens. Over the years my pen tip of choice has gotten thicker and thicker – I don’t really know why, I think I’m finding that as I feel more confident, a thicker pen makes my lines seem more confident too? When I first started drawing comics for my zine, I would use Micron .005! Now I use 03 or even 05. I guess it also just makes sense that as I size up my actual drawing scale, the pen tip would need to size up as well. I guess I wouldn’t use an 05 pen to draw at 5.5×8.5 like I used to.
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Usually the inking stage is when I do the majority of my bad tv watching.
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Everything outlined.
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Then I erase out the pencil from underneath. This stage can be tricky. The wrong pen with the wrong type of paper can pick up a lot of your ink, or smudge your ink, or the wrong pencil/paper combo and the pencil won’t really fully erase. It took trial and error for me to the find the pen and paper combo that keeps most of my ink untouched. When I used to draw on computer paper, this was undoubtedly the stage where I would be erasing away, minding my own business, and my paper would inevitably get bent or folded from careless vigorous erasing. Another perk of switching to sturdier/larger paper.
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This guy pretty much is always sleeping at my feet in my studio, or asking to be let out of my studio so he can go check in on Mikey in his. Rover walks back and forth between our studios over and over making sure we’re both there. It’s really cute but also can drive me nuts. Haha.
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Then it’s time for the spot blacks. This is my favorite part, and my comics are really heavy with the spot blacks. It’s just part of what I do stylistically. I love them to look punchy. Some people don’t do much spot black at all – some do washes, color, or hatching. That’s for you to decide when you develop a style of your own. For my blacks, I use a small sumi ink brush and Acrylic Artists Ink. This is the blackest ink I’ve found, and most closely matches the black of the Prisamacolor pens (some blacks have a blueish hue, some are warm, some are more grey, etc). It doesn’t reeeeally matter, because I scan and greyscale out my comics anyway, but it feels satisfying to have a deep black on my originals for some reason.
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At this point, I’ve been thinking about my page as a whole and have already been forming decisions in my head about where my heavy blacks will go. It’s how I decide which panels will have detailed backgrounds, and which will be empty and later filled with blacks. I try to keep a visual flow on my page by strategically placing the black areas.
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It obviously changes the feel of the page a lot.
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I didn’t take a photo of the finished page for some reason, but at this step, I remember thinking that the top right of the top panel doesn’t feel exactly right in terms of space and depth, and I ended up hatching over a lot of the right hand side of that panel, so that the character in the foreground would come forward¬†more in space. I’m glad I did. In the new few photos you can see that it makes a really big difference.
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Once my page is done, I then scan it in. Here’s the old computer and scanner setup I have. The computer is really old. I think I got it in 2007. But the scanner/printer combo is a pretty new upgrade. Prior to this summer, I just had a smaller scale scanner and was scanning both ends of my page and stitching them all together in photoshop. I can’t believe I did two whole books this way! At least 200 pages of comics, each page stitched together one by one. >_< Having a large-scale scanner is such a luxury!
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Ta-da! From there I size it correctly and get ready to make edits – the first one being that I turn it greyscale. Then I put the file in dropbox so that I can work on it on my laptop, where I have a newer version of photoshop. My desktop is pretty slow but it’s where I do all my stationary work and my photo editing. Anything where I might want a larger screen.
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Then I get to work editing minuscule things that nobody would ever really notice. I was obviously also meal-planning in the background tabs on my computer, haha.
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I start by adjusting the levels. I usually increase the blacks so that my lines feel stronger. Sometimes they look more grey when they go through the scanner. Then I pull up the whites, which pretty much erases all the leftover little pencil spots and dust marks.
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Then I go in and tediously erase things, like those little two dots? I could just as easily leave those in, but I do a lot of touchups.
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I also fix text bubbles that feel uneven. I could just take more time in the drawing stage, but I know I can fix them later. Like this one, see how the text doesn’t really sit centered in the bubble?
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Voila! I also fixed some of the letters, like I thought the tail on the “u” was too long I guess.
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It’s hard to really know how much of of this post production stuff effects the outcome of my comic but to me they feel more clean and organized.
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and that’s it! Now you know how much time goes into one little page of comics. I always joke with people that I spent three hours drawing something that people spend 30 seconds with. But that’s the nature of most art in general.

 

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