This is me (below right), about three-quarters of the way through drawing Old Town, Chapter One:
I’m holding a chart. Along the x-axis, the issue’s 20 pages are listed. Down the y-axis each is divided into ten stages of partial completion.
I did this to reassure myself that progress was being made, and to try to estimate, realistically, how much work was left to do. Because the going was a lot slower than I’d anticipated. I wasn’t used to working with color and its attendant challenges, nor had I ever given much thought before to tailoring my comics to be palatable to a specific audience. I was trying to draw in an unfamiliar style by adhering to an unfamiliar set of restrictions. I really just didn’t know what I was doing (although that, at least, was a comfortably familiar circumstance).
Through a lot of trial and error (but predominantly the latter), I eventually settled into a routine. It goes something like this:
Step One: Layouts
Or what most people call thumbnails, I guess. It’s roughly akin to the process of storyboarding a film. But in comics, not even the size of your “screen” is constant. So I think of it as a layout; I’m distributing information across the page, pacing the dialogue, giving characters room to breath or else crowding them in.
Very often, for me, this page will be subsequently divided into/extended over two pages. I usually don’t like to cram too much dialogue into too small a space (unless the intended effect is sonic density or a bit of chaos). I try to give the characters enough room to “act,” to display their emotions and react to each other’s words.
A lot of people draw intentionally simplified versions of their characters at this stage. You’d be justified in assuming that I do the same, but as ever, looks are deceiving. I’m not very good at drawing things I can’t actually see. I give it my best shot on the thumbnails, knowing it won’t be very good, and try to make my best shot better when I move on to penciling. Also, these characters’ designs evolved a lot as I drew and redrew them, getting progressively less round and overtly geometric. I’d initially hoped to keep the models very simple, in the interest of ever actually finishing some pages, but simple turns out not to be something I can pull off.
Step Two: pencils
Essentially, re-drawing the thumbnails. For some projects, this involves moving to larger, better paper. But for Old Town, there was no need; these pages are scanned, and the rest of the process is “digital,” whatever that means. It looks like this (below right).
I have a(n aging) tablet monitor that I draw on directly with a pressure-sensitive stylus. It is not as responsive as I would like, and the screen is a good deal harder on my eyes than paper. I also have to take too-frequent breaks to save my work, which, as the page progresses, becomes a substantial strain on my laptop (hence the open blogs). And if I choose not to save so frequently to avoid interrupting a productive session, I do so with the understanding that it’s a question of when, not if, Photoshop will crash.
But for all its frustrations, this medium allows a timid person like me to try all sorts of different things and take most of them back, developing a visual vocabulary through endless self-correction. This unique capacity of a digital workflow is a blessing and curse, as will become clear (to those of you who don’t already know from experience).
Inevitably, I will come to wish I had penciled more meticulously, and saved myself the trouble that comes of working on top of vague originals.
Step Three: “Ink” outlines.
I have to confess this image is a little misleading. With the page scanned and opened in Photoshop, I begin “inking,” which is to say, brush tool with CMYK black. I start by outlining characters and other foreground elements. It looks pretty much like the above, except terrible. I’ll erase and try again. I’ll move on to later steps but return to this one frequently, correcting misshapen faces and inept anatomy. And I frequently switch to the eraser tool to whittle down the round, inorganic-looking endpoints of the “brushstrokes” (although this may be a function of my venerable hardware; I understand the newer styli are more responsive, and thus avoid the round-ended digital brush look that results from suddenly crossing a pressure threshold).
Eventually I move on, knowing I’ll be back.
Step Four: Panel borders and gutters.
This really should be the simplest stage. It is, in fact, but by a smaller margin than it might be for a less neurotic person. I find myself agonizing over eighths of inches, with the god-like burden of knowing what I give to one panel must be taken from another.
While the pacing of any given page is ultimately up to the reader, I operate on the belief that panels offer a subtle way of influencing her sense of time and immediacy. On this page, the panel widths echo the speed of the approaching commuter train, which rushes into the station and then slows to a stop. Together, the train’s “movement” and the panel sizes are meant to suggest the dramatic swell and ebb of the conversation, with Stone administering his rhetorical coup de grâce in the tight confines of the fourth panel as the train wooshes into frame, and then casually twisting the knife as he walks away in the more spacious, leisurely final panel.
Step Five: Letters
For the text I return to real actual paper, with an 05 Micron. The tablet’s stylus is not responsive enough for lettering, and I don’t use handwriting fonts because they’re the worst thing in the world ever.
Like a voice, handwriting contains a ton of information. It doesn’t just identify the writer (or, in this case, “speaker”), it reveals what kind of mood that writer was in at that particular moment, whether she was rushing or being cautious, maybe the intended audience (writing a letter to grandma versus, say, a chicken-scratched shopping list). I figure that, when writing out each line of dialogue by hand, one probably compensates for a lot of that without even really thinking about it. But when the mood of the writing is set in stone (okay, vectors) by creating a font, it establishes what feels like a uniformity of emotion, and often ends up conveying bad or confusing information about whomever’s speaking. Maybe a character looks angry, but his speech “sounds” totally clinical. (I suspect, rather than the illegibility, what so often bothers people about doctors’ handwriting on prescriptions is the lack of concern or gravitas it seems to indicate.)
Each character in Old Town speaks in his or her own “voice.” Stone’s, scrawled out above, is angular, abbreviated, stylish, a bit affected. Two-Shoes speaks in a more traditional handwriting, one that is rounder, softer, more like what you might be taught in school. These styles are meant to suggest something both about their actual voices and their personalities.
You’ll notice the page above contains only Stone’s dialogue (or monologue, I guess, in this context); I do all the lettering for a single character at once, in the hope of developing the right kind of muscle memory for his particular speachface, and then move on to the next.
Once written, the dialogue is scanned, crunched, and copy/pasted, collage-style, onto its pages. I do a lot resizing and smooshing and trimming of white space to make everything fit.
Step Six: Colors
Of all the work habits about which I am reluctant to be truthful (and most of those revealed above qualify), the most embarrassing is the process by which I choose the two background colors for a given scene. This task is comically arduous for me, and can take the better part of a day. Can you even tell, dear reader, that the earlier version at right employs hues slightly different from those above? And if so, do you care? But they were totally wrong! Too icy, too wintry, not at all like a hazy spring afternoon.
I try slight variation after slight variation of various colors until my eyes become useless and I have to settle for whatever I’ve got. If the setting involves mixed light sources, or a liminal time of day, I’ll move these shades farther apart from each other, and try to mix color temperatures. For mid-afternoon in a wide open space, like this scene calls for, I look for similar colors, which can be pushed far into the background.
The background colors are, at least potentially, a way to establish both a scene’s setting and its emotional tenor. And because they will alter the appearance of the rest of the colors that will be added, these two really need to be more or less locked-in before I can move on.
Once I’ve settled on those two hues, I go about building the rest of the color scheme. In order to keep the colors looking consistent from one page to the next, they have to change. CJ’s auburn hair, for example, is rarely actually red (which in most of these schemes would look garish and distracting); instead, it’s a color that reads as red in context. In this case, it’s basically just straight-up brown.
I think of this as the Tintin stage, with everything flat and clear and uncomplicated. If I were as graceful an artist as Herge, I’d stop here. But, as mentioned, my strength does not lie in simplicity, and I will have to deploy a number of other tools to come up with a compelling an emotionally effective page.
Step Seven: “Ink” shadows
I drop the pencils back in (the two background layers are set to “multiply”) and start filling in the dark “ink” shadows on top of the flat colors. This is where the page finally gains some semblance of dimension; the characters start to pop, the backgrounds begin to recede, and a certain hierarchy of visual information asserts itself.
Step Eight: Backgrounds
With the brush tool, the lasso and fill bucket, and the eraser, I start to refine the big amorphous shapes I used to establish the background colors in Step Six. At some point, things get muddy and finer details are hard to see, so the pencils come back out.
In the first panel above, you may notice some jagged pencil lines in the blue field above the grass on the right. These were intended to become houses. So I started to draw in some houses:
Too busy, right? We’re supposed to have the impression that the kids are making an escape, that they are already in their own little social bubble with its own hierarchies, its own space. But here, it feels like they’re still right in the middle of town.
This is where the unique advantages and challenges of working digitally really become apparent. It’s a matter of clicks to hide the layer on which the houses are drawn, and create another on which to try something different.
One lonely house, perhaps? An edge-of-town kind of feel?
I wasn’t feeling that either. Too prominent, too distracting. They’ve just spent four pages walking through their town, now I want the focus to be more personal.
So. No house.
But even now, I’m second-guessing this decision. Fortunately, I’ve managed to cut myself off.
Because I could redraw this page for the rest of my life, and it would keep getting better. It just wouldn’t ever get done. Finishing a digital page requires establishing some artificial, arbitrary boundaries for oneself. This does not come naturally to me.
Step Nine: Highlights
With the page very nearly complete, I go through and add in some white (or very light) highlights. This ensures that the areas of greatest contrast, where readers’ eyes will be drawn, cluster around faces and other objects of importance. And like a back light in film, it serves to separate the characters from the background and bring them closer to the viewer, to give us a more intimate proximity.
Step Ten: touch-ups and corrections
Throughout this process, I keep a running (mental) list of little mistakes, uncompleted details, and things I just can’t stand. Once all the pages have reached stage nine, I take one last opportunity to go back through and change the things that have been nagging at me.
The images above have been reconstructed from finished files, and so a lot of the changes actually made in this last step are showing up in earlier stages. I found one earlier version, though, to give you an idea. It’s little stuff, mostly, like this. Stuff no one else would likely notice; but then, no one else has to spend nearly as much time looking at these as I do.
And that’s pretty much a page.
I flatten and shrink the files to export the versions that appear on this site. And then it’s time to prep the pages for print and send them off to the shop. Printing, of course, is its own unique set of unsolvable problems. Maybe we’ll talk about that next week.
[ This is the blog version of the talk I gave at my book party. That version has more jokes but less visible visuals. I think that's a pretty good trade, personally. ]