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Comics Illustration Tutorial

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nugget boy

Joined: 03 Apr 2003
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Location: Hiding in a tree, I'm up in a tree.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:22 pm    Post subject: Comics Illustration Tutorial Reply with quote

This was originally posted last year on the MLAT site. But one of the changes with MLAT v2 concerns the Craft section. From now on, we'll be posting all our tutorials here.

Comics Illustration Tutorial - Jerzy Drozd

Today I'm going to show you how I created page 31 of The Front, Part Four.

Before I start, a quick disclaimer: I'm not a big fan of tutorials that seem to present the "preferred" way to draw comics. I don't believe there's an objectively superior way to illustrate anything. To each their own. The methods and thinking process I'm about to describe are merely what works best for me, based on years of trial and error.

Everyone got that? Okay, let's start at the beginning...


Here's where we go through the inventory list you'll want to think about when drawing comics. You don't need a fancy art desk. Mine isn't all that fancy, but it does the job. I have mine raised at a slight angle because I tend to hunch over the page like those guys doing illuminated manuscripts. If I draw on a perfectly level surface my back suffers for it.

There are extensive lists of useful art tools in just about any drawing book you'll find at the library, so I won't cover all that. I'm just going to show you the main tools I use for my work.

For penciling my panel borders and backgrounds I rely heavily on two steel rulers. I only use the longer one when I do perspective shots where the vanishing points are off of the page.

Years ago, when I was still hand-lettering my pages, I got an Ames Lettering Guide. These days I use it as a straight edge for smaller details. I also use it a lot for speed lines. It's just sometimes handier than an 18" ruler.

I use this triangle and these two french curves frequently. They're useful for both penciling and inking. They have a raised edge so you can use mechanical pens or felt tips with them without worrying about smudging the line.

My french curves have seen better days. I've worn down some of the edges with years of use. If you're in the market for some, you may want to look into getting ones made with a good hard plastic.

Two other indispensable tools are my circle and ellipse stencils. These are great for drawing things like Dick's gauntlets and the Brigadier General's helmet. My hand isn't steady enough to freehand those kinds of things. I like my technology to look as clean and crisp as possible.

Here are the main penciling tools. I use a plain old Pentel .5mm mechanical pencil filled with blue Pentel leads. I don't mean to sound like a celebrity endorsement for Pentel here, but I also really like their Hi-Polymer eraser, too. It erases clean without damaging the paper. To brush away the inevitable eraser shavings I use a Draftsman's Mini-Duster.

Finally we get to inking tools. I do all my freehand work with 102 crow quill nibs and a bottle of Higgins Black Magic ink. I keep two pens in rotation: one pen with a newer nib for inking finer lines, and a more broken-in nib for drawing the thicker lines. As the first nib gets older and more flexible, I'll make it the second pen. I'll then break out a fresh nib for the first pen.

For most of my backgrounds I use Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens. I tend to stick to three sizes: 2/.60, 0/.35, and 00/.30. These are what I use for things like cars, buildings, and technology.

NEXT: Penciling
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nugget boy

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Location: Hiding in a tree, I'm up in a tree.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:27 pm    Post subject: Penciling Reply with quote

Preparing to pencil

Now for the boring part I always hated when I was a kid - here's where I talk about planning.

When I first self-published The Front back in '94 I would write each issue as I went along. Often I wouldn't have any idea of what I was going to do on the next page until I got to it. Those six of you out there who've read those comics can see what the result was. It was a mess.

Granted, some of you may have an incredible gift of improv and you don't need to plan the story in advance. Or maybe an improv style is what you're going for, hiccups and all. No one's slagging you for it.

Anyway, I learned a while back that it's a big help to know in advance what I'm going to do on the page before I start drawing it. Long ago I sketched out the entire mini-series in thumbnail form. Sorta like a manuscript. This way the plot and overall structure are already thought out by the time I get to the drawing stage.

This particular pile represents all of Part 4. As you can see, the page we're concerning ourselves with is on top.


First I take my 11"x17" piece of bristol and rule some lines to create a 10"x15" live area. I use Strathmore 300 Series bristol. It's not as durable as a 3 ply, but it takes both pencil and ink very well.

Once the live area is created, I draw the panel borders.

Now that I have a clear map of where the panels will be going, I start sketching in the content. I start out fairly loose, using the old "stick and bubble" figures that art teachers like so much. And yes, I'm "drawing through" the foreground characters to make sure the anatomy of the characters behind them is accurate. That's right out of the "how to draw comics" textbooks, but it works for me.

Once I have a good skeletal version of the panel done, I'll erase it lightly and go in again with the pencil. This time I tighten it up a bit, but I'm nowhere near being done.

As you can see, I loosely pencil the entire page before finishing it. I like to do this so I can double check the overall composition and story flow. Fixing problems is a lot easier now than later.

At this point I notice that panel 5, the close-up of Dick, needs to move down. But I decide that I can fix that in Photoshop. The panel looks fine; I just don't like the positioning.

Everything else looks good enough for me, so I move on to the next step...

After lightly erasing the entire page, I go in and tightly pencil everything. I try to establish all my line values here, but I don't get too hung up on it. I'll get to that during the inking stage, anyway.

Now we have a fully-penciled page. I'll spend a good 15 minutes looking it over, touching up any line values and details. But it's not time for a glass of wine just yet...

NEXT: Inking
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nugget boy

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:33 pm    Post subject: Inking Reply with quote


I start with the tedious stuff. I break out my straight edges, curves, stencils, and Rapidographs. Here I draw all the mechanical devices and inorganic background elements.

I'm not inking the broken shards of glass at this stage - I've decided to ink them with the nib pens. I think the irregular line they create will look better than the perfectly smooth line of a mechanical pen. I usually only use my Rapidographs to draw undamaged man-made objects.

Once that's done I use my nib pens to draw all the freehand stuff. I like using the nibs because you can get some great line values in one stroke. I could never do that with felt tip pens.

I don't fill in my blacks when I ink. I think it goes faster on the computer, and it's certainly more precise. So for now I just place little "x's" in the areas I'm going to fill with black.

I don't touch up the art when I'm inking, either. Unless it's a huge mistake, I'll fix little line problems after I scan the page.

Digitally finishing

Okay, we've penciled and inked the page, now it's time to scan the art, clean it up, and add the blacks.

I've never been able to afford one of those 11"x17" flatbed scanners, so I have to scan my pages in two or three passes. I scan the art in at 600 dpi at full size.

Once the art is in Photoshop, it's time to get the whites and blacks set so the page is printable. I use Levels for this, at these settings.

Now I take the hi-res pieces and clean them up. The great thing about doing it digitally is you can close in really, really tightly on the image and make precise corrections. I could never fix things this easily with white-out.

I use the Pencil Tool for this. The brush tool has too soft of an edge for my tastes.

After cleaning up the art, it's time to fill in the blacks. I trace the areas with the Selection Tool, then go to the menu and select Edit>Fill. If you really want to make things easier for yourself, you can record this into the Actions Palette and set it to a Function Key.

This is also a good way to give the page a thorough once-over for mistakes.

When all the blacks are placed, it's time to cobble all the pieces back into a page. Since I plan to print this comic someday, I save all my pages in hi-res. I made a template that's 6.877"x10.5" and set at 600 dpi.

I copy the finished segments of the page over to the template and shrink them down to size using the Transform Command (Edit>Free Transform).

I move panel 5 down a bit now. Finally the composition looks good to me.

Since each piece of the page is on its own layer, it's pretty easy to get them to match up. Then I flatten the image and reduce the size to 300 dpi. Now it's ready to be halftoned.

NEXT: Halftoning
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nugget boy

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:37 pm    Post subject: Halftoning Reply with quote


Next we come to the part where I add all the grey tones, what some call "halftoning." I start by going to my Layers Palette and double-clicking on the layer called "background." This opens a dialogue box that allows me to rename it as a new layer. I call it "lineart" and set the Blending Mode to "multiply." After that I make a transparent layer beneath it and name it "halftones." I put all my grey tones on one layer. I like halftoning on a transparent layer rather than a white one--you'll see why in a moment.

Time now to add the tones. I use the Selection Tool for this mostly. Sometimes I'll resort to the Brush Tool (at 300 dpi I prefer the Brush Tool to the Pencil Tool - the line work has softened a bit after the res drop, so the sharp lines of the pencil look weird now).

I select the areas and go to the menu to select Edit>Fill.

A useful feature I've only started to use in the last few years is Quick Mask. I'll make a selection, in this case Dick's gauntlet, and just press the letter "Q" on my keyboard. Now whatever is not selected is red. The selection is transparent. What's more, you can actually paint out areas you don't wish to be selected, in this case the highlights on the strips of metal that make up Dick's gauntlet. I use the Brush Tool for this. To create the straight line, I just click the Brush Tool once in the area I wish the line to begin from. Then I hold the Shift Key and click the area I wish the line to end with. The line just completes itself.

Once I'm done with this, I just hit "Q" again to leave Quick Mask.

Now you can see how that selection turned out.

I put a gradient fill on the gauntlet to make it look more metallic and to give it dimension. I used a 20% black gradient to white. I only use color to transparent fills when painting over an existing fill. Why? I'll get to that. It has to do with why I like to halftone on a transparent background.

Okay, here we have a panel with multiple elements, including a background with some detail. This looks like it's going to be a bit of work to trace all of these things with the Selection Tool, but thanks to Quick Mask and the Channels Palette, we can speed things up a bit.

I don't want to trace the sky, then Jared, then Orange Guy, then Dick, and so on. Not if I don't have to, anyway. So I first trace the sky, then go to Select>Save Selection. I name the selection something like "Panel 4 background." I repeat this step with the roof of the building and the windows behind the figures. I fill their colors in and render them with other shades.

Here's how this method makes life easier: I can go to Select>Load Selection and call up that trace I did of the sky. I then go to Select>Inverse to reverse the selection. Now my foreground characters (as well as the outside of the panel itself) are selected. After that I press "Q" to go into Quick Mask mode and edit the selection so that only the character I want to color is selected.

Another method I use a lot is Select>Load Selection>Halftone Transparency (Note - it won't necessarily be called "Halftone Transparency" on your computer--the word "Halftone" refers to the name of the layer I'm working on. So, If your layer is called "Greytones" it will be "Greytones Transparency"). This selects all the transparent areas of your layer. This is why I choose to halftone on a transparent layer.

This means even if you didn't save your sky selection, but filled it with opaque colors, you can call up all areas that haven't been painted yet and edit their selections in Quick Mask. It's a big time saver when coloring or toning; I highly recommend it.

And there we have the finished tones. A few quick notes on some techniques I used:

I made the clouds in panels 4 and 7 using the Dodge Tool. I set its range to Midtones and its exposure to 15%. I just scrubbed it around in the shapes I wanted until clouds began to form.

The fade on the edges of panel 6's roof fill were done by going into Quick Mask after the selection was made and using the paintbrush at a low opacity to soften the edges of the selection.

Now we're ready to letter the page.

NEXT: Lettering
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nugget boy

Joined: 03 Apr 2003
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Location: Hiding in a tree, I'm up in a tree.

PostPosted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 10:43 pm    Post subject: Lettering Reply with quote


I do most of my lettering right in Photoshop. I use my own custom font, but there are plenty out there on the internet you can download and use for free (besides Comic Sans, even!).

In this page's case, however, I wanted to use Adobe Illustrator to create the sound effects on panels 1-3. Some of the effects you can create look that much crisper when they're made in a vector program. But that's another tutorial for another time.

I decided before I even drew the page that I wanted panels 1-3 to have sound effect borders. I like using them because they not only obscure the shot a bit, making it seem like it occurred over a shorter span of time, but it emphasizes the impact of what's making the sound in a way that a normal sound effect can't. To me, this kind of panel border is like a THX sound effect. It rattles your teeth.

Okay, so how do you do it? First I copy the image out of Illustrator and paste it into Photoshop. I use the Free Transform command to place it properly.

Next step is to set the Blending Mode of the sound effect layer to "multiply." Now we can see the art behind the border.

I don't like to erase any of the art on my pages. I may have to move some elements on the page around when I prep it for print. So I want the area that bleeds beyond the sound effect panel to be hidden, not erased. Here's how I do that:

1) Command-click (I think it's either Control-click or right-click in Windows) the layer the sound effect is on. This creates a selection around the sound effect.

2) Click on your lineart layer.

3) Go to the bottom row of your Layers Pallete and select the second button from the left. This adds a Layer Mask to the layer you've selected. You can see it in the example to the left. Another icon appears on that layer, showing the mask that you've made.

You repeat this with the halftones layer, and you're done! We've hidden the art without erasing it.

And remember that bit earlier about editing a Quick Mask? You can do the same thing by selecting the mask icon on the layer you wish to edit, and use the Paintbrush Tool or Selection Tool to refine your mask.

Looking at the finished panels, I realize that you can't read the sound effect because of the abundance of black in each panel. So I take the Magic Wand Tool and select each white area on each sound effect layer. I then create a new layer above them all and fill the selection with 35% white.

Now you can more clearly see the letters that make the sound effect. And I like how the white haze sort of gives the impression of how your vision might get blurred if you were hit in the head. We're sort of participating in Gaelin's suffering, now. I wasn't aiming for that, but I'm glad it's there.

Once I finish placing the sound effects, I move on to the dialogue. I use the Text Tool for this, of course. In this case where I have some repeating dialogue, I just type it once, then copy the layers and position them accordingly.

For the balloons I use the Custom Shape Tool. You can make some custom word ballons. Just edit some elipses made with the Elipse Tool and save them under Edit>Define Custom Shape.

Making sure my foreground color is white, and that I've selected a layer behind my text, I start placing the balloons.

Now I select the Polygon Tool and create some triangles. I use the Direct Selection Tool to modify the triangles' shapes into suitable arrows for the balloons.

Now to give the balloons their black outline. For that we go to the Layer Style button on your Layers Pallete:

You get a dialogue box that looks like this. I set my stroke at 5 px and my color at 100% black. You just copy this Layer Style and apply it to any other word balloons you make.

So that's how it's done.

I hope you at least enjoyed seeing a Front page take shape, even if it didn't teach you a darned thing.

Feel free to email me (jerzy-AT-mlatcomics-DOT-com) if I wasn't 100% clear on any given point in the tutorial, or if you just want to yell at me about how I do everything "wrong."

Thanks for reading!
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 15, 2006 10:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Just happened to come upon this and enjoyed the tutorial. Can I ramble a moment on your forum before asking a question? Oh, good. Thanks!

The artistic process has always been a complete mystery to me ... I'm more of a writer than an artist and have tremendous respect (in other words "burning envy") for anyone who can visualize and image and then draw it. The doesn't stop the doodling however.

So anyway, I'd been writing this sort of novel about a normal kid in a normal high school who grows transparent wings when he wants to and the megalomaniacal classmate he meets with his own powers, I got the idea that it might make a better comic book series than a novel. So I start writing a script. And I finish the first part, at about 24 pages. Now since I don't know any artists, I took out a number 2 pencil and a hardbound blank-paged book that my wife gave me for creative writing and doodling and started drawing out the comic, just to see how it could look. Lots of fun -- I see why you do this.

But I realized quickly that it would take a lot of work to actually make each page look good -- my attempts at action and detail quickly devolve into unrecognizable scribbles -- and reading your tutorial shows me why and how.

So my question is (which I realize now could have been asked without all of the explanation): How long does it actually take you to finish each page -- as demonstrated here?

Also, do you write out a script to work from, or do you literally sketch out the whole thing before laying out pages and panels.

Thanks, and thanks for The Front -- been enjoying the heck out of it and am anxiously awaiting page 15!
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nugget boy

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 16, 2006 12:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hey--thank you for reading it, and for taking the time to express your feelings about it! Smile

Every artist has their own speed for completing a page. As I'm sure everyone here knows by now, Sara is much faster than I am. I have a tremendous amount of respect (burning envy) for those who can draw with such skill at such speed.

On average, the process detailed in this tutorial takes me around 12 hours. That's an average of 4 hours to pencil the page, 4 hours to ink it, and 4 hours to halftone/letter.

I've worked faster in the past. When I did PPV I was on a monthly schedule, so I only had three and a half weeks or so to draw and halftone 22 pages, plus a cover. I think I was averaging about half the time (6 hours per page) on that series.

As for scripting, here are the different methods I've worked with:

When I drew a couple of issues of Ninja High School I worked from a "full script". That means that I was given a document that was broken down into what each page would show visually along with the dialogue. You'd have a paragraph describing what the panel contains, followed by what dialogue and SFX are in the panel. The panel sizes and layout were for the most part left up to me. A lot of writers like to work this way, and it can be especially helpful for a less-experienced artist who may not know how much information to fit on a given page. While I don't mind this workflow, it has its drawbacks--I remember getting instructions to show a character doing several things at once in one panel, and it was difficult to capture that visually without ruining what I felt the visual pacing should be. But that's the ageless "artist vs. writer" feud. No getting around that!

Now, when I worked with Tom Root on PPV, he gave me a "page breakdown style" script. What I mean by that is, I was given a document where he gave me a general synopsis of every page with some minimal dialogue. No panel-by-panel direction; just a description like "Evan goes into the teachers lounge and is greeted by Gina. They talk about the weird machine that's making a ticking noise. Suddenly, a kid smashes through the window." I took that script and generated a rough sketch version of the entire book. I then gave that back to Tom for editing and final scripting. Once he had all the dialogue worked out, I penciled and inked the book. I really liked this method of collaboration because it gave me the freedom to focus on layout and visual pacing.

With The Front there's no one to consult but myself on the writing. But that doesn't mean that I just wing it, either. When I set out to write the series I wrote one or two paragraph descriptions for each "issue". From there I went straight into the rough sketch version. I sketched out each issue very loose and small (4 pages to an 8.5"x11" piece of paper), with general dialogue cues (and any verbal gags I was happy with).

Here's page one of the series, from my notes:

I'd go over that a few times, making edits and changes. Then I sketched out a "final draft" of the story.

Here's that version of page one (don't mind the coffee stains!):

I did this with every issue before drawing a single page. One of my worst fears going in to this mini-series was that if I played everything by ear I'd paint myself into a corner halfway through Part 6.

Those are the methods I've come across, anyway. Hope this helps!

Your idea sounds pretty cool, and I agree that it sounds like a comic book might be able to tell the story in a more exciting way. Good luck with that. If you decide to draw it on your own, feel free to post any work in the For the Readers, By the Readers forum.

There are some great resources for finding an artist, as well. Just off the top of my head, there's Penciljack, Digital Webbing, or even Comic Geek Speak. But there are probably zillions more that I don't even know about, much less can think of just now.

Best of luck with the project, and thanks again!
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PostPosted: Thu Mar 16, 2006 4:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow ... thanks for the response and advice. For me, drawing out the comic is like ADD theater -- I've been trying to just scribble it out in a day or two... I'd been reading up on comic scripting and have tried a panel-by-panel style script that sort of reads like a movie script...but I definitely see what you mean about the artist-vs.-writer struggle ... as a writer (and somone who's worked with graphic designers professionally) I've always felt it works best to guide the artist and trust them to translate ideas into visuals.

Part of what I'm learning by trying my own art is what may or may not work translating from script to page -- how much dialogue makes sense, how much back and forth you can fit in a panel and so on -- so it's a worthy and fun exercise whether I try to do it well or not ... in the end, my art is slightly more detailed than your very first sketches ... improved somewhat by a reading of "how to draw comics the marvel way..." I may post some of my favorites if I get that far... Smile

Thanks for the site references -- I've been poking around Komikwerks and Craig's List and hadn't seen these...

Thanks -- it's fun learning more about this process

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New Mt. Haven Resident

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 10, 2006 1:54 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I love the way your thought bubbles look. Are these freehanded or computer generated? They look almost too perfect to not be the latter.

One more question, When you do a Front page do you sit down and do all the artwork at one time, or spread it out through the week I ask because I notice my artwork start to deteriorate after a while and yours is 100% consistent all the way through.
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nugget boy

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 11, 2006 11:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

All the sound effects and balloons are computer generated. I achieved the thought balloons by overlapping a bunch of elipses until I had the "cloudy" sort of look that a thought balloon typically has. then I saved that as a Custom Shape in my shapes library. So now I can just call it up whenever I need it.

As for time workflow--I usually don't get a solid 8 hours in any given day to pencil and ink a Front page. Most of the time I have to spread the work across 3 to 4 days. So I'll "block out" the page on Monday, fully pencil it on Tuesday, ink it on Wednesday, and halftone it on Thursday.
"Observation: I can't see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs."
-Carl Sagan
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Secret Agent Robot Mercenary

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 12, 2006 3:46 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Friday through Sunday, he spends frantically searching for his notes on what will happen the next week. Very Happy
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Tom Foolery
I post so, so much more than you.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 12, 2006 4:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sunday night, he gets a call from Thirsty who tells him his notes are wrong, anyway, and he needs to redraw most of the story.

I'd hate to be in his shoes, sometimes.

Actually, to bring this back on topic, Jerzy has mentioned (and pardon me if I am wrong or misremembering) he has extensive notes already written about what will happen, plus with the massive amount of characterization he has already done, it is kinda like the stories write themselves. I sometimes envision that Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck commercial where Bugs is the animator and Daffy is his suffering subject.

It's like saturday cartoons all over again. Check it out.
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 31, 2007 3:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

i've been working on a comic for a while now based on my friends and i going to high school, (its not that great). but i have writer's block right now, so i've been working on drawing right now, (again, not that great). i've improved alot though i and i Jerzy to thank for that and the Graphic Novel Acadamy. ^_^
A stranger stabs you in the front;
A friend stabs you in the back;
A boyfriend/girlfriend stabs you in the heart;
But best friends just poke each other with straws
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