In addition to writing & drawing comics and working as an illustrator, I also use my expertise as a veteran webcartoonist and experiences in advertising to teach a new program designed to introduce middle schoolers to basic ethics, critical thinking, and media literacy called Cyber Civics at a the Waldorf School at Moraine Farm here on Boston’s North Shore.
This month, I’m running Cyber Civics: A Crash Course in Digital Citizenship, a one-week intensive version of the course. We’ll be tackling all the messy online issues everyone is talking about right now—cyberbullying, privacy, fake news, social media manipulation, sexting and digital addiction—using fun, creative activities, art projects and discussions about the real things kids are seeing at school, on the internet, and in their homes.
Each day has a different theme:
• Day One is all about online identity and how we express ourselves online. We’ll talk about we use avatars and selfies to represent ourselves, and how those representations don’t always line up with who we are. We’ll play an avatar creation game, and create self-portraits. We’ll also talk about the digital trail we leave with every post and examine how others use those trails to learn about us with a “digital background” activity as we figure out what is okay to share and what is not together.
• Day Two digs into ethics and what it means to be a good citizen. The kids will imagine creating their own apps/online communities and explore what it would be like to be a CEO in charge of their own social media site in a “Shark Tank”. There they’ll figure out what the community rules will be and how they’ll protect the people in their community. We’ll also play a game where the students judge different scenarios and determine for themselves if an event was helpful or harmful, intentional or unintentional. My students this past year loved this game because it gave them a chance to discuss some of the things they were already starting to run into online. It also deals with the behavior with adults online, not just students. The day caps off with a discussion of cyberbullying and online drama and drawing comics about how to protect yourself from both.
• Day Three goes into striking a balance with our devices and using them safely. The kids will be challenged to go without using our phones for the duration of the class. The first half of the day examines how we spend our time during the day, both on screens and off. We’ll look at how not all “screen time” is created equal, because using devices for creativity like making art, music, programming, or even starting a business is far different from simply watching YouTube all day. The second half will deal with the basics of online safety—protecting your identity and information, creating good passwords, and figuring out how to deal with people you don’t know (yet) that you meet online.
• Day Four is all about fake news! We start out with how to find good information on the internet, with the basics of how sites like Google and Wikipedia work. We’ll also create a “human internet” game before talking about “C.R.A.P. Detection”, a method that uses Currency (how recent?), Reliability (can I trust it?), Authority (who wrote it?), and Purpose (are they trying to scare me or sell me something?) to evaluate information that we find online. We’ll look at misleading websites and try to evaluate news articles to figure out if they’re fake or real. We’ll also talk about urban legends and how rumors get spread (online and off.) My students during the school year LOVED this unit.
• Day Five we explore media by creating a parody ad for our “Shark Tank” app/site. First we’ll discuss how advertising works and how it uses stereotypes to sell to us and look at how advertisers use our data to track and target us online and manipulate images (both photos and video) to persuade us. Then we’ll design an ad, do a photoshoot, and use Photoshop to create a final piece to be printed up and shared online.
Personally, I like to think of Cyber Civics as the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class for the internet. It’s about giving students a chance to think through some of the stickier parts of the online world ahead of time so if and when they encounter something nasty, they will already have a set of tools to work with it. Most of the class involves group activities, projects and discussion with some device usage for certain segments. We’ll also take daily walks outside. Enroll your child today and help give them a fighting chance against the real trolls of the world.
Now that you know who your character is, it’s time to draw her. Seeing how you’re going to be drawing this character a lot over the course of your comic, it’s a good nail down their look so you can be consistent. However, it’s not uncommon for a character design to evolve over time in a comic—it certainly did to the characters in Paradigm Shift—but spending the time to work out the character’s overall shape, costume and before starting Page 01 is worth the effort. Additionally, working on understanding human anatomy and figure drawing practice can really take your character drawing to a new level.
Getting Into Character
Here’s some examples of playing around with a character before starting a project. This is Candy from STRANGER. I knew I wanted her to look a bit like a Miyazaki character, but I played around with a couple of designs before settling on her final look:
For Candy’s counterpart, Nikka, it took a little more work before I nailed down her design. Again, I took some inspiration from Miyazaki by riffing off of Sen from “Spirited Away”. However, by borrowing the rounder head and wide-spaced eyes and combining them with features inspired by a cuttlefish, I was able to create something entirely new.
Here’s her final design:
A Quick Note on Silhouette
The first thing anyone will see about your character is the shape his or her outline creates, not the details within. Having characters with distinct body and head shapes will help make them more recognizable in your story.
The Head & Face
Firstly, let’s look at the head and face because the are probably the most important features for identifying your character and letting him express himself. Even the shape of the head can suggest a personality—triangular, round, square. Each gives a different feel. Also, adding differently shaped hair or other features that can create a unique, recognizable shape can help tremendously as well. This is how I designed the alien characters for the story STRANGER:
In order to draw my characters’ heads from any angle, I use two basic head shapes as a starting point and then squash and stretch them into the approximate shape. I borrow from techniques used in animation to construct a character from more basic shapes underlying the head. The first is the classic anime “seed” shaped head:
I draw the seed by starting with a circle (or spherical ball, as I imagine it in my mind) and then hanging a pointed jawline off that circle a various angles. Then by drawing a “cross” dividing the center of the face and where the eyes will be, you can use this seed shape to draw that head from any angle. This is the shape I use for Kate’s head in Paradigm Shift. Using this as my starting point, I rough the entire head, then add in more detail before completing the final drawing. I use this process for all my comics and illustration, working from rough forms through final image. This is how I use the seed shape to draw Kate from the front, side and 3/4 view:
Take note of how the proportions of the face translate across between the differing angles. The line that runs through the eyes is roughly halfway between the top of the head and the chin. The tip of the nose sits about halfway between the eye line and the chin. The mouth sits about halfway between the nose and the chin. From the side, if you draw a line from the tip of the nose to the chin, the lips will roughy fall in line within there. The ears sit on a line that is halfway between the front of the head and the back and their curve starts in line with eyes. If you imagine the center line of the face curving to the left or right and the eye line curving up or down, you can start to see the head turn in your mind’s eye and use this to draw the head and face from any angle like so:
The second basic head shape I use is based more closely on a more classical human head shape used in American superhero comics:
This is the shape I use for Mike’s head in Paradigm Shift. I start the head with more of an egg shape. Then, I determine which direction the head is facing by drawing a “cross”, just like in the seed example above. I hang the jaw down from the egg shape Unlike the anime “seed”, the jaw line changes more radically between a straight on view and the profile. It’s more a wedge shape and will take more practice to draw from every angle. You can imagine it being a bit like a cube, only tapering downward to create the chin. Also the cranium isn’t completely round like a sphere or egg, but rather is flattened somewhat on the sides. I denote this with lines along the sides of the forehead that wrap around the top of the head
Here’s how I use this to draw Mike from the front, side and 3/4 view:
Like in the seed example, there are certain proportions to pay attention to, though they differ somewhat. In this style of head, the eyes lay about halfway down the egg shape. Then the jaw extends down a distance equal to about half the egg shape—thus dividing the face into thirds: top of the head to eyes, eyes to bottom of egg shape, bottom of egg shape to chin. The eyes are smaller on the face than in the previous example and there should be roughly one eye distance between them.
To work on details like hair and drawing heads from many different angles I recommend practicing drawing from life, copying photos and doing the occasional master study of an artist who you greatly admire. The more you practice, the more you will expand your visual vocabulary as an artist and you can combine, mix and match and create brand new features that are purely your own. The same goes for expressions. Play around in your sketchbook and find the faces you feel express your character’s emotions the most vividly.
Drawing the Figure
The first step in drawing full-body human characters is to nail down basic proportions. Of course, cartoon characters can be drawn with many different proportions, so I am going to focus on a relatively realistic human proportions first. This method can be modified to stretch characters to be taller or shorter as needed later. Above we have Kate and Mike as examples of “ideal” human female and male proportions. Often in figure drawing, proportions are measured in “heads” because it is an easy way to check if the features are in the right place in a drawing, especially if the figure is drawn relatively straight on. Notice the lines going through the image above—they measure the number of “heads” used for each character.
Mike uses classic western “heroic” proportions, measuring 8 heads. They break down as follows:
Chin to chest
Chest to navel
Navel to bottom of the hips (crotch)
Bottom of hips to mid-thigh
Mid-thigh to knees
Knees to mid-shin
Mid-shin to bottom of the feet.
Also note the proportions of the arm. The elbows are just above waist height and sit roughly in line with the bottom of the rib cage. The wrist fall approximately in line with bottom of the hips. For men, the ribcage and hips are roughly the same width and the shoulders are wider than the hips.
Kate is slightly shorter at 7 1/2 heads, which is closer to “realistic” human proportions. The half head is lost around the hips, making her torso slightly shorter than Mike’s, while her legs are about the same length as his. The “heads” break down as follows with her:
Chin to chest
Chest to top of the hips.
Hips to widest point of the thighs (bottom of the hips are about 3/4 of the way)
Widest point of the thighs to above the knees
Above the knee to widest point of the calves
Widest point of the calves to top of the ankles
Feet (1/2 head)
Basically, Kate simply has a smaller upper body than her counterpart. Not only is it about a half head shorter, her ribcage is also narrower than her hips and that the midpoint of the shoulders sit roughly in line with the hips as well. Her joints are also narrower and her limbs thinner.
If we strip away the details and look at the underlying shapes, we can see how each figure is constructed more easily. I use circles (which I think of as “balls”) in place of the joints and draw the forms of the limbs between those. I use an egg shape for the ribcage and sort of a flattened “bowl” shape for the pelvis. I have developed simplified forms for each of the major body shapes: upper arms, lower arms, thighs, calves & shins, hand and feet. (More on hands and feet in a moment). I also imagine the shoulder being attached to the collarbone (which it is in reality, as well at the scapula on the back) so it is free to slide around up and down, back and forth on the ribcage when I am posing the figure. Take note of the hip shapes between the two figures.The male’s pelvis is taller while the female’s is shorter and a little wider. This has been a helpful observation for me in my figure drawing.
While I won’t go into detail on muscular anatomy (there are entirebookson that topic), here is a quick cheat sheet on the basic shapes I’m thinking of when I’m drawing the figure. These shapes are informed by countless hours of drawing characters and human forms from observation and copying drawings out of anatomy books. I highly recommend spending some time on this yourself.
Strike a Pose
Okay, now that we have the basic shapes and proportions down, we need to be able to draw our characters in more than close-ups and standing around doing nothing. We need to put them into motion so they take on some life. To do that, we need to start with a fluid set of lines, or “gestures”. For the above drawing, I started with a rough drawing like this:
However, in the second image, these were the lines I was using to construct the figure. These are the “gesture” lines—named after 30-second “gestural drawings” which are often done at the beginning of a figure drawing class. The first line in blue goes from Kate’s head down to her knee. The second in red arcs along her arms and shoulders, and the final, in green follows her outstretched leg. Notice how these curves help tie the the forms of the figure together. I use lines like this to build up a pose so it has some underlying life. In the third image, here are some more “flow” lines that pass through the pose. These are the sorts of curves I look for when building up a figure. No straight lines if I can manage it.
Here are the rough forms I’m using to think through this rough figure. I will often draw a quick version like this as a thumbnail, and then draw these forms over the top of that rough to clean up the anatomy.
Once the anatomy and proportions are solid, I pencil over the rough and ink the final. I always use this process for creating my finished works. By layering over more and more finished versions, the final benefits from having several chances to correct mistakes along the way.
I could do an entire post alone on drawing hands and feet (again, entire books have been written), but the short version is that the way to tackle these complex forms is the same as above: break them down into simpler shapes. I start with sort of a “shovel” shape for the palm, then draw a circle to one side or the other on the wrist end to denote the ball of the thumb. Then I draw a smaller rounded shape on the other side to create the heel of the hand. Each of the four knuckles I draw as circles across the top of the shovel shape, and then a fifth at the end of the ball of the thumb. From there, I draw the fingers an thumb as either a mass (if they are clumped together) or as curved lines roughly indicating each finger. Then I flesh out the individual joints of the each finger as separate shapes, keeping in mind that they are not cylindrical, but more like like rounded blocks.
Drawing great hands takes a lot of practice, and the best way to get good at them is observation. Just like the rest of the figure, practice drawing from life and good reference photos to not only practice the forms of the hand, but also to see how elegant hand poses come together. You will start to see patterns in how the fingers move together as a loose group, not separately (which is why magicians are illustrated using weird hand poses—they don’t look natural). I still practice by using my own hands as reference to help create good hand poses.
Feet are not as complicated as hands, but they still pose a challenge to people new to drawing the figure. Once again, breaking down the forms into simpler shapes can be helpful.It’s helpful to me to think of a footprint as a starting point—the heel is separated from the ball of the foot and toes by the arch of the foot. We can flesh out those shapes by using balls once again: one larger one for the heel, and two smaller ones for the ball of foot, leaving room for the arch on the inside curve of the foot. Above the heel is the ankle, which has two small bones on each side that connect down to the top of the ball of the foot to create the main wedge of the foot. For the toes, I think of the classic “ninja sock” with the big toe acting independently of the rest of the toes, which generally clump together as a group. When the character is wearing shoes, then all the toes working together as a group. If you’re drawing a bare foot, then keep in mind the smaller toes have a “stair-step” shape to them.
Once you have the basic foot shape down, you can work on putting it in shoes or drawing it bare. It will take some practice to master these shapes, so again, using references and live observation will help you refine your drawings.
Lastly, I want to emphasize how helpful drawing in a sketchbook can be to help you refine your character drawing. For a couple of years, I drew character studies of Kate & Mike by using photos from magazines as a reference. I borrowed the poses and outfits, but transformed the models into my characters. The drawings below are from those sketchbooks.
I hope this will help you create your own character designs and give some tools to refine them.
Next time, we’ll dive into the story.
If you’re new to the series, welcome! If you’d like prompt updates about the next installment of the series, exclusive cheat sheets, and other behind-the-scenes material with each installment of the series, please sign up for my mailing list:
Before there can be a comic, there has be a story. And before there can be story, there has to be some characters. To me, all stories start with great characters. It’s their desires, their actions, and their personalities that shape the direction and plot of story. While I have many ideas for premises for stories, there’s no actual *story* until there are characters for it.
There is no “right” way to create your character. For many creators, the process is a natural evolution from an initial idea to a fully fleshed-out character. That starting idea could just be a funny doodle in a sketchbook, or beam in as a “wouldn’t it be cool?” idea while walking down the street. No matter where the idea comes from, the magic comes from playing around with the character to see what makes them tick, whether it’s writing the ideas down, drawing character sketches, or just daydreaming about that character in a quiet moment. The more you know your character, the more likely a story idea will come from knowing who they are, what they like and want, and what their history is.
For Paradigm Shift, the characters definitely preceded the story by a long mile. Kate & Mike were originally characters in the tabletop role-playing games I played in way back in the dark ages of the early 1990’s, when I was in high school. Both were originally created for the superhero RPGs “Heroes Unlimited” and “Ninjas & Superspies” by Palladium Books, using randomly generated character tables and dice rolls—with some house rules in effect. The original versions would barely be recognizable to readers today, in that many important details about their powers and skill sets were very different. However, Kate’s powers were still the result of an experiment gone wrong, though they were more of a mis-mash at the time (she had “Adhesion” like Spider-man, which makes zero sense!) And Mike had energy super powers for no reason at all. However, they were both originally police detectives, and that’s where the seed of the story really got started. Both started out as character sheets for the RPG, and the first “character designs” were really just character portraits on the sheet.
In fact, Kate & Mike where the inspiration for my first attempt to draw comics in high school. I was a huge fan of detective shows like “Law & Order” and buddy cop action films like “Lethal Weapon” at the time, and somewhere along the line the idea came to me to have my detective with werewolf-like powers investigate a series of killings that she herself could have committed.
Inspired by Eastman and Laird’s TMNT comics, I started drawing the first a few pages of what would become an 8-issue series of a comic called “VISTA” that my friends and I created. However, we took it into full superhero territory and the werewolf killings plot simply became Kate’s origin story as a prelude to joining a whole super team filled with characters from our role-playing games. My friends Jamie and Tyler wrote scripts, and I would draw them (and occasionally write stories about Kate in particular.) It was all very X-Men meets Avengers, and we shamelessly aped our favorite comic creators. At this point I was looking a lot at Jim Lee’swork in X-Men and Todd MacFarlane’sSpiderman, along with a number of other artists who went on to found Image Comics when they left Marvel. I was also reading indy comics like Dave Sim’sCerebus and latter-day TMNT.
But that mountain of comics I drew in high school never saw print. The only people who ever read them were my friends and the portfolio reviewers at the university art programs that I interviewed. However, despite those stories never finding an audience, one of those portfolio reviews—at Millikin University in Decatur, IL—resulted in getting me scholarship to a four-year art program. I stopped drawing comics after high school after a brave, but soul-crushing visit to the 1993 Chicago Comicon, where I took my portfolio around to be reviewed and was unsurprisingly told to work on my anatomy and storytelling (which in retrospective, I certainly did, but I took it hard). However, the characters, and that initial story idea that came out of Kate’s origin stuck with me.
In college, I enjoyed watching anime with my friends. The stuff coming from Japan was far weirder than the “Japanimation” shows I had grow up with as a kid like Speed Racer, Voltron (especially the spaceship one!) and Robotech. I first saw AKIRA at the tail end of high school and it took the top off my little eighteen-year-old head. In college, my friend Steve worked at a video store during the summer and brought back sample tapes to school to share with us. In this way I saw a bunch of first run anime classics like Ranma 1/2, Project A-Ko, Urusei Yatsura, and Riding Bean. I was hooked from the start, not only because I liked the art style and the fact the sensibilities were far removed from what I had come to expect from American stories, but the fact these were science fiction and other genre pieces done in animation. Bubblegum Crisis, Dominion Tank Police, Gunbuster, Nausciaa, Ghost in the Shell, Giant Robo, Macross Plus—it was inspiring, and I couldn’t get enough. I took to drawing my friends’ portraits “anime-style” and doing the same for RPG characters, just for fun. By the time I graduated in 1997, manga was beginning to flow into the US, and creators like Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell) and Kenichi Sonada (Gunsmith Cats) caught my attention immediately.
Over the next several years through college and out into the working world, Kate and Mike stuck with me and that initial story idea grew and evolved. I found new inspirations from novels, movies, anime, indy comics and manga. I also continued to play tabletop RPGs with my friends, and at one point decided to reboot Kate & Mike as anime-styled buddy-cop police detectives in a Bladerunner-esque near future low-powered superhero setting. Kate’s powers were retrofitted to more of a down-the-line berserker lycanthrope and Mike got turned into a martial artist. We only played the game a couple of times, but I thoroughly enjoyed the new version of the characters—especially the in-game buddy cop snark. So, when I returned to try my hand at comics again for what would become Paradigm Shift, I knew exactly the story I wanted to tell, because at this point I knew the characters like old friends.
While working in a web design job in downtown Chicago, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place for what would become Paradigm Shift. I had the characters. I had an idea for a story. While walking the streets of Chicago, I fell in love with the city and started seeing scenes playing out in the places I knew around town. Suddenly, I had a setting, and inspiration struck. I started jotting down the ideas for Kate & Mike’s story while commuting on the train every day. At lunch, I doodled character sketches on Post-It notes and stuck them to my computer.
I rolled up character sheets for them on the weekend and drew character portraits on them like old times, but this time knowing I wasn’t going to *play* these characters—I was going to *write them*. I compiled an outline of the first book and took a friend to coffee to show it off. After getting an enthusiastic thumbs up, I started drawing the first scene of the book before I’d even finished scripting (not something I really recommend, but…) and the rest is history.
Create Your Own
In my case, my characters had a long road from initial idea to eventual debut in a graphic novel. They went from RPG character to comic character, the back burner to revival as RPG character to comic character over the course of about seven years. Not everyone has that sort of time these days. You sure don’t. 😉 Since starting my comic, the characters continued to evolve visually and become more internally nuanced, and the same will happen with yours. The important part is just to pick a starting point.
Here are some ideas one where to start:
A fun doodle
A “wouldn’t that be cool” moment
A role-playing game character
An “Original Character” from a fan fiction transplanted to an original setting
It’s also possible to reverse-engineer the process of creating a character if you have a story premise as a starting point. You can take pivotal character in a bigger story idea for a story and figure out who they are and what got them into that situation. I’m working on a new graphic novel called FreeMarsGirl (more on that another time) that started out this way. I had a cool idea for a story about a computer hacker who unintentionally starts a Martian revolution, but didn’t really know who the characters were at first. It’s taken some time, but they’ve finally shown themselves.
If you’re starting from a plot or world-building standpoint, here are some things to think about:
Who is the person who is at the center of the conflict?
How did she end up there?
What does she want? <— this is a BIG ONE!
What skills/powers does she need to fulfill her role in her role in the story?
What skills/powers does she have that are utterly useless or hinder that role?
What makes her laugh?
What makes her angry?
What are her quirks? (Are they endearing or annoying?)
To help flesh out your character, here’s a list of traits to get you thinking about who your character could be:
Role in the Story
Date of Birth
I’ve also created a quick cheat sheet, loosely based on those old role-playing games that you can use to get started (complete with room to draw a sketch).
Another thing to consider as you get into your story are some deeper traits that drive your character: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. These are “engines” that get your character to take action. In some stories, these are easy to nail down. For a superhero story, the Hero’s Goal might simply be “Defeat the Villain”; the Motivation would be “Save the City!”; and the Conflict would be “Villain takes the Hero’s family hostage”. However, the more nuanced the story you decide to tell, the less clear these items will become. If you can get an idea what these things are, you will go a long way to understanding who this character is and what she’ll do in your story.
Character Profile — Kate McAllister
As an example, here is how Kate developed for Paradigm Shift. As the main character, main thrust of the story revolves around her developing supernatural abilities which put her in direct conflict with her identity as a police officer. As a combination action/mystery, her role as protagonist is pretty clear, as is her Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.
Name: Kathryn McAllister
Role in Story: Protagonist Goal: Discover who or what is killing people in the back alleys of Chicago and stop it. Motivation: It’s her job—she’s a detective. Conflict: She’s developing weird abilities and having dreams connecting her to the murders. Did she commit the crime?
Age: 27 Gender: Female Height: 5’8” Weight: 138 lbs. Eye color: Green Hair color: Auburn Ethnicity: Caucasian (Scotch-Irish heritage) Date of Birth: March 26th Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois Education: B.S in Criminal Science & Psychology, Police Academy Training Occupation: Violent Crimes Detective, Chicago Police Department Description: Tall, attractive young woman with long hair. In excellent physical condition, athletic build. Casual, not particularly stylish dresser, prefers “sporty” clothing.
Personality: Charming, witty and acerbic. Sharp tongue. Fierce temper. Tends to rely on gut feeling and instinct first. Can be moody.
Special Skills & Abilities: Police Training
– Knack for Criminal Investigation – Kate has a gift for investigation and an uncanny ability to follow a hunch.
– Hand-to-Hand Combat training: Kickboxing
– Firearms training: handgun
Developing Supernatural Abilities:
– Accelerated Healing
– Increased strength, agility, speed and stamina
– Berserker rage
– Transforms into a wolf-like form when she completely loses control
Weakness: Anger management problems get her into trouble
Not entirely in control of her powers
Uncontrolled Transformations – blacks out when transformed and has no memory of the experience when returning to human form
Quirks: Voracious appetite, “Smile of Doom”
Background History: Kate always wanted to be cop, in part because her father was a well-known violent crimes investigator who had dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice—until he died suddenly when she was 15. After already losing her mother to cancer four years before, she went to live with her older brother while she finished high school. However, after narrowly avoiding becoming an assault victim herself from one of her brother’s friends, she solidified her intent. Her reaction was one of rage rather than fear, and from that point on she immersed herself in physical activities—kick boxing, gymnastics, track, hockey, etc—to build her self-confidence so she would never again feel ‘weak.’ Four years after graduating from high school, she earned a criminal science degree with top honors and immediately joined the Chicago police force. After serving only two years on the force, she earned the rank of Detective after cracking a difficult murder case with Detective Mike Stuart. He became her partner after her promotion, and they became a smart-ass dynamic duo that quip and joke their way through an often stressful and traumatic job. Together, they keep the department on its toes as both its greatest assets and biggest embarrassments.
Hopefully this peek into the origins of my comic will provide you with ideas and inspiration to find your own unique story and characters.
Next time we’ll dig into character design and using figure drawing to help refine and inject some life into your creations.
If you’re new to the series, welcome! If you’d like prompt updates about the next installment of the series, exclusive cheat sheets, and other behind-the-scenes material with each installment of the series, please sign up for my mailing list:
This week, we begin with the tools of the trade. This isn’t a definitive list of “must have” tools, but this is a catalog of the tools I use in the studio. You certainly don’t need anything more than a pencil and piece of paper to make comics, and zeroing in on the tools that work best for you will take time. I hope that taking a look at the materials I’ve come to use over the years will prove useful in narrowing down what you use. For the bare-bones basics, you’ll need:
Paper – bristol board is ideal for comic work
Pencils – A good HB will do nicely
Eraser – white vinyl works great
Straightedge – a ruler, triangle or both!
Pens – pick your favorite!
Digital tools are optional for comics, but they do offer the flexibility of easy editing and the power to share what you create online. If you’re just getting started, you don’t need a fancy tablet and stylus, though if you already own one, start playing around with it. Here are the essentials:
a computer or tablet
a scanner or decent camera
your choice of image editing software
When I began Paradigm Shift, it was 1998, and digital tools were still in the early days. While I had a modded Mac clone (anyone else remember those?), a scanner, and an early Wacom tablet (an ArtZ II!), it was still faster and easier to draw on paper and do touchups on the computer. And that is how I developed my initial process for drawing the comic. I would pencil & ink the pages on 11”x17” bristol board, then scan them into Photoshop for touchup, screentones and lettering.
First, a word about paper. Unlike people, not all paper is created equally! It took me awhile to nail down the type of bristol I prefer to draw and ink on. When pencilling, I prefer a Strathmore vellum surface because there’s a little “tooth” to the grain, which reacts nicely with a pencil. However, the disadvantage is that same tooth can grab a pen nib awkwardly if you accidentally push against it (whoops! cue Photoshop touchups here). However, I found that ink also sat nicely on top of it and did not soak into the paper, which can cause the lines to bleed—which I despise! I had that probably when I first started using smooth 300 series bristol. Later, when I started printing up my digital pencils onto bristol, I discovered that Strathmore 500 series plate surface is a dream to ink on. It’s pricier, but worth it.
Pencils come and pencils go. I used to favor a combination of H, HB & 2B lead. I would use H for roughs and HB or softer for final pencils, but these days I just stick with HB. I use wooden pencils (Tombows are my favorite) for roughs, and then use mechanical pencils in three sizes for backgrounds the require rulers and other tighter detail work. For erasers, I vastly prefer a certain soft, white, smooth-texture that Pentel Clic and Staedtler Mars eraser provide. They erase cleanly and effectly. Recently, I’ve also re-discovered the classic kneaded eraser, which also erases very well, and can be sculpted to smaller shapes for more accurate eradication.
HB wooden pencils (I use Tombows these days)
.03mm, .05mm & .07mm mechanical pencils w/ HB lead
Pentel Clic erasers (good, soft white vinyl erases very effectively)
Staedtler Mars Plastic block eraser (same white vinyl as the Pentel Clic)
Straight-edges are a must for comics. For drawing guides and panel borders, a T-square and triangles are your best bet. For perspective, having a long ruler is really handy, especially if your vanishing points go off the edge of the page. Also, you’ll need a raised edge for inking, otherwise the ink can bleed off in between the ruler and the paper.
There are a variety of tools in the arsenal for inking. I use dip pens and occasionally brushes for characters and natural, organic backgrounds because you can vary the line weight dramatically. My favorite dip pen is the Hunt 109 Flexible nib. It is essentially a Crow Quill, only made out of copper instead of steel, so it has more “give”. This means it’s easier to vary the line weight. The downside of them is they bend out of shape easily, so I buy them in boxes of a dozen at a time–at least they’re cheap! Over the past few years brush pens have been improving, and so I keep them around for quick drawings in my sketchbook. I save the technical pens for objects and architecture, because the lines are stiffer and less variable, so they look more solid and “dead”.
Sakura MICRON pens, size 005, 01, 05, & 08 for finer lines for backgrounds & technical art
Sakura Pigma SENSEI pens, size 06 & 10 for black fills
Hunt 108 Flexible nibs (by the dozen) for characters
Windsor & Newton Round 01 watercolor brushes for fine organic line work
Round Japanese Horsehair bamboo Sumi brushes for big, fat organic strokes
Also, the type of ink matters. When I first started to use a dip pen, all my local art store carried was Higgins Black Magic and Speedball India. The former was too thin and the latter too thick for my favored Hunt 108 nibs, so I would either mix the two, or let the Higgins sit out overnight with the cap off, so it evaporated a little to thicken up—either way it was a home brew mix. I know other artists who swear by other brands, but I found that worked for me. For larger works (such as portraits), I turn to Sumi ink to use with my big bamboo and horsehair brush.
Waterproof Black India for comics
Sumi Ink for larger works
My original process involved thumb nailing my comic pages in a sketchbook, then manually drawing in the 1” margins and 1/2” bleed on 11”x17” bristol before diving into the pencils. I would scan my pencil work before proceeding on with the inks. I ink in the following sequence (which I continue use): borders, balloons, sound effects, characters and finally backgrounds. Once the inks were complete, a quick scan and stitch in Photoshop, then touchup, lettering and tone work.
The upside of using all these traditional tools was, first and foremost, I really got to know how to plan and use the medium very well. Drawing in pencil means you need to think about where to place objects on the page. You can erase, but it takes time to redraw things.
And there is no substitute for training to ink with real nibs, brushes and india ink. Digital is awesome, but there’s always that “Undo” button. When it’s just you, your loaded brush and a piece of paper, you have to focus and put down that ink stroke with purpose because there are no redos. And finally, you also get a beautiful and unique piece of physical artwork at the end.
I worked with this hybrid of traditional and digital for three graphic novels, but then in 2010 I purchased my first Wacom Cintiq, which allowed me to draw directly on the screen for the first time. At that point I switched over to doing my pencils digitally. I started out by pencilling in Photoshop, then printing out the pencils onto Bristol to ink with a nib. However, I did not like how Photoshop brushes worked, so I continued to ink on paper by printing up the pencil work in light blue onto bristol and then inking as I would normallly (I’ll cover this more in detail in the inking tutorial later). The process was marginally faster than before, since I could make edits directly to the pencils before I inked, but there was still a learning curve involved.
However, after taking some time off from drawing comics, when I returned to the fold with STRANGER, I experimented with doing the whole comic digitally in Manga Studio. I was happy with the results, and when I returned to working on PS Vol. 4, I decided to stay digital because I found I was working much more quickly than before. The main reason for this is I can go from thumbnails to finished page by working in layers in the same file. No scanning, no bouncing around between programs. I can even gang entire scenes (or even issues) together in a master file, so it’s easy to think of the pages as a sequence.
My weapon of choice is now CLIP Studio Paint (formerly Manga Studio 5). Here’s how I set up my workspace.
When I decided to return to PS Vol.4, I knew I wanted to finish it out digitally. However, I knew the first trick would be to try to match the look of the pages I had inked on bristol.
The first step was to set the ink pen settings so my matched the lines I was producing with my Hunt 108. Unlike the default G-pen, which creates super slick smooth lines, my ink lines had a small amount of shake to them. So I modified it to have a textured brush shape and found that setting the size to 30 produced lines that were similar in size and character to the lines I was used to with the Hunt. I will also take it down to size 20 for finer line work, but I basically only bounce between those sizes (or occasionally bigger). Anything smaller than that will get lost in the final printout.
Another tool I love in CLIP is how the Paint Bucket is implemented. It can close gaps and expand fills automatically. This makes toning and coloring incredibly fast. I used to have a method worked up in Photoshop that required 2 or 3 key commands and some trial and error to fill areas, but no longer need it here.
However, the thing that sold me completely on CLIP was its ruler tools, especially the Perspective Ruler. I love using perspective. Anyone who has read the first few books of Paradigm Shift will know of allthecityscapes I drew—all of which were done by hand, with pencil and ruler, and then again in ink. It can be a time-consuming, but very rewarding process. There’s a dual-page spread in Book 3 that took me two weeks. The vanishing points were on pieces of paper that I extended off the edge of the page.
Setting up shots like this are a lot easier in CLIP. Once I determine my horizon and vanishing points (up to 3!), my lines will automatically snap to each of the three axes. On paper, I’d have to place the rule by hand to line up with the vanishing point. This saves me so much time! And it’s really, really fun. I do have to hold myself back a bit, though. Not every panel needs 3-point perspective, but…
The rest of CLIP’s ruler tools are great, too. There’s a Focus ruler tool, which is perfect for those manga-esque burst effects and speed lines. But there’s also curves, concentric circles, and a symmetrical ruler for trippy, kaleidoscopic effects.
Lastly, I love that I can I live preview screen tones. I can lay down grayscale on a layer, and then hit a button and see how a panel will look with the dots applied. Very helpful! I found my tone work became more simplified once I could see it while I was toning the page. The textured pattern will overpower detailed lifework pretty fast, so I became more aware about how much a page did or didn’t need right away. I could pull off the same effect in Photoshop, but I had to copy/paste a flattened version of the page to a new document, then render out halftone using Image>Mode>Bitmap. It was just enough of a hassle that I didn’t do it all that often.
If this sounds like an infomercial for CLIP, I don’t mean it to be. I still use Photoshop for all my image-editing needs, but CLIP is a far superior illustration tool. The main downside is its text engine. It’s just not robust enough for lettering. My workaround is to put in placeholder dialogue in CLIP and then replace it in the final PSD file in Photoshop once the drawing is complete. That way I can use Photoshop’s kerning and vector-based text objects for the final dialogue. It’s really the only hiccup in the process at the moment.
Lastly, I use Adobe InDesign for my page layout and print production needs. I lean on Adobe Illustrator from time to time to create logos, patterns, and other shape-based stuff. I also use SketchUp to construct virtual “sets” for certain scenes—which is perfect for science fiction stories! More on all that in a future installment.
Here’s a rundown of my current digital tools:
Late 2013 Retina 15-in MacBook Pro (16GB RAM, 512GB HD, 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7)
Wacom Cintiq 22HD
iPad Pro 12.9” w/ Apple Pencil and AstroPad (which turns it into a Cintiq clone for mobile use)
Epson Photo 1400 large-format printer
Adobe Creative Suite – Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign
CLIP Studio Paint
Trimble SketchUp Make
The upside to all these wonderful digital tools is that they are fast, flexible and allow me zoom in on my work and use my whole arm to draw, which is good for me ergonomically. They are incredibly powerful and pretty much allow me to get even closer to my intended visual ideas than I ever could before.
The downside of these tools is obvious—they’re expensive! Keeping up with the pace of technology is difficult. And Cintiqs are a serious investment. However, you don’t need a big, expensive tablet to use these tools these days. There are all sorts of options for those on a budget. Adobe’s Creative Suite is also a cool $50 a month, which is a chunk of change if you’re just getting started. CLIP Studio is affordable, though, and the pro version can be found on sale for $100 or less from time to time.
The other major problem is there will never be a physical art object of the digital work I’ve done, only printed facsimiles. The art itself only exists as 0’s and 1’s on my hard drive. Also, I have found that working exclusively digitally does dull my skills with my traditional tools over time, so it’s good for me to take a break and do a real painting, portrait or ink drawing now and then to keep my practice up. Lastly, all this digital flexibility can lead to some indecision. If I can change something infinitely, it introduces the subtle temptation for perfection, which will inevitably disappoint. Though, I fell into that trap before I went all digital, too. However, I’ve found that working in batches and thumbnailing and pencilling ahead has reduced my attachment to any single page, and made this tendency lessen over time.
In the final analysis, there’s no “right” tool to draw your comics. Traditional was a great way for me for 15 years. Now digital is my preference. I may switch back one day. Play around and find what works best for you.
Next week we’ll dive into creating characters and working with our influences.
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The workshop went well. We had a number of students from Monteserrat College of Art in attendance, which was fantastic. This presentation is a bit of a firehose of information, which is why I’m following up with the in-depth series here.
Here’s a few photos from the event, courtesy of Pete:
Coming up shortly is the first in the series: Tools!
This weekend I taught comics workshop at the fantastic comic shop, Paper Asylum, and I’ve decided to use the event as a way to get this blog started.
Over the many years I’ve been drawing comics, I’ve found that I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned about the process and craft of writing, illustration and visual storytelling as much as actually creating my stories. Back when I was working on the first Paradigm Shift graphic novel, I created a process tutorial, which ended up serving as the basis for the first workshops I brought to comic & anime conventions after publishing that first book in 2003. (Egads! Was it already so long ago?!) I eventually included it as bonus material in the second edition of the book.
However, it being 2017, that tutorial is out of date. Not only have the tools I’m using to create my comics changed, but I’ve learned so much more that I would like to expand upon. I’ve updated my workshop to reflect those changes and I will share it with you here. Today, I’ll give you a quick overview of the topics I’ll be covering both in the workshop and in this series over the next few weeks.
The biggest change between the tools I used for the first three books of Paradigm Shift and what I’m doing now is I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and gone all digital. I resisted making this change for many, many years in part because I liked the look of traditional inks, and I enjoyed having a physical page on bristol board when I was finished. However, after developing a repetitive stress issue in my drawing arm, I realize that hunching over while sitting at a drawing desk and making tiny motions with my wrist was not doing me any favors. So, after taking some time off from drawing, I started painting—with real paint and brushes. I also started experimenting with Sumi ink and Japanese horsehair brushes. While retraining my arm (and attitude), I discovered that painting helped satisfy my desire to create an art object. It also taught me that I enjoyed using my whole arm to create brush strokes. So, when I returned to drawing comics, I found it much easier to draw on a screen where I could zoom in, rotate and use my whole arm to create my drawings in way that is easier on my body.
Now my tools of choice (for drawing comics, at least) are CLIP Studio Paint (formerly Manga Studio 5) and a Wacom Cintiq 22HD. What sold me initially was the inking tools, which blow Photoshop out of the water (to no one’s surprise.) But what keeps me coming back is the perspective rulers. They make the process of creating all the fun backgrounds I love to draw so fast and easy! That and the seamless compatibility with PSD files means I was able to just plug it into my workflow from the beginning. However, don’t worry if your budget doesn’t allow for fancy hardware. Everything I’m going to show in this series will translate as basic concepts to traditional tools and even most drawing software and tablets.
In this two-part series, we’ll see the roots of where my character design style comes from, and how figure drawing and animation play a huge role in drawing characters with life. First, we’ll delve into the origins and evolution of my own characters, and examine the artists that deeply influenced my style.
Then we’ll dig into the drawing itself, examining the processes I use to draw consistent, dynamic, characters on the page. We’ll look at gesture, anatomical construction, action poses, and hands, and the role that figure studies play in refining and improving character work.
Story & Script:
I left this part out of the original process tutorial, aside from a brief glimpse at a page of script. However, I feel it’s a huge oversight, since the story is the thing that ultimately drives me to create my work in the first place. When I decided to return to comics, it was the story that I examined first. Story was also the thing I found most frustrating about publishing a webcomic—my process did not leave any time to examine the work as a whole and go back to edit & refine problematic scenes. In moving to working on the book as a whole, I now have a writing method that works.
We’ll talk about the creative process from getting that initial idea down on paper as an outline or first draft, and how a separate revision and editing stage can help shape the story into a satisfying final form. We’ll also cover a bit on story structure and using an outline to help craft a final revision.
Layout, Thumbnails & Lettering:
This is what I consider to be the heart of comics. Characters alone are just drawings. Written stories are prose at best. And what comes after is simply illustration, no matter how crude or refined the drawings are. It’s in the layout phase is where the magic of comics happens. We decide what to draw, in what sequential order, and where the words go. That interplay of images and words back and forth on the page is what makes comics a unique art form, and getting your ideas down clearly is the key part of this phase.
We’ll take a script and turn it into a layout and touch on different ways panels can transition from one to another. I’ll show you how the eye flows through a page layout, and how you can use that to help composition. And how thumbnailing whole scenes (or issues! or books!) can be a huge help in creating a larger work. Lastly, we’ll look at why lettering your page before you pencil is a good idea.
From here on, it’s all about cleaning up and refining the images. Using the thumbnail as a starting point, I’ll do a rough drawing over each panel, and then do a final pass to clean up anatomy, nail down perspective and add the important details. But while we nailed down all the important elements in the thumbnail stage, now we must flesh out the details of the illustrations.
We’ll cover the process in two parts. The first will return to characters, revisiting anatomy and proportions, and using reference photos effectively to help flesh out a scene–even using selfies!
The second, will cover drawing backgrounds, using references and basic perspective to create believable spaces for characters to inhabit and how to insert them into your backgrounds. I’ll also show you how I use 3D tools like Sketchup to create environments (or “sets”) for places that I want to visualize more fully and will recur throughout a story.
My favorite part of the whole process! It’s also the hardest to talk about. We’ll look into the pros and cons of traditional vs digital tools and what I’ve learned from working with both.
We’ll also cover the techniques I’ve learned over the years to produce solid, clean line work and how to create some special effects like classic manga “bursts” and speed lines.
Good screen tone work is all about two things: TEXTURE and VALUE. I love the look of screen tones in black and white comics because it creates a wonderful texture to the art work. It’s also bloody difficult to reproduce well at low resolution, which is why the Paradigm Shift webcomic pages were always in grayscale instead the toned look I actually desired.
We’ll dive in and look at how to create strong tone work, using black effectively and creating custom textures to use as patterns to add detail and mood to a comic.
One of the best parts of coming back to Volume Four was designing a new look for the series. I’ll show you how old jazz records inspired new ideas for the design and the process I used to paint the cover for the book. I’ll also show how I used custom textures to create the weathered, vintage look of the new covers.
Finally, the end result of all the hard work is at hand: a printed comic! However, the comic needs to be assembled first. We’ll look at the process of putting all the pages together in as layouts, the visual design of a book, and prepping it for print. Finally, once the pages are back from the printer, I’ll show you how to assemble an awesome, professional-looking minicomic.
I look forward to bringing you this series! If you’d like to keep up to date on the new tutorials, please join my mailing list:
So, I’ve been working on Paradigm Shift Vol. 4, and I’m happy to announce that Issue #4 (out of 5) is complete!
Last year I revisited the story and decided it was worth completing the book. I’ve gone back and revised story and artwork to turn it into a more self-contained installment for the series.
I released Issue #1 with little to no fanfare last fall at M.I.C.E. which compiles the first 50 revised pages of “Part Four: Flight”. This spring I released Issues #2 & 3 back to back at Beverly Comicon and PILcon at the Peabody library, which, aside from a few story edits contain mostly existing material from the webcomic.
Issue #4 is the first issue of nearly entirely new material that has never seen the light of day on the website. I’m releasing it as a minicomic next month at a book signing and comic workshop at Paper Asylum in Beverly, MA.
I’ll be starting work on the final issue—#5 of 5—soon and plan to release it in the spring. After that… new graphic novel!