Petty Dreadful Progress: Comics Process, Soup to Nuts
So how do I get from story idea to final comic page? It all starts with a combination of notebooks and Evernote. I jot down ideas as they occur to me in a variety of notebooks I keep everywhere: in my car, by my bedside, and at every desk at which I may be working at any given time.
Should I find myself in a place where I can’t capture the ideas on paper, I use Evernote on my phone. I always have my phone with me, so I never have to worry about holding on to an idea until I can get to one of my sketching kits. It even has an audio note capturing feature, so I can quickly dictate my ideas to the phone for later follow-up.
Once I have a bunch of notes, I cobble together a paragraph or two about what will happen in the story. Just the high and low points, not too much detail. I like to break my stories into “acts” as an internal structuring mechanism. I know that the end of act one will have to set up the basic conflict, act two will take that conflict to its inevitable climax, and act three will resolve the conflict (basic 101 writing stuff, right?).
From there I start with a round of initial thumbnails. After printing out a 6-up template of pages on letter-sized typing paper, I create rough sketches of the story. At this point I’m mostly concerned with visual pacing and paneling. I’m not terribly worried about dialogue, anatomy, or viewing angle. But I do concern myself with creating a visual flow on each page as I write:
This serves as my first draft of the story. I thumb out the entire thing before I move on to the next step. As I discussed in Thunder Punch Daily 145, I recently re-learned to just push through the writing of the draft before moving on to the next step.
There were a handful of scenes that ran long or strayed from the story’s point, so they had to be cut. After deciding what to throw out, I move on to the second stage of thumbnails:
These are drawn on a letter-sized sheet of paper folded in half. That puts each page at 5.5″x8.5″. Since I’ve figured out pacing, panel layout, and story flow, I’m now free to think about dialogue, sound design, body language, and character acting. Like the first draft, I pushed through and thumbnailed the entire story this way before moving on to the next stage:
At this point I’ve already fought a bunch of battles on the page, so now I’m free to tackle the pure illustration. Now I worry about proportion, line value, anatomy–all the stuff that goes along with just drawing well.
I pencil on an 11×15″ sheet of Utrecht house brand bristol. I purchase it in bulk so I can cut the sheets down to whatever the project requires. It’s also slightly thinner than Strathmore 300 series, so I can print out the pencils in blue off of my inkjet if I need to. Don’t know what I’m talking about? I put together a video tutorial on how I digitize my pencils and print them onto bristol for inking.
But it turns out that I didn’t need to print any pencils for this comic! I recently started inking digitally in Manga Studio, so all I have to do is import the pencils into the program and begin inking them on separate layers. Thanks to advice from some friends, I learned to ink different elements on individual layers, which makes doing the color holds easier (more on that in a second).
After inking the page, I export the file to Adobe Photoshop. Manga Studio lets you export with the layer architecture intact, and I take advantage of this by inking different elements on their own layers. Here are the debris inks from Panel 5, with all other art hidden:
By locking the transparency on the ink layers (it’s a switch you can toggle in your layers palette), I can easily apply color to these lines, what are otherwise known as “color holds” in the DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics, by simply going to Edit>Fill. No need to carefully isolate these lines with the lasso tool. Really speeds things up.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! The next thing I do is create a copy of all the ink layers and merge the copy into one. I name that layer “flats”. So I have several ink layers, and one “flats” layer. From there I use the Bpelt plugins to automatically flat the page. Manga Studio creates super-clean lines that work great with the Bpelt plugins (providing you export the page to Photoshop in the resolution you were drawing in–I had a devil of a time with line anti-aliasing when I reduced the image size). The plugins create a wildly colorful set of color flats, so I take a half hour or so with my magic wand tool to re-fill all of the flats with the base colors I intend to use:
I duplicate the flats layer and rename it to “colors”. This is what I will do my color edits on (of which I also did a video demonstration).
With this comic I’m also playing around with a more “painterly” look on the backgrounds, after talking with Brandon Dayton about digital painting on the Comics Are Great! podcast. I use the Photoshop chalk brushes for this, and it does take a little more time than the coloring style I’ve used in the past. But I love the results.
I also drop in some scanned speedlines I keep on hand for use in all of my comics projects. I keep a bunch of different patters handy to help speed the process along. By keeping my flats preserved on their own layer, I can simply use the magic wand tool to grab the background selection and create a layer mask over the speedlines, instantly integrating them into the panel. The speedlines are on transparent layers, so I toggle the “preserve transparency” button in the layers palette and just drop on some color to do the holds.
And after doing the last of the color holds on the lineart, I letter the page in Adobe Illustrator. There’s a lot to this part, between designing the sound elements and integrating the word balloons into the final artwork. You can find a 4-hour class I put together on how I letter in Adobe Illustrator at Lean Into Art.
I plan on going into a lot more detail on the specific parts of the process as I work through the next 29 pages of the story. I’ll stream and record video of the process and blog whatever surprises pop up along the way. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook to get updates on when I’m streaming video or sharing more process!
There’s a lot to this comics jazz, isn’t there?