February 2019 Anatomy of a Comic Page

Since embarking on my longterm comic project, “Kingdom of Sunlight” (henceforth referred to as “KoS”) it’s been my goal to try new things, experiment with layouts, angles and lightning, and generally improve my skills with every page. As a result of these regular experiments, I’ve established a process. I often feel that the making of comics can seem like obscure ritualistic magic to casual observers- sometimes even hardened fans- and of course, no two artists are exactly alike- so I’d like to do my part to demystify it by sharing some of my own process with you here.

(And click here for a link to the finished page!)


1- Scripting and Storyboarding

I actually have the script of KoS written well in advance. Eighteen chapters and several side stories in advance, to be precise (perhaps I am a little over-ambitious, or simply obsessed).

The scripts I write for my own eyes are considerably more open-ended than what I would share with a fellow artist of writer if we were collaborating on the project. Descriptions of the atmosphere and character actions are written in what might be described as a literary manner. I like to add bracketed cues to indicate the tone with which a line is delivered by the character (thinking in theatre terms here) and interpret it later as I’m drawing. I also don’t separate the pages into panels at this stage or give more precise directions than what you see below. This, again, is a symptom of the script being intended for my eyes only.

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Typically if I am working on shorter projects, collaborating on a project, or feel that several pages comprise a “scene” together, I will storyboard the whole thing all at once.

With KoS, I have taken to making pages either one at a time, or in small batches. This includes the storyboarding. I like the open-endedness of working one page at a time, without necessarily knowing what the next will hold. I’d also like to add that the term “storyboarding” is employed fairly loosely here. The doodles at this stage are about as complex as stick figures- an artistic shorthand that is about to undergo considerable revision.

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My focus here is on layout and composition. I want to have a basic idea of the “flow” of the page. Is it readable? How must the characters be posed to deliver their lines with the meaning I intend? I’m also thinking of light sources, and where they ought to be placed in relation to the characters for dramatic effect. This can mean designing environments on the fly around what seems like an interesting composition, and cementing the placement of objects later. I will even act out certain lines in front of a mirror or webcam to figure out what poses and facial expressions I’m looking for (no, you don’t get to see examples).


2- Linework

Once my references are assembled and I have a basic layout, I begin to draw the characters. When I am working digitally, the traditional line between “pencilling” and “inking” the page is blurred. I essentially do both at once.   

Environments will often take the form of a few reference lines (to make sure I have an idea of what perspective I’m working in and where the objects will be placed) while I finish working on the characters. Details like ruffles on clothing, the contents of bookcases, and paintings hanging on the walls go in last. There are even certain details, such as patterned clothing, that won’t make it onto the page until I’ve begun colouring.  

One of my particular quirks is that I like to have the placement of word bubbles and lettering well out of the way by the time I’m drawing (lettering not shown in the example below). This way, I can rest easy in the knowledge that I’m leaving enough room. I want the dialogue to be a part of the composition.

I also tend to draw on coloured backgrounds, as opposed to white ones, when I’m working digitally. I find this easier on the eyes.

Subtle and not-so-subtle changes will often occur to the poses and expressions of characters at this stage (including opting for more “cinematic” camera angles). I make judgement calls here based on how I want the characters to be perceived.

For instance, most of this chapter is told from the perspective of ‘Ambrosine’, the character depicted with a cane and clothing inspired by the mid-18th-century sack back gown. Like all the central characters in KoS, Ambrosine is an unreliable narrator. There are significant inaccuracies in her version of events, which will be patched through conversations and perspectives of later narrators. As such, I like the idea of giving each page of her story an “Ambrosine bias”. All she knows about the person she’s seen meeting here for the first time is that they’re a sorcerer, a suspected murderer, and “famously ugly”, whatever that means to high society. She also knows that her future may hinge on the outcome of this one unpredictable conversation. From her point of view, Nazare is distant, menacing, creepy- even snakelike- and that’s the lens through which the reader sees Nazare as well. If this same dialogue were depicted with a '“Nazare bias” it might appear very different. Is he the threatening presence here- or is he, rather, feeling threatened by the circumstances himself?

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Certain repeating elements between pages will be kept in a separate file as source imagery to quicken my process. Examples on this page include the office chair, bookcase and two paintings. Since the content of the paintings is, in this particular case, plot-relevant and intended to reappear at a later date, they are actually drawn separately in advance, and then placed on the page and warped into perspective using the photoshop toolkit.

Here’s a preview of the full painting hanging in the sorcerer’s office, which is so far only hinted at on the page itself:

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3- Colour

I used to have a very adversarial relationship with this stage of the process. Throughout my life, I’ve typically preferred dramatic monochrome (I love ink-based black and white comics- especially those with cross-hatching!) or a handful of very specific moody colour palettes. In fact, I’ve spent so much time drawing in black and white, I sometimes find it difficult to imagine what an object or environment would look like in full colour without a reference.  

I’ve spent the past couple of years actively seeking opportunities to use colour in new ways so I can train myself to understand it better. KoS is no exception.

On the whole, I think I’ve been relatively successful in rehabilitating my relationship to full-colour art. I’ve taken to starting with vibrant, kaleidoscopic backgrounds to set the mood, and flatting certain aspects of each scene over top of them. My philosophy so far has been to make the characters appear ever so slightly more pronounced and recognizable by giving them recurring colour themes.  

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This particular page involves some experimentation with believable fabric patterns, inspired by 18th century styles. It’s another repeating element which I can create once, and then re-purpose. The addition of light and shadow will make this pattern appear increasingly more subtle as the page progresses.


4- Lighting

My intention with KoS was to create a stylistic hybrid that appears painted, but in a muted, subtle sort of way. In order to quicken the creation of each page (speeding up my workflow is something I still very much need to work on) I simply create a sepia layer of shadow, followed by a layer of light that softens any harsher brushstrokes left behind by the hastily painted shadow layer. You can see the difference with the first (shadows only) and second (shadow with light/blending layer) examples below:

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Over the course of working on this project, I’ve been increasingly interested in practicing ambient environment lighting. I’ve also been using light layers to amplify the illusion of depth, especially when it comes to separating characters from the background and one another.

Facial expressions always receive the most dramatic treatment and greatest attention to detail. I try to balance liveliness (even to the point of caricature) with the more grounded style in which the characters are drawn. Conventional beauty standards are very far from my goal. I would rather leave idealized depictions of people to my portrait drawing gigs at local craft fairs, and draw something that feels more honest to me- with all the tangible awkwardness that entails. If my fictional characters would see these panels and complain I’ve drawn them at their worst, I’m probably doing something right.


5- Anxiety and Crippling Self-Doubt

I’m joking of course.

Well- half-joking.

Actually I can’t remember the last time I’ve been satisfied with something I drew for more than a minute before the litany of self-criticism set in.

While useful, in so far as it can help me improve my skills, I also recognize this habit puts me on the fast track to artistic and emotional burnout (and I’ve certainly had my fair share of that already).

I suspect most artists who see this heading will smile in a moment of bitter self-recognition. It’s awfully common.

Personally, I consider it a pernicious habit of mine that needs breaking.

Thinking so doesn’t make it any easier, of course. But at least I can imagine there must be healthier ways of pursuing self-improvement than systematically tearing apart my own work.

I’ve come to understand that tending to my mental health is a far greater part of the job than I’d ever have expected.

It’s also the most difficult.

Now, I’d like to think that if I can find the courage to admit to excess self-doubt, and even recognize it as a crucial thing to overcome in the creative process (as opposed to something even remotely honourable or necessary for improvement), it would have the reverse of the effect I fear. Far for making me complacent and self-aggrandizing, it would cause my output to quicken, and I could surpass myself more easily than ever before.    

Ah, well. Something to work on.