Struggling Artist

I’ll talk a bit about my art practices and processes today.

Universe Gun, and most of my other comic art, is done in four stages, as shown below.

1) Roughs – I draw in figures and backgrounds, and get the relative sizes and gestural poses and everything right. I also lay down lettering at this point, to make sure that it fits, and I’m not going to end up with a speech bubble obscuring anything important. Perspective grids from Carapace go down at this stage too. This is the big picture, problem solving step. Panel borders are drawn in their own layer with a 29 pixel pencil snapped to guides.

2) Pencils – Draw over the roughs with a 13 pixel pencil, or 7 pixel for faces on small characters. (I turn the lettering off at this point.) First pass facial expressions go in  here, along with details such as hand expressions, pieces of equipment and so on. Some detail gets left out, eg Cyberius’ cables may just get drawn as two outlines here, because I know I can do them in my sleep by now.

3) Inks – Draw Over the pencils layer with my three pencils – 13 pixel outline, 7 pixel for detail, and 4 pixel for shading contours and fine detail. Here I’ll often adjust facial expressions and poses a little bit, just to make sure everything’s working correctly, sometimes redrawing in the pencil layer first if the pencils weren’t quite definitive enough.
This sometimes includes a second inks layer if I have a lot of transparent characters like Georgina or hologram Cyberius to draw.

4) Colour and finish. – Easy but time consuming, I flood fill the inks layer, and finally add effects layers (energy blasts, video screens, all that), sound fx ( drop a text layer, and then draw over the outline with a 7 pencil and gradient fill) and  speech bubbles.


Now, my aims with the Universe Gun art are roughly as follows

  • Clarity. Characters are recognisable. Backgrounds and settings and machinery are instantly readable, and its clear what’s going on even when it gets a bit strange. The reader’s having to work enough with the big complicated story.
  • Mistake free. Badly drawn people or wonky perspective snaps the reader out of the story.
  • Funky art style. I’m aiming to improve my drawing underneath the flat-colour single thickness line art, but keep the simple “colouring book” fixed line finish to it.
  • Speed. I want to knock out a page every week. I’m nearly 100 pages into Universe Gun, with at least another 100 to go.

The second and fourth points clash a bit. I could lift the quality control by drawing everything multiple times and picking the best one, but I’m doing this on top of a full time job and a busy life. I’m already drawing everything three times in the three layers, which helps with quality. I think I’ve found a way to improve this.

Up until now, I’ve spent an entire week doing one page. I’ll draw the roughs, pencil it, ink it and finish it. I’ve decided to change this and stagger the pages. So one week might be:

  • p11 finish (inked last week)
  • p12 inks  (pencilled last week)
  • p13 pencils (roughs done last week)
  • p14 roughs

Each of these is a 2-3 hour job, so maybe a couple of evenings in the week and two on the weekend.  The big advantage here to this staggering are obvious. Each page has a chance to bake in the back of my head. I realised one time when inking a page in the old one-sitting method, that by the time I drew the inks layer (which is the only one the reader sees) I was pretty much over that page, having just drawn it twice already. With this new staggering system, inking the page feels fresh, and I have a chance to spot any mistakes in the pencils layer before committing them.

When I sit down, I can decide what part of the process to do. Do I feel like meticulous inks? Have I had an idea for the next page’s roughs that needs trying out? If I’m a bit tired I can just do some colouring in.

It also means that I’m looking at four pages of story in one week, so hopefully the page-to-page flow will improve from this new process.

The Dreaded 3/4 Reverse Profile

Here’s an example that came up a couple of weeks back. Drawing a comic involves acquiring a repertoire of tricks and learned lines. I know how to draw a face front on, and can give them gender, age and face type and so on fairly easily by now. I used to draw a lot of three quarter profiles when I was a teenager and young adult, and so my hands know how to do them from practice. Full profiles always gave me trouble until I knuckled down last year and through a series of books and life drawing got the side on head figured out. (I haven’t even mentioned heads from high or low angles). And there’s the reverse 3/4 profile, where someone’s looking away from the camera and you can just see their cheek, their eye socket, and maybe tips of their nose and lips. Close your eyes and think about that angle. You probably can’t visualise how it all fits together, but your brain will tell you immediately if its wrong because that’s how we work.

Here’s the image I had after a rushed rough-pencil-ink session. Coriolis Boy is framing the left hand side of the panel, looking down from the air and telling his sister off about something, and we’re looking over his shoulder.

It’s further complicated by being at an angle, and its passable and readable, but something wasn’t quite right, so I decided to investigate, and try to plug this hole in my drawing skills. We’ve got a small make up mirror in the bathroom that can be used with the main cabinet mirror to see myself from an angle. I tied my hair back and tried to see myself like that, but it wasn’t great. I then took a few photographs of the side of my head, which worked better for generating reference.

Using this as reference I sketched out a simple head on a piece of paper with a pencil. I love my Cintiq, but for tricky sketch work like this I still prefer to hold an actual graphite stick. It came out rather nicely, like this.

I pasted this into the pencil layer of the comic page, rotated it, and found the problem. CB’s forehead was too far back! As the photo and isolated pencil sketch show, the front of the head should make a flat line in this kind of shot, with the eye socket sitting behind the line and the nose and lips protruding forwards.  The ear placement and hairline needed a bit of tweaking too. The corrected version looks way better, here its just inks turned up to 100%.

I like to think that with my new staggering method of producing pages, I’ll catch things like this first time and not have to agonise over a redraw. (I’ve also redrawn that bucket full of stuff on the beach because the perspectives off, and because its was a boring bucket. Its now an inflatable paddling pool with correct perspective, as you can see if you check the start of this blog.)

I’m also making it my mission to draw more 3/4 reverse profiles, and make sure I can define expressions like smiling or fear from this angle. And make sure I can work it for Jacqui’s little turned up nose, or Venus’ fleshier face, and so on.


See you in seven, starers at strange horizons!  Dr Mike 2000, 12 July 2015


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