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How I Make Comics

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validation webcomic comic panel

DON’T PANIC! IT’S EASIER THAN YOU THINK!

This post isn’t about the technical bits of how I make comics. I already talked about that in my step-by-step guide to making Johnson & Sir, and I also made one for Validation.

That’s not to mention the many tutorials online showing how to make comics, or the exercises in “Making Comics” by Scott McCloud or any number of books and classes that teach you the technical aspects of making comics.

Believe it or not, artists are very technical people.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I want to talk about today.

Today I want to answer a question-ish thing someone asked me via email recently.

The Question-ish thing goes:

I would be interested to know how you, as a cartoonist, work, or think about work.

The truth is, I don’t really think about work all that often.

Let me explain.

I am a creature of habit.

I have particular places where things go, how things are put into order, and I have a routine established for every day and every week.

I am super organized.

I set up routines so I don’t have to expend energy thinking of where everything is or what I have to do.

I can put all of my energy on making art.

Does that mean that comics-making and art are made into a routine?

Yes.

In fact, my usual daily routine looks a little like this:

  • Wake up, shower
  • breakfast, make coffee or tea (depending on how much caffeine I need and what I’m craving)
  • sketch a warm-up piece
  • make comics
  • break for lunch
  • make more comics
  • done making comics, go to dinner
  • hang out with family
  • (sometimes) get writing done
  • BED!

There are changes sometimes. Like this week I ended my day before lunch and spent more time with my family. Playing board games, watching movies, what have you.

And one week my routine changed because of Phoenix Comicon (which, yay!).

Regardless, I always make time in my day to draw and make comics.

Now, making comics is a habit.

Anytime I break the habit, I am hyper aware and need to get back on track.

Making comics and art are skills, and they are skills that need to be practiced Every. Single. Day.

Just like writing. Or cooking. Or knitting (my goodness I haven’t knitted in a while).

So how do I make comics?

I make it a routine.

And it’s a routine I’m happy to keep.

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How I Make Validation

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Last time I spoke about How I Make Johnson & Sir. Today I want to show how I make a comic strip for Validation, the other webcomic I work on, because the process is a little different.

If you ever get lost in the technical bits (especially in the Photoshop section), I explain some of those steps in How I Make Johnson & Sir so hopefully the techno-lingo won’t be so confusing.

Today, I’ll show how I made strip #105.

Step 1: Get the Script

I don’t (really) write Validation. Christian does (though we often talk story ideas over). I wait for her to send the script over to me first, and then…

Step 2: Layouts

Sometimes I skip this step, depending on how simple or complex the strips are in the script. Since I work in three panels, it’s important to know where characters will be placed and where speech balloons will go, to make the strip as readable as possible. That way it won’t be so cluttered.

I did not do layouts for strip #105 because it was scripted in a pretty straightforward way, and I had an idea for how I wanted the strip to look.

However, I’ll show the layouts I did for #103, which had some weird camera angles.

validation comic layouts

click to enlarge

Step 3: Ready the Paper

I tend to do this step ahead of time. Thankfully I can get two strips from a single sheet of 9 inch by 12 inch Strathmore Bristol Vellum, which is my paper of choice for Validation. I trim the paper (to make it easier to fit on my scanner) and I’m good to go.

Step 4: Pencil the Strip

validation webcomic strip pencilled art

click to enlarge

Pretty straightforward. Although, if you notice two extra characters, one looks like me and one looks like my boyfriend. Fun fact!

When that’s done, I send the pencils to Christian (via DropBox) for approval. This is where any changes that need made can be done, though 99.9% of the time she gives the ok.

Step 5: Ink

validation webcomic comic strip inked artwork

click to enlarge

Once I get the ok, I ink!

To add a little depth, especially in panel 2, I made the foreground figures in thicker lines to make them pop more. I used a micron pen with a 1.0 width. The background figure in Panel 3 was drawn mostly with 0.5 and 0.3 width pens, with finer details in a 0.1 width micron pen.

Step 6: Color with Markers

My markers of choice are (from most preferred to least)…

  1. Copic markers
  2. Prismacolor markers
  3. Sharpies

I used to do the entire comic in marker, but now I only do half. Sometimes it’s because a marker died, the markers will not blend well for the background, or I need a color I don’t have a marker for. So I just color what I can.

Step 7: Scan and Tweak in Photoshop

validation webcomic comic strip color artwork in photoshop

click to enlarge

Once marker coloring is done, I scan the strip in at 300 dpi (dots per inch) and open it in Photoshop. The first thing I do is adjust the brightness and contrast (shown in the above picture). That way the strip isn’t so dim. Then I adjust the curves.

validation webcomic comic strip color artwork on photoshop

click to enlarge

Doing this will let the colors really pop.

Once those adjustments are done, I make a new layer in Photoshop and call it “EDITS”. This is the layer where I correct color errors I made with the markers, fix any wonky lines, and clean up smudges and spots.

Step 8: Color the Background

Then I make another new layer on top of that and call it “BACKGROUND”, because here’s where I add background color.

validation webcomic comic strip artwork in photoshop coloring the background

click to enlarge

If you notice, I adjusted the blending options for this layer. For “EDITS” I left those settings alone, but with “BACKGROUND” I set it to Color Mode: “Multiply” at a Fill Opacity of 100%.

The reason I do this is because Multiply mode actually keeps the lines clean while still coloring. It works like this:

Screenshot 2014-05-30 13.58.57

Rather than it looking flat and gross like this:

Screenshot 2014-05-30 13.59.08

Then I just color in the background colors as needed.

validation webcomic comic strip art work in photoshop coloring the background

click to enlarge

Step 9: Color the Rest.

Once backgrounds are done, I make yet another layer on top and call that “FLATS.” I also set this layer to Color Mode: Multiply and Fill Opacity at 100%. This is where I color in the things my markers missed, like Jim’s coat and the game table.

validation webcomic comic strip artwork being colored in photoshop.

click to enlarge

…Sometimes I have another file open to reference for color.

Step 10: Color the Shadows

This step is one I talked about a little bit in my previous tutorial, but here you’ll really see it in action.

I make a new layer on top, call it “SHADES,” and then set to Color Mode: Multiply and – here’s the surprise – Fill Opacity at 35%.

Notice it’s not at 100%? That’s because I don’t want the shadows to be overpowering. I also want the color of the shadows to blend, instead of getting any weird effects that would happen if I changed the paint brush opacity (yes, you can do that).

Once I do that, I color the shadows in, and it looks like this.

validation webcomic comic strip art being colored in photoshop

click to enlarge

I did something a bit unusual in Panel 2: I put the two figures closest to the reader in shadow. I did this to frame the picture and keep the focus on Ally and Kyle.

So now the colors are done! I save the file, and then flatten the image so all the layers merge. Then I make another new layer and save the file for lettering.

Step 11: Write the dialogue

For this step, I have the open file of the script handy so I can refer to it.

Then I write the dialogue and captions.

validation webcomic comic strip lettering done in photoshop

click to enlarge

I try to arrange them in such a way that they won’t block too much of the art, and to ensure it can be read easily.

Then, once everything is written and checked for spelling, I get to the bottom layer, make a new layer, and start placing the balloons and boxes with the rectangle tool.

validation webcomic comic strip speech balloons and dialogue added to the final art

click to enlarge

I use the rounded rectangle for dialogue and the plain rectangle for narration.

To make the tail for that balloon, I got to the bottom layer again, made a new layer, and painted it in.

Once all of that is done, I merge the layers to flatten it out, and then…

Step 12: Save the File!

I save it first at its current size and call the file “Validation105_large.”

Then I adjust the image size.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The large file is at 300 dpi, which is the right size for print, but it isn’t too web-friendly. So to make it nice and tidy for the website, I shrink it from 300 dpi to 100 dpi. And I save that file as “Validation105_small.”

I send the finished strips to Christian via DropBox, and shazam! I’m done!

I hope you enjoyed looking at my process, and I hope you found something useful from it!

I’ll see you again on Wednesday.

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How I Make Johnson & Sir

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I was asked recently by a fan to showcase how I make comics. I’ve been meaning to do a post showing my work process for a while now, so today’s as good of a day as any!

Today I’m going to show how I make a page of Johnson & Sir.

In particular, I’ll show you how I made page 42. This page is a little different from how I make my pages now, but more on that in a minute.

Let’s begin!

Step 1: Script the Page

script for page 42

Click for larger image.

I do all of my scripting for this comic in a Strathmore sketchbook about 5.5″ x 8.5″. Since I’m the only writer for this project, I can script this comic however I like.

Most of the time, my script for a comic page looks like the one above. It’s just a rough idea of what I want the page to look like. This lets me figure out what’s said, where the figures are, and where the speech balloons need to be.

Sometimes my scripts don’t look like this. Sometimes they’re written like a movie script, or sometimes I’ll only have the dialogue written. My sketchbook is a mess to the outside eye.

So I script the page, and then I move to…

Step 2: Pencils

pencilled page of Johnson & Sir

Click to enlarge.

For this step, I take to the drafting table.

I use Strathmore Mixed Media paper with a vellum surface. Sometimes if I run out of paper I’ll dip into my stash of Strathmore Bristol Vellum (which I used for Validation). Either paper works fine, because they’re a smooth surface perfect for my rough pencils, for inking, and for heavy erasing.

If you look closely, you’ll notice the edges of the paper have guidelines drawn in. These guidelines help me keep the comic within the live area (which is the center of the page). It also tells me where I can draw bleeds, so if I want to draw something that extends outside of the borders, the guidelines tell me where the comic printer will cut the page off.

I cheated with the guidelines. I have a separate sheet of Bristol paper with the guidelines already inked in. Then what I do is I take the comic page, place it on top of the guideline sheet, and trace the lines. This saves me from doing a lot of calculations.

When I pencil a page, I tend to not use a ruler for the borders. I will, however, use a ruler for perspective, especially for that first panel. I like my drawings to be loose and organic for the most part. Gestures are important to me when I draw.

Once pencils are done, I go on to…

Step 3: Inking

inked page of Johnson & Sir 42

Click to enlarge.

I start with the panel edges and make dots where the live area ends (that’ll be explained later).

Because I’m right handed, I ink from left to right so my hand won’t smear the ink too much.

I also ink in some solid black shadows where I feel it’s appropriate. Like, along the collars of their shirts and coats, or the inside of their shirt cuffs. It helps keep the piece from being so flat.

After that I let the ink dry (usually for an hour), and then I erase the pencil marks.

Then there’s…

Step 4: Scan it in.

My scanner is old and prone to gathering dust on the scanner bed. No matter how much I clean it, there’s always some chink in it.

But that’s ok. I can fix that in a minute.

I scan the page in at 300 dpi (dots per inch). This is the standard size for book printing. Not only that, but that 300 dpi the work is much easier to do in Photoshop.

Speaking of which, right after the page is scanned in and placed in the proper folder on my external hard drive, I open it in Photoshop.

I use Photoshop CS2 for my digital work.

screencap of page in Photoshop.

Click to enlarge.

For those who don’t know how Photoshop layers work, I like to imagine them as layers of tracing paper stacked on top of the image. The original image is the bottom layer, usually listed as “BACKGROUND.”

Step 5: Make Edits to the Art.

What I do next is get another layer on top and name it “EDITS”. You can name layers by putting your mouse over the layer, right clicking it, and then clicking on “LAYER PROPERTIES”. A window will pop up that lets you name the layer.

I name my layers because not doing that gets messy and hard to keep track.

Anyway, in the EDITS layer, I paint over and correct any mistakes I spot. Mistakes will range from correcting over-extended lines to eliminating any spots my dirty scanner bed made on the page. This is also the layer I use when I copy and paste any recurring figures. (See the Johnson & Sir Christmas page for an example.)

Once EDITS are done, I move on to…

Step 6: The Background Colors

I make another layer on top and call it “BACKGROUNDS.” This will have my background colors.

This layer is different from EDITS because of one thing. While EDITS is in Normal Mode, BACKGROUNDS is set to Multiply Mode.

Screenshot 2014-05-30 14.10

As shown in this diagram. Click to enlarge.

You change modes by putting your mouse over the desired layer, right click it, then select “BLENDING OPTIONS.” The above window should appear.

Set Blend mode to Multiply, and keep the fill opacity at 100%. The fill opacity keeps the colors vibrant, which is what I want. Putting this to Multiply Mode makes it so I can paint and the paint won’t color over the original lines.

Once that’s done, I color the background!

click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

I use the paint brush or paint bucket tools mostly. Sometimes I use the lasso tool to trace a particular area, then I use the paint bucket tool to fill in with my desired color.

Then on to…

Step 7: Color the Figures!

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

I make another layer on top and call it “FLATS.” I set the color mode to MULTIPLY with fill opacity at 100%.

Then I color in the rest of the comic on this layer. Usually it’s just the people in this layer, but that’s ok.

Recently I started including another step after this one. Which I’ll call…

Surprise Step! Shadows.

I’ll make another layer on top and call it “SHADES.” Then, I set color mode to MULTIPLY, but here’s the new part!

I set the fill opacity to 35%.

The reason? There are a few.

  1. 35% sets the color so it’s somewhat see-through (opaque), which is perfect for the shadow effect I need without it being overpowering.
  2. This layer set up lets me color solidly and not worry about weird layering effects of paint.
  3. The shadows are easier to modify this way.

Once the layer particulars are set up, I then color in the shadows.

And then…

Step 8: Lettering.

This is crucial.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

I say it’s crucial because it’s often a step other artists can ignore. But it’s important to know how to set up your speech balloons and sound effects so it’s easy for the reader to read along.

That’s often why I pencil in speech balloons during the scripting phase – that way I can plan the art so the speech balloons can be easily readable.

Anyway, in this step I write out the dialogue in separate layers. Photoshop as a program automatically separates the dialogue in the speech balloons into separate layers. I want to keep them separate so that if I have to move dialogue around, it’s easier.

The font I use for Johnson & Sir (as well as Validation) is called “Distinctly Dan,” and I got it from FontPanda.com.

Once the dialogue is written, I get down to the bottom layer, make a new layer, and then use the rectangle tool. I choose the rounded-edged rectangles, set the edge to 150 pt, and make the balloons.

Once balloons are done, I go back down to the bottom layer, make a new layer, and draw the tails in.

Since this page uses onomatopoeia, I use different fonts, depending on the effect I’m looking for. Thankfully, Photoshop lets me rotate the dialogue to whatever angle I want it to sit, so yay!

At last, I get to…

The Final Step: Flatten and Post Online!

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

I flatten the layers in Photoshop, and do two things.

Thing 1: I leave the image be and save it for print format. Then,

Thing 2: I crop the image to the live area (remember the dots from Step 3: Inking? Those come in handy right now), then shrink the page to 100 dpi so it’s web-friendly, and post it online.

And that’s it!

Next time, I’ll show how I do a strip in Validation. The process is different in a few ways from making Johnson & Sir, so I can’t wait to show you!

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