How to Draw Comics – Tools

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.

Traditional Tools:

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)
    • Kneaded eraser

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.

    • 24” T-square
    • 45º & 30/60º triangles
    • Raised, cork-backed inking rulers: 12”, 24” (even 36” sometimes!)


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”.

The Mighty Hunt 108
The Mighty Hunt 108
    • 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.

Going Digital

My current digital studio setup.

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.

My workspace in CLIP Studio

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 all the cityscapes 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…

CLIP Studio’s perspective rulers in action (drool…)

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.

Adobe InDesign

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.

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:

Email Address:



How to Draw Comics Workshop – video

Pete at Paper Asylum kindly broadcast the whole workshop via Facebook Live on Sunday afternoon. The workshop kicks off around the 1:02:00 mark.

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!

How to Draw Comics – An Introduction

How to Draw Comics Workshop posterThis 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 Process:

    • Tools: Traditional vs Digital
    • Characters: Design & Figure Drawing
    • Story & Script
    • Thumbnails, Layout & Lettering
    • Pencilling 1: Characters
    • Pencilling 2: Backgrounds
    • Inking
    • Screentones
    • Cover Design
    • Conclusion: Post Production & Printing

Tools:

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.

I get into more detail on tools here.

Characters:

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.

Pencils:

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.

Inking:

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.

Screentones:

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.

Cover Design:

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.

Post-Production:

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:

Email Address:



Paradigm Shift Vol. 4 is coming!

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!

If you missed Issues 1-3, don’t worry. You can catch up at Paper Asylum or find me at M.I.C.E. in October. You can also read them here at www.paradigmshiftmanga.com.