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My Comic Life Column 017: Penciling 101 The Layout
Last time I started to really get into this series on penciling by going over the basics, including tools of the trade, setting up safe, bleed and trim zones, etc. It was essentially focused on logistics and materials.
This time I’m going to start talking about the first and most important step in actually creating a page of comic art – the layout.
Anyone who’s done art on any kind of regular basis has learned the best way to start is to sketch, loosely and lightly, in order to get a feel for the image. Starting with a light, loose sketch allows the artist to frame out the image, get proportions and anatomy, as well as perspective and lighting roughed out to then build on. It’s essentially a ‘feeling out’ stage where the artist can explore options, angles, composition, etc. Keeping it light if using pencil and paper, means you can erase and make changes easier.
Now, some artists, after they’ve been doing this work for years, even decades, layout and then jump to more finished versions pretty quickly. Others of us struggle a bit more at this stage, trying to get the exact look we want. Every artist sometimes hits a total wall on a given piece and will wrestle with it to no end. Doing all this in simple layout sketches means saving a lot of work once you decide you need to change something.
I’ve included two samples below of my own layout stages for a couple pieces of art. The first set is a cover I’m doing for a short story, the second set is an art print of Wonder Woman for an upcoming event.
As you can see, each successive layout I shift elements, tighten linework, add details, sometimes scrapping a part of the work and starting over, sometimes really defining those parts that are working well.
So, it should be pretty clear that this process really is a process of composing the image – from the basics like getting the proportions and anatomy right (as mentioned above) to the finer elements of framing the main focus of the image, creating elements to guide the viewer’s eye, etc.
Now, the simpler the image, the easier the layout. A quick head sketch is pretty simple to setup and start rolling pretty quick. Make that a full body sketch, little more effort at this stage to get limbs and body in proportion, moreso if that body is at an extreme angle needing foreshortening etc. Add a detailed background? More characters? More effort. Now, take all those elements for a single picture – turn that picture into a panel – and make a page of 6, 8, or 12 panels. Hopefully, you’re starting to see how important the layout stage is to crafting a good comic page.
The layout is when the artist is creating the single most important element of the page and that is the storytelling. Remember, in an earlier column, I spoke about amazing artists who then try their hand at comics and don’t do well? A large part of that is a failure to take into account storytelling from the very beginning, starting with the layout of the page.
Getting the Lay of the Page
Now, if you’re working with a full script, the basic layout of the page has already started in the process of the writing – in other words, your script will dictate, basically, the number of panels for any given page. The number of panels can vary from 1, what is more often called a SPLASH page, to 3 stacked, to 4, 6, or 8 panel grids, or more. Some can use very basic layouts, others more complex. A well-written script will be sure to have the story pace accordingly with the number of panels, for example:
SPLASH pages should be scenes worth that full page. They should be great establishing shots to establish scene or mood, great action shots, or critical turning points of the story worth the space and focus.
From there it becomes a fairly simple inverse relationship based on two key content elements: text and art. If there is a great number of specifics needed in the art to show scale or the full complexity of the action (say a city being ripped apart, or two super-teams clashing), or if there is a lot of text, dialogue, captions, etc. then that panel needs to be bigger. If there are fewer elements of art and dialogue (say a headshot of a single character saying a single word) the panel can be smaller.
Again, if you’re dealing with a full script, its important your writer be thinking through this as well (as they learned during the Writing 101 series), but, ultimately, it falls on you as the artist to translate that script to art. In doing so, you may decide the panel count needs to change, or feel part of a given page needs to be pushed to the next page to pace and balance better. These are issues it’s fair for an artist to bring back to a writer, and ones a good writer should listen to from their artist.
Once you start picturing the general content of the panels on any given page, the next important piece to bring into the mix quickly is how you want to then arrange those panels on a page.
Keep It Simple – OR – The Stack and the Grid are Your Friends
To the side are several examples of typical page layouts pulled from the work of Jack Kirby.
As you can see, they show a range of not only panel counts, but how those panels are arranged.
But perhaps the most noticeable thing is also the most common thing about each of these: they are all fairly simple, blocked panels in simple stacked or grid layouts.
A stack is when panels stretching the width of the page are placed one atop the other, like the upper left image of three panels.
A grid is when smaller square or rectangular panels number across the page, then are in tiers down the page, with the most common being the classic six-panel grid seen at the lower left position.
Now, while having complex panel layouts may look cool, I usually strongly recommend artists just starting out in comics do more basic layouts. The reasoning is very simple – a basic stacked or grid layout means your storytelling will absolutely be clear and easy to follow as far as this stage is concerned.
Again, that is the single most important element of a sequential page of art, that the story flows easily for the reader and they are able to naturally and automatically follow through the proper sequence of panels to see the story unfold and enjoy it.
Those complex layouts you see by more accomplished artists that can blow your mind are actually incredible masterpieces of pacing, order, layout and composition in order for them to work. If you haven’t fairly mastered all those skills and try a complex panel layout for some ‘cool effect’ chances are you’ll end up losing a reader somewhere in the midst of it, and that will knock them out of the story and instantly be a turnoff to them.
Variety Really IS the Spice of Life (and Comics)
A final thing to mention this round, and we will come back to it later, is that it’s also important to vary your page layouts. Now, obviously, again, your script will hopefully include a good bit of variety in pacing and panel counts already, but you may find a good run of 4-6 panel pages, which is the general average. If all you do are basic grids, page after page, that’s going to get visually boring to a reader. Pretty much any kind of repetition, even at a basic layout level, becomes distracting and boring. So, add variety where you can. Maybe one 4 panel page would work better with slimmer, wider panels in a stack. Or a 6 panel page can use some varied panel sizes to shift the grid lines (as shown above).
We’re going to continue focusing on layouts but start adding in actual composition of the art in panels and look at how artists can use layouts to add a lot of strength of story in the art as well as the basic panel setup.
Printable Paper has a number of basic comic page panel layout templates you can download for doing layouts and practice.
About C. Edward Sellner
A full-time professional freelancer, Sellner has credits as a comics writer, prose author, colorist, artist, and editor from multiple publishers. He is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Creative Services, one of the best-known production studios and digital publishers in the industry. The studio opened in 2006 and since then has published over 70 different titles in its digital line, and been involved in over a hundred different projects in production. Its clients range from Hollywood producers to international sports stars to other studios and publishers. It became the first independent studio to enter the licensing game with the announcement of its Deadlands license, which has since been published in comics from Image and IDW and novels from Tor Books. The studio also hosts a successful internship program where interns get practical, real-world freelancing experience, including paid work on actual jobs fitting their skill levels. Learn more at www.visionarycreativeservices.com!