My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101: The Layout 2

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My Comic Life Column 018: Penciling 101 The Layout 2

C. Edward Sellner cropped

Last time I started to focus on laying out a page of sequential art (i.e. a comic page) by discussing the basic structure of the page, using panels and setting them up in simple patterns for readability, such as the grid or stack layout.

This time I want to take that to the next level and begin to touch on ways of improving storytelling by mixing things up with panels and using the composition of the art itself to draw the reader in.

These principles apply whether you are a writer-artist doing your own story and fully illustrating it, or if you are an artist working from a full script. Even in those cases where you are working from a detailed, full, comic script, you as the artist still have a lot of leeway in how you choose to bring that script to life and these tips will help you take that process up a notch.

Let’s Call It a Dance with the Reader’s Eye

One of the fundamental elements of comic art is storytelling, as we mentioned last time (actually several times, but hey, it’s important). Storytelling in art has several levels of meaning, we’re going to focus on the most basic level at this point, and that is essentially how the art guides the reader’s eye through the story. Part of the artist’s job is to unfold the story through the art such that the reader’s eye is drawn naturally, even unconsciously, along through the proper sequence of actions, focal areas, and critical reveals, to engage the reader with the story, to essentially interact with them, by leading them.

Last time I showed a graphic featuring the typical panel layouts used by Jack Kirby, well, I updated that this time with simple directional lines showing reading sequence.

In the English language, we read from left to right, top to bottom, so that is the directional order western comics also follow, though obviously art layouts are more varied than reading line after line of text.

My reason for stressing the basic layouts of these grids and stacks was to create pretty simple reading flow in the story, clear direction for the reader which order to go, and as you can see – most form a Z or a stack of Z’s following that basic flow, left to right, top to bottom.

But this is only one of the means by which the layout can guide the reader’s eye, using basic, simple behavior patterns such as standard reading sequence.

There are lots of far more fun ways to do things as well.

Nudging the Grid and Stack Principle

There are also a number of very simple ways of bringing some variety into play that also help enhance storytelling while not pushing the envelope too much on simple panel layouts. For graphics, I’m using simple panel layouts where able, others showing finished pages to better illustrate the principles.

Staggered Panel Layout – while keeping the tiers of panels simple, vary the width of the panels on each tier so that instead of a locked grid you have a staggered layout of panels across the page. This will help give the page more of an organic flow as opposed to a rigid, locked pattern, as seen on the right.

Closed vs. Open Panels – closed panels are panels with full defined borders, or lines marking each edge, whereas open panels are ones that bleed art on at least one edge, thus no closing border line. Closed panels tend to feel more… well, enclosed, limited. Open panels, you got it, feel more open, more airy, imply greater space, or help focus on a specific element and pop it off the page.

Below are two pages from one of our Deadlands comics with art by Brook Turner. On these pages he kept to a pretty simple grid pattern layout, but each page has one open panel. On the page to the left, the bottom panel opens to make our hero larger than life, popping off the page. On the page to the right, the larger, establishing shot looking out over the water bleeds to the edge on three sides, giving it more a sense of scale and distance.

Dynamic vs. Straight Panel Borders – All the samples I’ve shown so far use straight, neat border lines. Adding some curve, or jagged border lines can add energy to a panel, giving it a dynamic sense of movement. This can be a handy technique for illustrating fight or other action scenes. The sample is a portfolio page from artist Dave Windett that uses curves and line textures to make even the very shape of the panels enhance the action.

We’ll get into some more rules about ‘breaking panels’ when we get a little further in, but for now, the idea is to show you can take very basic panel layouts and put a lot of variety and storytelling just in how those are laid out.

So, what about the actual art, can it also be used to help guide the reader’s eye?

[[SPOILER ALERT: Oh yeah…]]

 

It’s About Patterns and Cues

There are lots of subtle tricks artists can use to guide the eye across the page, to help ensure it moves through the key beats of the story. Here’s some of the most common with a little explanation on how they work.

Pattern Recognition – one of the most primal aspects of our species, and one that helped ensure our rise to the top of the food chain, is our innate ability to recognize patterns. Comics would not exist without this ability, because this is the same ability that allows our brain to interpret simple line drawings as representative of other things, including insanely simple drawings, such as everyone instantly recognizing a ‘smiley face’ as a face, or ‘stick figures’ as people.

Breaking this down more fundamentally, our eyes tend to pick out lines, curves, repeated patterns, and instinctively follow where they lead. So, the superior comic artist will use this fact in laying out the art of a page in order to draw the reader’s eye right where they want it to go.

Below is a page from a classic comic drawn by Steve Ditko, to the left is the page as is, to the right, an overlay using colored lines to show the use of patterns, curves and lines to enhance storytelling.

The blue lines show curving lines implied in the art that help guide the readers eye through each panel, and onto the next panel. The curve to the furthest left, brings us through panel 1 to panel 2, a reflection of that curve then directs us back left and down to panel 3, and a final curve pulls us out of 3 and through 4.

The yellow lines are lines created by the art to direct the action in each, and thus key elements to draw the eye, or frame the panel. In panel 1, it emphasizes the flying figure, in panel 2, a line frames the pilots, giving each a focal point. The pattern of horizontal lines in panel 3 help ensure we’ll look at each row of passengers, and moves us through into panel 4. Panels 4 and 5 put focus on the plane itself, the key element of the art.

The violet lines set up circular patterns which hold the eye, keeping it focused on the key art. That pattern helps us focus on the faces of the pilots in panel 2, shows us the erratic flight of the plane in panel 4, key to the story, and zeroes our attention on that plane in the final panel as it plunges into the wormhole.

Using that same Spider-Man page above, with an overlay we can show a similar but more direct use of lines and patterns, in this case, what we call Action Lines.

Our eyes are drawn to the characters, so their placement, the curves of their body, the angle of their limbs, the direction of their movement, etc. are setup nicely such that the eye will follow along those lines through the page, following the sequence of action. This being a fight scene, the curves, actions and motion is pretty over the top and exaggerated so very obvious and clear.

But, we can also take this to more subtle levels.

This layout is a page from The Dreamer, an excellent webcomic by Lora Innes. Here the action is more subtle, but the characters themselves still help guide the eye.

This page is marked to show flow of dialogue, which is also important (and something we’ll get to on lettering), but let’s also use those arrows to look at the art.

Notice the characters in panel 1 are moving left to right, the eye tends to go where they are going, so it helps reenforce that left to right reading flow.

The foreground character in panel 2 has stopped and turned back, his body now providing a break point, to cue shifting back and down to the mid-page panels.

In panels 3 and 4, as the character looks left, his direction of view, follows the direction we read. In that 5th panel, as he looks back and down, we follow where he’s looking to then go to that last panel.

Obviously a key moment of this page, the characters now are centered to keep the eye lingering on them in their reunion.

In other words, the character bodies don’t have to be in highly exaggerated or forceful poses to provide cues. Simple movement, or where a character is looking can do the same.

 

So, what have we learned? That a lot of thought for a page of comic art goes into how that page is set up, structured, and laid out all for the singular purpose of telling the story. I opened this series saying that the layout is the single most important step in drawing a page of art, and now I’m guessing that makes more sense.

A lot of this are those pieces of the toaster, to use our previous analogy, that someone who just thinks they can draw comics will miss. Why? Because, when done right, the composition and layout of a page that you as the artist sweated and bled over to get perfect, will simply flow into a seamless reading experience for the reader, where the eye glides through each beat without even noticing all the carefully laid signs and guides that made it happen.

That is part of the magic of comics.

NEXT

We’re going to turn our attention to THE PANEL as we explore that individual story beat that bears the heaviest burden of storytelling.

NOW DISCUSS…

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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!

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