My Comic Life Sundays: Penciling 101 & Yoda (sorta)!

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Welcome back as we turn our spotlight once more to the creative process. Our last creative series of articles focused on the basic elements of writing, so, now it’s time to turn our attention to the next step in production – penciling – so listen up all you artists and prepare to sharpen some skills!

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My Comic Life Column 015: Penciling 101 Sketched Out

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Penciling comics is one of the most sought after positions in the comics industry and also the one that probably has the most turnover or burnout. There are a ton of people who want in, a ton already in, and a bunch who were in and then disappeared. Why, you ask? Let’s take a look at each of those.

Why is penciling so popular?

That one’s fairly simple: it’s the coolest piece of comics! I’m mostly a writer; I love writing, but even I get all excited and moon-eyed when a piece of art comes in for one of my projects. Art excites people, it inspires, it draws them in (yep, a second bad pun). The comics industry has long recognized this about artists and as a result, the commercial end of the industry and the popularity end have often leaned toward the artists, giving them the clout, the popularity, and the biggest names in comics. No doubt, that focus goes back and forth from writers to artists, but at times, like near the beginning of the Image days, the writer seemed an afterthought in many mindsets. It was the artist, or storyteller, that drew all the attention (yep, another) and got all the praise.

While comics really require both, good story and good art to succeed, I’m more than willing to acknowledge that much of this falls on the artist, at least initially. It’s usually a striking cover that will get some new fan to pick up a book. Someone flipping through pages in a comic-book store is not going ‘cool’ over the story or the sound effects; they love the art. Heck, artists even have more fun at conventions. It’s not like writers can sit at their tables and jot out a few words on paper to give to long lines of fans wanting an original script!

Now, I’m not trying to sound bitter since I’m predominantly a writer, and yes writers have also certainly made names for themselves in comics, but, comics are, after all, a VISUAL medium, hence some focus on the visuals.

However, for all its glory, it’s also a very demanding job. Pencilers have to create an average of a page a workday if they really want to make it in the comics industry on a monthly series. That’s a lot of pages! That’s a lot of work and commitment. This is why many artists will work on a series for a while, then take a break, do a mini-series here and there, and then maybe go back to the monthly grind, or maybe not. It’s this pressure that results in so many late books when artists can’t keep that pace and the major reason why a good number of accomplished artists leave comics for other fields.

Now, for you aspiring artists, this means you perhaps have the easiest opportunity to break into comics…if you’re good. Assuming you have the talent and the skills, there are always publishers who are looking for new artists, including the big guys. If you remember from an earlier column, you folks also get all the breaks for ease in portfolio reviews as well. An editor can flip through some pages of high-quality pencils and make a decision in like, oh, two minutes.

So here you are, wanting into comics, you’re talented, you got your portfolio, editors are always looking, and find it easy to look through portfolios, so, now what? Well, there’s a good bit more, so let’s unpack what we can.

Talent, of course, is the primary factor in making it as an artist. But talent isn’t all that it takes. Now, I can’t teach talent in a column, but I can teach a lot about those other factors! At the risk of repeating myself, the biggest mistake aspiring comics’ professionals make is not knowing the mechanics of the jobs they want to do. This falls into two categories with aspiring artists. First, there are those who still really need to learn to draw and second, there are those who need to learn specifically to draw comic books.

The Art of the Draw(ing)

Learn to draw? Surely aspiring comic artists know how to draw? You’d be surprised. There are aspiring artists that think all they need to do to learn to draw comics is look at comic books. They study comic art and think that by doing so, they can then recreate it and draw themselves. That’s kind of like staring at a toaster then claiming you can build one from scratch. It doesn’t work because ultimately all you are looking at is the surface and not taking into account the underlying work in crafting it.

Admittedly, some comic artists don’t help in making this argument, because if you look at their stuff, they seem to bypass proper anatomy and perspective as well as other artistic principles themselves. They often do highly exaggerated figures and surreal surroundings that seem to break all the rules.  There is a key word in here: exaggeration.

If you look at the collective body of work of any of the popular, mainstream, lasting pencilers out there, even the ones that might have very stylistic approaches now, chances are you will find plenty of examples of them doing far more straight-laced work, especially early in their careers. When Frank Miller drew his seminal run on Daredevil, his style was much closer to a photo-realistic look. No doubt, he still was a master of light and shadow then, but his people looked like real people with proper proportions. Compare that to his more recent and highly stylized work, on 300 or Sin City, and you will see how he’s progressed. Same with Todd McFarlane, when he started at DC on such books as Infinity Inc., his style was far more traditional and straightforward. It wasn’t until he was solid in his career that he began pushing the boundaries and when he launched Spawn that he pulled out all the stops.

As artists master their craft they can bend the rules, but they don’t outright break them. Artwork may be incredibly stylized, incredibly expressive and use exaggeration to heighten the drama of the work but there is an underlying base of solid art mastery underneath. An artist who has not mastered basic art skills and rules cannot then try to exaggerate them and do it convincingly. You have to know how to drive the car in your neighborhood before you’re ready to go on the highway, and be really good before you can hit the Indy 500, well, at least if you don’t want to end up being a rolled piece of kindling. I’ve seen submissions from artists who simply mimic a popular artist, but clearly show they have not learned the fundamental basics that underlie that style. The resulting art, well, looks like it’s good as kindling and that’s about it.

Do you know the difference between worm’s eye and bird’s eye view? What about a two versus a three-point perspective? Or better yet, stop and try to draw a picture that is not a ‘comic.’ Sketch a friend or family member. Draw a picture of a bowl of fruit. Are you capturing your subject? Can you get down the working of the light source and shading? Can you create a sense of texture and substance? Does your portrait of a person look remotely like them? Can you draw a person with fully functional anatomy? (No, I don’t mean that, get your mind out of the gutter!) Do they have elbows, knees, and ankles that line up and work like a real person’s? Do they ‘carry their weight’?

If you’ve never even tried to draw something non-comic-like, most likely, you’re in trouble as an artist.

So, as is my usual advice…
To learn more, you might want to take an art class at the local community college, take private art lessons, or at the very least check out some books that can teach you how to draw. All those fundamental principles you will learn there apply to comics work as well and they are critical in making that leap to any specialized form of art.

Once You Know It…Use it!

As an editor, I get real frustrated when I see a talented artist take shortcuts. The biggest thing on this is perspective and trying to fake it. I know it’s a pain to do the little grid lines and sync everything up. I’m an artist too, but you got to do it, else it looks bad.

Once You See It…Draw It!

Another important tool for every artist is good reference. Don’t be afraid to use photo reference for your work. If you have to draw a ’85 Ford Mustang get a picture of one. Likewise, don’t be afraid to use reference for anatomy as well. Beyond duplicating a photo in your art, there is also using photos to show you how muscle groups work, how they function under stress or when relaxed. Photo reference can also be good to show a variety of facial structures and how facial anatomy works especially in expressions etc. As an artist myself, I will usually compile a reference folder for any art I’m doing – reference that could include specific objects, elements of a setting, anatomy references similar to poses I’m planning to do, showing the relevant body types, etc. None of those photos will be ‘copied’ in the process, but each will help me capture those various elements to the best of my ability.

Drawing Comics…

Of course, once you’ve developed into a good artist, there is still the task of learning how to draw comics. I’ve met some really great artists who don’t know how to draw comic books. Sure, they might do great pinups or covers, but they can’t draw comics.

Let’s face it folks, the meat and potatoes of comics are sequential pages. So, why can’t every aspiring comic book artist realize they have to draw sequential pages in their portfolio if they wish to draw comic books? You got me, but it never fails that I will get submissions with nothing but character sketches, or pin-ups and not a hint of anything that, you know, actually tells a story.

On top of drawing sequential pages period, there is drawing them well. For most comic artists the hardest part of the job is laying out a good, solid, well composed sequential page. Composition, in comic art, is the art of laying out a page such that it draws the reader’s eye, flows, and provides a sense of energy, movement, or drama. It takes the elements of the picture, or panels, and combines them in a way that enhances the mood, communicates the key storytelling elements and advances the story.

Some amateur artists don’t think about this at all; it’s one of those pieces of the toaster you can’t see but it’s integral to getting the toast, or in this case, the art, to pop out. Other artists mostly think about composition only in regards to the panel. This is important, each panel must work on its own, but composition should also be considered for an entire page and some elements of good composition become recurring motifs for the entire book.

Art vs. Sequential Art

Comics utilize not only good art but very specific types of art. No matter what your style, there has to be movement, dynamic energy and incredible mood in your work to really make it in comics. This ranges from the layout of panels and pages (composition again) to characters in exaggerated poses, using perspective and variety in camera angles to increase tension or drama, etc. It’s storytelling, pure and simple.

For this series, I’m going to break down the basic skills, mechanics, and priorities for penciling comics and help you start laying a foundation for pursuing your goals as a comics artist. Pease note, this will not be a basic drawing series, so don’t look to learn those principles themselves so much as how they are primarily applied to the art of comics specifically.

I’ve included a few new online resources for artists below and links to some top-notch educational programs for aspiring artists willing to make that leap.

NEXT

We’ll start digging in by looking at composition and layout in more depth and focusing on the key elements of what makes sequential art… well, sequential.

Resources

Creating Comics by Dave Law – I’ve mentioned this one before but this link goes straight to the section for illustrators. Once again, it lists numerous links for artists to find online tutorials, how-to guides, descriptions of materials and tools, etc.

Gray’s Anatomy is the famous Gray’s Anatomy online, and no, not the show, but the ultimate reference to how the human body works. It includes diagrams and illustrations that show the anatomical features of every part of the body.

Anatomy 360 is a site with 3-D scanned models where you can rotate the figures 360 degrees and alter the lighting. (This site is still in development.)

Posemaniacs is an active site with uploaded 3-D anatomical figures of various proportions, in various poses, that you can rotate 360 degrees.

SCHOOLS

The Center for Cartoon Studies is a college level program that offers courses in creating comics. They offer a rounded curriculum that includes learning the history of the medium and then everything from writing to illustrating and finally self-publishing and marketing a comic book.

Joe Kubert’s World of Cartooning is exclusively for aspiring comic book artists. They offer a full range of classes and include correspondence courses.

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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