A good comic book layout can capture a reader’s attention and keep them focused on your content. If your composition is poor and allows the viewer to exit your page, you haven’t mastered the art of leading people on through your layout. Here’s a few ways to improve your composition and page layout, and keep your readers interested by maintaining their eye on your work and dialogue.
The earliest comics were always set up in a grid format, contained within white gutters (borders) and followed the logical Western method of reading – across from left to right + down to the next level & repeat. In this example from Jack Kirby, you see Captain America and Batroc the Leaper battling it out over a 9 square grid page layout, which reads very easily. The red arrows were added to illustrate the reader movement.
As comics grew in popularity and the talent level increased, artists injected their creative influences and began to produce layouts that did not necessarily conform to a grid format. While absolutely stunning to look at, these pages were a logical disaster if they weren’t planned properly. In order to keep the flow of the story intact, there are a number of grids that can be used throughout your comic to moderate pace, as well as allowing for eye-catching imagery.
The most common grids are the 9 and 6 panel grids. In a 20-24 page issue, the 9 panel grid is most useful when the story contains a lot of information that needs to be conveyed. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did this effectively in The Watchmen series. The sample below is another 9 panel layout that splits two scenes going on at the exact same time, and creates an interesting visual effect.
Here is a standard 6 panel grid from the old newsprint/pulp style comics of the 60s-70s. The grid offers enough room for dialogue, action and visuals. This is a traditional layout for comics, and the most commonly used – even to this day.
In sharp contrast to the traditional linear aligned storytelling method, here is a sample of a manga influenced comic book page layout. Note, the grid is skewed to create a feeling of motion and adds a sense of dynamic action – the reader’s eye is forced about from one end to the other at a high rate of speed.
Yet another grid format which is gaining popularity is the widescreen panel. This type of panel layout is used to create a cinematic feel. These longer panels also create the illusion of extended time.
Finally, a traditional ‘strip’ styled layout – 3 panels. This is most common for newspaper/online serials which use a wider format.
By establishing a grid for your page layouts, you can conform your artwork and continue to guide the reader along with the position/movement of your characters and backgrounds, as well as logical placement of speech bubbles.
Create a Point of Focus
Once you have established your grid, it is now time to determine where your main focal point for each panel will be. The standard in comics/webcomics is to place the focal point in certain areas to avoid visual confusion from one panel to the next. For example – a panel which is predominantly horizontal should have its focus in one of three locations – the center of the panel, left of center or right of center. For a vertical panel, the focal points should be center, slightly above center or slightly below center. The trickiest panel to set up a focal point is the square. You have the option of above, below, left and right of center, and the center itself. When placing a focal point in a square panel, plan accordingly – make sure it will lead your reader towards the next panel.
Here is an example (using Super Monkey no less!) of the placement of the focal point in each panel.
See how a silly and simple comic makes use of effective focal point location? This method draws the reader’s eye from left to right, and keeps the flow of the story going within the page layout.
Avoid at all costs: Do not have competing focal points in adjacent panels (creating a converging effect when viewed – drawn to the center of the page). Another pitfall in focal points – do not lead your reader’s focus out of the page bounds, or into a panel that does not follow the logical sequence of the story. Always have your artwork force the viewer towards the next panel (either subconsciously or blatantly) – do not rely on the reader to make a logical conclusion to go from one frame to the next. A poorly led panel causes bigger problems than you may think.
Poor composition within panels often disrupt a person’s natural reading flow and cause confusion. The minute you disrupt the reader’s concentration and focus, you lose the element of immersion in the story, no matter how good that story is. Poor planning and vision of your visuals will negate all the hard work that is put into a script and storyline. You don’t want your writer to strangle you, now do you?
Lines of Sight – Backgrounds and Characters
The final tip I will elaborate on in comic page layout and composition are lines of sight. This is another simple method of forcing your reader to follow a direction using a subtle, subconscious prod. Here is a sample – read this page:
Now follow along with these subtly implied lines, using the character’s lines of sight, the guidance of character’s positions and movements, as well as visual cues from the background and the placement of speech bubbles.
Your eye was moving all over the place, yet it was contained within the page. This widescreen grid automatically forced you to move along the horizontal axis from left to right, and all the additional drawn elements moved you around dynamically, never leading you out of the page until the final frame, when Batman glares menacingly over his shoulder – directly at you (or in this case, THROUGH you).
This was all achieved using lines of sight, background cues, grid layout, speech bubble placement and focal points. If you keep to this strict method of creating comic panel layouts, and ensure your compositions within each individual panel lead into the next, you will have no problem maintaining a reader’s active interest in your story. Just make sure that the story is well written! For some tips on that, read my blog post on writing.
Try these helpful hints on your next project, and you will be well on your way to becoming a master visual storyteller.
I’ve been asked on numerous occasions what the best method is for keeping an organized schedule and remaining committed to producing and releasing comics in a timely fashion. You have all heard the common reasons as to why things go off schedule – now its time to understand the method on how to make a successful schedule and how to stick to it.
Before we begin, you will need to take your personal schedule into consideration – if this is NOT your full-time line of work, it will be much easier to manage. But for many of you, this is a starting point or a hobby, and often you will find your ‘free-time’ taken up by things you may consider more important. The key to making this work is to remain focused and committed – if you are finding that you have too many other personal obligations, perhaps the comic book schedule is not right for you.
For those willing to dedicate the time, here are a number of methods that will keep you on track and in a routine of regular updates, with ample time for life and its other time consuming pursuits.
Step 1: Create a Spreadsheet for Tracking Purposes
In order to determine how much time you really put into producing your comics, you will need to make a personal log that tallies the number of hours spent. This tracking summary of your work will show you where your time is spent, and allow you to analyze which parts of the day you are most productive, and how to improve upon the times when you are NOT productive at all.
Take into account the amount of time used doing the following:
Writing (if you also write your comics)
Producing (this includes pencils, inking, coloring, typesetting, etc)
Research (any time spent looking up research material)
Administrative (any work related tasks that do not involve actual production or writing – e-mails/phone calls/meetings)
Down-Time (this includes all interruptions during your dedicated work time)
From this list, you will be able to determine what is taking up your valuable time if you are unable to make deadlines – perhaps you are working too hard on administrative tasks, or are spending too much time goofing off on the internet. By tracking your hours (honestly) you will make better use of your time when the facts and figures are laid out in front of you. Your production depends on it.
Step 2: Create a Monthly Schedule
Once you have created your time-sheet, now you have to decide how you are going to break out your production cycle. Given that the average issue is approximately 20-22 pages in length, and you need time to plan/lay out each page, then pencil/ink/colour/typeset, you will have to organize your time accordingly. You do not want to over-exert yourself and risk burn-out, nor do you want to give yourself TOO MUCH time to procrastinate. Find the optimal working environment, and plan around that. Most artists have a month to crank out an issue – create a schedule that works around your life. Here’s an example schedule using a full month:
Day 1 – Review Script & Gather Reference
Day 2 – Layout pages 1-5 (thumbnails and rough layouts)
Day 3 – Layout pages 6-10
Day 4 – On Call (use this day if you haven’t completed your work from the previous 3 days, otherwise, it is a day off)
Day 5 - OFF
Day 6 – Layout pages 11-13, Pencil / Ink pages 1-2
Day 7 – Layout Pages 13-15, Pencil / Ink pages 3-4
Day 8 – Layout Pages 16-18, Pencil / Ink pages 5-6
Day 9 – On Call
Day 10 – OFF
Day 11 – Layout Pages 19-22, Pencil / Ink pages 7-8
Day 12 – Ink Pages 9-10 / Color pages 1-2
Day 13 – Ink Pages 11-12 / Color Pages 3-4
Day 14 – On Call
Day 15 – OFF
Day 16 – Ink Pages 13-14 / Color Pages 5-6
Day 17 – Ink Pages 15-16 / Color Pages 7-8
Day 18 – Ink Pages 17-18 / Color Pages 9-10
Day 19 – On Call
Day 20 – OFF
Day 21 – Ink Pages 19-20 / Color Pages 11-12
Day 22 – Ink Pages 21-22 / Color Pages 13-14
Day 23 – Color Pages 15-19
Day 24 – On Call
Day 25 – OFF
Day 26 – Color Pages 20-22
Day 27 – Review and Refine (last minute edits)
Day 28 – Package Pages
Day 29 – On Call
Day 30 – OFF
Now this works if you’re committed to an issue per month schedule. If you are producing a web-comic or a weekly, this schedule won’t exactly work for you. This is the 30 day cycle you could follow if you had a webcomic you were trying to update weekly.
Day 1 – Review Script, Gather Reference, Layout Page
Day 2 – Ink & Color Page
Day 3 – Review & Refine, Publish Page
Day 4 – On Call
Day 5 – OFF
Day 6 – Review Script, Gather Reference, Layout Page
Day 7 – Ink & Color Page
Day 8 – Review & Refine, Publish Page
Day 9 – On Call
Day 10 – OFF
Day 11 – Review Script, Gather Reference, Layout Page
Day 12 – Ink & Color Page
Day 13 – Review & Refine, Publish Page
Day 14 – On Call
… and you see the pattern emerging. One day to review script, plan and layout, one day to ink and color, and one day to refine, followed by a floating spare day and a full off day. This will earn you one update a week, and in some cases, two. For webcomic artists and daily comic producers, this is a manageable timeline if you’re dedicated to just your comic. You could push for a 4 day cycle which eliminates the ‘on call’ day and pushes you straight into the next update. This only allows you one full day off from production, where the standard cycle allows you 2 – one flexible day and one mandatory day. You will have to find the schedule that is the best for you.
Step 3: Setting Deadlines and Keeping Them
Now that you have established a schedule, and you are tracking your hours, it is time to establish some firm deadlines for ensuring your comics are completed in a timely manner. You have already created a foundation for this through your schedule, but there may be some days where you can not physically produce (due to illness, vacation, unexpected occurrence). Your schedule may be completely useless at this point – unless you set an absolute deadline with a goal attached. Decide on a reasonable deadline date for achieving your goal (30 days is perfect) and aim to surpass or equal the goal every month.
When you have decided on a deadline date, it is time to decide on an attainable goal. For example, if you are a weekly creator who updates on a 5 day cycle – aim for 6 updates in your deadline time. When you attain your goal, count it as a point. Once you’ve accumulated 10 points, you have earned yourself a week’s vacation from your production cycle. This banked time can be used at anytime to ‘buy’ you some extra time in the event that you cannot do any work on your comic. It is similar to receiving vacation at work. These mental goals give you an added incentive to get your work done in a timely manner, and reward you for hard work later on.
If you find that you are not meeting your goals from month to month, lower the standards for the goal until you are producing at a comfortable level. Once you consistently surpass your goals with ease and time to spare, you can elevate your production and make loftier goals to achieve.
To recap, in order to get yourself into a ‘work-ready’ mode, you need to be prepared and organized so you will always work at an optimal level. Spending time back-tracking or trying to play ‘catch-up’ will land you in some serious production troubles later on. Iron out your poor work schedules with something more concrete – follow them for an extended period of time until they become habit. Remember the guidelines – take account of your working time, create a schedule dependent on your comic style (monthly issue or weekly page/strip) and set a deadline with some achievable goals.
Following this workflow method will make you extremely productive, and your results plentiful.
I haven’t given you a tutorial in a long time, so I felt it was high time to get on that and give you some tips from my own expertise. I draw a lot of comics, and I have a typical flat style when it comes to inking which makes it very easy to learn and adapt to your own work environment. I’m going to attempt to keep this tutorial as basic as possible for those who:
1) Have never digitally inked before
2) Don’t have the necessary software
3) Want to learn an easy workflow technique
So let’s get started.
The Planner & Preparations
The easiest way to get organized for inking is making sure you have your pencil roughs set up to your satisfaction. You can always go back and refine your forms while you’re inking, but its really difficult to redraw entire frames. So make sure that when you’re ready to ink, you’re happy with what you’re filling in. Generally I will start with a thumbnail sketch for my pencils, then move into a full size rough with very minimal detail. If you’re a beginner, you may want to add more details to your work to ensure consistency and have a solid guide when it comes time to inking your final work.
Here is a sample page from a webcomic I’m producing.
You’ll notice that it is VERY rough. I tend to work quickly for the sake of efficiency, so I’ll hammer out the details more at this inking stage rather than before. I may change my mind about a pose or facial angle etc (all MINOR details, remember). With enough practice, you’ll be able to do the same if you feel comfortable working like that.
In this sketch by comic illustrator Alex Ross, you can see the enormous amount of detail he has with his pencils. Generally, the pencils are then handed off to an inker who is given some instruction on fills and flourishes – you can see that Ross has filled in most of the blanks for his inker so that person can stay within the confines of what Ross has imagined the final piece will look like with the inks.
You can see there’s little room for interpretation on the inker’s part. I don’t work that way since I’m a one-man-army so I can take those liberties for now. Chances are, you’re in the same position. So here’s the next step!
Scan your linework (if you did it manually like a majority of people) and save it at a relatively high dpi setting (300-600 at full size). If you’re doing a traditional comic page which is roughly 6.75 inches wide by 10.25 long (including artwork that bleeds off the page), and you are not working at that size when you do your pencils, you will want to scan at a higher resolution to ensure your details remain nice and sharp. Scan your artwork as a greyscale photo in order to keep all the subtle tones intact – some scanners scan B+W based on bright white and dark black so your greys tend to disappear.
Personally, I do everything digitally so I will open up my program of choice for artwork (generally Photoshop or Illustrator) and set all my canvas settings ahead of time. This tutorial is based off a 6×9 format.
Set up your Workspace
Now that you’ve completed the prep portion of your artwork, I recommend you set up your working file with the following layers. Photoshop, Sketchbook, Gimp, etc all have layer options. If you’re using a program that does not, I’d suggest finding one that does, as it makes the process of inking much easier.
Here’s the set up:
The first layer should be your canvas/pencil layer. Since I drew my comics digitally on the same file, I had a separate layer specifically for pencils. If you scanned your work and placed it into your new file, you can use that as your base layer. It would be a good idea to reduce the opacity of that layer so your pencil work doesn’t appear as dark (for tracing purposes.) The reason for the additional layer below is to have a solid white color below the transparent pencil layer.The top layer is your working layer – that is labelled ‘ink’ and you will be placing your solid blacks here.
The ink method
There’s no right or wrong way to ink your drawn work. Some people prefer using a calligraphic brush for varied line weights (it looks like a ( / ) in your brushes palette most of the time) while others prefer a round brush with custom brush settings applied. Each program has a variety of different features that allow the pressure control/sensitivity or the brush shape you want to use for your inking. In this tutorial, we are going to use simple round default brushes because my style is relatively flat and clinical.
To begin, select a thick/large brush to create your main outline work. In the example above, you can see the outline of a character’s head with a thick round brush. I did not outline the hair – instead I chose to use the flat filled shape act as its own border since it is dense enough for the definition I want. In this example, I used a Round 7 pixel brush for the outline.
Complete the outline and make whatever necessary alterations to the pencil work as you see fit (within reason.) In this case, I didn’t like the proportions of my sketched figure so I fixed it during the ink phase (most of the time you would have done this already). Fill in your solid shadow areas with black – there’s two ways you can do this: make a selection around the area you wish to fill (using a lasso tool or a point/pen selection tool) and use your fill tool to fill the area with a solid black. Alternatively, you could use brushes and fill it in by hand. It all depends on your comfort level when it comes to efficiency. Find out what works best for you.
Next, select a smaller brush to fill in the details from your pencil work. Generally, I will use a brush that is approximately half the size of my outline brush for varied line type – here’s an example of it in action below:
Note the thinner line weight in the details. You could use a different brush for additional line weight variation WITHIN your thick outline for additional depth and contrast. But again, thats up to you and the style you want to achieve.
Continue filling in the details with the smaller brush. Feel free to use more brush styles and shapes as you like, and other ink/shading techniques like cross-hatching. This example uses fills and outlines (since the rendered product is in tones of grey.)
Eventually your page will begin to fill out with dynamic contrasts and begin to have a life of its own. Here’s a half finished product from the other day. Typically, I take a few hours to do a page since I do revisions on the fly. If you have a tighter pencil sketch, it may take less time (or more time depending on the complexity of the detail.)
A few other things to note – I rarely use my Wacom/pen tablet for inking, since my line weight is even throughout. I will use the mouse + Shift Clicking in order to get the “connected line” between the gap from the points I’ve placed on the canvas. This gives me more precise control over the direction of the line. It is definitely not very organic, and essentially eliminates the pressure options that you have with a digital pen. You may want to have that variable line width and prefer the use of the pen for control. I suggest you use whatever works best for your style. In this tutorial, the figures are flat and 2D cel like, since that is the effect I prefer for this comic.
Experiment. Find your style and learn from others. I hope this tutorial gives you some insight on how to digitally ink your pencil work and gets you on the path to creating comic books or webcomics of your own. The next tutorial focuses on coloring your comics after you’ve completed your inking.
I’ve had a number of people inquire about the gradient mesh tool in Illustrator. Many people find the tool difficult to use at first glance, but trust me – once you get the hang of it, it can be one of the most versatile ways of creating realistic looking forms. Here are a few tutorials that explain how to use this tool.
Magical Butterfly presents a tutorial on how to create drapery folds using Illustrator.
Check out this amazing potrait created with gradient mesh from Creative Bush.
Kevin Hulsey gives an in-depth explanation of the facets of Gradient Mesh and how to apply them effectively in this basic tutorial.
In this video tutorial, Bert Montroy from PixelPerfect shows you 2 different methods of applying the gradient mesh to your illustrations.
Sarah Froelich from Designorati goes bananas in this D-I-Y tutorial, and so will you!
Veerle Pieters offers a PDF download tutorial on creating realistic illustrations with the gradient mesh tool. Don’t be fooled by the date – just because its from 2004 doesn’t mean its out of date! Veerle has been doing this successfully for a long time!
Leo Blanchette, a freelance illustrator and a regular contributor to istockphoto, has posted this in-depth tutorial on creating realistic looking crayons from a photo reference.
Create a cloth bag illustration in a few easy steps!
Cheryl Graham offers this tutorial at AdobePress on scalable vector based Gradient Mesh clouds.
This link isn’t a tutorial; it’s more inspiration – check out the amazing work from some of the pros in the industry using advanced gradient mesh!
I hope this answers some of the burning questions you may have on how to apply gradient mesh effectively!
I’ve gathered another set of wonderful drawing tutorials from around the ‘net. Each one focuses on a particular aspect of drawing and style. Check them out!
This is a good tutorial on understanding the scope of the complete process from a pencil sketch to a finished digital rendering.
2. Drawing Vehicles
Here are two different tutorials (one for Illustrator, one for Photoshop) that achieve the same end result – an awesome rendering for a sports car.
A quick and easy tutorial on how to draw Japanese Koi fish – a traditional symbol of good luck.
Even though the holidays are over, you can adapt the process shown in this sexy holiday pin-up tutorial to create an interesting composition of your own.
Learn how to transform a photo of yourself into a digital drawing using Illustrator.
Here’s a simple tutorial showing you how to go from doodle to digital in 10 steps!
This is probably the most common question most aspiring illustrators bring up. We’ve all been there before – you have all these great ideas in your head, you’re totally prepared to put pen to paper (or stylus to tablet) and you start scribbling like mad – unfortunately what your brain conjures up and what your hands create are two totally separate things.
You say to yourself – how the heck do I draw [enter item] ?
Well, I can’t tell you how to draw everything. I can point you in some promising directions though. Check these tutorials out for some help!
A lot of people want to skip the pencil/pen to paper idea and would like to start from scratch using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I found this two-part tutorial on DaniDraws.com that shows you how to go about making your own comics from blank canvas to a complete inked and colored illustration.
Here’s another great lesson from GoMediaZine on how they’ve created a ‘comic book styled’ look to their promotional posters – and the process behind it.
Ever wondered how to draw a Kangaroo? How about a giraffe – or maybe just how to draw a dog or cat? Here are a bunch of simple tutorials you can follow to get you started – from how-to-draw-and-paint.com
Most people understand how to draw a basic vehicle, but not all vehicles are equal. This series of tutorials from HowStuffWorks.com shows you how to draw cars, trucks, vans, classic cars and more.
DrawingCoach.com has a wonderful video series on how to draw people for portraits effectively.
From sketchinghouse.com comes this simple tutorial on how to use perspective to create realistic looking buildings within the city.
There are many other tutorials out there for drawing basics – if there’s one you’d like me to showcase, let me know and I’ll add it to this list.
Here are SIX interesting Illustrator tutorials from around the internet – try them out!
This introduction will take you through the basics
of gradient mesh design.(from BioRUST)
Veerle Pieters, one of the most sought after digital illustrators
offers an explanation on how she creates patterns and how to modify them
through scaling options (from Veerle’s Blog)
Learn how to create realistic illustration using simple gradient fill.
(from n.design studio)
The Pen Tool
The pen tool is probably the most essential device used in any vector based illustration/drawing software. You could get away with using brushes or pencils, but the pen tool allows you the most efficient control over your linework. For rookie illustrators using the software, it appears to be a daunting task, but after playing around with the mechanics of it, the Pen Tool will become your best friend. For the examples below, I will use Adobe Illustrator, since its generally viewed as the industry standard – other software such as CorelDraw and FreeHand offer the same type of controls with their pen tools, so you can apply the same knowledge you’ve learned here to those programs.
Here’s how it works.
To use the pen tool effectively, the key is to master the control of the way paths can bend and curve.
1) Try clicking on your screen. You will create a dot â€“ this is an anchor point.
This point acts as a base and depending on where you place your second point, will allow you to modify the line segment between.
2)Now click anywhere else on your screen and you will create a second anchor point
- notice there is a line segment connecting the two points. This is the basis for creating lines using the pen tool.
3) Now click and hold at another location and slowly move to the left or right and you will notice a pair of arms that extend from your anchor point. These lines are known as ‘handles’ and are the tools used to modify the curve of your line segment in between your anchor points.
As you hover over certain areas of your line segment, you will see the pen cursor change depending on the function it is able to perform.
For example: if you hover over an anchor point, you should see a minus sign beside the pen head. This indicates that if you click with the mouse you will subtract that point.
If you hover over any other portion of the line, you will see a plus sign appear. This indicates that you are able to add an anchor point at that specific location if you click the mouse button.
If you have made a series of line segments and anchor points and want to close the shape, hover your cursor over the first anchor point you made when creating that linework, and a small O will appear. This indicates that you will close the shape if you select that point. These are the basic functions of the pen tool – addition/subtraction/closing
Now if you hold down the ALT (option for Mac) key and hover over your anchor point, you will see the cursor change into an arrow head. This tool allows you to modify the anchor points by creating a set of handles if you click and drag away from the point. These handles allow you to modify the linework that is attached to that particular anchor point. You can create smooth, flowing paths called Bezier curves by altering the linework with the handles.
If you hold down the CTRL key (Command Key on the Mac) you will receive the white arrow or selection tool. Click and hold on any one of the anchor points and you can move the point around to the position of your choosing.
Try this exercise:
1) Select your pen tool and make four points
2) Select your starting anchor point to be your fifth point to close off and create your shape.
3) Hold down the ALT (or Option) key and select one of the anchor points. Click and drag outwards until you have created handles for your Bezier curve.
4) Select the endpoints of the handles and modify them by moving them around in different directions. Get used to how the movement works.
5) Hover over one of the anchor points and subtract it.
6) Hover over any part of the line segments, and add an anchor point.
7) Hold down the CTRL key and click and hold on an anchor point. Move it to another area and watch the shape modify.
That is the basic gist of the Pen Tool. The next lesson will show you how to effectively trace an outline of an image as reference, using the pen tool. Grab yourself an image of an item you’d like to attempt to trace and check out this tutorial (number 6 on the list) on creating vector tracings.