Tag Archives: Layout

Inside Creating A Comic Strip

The following article was submitted by my good buddy Rob Campbell to give readers an inside look as his current creative process for producing his comic strip Keeping Up With Jones.

A Great Way To Self Promote Is To Set Up A Public Demonstration

I’m a little new to doing comic strips, and not as new as I might think at drawing.  I’ve probably been drawing Harleys in different styles for over 20 years, but I started taking it more seriously about seven years ago.  In October of 2009, I launched a comic strip called Keeping Up With Jones, a strip about a biker—yes, named Jones—and the few people unfortunate enough to be called friends by that aforementioned scooter fiend.

For me doing the comic is an ongoing learning process that improves weekly. Since October it may appear as though I haven’t really settled on a style or a look, possibly because I’ve been trying a few different methods of production to get the job done.  Rather than expend energy on the things I tried that worked, but didn’t make me happy, I’ll focus here on the things that I appear to have settled on that get the results I want and provide some artistic pleasure in the process.

I start off by bouncing the basic story around in my head and on paper until I’ve got it figured out. The most important thing is to make a start and know that I can adjust as I go.  Good ideas that don’t get realized on paper amount to nothing.

I begin by taking my idea to Adobe Illustrator and put the dialog into a template I’ve created that has several different panel layouts on different layers.  I hide all but the particular panel layout I’ve chosen to use for this particular strip and begin adding dialog using the text tool.  This gives me a sense of  how much space my dialog will take up and gets me thinking about ways to cut the word count down to make maximum room for my drawings.  Then I print out a copy of the dialogue only strip and use it for doing my rough layout sketching. Sometimes I might print out several copies if I feel that I may want to work up several different visual takes for the layout.

My Work Area

The rough sketch is usually pretty rough for me.  I’m a scribbler with no real drawing education, but I’ve learned how to gesture a drawing together from rough to—well, not so rough—over a series of drawings that spiral into the thing I see in my head.

Occasionally in the drawing process I get this kind of flickering of my eyes that reminds me of going to sleep. Only I’m not going to sleep. It worried me for a bit until a friend told me there’s a name for it, which I of course don’t remember, and that it’s my eye looking up into my brain for that image in there to visualize my drawing.  Sounds like quackery, but I’m pretty sure he was on the level.

I might make several copies of the rough layout so I have the freedom to mess up a few times. It’s important that I remove all excuses I may have for not drawing, including the whiny little “what if I mess it up” that accompanies every drawing I do.  The more I draw, the quieter and meeker this negative voice gets.  It also gets intimidated by the brawny pencil guy who says “shut up and draw.”  If I spent much time in conference  with these voices I’d never get anything done, so I get them wound up on each other, then sneak away to draw in another room.

I’ve been surprised lately at what I’m able to achieve on the rough layout considering I really prefer to draw larger.

A Reduced Scale Rough Strip Layout

I put a bunch of blank templates in an art box I frequently take around with me so if the inspiration hits before I’ve done the Illustrator dialogue layout step I can still get right into it.  This has come in handy a number of times and just makes sense considering my schedule.

By the way, the Illustrator layout template uses the measurements of the actual artwork, not the reduced final strip.  I draw most frequently on 12×24 drawing paper, so once I know how the layout will go, I measure and draw the frames on the paper using a Col-erase blue pencil.

A Full Size Panel Layout

When I like my rough layout enough, and it seems like a nearly finished image, I scan it into my computer.

Scanning The Reduced Scale Layout

A few times I’ve taken the time and challenge of actually re-drawing the art on the larger layout.  The benefit there is that it makes me look critically at the art and refine it one more stage before committing.  However, I don’t have a whole lot of time, so I found I could shave as much as two or three hours off of producing a strip by using the original rough to trace.  This means that I use File/Place in Photoshop to get the rough artwork up to the size of the final drawing, then use the marquee tool to copy and paste each panel to a new temporary document to be printed out for a tracing image.  While this sometimes feels like cheating, it takes a lot of time off the job.  The danger is that I’ll overlook some of the problems in the rough and trace it right into the final.

Once I have art-size prints of my roughs, I use my light table to trace each rough into place, being sure to make corrections as I go.

Using The Full Sized Printouts For Creating Final Pencil Sketches

If I’m being diligent, I will have made notes on the rough about things to correct or emphasize.  If I’m even more diligent, I’ll actually follow those notes.

I’ll then go about the process of inking the artwork. I generally start out with my set of Staedtler pigment liners, leaning toward the .5 and the .7  for most work.  The .7 really doesn’t produce too thick of a line and can do thinner lines.  I go back over some lines with my brush pen.  I hope to transition to brush and ink at some point, as I think the line produced with a brush is much more interesting than that of a liner.  However, mechanical and architectural details are served well by the pens.

Once the ink is in place, I can make any needed corrections with a bit of designer’s gouache thinned slightly with water.  Some folks use a plain White Out correction fluid, but I like the feel and flow of the gouache.  Besides, I feel more professional and slick using something designed for the job I’m doing.

Now it’s time to scan again.  I scan each panel individually so I don’t have to stitch the thing together and hope I get it right.  I scan in color at 300 dpi and adjust the lights and darks for the best image I can get.

For quite some time, I’ve been erasing my pencils before scanning the inked drawing, but I recently read someplace that you can easily get rid of blue pencil in Photoshop.  Once your image is scanned, Zoom in to a portion of your drawing that has some blue pencil visible.  Use Image/Adjust/Hue&Saturation (Control+u).  Set the Color Selection drop-down to Blue, then click the dropper on your blue pencil lines.  Now drag the Saturation to -100 and the Lightness to +100.

This should cause the blues to get pretty light.

To get rid of any artifacts from your pencils, use Image/Adjust/Levels (Control-u).  Drag the right-most arrow left far enough to get rid of the various flecks and streaks remaining from the pencils.  Drag the left and middle arrows right enough to darken the lines to a nice juicy black.

After doing this to each panel image, I save as a .psd that can be imported into Illustrator, where I use File/Place and drag them to the correct panel.  Then I use LiveTrace’s Comic Art setting to vectorize the lines.  Save the file and close Illustrator.

Open the Illustrator file in Photoshop.  Be sure to put the line art layer on top and do coloring on subsequent layers.  Organize them in folders if there are many layers.  However, I try to keep it as simple as possible and get the line work to support the strip.  The color shouldn’t be too dominant.

A Typical Photoshop Layer Set Up For Coloring A Comic

The line art layer I set to Multiply so that white areas are transparent.  That way I can color all I want below it without fouling up my line work at all.  To do the coloring I frequently use various selection tools, but my favorite is the magic wand.  If I find some of my lines open, I create a dummy copy of my line layer so I can quickly and easily close the gaps without affecting the final work.  I’m obsessive about locking and unlocking layers so I remember to color on the correct one.

When I think it’s pretty much a wrap, I save a copy and reduce it to the 900 pixel width size I use on my web site. I also publish the comic in a great biker magazine called Thunder Press.  If I’m sending a strip to Thunder Press, I go by the specs I got from them for size and resolution.

The Comic Is Online But Also In Print In Thunder Press Magazine

I hope you enjoyed this inside look into my process of creating my comic. Be sure to leave comments or questions if you have any. And of course, I hope you will visit Keeping Up With Jones and become a regular reader.

Comic Strip Layout Techniques

There are many ways to approach creating a regularly published comic strip. Some cartoonists start with the main gag and layout the strip storyboard style while others approach their strip as a written script and then break that script down into panel shots. It is really a matter of which approach for writing is most comfortable and productive for you. My friend Bill Riling is a professional story artist at Dream Works, so it is only natural that he follows the storyboard visual writing approach to writing his comic, The Adventures of Lewis and Cluck.

The layout shown above is from a strip that is part of the Freeze Tag storyline. Lewis and Cluck are explorer chickens who travel around the globe on scientific and ecological research missions. In Freeze Tag, they have traveled to the Arctic to study the habits of the polar bears. Many of the gags in this storyline revolve around tranquilizing and tagging the bears. Scientists who study creatures in the wild try not to cause changes in their subject’s behavior, but as we can see in this comic, the chickens have really gotten into this bear’s head with that unwanted collar. Bill works in loose pencils in order to layout his panels making full use of the “camera” to create interesting shots that help to tell the story and sell the gag.

Here is the final inked and colored strip as published. In this case there wasn’t a great deal of variation between the conceptual layout and the final rendering. To see more of Bill’s comic strip, check out  The Adventures of Lewis and Cluck.

For my own comic strip BugPudding , I work from a type written script and compose the layouts for my panel shots digitally in SketchBook Pro. As you can see in the example above, I have more of an animation style of approach to frame organization with each character being on a separate “cell” layer so that I can work through many different composition ideas easily. The inset in the lower left hand corner is the final colored rendering.

Here is a panel layout from one of the strips in the Vapors of Evil storyline. Monroe, a turtle, and Bentley, a snail, are making their way through the Vapor Covered Wasteland in search of their friend Agile, a mutated bug. As you can see from the layers displayed, I can show or hide layers as I compose the panel to simplify my visualization and to facilitate making changes easily. Blue layers are visible while the orange layers are hidden.

Here is the final colored render of that panel with the composite of the characters and the background. To follow the further adventures of Monroe, Bentley, Agile and the other critters who live around Lake Tuberville, check out my comic strip BugPudding .

Comic Strips Part 3

Last article, I  talked about the number and the relative size of the panels in a sequential comic strip and how they can be used to provide pacing and timing in visual storytelling. In this installment, I want to explore some other aspects of the classic comic strip, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, in order to talk about some of the other tools and techniques that are often missing from usage in many of today’s comics. These tools and techniques, like the use of panel variations for timing and pacing, are subtle ways for the cartoonist to enhance their strip and storytelling.

Click on the strip to see an enlargement.
Click on the strip to see an enlargement.

In the comic above we get a great example of how the use of different font types can be applied to provide an additional form of personality and characterization. The vulture, a great bit of stereotypical casting himself, has a very unique and formal speech font that tells us as readers something more about this character’s “voice”. You also have to love Kelly’s humorous way of naming characters, like a mortician named Sarcophagus Mac Abre.

Then we also see that the character Deacon Mushrat (instead of Muskrat, accent on the mush) has his own characteristic speech font. A very nice “Old English Script” that tells us that his voice is full of self righteousness and pomposity. Additionally notice how Kelly shaped the Deacons speech bubbles to add to his “straight laced” and “sanctimonious” tone of speech. And also notice how Kelly creates a special very ominous speech bubble style for Sarcophagus Mac Abre. Subtle little ways of accenting these characters that would be lost if they just “spoke” in ordinary fonts and balloons.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In this next strip above, we see another classic example of character specific speech fonts. This time for P. T. Bridgeport (named for the famous circus showman P. T. Barnum ) we see that his “voice” is a constant show in itself. His every phrase is a spectacle of colossal magnitude. Again when P.T. speaks we as readers know so much more about the character and his personality because of Kelly’s use of a unique font style.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In the strip above we get an example of not only the usage of a character specific font type for the Deacon, but we also get to see Kelly’s characteristic usage of font boldness as a means to focus his readers on specific words or phrases in a character’s speech. An interesting side note is that because of the often political and social commentary involved in Pogo, there were extensive studies made by “government intelligence” organizations ( an oxymoron in itself ) to try to determine if the bold type words formed some sort of subversive code. If they had just understood the purpose of the cartooning technique they would have realized that Kelly was just wanting to make sure that his readers weren’t missing out on the word play and all the subtle implications of his use of specific words and their implied meanings beyond their context as a character spoke. For example the term “Jack Acid” was actually referring to a bunch of “jack asses” which was Kelly’s satirical dig at the John Birch Society. And his word play about combining acids and bases producing “salty doings” was expressing his perception of the society’s ultra conservative right wing views. All leading to the gag in the third panel about their thinking being “off base and half assed”. Kelly had some strong ideas and opinions embedded in these strips and he used the bold type to make sure the accents were not lost.

Click on the strip for an enlargement.
Click on the strip for an enlargement.

In this last strip, we see another example of Kelly’s use of bold type for accents. It is important to note that this technique wasn’t just used to highlight important word play and implied meanings, but it was also Kelly’s method of providing a comedic timing and rhythm to his comic strip. Much like a stand-up comic uses phrasing and beats to set up and deliver their monologue, Kelly was using bold type to punctuate and time his gags. Kelly loved music and he naturally added rhythm to his dialogue.

Again by studying the work of Walt Kelly we can learn more about the techniques and tools of creating masterful and highly entertaining sequential comic strips. Today’s web cartoonist has the opportunity to revive these techniques and apply them as part of their own craft.

Comic Strips Part 2

In this article, I want to re-introduce some often lost aspects of comic strips based on my own personal study of one of my most influential cartoonist heroes, Walt Kelly. These are strictly my own artistic opinions.

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Click on the comic to see a larger version.

If you ask most fans of Pogo, Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip, they will probably tell you about his great political and social satire, his amazingly detailed backgrounds, his great characters or his superb visuals. But in this article I want to point out his layout and mastery of visual story telling. In the strip example above, Kelly is using a four panel format. Notice that the panels are not the same size. This is not arbitrary or accidental. Panel sizing is an important tool for the sequential story teller. The relative order and size of the panels is to a sequential comic what pacing and timing are to an animated cartoon sequence. In this first example, Kelly starts with two even sized panels to give the story a balanced beginning. Then he inserts an accent in the form of a compressed panel. Wider panels slow the reader down, narrower panels speed them up or sharpen their focus. The last panel is wider and acts as a resting point to allow the gag and or the message of the strip, in Kelly’s case, to settle in.

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Click on the strip above to see a larger version.

In this next example above, we get a different example of Kelly layout skills. Walt Kelly was a master of generating tremendous visual energy in a tiny strip. The first panel is stretched out and designed to create a sense of visual anticipation. It’s an antic for the pending action. Then all hell breaks loose as he fires two compressed panels at us back to back. Then another stretched out panel to settle us down as the action tails off in the distance. Great graphics amazing visualization and most importantly enhanced story telling through his layouts.

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Click on the strip above to see a larger version.

Finally, in this last example above,  we once more get to see the master story teller at his best. Panel size and arrangement is used to focus the reader and move them visually to the climax. It’s a comic strip and a story board at its best. The strip cartoonist has the opportunity to be a story teller, a cinematographer and a humorist all rolled into one.

As you can see from these examples, before the big squeeze in the newspapers, the comic strip was very different than today’s print examples. That is sad in many respects, but the joy and beauty of comics delivered over the Internet is that all those constraining policies that have driven newspaper comic strips to be shadows of there former selves no longer apply. The restrictions and constraints are totally controlled by the web cartoonist. These are very exciting and liberating times if you want to be a future Walt Kelly of the web.

Comic Strips Part 1

The classical newspaper comic strip is a form of sequential art. This particular cartooning form has undergone many changes over the years and some historical perspective can be quite revealing. It is interesting how things follow a cause and effect relationship, and even more interesting how policies can be implemented that create constraints that continue to exist even though the reason the policy was instituted has vanished. For newspaper comic strips this seems to be the case. Over time beginning in the late 70’s, newspapers began to reduce the space available for comic strips. They slowly began to squeeze the comics into increasingly smaller and smaller amounts of space. The first step was to cut the daily comic’s section from two pages down to one and a half pages and then down to a single page. This had the effect of killing off many good comic strips by reducing the number of strips that a paper would continue to publish. Shortly there after, the individual “footprint”, available space on the page, of each remaining strip got the big squeeze and four panel strips pretty much were forced down to three panels. Additionally this print size reduction made it increasingly difficult for the cartoonists to maintain their desired level of visual detail in their work. The smaller the print reduction the less detail.

This policy shift toward marginalizing comic strips in newspapers caused two resulting effects. First, it greatly tightened the field of opportunity for cartoonists to draw comic strips, less space meant papers bought fewer strips so drawing a comic strip became less accessible as a career. Secondly, smaller “footprints” forced cartoonists to move toward simpler more graphically stylized cartoons with minimal layouts. There was less white space, so there had to be less visual information in each panel. The age of the “clip art” comic strip was born.

Then along came the Internet and a whole new distribution medium for the sequential comic strip was born. This made self publishing possible and created new opportunities for cartoonist to return to drawing comic strips. But as many of these new breed web cartoonists were born after 1980, they had grown up in the post “clip art” comic strip era. They had little knowledge of the art form before the “big squeeze”. So as they approached drawing comic strips they continued to work under the policies of the newspapers even though the Internet held none of those restrictions. They were constrained by policies that had no reason to exist in their new world. The numbers of panels per day, the size of the space for the artwork, all were no longer restricted by some arbitrary publisher and yet these constraints were translated to the web. The new cartoonist didn’t realize they were blindly following policies that had no basis. In many cases this trend still continues. The Internet offers tremendous creative freedom and opportunity for the sequential comic strip, and a chance to explore new visual styles and formats. As I said in the beginning, it is interesting how things follow a cause and effect relationship, and even more interesting how policies can be implemented that create constraints that continue to exist even though the reason the policy was instituted has vanished.

In this and future articles I will be discussing my own work in developing a comic strip for viewing on the internet.