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