Drawing on Comics: Developing My Visual Communication Skills

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Early Influence

I grew up reading comics. Every Saturday my buddies and I would ride our bikes to the local comic shop and pick up the new issues. It was a ritual. I remember the small sweaty store loaded with awesome artwork— posters, figurines, graphic novels, and the colourful display of comics with the wonderful smell of fresh ink. I remember the camaraderie, and the simple joy of it all. We’d go back home to read the comics, then sit around the kitchen table drawing our own comic adventures for the rest of the afternoon. It was wonderful.

I loved reading comics, and I enjoyed creating them even more— developing characters, creating the environment, and bringing it all together by combining words and pictures to take the reader on an immersive journey.

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Over the years I’ve had a lot of fun creating comics, publishing some online and in print: Whisky Sours, Grumps, Captain Stupendous (with Zach Weiner), Byron Pinkleton, and most recently, Snowflakes.

After completing Snowflakes, (An all-ages comic collaboration with Zach Weiner and James Ashby) I started thinking about the many ways illustrating comics has helped me develop my visual communication skills.

I first started drawing comics because I found them less intimidating than working on a single illustration. On a comic page there are many smaller images that go together to make up the whole— so it felt like it mattered less that each image was perfect. Less pressure! I could do this! I think the fact that there was less riding on each individual drawing made it easier for me to just dive in and start drawing.

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Drawing Skills

As artists and illustrators, we all experience those feelings of impatience or frustration when it seems like our skill level is improving too slowly. We want to be better now! Well, we all know that the only way to improve is to practice, and I think that composing and drawing comic pages is like a crash course compared to working on a single illustration!

Comic pages can contain a lot of elements. Maybe you need to show a number of characters interacting, and in some panels you need to show some from different angles or distances. Or, maybe a scene calls for a wide establishing shot, and subsequent panels on the same page need to show a lot of action or interaction between characters and environment. Sometimes it can involve a lot of drawing on a single page. I’ve always thought of it as excellent concentrated and consistent drawing practice, especially if you commit to producing new pages on a regular schedule. If you are working on new pages regularly, you will be drawing more— and the more you draw, the more your skills will level up!

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Composition Skills

When planning out a page, overall composition of the page is one of the first things I think about. The layout of the panels, the shapes and angles of forms within each panel, and how they flow from one panel to another— this is the underlying structure, and it’s arguably one of the most important steps. Just like sketching in the basic forms and shapes for a drawing before you move into the details, a comic page needs to be planned so the overall flow and composition of the page works well to move the reader through the story. If the layout doesn’t work well or is confusing, the page won’t be enjoyable to read.

I find composing a page a really enjoyable part of the process— this is where I have the most control over how the story is told, how well it flows, what you show to the reader, and how you’re going to show it.

The more practice I had in composing comic pages, the easier it was to approach the composition for a single illustration.

Learning What to Emphasize

When you create a drawing you are telling a story visually. In any story there will be parts you want to emphasize to tell it as effectively as possible.

I’ve found that creating a comic page is great practice for knowing what moments to emphasize, and how best to focus the reader’s attention. For example— Do you need a close up on a character’s face or a certain object? Do you need to pull back to show a wide establishing shot? When deciding what to show in a panel, I like to think of myself as the camera moving around, and I try to visualize in my mind’s eye where the best angle would be, and how close to the action I should be. I’ve found that visualizing a scene this way is very helpful when I work on any composition, be it a panel on a comic page, or a single illustration.

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Drawing Characters Consistently

Designing and developing characters, and drawing them over the course of an entire comic is wonderful practice at keeping on model. It can take a while to get comfortable drawing a character consistently, and what better way than to put them into a story and force yourself to draw them over and over! There will be many opportunities to draw characters from different angles, in many poses, and with a variety of facial expressions.

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Working Within Constraints

Every illustration comes with certain constraints, it’s own unique set of rules: size, subject matter, medium, and so on. A comic also has some very specific constraints: the script, page size, setting, the characters involved, leaving room for word balloons, and making sure the dialogue flows logically within each panel, and from one panel to the next. Comic pages present some very unique challenges this way. Dealing with constraints in any creative work can be good— It can force you to try different things to come up with creative solutions. I’ve found that drawing comics has been great practice for learning how to be efficient and creative with my compositions.

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Learning How to Create Visuals From a Script

Illustrating a comic is excellent practice in creating visuals from the written word. A lot like a movie director— you are responsible for bringing the story to life visually. There are a number of skills you can develop creating visuals for a script: knowing how best to emphasize certain parts in the story, what type of shots and angles to use, what to show and what to leave out, and pacing action and dialogue across panels. Developing these type of skills can only help you as an illustrator.

Having an Audience Can Help Motivate You

When you publish comics on the internet you are creating for an audience, and that can really help to keep you working through those times where you may not feel like drawing. You can build up a trust with your readers, and develop a sense of responsibility not to let them down by missing updates. Learning to keep yourself motivated and working even when you don’t feel like it is important if you want to be successful. I tricked myself for years by doing this! If you keep your head down and do it for a while, you can look up and say— “Wow, look at how much I’ve accomplished!”

Managing Workflow

Creating comics is labour intensive. It takes a lot of time to storyboard, illustrate, colour, and letter a comic. A good workflow is essential in order to stay on track. If you choose to make a comic that you update online, sticking to your schedule is important in building and keeping a growing audience for your work. Frequently missed or inconsistent updates could lose you those valuable readers you’ve worked so hard to gain. To keep yourself on schedule a good workflow is key, and learning how to effectively manage your workflow will help you be more productive in anything that you do.

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Conclusion

In the end, it all comes down to practice. The more experience you have doing something, the better you’ll get. Each page you illustrate has a lot of visual problems that need to be solved— and the better you get at visual problem solving the better an illustrator you will be! I’m not saying that illustrating comics is the only way to learn the skills I’ve outlined— but it’s a path I took, and it’s been great experience in helping me become a better visual communicator.

 

3 Comments

  1. Hi Chris, Thank you for a great fun and informative blog. I have a question that might be answered in the blog and a bit loaded yet…When it comes to panel layouts, or design. What in your view would be a standard grid layout that serves a story and storytelling best?

  2. Hi Eric,
    Glad you enjoyed the post!

    There are so many options when it comes to laying out panels – what works best can all depend on personal preference and the style of art, really. I know for myself, I usually start with a 3 or 4 row layout as a baseline, but frequently change it up depending on what is needed for certain pages.

  3. Amazing artwork, Chris. I love it!