Comics course journal

I'm attending a short, 1-month intensive comic course. These are my notes.

2nd July 2012


Comic feeds from many other fields (books, cinema, music, illustration, videogames...), although it's limited in space so you need to exaggerate stuff in order to get the message to your readers.

Different markets, different styles:

  • American = superheroes, supersuperheroes. Lots of action and fights. Spectacular!
  • European = introspective. Long runs of just explanations as to how and why something happened. Not that much action. Very detailed and elaborate drawings.
  • Japanese = very segmented. Very different rhythm, compared to Western schools. It can be very calm for many pages, and suddenly have a short frenetic burst of fights and whatnot, only to return to even more introspection than European comics.

Of course these are huge generalisations!

We're looking into growing as authors, not just 'comic artists', although that's perfectly fine if that's what we like.

Comic industry in Spain was thriving around mid eighties. Then 'something' happened and it crashed. Badly. (I'm betting the 'crash' was Bruguera's crash which probably took down the rest of satellite industry). Recycling of artists into animation, illustration, etc. Or working for foreign editorials. It's more or less like that still nowadays...

We get several sample scripts, have to choose one in order to draw a complete page. This will be our course project.

3rd July

As agreed, each one of us brings some samples of drawings we've done already so the teacher can learn about the class drawing skills. OK except one girl, she says she hadn't drawn anything at all after she was 18 years old, and she hasn't got anything to show. She's a bit embarrassed but hopes to solve that quickly.

The level throughout is quite varied, some people just have simple pencil or ball pen sketches while other people show completed comics, 3-4 pages long. A guy has huge A3 drawings, they look very nice! Very creative use of colours. I like one which is a negative drawing, using white chalk over black board.

I brought my travel journal. The teachers says I've got a good grasp of perspective (!!) but human figures are pretty weak. The latter doesn't surprise me but the former definitely does! Either that or I see my stuff with evil eyes. Beauty must be in the eye of the beholder, as they say...

Once the teacher is sufficiently informed, we start learning about human figure proportions.

Egyptians used to divide the body in 21 parts using the length of the middle finger as unit. Although, as Middle Age artists, they just used the human body as ornament and not as main theme in a painting or drawing.

It's in the Renaissance and with the revival of Roman and Greek art that the human body becomes the focal point in art again. (This makes me remember about the theocentricism versus the renaissance's anthropocentrism). It's then when proportions are established/deducted systematically. Remember Leonardo Da Vinci's famous Vitruvian man drawing, and the rest of that age painters. They used a figure of 8 heads tall, picturing people of approximately 1.70 m tall, whereas middle heights nowadays are 1.80m with a 8.5 heads tall proportion. That's why Renascent drawings and paintings are so recognisable, as the depicted people just look small in comparison.

The superhero comic school brings us even further, to 10 heads tall figures, though at this point we're talking about not heroes or superheroes, but gods already, super super beings. Those figures are HUGE! Although most of the extra heads is used for taller legs, as the trunk remains more or less the same size.

First way of drawing with proportions (or sketching a proportioned figure) is wire drawing.

If we want to use realist drawing, 7-10 heads tall drawings is the way to go. If we go into humorous fields, we might need to alter the proportions, probably reduce height, but then compensate somehow. Example: if using 6 heads instead of 8, move that 'mass' to other parts in the body so that it's fatter and produces a funny effect. Or an extreme case could be using only 3 heads, with one for the head, another for the body and another one for the legs and/or arms.

Exercise: draw a well proportioned male figure. Keep an eye on the symmetry of the body, and on the width of it. It's not all about the tallness... everything must be proportioned (hint: the distance delimited by the fingertips with both arms extended should be the height of the figure).

After drawing the skeletal sketch with 'wires' we get to draw the volumes using 'tubes'--imagine each muscle is a tube (somehow). This will allow us to shadow and render things as we see fit later on.

Practise more figures in different poses.

4th July 2012

Body muscles. No muscles, no movements.

Muscles are like springs. Often they go in pairs. One for stretching and the other one for pulling back. Any movement requires a muscle. Twisting requires more than one muscle.

Thorax muscles are like a wrapper around the ribs. Their main goal is to protect the internal organs. We'd be doomed without these muscles--any hit could damage important organs such as the lungs.

The ribs are also not totally fused together; otherwise we'd be unable to take a very deep breath. The way they are, they expand when we inhale air, as they are a sort of cartilage.

On breasts, remember the nipple is in the middle of the 'second head' measurement if we're drawing a male figure. If we draw a female, the nipples are below, for gravity reasons.

You don't need to draw (or remember) every single muscle, but you need to know about them in order to create works which denote enough volume.

"If you want someone to be unable to walk forever, just cut his Achilles heel."

Drawing the body without the skin is called "l'ecoucher' in French. I'm sorry I don't know a better translation. (??)

What you should more or less dominate is: bones, basic muscles (i.e the external ones--we shouldn't be concerned with internal, invisible muscles unless we're drawing a comic on medicine), and finally morphology, both female and male.


We need to make sure that a character's face always looks the same, i.e. that a character is always recognisable, no matter the angle we look at him/her from. To accomplish this, it's good to work on a "Character sheet", which defines how a character looks from several angles. It can also define how to best draw a character, in case it should be drawn by several cartoonists. This will help to keep looks consistent.

There can also be a "character's bible", which compares several characters in a book side by side.

Some 'tricks': dividing the oval which is to be the face in 4 horizontal parts, and two vertical parts,

  • the eyes are in the middle of the second line (starting from above). This is the 'eye line'
  • the eyes are separated by exactly the distance of one eye wide
  • the tip of the nose is in the third line
  • ears are in between the eye line and nose tip
  • the mouth is in the middle of the remaining lower part
  • the center of the eyes define the width of the mouth

To draw faces in 'strange' angles such as foreshortening, it's best to draw helper lines in the 3d-empty face. There's no magic rule to doing this. You could do it following tiresome and exhausting perspective rules or you could just do it 'by eye', which will be correct most of the time (or at least it'll be approximate enough) and be way faster than the mathematical way.

Inspirational sentence of today: Talent is to finish whatever you start. And show it off!

9th July 2012 - Faces and expressions


  • We need to make things as "dramatic" as possible
  • Everything needs to be shown in the little space we've got
  • So exaggerate postures, gestures...

Gestures and expressions reflect the character's true character. It's not only about faces, it's about the entire body expression. Drawing a character is like getting under the skin of an actor-who tries to become, or act, as somebody else.

We need to take advantage of nowadays resources: taking pictures with a mobile phone, instant digital pictures... to make quick notes of real-life characters.

Exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate. Characters need to be exaggerated so that people 'get them'. We need to caricature the reality. And since it is a fictitious world, we can also invent fictitious proportions. This enables us to make characters more spectacular--specially if they are the main characters!

A quote: Many times science and art meet, because where science can reach, art will.

So let's try to draw proper proportions if possible, and if that's not the case, let's exaggerate! Because comics are all about story telling.

Main characters cannot be neutral. They have to stand out, have some sort of motivation.

We can use existing archetypes so that people understand our story, quickly! Stereotypes can serve to respond to expectations, or to break them, in order to surprise the readers. Obviously all this needs to be part of the story. Don't abuse stereotypes for the sake of it.

Character morphology

We can draw characters' faces according to the stereotype they represent. Of course these are just HUGE exaggerations, but it's a helpful tool because people understand these simplifications at the first glance.

Lymphatic character

These characters are affable, quiet, "bon vivant". They are generally drawn with round faces, and round bodies.

They generally aren't the main characters because it's hard to identify with someone like that, but they look easy going--a person who will not fail you, a person that the main character can count on. So it provides a good contrast with the main character.

Brainy character

Their faces look like an almond upside down (with the widest part on top). Their brain is huge, and their jaw is pointy.

Depending on the rest of face attributes, these characters can be "bad" or "good". For example, lifted and pointy eyebrows can define an evil brainy character, while wearing spectacles and a small moustache can produce forgetful funny characters like Professor Calculus from Tintin. Likewise, Asterix could be another example of nice brainy character.

Blood/romantical/sensible character

"The nice looking guy". "The romantical"... He's the one who thinks about his stuff, and recites poems to girls... It's all about feelings, sensations.

Face is well proportioned -tending towards a 'perfect' face-. Almond-shaped eyes, small mouth.

Muscular/active character

It's an square character--his brain doesn't really allow for more. Everything in these characters is about action: jumping, running, acting... He's a lot of muscle, square face.


Obviously all those stereotypes can be mixed together, as no one responds to a pure stereotype. Two is quite normal; three stereotypes at the same time is a bit weirder--harder to understand for readers.

Scott McCloud has a good chapter on this in his book.

Face expressions

There are six basic expressions (rage, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise), which mixed together create a wide array of intermediate expressions. As usual, there are grades for everything.

The problem with faces is that, as faces have so many muscles, they are very expressive, so we need to work a lot on faces to make them expressive as well.

The best way to draw better faces is to draw many faces. Taking sketches from live subjects, magazines, movies... Then we can use them as starting point for our own characters, or secondary characters, etc.

Another trick for drawing better faces is to draw with a mirror in the table, so we can look at ourselves and try to replicate the expression.

We must save on time and space, and specially we must draw as little as possible, but whatever we draw must be the best we can do.

The standard face proportions must be modified so that each character has its own 'touch'. Make bigger or smaller ears, eyes, nose... move them up or down, etc...

Will Eisner has a chapter on this in his book too.

10th July 2012 - Backgrounds and settings

To recap: sketching is an excellent exercise to become better artists. Live sketching, from magazines, movies, from pictures we took... We must sketch gestures, muscles, things we happen to like, characters that seem interesting or that seem to have a story about them.

It's also good to practise with styles that are different to ours. Maybe caricatures. Sometimes you might even get hired to do a caricature and that can pay for your month expenses!

When you sketch you need to get rid of superfluous and irrelevant stuff. Draw only the most important stuff, and work quickly. That way your style evolves and develops and you polish your own style.

A ballpen is excellent to warm up, execute quickly; it's like painting with ink. We need to define shadows, volumes... it's like modelling them.

Of course it looks easy; everything is easy if you practice enough.

Drawing women is super hard. If you go too far it might end up looking like a man, or something that looks like a man.

Another trick is to copy -study- other authors, in order to learn how did they solve some situations. Example: which type of shadings they use, which shadows, how do they deform things. It's good to 'understand' their style.

On settings and backgrounds

All the characters appear on a given setting. So we need to document ourselves prior to drawing said settings:

  • take pictures of the place
  • or make it up
  • or look at somebody else's pictures of the place

Careful with using pictures directly-- clear proper rights in that case.

Since each frame has a certain size it will condition the type of 'shot' we will be drawing. So the steps will roughly be:

1.- define frames 2.- define horizon line: do we want to show a lot of sky? or a lot of ground instead? (shift line upwards or downwards according to goal) 3.- define point of view. That's what is in focus. Everything else is deformed and blurred (i.e. can be further simplified).

We shouldn't draw things outside of the 'aperture' angle, i.e. things that extend further than a normal human could see (~160 degrees field of view). That rule applies as long as we aren't looking for special effects, of course!

4.- define vertical lines. they are perpendicular to horizon line (except when we're talking about low or high angles for the point of view, where vertical lines aren't perpendicular).

Different types of perspectives according to the amount of vanishing points.

Everything in the frame must follow the defined perspective. A good way of doing so is to place things inside 'boxes', in order to measure and proportion them comparatively, and then draw the things themselves once we're satisfied the perspective is OK.

The further things are from vanishing points, the more distorted they will look. Sometimes this is very unnatural so we should try to be careful regarding this.

We can also correct things that are 'right' -technical-drawing wise- in order to make them more pleasantly looking, albeit technically wrong. We need to make things feel right, visually attractive, even if it means drawing things that aren't "right" or proper.

16th July 2012 - lights and shadows

Where does light come from? Light projects shadows.

It doesn't need to be perfect, and actually we should try to avoid that it looks mathematically perfect.

To project the shadows from an object we'll place the object in a box in order to project its shadow, and then we continue from there.

A trick to draw a middle angle with things that are very much further away is to make sure that all heads have the eyes at the same level, even if they are in different positions in space (different depths). This looks very nice visually


From script to drawing. We'll do a pre-storyboard drawing--an storyboard sketch that we'll call 'plot'

Using a DIN A-4 sized sheet, and following the script we'll divide the page in frames and sketch the story, very roughly. A good number to start with is 4 rows of 3 frames each. From there we can play with the size and position of frames, even removing or adding more frames if we feel it's required.

The goal is to start and finish an action in the same page. Although an scene can be longer if required, but making an scene last for more than three pages results a little bit boring.

When we remove frames we can enlarge other frames, make panoramas, etc. We can also break frames, draw outside them, even stop drawing frames altogether or draw them in shapes different from the usual rectangular shape.

Those 'odd' designs are not generally accepted by European publishers, and at the same time very conventional formats are rarely accepted by American publishers (which are looking for more crazy designs).

Once we've got this plot done, we can draw the storyboard, in a size proportional to the final size. E.g. if we plan to draw an A3 comic, the storyboard can be drawn on an A4 sheet. Or maybe on an A3 too.

The storyboard has perspectives defined, figures and sizes, camera angles, everything. Once we've got the storyboard we can place another sheet over it, and trace over using a light box.

Balloons size and position should be drawn in the story board too, and they should also be placed on top as much as possible, because the reader always reads first and looks at the action afterwards. Also reading order should be left to right (unless drawing for Japanese market!)

The 'final' drawing should be as clean as possible. Avoid fingerprint stains! They aren't professional.

The most important thing --after the script-- is the plot, for controlling timings and etc.

Types of angles:

Front angle: descriptive. To show stuff, non-dramatically. Introduce characters, etc. Nothing really happens.

High angle shot: It's got more perspective, more things can be shown. Please do not show the point of light (i.e. the sun) as it's very tacky. An high angle shot "reduces" people, makes them small, feel insignificant, like sad.

Low angle shot: totally unlike high angle, makes things appear grandiose, magnificent. Very low angle shots are very much spaghetti western style.

Birds eye view: almost no perspective, things look very flattened down. Excellent for descriptions.

Worm view: like if you were being interred alive! for very specific cases

Frame types:

Panorama: everything in the scene. 160 degrees. Everything that we want to show. Things that at some point will be important in the story. We can also draw a map, but it's way more obvious. Don't abuse of panoramas, they can bore people.

General shot: figures can be seen and we are closer so things are more defined. It's like a travelling from the panorama presentation.

Full frame: normally for figures. Entire bodies with almost nothing in the background or no background at all. Shows how the character dresses/walks like. A bit of his actual environment.

American frame: gives a bit of variety, better than using only full frames or medium frames.

Medium shot / short shot: We can cut where we want. Specially good for dialogue. There is no room for backgrounds, or hardly any room. Backgrounds here are pretty much 'testimonial'.

Close up shot: All face, almost no neck or shoulders. HYPER DRAMATIC. Mostly to show face expressions.

Detailed close up: A fraction of something. Eyes, nose, mouth, hand, a gun somebody is going to grab and something bad is going to happen... We can only draw something very specific as the 'camera' is very focused in this kind of framing.

We can't go from panoramic views to close up instantly... unless something HUGE happens. It's more progressive normally.

When working with interior 'takes' it's good to make a floor plan of the room, so we can predict what's going to be seen depending on where the camera is looking at.

A panorama: the camera is fixed on a given point and turns around a given axis A travelling: the camera moves along an axis

Panoramas slow down the action. But they are very good for "splash" pages, which are also the place where the artist can demonstrate how good she is, and where many things are introduced. It's not all about action; we need to slow down from time to time.

It's a good idea to make an scheme of tension in the script, to see whether it's properly balanced.

Large frames produce a sensation of tranquillity and calmness, while smaller frames, fragmented, with close up shots, very focused drawings, can transmit a good sensation of action and speed. For example, imagine a frame where someone is about to kick someone else. Then the next frame shows the result of the kick. It's a little bit like animated cartoons. It's about getting people nervous when we slow things down in "frenetic" moments. Obviously this is very flexible! Specially nowadays.

The gutters produce the sensation of 'timing'. The wider the gutter, the wider the time between frames. But when an event happens more than 15 minutes after the previous frame, it's better to add more frames in between, or add narrative text such as "TWO HOURS LATER...".

The timing between pages can be longer than those 15 minutes.

We don't need to draw EVERYTHING that happens in between events. We just need to draw what is more important, and then the reader will interpolate in his mind. For example, we can show a character walking up and down a room, and finally going out of the door. It's easy to understand he's rumbled for a while before getting out, and we do not need to draw all the intermediate places in the room he's stopped at (unless we really want to slow down the narration).

And finally we can use text for describing whatever else we don't want to draw.

The important key is that once a reader finishes reading a page he's still intrigued by what will happen next.

24th July 2012 - Inking - Hatching - shading

Suggest volumes and shadows by using thicker lines. Specially if the comic will be in black and white we need to make things as clear as possible.

  • American style hatching: a thick line for the contour, then short somewhat thinner lines going out a bit diagonally, and finally even thinner lines that follow the diagonal lines.
  • Grid hatching. It's a bit demodée. Start hatching diagonally and depending on the required amount of shading, hatch over with diagonals in the opposite direction, then maybe hatch vertically and even horizontally. It's still widely used in Manga, and it's OK in some other styles too.
  • English style hatching. It emulates etching/copperplate. Lines follow/define the dominant contour or volumes of objects. Darker areas will require thicker lines. What we don't paint is the fair areas which will remain blank. We need to observe the object carefully and determine which direction does it suggest.
  • European hatching. Pure Black and White a la Frank Miller, Mike Mignola. Very contrasted between light and shadows.
  • A way to kill yourself-unless you use a computer for doing it- is to shade using point patterns... drawn manually. It gives very nice results and looks very fine and proper, but sometimes it can be TOO perfect.
  • Another way to create interesting effects is to use an almost dry brush, with very little ink. It's very artistic and pretty but it can result in very hard results, unsettling. It's better to reserve this for horror stories.
  • Ink washes-mixing the ink with water to dilute it. Using black aniline (liquid watercolour). Very fine arts style. It can give great results. You can also use graphite, or a simple pencil... to kind of produce the same result. Those are very uncommon things in comic, but although they take lots of time to produce, they end up giving very nice results.
  • Mechanical patterns. Manga style. Although it's very hard to find these patterns on stores nowadays in Spain. A good substitute is using a computer if you're after that aesthetic.
  • Burnt pencil. Get a perfect pencil render of the page, then scan it and adjust brightness and contrast so that the pencil looks "black", almost like ink. Then it can be coloured or hatched in the computer. This result in a sort of broken line, it's not as hard as using an ink quill and it's way more varied than using a felt pen.

Final considerations / advice

The balloons + gutter styles depend on the type and mood of the story you're drawing. Something technological asks for using a ruler, and making things very perfect, while "organic", nowadays things ask for freehand drawn lines.

It's a good idea to make an study of shadows, using just a thumbnail image, before inking.

Sometimes it's better to simply paint everything in black instead of hatching (when it's very dark). Otherwise the hatching can be distracting.

Also to avoid eating the figures it's sometimes good to leave a little white halo around everything (not around each figure, which looks tacky).

When drawing streets, don't bother with being very detailed with specificities unless it's a recognisable street and part of the script. SIMPLIFY! No one is going to bother with the backgrounds.

Some recommendations on pen widths:

  • 0.8mm for gutter and balloons
  • 0.4mm for character contouring
  • 0.2mm for details in faces

Do the 0.2mm details once the hand has drawn the other stuff and it's 'warmed up' already.

When to ink? You need to find the best moment of the day to ink. It's a personal matter. Our teacher doesn't ink in the mornings because he feels a sort of 'personal unrest'. But he's OK by 16h. We need to find our own rhythm... and a moment in which we are left alone!