Gothbunnies Tutorial


I thought I'd do a quick tutorial on my comic-making process. I love looking at how other people do things -- I ended up learning all sorts of tips and tricks from various cartoonists who have tutorials and how-tos on their sites. So now I'm passing the favour on to newer cartoonists and curious onlookers.


Later on, I plan to post a few photos of my work area and tools, but for now I'll just list them:

  • Paper - I use Borden & Riley #234 paper (Paris Paper for Pens). It's smooth, white, doesn't bleed or feather, and most art stores I shop at carry it. I've got several 9"x12" pads of the stuff.
  • Pencil - Any old pencil will do. I prefer 2H mechanical pencils, but I've used everything up to and including golf pencils stolen from IKEA.
  • Pens - I use Crow and Hawk Quill dip pens (Hunt 102 & 107 nibs) for most of the artwork, because they give me a variable line. I'll also use Staedler technical pigment pens and Faber-Castell PITT brush pens for various effects.
  • Paintbrush - I have a small paintbrush for filling in large black areas and making blotches.
  • Ink - I use waterproof black India ink. So far I like Higgins Black Magic best of all the inks I've tried.
  • T-square and rulers - so that my panels line up.
  • Scanner - One of those slim Canons, not particularly expensive or sexy.
  • Tablet - 4"x5" Wacom Graphire. It's a little workhorse -- I haven't needed anything bigger or better so far.
  • Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator - after years of merry piracy, I broke down and bought CS. I could probably use the GIMP for cleanup, if it didn't mean retraining myself completely. It's just different enough from PS to be irritating. But without Illustrator, I might actually have to learn to letter by hand.
The Process:

Generally I start off with a rough sketch or thumbnail. Sometimes (like here) it's about the same size as the finished comic, sometimes I work at half-size. My intent when I started Gothbunnies was to make it into a 5.5"x8.5" mini-comic, so I can just fold a piece of printer paper in half and go to town.

The thumbnail is just a rough sketch. No point in trying to make the lines straight or anything like that. I do try to lay out the lettering, to make sure I'm not trying to stuff too much into any one panel.

Next, using a t-square, I lay out all (or at least most) of the panels in pencil. The page is 19.5cm x 12.5cm, to allow for a small margin around the edges of the paper, in case I ever actually go to print.

Most comic artists work at a larger size than their final product -- as much as twice the size! When you work at a large scale, you can be more careful with details -- plus, when you shrink the page, many of the imperfections (and details that are TOO fine) just... disappear. It's a good way to make a nicer, cleaner-looking comic.

I don't do that. I work at the same size I expect to print the thing at. I'm used to working small, and I end up scanning at such a large size that everything works out in the end anyway. The moral of this story is that everybody has a different way of doing things, and if you like the results then you're probably doing fine. (Of course, I might have to eat those words if I ever go to print.)

Next, I pencil the general layout into the panels. Sometimes I just draw stick people in -- although I've found that the more detailed I am, the less mistakes I make when it comes to the inking. Especially horrible proportion errors, where I suddenly discover that Larch's knuckles are at his knee-height.

This is the point where I usually have to start dragging out the photo reference. [/em gets up on soapbox] Lots of newer artists think that using reference is some form of cheating. It's not -- no more than using a ruler to make straight lines is cheating, or using a compass to make circles is cheating. (I know some people think the above tools are also a form of cheating. Most of those create drawings full of crooked lines and squashed circles. The remaining few are artist zen masters and/or robots.) In short, reference is a tool -- there is a time to use it, and a time not to use it. The smart artist experiments with it to learn what those times are.

Anyway. For this comic, I had to look up pictures of various hills and valleys so that I could stage some reasonably convincing shots. I try to look at a number of different photos, and then combine them with the vague impression I have of what I want the scene to look like. I also try to get out and take my own reference photos, or even just observe the world around me. If you don't know what the world really looks like, how can you possibly draw it?

Now comes one of my favourite parts -- the inking. I'm a terrible inker. Or at least... I *used* to be a terrible inker. It never ceases to amaze me how far I've come even since I started this comic 60-odd pages ago. I did the first 13 comics using fixed-size felt-tip pigment pens. Then I switched to dip pens, and I've never looked back. That's the point where I really started to feel happy with my inks and my progress.

You can't treat dip pens and brushes like you treat felt-tip pens. You have to pull the pen towards you smoothly. If you try to push, the pen might catch on the paper, skipping, or pulling up fibres which cause blobby, uneven lines. You have to control the pressure, otherwise you get thick or thin lines where you don't want them. You have to dip your pen frequently. It requires a little more skill and attention, but I find that I like the line quality so much better that the extra effort is worth it.

As you can see, I ink right over the dialogue. That way if I decide to move or change the word balloons, I don't have any blank spots.

When I've erased the pencil lines, I scan the page in Greyscale at 600dpi, and I crop it to about 3000x4500 pixels. I adjust the brightness to +10 (to remove the last bits of pencil), the contrast to +55 (sometimes more, if the ink I've used is particularly light). I convert it to a bitmap using a 50% threshold, so that each pixel is either black or white, then I convert it back to Greyscale. I like working in B&W because then I don't have to futz around with anti-aliasing. By the time I'm done shrinking the comic at the end, all the little jaggies will be gone.

Since the panels are generally laid out in similar ways, I've made a bunch of panel templates I can paste over top of the background layer. When I use a panel layout I haven't used before, I make a new template for it. That way I only need to do the job once.

Then I create a second layer between the background and the panel template, and start the long, long job of cleaning up my inks.

I use the pencil tool and a hard, round brush to correct gaps, blotches that the brightness/contrast and thresholding didn't catch, and various other errors I don't want in there. I try to not be too obsessive about it, because a lot of the detail will be lost when I shrink the picture for the web. Now that I can use my tablet effectively, I also correct bigger problems (wonky bodies, too-long arms), fill in black areas (usually I select them with the polygonal lasso) and even make semi-major changes.

The panels to the right show the inked, but not cleaned up version at the top, and the almost fully cleaned up version at the bottom. You can see that not only did I change the way Vetiver's facing (so he can be talking to Dittany, rather than to nobunny), but I also decided to improvise a more realistic look for the tree behind him. It's just a bunch of scribbles I did with my tablet, but when it's shrunk down it will lose a lot of the scribbly look.

Once I've gone over the entire picture and fixed it to my satisfaction, I save it as a .psd file (so I always have the original to refer back to), and open it up in Illustrator. I use the free Blambot font Mighty Zeo 2.0 (So many people use it that I'm almost ashamed that I do. I swear, it's like the new Comic Sans MS. Except better, of course.) I'm not going to do a word balloon tutorial -- if you're looking for a good one for Illustrator, you can find one here, at Balloon Tales.

When I'm done lettering, I save the text and balloons as a .eps file, and back in Photoshop I use the File->Place command to put the lettering in as a layer. When it's aligned to my satisfaction I click the checkmark, and adjust the brightness/contrast of that layer to make sure the letters are crisp and black. I save a big version of the file, then I flatten the layers, change the image size to 504x800 pixels and copy it to my web account.

And voila! An inked, lettered comic:

My process is actually pretty simple. The hard part has been filling sketchbooks and doodling on every available piece of paper for the last 15-20 years. If you want to be a good artist, you have to get out there and draw. Study people, animals, plants, buildings, streets... Put something in your sketchbook every day. You'll be glad you did.