Comics/Graphic Novels

On Penciling and Getting Another Perspective

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Once a month, Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, stops by Book Riot Comics for Creativity in Progress, a minicolumn on art, process, and how he creates comics.

After thumbnailing, I move on to penciling. This is where I’m finally working the actual pages that will be a part of my graphic novel. This isn’t the first step of my process, of course, but it is the first step that my reader will see. And that’s why penciling can be nerve-racking. Penciling is all about finding the right line– the right line to define a nose or a gesture or an environment. And often, the right line and the wrong line are separated by just a few millimeters.

There are different suggestions to help you find that right line. Here are a few:

1. Daily gesture drawing

I did this for a while. I have to admit that I haven’t recently, but it is something I need to get back to. You know how they say practice makes perfect? That’s exactly what this is: practicing finding the right line. Gesture drawings are quick drawings, almost always of the human figure, where you try to capture the essence of a particular pose. You do a bunch them, and you don’t spend more than a few minutes on each one. There are websites that can provide photos so you can practice at home. With gesture drawings, the quality of the drawing doesn’t matter. Getting your hand used to moving across the page does.

2. Blue pencil

There is a certain shade of blue that won’t get picked up by old-school photocopy machines. It’s called, appropriately enough, “non-photo blue.” You can find non-photo blue pencils are practically any art store. Many cartoonists use non-photo blue pencils to sketch. We use them to figure out where that right line might be. And then when we finally find it, we use a regular pencil to trace over it. You can use a regular pencil to do your sketching, and plenty of cartoonists do.

But the benefit of using non-photo blue is that, once you’re done, you can set any modern scanner to work like an old-school photocopy machine. Then when you scan in your page, all the non-photo blue sketch marks magically disappear. It saves you from covering your workspace with eraser dust.

3. Reference photos

Pretty much every artist uses reference photos. None of us can have a complete visual encyclopedia in our heads. There are many things that I cannot draw without a reference. Horses, motorcycles, and sky bison are at the very top of that list. I’ve been drawing the human figure since I learned how to draw, but there are still roughly a billion poses that I cannot draw off the top of my head. Reference photos are a must.

When I started making comics, I used to pencil on the type of paper called Bristol board because that’s what Stan Lee told me to do in How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. After meeting other cartoonists, however, I realized that every cartoonist has his or her favorite toolset. I began experimenting.

Now I pencil on vellum, a see-through paper. I switched because when I was using Bristol, I kept having this one experience over and over again. I would finish a page, look at it and think, “Man, this is the best page ever! I did such an amazing job!”

But then I would put that page away, and when I came back to it a few days or a few weeks later, I would see all these mistakes that I had made. Maybe a character’s head would be too big, or an arm would be too long, or the perspective would be off. A character that I had meant to be standing straight up would be leaning slightly to the side. For me, it was always to the right.  I could not understand why I couldn’t see these mistakes as I was drawing.

Eventually, though, I figured out that if I saw the mirror image of my page while I was drawing, I could see 90% of the mistakes. I used to take my Bristol and run over to the bathroom mirror. I’d see the mistakes, then run back to my drawing table to fix them.

Now that I’m drawing on vellum, I no longer have to run to the bathroom. To see the mirror image of my drawing, I just flip the page over right there at my drawing table.

I think this is true, not just of drawing, but also of life. Often, we don’t see our own mistakes while we are in the middle of making them. We need another perspective