I just finished the 64 pages of thumbnails for one of the graphic novels I’m working on, and am feeling like celebrating! Whoo-hoo! Since I’m watching my calories, I won’t get out the chocolate, but I’ll have some fun by telling you a bit about the process of how I make a comic — and give myself a bit of encouragement by remembering that it’s all step by step, and with persistence I’ll eventually have the whole book completed. It still looks a little daunting at this point, but hey, I’ve reached the first milestone on the journey!
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “thumbnail”, for art purposes it’s not that hard bit on the end of your thumb that you use to open envelopes. Properly, it’s “thumbnail drawings”, which are a bit larger than your actual thumbnail, but not much. Generally, they’re tiny little sketches, maybe 2×3 inches, that artists use to map out the general composition of a larger work, sometimes just concentrating on values, sometimes with colour. At any rate, they should be quickly drawn and not fussed over.
For comics artists, they’re both a means to map out the story and work out the composition at the same time. The storytelling is refined by the way the panels are laid out and how much information goes into each one. The pacing is determined during thumbnail layout. It’s a lot like storyboards used for movies, except that you get to play with different shapes and sizes of panels. The drawings within each panel have to be well composed in themselves, but also have to work with the panels around them. Each panel has to convey its bit of the story clearly, and ideally look good in the context of the whole page or 2-page spread.
I like to work from a written script that I have written first, and divided up loosely into pages, so that I already have some of the pacing worked out. Lots of artists just start with the thumbnails and see where the story takes them, and tighten things up or space them out in more drawings; but I find it easier and faster to write than to draw a story.
Here’s a sequence of sketches I did for a short history story I did called “Cougar Annie”. I’m only going to show the first page for this post, but I’ll put up the whole story soon.
This is an 8.5×11 inch sheet of paper, to give you an idea of the scale. It’s actually a template you can buy in pads or loose sheets, with the divisions mapped out and lined areas on the sides for notes. As you can see here, my thumbnails are pretty messy! But doing them really helps my think about where everything needs to go, and since they’re so tiny, I only put the essential elements in. I don’t worry at this stage too much about trying to do portraits, either.
Some of those scribbles in the margins are my teacher’s notes, suggesting basically that I do what I was doing, but more so! This is a great stage to get feedback, because it’s really easy to change things, as not much time is invested in each one. Each “page” (on this example, there are 3 pages) takes me about 15 minutes on average to lay out. Some panels I fiddle with more than others, and sometimes I go back and work out the values (lights and darks) later.
When I have everything worked out as far as I can take it on the thumbnails, I usually make a pencil sketch full size. The originals for this comic were to be on 11×17 paper, but this sketch is a bit smaller, as I was trying to get a feel for how much information I could actually put in it, still feeling my way around the composition.
There are a few changes from the initial pencil sketch here. My teacher thought it would be better to have the family crossing the stream, which would lead the eye up into the woods as a compositional device. I gave them a bit more baggage, too.
If you look at the margins, you can see the markings that come with this paper, which is sold as “comic book art board”. The pre-ruled lines are very handy, and the paper is nice for ink drawing, but not as good for painting in watercolour; I’ve found the same with the bristol paper that lots of artists use, so I’m still looking for the ideal paper for both.
Here it is, finished up in watercolour. The title was added on in the computer, because I wanted that “wild west” type of lettering and I’m no good at drawing it! I’ll post the whole story tomorrow so you can read it.