Cocoon Year: Weeks 7 & 8

Cocoon Year: Weeks 7 & 8

Digital art of a caterpillar munching its way out of a translucent eggshell. The caterpillar is chunky with a shiny black head, and little black grippy legs. Just the head of the caterpillar pokes out, while the rest of its body curls around inside of the shell. The egg rests on a nest of fine, curly milkweed hairs.

Cocoon Year: 1st half of February Summary
I started out strong, felt some lag, and came across an unexpected second wind while designing supplementary graphics for my pitch packet.

 

 

Cocoon Week 7

This week some client work landed on my hard drive. It may seem unethical of me to split my days in half for client work, but it doesn’t matter how I allot my time, so long as I hit my deadline. Typically, I’m only good for a 4-hour stretch of mechanical lettering. Any longer and I slow down, then make mistakes. It makes sense to start the day doing production work because by the middle of the day, I’ve lost focus on it and need to switch gears anyway. Developing my personal comics is great for that, and also related to my career.

I’m looking back on my pages and feeling really pleased with myself. My previous serious attempt at a comic, Amphiox, still felt iffy at this stage. It didn’t seem to matter how much I edited, re-sketched, or re-did the lines, it still felt somewhat amateur. However, I have over half a year of weekly anatomy drawing study under my belt, and it’s really showing. I’m not only drawing faster, it’s also showing up the way I want it to look. Perhaps this is my physical skill catching up with my aesthetic ‘eye’. Eventually that eye will once again speed ahead to something I can’t draw yet. For the time being both seem to be on equal terms.

Cropped shot of a heroic-looking Cleric Stone. This is black-and-white digital ink work looking up at him. He has a tyopgraphic halo that is on fire. He wears his hair in a series of braided box braids. Inscribed on the halo is the Latin phrase 'Flectere si nequeo superos acheronta movebo', translated below in text.

This page, sample seen here, was the messiest through the whole process, and now it’s one of my most favorites. Apparently, the trick with heroic upshots in cartoons is to draw the jawline anyway, even if it’s not correct to the perspective I’m referencing.

“Flectere si nequeo superos acheronta movebo.”
(If I cannot move Heaven, then I will raise Hell.)

As I was going I mentioned to Devin (spouse) that I’m no longer allowed to sit and stare at my InDesign file without doing anything. He responded that maybe I should enjoy looking at my project sometimes.

Fine, DEVIN.

As I worked this week, I discovered that Thursdays are going to be a problem while I have client work on my plate. I host a figure drawing study group on the Sequential Artists Network and it knocks out my entire morning. The very thing that’s making me better at making comics is…stopping me from making a comic! That’s all right, though. If I just accept this as part of my schedule then it’s easier to move along.

As far as breaks go, my schedule also needs to change as I fit client work in. I need one day every weekend where I do NO comic work at all, and one day where I choose what comics-related thing to focus on for the whole day. I’m allowed to draw or write, it just can’t be Warlock’d or client work. To be honest I haven’t officially ruled against ‘comics’ in general on the weekend, I just know I’m not in the mood to start another comics project. I did send in a small pitch for one of SAW’s nonfiction anthologies so I’m hoping that doesn’t burn me out.

No no, I’ve been doing pixel sprite art. Video game assets. Stuff like that. Things I can call ‘complete’ very quickly.

All that said and done, I’ve made great progress on my client work so far. Even better, I completed the inking and the lettering on my Warlock’d sample pages. I’m really happy with the tone that they convey, and how the layout interacts with the illustrations. I’m ending the week with the next caterpillar drawing for the post I’m going to make two weeks from now.

Cocoon Week 8

Client work feels slow, even in half-day bursts. The greatest part about this work is that I know how to do it, and that’s also the worst part. There’s no reason to ask anyone how to do anything, so I don’t get much collaboration. Revisions are mostly small nitpick things with little active discussion. It’s just busy work. It’s stuff I can do while listening to something else. There aren’t many thoughts going through my head while I do it.

Digital pixel art of a magnificent bird/fish monster. It's mostly pale off-white with luxurious blue and pink feathers. A decorative tail curls around its body while it stretches its wings. It's a combination of the pokémon, Milotic and Fearow.

Increasingly I’ve been fond of doing pixel art. There is a giant, fan-made RPG maker game that calls for over 200,000 individual 288×288 px sprites, and they’ve set up an automated art direction and QA process for it. It uses bots, post formatting, and artist vetting to make sure feedback is allowed. It’s not a perfect system and a lot of the art that gets through has varying quality. Surfing for feedback there feels really good, though. I wish more people would pick at my stuff. I think I’m just craving an environment where I can actively talk to someone else while working on a project.

That brings me back to Warlock’d, which felt awful to work on this week. No matter what I do to speed up the process, flatting never feels fun. However, if I ever want a chance at an environment where I can obsess over Warlock’d with someone else and we all get paid for it, flatting is what I must do. Flatting is also what I must do if I fail to pitch it well enough and it turns back into a webcomic (again…for the fourth or fifth time).

I’m not feeling great about my twelve sample pages as I wrap up the flatting. However, I also felt bad about flatting Amphiox. I think any freshly-flatted comic lacks all the carefully-plotted focal points since I haven’t set up any shading yet. A lot of the shapes are blending into each other and lack clarity. It makes it feel like there’s so, so very much work left to do on them, even though I’ve been working on them for weeks.

The only solid decision I’ve made is that Hell needs to be depicted as lifeless. For this I’m returning to my previously-scorned Vermeer-inspired color scheme, that largely hedges on grayscale, reds, and a little bit of gold. Here’s hoping it won’t be a turn-off, as Hell is featured in the very first page. However, I feel like being upfront about Hell’s aesthetic and purpose in the story is important. Otherwise I can’t imagine why someone would pick up a comic with ‘Hell’ in the subtitle. It’s ‘Warlock’d: To Hell, with Love’, not ‘Warlock’d: I Guess Hell Is Involved Somehow but Feel Free to Put it Back Down if it Makes You Uncomfortable’.

Another problem is how to handle firelight, and interior lighting in general. Medieval people did not have great interior lighting whatsoever. To make this feel natural I have to invoke braziers and torches and sunlight. I guess I have to trust that a print production designer later on will just shake their fist at me and some of my poor CMYK choices. Some of these colors are extremely dark!

So far loneliness is my biggest foe. I really want to talk to more people about my pitch. However, I’m worried I’ll get feedback that makes it harder to share to other people.  There’s always someone out there who wants to sharpen their fangs on a work-in-progress, for no reason other than an easy slam dunk. This is not to say that ‘Wow! I love it’ is all that helpful, either. What I really need is neutral shop-talk. Figuring out where my concept is confusing, cleaning up art, etc.

Over the weekend I consoled myself by expanding the sample pages into a full pitch packet document. I drew a stylized border to go around my synopsis page. For some reason being able to quickly make a border like this cheers me up a lot.

I’ve also decided to omit the glasses from future caterpillar artworks. It feels weird to be so snarky at myself when I’m putting in such an honest effort, and people seem to like just the caterpillar drawings on their own.

 

To Do Next Week:

  1. Shade and color sample pages
  2. Compile ‘Suspects’ character page
  3. Draw props
  4. Draw more caterpillar shenanigans
  5. Find someone to look at Warlock’d and not make me start over again.

Care to read more?

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Allowing Synopses to Build on Each Other As I write, I learn new techniques for visualizing entire stories. Learning to understand synopses has been really important for me. One important thing I’ve learned about them is that they’re good for sharing with...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Finding the Character in Objects Writing progress became confused, dismal. I figured something out between the way I approach problems and the way my spouse approaches problems. When we play a puzzle game called Picross together, we often mess up the...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: A Retrospective of Drafts I really wish this wasn’t already halfway through the year. I’d hoped to have gotten started on the art part of my project instead of languishing on writing like I always do concerning Warlock’d. For both weeks, I decided to do a...

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Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

Purposeful Tangents with Derek Ballard

What is a Tangent?
In visual art terms, a tangent is any area in a drawing where elements of the composition are interacting in a confusing or illusion-destroying manner. Cartoonists who use linework are particularly suspect to tangents, although tangents plague everyone who creates visual art. Tangents, and the avoidance of tangents, are one of the most difficult concepts to learn as a visual artist…A person only knows them when they see them, and they’re specific to the piece at hand, so what a tangent really is depends on context. Clearing up tangents is one of the steps used to make a piece simple and clear, easy to comprehend. Here is one example of a tangent that has to do with clipping a character in a composition:

Typically, only certain parts of the body can be cropped without creating a confusing tangent. The example here shows how cropping just below the shoulders and in the middle of the arm retain the clarity of the pose. However, doing something like cropping the fingers causes ambiguity — Is the hand going into something offscreen? How is the character gesturing? I also like to portray the body-chopping aspect of tangents because this one is not only visual but also heavily context-driven!

As communicators, and providers of commercial art, visual artists are beholden to avoid tangents. Once eyes are trained to look for them, tangents are everywhere! Visual artists develop habits and styles to avoid them. For the most part, the reader benefits. Business as usual, eliminate tangents, increase legibility. Exercise control over the piece, the message.

But then I get something like this in my email about some upcoming short course through SAW…

And I start wondering, am I being too deliberate with my work? Is my style causing me exquisitely angsty artistical suffering, instead of allowing me to be productive? With a sigh, I sent Tom Hart more of my money, and signed up to meet Derek Ballard, who not only has a graphic novel called CHOREOGRAPH, but whose credits include storyboards/writing on Adventure Time, Midnight Gospel, and an upcoming animated series on Netflix.

Derek comes from a strong comics background that was the gateway to his career in animation. His work was spotted at a comics gallery which led to an art test with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time team. For our first exercise as a small group, Derek gave us big chunky sound effects and speech bubbles on a grid of panels. We were tasked with inventing a story (characters, setting, dialogue) that incorporated the speech bubbles and sound effects in their original spaces.

Here was what I filled in from the time I had to draw stuff during the zoom call:

The whole time, I was thinking about, not only the ideas of using limited repetitive graphical elements (such as daisies in a field) to imply setting beyond the panel without drawing every last detail, but also this piece of art again:

I couldn’t get over how carefree the rendering was, and how much space it implied beyond the panel as a result. So, this resulted in Pierre getting his heel messily chopped by the border of the panel. Comparing the tangent that this created to something that I’d normally consider more ‘professional’ and the difference is really interesting to me! I’ve also blocked in the white space that the field creates as a result of how I crop the character sitting there.

Would the post-Iliad adventures of Achilles gone differently if he’d simply had his weak spot cropped out of the panel? Guess I’ll write fanfiction.

The next thing we did was to generate contextless comic panels that still seemed like they were part of one story, as fast as possible, really loose and fun. I focused on making panels ‘weird’ with Canicula and doing more odd crops. Then we were instructed to draw a story that made sense with our random, contextless panels. Absolutely everyone who did this assignment had a different take on it. I’m going to assume the open-endedness was on purpose.

Here was my initial lineup of panels. The flat color backgrounds reassure me that I can totally be lazy about some panels if I need it!

After we made the panels, we were asked to shuffle panels around and see how they affected story beats, seen above.  Depending on where I put that one big dramatic ‘Ha’ coming from Canicula’s mouth, the joke landed differently. Really nice to have ‘revision’ crop up in a class. Revisions are a constant for any professional visual artist. Normally revisions are shunned by shorter, casual classes, or classes more focused on self expression and art therapy, but Derek is a pro and wanted to show us all some pro techniques for situations that pros regularly handle. I really appreciated that.

So, Should My Comics Look Scribblier?
To my ultimate discomfort, it was revealed that my comics are indeed enjoyable if I just scrawl them out and not worry about smooth lines and coloring. So I’m still sitting with that and fidgeting. I don’t want personal pride to keep me from making more comics, but…Should I toss some of my previous art standards to the wind before I commit too heavily to something that might be keeping me from completing my projects?

Quickly! I’m feeling uncomfortable! To the self-deprecation chamber! 

You may be wondering, what’s the ah, kicker in all this? Well, after the class when I set out to find the cool panel design that had inspired me to be messier again, I found out that my interpretation of this panel of Derek’s work was in total error. The full composition of that panel actually looks like this:

So yeah…The original panel art that caught my eye wasn’t cropped weirdly at all. I didn’t even perceive the original artwork correctly. I actually don’t know where my perception of this panel came from. Maybe the emailed newsletter cropped it. Maybe I looked at it on the Patreon banner. Who knows? Experimenting from a completely mis-intended crop but still coming to an interesting conclusion? You could say, I sure went on a tangent! (Tinned laugh track).

For more of Derek Ballard’s incredible comics work, check out his Patreon.

Comics Tip

When to Letter a Comic
Comics are a synthesis of words and pictures. While they can vary between the extremes of a picture book vs. a wordless ‘silent’ comic vs. a full prose book, in general: Lettering is a necessary step for making your comic legible. Knowing when and how to do it is key for a clean comics-reading experience. Working with Derek reminded me that the order a comic is composed makes a difference and depends on the limitations and circumstances involved.

As a professional letterer, I will frequently get blank pages that need the script broken up and laid out on top of the artwork. Depending on the artist and the type of job, this has varying degrees of difficulty. Some artists are better at estimating the space for letters than others. Some script edits are wordier than others. Most of the time, I can fit any text using clipping, squishing the typeface by 6%, tightening the leading, and masking shapes behind character artwork. The other times, I query the editor, who changes the text. In very rare circumstances, the edit goes back to the artist to make room for the text. It’s far easier to change the layout or the text itself first, though! My work on the Riverdale Diaries was like this.

When localizing an existing comic into another language, I won’t have as much control over the shapes of speech bubbles. It’s my job to figure out the optimal font size in lieu of hard information from the original comic letterer. Sometimes I have to edit the speech bubbles themselves, but I avoid it whenever I can. I usually do localization with an FPO (For Placement Only) 90% opacity white layer between my text and the original comic before turning off the original lettering. This way I can line up the text on top of the original letters and more closely mimic the original comic’s feel. My work on Dog Man (Hombre Perro) was like this, and so is my work on the Spanish editions of Cat Kid Comics Club.

When I letter on my own, I letter immediately after thumbnailing and creating starter panels in InDesign. I can then export the pages as templates for drawing roughs. I always know exactly how much room my letters take up and, as a bonus, I can edit them without bothering an editor. In general, text is less flexible than art to move around. By lettering first I don’t have to guess how much space the words take up — I know for sure what room I have to draw my characters and settings! My work on Warlock’d, RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, and an upcoming third pitch are all made this way. It’s easier for me since I’m the entire creative team.

Care to read more?

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Allowing Synopses to Build on Each Other As I write, I learn new techniques for visualizing entire stories. Learning to understand synopses has been really important for me. One important thing I’ve learned about them is that they’re good for sharing with...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Finding the Character in Objects Writing progress became confused, dismal. I figured something out between the way I approach problems and the way my spouse approaches problems. When we play a puzzle game called Picross together, we often mess up the...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: A Retrospective of Drafts I really wish this wasn’t already halfway through the year. I’d hoped to have gotten started on the art part of my project instead of languishing on writing like I always do concerning Warlock’d. For both weeks, I decided to do a...

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SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 4/6

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 4/6

Has a colorful magenta and purple panel with three lettering effects inside. A Little Lettering over Lunch
Recently I had the very awesome and fun honor of guest speaking at a Kids Comics Unite Lunch n’ Learn session on comics lettering. I was invited by Janna Morishima to do a presentation for those who don’t know where to get started on this important aspect of comics creation. I view my own lettering skills as utilitarian, coming from a general graphic design/print background. My skills have successfully carried me through a dozen books via Scholastic and Little Bee Books. There are a lot of small tasks one can do to acquaint themself with digital lettering. There’s no need to go so deep as designing their own typefaces or completely hand-lettering hundreds of pages. Unless, of course, it’s fun!

For this presentation, I designed the above slides to help demystify lettering and make it seem more approachable to those who have never done it before, or who are looking for tricks to refresh their current experience. Some slides are going to be tweaked as I refine the knowledge I want to share. I think it would be fun to create a video about lettering with these slides and use it as an example of public speaking for my Appearances page. It would be fun to create a 2D virtual avatar for this purpose.

To my surprise, Tom Hart from Sequential Artist Workshop (SAW) took an interest in my lettering talk. I had been posting it in the SAW network for feedback there. I was then invited to give this talk again to the audience within SAW. How cool! I was so flattered and still am. I had a great time presenting. The group there is always good. I think it went really well, and as usual it whets my appetite to do more lectures and appearances about comics.

I think I’ll investigate the local libraries and bookstores, see what’s up. They might not want something so specialized as “just” the comics lettering that goes on in graphic novels, but I could probably invent something more generally comics-related and give that a go.

Some Excellent Lettering Questions
Lettering is an endless rabbit hole of stuff to learn, so it’s not quite feasible to lay everything out in a single talk or blog post. That said, there were some questions from both the Lunch n’ Learn and my SAW Presentation that I found particularly interesting, so I will answer them here as well.

What if you want a sound effect to expand across the gutter between two pages in a spread?
Generally a letterer avoids the bleeds and margins of a page layout, since letters can be lost to the printing crop there and become unreadable. However, artistic license demands exceptions to the rule, and one of those exceptions is large sound effects that spread across two pages, or that cut in from off-page, or etc. In general, keep as much of your word as legible as possible by keeping important letters (such as beginning and end letters) of the word being depicted in the printing safe zone. Sometimes, a letter might need to be wider to cross over the gutter between two pages effectively, too.

If words aren’t fitting into a panel, is it better to edit the text or squish the font size down?
There is never a strictly universal ‘better’ option for lettering, just ‘appropriate’ options for specific cases. In a comic with consistent font size throughout the whole book, smaller text will look odd or even infer something incorrect, such as characters whispering or lowering their voices. If the text is truly necessary, sizing down the art is preferred. Cropping, masking, resizing the width of the letters slightly, and some tracking tomfoolery can all be used to help letters finally snap in place. In general, though, if the editor can pare some text down, that’s much better and easier on the letterer.

What is the industry standard narration bloc treatment?
Unfortunately, industry standards do not exist. If they did, someone would have automated lettering a long time ago with machine learning. Typically narration blocs are squares with left-aligned text, but there’s nothing stopping an enterprising designer from experimenting with blocs of different shapes, sizes, and colors. I would save the really weird and wild lettering experiments for personal projects, though. Clients typically aren’t happy with surprises.

I have an older lecture about setting up one’s first Artist Alley table that I ought to dig up and rejuvenate, too. It was all about small starter projects and when to outsource production, as well as some tips on pricing, copyright, display, and marketing. That was a lecture I gave at San Francisco Comic Con way back in 2015(?) and I never got any feedback from it except from people directly attending. I think getting out there is really important so this looks worth revisiting. The design work isn’t half-bad, either.

Future talks are listed here on my Appearances Page.

Comics Tip

Hand-Lettering vs. Digital Lettering?
This is a false dichotomy. There is no vs.! They don’t fight each other. Digital lettering can look just as beautiful and human as hand-lettering. Both hand-lettering and digital lettering are used to create beautiful, readable comics. Good lettering leads the reader through a comic, and is implemented without suffering for the letterer and anyone who touches the working files of a graphic novel. The process of lettering does not matter; only the results do.

When to use digital lettering:
-Many pages
-Short deadline
-Health issues preventing wrist motion (such as carpal tunnel)
-Small, unimportant sound effects
-Corporate styleguides in place
-Mechanical-looking book title lockups
-‘Live’ text for others to edit if needed
-For works that will be translated into other languages

When to use hand lettering:
-Few pages
-Big, fancy sound effects
-Organic-looking title lockups
-Designing your own custom typography
-In-character hand-writing
-As a meditative exercise
-If it’s just more comfortable than digital
-For fun!

These are starting points for starting your lettering career. Or hobby. It would be nice if more people lettered for fun! Not everything’s a race to monetization.

Generally, lettering fits into a comics layout best when placed first, then has the drawings created around it. However, most publishers will ship flat, unlettered art to letterers, and letterers have to figure out how to slot the letters in to the layout so that all the nice artwork can be appreciated and understood. Here’s a blank comics page and a script, if you want to test out some lettering chops.

Script
PANEL 1
Narration:
On not recognizing someone because they are wearing a mask…

Bear:
Oh! Blueberries.

PANEL 2
Bear:
They’re my favorite.

Bear’s nametag:
NAME
NOT “BEAR”

PANEL 3
Bear:
But I like raspberries too.

Bear (thinking):
Have I offended the raspberry?

PANEL 4
Bear:
Oh no. Maybe I just like ALL of the berries!

H.:
W…Was the cashier a bear?

Care to read more?

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Weeks 27 & 28

Cocoon Year: Allowing Synopses to Build on Each Other As I write, I learn new techniques for visualizing entire stories. Learning to understand synopses has been really important for me. One important thing I’ve learned about them is that they’re good for sharing with...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Weeks 25 & 26

Cocoon Year: Finding the Character in Objects Writing progress became confused, dismal. I figured something out between the way I approach problems and the way my spouse approaches problems. When we play a puzzle game called Picross together, we often mess up the...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: Weeks 23 & 24

Cocoon Year: A Retrospective of Drafts I really wish this wasn’t already halfway through the year. I’d hoped to have gotten started on the art part of my project instead of languishing on writing like I always do concerning Warlock’d. For both weeks, I decided to do a...

Want to chat about this?