Afterlife

Afterlife

Full-color digital artwork of a vast, mossy landscape under a sky clobbering up with stormclouds. Two yi qi dinosaurs browse the moss near a black river. Overhead, a third yi qi swoops in from off-frame. The remains of a sauropod are overgrown with ferns and moss in the foreground. Off in the distance, it's difficult to tell where the mountains end and the clouds begin.

The Composition that Social Media Made

This piece didn’t start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them purple. I had a lot of help from NeolithicSheep, who shared my polls with enough people to give me good data to work from.

Dolling up a poll with emoji to make people want to click it is one thing, but the main force involved with garnering interactions is having friends with big followings on Twitter. I haven’t 100% figured out how to manipulate social media in my favor on my own, but this poll’s results sure turned out fun. I feel encouraged to set up other polls like this in the future. If you check out Shep’s twitter and enjoy his content, you can help him maintain heritage sheep and cattle breeds by pledging to his Patreon.

Comics Tip

Color Theory: Lightness and Darkness
When learning how to color, many beginning colorists are surprised to learn that at least one aspect of color theory can be picked up from doing grayscale (monochromatic) studies. The lightness and darkness of a color affects its depth and ability to catch the eye in any given composition. The way that light and dark colors pop out depend on their proximity to one another. Examples:

Digital artwork of a black composition with one white point, and a white composition with one black point.

In a very dark painting, seen on left, a light color will stick out as what you want the viewer to focus on. In a very light painting, seen on right, a dark color will stick out instead.

Digital artwork of a grayscale box. A white square and a black square are next to each other in the box, creating a point of interest.

It’s also important to keep midtone values in mind. The typical composition that utilizes midtones will gather  the darkest and lightest colors on a focal point. They will pop out at the viewer as an area they should look at. This is called an area of ‘high contrast’. 

Digitatl artwork of a checkerboard panel with nine black and white squares. One of the black squares is gray instead, creating a point of interest via scarcity.

…But this can be subverted in a very interesting way, such as making a high contrast black and white composition with one area of midtones.

Digital art of four different checkerboard squares. Each one is a different color, starting from monochromatic, to purple, to teal, to a yellow and purple variant at the end.

Monochromatic doesn’t mean ‘grayscale’, either. Monochromatic simply means ‘one color’. These aspects still apply even when a single color is used throughout a composition. Photoshop has a tool called ‘Gradient mapping’ which is useful for exploring monochromatic compositions and then harmlessly trying out different color schemes on top. It can be pushed to fantastical extremes, depending on the colors chosen, breaking it out of monochrome into a multicolor piece. Some artists use a Photoshop layer set to Overlay to hand-paint monochromatic compositions. I confess that my grasp on grayscale is not quite polished enough for this to work, and when I used this method I would add layers on top to deepen colors. For me, Overlay is too messy for comics coloring.

A version of the previously-described yi qi piece, but the only color used is purple.

My first attempt at coloring Afterlife was to use only purple, and color pick based on a palette. For a vision of the beyond, it turned out a little too lifeless, so I added a few spot colors here and there. I haven’t figured out whether this is an aspect of purple to be cold and dark like this. Red is probably easier to work with, so I’m keeping red in mind for a future monochromatic composition.

For another note on color theory, here is my writeup on how different hues of colors interact. If you play with both hues and with contrast, you’re bound to get some lovely color composition ideas.

DIgital lineart of the yi qi piece. Colors are omitted so that the viewer may supply their own here.‘Afterlife’ Coloring page licensed under CC BY NC 3.0.

 

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

UX Testing on Comics with a Target Audience

My goal with RAWR! Dinosaur Friends is to create informational fiction that doesn’t feel like a lecture. I want my readers to feel curious about the world. Not only that, I want them to feel equipped to explore that curiosity. In generally I’d really love to make science feel less…enthroned(?) As a static collection of facts. I also find the usual hodgepodge of ‘safe’ dinosaur facts pretty dull. Most conclusive, immutable facts we have about dinosaurs are dates and locations where their remains were found because we can never go back in time to see a living dinosaur. While I understand that a book having dated or disproven evidence is problematic, I have to ask…Where is the wonder? Where is the exploration? Science isn’t lists. Science isn’t facts. Science is an active, interactive pursuit.

When I first created RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as an armchair natural history blog, this spread on convergent evolution became quite popular. It resonated with over 2000 people. Maybe I could update the art and expand it with some sort of interactive exploration activity? Something with open-ended questions, so kids feel like they’re being engaged in a conversation, and invited to come to their own conclusions?

I updated my blog post as a full-color history concept with jokes, followed by a page of diagrams. The readers aren’t expected to form a specific answer by looking at these diagrams. The diagrams are there for comparison and maybe a little drawing practice. If someone from my target audience decided to give that a try, I would consider it a success.

I then showed these pages to my amazing writing group, the Night Writers, and esteemed scicomm author/illustrator Ellie Peterson stepped up to help! Her class of middle-schoolers was more than eager to help by looking at these spreads and writing their (hilariously candid) thoughts all over them. Thank you so much, Ellie! While Ellie’s students weren’t required to draw anything, she did ask them whether they would draw a diagram or not. Many of the responses were really cool. These kids are perceptive!


This was a really exciting and validating response! That’s all I really want readers to do, is to compare images for themselves, because scientists deal with exploring observations all the time.

No UX test (or comics creation process) is complete without at least one existential crisis. Maybe this kid was having a bad day…But, they had great notes on the other page’s bone diagrams so at least they were interested in the subject matter. Either way, it’s best for me to stay humble.

Statistics
Comments on the ‘fuzz’ joke in the opening spread:
“funny” [sic]
“Lol. :)” [sic]
“I dont know what the point of this is” [sic]

Total of 6th graders who indicated they would draw the skeletons: 3
Total of 6th graders who indicated they would not draw the skeletons: 2
Maybes on drawing the skeletons: 2
No answer on whether they would draw a skeleton or not: 5
Conclusion: When guided to these pages in an educational environment and given two options, 6th graders sometimes consider drawing dinosaur bones. Even when the 6th grader in question decided they wouldn’t draw the bones, they still wrote their observations of the bones on the page. That means readers are observing the differences in bones, which is the big thing I want readers to do with this book concept. The drawing suggestion is an extra activity for kids who really like comparing pterosaur wings to bird wings.

Grammatical corrections to dino chatspeak by 6th graders: 5
Conclusion: Pterosaurs and birds might brush up on their grammar!

What changes would I make in response to this data?
At the moment, I don’t know how I would edit my comic, because a lot of the ‘confusing layout’ notes would be solved with book binding firmly separating the pages. The speech bubbles on page two in the first spread are under review as something I should edit. The data pool was small and the comic is only a four-page sample, so I’ll try not to overcorrect. I am also going to have to revamp my original idea of making all the organisms talk in chatspeak, per a meeting with an editor who indicated I may have to rethink it and instead give them a silly typeface.

I was glad that many kids trusted their teacher enough to admit that they wouldn’t draw the diagrams because that indicated an environment where they could be honest. In general I trusted the answers they wrote. I’d have loved to see at least one attempt at drawing the diagrams, but the pages didn’t have any room for that (It’s meant to be an activity that takes place on a reader’s own paper outside of the book, anyway). If I work with an educator again, I may ask for drawing paper to be provided to see if kids actually want to draw bones or not. Sometimes a kid says ‘sure, yeah let’s do this’ but when it comes down to actually drawing they might hesitate.

My big takeaway from the UX test was that kids would, at least, interact with science in a comic format when given the environment and the materials. I can use that knowledge to help sell the concept overall of ‘interactive science’.


Also, this was the best feedback.

Comics Tip

Understanding a comic’s target audience is key to pitching it to an agent or even a publisher. Maybe a comics creator has an idea of who their readers should be, but isn’t quite sure. It’s hard to say what middle schoolers think is cool without querying the source. All sorts of things could have changed between the time someone is twelve years old and creating publishable comics.

My career as a UX/UI professional was short and depressing, but here are some of the things I learned that are helpful for parsing critical feedback.

  1. Involve the target audience as soon as possible (if there is one).
  2. Even a poorly-designed experiment is better than no experiment, but adjusting interpretations and improving experiments is key.
  3. The best way to get the most honest feedback is to not be present, personally.
  4. ‘Like’ and ‘Dislike’ are often less important than what people are specifically reacting to in the work. However, an overwhelming amount of either should be regarded as significant and allowed to influence what the project becomes.
  5. Nothing survives the audience.
  6. Data may be mathematical and immutable, but my response and proposed solutions are human and therefore subjective.

Ellie was really helpful to me when she offered to bring my work to her class because she became a neutral presenter for my work. The kids didn’t have to worry about offending or impressing me when they interacted with the comics pages. I also imagine that as their cool biology teacher, the kids involved trusted her and that also allowed them to give lots of feedback freely. As a result I have some nice talking points for when I pitch RAWR! Dinosaur Friends as a middle-grade graphic novel for publishers to pick up. I wouldn’t have had this knowledge about my specific project without her help.

Digital artwork of a pterosaur, a bird, and a bat in front of a square. The lines are blank for coloring.

If you want to be part of my next UX study, print this out, color it, post it somewhere, and tag me to come look at it. It’s licensed under CC-BY-NC 3.0.

 

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?

Carboniferous Friends

Carboniferous Friends

Full-color digital artwork of 250+ creatures of the Carboniferous period. A graphic of the world in the upper left corner encourages viewers to 'spot 'em all!'. The Carboniferous lasted from 359.2-299 mya. There are too many creatures in the graphic to name, but there are sharks, nautiloids, ammonites, fish, amphibians, arachnids, insects, and even a couple of edaphosaurs (mammalian reptiles) present in this period. They're scattered all around the continents before they were even Pangea. Plenty of plants dot the landscape in between, including plants still extant today such as ginkgo.

As it turns out, a person can fit a lot of stuff into an 11×14 inch double-page spread. How much, I didn’t realize, until I set out to create an example illustration for a picture book concept that I thought up. The idea is for kids to browse expansive eye-spy pages for their favorite animals throughout natural history, and maybe discover new favorites. The final book would contain a spread for every geologic time period in the history of Earth, and perhaps feature subsections of those time periods. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to pull something this complicated off, but I’ve established a workflow for making more of these illustrations when I move forward with this project.

Sketch of the layout of continents during the Carboniferous period.

1. Sketch
First, I made a best-guess sketch of what continents looked like during the Carboniferous, cross-referencing maps. Ideally I would be able to trace a Creative Commons or open-source map, but there were none to be found. Above graphic is an approximation of what the first sketch looked like, before I went back and refined it again. I have either deleted or lost the original map I drew in the list of 800 or so layers used producing this image. (whoops!)

Example of what a layered folder looks like when the visual reference is visible, plus sketch and lineart layers. This one contains the shrimp-like organism, Malacostracan.

Screenshot of a layer group containing reference, sketch, and lineart for the shrimp-like organism, Malacostracan.

2. Research
Each organism is contained in a named layer folder. The folder contains visual reference first, then will eventually hold the sketch and the final lineart.

It’s best if I do all of the research in one go, rather than switching from research to drawing intermittently. I trawled Wikipedia mostly, as the site requires citations and sources, plus it offers plenty of open-source visual resources. I also look at paleontology fansites and wikis where possible, because there is an enthusiastic fanbase of people devoted to compiling and sharing updated natural history research. Ideally I would want a consultant with more of a research and natural history background to help me with this, but for the time being, it’s just me, doing what I can with the resources I can access.

3. Sketch, again
After drawing the landmasses and using them to place organisms in spots where they mostly made sense, I studied each bit of visual research I can find. I used the name of the organism to search for additional reference if necessary, so naming my layers was extremely important here. I’m mostly looking at pose and size of each organism as I sketch. If there were ways to make the creatures interact with environments or with each other, I incorporated that too, for variety. A lot of this is speculative but I based it off of things I’ve seen real animals do today.

[image of tangent, or viewer flow through the piece]

4. Tweak composition
Once everything’s sketched, I bonk critters around to avoid the dreaded tangent. There’s a lot of organisms so they either need to be crossing over each other clearly or placed far enough apart that they’re not interacting. Typically the viewer needs to be able to see the head and tail tip of each creature to be able to tell what it is.
Something I have on the docket to try is compiling creature silhouettes as a check-off list and see if kids can look at the silhouettes, then find the creature depicted on the page. My goal is for the reader’s eye to travel all around the page, through all the creatures, without running into blocks or walls.

Two-page digital art spread, lines only and no color, depicting as many organisms of the Carboniferous as I can fit into two pages. A placard of the Earth with a ribbon states:

5. Lines
Each creature gets its design tightened up with clean lines in rich black at 5px on 1200dpi, prepped for coloring. I keep an older version of the completed lines, then merge all the lines into one layer on a new version of the layered photoshop file.

Color palette for Carboniferous Spread

5. Colors
I generated a palette containing two warm colors (orange and yellow), an intermediary color (green) and a cool color (blue). The blue and the intermediary green were used to create a background that would remain behind the critters and pop them out more. Sea creatures were given mostly cool colors, and land creatures were given the warmest colors. I want viewers to perceive both individual animals on a small level, but also the entire map of the earth of this time period (Carboniferous) because it’s so different from modern times.

The carboniferous spread with 250 organisms, now with flat colors for easier coloring!

Next, I flatted all the colors on one layer under the lineart. This keeps the filesize somewhat manageable and makes it easier to select blocks of color for detailing.

Clip of the whole piece, featuring many amphibians, a prehistoric spider, a whip scorpion, and various carboniferous plants. Each animal has some sort of highlight or special detail applied.

Organisms had highlights and detailing applied based on what aspect of them I wanted viewers to spot first. Mostly this was facial features, but some organisms have cool weird bits to them that we don’t see in the modern day. The colors are extremely speculative for lack of scientific evidence otherwise, and for this audience I leaned colorful/patterned rather than restraining myself.

Carboniferous spread with gradients applied for extra depth

6. Gradient overlay
My initial colors were fine but a little flat-looking. In order to add depth without overwhelming the viewer with detail, I added gradients set to Overlay on the background only. Now the bottom of the page looks like it’s angling closer to the viewer, because I used yellow there, and blue on the background.

Hue/Saturation layer from Photoshop, as a screenshot.

7. Hue/postproduction tinkering
Finally, there was a little bit of this, which Photoshop does well. I amped up the vibrancy to make the page feel like it’s bursting out of its bounds.

 

What’s next?
Are you interested in advising me on natural history, and/or picking up this kidlit midgrade picture book concept for publication? Let me know. The workflow is in place, ready to go.

Comics Tip

Color Theory: Warm Temperature Colors
When thinking about how to evoke ‘colorful’, many aspiring colorists throw every hue they can think of onto a scene, resulting in chaos. A seasoned colorist knows it’s not about how many colors used in a piece, but how the selected colors relate to each other. One aspect that helped me grasp this concept was color ‘temperature’, particularly with warm colors.

Six rainbow colors arranged in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple colors.

Reds, oranges, and yellows are typically the warmest colors in a piece, with yellow being the warmest of all. These warm colors tend to occupy the foreground.

Now let’s remove some of these colors and see how they read.

Yellow is the warmest possible color. The human eye typically loses sight of yellow at the furthest possible distance. Yellow is used to create warning signs that can be easily perceived at a distance on the road for this reason. It’s a color that jumps to the foreground. How the blue and green look in comparison to the yellow…They function as ‘cooler’ colors. Arranging them in stacks alters the viewer’s perception of distance.

Green, blue, and yellow boxes arranged in different combinations next to each other.

Which of these seems like it’s in order from back to front? Front to back? Out-of-order? The temperatures of a color correspond to the space it occupies in a composition, whether that’s the foreground, background, or midground.

Green, blue, and purple boxes lined up next to each other.

To look at slightly different color scheme, this contains green, blue, and purple. Without yellow, can we still tell which is the ‘warmest’ hue? Compared to blue, which is the coolest temperature color, or purple, which is also a very cool color, green pops out the most.

This is because green is the closest color to yellow within the context of restricting ourselves to these three colors. When there is no yellow present, green takes over the role as ‘warmest’ color and jumps to the foreground. To compare, here is a yellow-green-blue composition next to a green-blue-purple composition.

Blue green yellow composition vs a purple blue green composition

Two-page digital art spread, lines only and no color, depicting as many organisms of the Carboniferous as I can fit into two pages. A placard of the Earth with a ribbon states:

Maybe one of these color schemes suits you for tackling this big CC BY-NC 3.0 coloring page, or maybe you want to invent your own for the page while thinking about color temperature!

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock'd, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of...

Afterlife

Afterlife

The Composition that Social Media Made This piece didn't start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them...

Want to chat about this?