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 Week: 13 & 14

Cocoon Week: 13 & 14

Cocoon Year: March and April SummaryThere was some meandering and then I came to a conclusion by the second week. I will continue treating Warlock'd like it is a webcomic that I am developing in spite of being out on pitch. It's a risk but I will be fine.    ...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 11 & 12

Cocoon Year: Weeks 11 & 12

Cocoon Year: 2nd Half of March SummaryThis is the week I completed all of the art and writing for my pitch packet…at least, completed it enough to send it out. In that sense I’m emerging from my little microscopic shell, and now I have to focus on eating it.    ...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 9 & 10

Cocoon Year: Weeks 9 & 10

Cocoon Year: 2nd half of February, and a Bit of March SummaryThis week became complex for me. I zoomed through my client work and started approaching the end of the pitch packet. As always happens when I have a complex project close to completion, I started slowing...

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SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 6/6

SAW Graphic Novel Development Month 6/6

Digital spot illustration representing the spirit of the Sequential Art Workshop's Graphic Novel intensive. Arranged around a sawblade are comic pages, sketches, an ink brush pen, a Wacom stylus pen, a speech balloon with a blue exclamation point inside, ink spatters, loose staples, and a teal stapler that looks like it's leaping out at the viewer (woah there, stapler).

Recently, I wrapped up on a sixth-month course offered by Sequential Artist Workshop: The Graphic Novel Intensive. I had an overall positive experience. Here are my thoughts on it.

What Did I Want the Graphic Novel Intensive to Do?
I wanted:

  1. To meet other graphic novelists
  2. To exchange intensive critique on projects similar to mine
  3. To get the Warlock’d script to a stage where I could proceed to the art production.

Of these three things that I wanted, I met other graphic novelists and I got the Warlock’d script to a stage where I could start lettering it. Two out of three for $100/month isn’t bad.


What Did the Graphic Novel Intensive Do for Me?
I started the SAW Graphic Novel Intensive with a messy 4th draft of a comics script I’d been wrestling with for years, and some sample pages for what I wanted it to look like, seen here.

I ended the Graphic Novel Intensive with the following:

Screenshot of a Google Doc containing a thumbnailed comic page and some script. The script's contents are unimportant. This is mostly to show layout.

A completely revised and thumbnailed 330-page script

A curated gallery of 12 character designs for my graphic novel, Warlock’d.

These were rendered in a new, simpler style that is faster to implement. I think I could go even simpler than this, but this is where I’ve decided to try out the character designs in situ rather than fuss anymore over the lineup height chart.

Screenshot of Trello with Warlock'd to-do's in columns.

An organized Trello board for tracking my past and future progress.

Of these tangible things I created, I will note that they were of my own design for my own project. I proposed and completed them within the GNI program. I wasn’t particularly inspired by anything I saw there other than I couldn’t stand the thought of using paper index cards to organize everything. I opted for Trello for ease of organization and sharing, and some students thought it was good enough to adopt for themselves. I found myself resistant to incorporate suggestions from other students (such as changing my entire workflow to accommodate different software) but it was enough to have the invisible accountability to keep the work going.

And the intangibles: ‘Permission’ to start lettering my comic, as my script was now complete. Friends to chat general, surface-level comics-making with, but not really anyone willing to go mutually in-depth on our projects. Connections and familiarity with other comics artists, published, self-published, and otherwise.

I had an overall positive and productive experience, but I think a specific type of comics artist would benefit the most from the SAW Graphic Novel Intensive. Which begs the question…


Who is the SAW Graphic Novel Intensive For?

To help interested creators decide if they want to go for the Graphic Novel Intensive (GNI), I will present who leads the course, what other students bring to any given cohort, ways that the MightyNetwork interface benefits some methods of work and not others, comparable and different online courses in the $500-$800 range, and the harsh truth of making comics (which is: To make comics, one must…make comics. Sorry. There’s no getting out of it.) This is mostly my own opinion based on anecdotal observations, and isn’t technical or scientific in any way.


Who leads the SAW Graphic Novel Intensive (GNI)?
For the most part, Tom Hart (Rosalie Lightning, and who spearheads the SAW network itself) leads it. Tom Hart is a self-taught memoirist who examines his own personal pain as he draws his panels. He balances real-world observations with abstracted characters such as floating shapes and men who can’t stop screaming in the woods. As far as I can tell, his goal is to provide an affordable learning environment for a broad swath of comics artists. He also does a pretty good job of acknowledging each individual student in the cohort and encouraging them.

I spotted the following instructors and volunteers helping out during my time in the GNI. This may be an incomplete list based on my own personal observations. It may also change from cohort to cohort:

Emma Jensen, What We Don’t Speak Of
Jess Ruliffson, Invisible Wounds
Barry Sawicki, who is studying memoir and adventure comics about the woods


What Do Other Students Bring to the GNI?
I’d say my cohort leaned more towards booklike comics rather than cinematic comics. Different cohorts might bring different projects to the table.

There was no curation in terms of skill level or experience. Anyone can hop into the GNI even if they’ve never written a word or drawn a picture in their life. Portfolios are not required. If a person has $600-$800 and a way to submit the payment electronically to the school, they can join the course. What each person puts into the GNI (and gets out of it) is entirely up to them. I prefer this approach since I am typically not selected for curated cohorts and prefer not to even try when it’s part of the process.

There were around 70 students in the cohort as far as I could tell. Of these 70 students, I saw about 20 people consistently update throughout the entire six months, and of these 20 people, I think about half of them visibly made comics. It’s hard for me to say who was working on things behind the scenes without posting. The apparent ~50 person attrition didn’t sit well with me but I suppose that’s what happens in large remote art classes at this price range. I also don’t know what was going on behind the scenes there. They could have been working on their projects but choosing not to interact.

I saw memoir, nonfiction, informational fiction, picture book, fantasy/adventure, horror, science fiction, wildly experimental, and reality-based fiction as projects within the GNI. The environment is geared more towards ‘just getting it out’. Target audience was not largely discussed across the cohort. Creators typically opted for subject matter that was personally appealing to themself as a reader, whether that was art therapy-as-memoir, niche subjects, personal characters made up by themselves or by their friends, or dream projects that they wanted to finally pin down.

The critique atmosphere leans towards general support and acknowledgement of finished pieces. Technical questions are only answered if they’re brought up. If a participant knows what to ask there’s a lot of information available from the cohort itself. If they don’t know what to ask or are incurious, there won’t be much technique to pick up. Technique and workflow are not explicitly laid out in what I assume is an effort to be non-didactic. This meant that everyone had completely different goals, techniques, and were on different steps of their own projects.


What Sort of Feedback and Visibility Does the GNI Provide?
The MightyNetworks UI dictated a lot of the interactions within the GNI itself. Users upload ‘Articles’ to a feed containing anything they want to share, whether it’s WIPs, comics, illustrations, random photos, cat pics, or whatever else they’re focusing on that isn’t comics. There was a lot of socialization and procrastination, which is honestly what people should expect from comics artists.

Creatives who create their comics one complete page at a time, or who are at a stage to complete finished pages, will have more luck soliciting feedback than creatives who work in ‘waves’ (ie script, thumbnail, layout, lettering, roughs, inks, colors) across the whole comic. It was generally easier for the community to engage with complete work and I suspect the MightyNetworks UI had something to do with this, being structured like social media. People in the cohort were reluctant to read scripts and synopses. To this end, I would have to say, the GNI didn’t help me with the part I needed the most technical help with: Writing. However, this structure seemed very beneficial to those who only wanted to post complete pages and who felt more comfortable ‘just doing it’ and not worrying about longform writing structure.

All of the things I wound up with by the end of the course ( thumbnailed script, character height reference sheet, trello board) were mini-projects I’d designed myself.

One cool thing that the GNI does is open an end-of-the-course anthology compilation. It’s a small, easy vehicle for being published and given visibility outside of the school, to people who purchase the anthology. Participants are welcome and encouraged to buy copies for themselves. Profits go back to the SAW network, if I recall correctly. 


Cost Comparisons
When I first saw this course open up, I definitely thought: This is either a scam…or a steal. I admit, I waffled over joining upfront. The normal lowest cost on the sliding scale, early bird discount included, was $600 for a 6-month program. Most online/independent drawing courses go for $600 for four weeks or less, although they promise intensive feedback on specific subjects and critique along with weekly meetings. Your average art MFA can cost anywhere from $20k to $40k with mixed career results, so there you go.

I thought, there must be something going on here to make this course cheaper than what I see offered by the likes of Gnomon, a university, or other industry art courses. The answer is: There isn’t much individualized (or technical) critique. I think the self-study aspect is very similar to something like Skillshare or Coursera offers, although those are different communities. The most technical critiques were geared towards print production so that everyone could get their works to print. Many of the participants in the cohort didn’t know about print concepts like DPI, bleeds, gutters, and margins and had to be caught up during the various Zoom sessions.

Is the Graphic Novel Intensive still valuable? Yes: There is an instant community of other people making graphic novels together. I would not go into this program expecting any additional challenges or accountabilities on top of just making the graphic novel. It’s a lot softer and more nebulous than that.


If you asked me, I would say that the SAW Graphic Novel Intensive is the best place to go for the following types of comics creators:

The sad truth is, just taking the course won’t make a graphic novel appear with your name on it. There isn’t a course out there that can do that. You still have to decide upfront what you want your project to be, and how to go about making it. You also have to write and draw the graphic novel itself. No one will do it for you or show you how to do it. There are also no technical components or anything breaking down the individual skills involved with making a graphic novel, outside of asking other creators in the course what they’re doing. There are course materials to work through but they’re very light and are mostly recordings of other artists describing their own process. To get the most out of the course’s intention (“just get a graphic novel out”), whatever you have in your creative toolkit is what you must use.

Self-publishers and Small press
While the occasional alumnus of the Sequential Arts Workshop goes on to work with large publishers, my impression of the GNI was that the prevailing attitude was ‘whatever you’re making, just make it, even if it’s for no reason’. The vibe is less about being accepted into the publishing marketplace and more about removing barriers to making whatever you want to make. For this reason, I think self-publishers and small press enthusiasts will find this course the most interesting.

Willing to Take Social Risks
There is very little hand-holding when it comes to meeting other students in the cohort. It’s up to individuals to reach out to other individuals based on mutual interests. A person who never posts and never messages other people is missing the main value that the GNI has to offer.

Webcomickers and diary comickers will likely feel more comfortable with the MightyNetwork’s interface in terms of reader engagement. I observed updates of this nature (complete, polished single pages or spreads) got more feedback than those who were posting WIPs such as scripts and thumbnails. This may not be intentional within the course, but it’s what happens with a social-media-like feed where some content attracts more attention than others.


What Would I Change About My Experience?
I consider myself mostly self-directed but wanting to share my work for specific critique on a frequent basis with trusted peers who are similar to me in terms of goals and skill level. If I were to edit the course in a way that I think would improve it for my own purposes, I would add the following aspects to it:

Small Group Critique
I signed up for this course in hopes of discussing my project (Warlock’d), introducing it to other creators, and getting six months of dedicated, nuanced feedback from a variety of peers I normally would never have met. The Zoom calls were too large to accommodate nuanced critique of individual projects. So, my suggestion would be to  have small group matching done by organizers, either in breakout sessions from the main big Zoom calls or as their own weekly event. Maybe even rotating critique groups so that no one group completely drops off or runs out of steam. More of the nuts n’ bolts discussion work could be delegated to the students, essentially.

Code of Conduct for Soliciting, Giving, and Reacting to Critique
A code of conduct describing how critique works would be really helpful for creators who haven’t shown their work to others before. It would also have allowed me to feel safe giving and soliciting critique, because I could trust the recipient had also read the same code of conduct. Even in areas of the network designed for critical feedback, I did not feel safe getting into technical details with other creators on the network. I avoided commenting in-depth for the remainder of my time in the GNI. For this same reason I neglected to connect with anyone over my complete script. The expectations surrounding critique were that unclear.

Pitch Application
A small pitch application to ensure that people have something to make (and post, when they introduce themselves!) might help future GNI cohorts. This would be judged on proof-of-intent rather than anything skill-based, as I agree with an infinitely low skill floor. The course is more fun that way.

Something to Improve Engagement and Discussion About WIPs
I don’t know what this would be, exactly, but I’d love for the environment to shine lights on the stuff that hasn’t resolved into its final comicky form. More attention and support for scripts, layouts, and thumbnails.


My Experience with the Graphic Novel Intensive was Good, but —
According to the things I’d have liked for the program to have included (but did not), I would feel uncomfortable recommending this course to everyone. Here are my recommendations.


I think this is an ideal primary program for:
Self-directed, self-publishing/small press, extroverted creatives on a budget, who do their work one page at a time, sequentially, primarily for themself as an audience, and who respond well to generalized, group-targeted encouragement.


I also think this is an ideal supplementary program for:
Comics artists who are simultaneously working within a more structured art school environment, such as an MFA or technical school. The SAW virtual space is good for decompressing and avoiding burnout.


I think this program is worth checking out for:
People who want to find other people who make and read comics, whether it’s a hobby or a more serious vocation. I think this is a useful online space for those who aren’t able to travel physically to other locations or who are otherwise isolated. The price is reasonable for what the program is, and I recommend the early bird rates if they’re offered.


I also think that for whomever is interested, they might want to try the free parts of the SAW network first and see who they meet: https://members.sawcomics.org/

Comics Tip

Joining a Comics Community
While cartoonists are notorious for bricking themselves into tiny cabins far away from human society, let’s not be too hasty with exiting the grid. Making a big thing like a graphic novel is hard. Hermiting up too much makes it even harder. Here are some free methods for finding friends who make and read comics.

Depending on how big your city is and where it’s located, anywhere from none to many comics groups may be happening. Also look for drink n’ draws, gallery walks, urban sketch groups, illustration get-togethers, and life drawing groups. Since these groups are open to whomever, not everyone will be a best friend, but that’s what coffee shops outside of the group meetings are for!


Artist Alleys are great ways to connect with other comics creators. Even small conventions can be very good. Bring a budget and buy something from each table you visit, and take business cards with you. Afterwards, check bars and who knows, you might spot a creator relaxing after a long convention day. There are far too many conventions to list here, but check major cities for the really big ones and be on the lookout for local ones in smaller towns.


On this chat network, comics creators can hop into voice chat or carry on conversations via text while all simultaneously casting their screens and sharing their work. I have a quick list of active discords where comics artists tend to congregate and get things done. Note: Each of these links is a Discord invitation, so be prepared to be logged in with your Discord account or asked to make one.

Graphic Novel Artists and Writers
Artist Alley Network International
Comic Creators Workgroup


Some comics artists share their screen live for accountability’s sake. It’s always fun to pop in and look over someone’s shoulder while they work. Visiting a smaller stream might just make someone’s day, too. Twitch, Picarto, and YouTube are all common streaming services with varying levels of adult content allowed.


Networking Quick Tips
It’s important to be aware that you’re seeking specific types of companionship from people in these groups, but that doesn’t mean you have to announce it. Collaborating with others is a lot like dating. Don’t tunnel vision. Just go with the flow and see who becomes your friend.

When following up with a person, you don’t need to be funny, outlandish, or ‘stick out’ in their memory. A brief ‘nice to meet you’ email works fine and is actually fairly rare to receive after a social outing. Invitation for coffee where you offer to pay is also very reliable for continuing the relationship. Be sure to ask the other person as many questions about their own work as possible, rather than dumping your entire 10-volume graphic novel pitch on them.

Also, if you’re strictly social climbing, people can usually tell. It’s great to be friends with other people regardless of where they’re at in terms of their career. Never forget that.

Above all, when asked or if in an environment where it’s expected, share share share! Even if you’re not feeling confident about your work, other people love to see that you’ve put in the effort. They can also watch you improve as you continue to share.

Digital lineart of comic pages, a brush pen, a stylus, a speech bubble with an exclamation mark in it, an inkblot, and a stapler surrounding a round sawblade.

Or, if all that socialization stuff sounds too stressful…Here’s something to color all by yourself! Licensed under CC-BY-NC-3.0.

Care to read more?

Cocoon Week: 13 & 14

Cocoon Week: 13 & 14

Cocoon Year: March and April SummaryThere was some meandering and then I came to a conclusion by the second week. I will continue treating Warlock'd like it is a webcomic that I am developing in spite of being out on pitch. It's a risk but I will be fine.    ...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 11 & 12

Cocoon Year: Weeks 11 & 12

Cocoon Year: 2nd Half of March SummaryThis is the week I completed all of the art and writing for my pitch packet…at least, completed it enough to send it out. In that sense I’m emerging from my little microscopic shell, and now I have to focus on eating it.    ...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 9 & 10

Cocoon Year: Weeks 9 & 10

Cocoon Year: 2nd half of February, and a Bit of March SummaryThis week became complex for me. I zoomed through my client work and started approaching the end of the pitch packet. As always happens when I have a complex project close to completion, I started slowing...

Want to chat about this?