Part 3 of Our Virtual Convention Table
By Anna Rettberg
This is part three of a four-part series about our graphic novel, Meow the Infinite. You can also check out part one here and part two here. Part four will be coming up on Friday.
We normally hear from Casey on this blog, but since our current Kickstarter is primarily an Anna project, it seems right that there should be a blog post from me. So here I am!
Digital artists get asked all the time what our process is. What program do we work in? What brushes do we use? How do we organize our layers? And the answers are always different, because there is no one way to work digitally. Everyone has their own process, developed over years of experimentation and influenced by whomever you might have learned from along the way. So the point of this post is not to tell anyone how they should work, because that’s something everyone should figure out for themselves. The point is to show how I use Photoshop to make a comic, having come from an illustration and game art background (before Meow, I’d never worked on a comic before!)
It took a little time to settle into the rhythm of my current process. The first handful of pages are totally different from the rest of the comic. I was developing the art style and the process of setting up a page at the same time. The files are unwieldy and everything is totally disorganized. Those files are layer chaos! But by the time I got to page ten, I had started to settle in to what would eventually become the process I used for the rest of the comic.
By chapter one, page ten, I finally started to settle into a specific process.
Before I get into the specifics of how I make a comic page, I’d like to point out the two things that made the biggest difference in efficiency on this project: organization and consistency. For me, layer groups and layer order must be predictable throughout every panel and every page. That way, if I ever need to make a change, I know exactly where to go. This is a good rule of thumb for any professional illustrator to follow. While processes can vary considerably, one thing that should always be true is that your files should be easy to navigate.
With that out of the way, I’ll talk about how we get the story from an idea to finished artwork. It starts with the script. Casey and I both developed this story together, but he’s the one who writes the script. Comic scripts can vary greatly  —  some writers specify every beat, down to dictating what will happen in each panel, but we decided we wanted more flexibility than that on my side. So Casey writes what is more like a short story, which allows me to play the role of director and decide how things are staged. For me that is the perfect starting point. Here’s a section of script from Chapter 5:
If I have any problems with the script, we discuss them and make changes. After we’re both satisfied with the script, I begin the layout. For me, this is one of the most exciting parts of the entire comic-making process  —  it’s where the story starts to come alive. I read through the script, scribbling down panels as I go. I say scribbling because of how rough the drawings are  —  it’s just about getting the image from my head onto paper. Some artists go through many iterations of panels during this layout stage, but for me the first thing I draw is almost always what I end up going with. I find that my first instinct is usually the best.
The full layout for chapter five.
After drawing the layout, I roughly add in the dialogue, to make sure that all the text fits. We will do this process again later, but I find it’s good to do a rudimentary pass during the layout stage in case there are any major issues with dialogue not fitting. With our particular comic, we’ve found that large amounts of text can be hard to make fit  —  text takes up a lot of space, so you have to be really economical with dialogue. It can be a difficult balance to get right. Below, you can see both my initial rough layout, and the version with text added.
Next, I set up a comic page. I start with a page template  —  this is something I didn’t have at first, but made once I realized that it would save me time and help with consistency. The template ensures that the files are all the correct size and dimensions, and includes:
The bleed. This is the area that extends past the point where the page, when printed, will be cut.
The “safe zone”. I try to keep all important information contained within this region.
A spacing guide line. This ensures that the gap between panels is always consistent.
I paste the rough layout drawing into this template, and use the spacing guides to mark out what size the panels will be. Below, you can see (1) the basic template, and (2) the rough layout with the panel spacing lines added.
At this point, I add the text bubbles. Adding them now means I avoid drawing a whole illustration only to find out that the text doesn’t fit, or part of my art is covered in a way I didn’t intend. The text bubbles are a part of my process I would change for my next comic. I make them in Photoshop, which is a huge pain… Photoshop is really not meant for working with text. But that’s a whole other story!
After adding the text, I draw a more polished sketch on top of the rough layout, which will be the guide for my final drawing. Below, you can see (3) the roughs with dialogue bubbles placed on top and (4) the cleaned up sketch, ready to head to the final art pass.
Now that the sketch is finished, each panel gets made into its own layer group. The borders of the panel are defined by a layer mask. Once the file is organized and ready to go, it’s time to start drawing! I always go in order, starting with panel one.
On my first pass I do the line art. There’s really not much to say about this stage  —  I just draw! I always use the same brush for Meow the Infinite  —  it’s called “Your New Favorite Inker” from Kyle’s Inkbox. Below is what the page looks like after all the inking is finished. I’ve hidden the dialogue bubbles so that everything underneath them actually gets drawn properly. You never know if you’re going to need to change the bubbles, or use the image for promo purposes, so I find it’s always better to draw the entire image  —  even the parts that will be covered by text.
Once the page is drawn, I move on to color. I start with flats. The number of flat layers depends on the number of planes in the image. In this particular case, there are three planes  —  the foreground characters, the midground wall of the ticket booth, and the background outside. For the main character’s colors, I create a swatch palette so I can grab the colors easily from that.
After flats, I add lighting to the background. I always do the backgrounds first, so I’m able to properly light my characters. All of the shading layers are bound to the flat color layer by a clipping mask. In the example panel below, you can see my (a) inks, (b) flats, and (c) background lighting. For the next step (d), I put down an ambient light layer on the characters  —  in this case a pale blue, at a very low opacity. It helps set them into the environment.
Next, I add a (e) shadow layer (which is usually a normal color layer with the opacity turned down) and carve away at it with a layer mask. I’ve found a layer mask is better for shadows, since it works in black and white  —  that way I can easily go back in and rework the shading without having to try to find whatever color I used for the shadow.
Once I’m happy with the shading, I throw some light and shadow on the character with subtle gradients (f). It just gives them a little more depth. Then I add on a “highlight” layer (g) along the rim of the character, which is not usually based on “real” lighting in the scene  —  it’s more of a style choice. And finally, I color the lines (h) to soften them. By the time I’m done, this is what my layer stack looks like:
I try to keep my coloring process simple, since there’s just so much to draw! In some of the earliest pages, which are a bit less consistent, I was trying to figure out my exact coloring style. In the example below, you can see I’m playing around with some softening of the shadows, but that sort of thing just takes way too long.
So that’s basically it! I then repeat that drawing/coloring process for the rest of the chapter. I always complete one page at a time, rather than going through and doing all the line for the whole chapter, and then all the color. I think it help avoids boredom and burnout to switch back and forth between drawing and coloring more frequently.
So yeah… that’s an overview of how I make the comic!
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