November 29, 2008

This week: The Pointed Drafting Divider.

I only bought this thing a year ago, and in that time it's become my third most-used tool. #1 is my pencil and #2 is my eraser. That's right- this thing gets more drafting table and sketchbook time than any or my markers, sticks, brushes or nibs. Why? because it's the most brilliant, multi-tasking, time-saving thing I've ever owned. I find new things to do with it all the time. This thing has made my life better like a good friend makes your life better- the longer you know it, the more incredible and helpful it seems. I'd lean out of an airplane and toss them to people from a huge sack for everyone to have, except that the points are needle-sharp and I'd end up killing and maiming thousands if I did.

This is what my baby looks like:
Let me show you how to use it. (as always, click on small images to make them larger.)

The most basic, most helpful thing it does is allow you to make evenly spaced marks super-dooper fast without having to use a ruler. Rulers work great, but using a ruler to rule 50 tiny marks is a HUGE pain in the ass, for the following reasons:

A: your head needs to be right above the marks you make, or else perspective distortion will cause your lines to be ever-so-slightly off from the actual ruled line. This is not fun to find out when you're inking and you find out a line doesn't really look right.

B and C: If you have an inclined drafting table, you have to press hard against the ruler and tape the paper down securely to make sure both don't start sliding down while you work.

D: My clumsy hands always seem to jostle the ruler and I constantly have to reposition it. The longer the ruler has to be down, the more I jostle and have to re-set.

E: You can try to save time by marking off the space on the ruler and moving that along the line, but it's awkward to slide the whole ruler and you have to mark up the ruler, which then needs cleaning! This is the part of the infomercial where the person tears their hair out and declaims "There must be a better way!" There is. Instead of marking off your spaces with a ruler like a chump (1.), measure the increment you want with your handy-dandy pointed drafting divider (2.), and then go right down the line making perfect, even spaces! (3.) As you can see, they come out more even than my ruled marks! (4.)
But that's just the beginning. Having a tool that can adjust to any width and hold that width means no more measuring, ever again! Which is great, because what would often happen to me when I'd go to evenly divide a line that I'd drawn freehand, I'd get some number like 5 and 13/32", which if you try to divide my half or thirds is fucking unmeasurable. Now when I want to divide a line I don't even look at my ruler.

I put the divider on one side of the line, and guess where the exact middle is. (1.) Then I swing it over to check, and usually I'm a little under, as I am here. (2.) So I expand my divider to fill about half the extra distance, put it back on one end and try again. That's closer, but still not quite there, (3.), so I refine a little more, and voila, in about five seconds I have the exact half-length of the line, (4.), and it's midpoint (5.) Once you have that, you can add your gutter spacing, if you were dividing it to make two tiers or two panels. (6.) Just use the divider to measure one of your other gutters and poke it right where it's needed. The prongs are specially made to be so thin that with careful use they won't harm your paper in any noticeable way. I can ink right over the teensie holes it leaves.
Now let me show you some more advanced tricks:

A common problem I see that even some professionals never figure out how to solve is how to divide a page into tiers that are of even height. It's easy to divide a page into equal parts by dividing the length by 3 or 4, but people run into a wall when they add gutters. The most common mistake is to draw the gutters around the lines, which leaves the middle tiers scrunched up and the outer panels larger, with an uneven and amateurish result. (right below)

The solution is easy, but different for even and odd numbered tiers. For even # tiers, find the middle of the page, and DO draw your gutter around that. But then when you divide those two halves in half, don't use the midpoint, use the edges of the gutter around the midpoint, like on the left below. Repeat as necessary, and all your tiers will be totally even between their gutters. This also works with a ruler, by the way.

For odd # tiers, you need a different approach. As you can see below, you start with the same basic problem: tiers in the middle get scrunched up short and the outer ones are too long.

Instead of dividing the whole line into 3 or 5 or whatever and then drawing in gutters, like in the top two examples below, figure out how many gutters you'll have, and then subtract their distance from the line, and now divide that up. Then use that distance and alternate plugging that and the gutter distance in along the line, as in the bottom example below:

Now let's say you have some crazy amount of tiers that would take forever to split up with the divider. That's when you pull out a metric ruler with really small spaces and a calculator, or if you have the equipment, do the division in Photoshop and measure it off the screen with the image set so inches on the screen are actual size. Once you have the measurement you can use the divider to make the spaces.

But the thing I use my divider for most is keeping my proportions consistent, and for taking measurements off of photographs and drawings. It's great because I don't have to actually know how long something is, just how it relates proportionally to something else. It's like how some artists use their pencil shaft to take measurements when they draw.

Here's a great example of how the divider helped me out: Awhile back I did a poster for Patton Oswalt, and I needed to learn how to draw his face quickly. I'm not naturally very good at faces, so to give myself a head start I used the divider to measure parts of his face against one another to give myself an idea of how big different parts really were compared to one another. Here's part of a sketchbook page of the measurements I made:
Doing this put me days ahead in being able to draw Patton recognizably. The divider also really helped recently when I was learning how to draw horses. With all the things I can do with it, you can see why the divider has become such an important tool for me.


November 22, 2008

This week: Draw in any direction with a nib

For reasons I cannot understand, there are still people who think you can only make downward strokes with a pen, and that to get an upward stroke, you have to physically turn the page over and draw a downward stroke. There are even still professionals who've used pens for decades who think this. There are books that supposedly teach you how to use a pen that say this. I don't know how people can have used this tool for so long without having figured out the very simple solution to the problems. For those of you who've never used a nib before, let me bring you up to speed on what I'm talking about:

A nib is a pointy tool made out of two needle-sharp barbs of metal that sit up against one another, forming a channel that ink flows through. When you hold a nib in a resting position, the nib is at an angle, with the bottom concave side facing the page, and the tip of the tip pointing at the top of the page. With the nib in this position, as illustrated in Fig 1.2, you can only draw the nib downward, or in a downward-ish direction. If you try to pull it to the side, it's tip will thrust into the page and stop. Here I've shown the maximum range of angles I can draw with my nib facing straight up before the tip catches the page. (Fig 1.1) As you can see, this particular nib can actually draw up on the left side, probably from wear on that side. If you had a really sharp nib like a crowquill you'd have way less range if you tried this.

So what happens if you push that nib up anyway? Either your nib will skip and shoot ink all over the page like this,Or it will flat out stab holes into the page, like this, or both. So, can anyone see the solution to this problem? If you hold the nib perfectly straight up and down when you draw, you can only draw downward lines. Can anyone think of the solution here? Anyone?
DON'T HOLD THE NIB STRAIGHT UP AND DOWN. You have a hand with joints and stuff, right? Your drawing hand isn't a laser printer on a track that only goes back and forth, right? Move your hand around! It's as easy as that! The pen can only move away from the tip of the nib, so change direction of the nib to draw in different directions! What you see below is pictures taken while making one, uninterrupted line. The paper was never moved, the nib never lifted:

Easy! Depending on how you hold your pen, you may need to grip it differently to be able to do this. Everyone holds their pen differently, but just to give you an idea of how I do this, I'll show you how I hold my pen. You'll probably have to find a different way, because your hands are probably different than mine.

In Fig 2, you can see that the two fingers actually holding the pen stalk are my thumb and middle finger. The two fingers clamp against the pen stalk, holding it. They move back and forth for short strokes, where I often won't move my hand or arm at all. And my thumb will shift up or town to swing the pen stalk around, which reorients the nib. All my other fingers are doing is stabilizing my hand at the desired height or steadying the pen. The meeting of these two fingers is the pivot point for the pen to change directions, as you can see.
Using this technique, I can draw very controlled lines of any length in any direction I want. I may still move the page around a little if it's more comfortable, especially on very tricky curves, but it's almost never necessary.

November 15, 2008

This week: pointed sticks

I'm terrified of Rapidographs. They scare the living bejeezus out of me. I know they're hands-down the best tool that exists for getting a consistent dead-line for backgrounds and lettering. They come in different sizes and they have dark, waterproof india ink in them. Everyone I know who uses them likes them. But the cleaning, the tiny little parts, the expense...they send me screaming for the hills.

This leaves me in need of a replacement tool, because having a tool that can produce a dead-line of various weights is pretty important. Japan makes some great pigment markers that make American and German markers look like garbage in comparison, but I hate the feel of markers on paper. Especially my paper, which is vellum surface and fairly rough. Plus, if I don't move the markers slowly, they skip and don't leave a solid line. And disposable markers aren't cheap either. I have pen nibs specially made for writing that will produce a dead-line, but they're a bitch to use and clean and finding good ones means buying antique. For years, I struggled to find a liquid ink tool that would produce the lines I wanted but wasn't a Rapidograph. The chinese were there to answer my prayers:

These are bamboo skewers, and they're
one of my most important tools.
As you can see, they cost $1.25 for a package of 100.
These miracle-sticks saved my life. You can use them as-is, or whittle the tip with an exacto knife to the width you want. Then you simply dip them in ink and draw normally. They're great for backgrounds, architecture, machinery, lettering, and anywhere else you need dead lines to contrast more fluid nib work. Because they're a cheap, mass-produced product not made for drawing, you do need to do a little quality control when you pull one out to use. Make sure the sides are smooth and free of splinters, as in this picture:

The tips also aren't quiiiite uniform in size, so have a look before using them. If you get lucky you'll get one exactly the right size an not have to whittle at all.
For comparison purposes, I'll show you some demo lines as drawn by what are, in my opinion, the three best markers on the market (I've literally tried every available kind that I'm aware of, but I love testing new ones, so let me know if there's one you think I ought to know about.) in comparison to the three sticks I have in service right now. These are the markers, if you're a person who actually likes markers and would like to try them:
The black Deleter is a new version of the Grey and blue Deleter. The new one is archival. Here's how the Deleter and Copic look:
As you can see, they're both good markers, and they even offer a little line weight variation if you lean on them a little. I actually do use both of them sometimes, because they honestly are very good tools. But now here's my bamboo sticks:
As you can see, you can get a lot of very interesting lines out of these, and even a dry brush effect from the larger one. Here's a doodle I did with them to show how they might be used in drawing:
And in this page, everything in the background was drawn with the bamboo sticks, including the swirly lines of drunkenness around the bearded dude's head. The more uniform line contrasts just enough with the nib work to help set it apart, but it doesn't look out of place, because the bamboo doesn't make lines quite as clean as markers. Best of all, I can move the bamboo sticks much faster on the page without the line breaking up than I can with any marker I've ever used. Click on the page to see it full-sized.

The overall lesson here is, if you don't like the tool you're using, use something else. Anything is an art tool in the hands of an artist.

Next week: How to draw in any direction with a nib.

November 12, 2008

Take it slow baby, but don't stop

My favorite thing in recent years, in terms of the information available to someone trying to learn the craft of making comics, is creators posting videos showing themselves inking. It seems to be kind of a thing now, and my hope is that it's a meme that keeps spreading. When I look at a drawing by an artist with a very distinctive line, I always try to reverse-engineer it. What sort of tool did they use? How did they make those marks with it? How did they hold the tool? What did their hand-movements look like?

Through years of experimentation and research I've been able to either learn how the artists make their marks, or at least learned how to produce a reasonable facsimile. Seeing original art has helped a lot, and made me a more confident artist, by seeing how much white out people like Chris Ware and Charles Burns have to use to make their images look like they do. But nothing has been so useful to me as seeing footage of artists actually inking. The videos everyone has probably seen already are videos of Jeff Smith inking, like this one:

These are pretty cool, and certainly illuminate his working process in a way that I find wonderfully transparent and helpful, but what bugs me is all his videos are time-lapsed. It's great for showing every step he takes in a single drawing, but what we miss is the biggest thing I've learned from watching footage of cartoonists inking: SLOW DOWN, BUT DON'T STOP.

In the past, when I looked at art by people like Paul Pope or Becky Cloonan or Fabio Moon, who all have explosive, kinetic lines that seem to have been laid down by a speeding spaceship, I assumed that those marks were made quickly and violently, because they looked quick and violent. But I was totally stymied in my attempts to recreate such effects, because although I could make marks that looked liek theirs by being violent and swift with my brush, I couldn't control my line, and I didn't have enough time to make all the little decisions I needed to be making.

I've since had the pleasure of seeing all of these artists ink, either on film or in person, and what I learned is that that speed and violence is an illusion created by careful planning and great craft, and by moving slowly but steadily through the page, like an explosion happening in slow motion. Think of high-speed camera footage of an apple being shot with a gun. The explosions takes shape with a slow, deliberate pace, but the result is striking, and the still images suggest great speed and power.

The next time I sat down to ink a fight scene with lots of motion blurs, as I drew I made the sound of an explosion in slow motion. Instead of "P-KooM!" I went "Pppppppkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkooooooooooooooooooooo...", dragging the sound out into a modulating but sustained growling noise. I literally made the sound out loud, albeit quietly, for a good hour straight. It was the best page of motion lines I ever made. They look like they were laid down by twenty dozen hells-angels nibs all peeling off and leaving slashes of wet ink, but in fact they were all drawn with a steady, careful hand, and a mind thinking in slow motion.

Watch these two videos of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá inking. Watch how both men move from one task to the next steadily, slowly enough to give each line the consideration it deserves, but no longer. I hope you find them as helpful as I've found them.

(in this first one, look how at around 2:50 Fabio carefully allows just a touch of white space to separate his character's hair from his eyebrow. Just one of thousands of little decisions that make up a good page of inking.)

November 11, 2008

Emmanuel Guibert demonstrates his drawing technique

Everyone's seen this, right? You've all probably watched it like ten times? It's great every time you see it, right? Here it is, so you can watch it again:

November 9, 2008

The amazing Trade Loeffler
posted this comment:

"Hey Matt,

A couple of great posts so far. Your mirror trick is something I'd never been taught, but learned on the fly when I started drawing my Upside-Down Me story. When flipping the characters from the floor to the ceiling and ceiling to floor I started catching all kinds of flaws in my drawings, and realized what a great technique it was to look at my drawings from different perspectives.

I don't have a mirror that I work with (not enough room in our NY apartment), but I use my lightbox instead. Flipping the drawing over and examining it from the back works just great for me."

Trade's online comic Zip and Lil' Bit, which finished it's second story arc in June, is one of the best drawn web comics today. His comment shows exactly why I'm doing what I'm doing with this blog. I know so many cartoonists who are growing into their craft, who don't lack for talent, but who struggle with easily fixable problems because they simply haven't heard these little bits of knowledge that would make their creative lives so much easier. Most cartoonists are left to figure these problems out on their own, and sometimes they never do. How-to books are usually focused on broad problems like figure drawing and making pages that read clearly, and they rarely contain all these hard-won little pieces of accumulated craft. These things become second nature to a professional, to the point where I think people take for granted just how hard and slow drawing was for them before they learned them all.

The internet has really made things better. Trade frequently posts work-in-progress pictures with explanations of his process, as do many cartoonists these days. It's common for young artists to post their pencils and even thumbnails up on Flickr for people to see how they work, and there's an entire Flickr Group dedicated just to cartoonist's work spaces. A recent and WONDERFUL phenomenon has been artists posting video of themselves working. All of this is for the same common goal- we remember how hard it was for us to get this information, and we all want it to be as easily available as possible. If you want to know, you should be able to find it out. What I'm trying to cover with this blog is the stuff you didn't know you wanted to know, things you wouldn't necessarily know to seek out on your own.

Warren Ellis once posted an idea he had where blogs and social networking would basically evolve into mass, simulcast radiotelepathy, where every piece of new knowledge would be instantly broadcast to the entire group, so that everyone's knowledge would increase at once. I dream of an artistic world like that, where your limits are the limits of your creativity, not your knowledge.

Old artists sometimes see knowledge as something to be hoarded and guarded. They see themselves as riding in a helium baloon, and if they give away their helium to other balloonists they'll sink as the other baloonists rise. Of course, the truth is that they're riding in a hot air balloon, and if everyone shared their fire with each other, they'd all rise up faster and higher than they could if they were miserly with their flame.

I hope that my readers will tell me, whether by radiotelepathy or comments or email, about any tips and tricks they've learned.

This week: Using Light
(Click on small images to see them big.)

I think the title image says all there is to be said about tracing, right? Does anyone not know how to trace with light? You take a sheet of paper with a drawing on it, stick it behind a piece of paper you'd like that drawing to be on, shine a light through the back and draw on the top sheet. You can use a light box, a computer screen set to maximum brightness with a pure white screen, or a window on a sunny day. We're all good on that use? Then let's move on to studio lighting.

Some of what I'm about to say is really obvious once you know it, but unless it occurs to you or someone tells you, it can cause huge problems. Here's the most important thing: you want your drawing lamp, or whatever your lightsource is, to be OPPOSITE whatever side your drawing hand is, as seen below in Fig 1. If you don't have a light source you can move, then move your table. Fig 2 shows why this is so important: if the light is shining from behind your drawing hand, it will cast a dark shadow that will obscure your lines and make it very hard to see what you're doing. Fig 3 shows how placing the light opposite your dominant hand casts the shadow in back of your hand where you're not looking. You can even see the tip of your drawing tool! I'm gonna make an admission here and say that it was sophomore year of college before I learned this. By sheer chance I'd been placing my lamp correctly for years, but with my new school setup I'd gotten it wrong and it was giving me trouble. I think it was Jessica Abel who taught me how to place the lamp correctly, and bless her, I don't recall her cracking so much as a derisive smirk about it, as obvious as it must have seemed to her. She's a great teacher.

Now, some folks claim that a single incandescent bulb vibrates almost imperceptibly and causes eye strain. I've never had a problem with this, but if you feel yourself getting insane eyes (fig 4.1), I've heard it recommended that you either get two light bulbs to cancel each other's vibrations out, or buy a lamp that has both an incandescent and fluorescent bulb. I can't stand fluorescent lights at all, but it seems to help a lot of folks I know. The important thing for me is that the light be one of those daylight bulbs that cast a white light instead of a yellow light. That's what it takes to keep my eyes sane. (Fig 4.2)

Now, a couple of posts ago in my manifesto for this blog, I wrote about the kinds of tips about craft that can be taught quickly, learned instantly, and instantly improve anybody's work regardless of skill level. These little tips and tricks may not be physical tools, but they are mental tools that everyone needs in their mental toolbox to help them do what they do better, so I feel they belong on the comic tools blog. Here's some basic ones about light and shadow:

- Generally, thin lines facing the light source, thick lines facing away.

-Generally, when you don't have some strong light source contradicting this, shadows should go under things, on the undersides of things, and on things that are in back of other things. (Someone walking might have the back leg blacked in, for instance.)

-Trying to draw a cast shadow by tracing the outline of the object and then using that to make the shadow looks like shit 99.999% of the time, and I can always tell. I know it seems like a shortcut, but so is having your hair cut by a lawnmower.

-Fig 6 and Fig 7 show two ways of drawing shading on an object with a light source to the left of it. Neither of them is better than the other, but you have to know when to use them and why. Fig 6 shows hatching blending from the light side to the dark side, which is totally black. Fig 7 shows the hatching going from the light to the dark side, but it also shows the reflected light on the edge. If you look closely at the edge of an object with a strong light cast on one side, you'll see that the darkest part of the shadow isn't actually on the opposite side, as you might logically expect, but rather it's just before the edge. The edge is slightly lighter. That's because to your eye, the abrupt cast shadow contrasts strongly next to the light side, but once you're looking at the shadow side the light already in the environment, however dim, lights that dark side ever so slightly. That edge of muted light can really save your ass when you have to draw something against a black background. Fig 8 shows regular black shading with no reflected light, and as you can see, everything shaded disappears. The entire right side disappears, and the shape is impossible to discern. Fig SUCK shows a common, shitty solution to this problem, which is to draw a white space around everything you draw against a black background. I don't give a shit HOW many professional, published comics you see doing this. A lazy, shitty shortcut that pros use is still a lazy, shitty shortcut. It takes a few second's extra thinking to do it right and if your comics don't mean enough to you to do that, please throw your pages down a well and break your fingers with a hammer. Fig 9 shows the simplest solution to the problem, which is to represent the reflected light by stopping your shading just INSIDE the outline on the shaded side. This works especially well for people who don't hatch, actually- it's clean and smooth and graphically useful, allowing you to distinguish flat shapes from a background with no modeling. If you do hatch, though, it looks a little too smooth for some materials. If you need to soften it, you certainly can , as Fig 10 shows. In fact, if you want to start playing with the hatching itself, and maybe start interrupting the edge of the reflected light, you can really start getting some wild textures. I was going for some sort of pitted stone with Fig 10. Finally, a note about drawing black things: don't draw them entirely black. Black objects, even very. very black objects, always have some lighter bits and darker bits. Go look at your black pants, or your leather jacket, say. Drawing those shadows not only tells your reader alot about that material, it also makes it look MORE black, oddly. Filling in a black suit totally black is another shitty, lazy shortcut that pros use all the time and shouldn't. If your comic has really simple, graphic charaters, solid spotted black clothes might be acceptable (although I'd encourage you to design the simplest of characters with some highlights on their blacks, even if it's just some white on top of the shoulders) , but you'll still have to contend with putting those characters over a black background, or having a black-sleeved arm cross over a black chest. You'll probably need a white line of some kind then, and if you remember what I've just told you about lighting, that white line will look natural and unobtrusive, instead of making the reader go "Oh, wow, I guess that guy never planned for that character's arm to go over their chest, huh? EEsh."

I'll conclude with a few selected panels from Gabriel and Guy Davis that embody the principles I've been talking about:
Next week's tool: Pointed Sticks.

November 1, 2008

Hi, I'm the new guy.

And I'd better hit my feet with a hammer so they swell up, because MK left me some big shoes to fill.

My name's Matt Bernier. I'm a cartoonist and a friend/fan of MK's. Awhile back she realized she wasn't going to have much time to post here anymore because she was too busy pursuing other avenues of awesomeness, and so she handed me the keys to this blog and said "Have at it."

And I had big plans! But then I decided to move to Portland Oregon and make a go at totally destroying my life, and I never did get around to the blog, or much else. Now I'm back in Brooklyn, dusting off my abandoned projects, and this is one I've been really looking forward to.

I'm going to be taking the blog's content in a slightly different direction, from mostly interviews about what tools people use to tutorials and interviews to help my readers improve their craft.

In some artistic circles, craftsmanship is seen as a sort of elitist or anti-artistic aspiration. A flashy spectacle certain artists slave over perfecting so they can have a pissing contest over whose draftsmanship is superior instead of focusing on REAL art. An empty, fetishistic focus on style over substance.

In my experience, the people who hold this view and the people they aim these criticisms at are both nitwits slinging mud to hide the failings they see in themselves. The accomplished draftsman with nothing to say beyond "I like titties and biceps" will pretend that anyone whose art doesn't demonstrate a detailed grasp of human anatomy isn't worth looking at, while some indy artists will channel their jealousy at lacking those natural gifts into an indiscriminate haughty disdain for any art with anatomical accuracy.

They're missing the point. Unless you're a douche, craft isn't a yard stick to measure who's the better artist. Unless you have nothing to say, craft isn't a surface wash you toss on bad writing to compensate. Craft is knowledge that you can use to make what you make better, and make what you want to make the way you want to make it.

Some things take years of practice to learn, like anatomy and perspective. But some things anyone can learn, at any skill level, and start using them right away. If every single person who did comics knew and used them, then all comics would be better.

I'm going to use this blog to share those things. Every week I'll post a tutorial on a different tool. I'll also be posting interviews and links, as I get them.

First up: The Mirror.