September 28, 2009

Some dickweed from this inkjet refill company spammed the comments. Take note and take your business elsewhere.

September 27, 2009

This week: Replacing a crappy panel

Sometimes you just don't hit it out of the park. Sometimes, you lose your balance swinging your bat into thin air and fall over.

When you realize you've just inked a crappy comic panel, and it's not just a matter of a few corrections, it's that the whole thing needs to go, and you can't sacrifice any of the work around it by starting a new page, you have several options, depending on what tools you have at your disposal, and preferences you may have about your original art.

Example crappy comic panel:

If you had a computer, you could just re-draw the panel by hand, scan it in, and change it out, or even re-draw it digitally if you liked. If you didn't, you could just paste a piece of illustration board over it and draw on that. Both work great and are super-easy. But let's say you're very anal about your originals, or you want the original art to look pristine because you're going to sell it, or give it to someone as a present. Although I'm slowly moving out of it, it used to be very important to me that my art look in person exactly like it does in reproduction. I still find it unsatisfying not to, a little bit. So I developed this technique, which as far as I know I invented, for replacing a panel in such a way that's so seamless you can't tell a repair has been made in the page from the front, even looking closely.

I should mention, this technique doesn't really work if your panel borders aren't straight.

So, first, you take a thin pointy thing, like a really thin pin, or in this case, an antique drafting compass point:
You poke a hole at exactly the inside of the termination of the border lines:Then tape a piece of illustration board (the exact same as you're using) over the offending panel, making sure it's a little larger than the panel you want to replace:

If you turn it over you can see the holes in the back of the original:
Now you should be looking at a setup like in Fig.1. (click to enlarge, I'll explain the rest of the Figures below.)

Fig. 2: Then, cut from hole to hole, being very careful to line up your cut EXACTLY with the holes and being very careful with the corners, as demonstrated in the Cutting Technique post last week. The tip of your cutting tool should start and end in the pinholes.

Fig. 3: flip everything over and carefully extract the newly cut replacement square, being very careful of it's delicate edges. Now clear out the old panel, and lower the new panel into place.

Fig 4: You should have a nice, tight fit, because the way we stacked the paper means that the widest paper left by the wedge of the blade as it came through is now the front of our replacement sheet, and the widest part of the original sheet left by the blade's edge is also facing up. If you look at Fig. 2 again, you'll see that those two edges are almost perfectly even. In fact, the'll often meet with just a little puckering, due to the tightness of the fit. If you do this right you can hold the joined edges up to a bright lamp and not see any light through the cut.

Fig. 5: Finally, you tape the back seam or as I prefer, seal it with a sheet of thin cotton marker paper backed with archival adhesive film. Then buff the edge with a bone folder to flatten any puckering, making the cut edge look like an uninterrupted sheet of paper, and forming a smooth surface you can actually ink over. That's right, you can INK OVER the cut and it won't bleed into it, it's so tight. It feels exactly like drawing on a new sheet of paper, which no correction fluid or patch could ever do.

If you're totally accurate, the seam will lie on the panel border inside edge, and you'll never be able to find it without a microscope:

I actually messed up a border, however, which is good, because you can see what it looks like on open paper:
I marked up the edges of the new panel with HARD pen strokes, to show how it won't bleed, even in the exposed part of the join:

It feels like drawing on a brand new sheet of paper. Unless someone looks at the back, they'll never know the difference.

The back, taped:

(Not my preferred method, but it works. Just make sure what you use is archival.)

Here's the excised panel sitting next to it's replacement:
Next week, I kick off a multi-part series about scanning technique. This and my anatomy tutorial are gonna be the big ones of this whole endeavor.

September 20, 2009

Linky links:

Guy Davis pencils are always good. The coolest part is he hasn't inked these yet. But he'll post them when he does. And so will I. Nick Bertozzi was made to be a teacher, and you can tell because when he's interviewed, just talking how he normally talks he's teaching left and right. Go read this thing.

Jillian Tamaki process shots. This woman throws out more good ideas in a week than I have in a year.

Evidently it's kind of a thing now for people to build their own Cintiq-style monitor tablet. No, really. Links:



And a video of such a creature in action:

I know, right?

This week : Cutting Technique

My High school, Hebron academy, located in rural Maine, was and is the only private school with a dedicated Outdoor education program. I spent seven seasons in the program. The first month was always the same, an intensive month of wilderness first aid training. Once we knew how to handle any emergency that might happen, we headed out to the outdoor workshop area to start learning our tools, and the first thing we learned was knife safety. Everything in knife safety is all about leaning how to use your knife in a way that will prevent harm to you and others. Rules about always cutting away from yourself, how to grip a knife and how to walk with it are designed so that if you slip, fall, or make some other mistake the knife's working end won't wind up in your fingers or torso.

When I went to college my friend Jordan, an accomplished graphic designer, taught me everything I know about cutting art materials. Cutting for art creates a whole new set of demands- not only must you not cut yourself, you mustn't damage what you're working on, either. Mistakes of less than the width of a pencil line can totally ruin some projects. Mistakes can be expensive, depending on the material you're cutting. If you make a mistake while trimming a book, you've ruined a copy of that book. Jordan taught me how to cut absolutely straight lines with a minimum of accidents, and it's one of the hand skills that's served me best throughout the years after.

The modern cartoonist has all sorts of things they might need to cut. You may cut down your own paper, and you need to be able to measure accurate right angles off the edges and run it through a printer without jamming. You might be fixing a badly drawn panel by cutting it out and replacing it with new paper. (I'll teach you that next week.) You might have to face-trim a stack of books by hand for a convention. You might need to trim matte board for a gallery show, or you might be making a sketchbook for yourself. Good cutting technique is essential to all of these tasks.

I'll start off by pointing out the most common mistake: lining up the cut by lining the ruler edge up over the line, and then lining up the cutting tool tip with the edge of the ruler:

This a recipe for an inaccurate cut. The actual tip of your cutting tool isn't exactly aligned with the side of the cutting tool, so to get the tip to line up with the ruler edge you have to angle the cutting tool at the grind angle of the cutting edge, like you see above. Even if you manage to somehow keep the blade in that position for an entire cut, you'll be creating torsion forces on the blade and on the paper, causing ragged edges, increased edge dulling and blade breakage, and increasing the likelyhood you'll catch on a slightly denser patch of paper and whong off in a bad direction because of all the force you're applying dragging a crooked blade through the material.

But chances are you won't keep that angle consistent. You'll feel all the stress you're causing and change your angle as you go. You may even follow the ruler edge but angle out the other way, like so:
What you need to do instead is place the side of your cutting tool flush against the side of the ruler, and see how far the tip is from the side, and then put the ruler that far away from your lines. That way, the tip will fall exactly on the line with the side of your tool butting against the ruler as a guide, and the cutting edge looking straight back at the line it's about to cut like a laser beam. (By the way, this is exactly the technique you should use for making accurate pencil lines- not lining the tip up with the edge, but instead moving the ruler so that the sides touch the ruler and the tip touches the line. Ever draw a pencil line with a ruler it found out it wasn't straight? You didn't do this.)
It's important to stay vertical, in case you have to stop the cut for some reason and resume it again. If yyou change angles at all, this will happen:

The change in angle means you'll start cutting a totally different path, possibly cutting off too much or too little material. Check to make sure you're keeping the blade square with the ruler on every axis, and your cuts will be consistent every single time. No more going back for a second pass and peeling off a thin curl of paper because it wasn't quite lined up with the last cut.

If you click on the photo below to enlarge it, you'll see the terrible gap left by a cut whwre the blade changed angles as it went. You can't measure off of it, and you can't use it for construction, because it won't marry with another edge. If you cut too much off this edge instead of too little you'd have to throw it away or toss it in the scrap pile, at your cost.

Contrast it to the edge cut the right way, which fits pretty snugly. (There are a very few small gaps, because I was wearing my face rig and it was distracting my cutting.) By the way, I really prefer the NT cutter I reviewed for making straight cuts. The wider blade makes it easier to follow the ruler, and the ergonomics of the handle better accommodate long, straight cuts.

Here you can see it leaves an edge so gapless it looks like I put the paper under the ruler instead of next to it:If you draw a line you want to cut with a pencil you can't just keep the ruler in the same spot and make the cut. Why? Because the distance between the sides and tip of your pencil is probably pretty different that that of your cutting tool. You can see how far off it is for me:

You need to do the alignment first for your pencil, and then again for your cutting tool. Here we are all readjusted nice and flush:
Now let's talk about cutting a corner. Sometimes you can keep cutting past the corner because you're going to throw away the excess anyway- but sometimes you need that corner to stop neatly right at the exact point where the lines meet.

In that case, you need to make 2 cuts starting in that point and cutting away. CAREFULLY start by putting the tip exactly on the point and cutting yourself a short slice, making sure you never cut past the point. Once you have a nice, safe cut back from the delicate point, you can proceed as usual. on that side. Then do the same for the other side.
While doing this part of the demo I actually made a mistake and didn't tip-check the line like I should have trusting my eyeballing, and look how far off I was.:
I made the rest of the cut correctly to show how bad a mistake this was. If this was a project meant for display it would have been ruined because of my carelessness. Always, ALWAYS check to make sure the tip of your tool is on the line, at both ends of the line. Actually touch the tool down and check. If you think that little extra time is frustrating, try ruining a tedious project and having to start all over.
Ergonomics is an important consideration in making accurate cuts, especially long ones. You should never cut directly in front of you, because as you draw your hand back your wrist will be put into a terrible position:
What you want is for your wrist to be able to stay in the same position through the entire cut. You can cut down on the side of your cutting hand, like so:
Or you can cut at an angle, pulling down towards the side of your cutting hand, like so:
Either one will allow you to move comfortably. If your light is blocked by your hands in either of these positions, move the light if you can.

Now let's talk about cutting stacks of paper, like when performing a face trim on a minicomic. Never is is as important as with this task that you maintain the same square angle with the blade, as you will be making many cuts, all of which need to be the same.

The temptation when cutting a stack of sheets (or thick material like foamcore) is to get through it as fast as possible with hard, deep cuts. In knife training you learn that the more force you apply, the more risk of accidental damage to yourself, and with art cutting more force means more chance of accidental damage to what you're working on. (and yourself.) What you want to do is make your cuts with fairly low pressure, and work on keeping them as straight and accurate as you can. Imagine a laser slowly eating through the hull of a very thick spaceship, making one pass, then another, then another, forming a clean edge.

Inaccurate cuts will lead to curved, frayed edges like this:

Here's a copy of my comic Out Of Water, face trimmed properly. See how all the pages are straight and flush? (For those of you wondering what face trimming is: When you fold a stack of paper into a book, the center sheets bulge out and make it very hard to flip through, plus it looks ratty. Face trimming is cutting off that excess.)
The final consideration when cutting is what side to place the ruler on. Usually you have a side with stuff you want to keep and stuff you're trimming off.
Knife safety assumes that accidents will happen, and they do, even to very experienced people. Knife safety therefore works to minimize the damage of an accident. You can use your ruler to minimize the chance of damage to the stuff you want when you cut by physically protecting it should the ruler veer off for any reason. Always place your ruler over the stuff you want to keep, like so: This will prevent this from happening:

Now, sometimes you want the stuff on both sides of a cut, and in that case you'd just better follow all my other advice really carefully and hope for the best.

Next week, I'll demonstrate a technique I invented for replacing panels that's so seamless it's almost impossible for someone to tell where the original was cut, unless they know what to look for.

September 15, 2009

Hello Comic Tools readers,

Whooo boy. I figured an entry about cutting technique would be a layup, and I did NOT allow myself enough time last week to properly think the lesson through and plan out the visuals. I've got all the photography done, but I am just crashing right now, so I'm gonna hop up early tomorrow after I night's sleep and pop it out.

That'll learn me, it's always these seemingly simple subjects that are always the hardest to explain. Never underestimate your opponent, even if it's a lesson in hand skills.

From Jillian Tamaki's blog:

In other news, I've picked up a class at SVA this semester, pinch hitting for an instructor on mat leave (congrats, Lauren!). Sophomore Drawing for Cartoonists. There is still room in the class if you are interested. You will have to contact the dept directly.

I know a fair number of SVA students read this blog. So let me tell you this- my choice of sophomore year drawing teacher ended up being the most important choice of my college career. I went with Scott Harrison, known as "the guy who actually fails people." (SVA is known for letting crap students coast as long as they pay tuition) Scott held our work up to professional level critique, and it was almost half a year before any of the students who could stand to stick with it made a piece that was totally acceptable to him. In that half a year my work, and the work of all my classmates who hung in there, made a quantum leap as he encouraged our good tendencies and smashed our bad habits to dust. By holding us to pro standards, our work became pro level, and every single person who hung in with his class got work after graduation.

Jillian is not only a true pro, a deadline hero and a brilliant cartoonist, she's fantastic at explaining process and critiquing what works and what doesn't, as anyone who follows this blog knows from all the times I've linked to her posts. If you possibly can, take her class. It's an opportunity of a lifetime.

September 4, 2009

This week: The best cutter in the world

I'm kind of an asshole, by natural tendency. I like to be right too much, and my brain will still instantly start debating anything anyone says to it. "The sky is blue." "Hrmm, I dunno, that looks like more of a Robin's egg than a pure spectrum blue." Over time I have gotten better at keeping these thoughts on the non-fucking annoying side of my mouth. Being into things like comics and outdoor gear and knives has actually done a lot to mitigate some of my worst tendencies, because when it comes to things like brands of ink, tent designs, and blade shapes, it's all about individual preference. It's very rare in my fields of interest that you can say "this is the best there is, and everything else is crap." Usually the closest you can come is saying that for a specific application, and given certain preferences, a certain thing would be the most likely favored. You certainly wouldn't want a wharncliffe style blade for a task better suited to a clip point, but which exact clip point you might want is as personal as your fingerprints. As I've matured, I've been able to take these principles from my own interests and apply them to things like music and film tastes (infamous sticking points for nerds where we lose all sense of humor about what we're talking about and become really repulsive), and it's made me, incrementally, a better person to be around.

Certainty usually only comes when something is clearly inferior for anyone's uses- pink erasers, leaky tents and knives whose locking mechanisms break and close on your fingers, say. It's rare that you can ever say "this is the best of this thing, everything else is inferior, tastes and preference be damned."

Well, the asshole in me is filled with glee to be able to tell you all that this cutter is the best you can buy- better than any other brand, better than any other design by the same company, with absolutely no contest. Thanks to a friend of mine I was able to obtain one at half price, and it arrived today. Here it is, new in it's package:

Here's a closeup of the label: It's made by the Japanese, who have evidently taken their level of craft making Samurai swords and applied it to making box cutters.

My pure joy with this thing starts at the box. The instructions are clear and the graphics are not only clear, but well laid-out and very attractively designed:

And like all Japanese packaging I've ever encountered, it's a jealousy-inducing combination of incredibly tough and easy to open. The plastic bubble holding this thing in is one of the most solid plastics I've ever encountered in this role, but they don't glue it to the cardboard, making it impossible to open. Instead, they have one staple at the bottom, and once you break that you simply slide the totally intact information card (which is important because it's so useful and informative) up and out of the plastic. You could slide it down and re-staple it and it could be as solid as when you bought it.

Here it is out of the box. The central shaft is heavy gauge stainless steel. The grey painted metal surrounding it and making up the handle? CAST ALUMINUM. Except for the two heavy-duty red plastic parts you see this whole thing is made of solid metal. The clever ribbing helps you maintain a comfortable grip AND keeps it feeling light despite the tough construction. From above you an see how thick and hand-filling that handle is. From here you can also see one of the knife's best features, which is the forward-mounted locking screw.
What's the big deal with that? Well, first of all, having a locking screw at all is very important if you're going to use the blade for cutting anything that may bind around the blade and pull it backwards of forwards, like very heavy cardboard, thick foam core, matte board, wood, etc. Pretty much everyone puts the locking screw here on the side:
Oh, great, so the mechanism responsible for holding my blade steady so I don't slip and find out what my finger bones look like is right where I'm holding the fucking knife, so I'll be sure to rub back and forth on it while I make aggressive cuts. What a great way to ensure that it has a greater chance of failing at the times my risk of serious injury is highest!

On top of that, this makes the knife a two-handed knife, because you can't really lock the blade with the same hand you're holding it with, at least not without awkwardly and dangerously shifting your grip.

Now look at the NT cutter when you're holding it:
That locking screw is RIGHT IN FRONT of where your thumb will naturally rest when cutting. All you have to do is reach half an inch forward and you can lock or unlock your blade TIGHTLY. When that screw is tightened that blade may as well be welded in. The screw has great, sharp metal texturing so you can get really good purchase on it and tighten that screw with little effort and no slipping. AND they even had the foresight to engrave (!) an arrow turning in the direction it locks, with the word lock in the center.

In this photo from the front you can see that the cast aluminum runs not only outside but inside the knife as well. This thing is basically a piece of metal- you'd need the Mythbusters to damage it in any way.

The blades are snap-off, but they're probably NOT what you're used to in snap off blades. The Osaka-based company that makes the cutter whose side-mounted locking wheel I just trashed, makes great blades, as does every Japanese utility blade manufacturer I'm aware of. As far as I can tell they're all based in Osaka, too. From my knife interests I know that Japanese steel is of especially high quality and sought out around the world, but only recently did I become aware that even in the world of snap off knives for utility blades, the different companies are in a pitched arms race, all producing roughly identical blades of incredible quality, all of which seem like Elf steel when compared to the crap X-acto uses. You almost jump in the air when you cut something with one of these for the first time.

I used to think a new X-acto blade was the sharpest anything could get, until I learned how to sharpen my own knives. Nowdays my pocket knife is sharper than a new X-acto blade. The Japanese blades are sharper than anything I could possibly produce by hand. You have to push and X-acto blade to make it cut. These Japanese blades are like a gopher straining on a leash- you merely touch the surface of something- paper, cardboard, anything- and they seem to want to burrow in, as if they were pulling themselves forward.

Now, you're thinking, great, they're sharp, but aren't snap off blades weak? Usually, yes. But with these Japanese snap-offs aren't designed to be broken by hand. You need pliers, or the conveniently included blade snapper:
I broke one off once accidentally, while batoning wood, which means I push-cut and then twisted the blade hard. Aside from that, these aren't going to break until you decide to break them. And then they break cleanly- I've used snap-off blades that left ragged edges before.

The blade changing system is extremely easy to use. You push the red button one way and then you pull the blade magazine out. The blades are held securely in place and won't spill out at you. You can load 6 blades at once. The knife comes pre-loaded with 2 blades.
As good as they are, I don't even recommend these blades, because they make something even BETTER:
Here's a description of what you're looking at: "UltraMax® ultra-sharp premium heavy-duty snap-off black blades, exclusively designed for maximum cutting performance, are ideal for applications where superior sharpness is required. These blades made from high quality carbon tool steel are developed using a special double honing process for extreme sharpness and are 25% sharper than our Heavy-Duty LB blades. "

I have used these before and I can vouch for these being almost science-fiction sharp. These blades do not just adequately cut things like PVC pipe, leather, heavy rubber, and hard wood- they seem to want to burrow through to the other side of these materials on contact. And their edge lasts really, really long. Once you stuff these blades into an NT cutter (I recommend these instead of NT's blades because they're significantly easier to find in the U.S. and basically identical) you basically have a short lightsaber in your hand.

While photographing for this review I had the idea to compare the NT cutter to an X-acto knife, thinking that I'd demonstrate that no tool is totally perfect, and that the NT's durability and versatility in being able to cut everything from drywall to paper meant some sacrifice in dexterity. What I ended up proving was that X-acto blades suck a lot worse than I ever imagined.

I started off with a task I was sure the NT wouldn't perform nearly as well as the X-acto, tight, curved cutting. I drew some tight, hard-to-follow curves, like this:

And then I followed them with both blades. I noticed that precision-gripping the NT was actually very easy, much moreso than I'd have thought: And the results surprised me.

The X-acto did take the tight curves slightly more smoothly. In a super-tight turn the NT cutter will bend the paper slightly, unless you pick up the blade partway through. (I did these cuts without picking up the blade.) However, the NT praxtically burrowed through my paper into the self-healing board below, and with no pressure it cut all the way through. My X-acto cuts, while very slightly smoother, did not make it through everywhere, and I'd have had to make about five small additional re-cuts to free the flap, as you can see below:

Then I decided to try my most common X-acto task, cutting a bunch of pages flush.

It took me 20 cuts to make it through these pages, and even using a metal ruler as a guide the X-acto's tendency to divert and flex left a very slight curve in the cut. (I'll grant that I wasn't using my best cutting technique, though . I'll post a tutorial on cutting technique next week. ) Whenever I use an X-acto hard like this, my hand always hurts in these places:

Not only did the NT cutter do the job in 11 cuts instead of 20, it's cuts were cleaner, and the NT is so comfortable to hold I didn't feel like I'd cut through a thick stack of paper at all. And the NT edge was straight.
Next I moved to thin foam core. The X-acto (brand new blade) pushed into and bent the foam core card board fa r more than the sharper NT:
And for all that damage, it didn't even cut all the way through on the first pass. (The NT cut is a bit ragged because I did it too hard and too quickly- again, video on good cutting next week. )
My next material was the plastic bubble the knife came in. I made two attempts but could not make the X-acto fully penetrate the plastic, let alone cut forward. I actually pushed harder than was safe- if it had slipped I could have been badly injured. The NT cutter shot through the plastic like a tuna through water.
If you look at the blades in profile, the NT and the X-acto have the same steel thickness, it's just that the X-acto are an inferior steel. (I should note at this point that I'm using special X-life heavy duty X-acto blades, not just regular X-acto blades. Even their "premium" steel sucks.) I break the tip off my X-acto blades within the first five cuts, no matter how lightly I'm cutting. Like I said before, I've only broken a Japanese snap-off blade batoning in wood, which is really something I should have been doing with a chisel. As a neat little bonus I thought I'd try the same tests with my trusty pocket knife:
I maintain a good edge on all my blades, and my pocket knife in particular, since it's main uses are cutting paper, and doing occasional minor surgery on myself or others, such as removing a splinter or callus. On a good day I can do better than the Razor blades you'd buy in a drug store. (Although the Japanese make shaving razors that I couldn't hope to match.)

My knife went through the foam core as well as the NT, just with a little more resistance due to the MUCH thicker blade.

Same deal with the plastic, puncturing it was a little harder with my thicker knife, but once it was in it sailed right through the hard plastic.
Having a good cutter with replaceable blades in indispensable to the artist. Cartoonists are always cutting tough, fiberous materials such as stacks of paper, thick watercolor sheets, minicomics, cardboard boxes, matte board, foam core, and so on. I've had my hand crippled for a full day after trimming minicomics by hand, and that would not have happened if I'd had this tool.

The NT cutter cannot be bought online- at least not by a regular person. But stores can order them. (Edit: Comic Tools Reader Sam found a place! )This is it's entry on the NT website:
It's not a cheap tool, running in the 30 dollar range- but there's nothing quite like it, and this thing is built like a horse shoe. You'll be figuring out which kid to give it to on your death bed. Alhough there are some tasks which an X-acto would be better suited to (By the way, Olfa, the company that makes the high-strenth blades I reccomend for the NT cutter, makes X-acto style blades in much better steel.), the fact that the NT cutter performs those same tasks adequately, while performing many tasks better, and several tasks that the X-acto cannot perform at all, means that the NT barely represents any compromise of function in favor of versatility. If you only have one cutting tool, this should be it.

Next week, proper cutting technique.