Draw Comics Faster

Wed 6/15/2016

Recently I did an interview over at comicsverse.com that was conducted by Jake Grubman. In it, I talk a lot about how I'm trying to be "ruthlessly efficient" in my cartooning, ever since I finished Basewood. "Draw Comics Faster" has been sort of like my second motto (next to "Draw Comics EVERY Day") based on the great drawing shown above that Nate Beaty sent me when I was still slogging through Basewood. As my time constraints constrict around me (new dad!) it is important that I make the most out of every available minute of drawing time.

For Isle of Elsi I changed my process in a few simple ways that really helped speed things up:

  • I practiced drawing full figures very small (like all the way down to about 1/2") which allowed me to draw comfortably on a smaller page size. Isle of Elsi is drawn at 11" x 17" (57% less surface area than a Basewood page).
  • I bought a scanner that can scan an 11" x 17" page in one go (scanning Basewood was a nightmare, having to thread together 4-6 scans for each page).
  • The comic is in full color, so I can add value with a single click instead of spending countless hours crosshatching.
  • Instead of measuring and redrawing panel borders and lettering lines for each page, I drew a template for each of these items once, and then I lightbox them over and over again.
  • As discussed in the interview linked above, I drop all unnecessary backgrounds, which not only speeds things up, but has improved my cartooning considerably.

Even just those five steps have made the amount of time it takes me to complete a page from 10-40 hours on Basewood down to 2-15 hours on Isle of Elsi.

For Phase 7 I decided to try a new blueline technique that I had seen in a process post by Craig Thompson. The main reason for this was that I have always loved the energy and life that exists in my rough scripted pages, and I wanted to do a better job bringing that energy to the finished page. The idea was to transfer these rough drawings directly to my bristol board and then ink right on top of them, instead of just looking at the roughs and starting a new drawing from scratch, which always led to stiff drawings. Also, in places where the roughs were tight enough, this would allow me to skip penciling, thus considerably speeding things up.

I first tried this technique out on Phase 7 #021 and documented my process as I went, which I'll post below. You can click on any of the images to see them full size.

STEP 1: Create a Page Template

Since I like to draw bigger than the printed page, I usually start an issue by drafting a page template at 100% print size. I did this by taking the size of the book, dropping in the outer margins and then measuring my tier height and gutter widths. Then, in Adobe Illustrator, I scaled this up so that two of my three tiers fit on an 8.5" x 11" piece of paper in landscape orientation (the size that I am able to print - marked by the blue guidelines on the right here). I then laid in vector rectangles over the tiers and set the stroke to 25% magenta ink. I also laid in lettering lines which I set to 25% yellow ink. This saves a tremendous amount of time, because I don't have to measure and draw these elements. I lock these magenta panel border and yellow lettering line layers.

STEP 2: Place the Rough Art

Using FILE > PLACE... I drop in a scan of the rough art (a grayscale scan at 300dpi with adjusted levels in Photoshop, so that the lines are pretty dark) on a new layer. This should be placed under the magenta and yellow layers.

STEP 3: Color Shift the Rough Art

Next, with the rough art selected, I double click on the fill color below the toolbar. This brings up the color picker. In the CMYK fields, I enter 10% cyan (in the example I used 25% cyan but later found this to be too dark, and so lowered it to 10%). This will make the whole grayscale page print in very light cyan ink instead of black ink.

STEP 4: Scale Up the Cyan Rough Art

I then scale up the cyan art until the tier height on the rough approximately matches the magenta tiers. This is ready to export (see STEP 6).

STEP 5: Shift Pages as You Go

Since I am using a three-tiered page, I can only get the first two tiers on my sheet of 8.5" x 11". So there is some finagling where I have to slide the pages to either get the top two tiers on a sheet of paper, the bottom tier of one page and the top tier of the next page on a sheet of paper, or the bottom two tiers of a page on a sheet of paper. Once these are set they are ready to export (see STEP 6).

STEP 6: Art Board Export

In Illustrator, I set up a specific 11" x 8.5" art board that encompasses the area I want to print. I then go to FILE > EXPORT... set the file format to .TIF and then set the "Range" to only that art board (in this case, #3). I found a bug is CS6, where if anything is selected when you try to export, it will not export the layers properly. So make sure to click off to the side of all the assets before exporting.

STEP 7: Print From Photoshop

Open your exported .tif file in photoshop. It should show the magenta and yellow lines above the cyan rough art. Hit print, with no scaling.

STEP 8: Printing!

I did all of the printing for issue #21 on my wife's cheap little cannon inkjet printer. There were 43 pages of comics, but because only two tiers printed on each page, there were actually 88 print outs. I was able to do all of this without having to refill the ink, because everything is being printed in such low amounts (ie only 10% cyan). I printed directly onto Strathmore 300 series smooth bristol with no problems. Also, no black ink is used, so this cartridge will still work great for non-color printing.

STEP 9: Tighten Pencils

Here you can see the finished printed page. Although the rough art does not line up perfectly, it's close enough. I used a 90 degree triangle to draw in the vertical gutters and then was able to ink all of the panel borders. Next I inked all of the lettering, just adjusting on the fly (I have 1600 pages of comics under my belt, so this was not that hard for me, but others may wish to repencil their lettering). Then, if necessary I tighten up the blue drawing with pencil and then inked it. In many cases, there was no need to pencil anything, because as an autobio cartoonist I have drawn myself countless thousands of times - for instance in the panel shown here. In other, more complicated panels I needed to pencil a bit, which was no problem to see on the extremely light cyan ink.

STEP 10: Scan the Inked Page

Here you can see the first page of this issue, inked. This is SO MUCH FASTER than my previous way of working and I was able to crank this issue out much more quickly as a result. As you can see here, the cyan, yellow and magenta elements are very dim when scanned back in, so it is no trouble eliminating them with curves or levels in Photoshop. I scanned this in RGB so that you all could see the various Illustrator elements, but in my own workflow I scanned directly into grayscale, where these elements were extremely light.

STEP 11: Corrections

Lastly I clean up some of my inking mistakes (which there are usually a bit more, since I am often skipping the penciling!) and there you have it - two finished tiers! A little bit of Photoshop work easily threads the third tier onto this page and it's done. If you would like to see how these pages turned out, you can read an excerpt from this issue over on the new Phase 7 website.


I used this new technique on Phase 7 #022 and will be using it on issue #023 as well. By doing three issues, I found a couple of places where this process could be improved. Before I begin drawing my next big 10(?)-issue epic, PHASE SIX, I am going to implement a few changes to this system:

  • Currently, there are many small issues where the rough art does not line up with the template. To fix this, I have printed out the template from STEP 1 very lightly (10% black) on scrap paper and I am using that to create the rough scripted pages. That way, when they are scanned back in and scaled up, it will fit perfectly into the magenta panel template.
  • I scripted Phase 7 #021 years ago, and at the time I was getting frustrated by how much time and energy that I poured into the rough art (about an hour a page) which was never seen by the reader. So, ironically, at the time I was trying to get myself to loosen up even more on the rough art, since I just had to redraw everything all over again anyway. This meant that many of the complicated panels were just phoned in at the rough stage, meaning that I had to then pencil them using this new method. Knowing that I will actually be using the roughs now, I will slow down and enjoy the rough scripting stage, knowing that a careful drawing there saves me time in the future. My hope is to completely eliminate the penciling stage of my process for PHASE 6.

I hope that some cartoonists out there find this information useful! I know many of you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, "Why doesn't he just draw 100% digitally? No scanning! Easy to draw on top of roughs!" The truth is, I already spend so much time in front of my computer doing other work, the thought of drawing my comics there too really bums me out. I love the time I spend at my drawing table working with real ink on real paper.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or suggestions!

2 comments on this entry

This is great!

I love seeing process posts. I'm always curious to see how others are doing what they do to see if there are things I can borrow or do a version of to help my own process.

Appreciate the details/step-by-step.

Aaron Jun26

I love hearing about this process. Thank you so much! - Jennifer

Jennifer Shiman Sep30

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