Monday, July 30, 2012

Letters: a comic's process from this painters perspective

Making a comic out of the short story, Letters, has been going on for a while now (since around June 17th). I'm not finished yet (it's still in sketch form), but I've just passed an important benchmark of making all of the necessary drawings and text into an organized near-comic form for others to read and edit for me. Now that I've sent that off to them, I can now blog to you about the process of making that comic without worry of interrupting the sanctity of their first reading with spoilers, or undue sneak peaks at art I want them to experience first within the comic itself (because I know they follow this blog religiously... heh, heh).

So now I'm going to chat a bit about Letters current progress:

A Quick Intro

My last venture into making a "normal" comic (Bloodlines - Taina: The Hunter Bloodline) was 5 years ago, in 2007... goodness gracious, that was a long time ago... so there has been a bit of a readjustment with making them, compared to the way I've more normally been making my paintings.

The greatest joy of this project is that it's large enough in scope that I've had to regularize my days and limit the amount of work I can allow myself to do within a 24-hour period before my hands literally hurt. Some of this has been just getting wiser in stewarding my time. But most of it is my appreciated foreknowledge that touchstones of progress occur much more rhythmically with making comics than when compared to my previous sets of varyingly sized paintings, in potentially different mediums, about different experiences or subjects.  With comic making, I can "finish" multiple pages in a day and can more easily remain totally focused on the primary goal over a large period of time... the story. And since the story is predetermined, I also don't spend nearly the amount of time staring, thinking, or fretting with concern over what "the story" is, or if it's getting across, as I do with my collections of painted works. Also, how do you quantify forward movement in a single painting that takes six months? Maybe you know how, but my style and headspace make that action very, very difficult. My resultant attitude is always tired, always frustrated. So comics get a big plus on that.

One last thing, my newly regularized days allows for my mind to take much more focused and higher quality breaks affecting my habits and health tremendously. I mean, my goodness, I've had no problems exercising very consistently for two months now... for me, this is a miracle.

Now enough personal prattling...

The Actual Art

"Colleen", character sketches for Letters.

With the intention of making the final product completely in ink, the hardest thing to negotiate is where to use my digital tools. I can't totally avoid them because they're too useful. And no matter how perfect my final, inked-up pages are, I'm sure to do some digital touch-ups in the end.

In this instance, though, I made all of my sketches in pencil on paper first. But in the end, I think I lost 3 days scanning, erasing pencil text, and filling in with readable, digital text for others to edit (and I don't see ever being good enough to skip this step). This "mistake", I'm sure to eradicate the next time I tackle a project like this. I'll lean heavily on digital tools for sketching first, and then I'll fold in traditional materials for the final page.

Sketching in pencil is very gratifying, but I also like the way Photoshop behaves while drawing... you just can't replicate on paper the speed with which you can edit. And I love how you can switch back and forth between 100% white and 100% black, increasing how you can witness your drawings behave closer to the way your final product will actually look like.
"Page 9 / Version 1", pencil on paper
"Page 9" is a good example how transformations occurred as I moved from pencil to digital and how the story adjustments/retouches affected it throughout the process.

"Page 10 / Version 2" | pencil on paper with re-drawing in Photoshop
You can pick out the photoshop drawing, above, by it's high-contrast, "liquidy" black and white. It's made most obvious in the second panel re-drawing. I like the look. I also like its "roughness". But notice how "Page 9" turned into "Page 10".
"Page 11 / Version 3" | pencil on paper with, mostly, digital drawing in Photoshop

And now, it's "Page 11".

When I received the story from the author, he suggested that the page limit be a modest 20 pages, "MAX". The example pages above represent the natural bloating action that occurred as I wrestled with Letters. I don't know if I just have a preference to act out in pictures, more than words (probably), or if I don't quite understand the proper use of the "gutter", as cartoonists call it (the blank space between each panel). But to limit the number of pages while remaining faithful to both the story and the unique strengths of the comic as a medium has been my greatest struggle.

At first, the 20-page limit seemed very reasonable. But as I delved in and began pacing out the actions, I quickly realized that at that number, it wasn't just going to feel congested, but probably terrible in my hands. It may be (probably is) that I'm still too green with cartooning and a more experienced artist could make it happen with lazer pointed cuts or smarter distillations of the action. But I simply don't know how at this point.

Adding to the difficulty, is I've read the damn thing so many times it just doesn't affect me the way a regular reader would approach it. At this point I have a hard time really knowing what's happening as the words and pictures float before my eyes. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I'm feeling a problem of too much intimacy. In order to make the story feel new, as you would likely read it, I now schedule special de-caffeinated times to re-experience the work (usually at night).

In the end, hopefully the editing process will either show that the expanded version (a whopping 37 pages!) works best as it is, or it will bring to the forefront a smart way for me to cut this thing without killing it's essence. But while I fret, the mantra of the day has been to serve the story first and then let the chips fall where they may. In that case I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make this thing right.

The Ink Tests

This was the part of making a comic that I was foaming at the mouth to get to and I thought I came up with a couple of useful tests to find a style most suitable for Letters.

I chose page 18 for the first tests because its values were mostly dark, it contained figures, and it had a nice big background scene for the top panel to play with. I was the most unsure of how to make these pages, considering that white ink doesn't work like black ink does. It takes special consideration about how you use it because it's usually not very opaque, it's consistency is more unpredictable, and it lays on top of the paper - as opposed to black ink, which dyes it-, etc. It just makes pages like these pretty difficult if you don't have a thorough plan. Which I didn't. But you have to start somewhere.
"Ink Test 1 / Page 18 / Version 1"  |  ink on bristol board  |  11 x 14" 

Tool-wise, the biggest difference with the first test from the second is I used a brush for all the black lines and all the ink wash. I liked it, but found it a little more difficult to maintain consistency between the panels, especially across the human form (compare panel 3's bodies with panel 4's - how black am I going to go in the shadows?). Maintaining the whites wasn't terribly difficult with good sketching, but because my sketches weren't fully worked out, it made the improved portions a bit wonkier than I like.

Also, more importantly.... it took me about 10 and 1/2 hours to finish the first test. Maybe, it was because it was the first stab at this process and I was tentative with the wash; or maybe because I took the time to sketch this one out in pencil before I started inking (costing 2 hours, by itself). I don't know. But it just felt a little off.

I might return to the wash again later, just to be sure.
"Ink Test 2 / Page 18 / Version 1"  |  ink on bristol board  |  11 x 14"

The second test I used a brush for all of the larger outlines and two Rapidograph pens of different sizes for everything else. My strategy here was to, instead of thinking about "fixing" the roughness of my sketches and photoshop work in my pages, simply using it to it's own advantage and then build up my grays slowly with quick back and forth strokes and  a little cross-hatching.

My wife actually prefers the first page more... and at times - certainly in particular places - I'd agree with her. But the second page just felt more versatile and always in my control. The whites didn't feel like fugitive animals that I needed to save; my previous sketches felt vindicated, as apposed to covered and cleaned - an ironically destructive process; but also - the most important - it took only 6 1/2 hours! Now that might have a bit to do with me actually working on this page a second time... but at this point I have to pay attention to the results.

I also just like the grittiness of the thing a bit more. It feels more like me.

And that's what you hope for after all that work!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I'm influenced by comics (pshhh-what?). And I've been making a series of work heavily influenced by that medium, dubbed, You Germs (YG). I see those pieces as individual works. But I'm also hoping to build them into a credible, albeit unconventional, story of sorts. They stand a bit between a typical comic art and traditional painting - a pretty literal expression for where I am with my work at the moment.

But, as of late, I feel like I might be short-changing the project by not getting more practice in with more traditional story-telling in comic form. What's the good of being influenced by comics, graphic novels, and sequential art if you're incapable of stringing together your images into a plausible, compelling, and hopefully interesting story? I say not much good at all. And the YG series, though interesting to me, detailed, and visually pleasing, there isn't enough to "read" for you, with only about 6-8 panels made, at the moment. Sorry. I know. Jesus would do better.

Fortunately (unfortunately), my regular model for the female character in the YG Series (my lovely wife), has been out of the country for the past two weeks (the unfortunate: I miss her terribly - See you Friday, Dear!and I've used her absence as an opportunity to take a break from that and fast track a project that I mentioned at the beginning of May. It's a short story, titled Letters, that I'm turning it into a 26-page comic masterpiece... or so I hope.

Page sketches for Letters.
It's written by a fella called in his native homeland of Peoria, Illinois (and I suppose anywhere else) by the name of Andy Hobin. He's an MFA candidate in creative writing at Virginia Tech (here's something he wrote for The Rumpus) and quite the talent for poignant prose that is simultaneously beautiful and gutting. And Letters is no exception.

Because it's a short story and not a comic script, I've been spending most of my time thumbnail-sketching and working my way through the essentials, cutting it down and working on the pacing. It's been pretty exhilarating not to have to worry so much about content and just focus on performance - a state of mind I take to much more naturally, I believe (fear).

The interesting part coming up quickly, now that I'm finishing the prep sketches for the comic, is deciding the final format and medium of the story. I'm leaning heavily towards doing it in actual ink on bristol board. The "traditional way". The only other two comics I've done (Bloodlines and A Faux's Parachute) were done completely with digital tools - except for some pre-sketching - to help increase speed and editing ability, which I felt I needed at the time... but I'm feeling strong and confident in my inking ability - seeing as it's been my favorite medium for about two years now - and my new found love of the brush are pushing me to do this thing "right".

But it's nerve-racking. It's all too easy to screw up a page that has so many parts - text, panels, figures - all to be coordinated into a cohesive whole. So, I've been practicing with some already sketched out pages that I had done for a comic idea I had two months ago. It's on hold for the moment because I want to get Letters up and running first. But I started a few pages for the project a month ago (called Art in Conversation - hopefully more later) before I decided that it would be best to do it digitally. It's a journalistic-type project with lots of updating, so speed is key, therefore the page sketch I did was just going to sit and collect dust. Might as well use it for practice! That way I'd have no problem screwing up a page I wasn't going to use anyway.

I can't say the page I did was a "winner", but I think it was a good first start. I'm looking forward to giving trying it out on some live pages for Letters!

I did learn one important thing in the process: that the quality of the final page is very dependent upon how good the original sketch you're inking on top of is. The page I was working with was actually quite sloppy, so I'm pretty sure I can make immediate improvement on that note.

The full page I did to practice inking for Letters
But I'm going to be looking at a lot of Craig Thompson to get as much help as I can. The guy is a comic stud; particularly in his economy of mark and composure of his pages as a whole. I've been reading his new book, Habibi, and words can't express how beautiful this guy's stuff is.... it takes a few pictures, too...  hell, just read his book. You'll understand.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


ink, graphite on clayboard
8 x 8 inches
© 2011-12 Darick Ritter

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Overconfident II

Overconfident II
11 x 11 inches
ink on Arches Cold Press 250gsm Paper

The Ends 2

ink on four 4x4" clayboard panels, digital finish  |  © 2012 Darick Ritter

I like this go-around much better than the first.

I have no big commitment, though, to make sure The Ends turn into a larger series of shorts. It's possible this could be the last. I say that because I see them more as an experiment in linear story-telling that I believe I need practice in.

This is something I've never had much experience in, working primarily as a modern (contemporary, abstract, untraditional, etc.) painter. And a painting for me is a physical object to be looked at, confronted. It's all of that de Kooning and Rothko and Pollock that I was obsessed with when I was younger. That kind of art was about what was physically happening on the surface, first... for me. That's why most of my previous work has a relief-like texture, avoiding traditional window-like viewing spaces (Van Eyck, Vermeer, or even artists like Thomas Hart Benton).

Now, I believe I can't get away from familiar, object-oriented picture-making because I see it's separation from abstract work only as an illusion of propaganda from artists of different styles competing with one another. And I couldn't figure out how to put things I was actually thinking about - like science-fiction, fantasy, myth-making, or religio-spiritual experiences - into paintings who's antecedents were "all surface".

Making comix like these helps me short-circuit all of these mental entanglements and makes my contribution to the "story" of my work much simpler and honest, I think.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Overconfident I

"Overconfident I"
11" x 11"
ink on Arches Cold Press 250gsm Paper

Friday, June 8, 2012

MINT Gallery, Atlanta: June 9th, 7-11PM

*poster by Kaspian Shore

detail of "Linearity I"

detail of "Linearity II"

The above are portions of the pieces I will be showing.