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!