First of all, Happy New Year everybody! (I don’t care if we’re passed the New Year’s cut-off.)
I made this cartoon for this year’s Valentine’s Day. The idea behind it doesn’t need any explanation, I’m sure — so let’s skip that.
But I can tell you this that I wanted to make something with use of shades of gray alone because I feel the reliance on colors can become a “crutch.” And since I tend to rely a lot on colors alone, I wanted to train myself more in adding tone and spotting blacks.
I must say, I kinda like the end result, so maybe I’ll continue in this style. (But that’s a big maybe.)
So what else can you expect from me this year? Well, I can show you some character designs soon for some (mini) comics I’m working on. And I may find myself working again on some black metal band art — for an actual Norwegian black band even — no, really! — sometime within the next few weeks!
If anything else interesting pops up, you’ll be the first to know!
Some time ago, I did a course through CalArts on video game character design. The course homework assignments had us course participants peer review each other’s work, which went well until we had to take an existing, established video game character and put it, as it were, in another game universe. Here problems arose because to no surprise — people have strong emotional feelings about characters they have spent hours of their life playing as or with.
So when I decided to take everyone’s favorite Italian plumber, Mario, and give him the Dark Souls treatment by turning him hollow and handing him a battle axe (see below) — some had harsh words for my final rendition, basically all boiling down to, it’s too cartoony to be “inspired by Dark Souls.” To me though, that was no big deal — it so happened this is just my style.
What did bother me, however, was that there was something off about the construction of the character: there’s too much “camouflaging” of extremities, the eyebrows lack texture, the head sits ill on the romp, and the belt doesn’t compliment the roundness of the belly. But I couldn’t be bothered starting anew … until a few days ago.
You see, I’m currently in the process of redoing some oldies but “goldies,” just to compare them side-by-side — to see if and how much I’ve managed to improve. Below you can see the new version of my medieval fantasy Mario. Is it an improvement over the original? I’ll let you judge for yourself.
Earlier today someone asked me, “Do you have a site or a blog I could check to see some of your work?” Which reminded me that I do actually. And with that realization came the one that I’ve been sitting on some news for quite a while now.
My last post was about the new Cardinal logo which I ended by noting that I was working on several more. And well some of them, they are about done and with others, progress is being made.
While on the subject of band art, I also want to mention — if I haven’t done so in a previous blog entry — that I completed designing my first fully-illustrated album cover. The band members were so pleased with the design that they also had it printed as an on-stage backdrop of about ten by six feet. And it’s already seen some live use at a gig last weekend. Even so, the band have requested me not to show it in full just yet because they want to do a big reveal for the label and their fans in an official kind of way sometime soon.
I can show you, however, something entirely else — a cartoon I recently finished drawing. There’s a bit a of a story behind it, the details of which I’ll recount at a later date, probably sometime later this week. So for now, just enjoy what you see here.
Last week, some friends asked me why I don’t do caricatures. I told them it takes a special skillset to draw caricatures, let alone ones that are clever and lifelike. My friends were confused by my answer. After all, they reasoned, if you can draw caricature-like figures — how hard could it possibly be to draw caricatures? As I will make clear below, it’s very, very hard. To me at least it is.
Here’s the thing. If you ask me to draw just some old guy, then I will come up with one in less than no time. I got plenty of imagination, and I know some basic tricks to age a character with a few pen stroke (see fig. below).
But, if you would want me to draw you a portrait of my late grandfather — I wouldn’t even know where to begin! What makes portraiture so challenging is that if you don’t precisely match on canvas the inclinations and angles of the head, the face, and the ears, you’ll end up with a portrait that bears very little if any resemblance to your subject. To be sure, I know there are certain tools and tricks portraitists can play with when they go about doing a portrait (e.g., like tracing silhouettes) — and yeah, I suppose I could also employ those very tools and tricks. Yet, even so, I would still struggle to really nail a portrait.
My sister, on the other hand, has such a knack for portraiture, she makes it seem effortless. The figs. below show a portrait of my late grandfather coming to life by her hand.
But don’t ask her to draw a looney cartoon of an elderly man, because, well — cartooning is unfamiliar territory to her.
Now, how does this all relate to the art caricature? Well, to be a good caricaturist, you need not just be a good cartoonist who knows how to draw grotesque but humanly true characters, you also need to be a good portraitist who knows how to capture the likeness of the subject.
In reality, there’s even more to it than this. What separates a really good caricaturist from a merely okay one is that the former really knows how to capture the subject’s personality and his attitude — his unmistakable essence, if you will — while the latter just exaggerates and distorts the obvious (that is, what the eyes see). Meaning you need to intimately know your subject if you want to be good at it. And that’s probably, definitely another reason why I tend to stick with fantasy.
Alright, let’s talk digital inking software — but first, a little introduction.
I am especially fond of Belgian-Franco comics, also Dutch ones — party because of the way they are drawn and inked. Among the comics artists I admire particularly are Franquín (Gaston), Albert Underzo (Astérix), and Martin Lodewijk (Agent 327). You know what these guys have in common? Their linework linework has a playful smoothness — one I, at least, find hard to emulate.
Me, I don’t have steady hands. So getting crisp lines on a canvas has been a pain and a grief since the first day I tried my hand at it. This all goes to say that I most welcomed auto-smoothing tools — especially the one of ArtRage, which is why ArtRage became my “go-to” software for cartoon inking. After some misfires, I came close to getting it right (see the cartoon below).
Yeah. I would say the inking looks okay enough, though perhaps a bit too cold and clinical. And I say to you now, that is the very problem with auto-smoothing, and that leads me to the irony of it all: Oh sure, you finally got your crisp lines, but all the playfulness is smoothed out.
I had already figured out that if you want to ink something gnarly organic, you’re probably better off using Clip Studio Paint (a.k.a. Manga Studio) (see the detail close-ups below of a work-in-progress) —
— instead of ArtRage (see the close-up below of a piece done last year).
Why, you may ask? Why not just use ArtRage, but with a different pen or different settings? Can’t you, then, just make the same gnarly drawing? Well, I found that I couldn’t. For example, once I turned off the smoothing in ArtRage, I ended up with jaggy lines that scream “digital.” Also, Clip Paint Studio, even by default, has a bigger number of available ink brushes for selection — not surprisingly of course, because ArtRage is first and foremost a painting software while Clip Studio Paint is geared toward artists making black-and-white comic strips.
Last night, I tried, for the first time, to do some cartooning in Clip Paint Studio, without any smoothing to aid me — and I’m loving it! I thought I, with my shakey hands, wouldn’t be able to get smooth lines and curves, but to my surprise — it’s actually really easy to ink smoothly and crisply while, even more importantly, even retaining that organic “feel” (see the cartoon head below)! Truly mind-blowing stuff! Now, I’m finally close to making the sort of the comics I so love.
Oh, before I take off, I also want to stress that Clip Studio Paint never seems to lag on my work rig, no matter the amount of layers or the resolution. ArtRage, on the other hand, seems capable only of coping with a limited layer limit. But then, ArtRage emulates analog painting, which in real life constitutes putting down layer on layer on layer, all in the same layer if you will. If high-resolution layer management is what you’re after, look elsewhere. (Did anyone say Clip Studio Paint?)
Let me know about your inking experiences. Please share your stories, insights, and ideas by writing to me.
It’s become somewhat of a joke — every new blog entry opening with the following words: “It has been six months since I posted my last,” but what can I say? I’m not much of a blogger. At best, I’m a seasonal one, but probably not even that. But hey, at least this way, when I blog, you can bet I’ve got something to say. And boy, do I have some news to tell you! I’m talking N-E-W-S News here! Plural! That’s right. So keep reading.
Let’s start with the big news. About four months ago, I migrated to Norway because my better half was made a job offer she couldn’t refuse even though it meant — well, moving to Norway. As you can imagine, it has been a bit of a busy and hectic time. Funnily enough, me emigrating was, paradoxically, also a bit of a non-event, not least because, for the first two months, I had to do without my computer and drawing gear and, of course, I also had to settle in from scratch. So, in a way, my social and creative life came to a halt.
Well, I’m all settled in now — my computer is at my place in the picturesque city of Bergen, I got my music, and my new friends. I got everything I need to get shit done … and, nope, there’s no “buts.” I’ve been churning out cartoons and other illustrative work at a steady pace. Let me show you some stuff.
Sint is Dead
I drew this cartoon in reaction to the ongoing “Black Pete” debate in the Netherlands in which one gets labeled a racist no matter what one says or thinks about the Dutch Sinterklaas celebration.
The Teddy Project
I’ve been doing some character designs and model sheets for some guys at the Bergen University who are working on their first indie game.
The Grand Gnome
I don’t know why, but for some reason, I have a fondness for gnomes. Perhaps it is because, as a child and youth, I spent many enjoyable hours drooling over the gnome illustrations of Rien Poortvliet and watching the televised adventures of David the Gnome.
Currently I’m working on some album and T-shirt designs for everyone’s favorite Death Metal band, Dauthuz.
There, now you’re all to speed on what I’ve been doing lately.
Noeska Smit, a PhD who deals with all things Medical Visualization and Other Things That Are Way Above My Head asked me to write a blog piece on the basics of comic book inking and, more specifically, on the do’s, don’t’s and why’s of it all. And so I did, and it turned into a full-blown essay. Let me know what you think of it! Did I miss anything or leave anything out, or make any mistakes in it?
André Franquin. Hergé. Mike Mignola. Frank Miller. Moebius. Berni Wrightson. Even if you have but a slight interest in comic book art, these names probably ring a bell; though, of course, some more than others. In part this is because, well, they have been of influence in shaping the creative output of various household names. Not without reason of course. They were, or still are, masters in their craft, each in his own right an inspiring, imaginative character-creator and world-builder. They all also had, or have, a very distinctive style of inking. And that’s what I’m going to talk about: comic book inking.
But first, for full disclosure, some expectation management. I am not a scientist like you are. At least I assume you are. Why else would you be reading this blog? I’m but a struggling self-taught illustrator. I haven’t won any Eisner Awards (a.k.a. “the Oscars of the comic book industry”) yet. You know what my last commissioned work was? A t-shirt design for a newly formed death metal band with an online reach of well over … their nuclear families. So, no, I’m not much of a known expert. But I was asked, nonetheless, by the blog’s host to write a thing or two on inking, since comic book-inspired shading and cross-hatching are, I am told, kind of the cat’s meow in the current field of illustrative rendering. And I happen to be reading into this very subject. So what to expect, then? Simple. Nothing but a modest write-up of some general do’s, don’t’s and why’s of inking.
First of all, let’s talk texture. If you look at an object, whatever object it may be, it has a certain look and feel. A wooden plank looks and feels different from a fur coat, as does a brick wall from a rough cotton sweater. But you know this already. Right? Right. When laying down inks, it’s best to try to convey the look and feel of the material represented instead of just using the same lines for different textures. This may seem obvious think to do, but in actuality, only a few, like Wrightson (see Fig. 1), have made, or make, a conscious effort in this area; generally, most artists give little thought to the nature, age and mood of whatever it is they are drawing.
At this point one cannot but mention the ligne claire (“clear line”) style, pioneered and put to excellent effect by Hergé. For those unfamiliar with it, he always used the same unvarying (or, in industry terms, “dead-weight”) lines for any object he drew, whatever its material. Supposedly so as to allow easy identification of characters and their environments by the reader. But that doesn’t fly with me. While Hergé’s drawings are clean, clear and figurative and, of course, obviously iconic, I do very much think something a bit more textured has it advantages visually, especially if one were to remove the colors. Compare, for instance, a panel from Tintin (see Fig. 2) with one from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, inked by Klaus Janson who used a variety of materials and rendering techniques (see Fig. 3), and note the difference. Wouldn’t you agree that in Janson’s panel its easier to differentiate between focus and context? But, there’s a point to be made. One could argue that Hergé’s clear line style was always more of a narrative device and less of a stylistic device, pushing the attention forward from one panel to the next instead of having of every panel screaming, “Yo’, wuzzup y’all? This artist got the skillz to take any texture to the next level. DAMN!” But then, sometimes a grimy, textured look is as much a narrative tool. As an example, we look at Moebius who’s probably most known for his own clear line style but who also pulled out all stops to portray the sand-dusty plains of the Old West in his Blueberry series (see Fig. 4). Here, a sterile look that is so suited to dreamlike sci-fi extravaganza wouldn’t show off the American West’s rugged desolation and the era’s hardships that made men rough, tough pioneers.
Another signature mark of the clear line style: the use of the same dead-weight lines for all object lines regardless of position in the image and regardless of distance. Oh, sure, again Hergé made it work, but you will find that most other comic book artists and cartoonists vary line weight lines so as to emphasize perspective and thereby convey the illusion of three-dimensionality; they do this by using thicker lines for foreground objects and thinner lines for background objects (see Fig. 5). And, while on the subject of of three-dimensionality, lighting also comes here into play. It’s a rule of thumb that thick lines represent the shadowy sides or surface junctions while thin lines are used for contour lines of areas facing the light. However, some mainstream artists today don’t follow this rule of thumb. Instead, they juxtapose bold dead-weight contour lines with thinner, interior detail lines to give it a stylized feel (see Fig. 6). So that’s another way of doing it.
So far I’ve talked about inking contour lines. But sometimes you want or need to splurge a little and take it further by laying down some solid blacks. For years now, ever since I was but a sprout of a boy, I’ve been reading comics, and I always assumed “spotting blacks” — which isn’t just a thing to do while watching the Oscar’s but is also a term that many comic book artists and cartoonists continue to use — was a stylistic choice to give an image a distinctive shadowed quality. But now I know better. Now I know that spotting blacks is also done to add solidity to a figure, and perhaps more than anything else, to dramatically frame and emphasize an object or figure. If you were but to look at, say, Frank Miller’s Sin City or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, you would know too (see, respectively, Fig. 7 and 8). You’d see how blacks can be and are being used in comics as a means of eye focus control. Basically, it comes down to leaving bits of white in masses of black or adding bits of black in spacious white, and this then creates a contrasting tension which immediately and invariably attracts the eye’s attention. So, as you can surmise, a common mistake here is to leave unwanted white space in an area that should be only black, or vice versa, because, indeed, this will result in the attention straying from the focal point (see Fig. 9).
The moment you start spotting blacks, you create contrast in values — light versus dark — through which you can create a sense of depth. What is commonly done is to place heavy blacks in the foreground and to drop out all the blacks in the background (see Fig. 10). But of course, this isn’t always possible; sometimes something black or something “focal” occupies a space on a background plane. Here one has to be careful not to position an equally black foreground element, e.g., a silhouetted figure, next to it, because this would make it seem like foreground and background elements are placed on the same plane. Rearranging a panel’s composition is sometimes not an option due to time constraints or because it would break the comic page’s overall structure and layout — i.e., its macropanel or “metapanel,” if you will, to borrow a term from Will Eisner. But just leaving areas unfilled might not be an option either because, perhaps, of critical framing considerations. So what then? Well, back when full-range grayscale printing had yet to become pervasive, it was a common practice to use stippled screen tones to add a tone of gray. This meant that one didn’t have to do all spotting with just blacks or whites. And, like pens and inks, these screen tone patterns could be used, and have been used, for shading, coloring, texturing, framing, and so on (see Fig. 11). And no wonder, for long, the application of screen tones has been, and still is in the Japanese manga — i.e., black-and-white, comic-style paperbacks — arsenal, a staple technique. Anyway, here also, the rule applies that it’s best not to position same-valued elements next to each other. In addition, one has to bear in mind that too much gray is boring; the eye hungers for more tonal contrast.
So, as stated above, sharp contrast makes for makes for dramatic punctuation and that’s all great, but there are times you want to soften the transition between the blacks and whites in an image, e.g., to render the perhaps jarring edges somewhat less attention-grabbing. Now, you could use a palette of shades of gray to smooth things out in a gradient manner, but that just makes for muddy confusion in which nothing stands out as distinct and separate. So how then to give a softer edge between masses of black and white? A common technique here is what is known as “feathering,” which refers to drawing repetitive lines emerging at an angle from a heavier line like barbs from a feather (hence the term “feathering”) (see Fig. 12). This softens up the edges while still maintaining a high-contrast look.
Now, feathering isn’t about just putting down some lines to create a graduating tone, it is also done to bring out the form and volume of the object being drawn. The, if you will, barbs must, namely, follow the object’s dominant shape and orientation (see Fig. 13). Sounds easy enough, right? Still, all too often, it is done wrong. Like when the feather lines don’t blend smoothily into the black edge, but instead meet it at right angles (see Fig. 14, left). This results in something that looks unnatural, especially if the feathered object is of organic nature. What you want is negative white space poking like little needles into the thick black (see Fig. 14, right). Sometimes there’s a need for horizontal feathering. Here you want the feather lines to blend into the black, getting thinner as the graduate out from the shaded area, lest you end up with that looks more akin to ornamental striping than like proper shading (Fig. 15, compare left and right).
Last, but not least, I want to talk about crosshatching. It’s a technique by which you layer several sets of parallel hatching that crisscross each other, creating a dark mesh-like tone. The rule of “less is more” applies here. However, a lot of artists and their audience alike mistakenly place too high a value on visual busywork as a sign of artistic skill while, in fact, it’s actually the opposite in that, it just distracts the eye from poor figure construction and overall composition; it indeed takes more actual skill to render a scene with as few lines as possible. (Did anyone say ligne claire?) But crosshatching has its purpose and place. But even then, it has be done right; otherwise, the shading looks “off.” Perhaps you think, “How hard can it be, crisscrossing lines,” but it is easy to mess it up. For instance, if the lines in two layers get close to being parallel, the resulting shading looks jarring (see Fig. 16, left). Another example of how not to do it: Say you want to delineate the shadowed contours of the human body. If you put down some same-length lines with intersections at right angles, you’ll end up with a mathematical pattern that looks monotonous and unnatural (see Fig. 16, middle). To get that natural look, something else is needed, namely, e.g., rows of shorter or brokes lines that get heavier as they merge into the black (see Fig. 16, right).
To conclude, some trivia: Have you ever wondered why crosshatching and feathering is commonly seen in American comics and in Franco-Belgian far less so? Well, of course, other than the unhealthy obsession with Olympian-like figures that lend themselves to a bonanza of shading, with their defined muscles and taut tendons, rather than with plain, oval, round-based figures like those seen in say, Asterix, it has everything to do with the economics of printing. In Europe, comics have since long been published in quality editions with quality paper and printing, while overseas in the United States, comic publishers were initially — and for quite a long period — bent on publishing their comics in cheap format, printed on pulp paper and with little color. That meant that American artists had had to work their magic with heavy inks.
Well, uh, that about wraps it up. I hope you enjoyed this read from top to bottom or even found it useful. If not, well, you can just go f… Oh, you know what the music means, our time is up …
It’s that time of the week again, when we do a “Throwback Thursday” post. Today, I want to reflect on old unfinished cartoon, which I will rename Grandpa Tells a Story*.
Let me start with saying I still think the conceit of this cartoon’s conceptualization is still a sound one: The senile grandfather, with a crown on his head, his Monty Python-esque eyes piercing his scared to death grandson, preaching, dictating, moralizing. But visually, it all feels off. I know now what is wrong with the way it looks, but back then I couldn’t really put a finger on it, and I had nobody telling me the posing of the characters and the sense of perspective just plain suck.
Nowadays I tend to draw from the imagination, with little reference material. But back then I heavily relied on photo references to create my drawings, to the point where some characters look “Frankensteined” together in a non-sensical way. See, for example, above, the grandfather’s right hand. Perspective-wise, it doesn’t match up with the overall pose of the figure. And that’s the first reason why you should never over-rely on photo reference or… well, at least take heed not to do a single figure drawing based on multiple photo references.
The second reason is because photo poses don’t always make good art poses, especially not cartoon poses. This is because when we draw, we want our character figures to have a strong silhouette so the audience can cleary read their shape and action. When dealing with cartoons, this becomes all the more important since — well — you’re already dealing with simple, cartoony designs. So as a cartoonist, you really have to exaggerate their gestures and postures as much as possible. Now if we look back again at the cartoon above, we can all see photo posing at work here, one-on-one translated in a drawing, presenting us a boring, flat silhouette at best and, at worst, an unreadable mass.
So, kids, now you know, and knowing is half the battle of doing better figure drawings.
*) The original title was (is) a bit too racy to be repeated here.
I did it! I just finished my last homework assignment for the course I’m taking on video game character design. The assignment being, “Draw a character, inspired by a real object, in three ways.” But I misread the assignment as “Draw three different characters, all based on (the same) one object.” Oh well, whatever. Anyway, I based these characters on a yucca(?) (Fuck if I know. I mean, do I look like a botanist?) plant I have had for years — and still have, for that matter.