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.
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 …
I read a lot on how to draw human figures and landscapes; I read a lot on what makes a good visual narrative; I read a lot on the history of comics, on what comics artists from various decades and places have been doing, and why; in short, I do a lot of reading on making cartoons and comics — and yes, funnily enough, I end up spending more time reading about it than actualling doing it. There is an upshot to this, however. Sometimes, in this erudition, I stumble upon these little inspirational nuggets. One such nugget for me is what renowned 1970s’ punk manga artist King Terry has said about his philosophy for artists (as quoted in Frederik L. Schodt’s Dreamland Japan).
To him the highest level of achievement for an artist is not the ability to make good art but instead the ability to make heta-uma (which translated means ‘bad-good’) art. By which he means not your it’s-so-bad-it’s-good art but art that is both bad and good at the same time. To illustrate this, I can think of no better example than Dutch absurdist Gummbah, whose work was once ridiculed by editors but eventually got featured in national newspapers and magazines. On first glance, looking at just one figure or cartoon that he created, you may think him possessing no drawing skill or technical ability whatsoever, but his cartooning style oozes soul and authentic personal sensibility — and that’s precisely what makes his cartoons so good … while being bad. I wonder, though, if anyone would go as far as to proclaim him a master cartoonist. I know I would, but I may be alone in that.
Now, of course you can argue that a cartooning style such as his doesn’t hold up compared to — I don’t know, say the just-plain-good-drawing style of Marten Toonder, arguably the best Dutch comic strip creator to have ever lived. But the point King Terry wants to make is that people, young and aspiring artists especially, tend to value and emphasize technique over style, while, in his view, it should be the other way around. And he’s right. Artists should establish a style of their own first, and only then strive for mastering their drawing skills… or just be content with having a signature style, or any style at all, even it’s bad.
Well, ideally, of course, it would be nice if a work of art shows both individual style and technical prowess like — well, for example, the comic strips of Toonder. But it takes a certain talent, an innate gift, to achieve such a level of competence. Not to mention a lifetime of practice and discipline. So, yeah, not everyone gets to be the next Toonder. No, chances are, you will end up like me — inadequate, technically incompetent, lacking knowledge or skills. But don’t get discouraged, there’s a silver lining here. No matter how bad you are at drawing, you can still be an authentic artist and get your work published.