Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Drawing Tips From Comic Books (Part One)

Lately I've been using the Comixology app on my iPad to buy and read comics.

I still like buying comics on paper too (and I want to support comic book stores), but one of the best things about the app is how easily you can take snapshots of the pages.

I took a few snapshots and thought I'd just point out some basic drawing and composition stuff that occurred to me as I was reading. None of this is really groundbreaking or mind-blowing, I suppose...but there's not much to be said about art that is. It's just the basics, reworked and reapplied in different ways, I find.

All these examples come from the series "The Mighty Thor, Vol. 1" (artwork by John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson) and "Jonah Hex #30" (artwork by Jordi Bernet).

Drawing crowds
Crowds are always tricky. A crowd is rarely the point of a drawing; they're usually just there to provide a background. And so they need to read as a group and not a bunch of individuals, otherwise they become a distracting mess.

One way to make sure your crowds read as a unified group is to make sure they all have the same attitude. Everyone in the crowd should have the same reaction to what they're seeing, whether it's terror, admiration, awe, anger, etc. Otherwise, their expressions and attitudes become a jumble and detract from the idea that they're one group.

Another helpful trick is avoiding the temptation to color them in a realistic way...if they all have different colored skin, shirts, pants, etc. then they become a mess of patchy colored shapes. They can begin to look like a bag of Skittles and don't read as a unified group anymore.

Some examples from "The Mighty Thor" where the colorist uses color to group a number of figures together.

 You can see how, in the page below, in the bottom panel, the crowd is colored in sepia values while the main character and the girls on the sofa he's lifting are colored normally to make them the focus and make them come forward in the frame while the background crowd recedes. Even in the top panels, when there's no main character to be the focus, the crowd is handled with different values of sepia to keep them reading as a group, to minimize their importance (they're not the heroes of this story, and we won't ever see them again), and to avoid the trap of coloring each of them with different colored shirts, pants, skin, and hair, which can quickly become a mess of color.

 Same thing here. Coloring the crowd with a consistent color groups them and tells you they're not the focus of the panel. Thor becomes the main focus of the drawing because he's full color, and his colors have more contrast than anyone else's as well.

 You'd think that kind of caricatured, simplified color would look strange and have a distracting effect. But it works really well, and I don't find it distracting or strange. It feels right.

Another example: the complicated crowd is drawn with a lot of detail...but by making them all a unified color, they become a group and the main characters remain the focus of the panel, since the main characters are colored with a fuller palette (and more contrast). This helps the main characters come forward in the field while the crowds recede into the background.

Below, another similar example: in the second panel, the colorist uses different values of blue for everything in the background to minimize them and keep Thor the focus. There's a lot of detail in the background of that panel: figures, a crowd, and scenery, so the different values used really help with readability.

Another similar example: this time, the background in the second panel is drawn into distinctly separated planes; the colorist has assigned each one of them their own color, which helps create a feeling of depth without becoming distracting. If you tried to color each building a different color, it would be distracting and  the feeling of atmospheric perspective probably wouldn't be as strong. Also, the simplified way the background is colored helps our main heroes in the foreground pop nicely.

More Caricatured Color

Another caricatured use of color that you'd think would be distracting (but isn't) is from Jonah Hex #30 by Jordi Bernet (colored by Rob Schwager). In most of the panels, the foreground is painted in a warm purple and the background in sepia. The effect separates the planes from each other and provides a nice sense of depth.

Another use of that effect below: in the next to last panel, the effect is reversed...sepia for the foreground and purple for Hex who is in the background. And in the last panel, the color becomes completely caricatured: the background goes completely red to suggest the violent feel of the scene. Again, it might seem like a strange way to approach color, but it really works well.

Like most aspects of art, color seems like it needs to be complicated and a lot of work to be effective. But simplicity is often the most effective approach to color.


Shadows can be helpful for creating variety in composition or for showing things that won't fit within the frame of the picture plane.

In this Thor example, the last panel of a character ducking into an alley is drawn in silhouette because the action can be shown clearly in silhouette, and staging it that way creates variety and interest in a pretty straightforward action. Also, the silhouette supports the feeling of the moment: in this case, ducking into an alley to hide is an act of secrecy and I feel like the choice of putting the whole thing into shadows enhances that idea.

 In this page below, in the lower left panel, Romita chooses to show Thor's feet as he lands in an alley and uses his shadow to suggest the rest of his body. Again, it's an interesting way to show what could otherwise be a straightforward and boring action. The texture of the alley wall is more interesting visually than just seeing a standard drawing of Thor coming in for a landing (which we've all seen before).

In the panel in the middle of the page below, Bernet shows Jonah Hex's gun and his shadow cast into the frame. There's no other way to show that angle and get Hex within the frame, and it's a great choice...it makes him look especially imposing to stage him that way.

More to come in Part Two.


Chris Cormier said...

Great stuff (as usual)! Comics are a brilliant form and resource for visual storytelling. Can't wait for part two!

Jim Ryan said...

Loved it! Thrilled I stumbled across this. Great article. Cheers

David Rickert said...

This is an awesome post. I always struggle with crowds, and this analysis was helpful.

Android Application Development said...

Great stuff (as always)! Comics are a brilliant stories and visual resources.

Oscar Solis said...

Glad you picked Romita and Bernet. When it comes to storytelling, they are among the best in a field where real storytellers have become an endangered species.

Comic Book Art Sweatt Shop said...

Great stuff as always. Shared!

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the comments guys!

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