This is a slightly-revised and corrected version of a previous tutorial I wrote for a post on Medium. It follows the process of creating a page of a comic. For the most part, I still utilize many of the same techniques, so I am presenting the post as it is with minimal correction. Any changes revolve around the writing as opposed to the content. I have split it into two separate tutorials.
This post is very special because it is going to share my step by step process of creating a comic page. Comics tend to start from a script or thumbnails, so pre-planning your page is incredibly important. This guide starts after I had thumbnailed my page from a working script. The sequence comes from one of my projects, Ben’s Book of Banned Beasts. I work more or less exclusively in Adobe Photoshop.
Once I have my layout chosen I begin drawing. I already have a good idea of where I want my dialogue balloons to go, but it wouldn’t hurt to mark them out ahead of time. If you need to do so it’s worth it.
As you can see, the initial sketch is messy, but there is enough of the form there for me to work from when I move into inking. I use different line colors to help me in the drawing stage so I don’t lose track of what I am doing. I also tend to scribble notes such as the lighting direction, or general lighting instructions. The note marked “skybox” is a note for me to develop a re-usable sky backdrop that I can use for multiple pages.
Note: I generally have a huge resource folder in my Cosmic Dash project folder filled with reusable elements that are often still in .PSD form so I can manipulate them and remix them as I see fit. If you’re making comics try to save a bunch of elements you create on each page for later. When I did the lush forest backgrounds in Cosmic Dash: The Cube: Part 2, I actually cropped out completed trees I had drawn, and re-used them over and over to great effect.
After I am satisfied with the sketch, I overlay the image in blue. You can use whatever color you wish, but I tend to find blue equally easy on the eyes as it is recognizable on the page. It helps to go blue, I find, because when the sketch layer is made lighter the blue is light enough to see while not overpowering the line art I am doing.
Framing and Panels
Once the blue overlay is applied, I then reduce the overall opacity of the image so it appears very light on the page, but still leaving me able to discern what is what. I also create a layer called “frame” and using some tools create the frames of each panel. I then duplicate that layer and title it “lines” to prepare myself for the inking step. When it comes to the coloring process later it’s vital I have the frame being used to separate the line art of each panel.
I keep the “frames” layer above the “lines” layer in case I color the line art later, which I am likely to do on this page. By now my layers palette looks like this:
With these steps taken, I start moving into the inking phase. Before I dive too far into that, I should share my tools. I use a Wacom Cintiq that I was able to get a good deal on and it was well worth it. Any tablet will do though. What is most important is the Photoshop tools and settings. I work with large files (5000 pixels wide @ 300 dpi minimum) and I’ve found that the humble pencil tool is just what I need for sharp, smooth line art. The great thing is that as the pencil tool art is scaled down it retains a kind of sharpness to it. Some people have even said my line art looks vectored from time to time. I assure you it’s all in the pencil tool, and here are the settings:
That’s it really. All you need tool-wise to do line art similar to how I do it is the pencil tool with the above settings.
When it comes to the inking phase I generally try to start with a character, and usually with the head or some sort of focal point to work my way around from there. In this case, I started with Ben’s round nose and his glasses. From there when it comes to needing to do overlapping lines, I start adding in other colors to the mix, as you can see here.
This looks messy but easily enough you can use either use the eraser tool, or better yet, the magic wand tool to select the bits you don’t want and just get rid of them.
Feel free to change the lines to black with the paint bucket if you want, but if you trust me so far you can just wait until later. I’ll have a neat trick to share when it comes to all that. Just keep inking and get all your vital lines into place.
Unifying Line Colors
With Ben inked, this seems like a good place to show you the cleanup technique I use to deal with the multi-colored lines.
First of all, hold the CTRL-key, and select the “lines” layer with your mouse. That will give you an effect similar to the magic wand, only it has selected all the lines on that layer. With the magic wand effect still active, create a new blank layer, and fill it in with the color of your choice that you want for the line art. My art is unique in that I rarely ever use solid black line art, instead, I use #0b0733, which is a dark, dark blue color.
Once you’ve created the new layer and filled it in with the paint bucket, simply merge that layer and the “lines” layer together.
There you go! I usually do not bother with this process until the entire layer is inked. I tend to focus on getting all of the characters inked first. Basically, feel free to work with the image in such a manner, piece by piece, so that you can ink the full page if that seems more comfortable for you.
With the sketch layer under your line art you can modify the sketch layer if need be, compare the rear tree in panel one with a previous sketch, this one has more volume:
I simply use the color correcting method I used earlier and swap all line colors to the dark blue that I favor (#0b0733).
However, I’m not ready to color yet. Why is that? Take a look.
I have line art crossing over those frames and that isn’t good! Thankfully if you keep your layers structured, that’s easy to deal with.
At this moment, my layers are “frames,” “lines,” and “base.” All I need to do is select my “frames” layer, use my magic wand tool on the gutters, and then delete that selection on the “lines” layer. That leads us here:
With the line art clean, I like to take one more step.
I duplicate the “frame” layer, unlock it, and drag it to just above the “lines” layer and merge down. What this does is apply a clean black frame on top of the line art just in case I accidentally colored the black frame around the line art with that same blue color. This is helpful because when I create the line art layer for coloring, I can use the black frame to save me some time. You’ll see it in the next tutorial.
Preparing for Color
Anyway, with that down, I tend to create a new layer just over the “base” layer that has the sketch and fill it in with white. That gives us our nice clean line art.
At this point, my layers look like so.
Hm. Wait, what is that hidden layer? “Bush Shape?”
Well, being a comic illustrator to me is about recognizing opportunities to make your life easier later. As I was inking panel three I observed that I have a clear foreground and background set up, with the kids in the foreground shaded differently and that maybe there will be some lighting effects in the future. So before I inked Ben in that panel I made a magic wand selection of that “hole” and used a lime green color. I typically think of this as being a green-screen for comics, as I use it as a placeholder to composite things later. I am not sure how much that layer will help when it comes time to color, but I decided it’s worth holding onto now. Here is a simple GIF showing how the layer works.
We’re almost ready to start coloring. The next step is to duplicate your “lines” layer and drag it to just above the layer of the white backdrop. Then, merge the two, while leaving at least one of the “lines” layers untouched.
Title this new layer “Base” and immediately lock it. This is your backup layer in case there is a catastrophic error in coloring. Pray you never need it. Once you have this new composite layer, duplicate it and call the duplicate layers “Flats.” This is your layer you’ll be doing your flat colors on.
The final step is to take the “lines” layer and lock transparent pixels. This will allow you to paint and fill your line art layer without worrying about adding any errant lines.
Just stick with me here. By now your layers palette should look like this:
And we’re good to go for coloring! Please check out part two for the coloring process.