Doing comics the hpkomic way

Hello and welcome. This post is very special because it is going to share my step by step process to creating a comic page. As production continues I will add more images to the guide. So let’s begin. 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.

Initial working sketch.

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. 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 in 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.

This is the sketched page, but with a blue color overlay.

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.

Sketch prepped and frames in place.

Once the blue 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:

Organization is vital.

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 @ 400 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.

Settings (A)
Settings (B)

That’s it really, all you need tool-wise to do line art like I do. 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.

What a mess!

Tis 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.

Looking clean, kiddo.

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 flesh out everything.

Ben’s looking pretty put together here.

With Ben inked, this seems like a good place to show you the clean up 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.

All the colors replaced.

There you go! I usually do not bother with this process until the entire layer is inked. With that being said, I tend to focus on getting all of the characters inked first. Basically feel free to work piece by piece so that you can ink the full page. 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:

All inked and ready, but what now?

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.

Well that ain’t gonna fly.

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 such “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:

Notice the lines spilling into the gutter? Also note the “marching ants” of the magic wand tool.

To this:

That’s clean.

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 soon.

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.

Looking good kids!

At this point, my layers look like so.

Like I said, keep things organized. Trust me on this.

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 in 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.

See?

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 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 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:

Everything in place, and lock those pixels!

And we’re good to go for coloring! Let’s dive right in, shall we? My first step is to green-screen anything that I feel will be composed of composites later. So skies, windows, and screens usually, as I have some pre-made stuff for that.

It’s garish but it works.

Then I will grab any reference materials I need. Luckily I already have some color guides available for Ben and Erin:

And Karma too! But he will show up on a different page.

With the guide I start coloring the characters, but during the process I realized that Ben’s shoes weren’t hi-tops in the page I just drew, so to fix that I just did a quick edit on the flat colors layer.

Stylish!

This will not mess up the line art coloring process later that much, I just need to keep in mind that I modified his shoes. Anyway, keep at it until you have a page full of flat colors.

Like this.

With the flat colors in place, it’s now down to the part that really makes my comics stand out. I am going to have to color the line art, but with our locked transparent pixels this is super easy. What I will do if find an object that I want to change the outline color of. So to start I am going to deal with the bushes in panel 2. I always keep the character line art that dark blue color but I color other lines, such as background stuff, with different colors to allow the characters to pop. So what I do is select my “lines” layer, and just use the pencil tool and a color of choice to separate the elements I need to. For this section of bush, for example, I just drew some green lines to block it off for easy paint bucket fills:

Step One
Step Two

With lock transparent pixels you can scribble all over the “lines” layer without adding any new lines, anything you add just overlaps the existing lines you’ve done. That makes coloring the line art super easy. So now the task is to color all the background objects as you see fit. In my case I’ll be at this for a bit, but it’s not a super taxing process either. Later when we apply some extra colors to the characters lock transparent pixels will be hugely important.

Oh yeah, and remember that we duplicated the frame and merged it with the line art earlier? Well, the black frame surrounds all the blue line art so if you block out a section of lines and use the paint-bucket it won’t color every line in the panel since the blue and the black are different colors. It’s a small thing but I find it very helpful. Basically I continue this until all the background elements have colored line art.

Notice the characters pop off from the background?

Once that is done, I begin to apply colors to the characters, usually small things that create a little more depth. I keep that same blue outline, but I find elements that can use some differentiating color. Teeth, eyes, ear lines, clothing folds, are all game for their own color. Once again, this is all done on the line layer.

Things like these.

I continue this until I have my whole page ready for the shading process.

Flat colors and full-colored outlines.

By now my layers look like this:

Layers at this point.

I simply merge the lines and flats layers into a “Base” layer, and then duplicate it, naming it “Flats.” The base layer becomes locked because, once again, it’s a back up in case something goes horribly wrong. Notice the “bush shape” layer is still there. It will definitely come in handy soon, as now we’re going to be shading the page. Step one is to duplicate the flats layer and title is “Shade.”

Shade Layer

Then, using that same blue color I use for the outlines, I begin drawing my shadows on the characters as they tend to be the focus on every panel. Remember to remember your lighting source. In this case, the light comes from behind the characters.

Outline the fill areas.

From there, I fill in the area that is in the shadows, as seen here. I know it looks odd, but trust me on this. I’ve not led you the wrong way yet, have I?

Fill in those lines.

Simply repeat this step for all the characters.

Full Character Shading

Now take that layer of character shading, reduce it to 25% opacity, and merge with your flats layer. That gives you something similar to this.

Now reduce the opacity!

Now duplicate this composite “flats” layer and name it “shade.” Now we start shading the background. Typically my choices for line art colors reflect the shading colors I go with, as seen here:

Shading background/foreground elements.

Just repeat this for the rest of the page. Remember your lighting sources and be consistent. We’ve got some more environmental effects to get down later, but for now basic shading is just what we need.

Shading of the environment.

Now simply reduce this shading layer to 25% opacity and merge down, creating a layer called, yet again, “flats.” There is a lot of this duplication and compositing process.

Shaded environment.

Now we’re moving into the really fun stuff, the sky box and some other special effects, including textures and dynamic shadows. For example, I want a little more variation in the colors on things like the sidewalk, trees, and bushes. So what I would do here is select the area I was to apply a gradient to on the “base” layer as it is the cleanest copy of the colored art, and then create a new layer above the “flats” layer where I can apply the gradients I wish. I may have a couple of gradient layers depending on the effects I am after, as seen here.

You’ll notice the trees, grass, sidewalk, and wooden fence al have gradients applied.

For areas of special interest, such as the stark different between the foreground and background of panel two, I simply go to the “frame” layer, select the inside, and create a new overlaying layer with a darker gradient to establish the darkness inside of the bushes. From there I take that green “bush shape” layer from earlier, select it, and cut that shape from that darker gradient layer.

Notice the stark difference in lighting in the second panel. Anything in the foreground has a green hue.

From there I just modify the opacity of the individual layers to a point where I am happy with them, and then merge them to the “flats” layer.

From there were are moving toward the final touches. My characters should be projecting shadows, so I go ahead and do that. I take a color similar to that of the lineart for the characters, create a new layer, and draw in the rough shadows, even going as far as drawing over the characters if need be. I also need to take into account the direction of the light I decided on. Naturally if the light is hitting out characters from behind, then the shadows should project in front of them. From there I simply blur the shadow layer by about 15 to 20 pixels and then create my selections to target any shadows that are covering over the character art so I can delete those. When all is done, it leaves some nice shadows below the characters. I usually merge these shadows with, you guessed it, the “flats” layer.

Really try to consider how the shadows would be shaped, don’t just go for rounded discs below the characters.

All that remains in the skybox from earlier. I had an existing blue sky background I had made, so I set it underneath the “flats” layer. I then deleted all the awful lime green coloring on the flats layer allowing the blue sky layer to shine through. I simply manipulate the skybox to a point where I am happy with it and merge it into the “flats” layer. Furthermore, I also make sure I do the same thing for those windows on the house in the background. I have premade window textures I created for such a purpose. Additionally, if you want a color that overlays the whole comic, simply select the panels from the “frames” layer, create a new layer filled with the color, and the play with your layer and blending styles, along with your opacity.

The finished artwork.

This is the exact process I use for every page of my webcomic Cosmic Dash, and it has served me well so far. I won’t cover dialogue balloons and the sort in this post as it is a seperate beast entirely, but you can feel free to look at a complete page and see how you think it would work.

Yet another comic series I have to find time to work on.

As always, thank you from reading, and if you have feedback, comments, or topic suggestions please let me know by commenting here, or by dropping me a line on twitter.

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