how to hack your own art
I just finished a 30 page book called The Bear From The Bear and The Beach From The Beach. It was drawn in 22 hours and colored in about 8 hours.
A few pages are text only, but that’s still an hour a page for a fully colored book! And here’s the thing- that wasn’t even the plan! I’ve done challenge comics before where I did rushed-looking work at an hour a page (I once did a 168 Hour comic- that is, a 168 page graphic novel drawn in one week) but for this book, I made exactly the book I wanted to make and didn’t realize until doing the math for that opening paragraph that I’d done it in an hour a page.
It happened accidentally because of a number of hacks I’ve figured out over the years that include extra side effects that force you to work not just faster, but better! I’ll tell you ‘bout them if you want!
THE WRITING PHASE
The secret to working fast is working in bulk. I can finish 12 pages in 12 hours, but if I’m drawing and coloring those pages one at a time, they’re going to take 12 hours EACH. The preparation and metal energy needed for every part of every step multiplies every time you stop working.
So the key is knowing what you’re doing in advance. A script helps with that.
Tip #1: Crack open Celtx
I use a writing program called Celtx. Here’s a free copy. It automatically formats your work for you. There are layouts for screenplays, novels and even comic books, but I use screenplay mode for everything, since it’s the simplest and I prefer to do my visual thinking when I get to the visual stage.
What’s nice about Celtx is that every time you hit enter, it knows what type of information you’re going to type next. Scene heading, description, character name, dialogue… and it remembers your character names, so after the first time you only need to enter one letter. You can just mind dump into it and it does all the busywork for you, so you can just spill out ideas and have a perfectly organized and formatted script that’s easy to copy and paste dialogue from, no second step needed.
THE PREPRODUCTION PHASE
Now we get into the Photoshopping. What? Photoshop before I even start drawing? What kind of tomfoolery is this, Estrada? Well….
Tip #2: The Grid
This is something I learned from David Petersen, the creator of Mouse Guard. Every single page he draws is on the same nine panel grid. You’d never know it to look at his pages, because he can get so much variety out of that grid. It could be 9 equally-sized panels. Or maybe three wide panels, or three tall panels. Maybe one tall panel and three double-width panels. Or one giant square panel. But it makes his book look so much more clean and consistent. And a side effect is that doing it that way saves an artist so much time in drawing and erasing panel lines to get just the right size.
So I made my own Photoshop document that broke up my preferred page size in a similar way. I made a layout for each possible panel configuration, and put them in folders by the number of panels. Then, every time I move to a new page I just grab one of the 35 panel configurations below:
and work from there! That doesn’t mean you always have to stick to the grid! But the consistency of your pages helps so that if you DO want to use a different layout for dramatic effect, it really pops.
I’ve used this grid for two books. I’m probably done with it, so I’d like to donate it to you! Right click this link to download the PSD file and have at it! (35mb)
Or perhaps just look it over to figure out how to make your own.
Tip #3: Ghost pages
My next step is to lay out the entire book, using this grid. I open a fresh copy of panelblanks.psd, and make new folders for each page of the book.For each page I drag in a copy of the right panel grid, and copy the dialogue from my Celtx script into the right panels.
At the end, I have an entire readable book without any characters in it. Ghost pages.
This has a few benefits. When you’re drawing there are a lot of things to think about. Not just poses and expressions, but layout, eye flow, composition, typography… and trying to do all of that at the same time as drawing can lead to things getting lost in the shuffle. So it makes your comics better and more readable. But also, making those decisions without art in the way lets you make decisions faster. And drawing with those decisions already made helps you draw faster.
THE DRAWING PHASE
Tip #4: Print your digital
Now, I take all of those digital ghost pages I’ve created (and it really is a speedy process. It probably took you longer to read about it than it takes to do it) and print ‘em out. Maybe you draw digitally, so you don’t need this step, but I’m an Amish old fart who uses paper and murders trees.
Now you have your whole book ready to have the panels filled in. All the decisions are already made. You know exactly what needs to go in every panel. And you get much more consistently when you can JUST focus on drawing characters and not have to take break in between to bust out rulers to draw borders or guesstimate how much room you need to leave for your lettering.
And the best thing is, you don’t need to do it right then. I have a bunch of ghost-books sitting in a filing cabinet so that any time I have a few minutes to work, I can crank out some pages without having to get in the right mindset to make creative decisions.
Tip #5: Two toolsets
Artists are always looking for hot tips on the right tools. The right pen that will make you draw faster. There is no magic go-to art supply, since it depends on your style and the style of what you’re trying to create. My toolset changes all the time.
But there is a difference in tools… some allow you to create great detail but take time, some allow you to draw faster but lose a little control. So I use two sets. One detail pen (usually a couple sizes of Uniball or something with a hard tip) that I use for faces, expressions and lettering. And one speed pen (A .8 Micron or something with a soft tip, and a few plain ol’ dollar store markers) that I can use for bodies, backgrounds, and stuff the eye doesn’t really focus on.
I don’t put any less effort into one or the other, I just like knowing that I can be really anal retentive about the expressions that people will connect to, and still allow looser, more natural linework for the image as a whole. Plus it’s way fast.
THE SCANNING PHASE
Okay. You drew little dudes into all your ghost pages. Now you gotta scan them all and get them ready to color. Scan them all in one sitting. It makes life easier if all your files are the same size.
Tip #6: The “Ready For Color” Action
Photoshop actions are a gift from the heavens above. Anything you can do to a file, you can tell Photoshop “hey, remember this bro!” and then Photoshop will do that to any file any time you tell it to.
So after scanning all my files are sideways, and in black and white mode, and all this other stuff that would needs to be fixed.
But I can open just the first file. Then in the ‘actions’ tab, I click ‘new action’ name it “ready for color”, and hit record. Rotate 90 degrees. Convert to RGB Mode. Dupicate layer. Change blending mode to multiply (more on this later) create a new layer between the two, select that layer. Then I hit stop.
Or, since I’ve done this many many times before, if my workflow is the same I can just use the “ready for color” action I already have saved!
Then you can just open file/automate/batch and tell Photoshop to do all those things you did, to all the files in a certain folder, and then BOOM 10 seconds later it’s done. It even remembers which layer to leave selected when it’s done, so that you’re all set for the next step!
It is much better to make your own Photoshop Actions so you know what they’re doing, and because if your workflow is different from mine it won’t work right, but I made a little actions file that will import my favorite custom actions into your Photoshop, in case it will help you see how I do it. Right click to download it here.
Tip #7: The Sandwich
There was that whole thing where I duplicated the layer and changed the blending mode to multiply. Multiply is Photoshop talk for “just show the black part of this layer and pretend the white part isn’t there.” Now you have a clean copy of your linework floating on top, a backup underneath and a clean layer to do all your coloring on.
THE COLORING PHASE
The problem with coloring in Photoshop is that the paint bucket tool is kinda useless and dumb. You always get weird jagged lined when the color bumps against the line and it looks super unprofessional. I’ve read many a tutorial on how artists get around that with plugins and stuff, but they’re all crazy complicated and time consuming. I have a better way.
Tip #8: the Fill ‘er Up! Action
I have another custom action in my arsenal. It goes : Expand selection by two pixels. Fill with foreground color. Deselect.
It’s that easy! Now, I can just use the selection tool to select the area I want filled in, and that action will automatically make sure that it fills it in with a little extra breathing room so that it goes under the line.
I’ve included that action in the actions file you can have as well. Right click to download it here if you didn’t do that last time.
Tip#9: One color at a time
Here’s what REALLY saves time. I know what color my main character’s skin is, what color his hair is. If I don’t waste time finding and selecting every color every time I use it, but rather select the color once and fill in every appearance of that color throughout the book, I can SPEED through. Once I get through the whole book and get back to page one, I move on to the next color.
Tip #10: Button mapping
Another great thing about Photoshop actions is that you can tie them to custom keyboard shortcuts so that say, every time you hit shift F-12 it runs “Fill ‘er up” and the cool thing about tablets is that you can set the buttons to perform custom keystrokes!
I set that bottom left button to play the “fill ‘er up” action. I then set that toggle switch in the middle to do “next document” and “previous document” That way I can have all of my pages open at the same time and speed through coloring them with one hand on the stylus selecting areas to fill and 2 fingers on the buttons to perform the fill action and move to the next document. I fly through pages like Hamm changing channels in Toy Story 2. You can flat your whole book in less than the time one page usually takes.
THE FINISHING PHASE
Now you’ve got a book all colored… but it’s just flat, unvarying color. This is called flats. You COULD be done if you wanted to, but just because we’re working fast doesn’t mean we don’t want it to be awesome.
Tip #11: The Class Pass
Now, we go through every page to do the stuff a Photoshop filter CAN’T do for us. Lighting effects. Mood coloring. Textures. Line colorization. Little cheek blushes. Details.
Although knowing how actions works, if there are things you find yourself doing a lot, you can automate tiny pieces of your workflow. Even saving a couple of clicks on something you do repeatedly can add up to hours saved.
In the end, how fast you made a page matters only to you. You want to make something awesome for your audience. So don’t speed for the sake of speeding, but know your process inside and out so that you can figure out what parts can be separated, what parts can be automated, and what parts deserve some extra time. Now go make comics!
I hope this helped!
Check out Ryan’s comics at ryanestrada.com
notes: there are two more actions included in the actions set I included. One is ‘save all’ which is only does one thing- save- but if you use the automate option to apply it to all open documents it’s much faster than saving them one by one. The other is “word bubble layer.” That creates a new layer that automatically creates a nice black stroke around any shapes you create on it. So you can use the rounded rectangle tool to draw shapes around your dialogue and it automatically becomes a word balloon.