The comic book field is bigger than ever with the emergence of the graphic novel as a genuine literary genre. Comic book artists come from a variety of backgrounds and work in many different styles, but they all must learn to tell a story using words and pictures. Some comics book artists write their own material and some work with a writer, but in both cases they must hone their storytelling and narrative skills.
Overview of the Comic Book Industry
There are two general types of comic book companies. The first type is the mainstream comic publisher, such as Marvel or DC comics. They hire artists and writers to create works using wholly owned licensed characters, such as Spiderman and Batman. Production tasks are broken down into jobs such as writers, pencil artists, inkers, letterers or colorists. The company retains copyright (ownership) of all work produced and artists are paid a piece rate for their work.
The second type of comic book publisher operates more like a book publisher, with the artist or artist and writer team creating a complete work. Upon completion, they search for an appropriate publisher to bring the work to market. Pay is based on royalties on units sold, although it is possible to negotiate an advance against royalties. Typically, the artist retains the copyright and ownership of the work. Artists should become familiar with the different publishers and the type of work they produce, and gear their submissions to a specific type of publisher.
Basic Skills for Comic Book Artists
Above all, a comic book artist must be a superb draftsman, capable of drawing the human figure in action, landscapes, buildings, interiors and compositions including all of these. For drawing the human figure, there is no substitute for life drawing. It is important to draw the figure in a formal setting such as a life drawing class, but of equal importance is to carry a sketchbook and draw from life as a habit. This helps in incorporating the figure into landscapes, cityscapes and interiors. Even artists with a cartoony style tend to have some background in life drawing. Artists who learn to draw only from looking at other comics tend to create flat looking art without dimension or movement.
Study Narrative Art: Comics and Film
Comic book artists must create a visual narrative that takes place over time. Comics are a unique medium with their own language and dynamics, but there are similarities with film. Study the comic book artists and movies that have a gripping appeal to you. Note how the artist or director conveys their story. What type of images do they use to convey action and emotion? Think of how you can use these types of images in your comics.
Practice: Draw a Lot of Comics
Canadian comic artist Dave Sim has commented that a comic book artist must draw 1000 pages of comics before they draw their first good page of comics. The point is to practice. Assemble some basic cartooning tools and get to work. You will need some HB drawing pencils, an eraser, some small watercolor brushes for inking, india ink, bristol paper, and some lettering and drawing pens that can be dipped in ink. These items are available at art supply stores. A ruler, T-Square and a triangle are all useful for drawing straight lines. At first, do not worry how your work looks. Practice drawing comics many hours per week. Note that improvement comes over time with hard work. When your work looks good enough, you may consider publishing your own mini-comic to show friends.
Nuts and Bolts of Creating Comic Book Art
Here is the typical work sequence in producing a comic book or graphic novel. First, the script is written, broken down into individual panels with dialog and captions for each panel. Then, the story is drawn on bristol board in pencil. After pencil art, the letters are drawn in ink over the pencil art. The inker takes over and inks the pencil art using india ink. Some inkers prefer working with brush and ink, while others swear by the nib pen, or dip pen. Even others prefer technical pens that are preloaded with ink. It is important to remember to erase left over pencil lines after the inking is done. If the inside pages are to be reproduced in color, the final step is to color the pages. Each step may be performed by one individual or a team. This is a general guide, as each artist develops their own process for creating comic book art. For example, many artists use Adobe Photoshop for coloring comics today.
Becoming a Professional Comic Book Artist
Some colleges and universities now offer degrees in comic book art, sometimes called sequential art, such as the School of Visual Arts in New York City. While this may be valuable, there is no substitute for logging many hours drawing comics. When you feel you work has reached a professional level, review the submissions policies of the major publishers and send them copies of your work with return postage. Never send original art. These days, many of the top companies offer portfolio reviews at the major industry shows such as Comic Con International, held each summer in San Diego. You may not be hired on your first try, but you will receive valuable tips from editors and make contact with fellow artists and industry professionals. In summary, it takes a combination of talent, hard work and sustained focus to become a comic book artist.
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