Wednesday, November 09, 2005

How I Cartoon

All quiet on the literary front. As far as I know, printers in Asia are churning away, chunkity-chunking out copies of Mom's Cancer while I sleep peacefully through the night half a world away. I look forward to getting one in my hands. Meanwhile...

On my main site ( I used to have a "How To" page describing how I drew Mom's Cancer. I took it down after a while--don't remember why, maybe it occurred to me that no one cared. But what is a blog if not a repository for material about which no one but its author might care?

My method is very "old-school" cartooning, with a bit of computerization thrown in at the end. Increasing numbers of cartoonists work entirely on computer and love the results. I haven't yet found a technology that gives me the same versatility and control I enjoy with a brush. Plus, for me, the act of putting pencil and ink on paper is the most satisfying part. Why would I want to give it up? In some circles, this makes me a dinosaur.

I begin with a script and a blank sheet of 9-by-12-inch 2-ply vellum bristol board. Following a rough thumbnail sketch on scratch paper, I rule in borders and lettering guides in light pencil, then rough in the captions and word balloons:

The words go first because it's critical that they have enough room and the eye follows them around the page as intended. Then I pencil the art. It's still pretty loose at this point:

I rule borders and other straight lines using a fountain pen, and letter with waterproof black India ink using Speedball nibs B-6 and B-5 (for bold).

Art is also inked with black India ink using a variety of small sable or synthetic brushes. Fine details and lines (like those on Mom's shirt or the pattern on her hat) are done with a crow-quill nib.

After erasing pencil lines with a kneaded eraser, I scan the art into Photoshop to add shading and any color needed. I also do a fair amount of editing at this stage...fixing mistakes, erasing blemishes, and sometimes rewriting entire bits of dialogue by cutting and pasting words or even individual letters. A few years ago, this would've been done with X-Acto knives, rubber cement and White Out. Computers are much better.

When I had the time to sit down and work non-stop, I could finish two or three pages per day. However, I very rarely got such time and did the best I could, when I could. The hardest part? Laying down Line One on Day One, knowing that I had more than 100 pages and many months to go. Anne Lamott tells a story about her 10-year-old brother struggling to complete a huge report on birds the night before it was due. Overwhelmed and immobilized, he asked his father how he could possibly get it done. Dad answered, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." That's how I did Mom's Cancer: bird by bird.


Lynne said...

Brian, I find this very interesting. Being a traditional artist, and a computer artist, learning how you do things is fascinating. I've been working on a children's book, done all on computer, (Adobe Illustrator) but I'm finding it difficult to get the thick and thin lines I imagine you have no problem with using a pen and ink on paper.

Brian Fies said...

Lynne, it's great to hear about your art work, I didn't know that about you. Most of my variation in line weight/width comes from using brushes. I won't say I have "no problem" with it; it took a lot of practice to make the brush do what I wanted instead of what it wanted.

I know artists and cartoonists who work digitally, and virtually all of them use a Wacom tablet. It senses the pressure you put on the stylus/pen and can make your lines thicker or thinner. I know it takes practice, too; if you have one, just keep working with it and it'll eventually bow to your will. People who get good with it love it.

Lynne said...

Yeah, I thought of the tablet, unfortunately I cannot afford to get one, so I'm using my MOUSE!

I'm a traditional artist, drawing and painting mostly.
I keep plugging away at the book, but don't really know HOW to do it right.

check out

Scroll down to "Pogo Sees A Worm" and see the illustrations I've been working on.

BrianFies said...

Pogo has a lot of personality. I like the graphic quality of "Pogo Looked" and "Louis Watched." Amd some of your acrylics are very striking. Thanks for sharing.

I don't think I'd get much accomplished drawing with a mouse, though. I'd rather draw freehand and scan it; scanners aren't very expensive anymore.

Thanks again!

Lynne said...

Pogo is my nutty dog. He does have personality!

Lynne said...

Also, I am pretty good with the mouse, and prefer to use Illustrator rather than photoshop for the drawing part. It can then be rasterized into pshop and take advantage of some of those features, and to prepare the final art files.

I worked in graphics production for years, so got very good with the mouse, and Illustrator allow me to work in line segment format, and coloring it is easier there.

It is amazing how inexpenseive good scanners have become. It used to be, just a few years ago, that you had to spend several thousand dollars for a production quality scanner, but the technology keeps improving (as everywhere else) and they have become better and cheaper.