It’s one thing to learn how to draw, next is learning to draw well.

It’s not good enough to learn how to draw characters, if you don’t know how to have your characters interact with other characters on the page…and interact with your audience. That’s right, your audience plays a crucial role in your drawing.

Here is a pencil drawing of a comic book cover. I’m going to break down my process into some of the thinking that goes into putting together a drawing like this — beyond just learning to draw.

This is for the advanced artist looking to group characters/elements and have them work together in a symphony of disciplines.

Comic Book Cover Pencil

The Cover Illustration

The top portion of this page is left open for the title, and graphics, and the characters take center stage.

But, what does it take to draw a page like this, or how to layout a page like this? You can’t simply start drawing, you need to have a plan.

I liken drawing and painting to writing a symphony. It takes a long time to learn all these skills. First you have to learn all the individual skills of construction, anatomy, fabric, lighting, balance, and good design. You also have to make your character’s performance engaging. Do they have a relationship on the page?

Each one of these skills is like learning a musical instrument. Once you learn to play all these instruments individually, now you must learn how to coordinate them in a symphony. Drawing is no different: your symphony is the knowledge and understanding in how to balance these disciplines together and tell the story on the page.

Mass

First is singling out the mass…this is where you intend on placing your image, i.e., your characters or the action. Your center of interest should be your primary concern.

Understanding where you are going to place this on the page should be your first consideration. In this case, for a comic book cover, the top portion of the image will be covered by the title, and the lower portion of the image will be covered by the rack at the comic book store. You have a small target window in the middle to get right in order to reach your audience. You don’t want to spend time drawing something, and then realize that’s not going to work and have to start over again. You need to know where the image needs to be. and where to concentrate your efforts. You’re not drawing at this point, you’re planning.

I devised a system of drawing and design I call The Fractal Method. (If you are interested in learning this system, there are a couple booklets for you to purchase at Stuart NG Books.) It’s a system of drawing that you can train with during your figure drawing. But, in this case, I’m showing the practical application of the Fractal Method — and how it can be employed for layout. This, is the same Fractal Method I utilize in my work.

It’s easy to move characters, move their placement, make adjustments, when all you’re moving is a mass, and not individual characters. You can see that a group of three soldiers function as one mass…with three fractals inside. The fourth soldier, can also work as a fractal, and group with the other three soldiers to make one shape…but for the sake of this example I thought I would fractalize this group into two masses. You can easily see the fractal in the similarity of shapes between the two.

Rhythm and Flow

Second, is the rhythm and flow. When you begin to layout your page, you need to consider the flow of your drawing. The flow is based on the lines you create that will help move the audience’s eye comfortably across the image.

There is no perspective, or construction in this phase, it is simply the 2D movement of the audience’s eyes across the page.  As I layout a drawing, the first thing I consider is the mass, and then the flow.

This is the same way I approach my figure drawing using The Fractal Method.

Gestalt

This rhythm and flow is akin to the Gestalt principle used in film. When the human mind sees like-things, it tends to group them together. Making it easy for your audience to group similar things is the Gestalt principle.

Movies use this principle of organizing images on the cinema screen quite often. Much like the first step of grouping our masses for placement, the Gestalt principle allows the audience to visually group the characters in this image.

The audience’s eye ping-pongs across the image…and in doing so they’ve grouped the characters in their mind.

Silhouette

Creating strong silhouettes and shape recognition is the key to good drawing. The human eye can recognize an image faster than you can read a word. At the primary stage of visual perception (our V1 Cortex), we read images at a level that is 60,000 times faster than text. That is why a strong silhouette is paramount in attracting your audience’s attention.

Your audience is going to be looking at a wall of comic book covers, in a matter of split seconds you need to communicate effectively to your audience and compel them to pick up your comic book. If you get the silhouette right, the audience will forgive you if you get the details wrong. But, if you get the silhouette wrong, no amount of rendering will help a bad silhouette.

Overlap
Up until now, we’ve been dealing with the flat, 2D, graphic page layout. But, we want to create the illusion of depth.

Naturally, great drawing and draftsmanship will help you create that depth, but at the fundamental level you need to utilize the power of overlapping elements.

Remember when you were a kid and you learned how to overlap mountains? We just kept adding overlapping lines, and the mountains kept moving further back. This is a powerful tool, don’t under estimate it. You want an image to move back in space, make sure you utilize overlapping elements.

But, more so than just overlapping elements, you want to make sure that like-objects get smaller the further back in space, and the further back in your overlapping hierarchy. Objects in the foreground are bigger, and each subsequent overlapping similar object gets smaller.

Now you have both scale and overlap working to create the illusion of depth.

Horizon Line
The story telling moment in this illustration asks, where is my audience? This is crucial. If I want my audience to be involved — to feel the sense of danger and trepidation — I need to place them into my soldier’s platoon. So, I lowered the horizon line.

This is because the viewer’s eye level is at the level of the horizon line. By lowering the horizon line, I’m telling the viewer where they are. In this case, they’re in the thick of the action.

Interestingly, because of this composition, our audience becomes the fifth member of this platoon. The image is actually coming out of the page, and involving the viewer directly.

We’re always looking for ways to make our work “pop”, to have it look 3D. But you can get much more out of your work; you can make your work seem virtual. You can make your work so engaging that it directly involves your audience as part of the composition. As soon as they look at the artwork…they’re now involved.

 3D

Now we have 2D graphic movement on the page, the Gestalt principle of organization, strong silhouette, and we have our overlap creating depth.

 

Naturally, we we want to emphasize that depth with great draftsmanship in our environment and great draftsmanship in our individual characters, in order to create a 3D movement within your grouping.

I’m still utilizing the same 2D rhythm and flow page-movement from my initial steps, but combined with overlap, construction, and draftsmanship, now the rhythm and flow starts to work in 3D!

The level of audience involvement in your drawing defines the storytelling. How do they feel about the image? Are they connected, are they involved, are they dispassionate about what is happening? All of these elements are like those musical instruments I discussed earlier. Once you become proficient in their understanding, you have your orchestra. Once you begin to utilize them together, you have your symphony.