Written by Tom | 12th March 2020
Comics are a wonderful world of their own. Lovingly crafted images and a flurry of textual devices—captions, speech bubbles, gripping stories and well-crafted commentary–are just some of the many features that make comics one of the world’s most adored mediums. But what does it take to create one? What do you need to know and where do you begin? We sat down with two comic artists, Juapi Coffee Artist and Beniamino Delvecchio, to get their thoughts for aspiring artists on how to create a comic book.
It might sound obvious but strong characters and stories are a great place to begin when writing your comic. “Inspiration is everywhere: films, books, comics, even on the street”, says Juapi. “For my illustrations, my main sources of inspiration are famous people from the world of cinema, superheroes and Japanese manga, among other things”.
Even if you’re drawing on tried and tested characters, there might be traits or characteristics that you can craft into something original. According to Beniamino, the trick is to inject some of your own narrative touch. “I work on screenplays from professional screenwriters who write in detail the number of vignettes I need to draw on a page, and the content that should be present in each. Still, I try to add my personal touch while respecting the narrative sequence of the story”.
Good comics, like novels, rely on a narrative pace set by the panel sequence the artist creates. Planning, to ensure coherence, is an integral part of creating a comic. While it differs from artist to artist, there are some shortcuts to getting started. Juapi says he creates a point of reference from the very beginning so he has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve and does much of this digitally to save time.
“First, I think about what I want to paint and I look for documentation. I can use an image from the Internet, a film frame, a production photo, a doll, or I can take the photo myself with the position I need. The point is to have a document to use as a base, which can also provide a reference for lights and shadows.”
“If the illustration only depicts a character, I just draw the sketch digitally. That way I save myself hours of work, as I can adjust it as many times as I want without having to redraw it. If the illustration includes several characters, before I start sketching I prepare a photomontage to check if the composition I have in mind works. Making a photomontage is usually quick, and it allows me to see if the illustration will be impressive enough once it is finished.
Beniamino agrees and says that sketching out a draft visualisation of the storyboard is a key part of his process. “I start with a draft in which I visualise all the different scenes. To draw objects and anatomies correctly I create a page with a photographic montage, either taking inspiration from pictures I find online or through photographs I take myself”.
A comic’s appeal is in its distinct visuals too. Having a clear understanding of the aesthetic you want to achieve is an important part of the creation process. In Juapi’s case, he uses an original paint to give his work its unique look.
“The real secret [to my work] is in the special blend of coffee I use to paint”, explains Juapi. “It takes several weeks to prepare it, as it must dry and thicken enough to be able to make both fine lines and masses. But the palette I use has not been cleaned for 5 years.”.
Having the right tools and equipment is crucial, but it needn't be anything extravagant, says Beniamino. “I use a traditional pencil to draw all the details of each vignette as accurately as possible. Then to perfect it, I use black ink-numbered markers, a brush and black India ink. Finally I use watercolours where and when requested. To make precise lines I use a ruler and square”.
Knowing your aesthetic is one way of creating a style that is unique to you and characters that stand out from the plethora of fictional heroes. It’s about a broader cohesiveness that gives you room to flesh out the parts of your characters that will draw readers to them while keeping your artistic flourish close. “My illustrations are very peculiar", says Juapi. “They are sinister without being grotesque, shocking, with a splash-shaped finish and an eye-catching volume".
“If I remember correctly, the last characters I created were for a collection of epic fantasy novels. Two characters that I loved were the sorceress Elfa and the warrior Gryx. In terms of characters I’ve created though, you can clearly see which are the ones I have painted and which are copies of other artists. Since I started using coffee, many illustrators have tried to copy this style. At first it bothered me, but now I take it as a compliment. If something is copied, it is good”.
This might seem obvious but creating a comic is a labour of love, meaning you should be patient and prepared to commit a significant portion of time to every sketch. “To complete a full page in black and white it normally takes me two days (20h of work in total)”, says Beniamino. “It takes me a total of three days to complete a full page in colour”.
Of course, the time needed is relative, according to Juapi, but even a single illustration requires a large chunk of time. “If the illustration depicts only one character, including the sketch and the final art, it can take 4-8 hours to finish it completely. That’s almost a day’s work for a single illustration. If the illustration is a composition with several characters, with backgrounds, or the size is larger than normal, I usually spend one week on it, give or take a day”.
Since creating a comic takes so much time, it’s crucial to be resilient; to your own frustrations and others' feedback. “Whether you want to be a cartoonist or an illustrator, I recommend being consistent; to work hard every day, and not break down after being rejected”, explains Juapi. “In this profession you are always learning new things. You need to study, you need to draw, you need to surround yourself with the things you like, and bring them to your studio. If your passion is drawing, if your life is drawing, with effort, sooner or later, you will be able to turn your hobby into a way of life”.
Beniamino agrees, and says it’s necessary to up-skill yourself where you can. “Today, making comics and living off this work is quite hard. However, if the passion exists, it is the right thing to do. Start your journey by cultivating skills like quality drawing and making use of all the new instruments that technology has to offer. I would also suggest to keep drawing without a break, to continuously improve yourself. It is important to pay a lot of attention to anatomy and perspective–both fundamental to the making of comics. It’s also essential to keep comparing yourself to other artists, especially if more skilled, to learn the tricks of the art”.
If you want to learn how to create a comic, the passion is likely there. But this can get lost along the way. Even when it takes time, remind yourself what you love about comics and visualise the finished product. If that fails, focus on the parts of the process you really enjoy. “Without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite part of the process is colouring with watercolours” says Beniamino. “This is because it is the most complex phase of the making of the drawing. If the drawing is well done it can be coloured with a certain level of easiness. I also love “embroidering” the drawing through colours, to obtain the most plastic and realistic effect".
“I like everything and I enjoy it from the very start” says Juapi. “But the part I really like the most is when I can start applying the coffee on the card. The most tedious is the moment when I have to trace the drawing on the card, but it's so important that I don't mind if it takes longer than I had planned. Having a good base is 60% of the illustration. The rest is creating something beautiful layer by layer”.
There’s no tactic to being original and creating something everyone’s going to love. And that may not be your goal either. Whether it’s about the process or the end product, Beniamino says tastes vary, but escapism, diversity and adventure are a few of the ingredients he looks for.
“A comic that attracts my attention needs to be original and makes me breathe in a new kind of adventure. It needs to communicate cultural diversity or make me learn of new realities, countries and traditions. I think that in comics, we project the desire for adventures, the desire to be special characters, heroic. Everything that we are not able to live and experience in our everyday lives. That’s why superheroes have so much success”.
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