Apr 072013

As with any artistic endeavor, this comic was fueled by time and passion, and as a result, began to take on a life of its own. After two weeks of steady work, the first deadline was looming abruptly – I lost all hope that the entirety of the first episode would be ready for the first update. This was, in fact, a structural blessing in disguise – the page break between the first and second halves of the episode creates a pause and some suspense.

A major facet of the learning experience of creating this episode was joining the ranks of the Holy Order of Viking Draftspeople. This hardworking clan was founded by independent comic artist Nate Simpson, in his blog post Cracking the Code, describes the method he found by which he can be more productive. Simple, elegant, and incredible: waking up at 4 in the morning to work on your personal project.  Instead of waiting until after a burning-out day at a full-time job, working on a passion in the wee hours of the morning can create better results and a happier you at work. Upon reading his blog, I realized that I’d used this technique successfully several years ago; Every morning my senior year of high school I woke up at around 5 to give myself at least an hour to hand-sew a quilt. I did this because handsewing was very soothing and it was a way to fool myself into looking forward to waking up in the morning. I relished getting up early because I loved the small achievement of at least 10 inches of seam, instead of dragging myself out of bed dreading a long, stressful day at school. Obviously this creative technique is not for everyone. I found out the hard way on episode two when I fell off the #HOVD boat – going to bed early enough to be relatively or well rested at 4 in the morning is a challenge. Working on a comic is rather different from sewing – when I worked on the quilt, all the design issues were decided early in the process, and the rest of the time was spent following through with simple, careful labor. In working on Shadow of Ragnarok, every work session posed design issues and color choices. The difference is obvious, however. Most of the work for the first half of Episode 1 was done in 2-3 hour sessions over a two week period as a member of HOVD; the second half was done mostly in one long, late evening. This week for episode II I’m going to get back on the boat. Even though it is difficult to get up every day, even though it is cold and lonely*, the results are worth the extra effort. It is easy to forget the creative potential when one is embroiled in monotonous homework that easily causes one to stay up late. It is even easier to choose to go back to sleep when the early alarm does go off.

However, when I did get up at four and work for an hour or two or three, I went back to sleep at six or seven, for a nap until eight, I forgot most everything that I accomplished; it felt like a creative dream. Then that afternoon or the next morning I was greeted by a pleasant surprise. I haven’t done HOVD in an MRI (for several obvious reasons) but I’d hazard a hypothesis that abruptly waking from sleep at that time and working in a quiet, mostly dark, distraction-free environment makes it easier for the brain to enter into higher states of concentration.


*the Holy Order of Viking Draftspeople is meant to provide comradare between other artists using the same method. However, it originates on the west coast, so here by the Chesapeake Bay this aspect is slightly less effective for me.

<-Color and Composition (part 3)

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Apr 072013

At first, I intended to have a more traditional comic style in just black and white. Collaborative communication issues had decreased the amount of time available for me to work, and I thought that black and white could be simpler. It would have been if I was working physically with ink on bristol board, in the traditional manner of comic book artists. After working for several days refining my sketches, however, I realized that achieving the epic emotional impact of this apocalyptic battle demanded the use of color. This did not change the working duration, however – the expected time for drawing detailed inks was instead spent digitally painting. The result is much more cohesive than color behind inks would have been.

There’s no way that I can describe the use of color in one post – Color Theory is a fascinating subject encompassing several disagreeing schools of thought – but it’s also a very instinctual process that relates to the key properties of composition. Effective composition involves guiding the viewer through the visual space in such a way that their interest is piqued. This is achieved through a variety of principles guiding the elements of design. Color is one of the most subtle of these elements. Other elements include line (both implicit and explicit), shape/form, value (closely knit with color, if there is chromatic content) and space.

Here’s a brief low-down on these conceptual tools:

3-25 SHADOW of RAGNAROK first episode 3

Line – it’s everywhere. Drawings are replete with marks usually in the form of lines. Edges of representational things are often the most powerful lines in a composition – the most potent are the implicit lines created by the gaze. A viewer will follow that line to the target just as faithfully as a best friend wanting to know what you’re looking at out the window.

Shape/Form – The presence of some THING within the picture plane – shape refers to apparent 2-dimensional things, and form to illusionistic 3-dimensional things. Shape/Form has a yin-yang relationship with Space, which is the presence of absence.

Value – lightness and darkness, everything in between. Crucial in creating an illusion of reality – value contributes to illusionistic depth and form. Value exists by itself in black-and-white, sepia, and monochromatic arenas, but otherwise has a very close relationship with Color, as each color has its own natural value. For instance, yellow is naturally a light-value color, while purple is a predominantly darker color. Infinite variations exist, limited only by the physical human capacity to register differences in color and value. Other species see color differently – some creatures can see infrared or ultraviolet, which completely changes human ideas of color and contrast.

The simple Itten color wheel.
Munsell’s theory of color creates a solid!

There’s several schools of color theory – likely the most familiar one is Itten, who purports three primary colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue. Practically useful when learning how to paint, as his theories are based off the properties of pigment mixing. An important aspect of his theory is Temperature: the apparent warmth/coolness of colors, which has emotional impact. Warm colors (yellow, orange, and red) advance (they appear closer) and have associations with physical warmth, welcoming, and friendship, as well as the emotional spectrum of pleasant comfort (yellow/sunshine) to anger (blood/red). Human skin tones are all warm colors. Warm colors contrast with cool colors (most greens, blue, purple). These colors recede (appear farther away). They resonate with ideas of the natural world – sky, trees, flowers. Purple especially is associated with majesty, because historically deep blues and violets were the most difficult dye colors to achieve – consequently very expensive. There is a great deal of study into how colors affect emotion, especially in advertising and psychology.

Color can be very practical and instinctual. To set the tone for the beginning of the comic, I chose a stormy medium-dark grey-violet. There is an entire layer of this color behind all other colors. The focal areas of the comic I knew would involve ships and people, which are warm variations of brown. Consequently to create visual texture in the waves, I used translucent layers with blue and blue-green cool colors. So that the comic have a consistent feeling of environment, All the layers of color are partly translucent – a little bit of the violet comes through, darkening and cooling the color. Without this subtle change, the yellows and browns are too strident – contrasting too strongly with their cool environment, they seem out of place.  Examine the difference in color between the railing and the ship above – they are the same color, but the fully-painted ship is slightly translucent.

<-Starting with a Sketch (Part 2)



Viking Draftsperson: Firsthand Experience (Part 4)->


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Apr 072013

3-17 SHADOW of RAGNAROK episode 1

A fun aspect of working digitally is the ability to easily save progress. While working on Episode 1 of The Shadow of Ragnarök (if you haven’t read it, warning: these sketches have spoilers) , every time I opened my document to draw, I saved it as a new file with the date. The result is a timeline of all the compositional decisions made.

I started out with a sketch. My very first sketches were humble scribbles on paper. There I realized the experimental potential of the infinite comic format. “Infinite Canvas” is a term coined by Scott McCloud in his book Reinventing Comics. He uses it to refer to several experimental comic formats that make use of the internet interface, including Zoom Comics, Slide Comics, and Scroll comics. I am very influenced by The Wormworld Saga, by Daniel Lieske which is in the Scroll format. Like any webpage where there is more information than can fit on the screen at one time, it is necessary to scroll downwards. I was drawn to this format because it is mostly distraction-free. Unlike other comics that are in paged format, which require patience to load a new browser page for each unit of comic, the infinite comic requires loading only between chapters, instead scrolling for new information. The viewing screen acts as a window on the story. The context of the content can be controlled by the creator in this manner.

As this was the first time I’ve worked in the format of a long digital story, I ran across some surprises. Firstly, the amount of physical space necessary to create an effect equivalent to panel gutters while scrolling. In recognizing that the screen restricted the viewing area, I thought that aspect-to-aspect panel borders could be achieved by manipulating the space viewed, and not by linear differentiation. As I developed the compositional sketch, I realized that I’d crammed my moments too closely. Repeatedly when viewing the comic full-size and scrolling, I had to revise and add more space, then even more space. When sketching, I zoomed out a great deal to draw the overall flow of the composition, but the change in perspective to the actual size always required tweaks in timing. As I worked to refine the sketches, I applied this revelation by working as much as possible at the actual size.

3-19 SHADOW of RAGNAROK episode 1

Another realization was that the low resolution prevented me from over-detailing. When zooming in, it became pixelated at about 250%. For scale reference, the dialogue lettering is one pixel wide. When working at a print-ready resolution, it is incredibly easy to zoom in and keep on zooming, creating fine detail that is impractical working on a physical scale. Some physical comic artists such as Jeremy A. Bastian actually achieve that level of detail – if you’re hungry for a detail feast, head over to (insert preferred book vendor) and nab a copy of Cursed Pirate Girl (use the preview to see some pages!). Whenever I need humbling as an artist, I open that book up and remind myself he drew it at-scale with a tiny brush and pen. Equally awe-inspiring is the converse: an example of digital detail-density is Nonplayer by Nate Simpson. He has few, if any, impatient fans – I think anyone appreciating his work acknowledges that drawing all those leaves take forever, and is willing to wait.

This is the first project I’ve created in which the initial sketching was done digitally. Previously, I’ve planned things and refined composition with physical sketches which were then scanned in and used as the lower-level framework for a digital drawing. Developing the framework digitally was even more freeing, because semi-detailed elements could be moved around without being re-drawn. Not only moved, but also scaled, rotated, and turned off if necessary. Layers and select tools are so fun, especially in tandem. I’d worked in layers before, but not in sketching – At first, I drew everything roughly on one layer and used the select tool to move bits about. Then, in a face-palming moment, I realized I could put each different element on a separate layer, each ship, each group of people – so that it would be easier to reselect and manipulate. The greatest advantage of this working method was in the refinement of the sketch once the structure was established. On a new layer, I zoomed in and re-drew each element with greater precision and detail. After redrawing, the layer with the sketch of that area could be turned off, leaving only the refined version in view. This is roughly akin to inking pencils in the industrial comic-making method and erasing the original pencil marks – however, there’s no chance of having pencil smudges left over!


<- Tools of the Trade (Part 1)


Composition and Color (Part 3) ->



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Apr 072013

“What role does design play in the Norse end of days?”, you may ask. This is the first in a series of blog posts on the making of The Shadow of Ragnarök, a collaborative webcomic. I’m Watkins, the artist of our group. As such, I have a leading role in the presentation of our story.

I’ve studied artist-driven comics for several years. A movement gaining momentum in the comic/graphic novel storytelling medium involves independent artist/writers sharing their stories online, and building a fan base, before moving to a print format. Two significant inspirations for me in this area are Jason Brubaker and Daniel Lieske. Both they and other artists have blogs where they post progress updates and information about their working methods. I always find it fascinating when the behind-the-scenes of creating artwork is revealed. Unlike magicians sharing their secrets, artists sharing their art-making methods doesn’t decrease the mystique – repeating the methods does not ensure the same results. Learning from the successes of others allows artists to positively change their own methods.

I use SketchBook Pro 5.5 (I haven’t upgraded to the new version 6, my OS is too old), which is the most distraction-free drawing program I’ve found. It was designed by Autodesk for use with tablets either touch-screen tablets and external graphic tablets. I use a huge old Intuos3 graphic tablet. The working area on the tablet 31x 24 cm, approximately the same as my 2009 MacBook Pro screen. Each point on the tablet corresponds to a point on the screen, so it creates a very natural drawing experience, unlike a mouse or touchpad. My wrist and arm never get cramped drawing digitally because there’s the same amount of space as working in a physical medium, and my hand is well-used to manipulating a pen.

An example of an Intuos3 – much smaller, less scuffed and battered than my well-loved tablet.

Working digitally allowed for very easy uploading for the comic image. Unlike previous digital drawing/painting projects I’ve worked on, where the final result was intended for print, for The Shadow of Ragnarök I could work in poorer resolution. Print resolution is 300dpi, while screen is about 75dpi. Consequently, the print size of the comic is about 3×10 cm. This, however, made it possible to work in the long infinite-comic format as one image – if it was higher resolution, my computer couldn’t handle the long save time. Armed with this knowledge ahead of time, I was able to plan for the comic viewing size. The image is not resized as it is viewed on the website, so the entire time I was working I could check to see that the level of detail was appropriate.

An advantage of working in SketchbookPro (which is available for students inexpensively on the Autodesk website) is that it saves in Tiff files, which are about 1/3 the bytes of the photoshop format. To use certain tools I have to save the file in photoshop format and open it with Elements – SketchBook doesn’t have a tool that allows for moving two or more layers in tandem, which is useful for adjusting the relationship of elements in a composition. SketchBook Pro handles a great deal of layers without complaint or extra-long saving time (unless saving as a psd), which is a definite advantage of the program.

When working digitally I like to have each part of a drawing on a separate layer so that it can be moved, scaled, or made translucent as necessary. Watercolor is one of my preferred physical media, so being able to work digitally in layers of adjustable transparency is a pleasure. When painting in watercolor, effects are achieved by manipulating the transparency of the paint as it is applied to the paper. Color is built up in translucent layers, and each decision is made carefully and mindful of the intended final result. Working in layers digitally can be much more impulsive and slapdash, as no choice is permanent and transparency can be adjusted on the fly. If you’re curious about watercolor, James Gurney’s blog is an excellent resource. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably know of his Dinotopia:

Starting with a Sketch (part 2) ->

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Feb 012013

Passion fuels the most compelling creations.  An Auteur is a creator with control over most, if not all aspects of their creation.  For a graphic novel, this means the artist and writer are very close collaborators, but never step on each others’ toes.  A disadvantage of auteurship is starting in obscurity, however, the proliferation of the internet as an accessible arena of creation has allowed for auteurs to share their work.  For the graphic novelist auteur, the interactions with the audience before the completion of the entire story can aid in its creation through the formation of a support network (creating a graphic novel is a time-consuming undertaking) and later through financial support (the purchasing of related goods, or print copies especially).

There are many auteur webcomic creations in the wide web.  Nearly a decade ago, the first auteured graphic novel I came across was Inverloch.  Its first volume was in print at my local library, but Sarah Ellerton had not yet obtained funding for the next volumes, which were available free online.  I read /Inverloch/ to the end and started on the Pheonix Requiem, which showed her artistic and literary development from her first endeavor.  The characters were deeper and more consistent, the plot showed planning, and the artistic style moved farther from manga towards realism-style digital painting.  The two most incredible discoveries for my middle-school-aged self were the easter-eggs from Inverloch in the Pheonix Requiem, and the realization, when I caught up to the most recent pages, that there was a living, working artist making and sharing this compelling story asking for nothing in return.  On both pages there was an unobtrusive ‘Donate’ button I realized.  I resolved to buy copies of the books when possible.

But auteurship is not fueled by profit, but by passion.  Some auteurs are picked up by publishers – the incredible Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy Bastian is now available at a bookstore near you.  Others channel their passion into self-publishing, as Jason Brubaker of reMIND does, soon to release the conclusion volume, funded on Kickstarter, as was Volume 1 of reMIND.   One of the most incredible examples of auteurship and digital storytelling is unquestionably the Wormworld Saga.  Created in Germany by Daniel Lieske, now translated by volunteers into dozens of languages, this epic story makes use of Scott McCloud’s Infinite Canvas.  McCloud coined this term twelve years ago in his second of three comic-books-on-comics Reinventing Comics, and it refers to a format of internet-based comic literature that is reader-friendly and without page breaks.  The Wormworld Saga makes use of chapter breaks, and is released in chapter increments.

The terrible downside to auteur creation is its a one-man show, and an incredible amount of writing, planning, drafting, and drawing.  And it doesn’t pay, especially not in the beginning.  And if a wrench gets thrown in the works of a frustrated creator’s life, the creative hobby is very likely to fall by the wayside.  Many intriguing webcomics end after the intrigue and before the conclusion because the creator has dropped off the face of the internet or lost interest in the project, Tessa Stone’s Hanna is Not A Boy’s Name a beautiful example.  The more skilled the storyteller, the more depressing the lack of closure.



 February 1, 2013  Posted by on February 1, 2013 Visual Story Tagged with:  No Responses »