Where does style come from? How do you develop one?
A few years ago, I got the chance to turn one of my favorite prose book series, The Baby-sitters Club, into a series of graphic novels.
Here’s the original cover of The Baby-sitters Club: Claudia and Mean Janine, then the cover of my adaptation, and an interior spread.
When my graphic novels debuted, some readers were taken aback because my style is so different from the original portrayal of the characters. It’s true: My artwork has a pretty distinct style. How would you describe it? Some people have used words like cartoony, rounded, smooth, appealing, friendly, retro, warm, young, and loopy to describe my work. This stands in contrast to the original series’ covers, which you might describe as realistic, painterly, or very 1980s. (Were the 1980s a style?! Some people argue that they were…)
I certainly wasn’t born drawing the way I do. I’ve spent the past three or so decades practicing and refining my work. With that in mind, let’s think about this question: Where does style come from?
From very early on, I loved watching cartoons and anything animated. Some of my favorites were Scooby Doo, the Smurfs, the Care Bears, and anything Disney. I also loved the Muppets on Sesame Street, Berenstain Bears books, and Mickey Mouse.
My earliest drawings are just scribbles and shapes, but they’re all sort of rounded, featuring a lot of bubble-headed figures.
Some of my early masterpieces.
When I was nine, I discovered comic strips in the newspaper. I fell instantly in love with Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or For Worse, FoxTrot, and Luann. And these characters didn’t need huge animation studios to make them live and breathe…they just needed some word balloons and a few panels to play around in!
I made my first comics around the age of 10. I wish I had some to show you–but I don’t! They’re either lost to the sands of time, or buried in a box somewhere in my mom’s storage space.
It’s fun to draw other peoples’ characters sometimes! Here’s Tree Trunks, from Adventure Time, and Tintin and Snowy from Tintin, by me.
For a while, I just copied my favorite characters in my sketchbooks. In some cases, I even traced them. There’s nothing wrong with this—I think learning how other artists fit shapes together is a really helpful way to learn to draw. Then, I began to invent my own characters, which usually bore a striking resemblance to my favorite cartoons and comics…like a detective named Inspector Lock-It, who had a nephew and a cat (pretty much ripping off Inspector Gadget, with a little bit of genderswap and species-swap going on). I also drew myself, my friends, my teachers, my family…anybody I came in contact with was likely a subject of my comics!
An illustration from my middle school yearbook. Age 12 or so. For a while, a key part of my drawing style was to give characters a circle for a nose!
I continued to draw all of my favorite cartoons, and became somewhat famous in my middle school for being the “girl who could draw anything.” The Simpsons, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Little Mermaid…people ‘commissioned’ me all the time, and lots of people stuck my drawings in the fronts of their binders, proudly on display. I guess this was my fanart stage, and if Tumblr had existed in those days, I would have gotten a lot of notes!
By the time I got to high school, my style was starting to “gel.” People could tell when something was a “Raina drawing.” I had a great time in high school, painting dance posters, drawing comics for the school paper, illustrating as many of my class assignments as possible, and drawing caricatures of my friends and teachers.
Creating a giant dance poster for school! (Fun facts: In Smile, you see my character creating posters much like this one! And the person painting with me in this photo is my amazing friend Jake, who inspired the character of Jesse in my book Drama!)
3. Art Class, Art School
Eventually I went to art college–The School of Visual Arts, in New York City. Here is where they “teach” you to draw the “right” way. I really enjoyed my illustration classes, painting, comics-making classes, and especially figure drawing classes, learning about human anatomy and trying to capture difficult poses…but, my faces were always cartoony. My teachers hated this! But I was beginning to realize that cartoony faces are a huge, ingrained part of my “style” of drawing. (You could also call it a crutch.) Once I finished college, I was happy to just embrace my own style, and started making comics nonstop.
The tools you use will certainly have an impact on your style. Do you draw with a brush? A pen? A computer? Do you use paints, or charcoal? Crayons or markers?
Here are two unrelated comics pages I drew during college. The first is from when I was still inking with pens and markers…the second is after I switched over to inking with a brush.
5. Day in and day out.
Another huge factor in an artist’s style is time. Try drawing the same character every day, over the period of a month, a year, five years. The first will probably look different than the last. Styles can change a lot over time, due to many things: your hand memorizes certain lines and shapes, and starts to simplify them. You start to take certain shortcuts. You find yourself always drawing things in a certain order. Eventually, you can practically draw your characters with your eyes closed!
I’m sure my style will continue to evolve over the years, but an amazing thing has happened:
The characters from Drama, as drawn by Alyssa!
Some of the young readers of my work are starting to try to draw like me. Some of them might even list me as an influence on their own style, someday.
And I can think of no greater compliment.
This essay was originally posted on Inside A Dog. Copyright Raina Telgemeier.
First, I’d like to say that there’s no wrong way to make comics, and cartoonists use lots of different methods and mediums to create stories. These just happen to be mine.
(For more on why and how I create each stage of a graphic novel, read my previous post, How A Graphic Novel is Born (and Raised)!)
My ‘writing’ process looks like this. I create a thumbnail version of each page in a story, quickly roughing out the panel layouts, which characters are where, and what they say. At this stage, I’m using cheap copy paper and a cheap mechanical Papermate pencil. I know I should really be using a reusable lead pencil, because these disposable ones are terrible for the environment…but I’ve never found one I liked!
Once my editor and I are happy with my story, I type out the dialog, panel by panel, page by page, right from what I wrote in my thumbnails. I use Microsoft Word on my laptop.
Now, I transfer my rough layouts onto a fresh piece of Bristol board (my favorite brand is Strathmore, series 300), using a Prismacolor Col-erase light blue colored pencil. Some artists simply scan their thumbnails into a computer and then print the layouts onto their Bristol, but I’m old-fashioned in wanting to do everything by hand.
Why a blue pencil, you ask? Well, for a long time, graphic artists used something called a non-photo blue pencil. It’s called that because when you scan or photograph this color, it’s invisible! That means all you can see is the graphite or ink on top of it. Cartoonists often use blue pencils for this reason. Of course, technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and scanners and photos can pick up the blue…but it’s pretty easy to adjust the file in Photoshop and just drop out the blue lines digitally. My favorite pencil is this Col-erase light blue, because the lead is a little softer and less waxy than a non-photo blue.
My paper size varies. Most of the time, I use 11 x 14-inch paper, but I drew Smile slightly smaller than my other books, at 9 x 12. Since the graphic novel I’m currently working on, Sisters, is a companion book to Smile, I’m working small once again.
Next, I pencil over my blue layout panels. I use a simple graphite pencil at this stage. For a while, I used a Staedtler Lumograph F pencil, but these days I use the same cheap-o mechanical pencil I use for my thumbnails, the Papermate. I also need my big Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser handy, because sometimes, you’ve got to draw something multiple times before it looks right!
This is my favorite part of the comics-making process. I ink over my pencils with a Windsor & Newton Series 7 sable watercolor brush. My favorite brush size is #2, although I sometimes use a #1 or a #3. My ink of choice is Dr. P.H. Martin’s Black Star, but my husband has a giant bottle of Speedball Superblack waterproof India ink right now, so I’ve been using that. Ink brands vary in viscosity and light-fastness, so it’s good to try a few in order to find your favorite. My faves tend to be super-black and very thin.
For very small details, like eyeballs and shirt buttons, I use a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist pen. My favorite widths are F and M. I also use Microns, because they make them in really fine widths—I often have a 005 and a 01 lying around. The Micron ink isn’t as lightfast as the Faber Castell unfortunately, and after a few years, it starts to fade.
The liner pen is also used to ink word balloons.
Here’s a video of me, inking a page from Smile. Notice how I’m constantly rotating rotating my paper as I work!
Staedtler eraser strikes again. This thing gets a workout, cleaning up all my messy pencil lines! I also have a big brush called a Draftman’s Duster, specifically for sweeping the eraser crumbles off of my pages.
I’m lucky to have an oversized scanner in my studio. Aside from my computer, this is the most expensive tool I own—and it’s invaluable. I scan my art as black and white, or lineart, files at 600 dpi.
Now, I have digital art files of every single page! But because I haven’t cleaned up all my stray lines with white-out, there’s usually some cleaning up to do. All my fixes are made digitally, using Adobe Photoshop. I also add my panel borders digitally!
At this point, the book enters the production stage, which I oversee.
I work with professional colorists on my books. I’m capable of coloring my own comics, and usually color my own work when it’s a short story, but in order to speed up my process, I hire someone else to color full-length books. We all use Photoshop, the industry standard for coloring comics digitally. (Drama was colored by the Japanese creative team Gurihiru, an incredible two-woman powerhouse comics studio. They’ve illustrated Marvel’s PowerPack, and most recently have illustrated the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics from Dark Horse.)
Once the color files come back to me, I make any last-minute changes, and then prep the files for print (a process involving Photoshop that I’m not great at explaining—but basically you need to make sure the printing press knows to print all the colors on one layer, and then overlay that with a very solid black ink for all the linework). I send these color files over to the book designer, Phil, at my publisher.
I also work with a letterer! (He happens to be my friend John.) He takes all the dialog from my manuscript, and pastes it into an Adobe Illustrator template to fit into my hand-drawn word balloons. Sounds simple, but there’s an art and a skill to this. He sends all the lettered files to my designer, Phil.
Final design and book mock-up:
This all happens magically at the publisher, but I get to see drafts of the book’s design as it is being prepared by ace designer Phil: the front and back covers, any jacket copy (these are all called mechanicals when they’re still computer files), page number placements, title pages.
The publisher gets a set of color proofs, which is the last chance to catch any mistakes or adjust the colors (are they too light? Too dark? Too saturated? Etc.), and because I live in the same city as my publisher (one good reason to pay the high rent in NYC, I guess?…), I get to look at these in person. It’s fun—Scholastic has a special room with special lighting, and a production manager whose job it is to hang out with me while I go over every little detail. There’s even a little magnifying glass for looking super closely at the individual ink spots on the paper!
(The above image is not mine–photo credit to Greenwillow Books’ blog!)
After all of this, the book gets shipped off to print, and I go back to the beginning of the process, working on a new project with my simplest tools: pencil, paper, and ideas.
This essay was originally posted on Inside A Dog. Copyright Raina Telgemeier.
***I buy most of my art supplies (paper, pencils, and brushes) online from Dick Blick.
***My Canadian friends recommend Curry’s for online ordering.
***In NYC, I routinely visit Sam Flax, New York Central, and A.I. Friedman for specialty items.
***If you’ve got a great art supply store in your town, please visit them for materials!
Graphic novels are an amazing medium. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and an average graphic novel has somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pictures in it…so, that’s worth a lot of words!
But how do they come to be? Most authors get ideas for stories, type up an outline, and then flesh that outline into paragraphs, chapters, and finished a manuscript. Cartoonists also do that, but there are pictures involved, too. They’re not an afterthought, but a part of the process from start to finish.
Here’s what goes into making one of my graphic novels.
All good stories have to start somewhere. My ideas come from many places (see my previous post for more on this), and the origins of my stories can either be pictures or simple sentences. With Drama, the glimmers of the idea came from just thinking about my own theater days in high school, and the friends I made during that time.
I looked at lots of old photographs, and considered writing a story about drama kids. I wanted them to be on stage crew, which is something I always wanted to try but never did. Callie’s name came to me when I was driving around northern California a couple of years ago, and the song “Goin’ Back to Cali” was playing on the radio. That’s embarrassing, but there you have it.
Eventually, an idea needs to be turned into a pitch. Can the story idea be summarized in a couple of paragraphs? It needs to be, if it’s going to be published. Drama’s pitch was simple:
The kids of Eucalyptus Middle School are putting on a school play. Callie is a set designer who keeps falling for the wrong boys. She makes friends with two twin brothers, Justin and Jesse, and their friendship becomes as dramatic as the play itself! But the show must go on, and everyone must work together in the end.
…Or something like that.
I also created drawings of all the main characters in the story. Callie’s hair was going to be a dark blonde color, and then one evening my husband was helping me put together my pitch for Drama (which didn’t have an official title until I was more than halfway done with it!), and decided to change her hair color to purple for some reason. I took one look at the drawing, and it was just perfect. That was Callie!
3. Detailed Outline!
The next step was to create a full outline. I typed up several pages, explaining what would happen in every scene in the story. I worked and re-worked this until it felt right. Scenes that were clear in my mind didn’t always fit the overall story, and were cut or re-arranged. Others were added.
So, my editors at my publisher liked my pitch! Hooray! They asked to see a full draft of the story, and I set to work. For me, this is the most challenging part of creating a graphic novel, because until I start the thumbnails, I don’t know where the story might go. Oh, sure, I had my outline to work off of…but for me, thumbnailing IS writing. I don’t script out the characters’ dialog in advance on a computer. They speak to me through word balloons and stick figures in panels. Writing comics means writing out the pacing, panel by panel, spread by spread, which sometimes includes panels (and pages) where there is no dialog at all, but the pictures take the place of exposition or description, so they’re important to include in the thumbnails. This is also the most challenging part of my process to explain to people. Thumbnailing is just like writing with a pencil on paper. You’re just doodling too, and putting everything into boxes.
But the lovely thing is, when you’ve thumbnailed your book, you know exactly how long it’s going to be, and have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like! The drawings aren’t finished, but this draft can now be “read” by an editor. This is where my publisher steps in and decides whether the story is good or not. Does it need to be revised? Edited? Expanded? Shortened? It’s much more economical to edit thumbnails than finished artwork, so I’m happy to work out all the kinks here.
I thumbnailed Drama twice. My editors felt the story as I wrote it wasn’t quite working. The main problem was I originally wrote the characters as high-school aged, but my editors felt they should be in middle school. I grappled with whether this would be possible, but the only way to figure it out was to just sit down and write another draft. That meant re-drawing about 75% of my thumbnails, adding another 6 months to the writing process!
Once the thumbnailed script was approved, I had a perfect template for drawing the finished book. I switched over to large, sturdy paper, and started laying out the final pages.
DISCLAIMER: I didn’t scan my layouts for Drama, so you’ll just have to make do with this photo of a layout from one of my Baby-sitters Club graphic novel pages instead. Bad Raina!
Layouts are kind of nebulous to explain. I use a blue pencil, rule out all of my panels by hand, and then draw in loose underdrawings, using the thumbnails as a guide but always trying to improve and clarify as I go. I loved gesture drawing when I was in university—the fast, flowy, gestural drawing we did to capture the energy of the model. It’s not unlike looking at an animator’s work. Check out Glen Keane’s loose sketches of his characters: he’s trying to capture their essence on paper.
The looseness and sketchiness will be cleaned up later. That’s what layouts are like: trying to convey energy, flow, body language, and spirit…while still leaving enough space for all the dialog!
Composition also plays a huge role in layouts. I’m working out things like perspective and scale, and trying to make everything fit harmoniously into the panel boxes. Is the composition pleasing, overall? Do the shapes look nice together? They should! If something needs fixing, it’s best to fix it now, because later I tend to go into autopilot mode. If layouts are well done, the page will look good, even at this stripped-down, sketchy stage.
I pencil right over my layouts. This is refinement. The energetic underdrawing is there, and now I’m working out all the details. Facial features, hands, clothes, backgrounds, everything you’ll see in the finished artwork. Again, I’m constantly refining. This stage takes a lot of concentration, but it’s very rewarding.
Ah, how I love to ink! For one thing, I love using a brush. It’s just so…flowy! At this point I’m going over my pencils, varying the pressure on my brush to create thick and thin ink lines. This is when everything starts to really come to life for me. I do all my brush inking first (I can ink up to eight pages in a full workday!), and then go back in with a technical pen and fill in tiny details like eyeballs, shirt buttons, and anything else the brush would be too large for.
I sit in front of my computer for a couple hours and scan all my pages in. I scan at 600dpi, black and white / lineart.
Also kind of boring, but because my inking style is fast and loose, I tend to have a lot of messy crossed lines and screw-ups that need a quick correction. Instead of using white-out on my physical pages, I make my corrections digitally. I also drop in my panel borders, and make sure all my stray lines are closed off before sending the finished, cleaned up pages off to my colorist.
I don’t do this stage myself. I could, but it would add 6-9 months to my production schedule. Instead, I work with a colorist (Drama’s colorists were the amazing Japanese art duo Gurihiru), often giving them samples of the colors I want or sending them reference photos if they’re coloring a real place or thing. The pages come back to me (we use Photoshop) for final approval before getting sent back to my publisher, so if anything is the wrong color or I just had something different in mind, I make corrections to the files. Then I flatten the colors, prep the lineart for print (a technical process I can’t even begin to explain), and stick them all on a server for Scholastic’s art director. (A note: the image above was approved and sent off, but my editors decided at the last minute that the yellow color scheme of this scene wasn’t working to their satisfaction! So we did a few tests, and the final version of this page can be seen in the final version of Drama.)
Oh yeah, I typed up the manuscript once the thumbnails were approved. It’s pretty basic: “Page 1. Panel 1. Callie: Hey, Matt. Matt: Hey. Panel 2…” And so on. This gets copyedited, and sent to my letterer! This is another stage of the process I could probably do myself, but it saves me some time to let someone else help out. The letters are pulled right from the manuscript, and put into word balloons using Adobe Illustrator. The letterer sends these files directly to my art director, and he puts everything together on his end!
12. Cover Design!
My editors and I come up with some cover concepts, I do a bunch of sketches, and we pick our favorite. I create the final cover art, and the art director puts in the type and any other features (foil details, spot gloss, and so on).
Everything else that happens, I know less about. Files are sent to an offset printing company somewhere in Asia. They send back a set of color proofs, which we go through and approve. (Is it too light? Too dark? Too blue?) Then a bunch of copies are printed, bound, and stuck on a giant boat, headed for the U.S. or wherever they’re being sold. My editor mails me a copy a few months before the book is actually published, and I get to bask in the glory of being a published author. This never gets old!
This essay was originally posted on Inside A Dog. Copyright Raina Telgemeier.
I’ve been writing about my life since age 10, when I started keeping a diary.
I’ve been making comics about my life since age 11…when I started keeping a diary in words and pictures. I put entries into that almost every day, for about fifteen years.
So when it came time to create my first full-length graphic novel, choosing to write about my own life was a natural decision.
Smile is about knocking out my two front teeth just as I was hitting puberty, as well as entering middle school. I had to go through years of orthodontic treatment: braces, headgear, false teeth, and lots of surgeries in order to have a normal-looking smile again. The experience had an enormous impact on me, and years later, I was still thinking about it. So I decided to put the whole thing down on paper.
Readers are introduced to me, my family members, and my dentists. I show my house, my family’s car, my dentist’s waiting room as best as I remember. As the story unfolds, more people and elements from my life are introduced: teachers, friends, boys, enemies.
And of course, these are all based on real people! I changed a few of their names, and in the case of a couple of my friends, changed or combined some of their appearances. (By which I mean, the physical appearance of one friend merged with the personality of another.) It was a difficult time in my life: my new dental deformities made me terribly shy and self-conscious, and my so-called friends loved to pick on me. In the end, their teasing got bad enough that I had to ditch them altogether, and find new friends to hang out with. It makes for a nice reading experience, seeing my character grow in confidence enough to finally stand up for herself…but the people in the story are still real. The girls who bullied me are real. They are still around, and in some cases, we are even still internet friends!
My readers always want to know if I’ve been contacted by any former “frienemies.” For a while, if these people realized they were the ones cast as mean girls in the story, they didn’t say anything. Recently I have been in touch with some of the people who mistreated me all those years ago, and in one case, I received an apology. Even though I’ve ‘gotten over’ most of the events in my past, it was a really amazing moment of closure. I forgave her right away. I got the sense she had been hanging on to her old baggage as well, and I hope that now the air is clear.
Another person who tracked me down is my old orthodontist, “Dr. Dragoni” (not too far off from his real name). I drew him the way he looks, and I drew his office the way it still looks to this day. He’s still in practice, and I guess his patients (who are all the perfect age to be reading my books!) discovered Smile on their own, and brought it to his attention.
He was thrilled to see himself in my story, to say the least! He remembered me well: my orthodontic case was so extreme, he actually once presented my treatment at a dental conference. I remember him as being sort of a horrible guy (part of my motivation for the name change), but when I met up with him again after Smile was published, he couldn’t have been nicer. Turns out my perception was based on the fact that he was always sticking painful metal objects in my mouth and making me look funny! He was probably very nice and caring at the time. I just don’t remember it that way.
Still, I’d argue that emotions are as true as fact. I remember exactly how I felt when I knocked out my two front teeth, and if I can relay those emotions as honestly as possible in my stories, then they are true stories. Even in fiction, stories can feel completely true!
This essay was originally posted on Inside A Dog. Copyright Raina Telgemeier.
“Where do you get your inspiration?”
If there’s one question authors get asked over and over, it’s this one. I wish the answer were simple: “I’m inspired by sunsets!” or “I get all my inspiration from my best friend, Theresa!” or “I pull up a bucket of inspiration from my backyard well each morning!” But answer is usually more complicated.
Simply put, my life inspires my work. But I write different kinds of books, and because I write and draw, I pull from different sources on a regular basis. Smile is a true story about my childhood dental experiences, inspired by real events—the main character is me, so I’m working with my memories. Drama was also inspired by real people in my life, as well as my love of theatre, but the story itself was made-up. The book I’m working on now, Sisters, is going back to my true life stories for inspiration.
Beyond that…I’m waiting for the next idea to hit me!
This is why writers have to constantly open their minds and their hearts. I read all kinds of books, the news, blogs, cookbooks. I watch movies. I walk around my city. I look at old photographs. I travel. I meet new people. I listen to music.
Sounds like procrastination, right? Not so! I never know when something is going to strike a chord, but I need to be ready when it does. I watch. I wait. I hope. I get glimmers of ideas, usually something visual.
Here’s an example: I see a picture of my friend’s kid on Facebook, wearing a Halloween costume, and think to myself, “Maybe I’ll work on a book about a kid wearing a skeleton costume someday.”
I might draw a few pictures, look up some reference, jot some notes down in my phone, but nothing comes together. That’s okay: I’ll file skeletons away for another day.
Another example: recently, I saw a cool news story on TV about kids from Afghanistan, who were forbidden from playing or listening to music while growing up under the Taliban regime, and are now living in America and learning to play music along with a high school orchestra. Awesome! I’d love to do a story about one of those kids, and their journey. Hmm, but I make graphic novels, and it’s really hard to convey the power and joy of music through visual art alone…I’ll shelve that idea. Maybe something will come out of it someday; maybe not.
One final example, where inspiration did lead to something real: I was struggling with re-writing a camping scene in Sisters. I knew I had to convey certain information, and wanted the scene to be visual, funny, and a little bit epic. But what I had was a bunch of talking heads.
I’m reading a book about astronomy right now (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything), so I’ve had stars on the brain…and inspiration struck! I decided to send my characters on a star-gazing excursion, watching shooting stars and gazing at the cosmos while they had their conversation. So much better than my original talking heads!
The truth is…sometimes, I’m not inspired at all. Sometimes, I can sit and stare out my studio window for a week, waiting for inspiration to strike, and nothing happens. I don’t know what to draw, and I don’t feel like writing. But writers and artists need to learn to trust themselves.
If I’m patient, I know inspiration will come eventually.