I Can Only Seem To Make 320+ Page Graphic Novels – BTS on illustrating a graphic novel

This is the “behind-the-scenes on my process of illustrating a graphic novel blog post” I have been asked over and over to share, but am finally sharing. Or… “I Can Only Seem To Make 320+ Page Graphic Novels”.

“I want this one to be under 300 pages,” I think, as Karen and I start writing Look On The Bright Side. We are co-authors for our Eisner-Nominated, LA Times Book Prize Finalist book Go With The Flow and its sequel Look On The Bright Side (available in bookstores everywhere).

The problem with wanting a book to be a certain length and needing to tell a specific story is that they don’t always line up. With picture books (an area of publishing that I’m also an author and illustrator in), you have to figure it out, no matter what. Your picture book has to be either 32 pages or 48 pages. This is due to how they are printed. You have more wiggle room with longer books and I’ve found there’s real fluidity for graphic novels.

This means you end up often writing the book that needs to be written. This means that sometimes it ends up being over 320 pages. The problem with being the illustrator though is that a 320-page graphic novel isn’t going to illustrate itself.

Art is a labor of love.

I always say to my students that if they want to pursue the arts, they better love it so much they love it on days they hate it because the only thing guaranteed in an art career is that you will hate it some days.

Working on a graphic novel is an intensive process that is not only physically laborious and takes a toll on the body due to the sheer marathon that is illustrating it… but also it’s a lot of repetition. Let’s talk about the process behind illustrating a graphic novel. We are going to touch on scripting, thumbnailing, penciling, inking, and coloring.

Below I’m featuring the introduction scene of the book through the stages. This was originally the first page, but we made a change towards the end and added a new first few pages. However, this page still sets up the story nicely. See the script on the left and the thumbnails on the right.

In order to illustrate a graphic novel, you start with the script. The script is written by the authors. In this case for Look On The Bright Side, the authors are Karen Schneemann and myself. I go through the entire script breaking it up and figuring out where the page breaks need to be as I simultaneously thumbnail the entire thing out. Things I keep in mind while I go through the process of thumbnailing include pacing, page breaks, visual intrigue, method acting… and more. Read about that in this blog post “Things To Keep In Mind While Illustrating A Graphic Novel”.

Now I’m sure I missed a few things in that list above, but when I thumbnail the process, I am just trying to get all of that down on the page roughly. This is because that thumbnail pass is going to go to my editor and co-author. Karen gets updates regularly before it goes to my editor and she does sometimes advise if she thinks a character could act through something differently, but we really understand our girls so normally we agree. Once my editor has edited the thumbnails she sends back her edits. At this point, I will go through and make the edits to the art and return them. Usually, we take 1-3 passes on thumbnail edits before I move on to penciling.

The same scene as above (script and thumbnail), but in the scanned non-color corrected version penciled version. On the right, there is an example of another penciled page in my binder for a full behind-the-scenes preview.

Penciling is what it sounds like, kind of. For me, I do actually print every single page out of my printer. Thumbnails I do digitally for the sake of time in edits (it’s faster for me to make all those edits digitally). Once all those fresh pages are printed at a 30% opacity with my trusty HP desktop printer (thanks, Grandma), I break out my Blackwings. I then… go through… and redraw… every single panel with my Blackwing pencils.

I like the Blackwings because they are really soft and creamy which has a good textural quality on printer paper. I find that I’m able to get details with a sharp Blackwing, but able to get larger strokes down well with a blunt Blackwing. Doing this step physically is important to me. I do think I could get a similar effect doing this digitally, but there is something tactile that makes me feel like I have more physical control over the pages. It might be my background as a Character Designer in animation, where a lot of the early work I do for character design is with Blackwing pencils. I find that there is a unique ability to maintain a character’s consistency of form and shape with physical media. It’s because of this that I really take my time penciling. It’s usually the longest part of the whole process for me and where I clean everything up and get all the details into the panels.

Once the penciling is done, I then scan in… every. Single. Page. Using the same 2010 HP desktop printer. This takes hours and I am very meticulous about file naming conventions, so I make sure everything is very organized as I go through this. Once the penciled pages are scanned, I edit them all in Photoshop so they are easier to read and then export every single page… eventually making a huge PDF for my editor. That PDF gets uploaded to a file-sharing platform and sent to her.

My editor will then edit the penciled PDF and send that back to me with edits. I will make those edits, usually in pencil (repeat the scan process on only specific pages), and send that back again. Once we agree I am ready to go to inking… the inking begins.

I ink my books digitally. For Go With The Flow and Look On The Bright Side, I inked both in Photoshop. Usually, by the time I ink, my pencils are so tight I can just trace them. Tracing sounds easy but 320 pages of tracing is anything but easy. It’s labor intensive and for inking you have to make sure it’s exactly what you want because there’s this feeling as you ink a graphic novel that those pages are going to be printed. Inking reminds me of golfing. I was on my high school varsity golf team (I know, so random) and when I had the opportunity to make the cut for matches, I often would choke when I stepped up to the women’s tees… I’d immediately whiff it. Thank god I’m better at drawing than golfing because I don’t choke when I ink. However, it’s a very similar mindset. I know these pages will be printed and distributed across the world and that is daunting. Precision is key.

Inks go back to my editor after being compiled into a PDF. At this point, I also send all 320+ pages as PSDs. This is a huge undertaking for my wifi. I have to upload all these pages to file share servers. At this point, art directors and designers are involved and they go through all the pages and format them into the book. My editor edits them, I then make the edits and this is where this round is less simple. I have to re-download the PSD they have replaced in the file share folders, then re-upload my edited PSD into the folder. The whole thing is less time-consuming on the art end and more time-consuming on the wifi end.

Once the inked pages are approved and good to go, the colorist colors them. Now this is the part that I’m not involved with. The colorist on Look On The Bright Side is comics artist and colorist, Kaley Bales. She then takes all my PSDs and she adds incredible color to them. This brings the work to life! I am grateful I don’t do this because I feel that color is my weak point and this is where I would choke if this was golf. Usually, my colorists catch a rogue arm or missing finger that I forgot to finish in inks and I fix that and send them back the PSD and then they continue coloring the book.

Then once the book goes through the designer and art director’s hands, is compiled (I really don’t see this process), and the cover is completed… it’s ready to be printed! All those lines and all those pages are ready for the world to read them. And read them they do! Quickly too. You’d never know that the process I just described takes between 2-4 years on average (for me) and that it’s physically incredibly time-consuming.

The unseen parts unmentioned in this are trips to physical therapy, massages, and acupuncture. I sit on specific cushions and wear specific braces as I draw (I’m prone to dislocating my joints at random). The hours of icing my wrist and hot Epsom salt baths… being a cartoonist is a tough job. Yeah, it’s drawing. Yeah, I am sitting… but I just described drawing a lot (lot) of pages being drawn and redrawn. I’m not saying it’s like being a professional golfer or something, but it’s definitely a job that takes its toll on the body with small repetitive physical motions.

If you’ve noticed, I have bolded the names of the art process steps. This is so we can count them all up. We have thumbnailing which is roughly three times give or take (3), we have penciling which also has edits but normally it’s less than thumbnailing so let’s say two (2), then we have inking with edits which is about three too (3). There’s, of course, coloring, but I don’t typically do that. So 3+2+3=8. Roughly 8 times I have to redraw this book. Even if some pages are partial and some sections are good to go from the start, that still would be at best only three times on one section.

All this to say that the least amount of redraws that I drew (320×3) total about 960 pages. At most amount of redraws, I draw (320×8) are about 2,560 pages. The reality of what I actually draw is somewhere in between those.

If you’ve made it to this point and want to support my work, I would appreciate it. Both Eisner-Nominated, LA Times Book Prize Finalist book Go With The Flow and its sequel Look On The Bright Side is available in bookstores everywhere. Please shop at your local indie bookstore when you can.

Thank you for reading (this post and our books)!

One Reply to “I Can Only Seem To Make 320+ Page Graphic Novels – BTS on illustrating a graphic novel”

  1. Sarah Ruth Christopher says:

    Thank you for writing this! I love hearing about this process. It inspires me so maybe I can complete a project like this someday. I follow you on Instagram and learned about your blog that way. Thanks you’re sharing your gifts, and making your process transparent for hopefuls like me! I look forward to reading the rest of your posts and learning more.

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