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Learn the Basics of Comic Book Art

CNBC, the Washington Post, Business Insider and even comic book geeks like Seth Meyers agree, the comic book market is hot. With the rise in comic-book-based movies over the past decade like Deadpool, Ant Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy, the comic book industry has witnessed an all-time high not seen since 1997, with an increase in sales during each of the past five years. Even webcomics like Twokinds, Replay, and Not A Villain have become increasingly popular in the last several years.

A comic book or graphic novel artist produces work in comic form and may produce the whole strip, or contribute to only a part of the comic. They convey humor or tell a story about everyday situations, recent trends, current events, and made-up worlds. It’s not uncommon for a team to be involved in the creation of a comic. One artist may create only the key figures in the comic, while another artist or artists create the backgrounds, and a writer or writers write the script. It’s also worth noting that these roles can be interchangeable, and an artist that draws a character may be brought in to write a part or the whole script.

Like the fields of illustration and design, the comic book and graphic novel industry is very competitive, and you must be extremely talented to succeed. And, your first job just starting out may not be as a comic book artist. However, an entry-level job with a publishing firm or film production house can still offer valuable skill-building opportunities you can use later.

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Learn the Essential Skills & Techniques to Succeed

Although most anyone can become a comic book artist, there are several essential skills you’ll need to make it in this industry. Obviously, the most important skill to have is artistic ability and a natural talent for drawing, followed closely by the ability to conceptualize. Creativity, imagination, interpersonal skills, and manual dexterity are also skills every comic book artist should possess. And, since a lot of comic book art is generated digitally, even for printed comics in newspapers or other publications, artists must know and master a variety of graphic software, such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator, and Mac’s Made with Mischief. A Wacom tablet is also a must-have. But, the process of creating comics usually starts with a pencil in the form of rough sketches and drawings on paper, so owning an arsenal of pencils from 6H to 2B is important.

Since most (if not all) comics have a main character and a few or many minor characters, a comic book artist must know how to draw the human body accurately. Over-exaggeration can only take an artist so far, unless the specific comic calls for it, so making characters look believable is imperative in this field. Artists must also be able to tell a story that takes readers (or viewers) on a journey through sequential panels of artwork. You may not be the best writer in the world and may have a writer as part of the team, but you still must have a story in mind; from start to finish.

There are probably a couple dozen ways to break into the comic book industry, and earning a degree is one of the most valuable. Although a degree is not mandatory, the level of training you will receive can help when looking for a job, advancing in this field, or branching out on your own. Most comic book artists will earn an art degree with an emphasis in drawing or illustration, where they learn various techniques of studio or fine art and graphic design. An alternative to attending a two-year or four-year college or university is attending and earning a degree from a private art school. Art schools often offer specialized programs in drawing and illustration with an emphasis on graphic novel and comic book art, and more and more on webcomics, manga, and anime.

Webcomics, also known as Internet or online comics, are published on a website; often an artist’s personal site, but also on sites like Reddit, Imgur, Tapastic, or Webtoons, just to name a few. They are typically published on a regular schedule (Monday – Friday, 3X a week, or on weekends) and are free to view, although most webcomic artists make money via advertisements on the site, or even by selling t-shirts with imprinted artwork. Two to the most popular webcomics today are xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. These comics are in strip form or single-panel format and usually written by the artist. Typically, the subject matter of most (not all) webcomics is a bit more niche than most printed newspaper or magazine comics, and the subject matter is usually much darker, yet the artwork and subject matter varies greatly. Although most webcomic artists stick to a simple presentation; just artwork and words, some will add animations, music, and motion.

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Build a Strong Portfolio

One of the most important tools for any comic book artist is a strong portfolio and website. But, as not all comics are the same, neither should all portfolios be identical, and a successful artist will have a variety of artwork to show depending on the client, agency, or company. The main point of a comic book artist’s portfolio, whether printed or available online as part of a personal website, is to show you can draw well and consistently in a variety of styles.

A personal brand is also essential. You may be able to draw fabulous characters and write amazing copy, but if it looks and sounds the same as last year’s comics, your work won’t get a second glance. Developing your personal brand can take months or even years, and includes hours and hours of drawing and honing your brand. This is crushingly important if you freelance.

If you decide to freelance and try entering the market solo, the lack of regular paychecks, long hours drawing and re-drawing, finding clients, and simply learning how to run your business can take a toll. But, many comic book artists are very successful freelancers. Posting samples and your profile on one of the many freelance sites, like UpWork or Guru, can get you started. But, you won’t get rich right away. As in most art fields, you must prove yourself first, often earning very little money starting out. In fact, a comic book artist who is new to the field may only make $10 per page. But, as you gain experience and strengthen your reputation you can make as much as $200 per page.

Most comic artists work for newspaper syndicates, they freelance, or are employed by comic book companies. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has no specific salary information for comic book artists/cartoonists. But, the job outlook for multimedia artists and animators (which loosely includes graphic novel artists) is expected to grow six percent between 2014 and 2024, with a typical median salary of about $64,000. The amount an artist (or writer) gets paid depends on many variables, such as company size, location, medium (printed or online), and whether you are a company employee or working freelance.

Because the field of comic book artist is so specific, gaining professional experience while still in school can help. This may include internships, drawing a comic strip for your college newspaper, or freelancing on the side. Joining associations and organizations can also benefit an artist just starting out, as well as attending conventions – with your portfolio in tow. To advance as a comic book artist, you need persistence and dedication. By networking while at school and at conventions and other events, you can make life-long industry connections, which can often lead to a job.

Get to Know Our Experts

Brandon Palas

  • Title:
    Comic Book Artist and Illustrator
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Southern California
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I took art classes throughout high school and a couple of junior college drawing and painting courses, as well as a couple of online anatomy courses, but the bulk of my learning came from books and tons of practice.

    My first comics job was drawing a few issues of a book called Machine that never came out. Then I got hooked up with Eric Dean Seaton and drew 3 volumes of Legend of the Mantamaji (which will be released 10/8/14, 12/10/14, and 2/11/15 respectively) and am currently working on volume 4. I’ve also squeezed in a couple of short-story projects.

    Advice

    For someone pursuing a career in comics

    Frankly, comic books don’t pay much, so if you’re going to do it, it had better be because you love it. If you think it’s for you, then you’ve gotta work your butt off. Draw every day, as much as you can. Learn everything you can. Seek out your weaknesses and try to turn them into strengths. Draw actual comics pages, not just pictures –storytelling is as much a part of the skillset as drawing is. And try to find the ways of drawing that are actually FUN for you. There’s not much point in doing this if you’re not having fun.

    Get involved in online comic art communities like Penciljack and Digital Webbing. Draw comics and post them on these sites. Listen to the comments and criticisms you receive, and keep posting new work. You’ll make connections, and when your work is good enough, you’ll probably start getting some job offers.

    On education

    I didn’t have a typical art school education. From those who did, I hear that it can be great if you’re willing to really work hard and wring all you can out of it. But if you only do what it takes to pass your classes, you’re not going to get anywhere. A friend who’s been very successful in concept art for movies and videogames told me that only a handful of people in his graduating class could really draw. They were the ones who really went hard for it the whole time. In some fields, just having the degree is enough, but in art, you have to really have the skills.

    If you don’t feel like art school is for you, or if you can’t afford it, you can learn everything you need to know online and out of books. But just like in art school, you’ll only get out of it what you put into it. Ultimately, the single best piece of advice I can give is to draw all the time. The thousands of hours you put in at the drawing board will mean more than anything anyone else can teach you.

    Jason Raines

  • Title:
    Comic Artist and Animator
  • Company:
    Electric Entertainment Inc
  • Where:
    Portland, OR
  • Experience:
    2 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Jason Raines began his professional art career at 21 when his comic book Joe Psycho & Moofrog was picked up by Goblin Entertainment and went on to win the Diamond Gem award. Since then, Jason has been creating imagery for entertainment entities such as National Lampoon, MGM, Devil’s Due Entertainment, Will Smith/Overbrook Entertainment, the Black Eyed Peas, Mel Brooks, and Stan Lee.

    Jason had lots of advice to artists pursuing comics as a career:

    If you are looking for a solid career with upward mobility and strong benefits… don’t draw comics. Comics are a raging beast of feast and famine. There is no such thing as a full-time ‘job’ in comics. It’s gig to gig, project to project. It’s starting something, rocking through it as quickly as you can, making it as good as you can in the time allotted and moving on to another gig, maybe at the same company; maybe not. It’s a fast-paced, high pressure environment that you do in your pajamas from home. If anything I just said makes you nervous, turn away now while you can. If what I said intrigues you, then step a little closer.

    Comic Artists are masters of drawing…You need to know how to draw anything, immediately, as you never know what’s going to come up in a script. An experienced artist has a library-sized repertoire of everyday and not-so-everyday objects in their head, ready to be pulled out in a moment’s notice and an ability to create new objects (or characters) from scratch. A comic artist is also a 4 dimensional artist… we work in up, down, forward, back, left, right and backward in time. You need to not only be able to draw something but draw how it appears in a specific moment –this is what determines its position, pose, and momentum. This is why comics are called Sequential Art –moment A happens before moment B, which preludes to moment C. Each panel of a comic is a moment in time. Each panel must be a masterpiece of awesomeness all by itself, but it must also work with the sequence of panels before and after it. Comics are a flow of creative energy and ideas.

    Advice

    Comics lifestyle

    Comics can be rewarding and artistically satisfying like no other endeavor if you can live the lifestyle. It can be unstable, inconsistent, and a little freaky at times. But if you love to draw while hanging out in your own kick-ass home studio (always important to have a comfortable drawing space) then comics may be for you. It’s one of those things –you just know if you’re a comic artist or not. DO or do not, there is no try.

    Don’t be afraid to experiment

    Don’t be afraid to experiment and try things differently. Comics is one of the art forms most open to new ideas, new concepts, and differing visions. In America, the superhero comic genre is still largely dominant, but in markets like France and Japan, comics are just a media outlet like television or Netflix. You can find everything from sci-fi to horror to romance to comedy to drama all within the pages (physical or digital) of a comic book.

    One more thing

    And one more thing, despite the fact that we work from home all day, I can tell you this –comic artists know how to party. We throw a pretty big one in San Diego that you might have heard of…

    Mike Pascale

  • Title:
    Comic Book and Comic Strip Creator
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    Central CA
  • Experience:
    18 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Mike Pascale is a freelance storyboards artist, writer, comic book/strip creator, and graphic designer. Mike had lots of advice for those who are looking at becoming a professional comics artist:

    Look up who’s near you and don’t be afraid to contact them—but be brief, respectful, and professional. If they say no, thank them and move on. Best of all, I went to conventions and asked for feedback from as many editors as possible—they are the ones who give out the work.

    Get paid for your work! Beware of ‘contests’ and what Mark Evanier calls ‘Unfinanced Entrepreneurs’ who rope you into free work by promising ‘exposure.’ Banks and grocery stores do not accept ‘exposure’ as payment. You can’t eat it or fuel your car with it.

    On criticism

    Take criticism and advice graciously even if you don’t agree. Ask questions! Learn from everyone and everything, even if they’re half your age or not in the field —knowledge can come from anywhere. When you get advice, take a consensus. If several people are telling you to work on your anatomy, crack open the books and take a life-drawing class. If only one editor tells you to draw more porcupines he probably needs therapy.

    On copyrights

    Never give away your rights. Learn about copyright. Register your work. Have an accountant and a lawyer you can trust. File your taxes on time (quarterly if you’re freelance) and correctly.

    And finally…

    And, finally, remember the Golden Rule: ‘Don’t be a jerk.’ The world is a mirror for your thoughts and actions. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. If you don’t want someone trashing your work online or behind your back, don’t trash theirs. If you want support for your efforts, support others’. Pretty simple and obvious, but it works!

    Yad M. Mui

  • Title:
    Freelance Comic Artist
  • Company:
    Yad Artworks
  • Where:
    Atlanta, GA
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I started out learning about art in 8th grade. It was the first time we were offered art as a class all year round. For the next five years (8th-12th grades) my art teacher, Mr. Larry Clegg, let me explore my artistic side in class every day. From there, I chose to attend Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI. Eventually graduating with a BFA in Illustration. Professionally, over the years I have worked with many other artists. I created self published comic books and even a role playing game. The style I work in is influenced heavily by comic books and Japanese animation, so naturally I have worked closely with many Japanese Anime Conventions. Izumicon, Anime Crossroads, and MTAC (Middle Tennessee Anime Convention) are a few of the conventions I have done mascot design work for.

    Most recently, I have done freelance work for Fantasy Games Unlimited. They commissioned me to work on several supplements in their Villains and Vigilantes line of books. A social media site for musicians and artistic types named Woodbangers Entertainment has also had me doing a line of images based off a mascot I designed for them. Lastly, I have just been tapped by FASA Games to work on a couple of their projects that I can not say anymore about at this time.

    Advice

    Yad’s musings for the beginner

    Draw…Every day, every hour you can. And just because someone says ‘this is how it’s always done’ doesn’t mean it’s the way you have to do it! Most importantly though, do not just draw from comic books. The best artists appreciate and look at all forms of art.

    The average day

    My average work day basically consists of me rolling out of bed, making coffee, and walking into the room that is my office at my house. I check my emails for any new information from clients, and then I pull up what I’ve been working on in Photoshop and begin working. Sometimes this means I am waking up at the crack of 9am, others I’m up till 5am. It all depends on the deadline and when the inspiration hits.

    What he likes most and dislikes

    I most enjoy the freedom it gives me to work when the mood hits (unless there is a deadline, of course). My least favorite is the idle times. If I sit idle for too long it almost seems like I get rusty and have to work harder to put something on the canvas.

    Comic Artists Infographic