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Getting Started as a Comicbook Illustrator

Let’s start at the very beginning.

You’ll need to know a little bit of lingo associated with Comicbook illustration. This will help you find more tutorials, locate books and videos to help you along your journey.

Here is a simple list of terms you’ll need to know:

  • Pencils – Comicbook illustrators and the industry at large refer to the initial drawings of comicbook pages as pencils. Pencils can be “loose” (rough sketches) or “clean” (the finished pencils ready for the next stages). Pencils are often drawn in Non-Photo Pencil. This is a particular shade of blue that can not be detected by Graphic Arts Cameras or copiers. This allows artists to lay down sketch lines without the need to erase after inking.  Even if you are wishing to become a digital comicbook artist, you will still refer to the initial drawings as Pencils.
  • Inks –  The second stage of comicbook illustration is Inking.  Using a pen, brush or digital tools, the inker adds depth and shading to give the image more definition. Basically, we’re talking about the dark lines that outline the shapes in a comicbook drawing. Take a look at one of your favorite comics. More than likely you will see black lines around the objects and people, creating shape and shading. Inking was necessary in the traditional printing process as presses could not reproduce pencilled drawings.
  • Coloring – Stage 3 is coloring. Whether done traditionally (adding color by hand with markers, colored pencils, pens or paint) or digitally (using software like photoshop), coloring is, in the simplest of terms… adding color to an image. Coloring is a difficult and time intensive process with steps of it’s own. I’ll quickly lay them down here for reference:
    • Flats- adding the base colors with no shading
    • Colors– adding the shading and highlights to the flats. (When coloring digitally you might use Cuts and gradients)
    • Holds – sometimes colorists will add color to the ink layers. These are called holds.
    • FX– Special effect- adding sparkles, shining, fire… anything that is added to the top layer of the artwork.
  • Lettering – stage 4 of comicbook creation is lettering. The letterer crafts the comic’s “display lettering”: the story title lettering and other special captions and credits that usually appear on a story’s first page. The letterer also writes the letters in the word balloons and draws in sound effects.
  • Panels – Comics are created in panels. Like the frames of movie, panels depict the movement of time and show action.
  • Gesture drawing – The art of “getting the feeling” of a pose in a drawing. This is a skill all in itself. A difficult thing to learn, but will pay off big time if you have the patience to stick with it.
  • Anatomy- The drawing of the human figure.
  • Contour drawing – You’ll want to avoid contour drawing. This is drawing the outside of the shape rather than using gesture and anatomy to draw people. Resist the urge to draw this way.
  • Life Drawing/ Live Figure drawing – Practising from real life. As a model poses, quickly sketching the pose and getting the gesture. Often timed to help the artist get out of their head.
  • Reference – Reference refers to images, drawing, people, objects and animals that artists use to look at while drawing. All artists use reference. In fact a sure sign of an amateur is someone who might say, “ I don’t use reference”. Now, professionals do use reference differently than beginners. When beginning you may use reference drawings or pictures to copy directly from. You may even chose to trace images to train your brain to get the “feeling” of certain angel and shapes. As you grow as artist you use of reference will mature. You may use it look at how a nose falls away from a certain face, or how someone’s eyes seem to penetrate your soul… but you will continue to use images, pictures, drawings, real people, real scenes, movie frames and anything you can draw inspiration and accuracy from.
  • Dynamic posingDrawing dynamically is tricky. Most comic artists consistently say it is one of the hardest things to get right when drawing comics. Well, What is it? Simply put It’s the feeling of motion in your work. The action scenes that you can feel. The landed punch to the jaw that instinctively has you put your hand to your mouth. That is dynamic posing and it is hard. I would encourage you to search the term on YouTube and watch as many tutorials as possible. It’s one of those topics you can’t over educate yourself on. Every technique has it’s own little gem that might just be the thing you need to get it right!

That’s all the lingo we’ll cover for now. With those terms you can search and find everything you need to get started as a comicbook illustrator. Let’s move onto some interesting choices you’ll have to make as a Comicbook artist.

Digital or traditional?

It is recommend by most professionals to start traditionally. This is for a number of reasons, but simply, your brain seems to pick up the fine motor skills necessary for illustration more quickly when the artist is using a pencil and paper. You can more easily “draw from the the shoulder’ and are also more likely to have those “happy accidents”. Happy accident occur when you make a mistake and find something awesome. A new way you like to draw lines, or the head.. who knows what you’ll find when you mess up?! It’s very exciting!

Digital is also extremely expensive to start, and the learning curve will involve getting to know both hardware (tablet) and software (photoshop). However, digital allows the illustrators to waste no paper and tracing is a breeze.

But, like everything, it’s up to you! Whatever feels good, do it. Art is all about expression, so express yourself!

Finding your style

Style is the strangest thing. It just sort of sneaks up on you. Trust me, it will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it. Just draw things you love, study art you love, trace art you love, try to get the details of things you love. Eventually all your practice will gel into your own unique style. It’s freakin’ magic, and it can’t be forced. Let go and let it happen. So zen right? Right.


Learning to draw is not a simple process. In Fact, it might one of the hardest things you will ever learn to do. But remember this. Drawing is a skill. Very little of learning to draw is based on talent. Hard work and practice beats talent every day of the week. If you commit to learning the skill of illustration… it will pay off. I promise. Most professionals recommend practising the craft at least an hour a day. But like anything, if you practice more than the recommended, you’re skill will increase faster.  There are a few types of practice. Let’s go over them now.

Passive Practice

Definition: Learning by osmosis. Watching, observing and analyzing.

Examples of passive practice:

  • Tracing
  • Watching speed paintings
  • Watching artist draw or paint in real time
  • Watching tutorials
  • Analyzing pieces of art you admire. Really look at how each artist achieves different techniques. Hair, eyes, feet, water etc…)
  • Mindless doodling
  • Stopping movies mid frame to analyse the set up the scene

Deliberate Practice

Definition: The fastest way to level up your skills is to do something called deliberate practice. That is, practising the things you find the hardest, even though it can be excruciating. Scientific research shows that the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity.  If you’d like to geek out and learn more about it, you can do that here:

How to put Deliberate Practice into action: Let’s use the example of hands:

  • Break the hands down into parts.
  • First learn the anatomy of the hand. Learn the skeletal structure and draw the bones from every angle.
  • Then add the muscular structure. Practice drawing the bones, then the muscles on top from every angle.
  • Then add the skin and details. Focus on the study of each part – ie: finger nails, knuckles, wrists, etc.
  • Draw each part by itself until you feel comfortable with drawing it from every angle.
  • Put it all together and draw the hand until you can pose it in every direction from every angle, every age, every size and so on.
  • This whole process can take months, so be patient with yourself.. I promise you it will work!

Final thoughts

This has been a lot of information for you digest. Do yourself a favour, take it slow. Give yourself lots of time and lots of patience. Learning to illustrate is not for the faint of heart. It’s going to hurt like hell. You’re going to be embarrassed of your work, you’re going to be self critical and it’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication to get where you want to go.

But guess what? You can do it. I know you can because you’re here. You took the time to read this which says to you have the drive and passion to get to the next level. So don’t be a chickenshit! Reach out and take what you want. No matter your current skill level, age or sex, you can become an amazing and sought after comicbook artist if it’s what you really want. So what are you waiting for? Get to work!

We’ve curated a fantastic library of tutorials in the ComixCentral ClassRoom to help you go from beginner to expert.  See Our Learning to Draw Tutorials »


1 thought on “Getting Started as a Comicbook Illustrator

  1. Great post! Thought out and articulated very well.

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