My name is John Coughlin and in 2006 I decided to take a stab at writing and illustrating a comic book. I was motivated primarily by a desire to improve my nearly non-existent drawing skills - I've always been a bit of a doodler, but I've never really worked on a drawing project of any length. I also like to write creatively and was excited at the prospect of working in a totally new format (previously, I had written only prose - short stories, novellas, etc). Writing and illustrating a comic book seemed to be the perfect outlet for both creative desires.

It's now one year later and I've completed 15 pages of my first 22 page issue (for some samples of completed work click here). It doesn't seem like much, but each page takes an enormous amount of work. Along the way, I've learned many new skills and have worked out an assembly-line process that allows me to put pages together relatively quickly. The following demos show the process I have adopted for putting together my comic.

Note that every artist uses a different process for creating their comic. This is my process, and is not necessarily authoritative in any way. If you are planning on putting together your own comic, you should read as much as you can about the topic. There are many fine sources on the internet, as well as books you can buy from Amazon and elsewhere. At the end of this page I list a number of resources you might want to check out.

Overview of the Entire Process

Before we begin, let's get an overview of the entire process. In a nutshell, I start with a simple pencil sketch, refine it until I'm satisfied with it, ink over it with ink pens, scan it into the computer, and then use Photoshop to color under/over the ink drawing. Here are snapshots of the panel I use in the demos, at each stage of the process, from beginning to end.

  • Step 1 - Sketch 1 - a simple two-minute pencil sketch, which was horrible and which I threw out almost immediately.
  • Step 2 - Sketch 2 - another horrible, two-minute sketch.
  • Step 3 - Sketch 3 - another sketch, but this one is better. I'm still not satisfied with it, though.
  • Step 4 - Sketch 4 - I was finally satisfied with this sketch. I like the layout, and it shows both characters which is important (you'll see why when you read the text). I also like the one character's open mouth, since it matches his personality (sassy).
  • Step 5 - Sketch Refinement - This is a refinement of the sketch in step 4. In order to create this refinement, I scanned in the sketch from step 4, resized it to my actual panel size, lowered the opacity so I could barely see it, then I printed it out and traced over it, making improvements and corrections.
  • Step 6 - Inks - This is the inked version of the sketch. It is done on heavy paper (bristol board). I scanned this into my computer for coloring.
  • Step 7 - Flats - I'm now working exclusively in Photoshop. I've applied "flats" (solid baseline) colors to the appropriate areas of the image.
  • Step 8 - Background Grad - I've applied a gradient to the background to give it some depth and shading.
  • Step 9 - Shading - I've added highlights and shadows to the characters (over the flats).
  • Step 10 - Final Details - I've added some cool effects including eyeball flare, seat lines, and shadows. I've also turned on the text.

This entire process, from beginning to end, took me about 5 hours. It's only one panel of 7 on the page, so in general terms this means it takes about 30-40 hours for me to put together one page. The amount of time I spend on a page of course fluctuates with the complexity of the panels.

Creating and Coloring a Comic Panel

To view any of the demos, simply click on the appropriate link. In some cases, it might be easier for you to right click on the link and save the video to your desktop computer. All videos are in WMV format so you will have to have a media player capable of playing WMV files. All files are in 1024x768 resolution, so ideally your monitor should be running at that resolution or higher to view the videos. These videos were all created in Camtasia Studio.

I use Adobe Photoshop for this demonstration. Photoshop is the industry standard tool for digital image retouching and computer art, and is extraordinarily powerful. It's also expensive (about $300 as of this writing). If you are interested in purchasing Photoshop, the best place to go is someplace like that offers educational discounts. Otherwise, you can also try PaintShop Pro, which is a less expensive (albeit less powerful) alternative, or even GIMP, which is totally free. Both these programs generally speaking have the same functionality as Photoshop.

If you have Photoshop installed on your computer and you actually want to try replicating the steps shown in the demos, here are two files that you'll need. To download these to your desktop, right click on the links and save the files to your desktop.

For the text, I use a font called "Komika" that I downloaded from a shareware site. You can find tons of fonts by googling "free fonts". Just make sure that you pay attention to the restrictions and don't violate the copyright.

Creating a blank page and measuring off panels with guides (9.3 MB)

Whenever I start a new page, my first step is to create a new image, approximately 10"x15", CMYK, 450 dpi, with a black background. I then measure off all the panels using guides and fill them in with placeholders. As I finish each panel (as separate images), I will move it back into this "master page" image.

Creating a blank page and measuring off panels with guides (9.3 MB)
Creating a blank panel and adding layers (4.8 MB)

I like to work on each panel as an individual image rather than on an entire page. I start creating a panel by creating a new image of the appropriate size, and then adding a layer for the panel border and a black underlay.

Creating a blank panel and adding layers (4.8 MB)
Sketch refinement I - dropping a pencil sketch into the panel (4.4 MB)

In this demo I take a scanned pencil sketch, drop it into the panel, and resize it to the appropriate size. This is the first step in preparing a sketch for refinement before inking.

Sketch refinement I - dropping a pencil sketch into the panel (4.4 MB)
Sketch refinement II - adding text and balloons to a panel (8.4 MB)

I like to add text and balloons to the panel early. This helps me position my sketch and work out any space issues. This is the second step in preparing a sketch for refinement inking.

Sketch refinement II - adding text and balloons to a panel (8.4 MB)
Sketch refinement III - creating printable guides and changing a layer's opacity (4.6 MB)

Because I am still a beginning artist, I often use guides to help me line up elements of a sketch (like eyeballs, shoulders, etc). I also lower the sketch opacity so that when I print it, I'll be able to pencil over it without the original sketch dominating. The end result of this process is a printout of a true-size, almost invisible version of the sketch.

Sketch refinement III - creating printable guides and changing a layer's opacity (4.6 MB)
Inking the Panel - OFFLINE

This step I don't have a video for, because it happens offline. I'll take my printout from the last step and trace over it, making improvements. When I'm satisfied with this final sketch, I'll take it over to my lightbox and tape it down. Then I'll tape some bristol board over that and trace out the sketch one last time on the bristol board, making more improvements. When I'm done with that, I'll start inking over the pencils using my ink pens. The end result is an inked version of the panel that I can scan back into my computer.

Inking the Panel - OFFLINE
Dropping an ink drawing into the panel (5.1 MB)

Once I have the ink drawing complete, I scan it back into my computer (usually at 600 dpi). I then clean it up, get rid of the white pixels, resize it to the appropriate dpi, and then drop the inkwork into my panel, over the sketch.

Dropping an ink drawing into the panel (5.1 MB)
Coloring I - Adding "flat" colors to the panel (15.4 MB)

The coloring process starts by laying down big areas of solid color under the inks. Laying down flats requires you to master the selection tools. It's also a lot like coloring in a coloring book!

Coloring I - Adding
Coloring II - Adding a background gradient (3.1 MB)

Gradients are a quick and easy way to add shading effects to a panel. They're often used for backgrounds. In this demo, you'll see how to use a grad for the background behind our two main characters.

Coloring II - Adding a background gradient (3.1 MB)
Coloring III - Adding shading over the flat colors (25.6 MB)

Once the flats are down, you can then start adding in highlights and shadows over the flats layer. This gives the image an illusion of depth and texture, and is where the real artistry comes in.

Coloring III - Adding shading over the flat colors (25.6 MB)
Coloring IV - Final details (shadows, eye flare, etc) (10.8 MB)

This demo shows you how to add some cool special effects to the drawing to give it a little more pizzazz.

Coloring IV - Final details (shadows, eye flare, etc) (10.8 MB)

Photoshop Fun - Creating a Custom Profile Pic

This demo shows you how to take a digital picture of yourself and turn it into a cool cartoon style drawing that would be great as a profile pic for something like MySpace or Facebook. It incorporates many of the techniques used in the last set of demos.

Note that this is a very accelerated demo (about 15 minutes), and my goal is to show you the basic steps rather than to create a "finished" piece of computer art. If you try this yourself, you will definitely want to take your time and experiment.

I have another example of this technique on my MySpace page as well.

Other Resources

Here are some other resources I found helpful when I started learning how Photoshop is used in creating comics.

  • Hair Coloring Tutorial
    This cool tutorial shows you how to create convincing hair, which is always difficult for beginners.
  • Bone Coloring Tutorial
    Another tutorial, this one by professional colorist Steve Hamaker, where he shows how he colors a page out of a comic called Bone
  • Baseball Player
    A tutorial that shows how to color a baseball player in Photoshop.
  • Digital Painting - Wasp
    A beautiful example of digital artwork, where the artist draws and colors a wasp in Photoshop. This is a great example of digital art that doesn't look digital.
  • Face Drawing Tutorial
    This tutorial shows you how to draw faces and points out many common problems.
  • Coloring Contest featured a coloring contest a while back where a bunch of different artists, both professional and amateur, all colored the same ink image. It's interesting to look at the different interpretations each artist came up with.

For print resources, check out the writing, inking, coloring and lettering guides that DC comics publishes - these are great resources. I also like "Comic Crash Course", which is the first book I ever got on the subject and still one of the most useful. You can find these at Amazon and elsewhere.

Mother Machine - My Comic!

Here's a link to my comic. You can see some samples of completed pages there, with commentary on the challenges I found along the way : Mother Machine.

© All material copyright John Coughlin, 2007