I threw together this quick composite screenshot due to a post on the Illustrator subreddit where someone questioned a statement that “most designers don’t use layers”. I am neither “most designers” nor am I “a designer” but layers are super useful.
I spent a while today and Monday doing something I’d been putting off for a good while: resizing the styles for the Mixolyne mechs. See, I’d drawn them super-huge originally, and a lot of the graphic styles I’d built out of those drawings performed poorly when I tried to use them at the right size. I’d been resizing them on an ad-hoc basis every time I pulled the styles into a new page, but last Monday I pulled up the first of several rough pages where Kirt and Noa will be spending a lot of time running around in their mechs, emoting at each other through body language, and I just really did not feel like rescaling these styles for every page individually like I’d done for the first few pages.
A few weird Illustrator hangs later, I’ve generated a feature request for folders in the Graphic Style palette, decided to do an ugly organizational kudge in the meantime of blank styles serving as separators to help me find stuff in the giant sprawling pile of styles I’ve ended up with, and created sets of styles for these mechs in both their shiny, healthy versions and the “dehydrated” versions they started the story in.
This took me a few hours but it should help a lot when I start actually drawing these pages; by doing this I’ve piled up a bunch of cool effects and taught Illustrator how to do them for me, and now I can just mindlessly re-use all of them at high speed.
It is the beginning of the year and it is time for everyone to post about how they organize their Important Stuff for the benefit of people who have made a new year’s resolution to Organize Their Shit. This is what works for me; I do not guarantee it will work for anyone else. It’s been working as a way to organize a mix of standalone drawings and big multi-image projects for most of twenty years now.
All of my artwork lives in one place on my hard drive: ~/Documents/gfx/working/. There’s a few other folders in /gfx/ but they haven’t been touched in years, as they’re the remnants of a former system I mostly abandoned.
This working folder mostly contains two things: a folder for each year I’ve been using this system, and a whole bunch of aliases to project folders. Each of those project folders lives inside the folder for the year I started it – Parallax is inside 2015, Rita’s inside 2012, the Tarot’s inside 2008, etc.
I do it this way instead of just making a folder for the project next to the yearly folders because this way I can rename those aliases without affecting anything inside them that has a file path in it. The projects I feel are currently in progress to some degree have a space at the front of their alias’ name, so they sort to the top of the list, above the yearly folders and below the ‘ . this year.’ alias, which gets pointed to a new folder around the beginning of every year. Deciding to take that space off the front of an alias feels momentous; it’s been sitting there for years, and now I’m declaring it either Done or Of The Table. It’s probably worth mentioning that everything below about 2006 is off the bottom of the normal size Finder windows will open at for me – I have to go looking for those things.
I also keep some of those aliases in the Finder’s favorites, so they’re quick to navigate to in a new Finder window or in a save dialogue.
Inside the project folders, I tend to have a whole pile of Illustrator files for the main body of the project, with Finder tags to mark the completion state of the file. In progress is purple, blue is finished, yellow is posted to Patreon. There’s a second blue tag for “double finished” which I only started using on Parallax, since I’m mostly working on that in double-page spreads. Rita’s just a long list of files with blue dots now, since it’s done.
And next to that pile of The Actual Pages is folders for other stuff. A folder of final web renders of pages (and a ‘ finals’ alias so I can get to it quickly, since that sorts above all the pages), and a few other folders for… stuff. Model sheets, web sites (which might contain aliases of folders deep in ~/Sites/, that get used when I fire up MAMP to run my local development copy of WordPress), fan-art I’ve gotten, book publishing stuff, ads… whatever. Make a folder, don’t just put it in the same pile as the raw pages.
There’s a few non-yearly folders in the main /working/ folder for stuff that I have to deal with now and then: resumes, files for the print book I take to conventions. They feel like they don’t belong to a year, it’s a judgement call I make now and then.
I feel like the big guiding principles here are that stuff never moves but aliases do and that everything for a project is in one place.
If I want to find a particular standalone drawing I usually go over to ~/Pictures/My Art/ where I stick pngs/jpgs of all my finished pictures, make the icons big, and look for it. That’ll tell me the year and then I can find its source file pretty quickly; the filename I make it under is usually never the final image title, and I never bother changing it. It could maybe be more efficient but I don’t have to do this often enough to really try to optimize it.
When I do a batch of commissions they’ll end up in a folder with a name like “april commissions” in the appropriate year that’ll get an alias at the top of the list. And maybe even an alias on the desktop – which I mostly try to keep clean, for what it’s worth. I don’t have any in progress so there’s none of them currently visible.
I just spent two hours making this happen in Illustrator.
It’s the safe version of this. If you click on this image, or on any of the other ones in this post, you’ll see a higher-res copy. I am not sure I recommend doing this.
I can now use these flat-color Graphic Styles to draw a whole bunch of assorted shapes in something akin to three-point perspective. Which would involve following this grid that I built in Illustrator before building the previous two images.
And hell, let me try a quick test drawing. Just some basic shapes following these perspective guidelines.
Alt-drag twelve swatches around and…
Yep. This is gonna work. I’ve got a lot of drawing to do, and this won’t work for every single part of the image – but I should be able to lay down a lot of it pretty quickly like this. I’ll end up with tons of hatching that precisely lines up with the perspective I’ve drawn the shapes in. I had to do some funky stuff to set all of this up and part of me thinks I should write it up, but I also spent two hours in front of the computer and think I need to run around some.
Illustrator has a three-point perspective ruler mode. I’m really not sure I’m going to bother with it; I feel like the time I’d spend figuring out how it works is going to be really close to the amount of time I’d spend just doing it the “hard” way. I learnt how to do hardcore perspective years ago, and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I think I remember enough to fake this. Should be fun!
Today I realized that I was a couple days past a deadline: I needed to do a couple of sketches that would be added to copies of a Kickstarted comics anthology I was part of. I don’t do physical work very much any more, so I figured I’d document my current process.
Now that I look over the whole process, I might go back and add the earring I had in the rough and forgot about. I should also either do the other sketch I have to do for this Kickstarter, or get some work in on Parallax – I spent half the day procrastinating on doing this drawing!
A while back someone on Tumblr asked me how to get better at writing. This is what I replied.
It’s been sitting in a text editor window ever since. I decided to post it here before closing it and consigning it to the aether forever.
Read great stuff. Read garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage even though they sell a ton. Read stuff everyone says is great that you think is garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage that you think is great. Read your favorite genre. Read other genres. Read that tedious shit they put in the New Yorker where nothing ever happens except for some white people not quite getting a divorce. Read stuff you think is great now that you’ll think is garbage in ten or twenty years.
And don’t just read it. Think about it. Ask yourself why the stuff you think is great is great, why the garbage is garbage, what appeals in the terrible best-sellers, what appeals in the great best-sellers. Develop a sense of what makes writing, plotting, characterization, and storytelling good or bad. Then apply that sense to your own writing. If a piece doesn’t pass that test then fix it until it does, if you think there’s something worth salvaging in it. If you don’t know how to fix it then ask how one or another of your favorite authors would fix it.
Read that book you loved ten years ago and read every few years and still love. But don’t just read it. Get a paper copy of it and start *dissecting* it – take notes in the margins. This bit supports this major theme of the story. That bit is an awesome grammar trick you didn’t notice until the third time you read it. This bit is just fucking amazing writing. This bit touched something important in your budding pre-teen sexuality. This bit contradicts that other bit (intentionally?). Here’s a major turning point in the story; here’s a major turning point in this particular character’s story. Flense the story’s skin and muscle off its bones, think about how one supports the other and how badly it would work without some part.
(Doing that is why the last third of Rita is shaped the way it is – I picked up *Use Of Weapons* to re-read as a way of saying goodbye to Iain when he died far too early; I started asking myself how and why he twisted the timeline into knots in that story, and what he had to do to make it work, then applied that to my own story.)
There’s lots of books on How To Structure A Story. Some are shit. Some are great. Read some of them. Personally my current favorite is the one Film Crit Hulk wrote a while back. Be warned: if you’re reading screenwriting manuals, do not try to fit your seven-act story into the Procrustean bed of a three-act screenplay. Let your story be the shape it needs to be. (But keep in mind Vonnegut’s dictum to respect the reader by starting the story as close to the end as possible; you have to *earn* the reader’s attention if you want to tell the six hundred years of Madeupistan history leading up to the point you want to make.)
Do not get lost in “worldbuilding” and “backstory”. Do not skip it, either. Stories and characters grow out of them. But it doesn’t all need to be on the page. I’ve seen the metaphor of an iceberg: maybe 10% of the shit you come up with for a novel ends up on the page. The rest? Save it for the RPG worldbook.
Getting lost in TVTropes is part of your job. It’s a great resource of common building blocks of stories. But you can’t just mindlessly put tropes together; think about which ones work, which ones you should bend, which ones you should avoid entirely, in service to the *theme* of your story and the *characters*.
Having a theme helps a lot too. Whenever you’re stuck for the next thing to aim the narrative at, you can ask how you can bring the theme(s) back to the fore.
The hardest part: figuring out how people act. I mean fuck I’m an involuted freak who spent twenty years of her life hiding from any and all social interaction and learning how to draw and program. The best background is nothing without characters, full of dreams and goals and successes and failures and foibles. Give them things they want, put obstacles in their way, and then story occurs.
Some people will divide writers into “planners” and “pantsers”: one makes elaborate plans of how the whole plot will unfold before they write a single paragraph, the other just starts writing shit and just goes where instinct takes them. Personally I tend to go back and forth; it’s worth noting that both Stephen King and George R R Martin describe themselves as firmly in the “pantsers” camp, and they’ve sold a fuckton more books than I’m ever likely to. Pantsers tend to be about dropping a bunch of characters into a situation, and seeing how they work their way out; this can involve going down a lot of dead alleys as the characters try things that don’t work out.
Personally, Rita started very pants-y: here’s this robot lady infiltrating a building, why? An assasination, apparently. She’s talking to someone, who? Carol. What’s their relationship? I had some vague ideas for visual tricks I wanted to pull with the multiple-story trick but no real clue of the story; it didn’t really start to come together until a random obstacle I dropped in to stop a Relationship Conversation from going on forever opened his mouth and said he was Rita’s psycho ex, and shattered her reality for her. Then I knew a lot more of how it was going to end; once I knew that, I could say “okay, I’m here, and I want to get here – what’s a midway point?” Then repeat: what’s about midway from the latest page to that midway point? To there? Eventually I get down to having a handful of sentences describing what needs to happen in the current chapter, then to what needs to happen in the next page or two, and then I just start plopping words and doodles onto the page in Illustrator. Absinthe’s been similar, albiet much slower. Parallax is super-planned – we’ve turned to TVTropes, we’ve got a list of Common Star Trek Episode Types we made, we’ve spent a whole year kicking back and forth a framework for a multi-season TV show.
It’s okay for first drafts to be terrible. Now you have something to fix, and that’s a lot easier than having the story burst forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’ brow.
If you find someone who you collaborate well with, hold onto that for dear life. I would not be half the writer I am without Nick there to help me. We broke up during Absinthe, then got back together during Rita, and now we’re collaborating both on Parallax and Absinthe. Having another pair of brain hemispheres to toss ideas back and forth is wonderful; they’ll bring in a similar-but-different set of references, loves, inspiration, and knowledge.
But mostly: read a lot; turn off your internal censors and write some absolutely terrible stuff. Then either fix it, or write some more terrible stuff until you have something worth fixing.
Also: go ask someone who knows more about writing than me, 99% of my longform writing output is volleying crazy smut fantasy paragraphs back and forth over a furry muck until someone came, fell asleep, or had to go to work the next morning. honestly I’m not sure they’ll have that much more to say, I mean King’s “On Writing” is basically him saying “read a ton, good and bad, and write a lot while applying the critical eye learnt from your wide reading to your own stuff” plus an assortment of anecdotes from his much longer writing career, just do it again and again until people are willing to pay you for it or you give up.
Fucking around with image trace because someone asked how to do this kind of stuff on Reddit.
- import image
- object->image trace->make
- window->image trace, set it to black and white with a threshold of about, oh, 30 or so. Maybe open up the ‘advanced’ triangle and check ‘ignore white’; I’ll talk about why you might want to do this later.
- in the layers palette, drag the layer this image is on to the ‘create new layer’ button at the bottom of the palette.
- you are now editing a new copy of the image, in this new layer. Set the trace threshold a little higher.
- repeat steps 4/5 until you feel like you have Enough layers to work with. You might want to set these layers to about 20-50% at some point so you can see what’s going on.
Now, you have at least two options here. First I’ll talk about how I did the B&W image with pattern fills.
- I’d checked ‘ignore white’ in step 3 above. This gave me a set of paths that were just the black parts, as opposed to solid black and white.
- make a new layer at the top of the stack, call it ‘construction’. Probably lock all the other layers so you don’t interact with them by accident.
- somewhere above the image, draw a horizontal unfilled, stroked line that’s around half again as long as the diagonal of the image.
- effect->distort and transform->zig zag. If you want wavy lines like this then choose ‘smooth’ in the ‘points’ section.
- alt-drag the line to well below the bottom of your image.
- select both lines, object->blend->make. Then object->blend->blend options and fiddle with the settings until you like the spacing between your lines.
- select that whole blend and drag it into the swatch palette to make a pattern fill. You could also do object->pattern->make but that will immediately throw you into the pattern editor mode, and we don’t need to do that here.
- Hide the ‘construction’ layer. Show everything else. Select all the image traces and do object->image trace->expand. Sadly you can’t expand multiple image traces at once; you have to select them one by one. I feel the most efficient flow for this is to unlock one layer, select all, expand the trace, lock the layer, then go on to the next one, but whatever works for you. You might want to record an action or add a keyboard shortcut to the image trace expand as it’s pretty deeply buried in the menus.
- Lock all your layers; unlock one and do edit->select all. Then pick the wavy lines pattern swatch you made.
- Lock off that layer, unlock another one. Select all and pick the wavy lines pattern swatch.
- Choose the rotation tool and start to rotate the image. Before you let go, press the ~ key. This is a switch that says “only transform the pattern fill”; you’ll see your outlines replaced by bounding boxes of all the paths. Maybe hold down shift to constrain it to 45º angles.
- Repeat steps 10/11 until you’ve dealt with all your layers.
- Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could use whatever fill pattern you like for this.
(As a side note, the ~ trick to move a pattern fill around in a shape works with the scale, reflect, and arrow tools, as well. It does not work with the free transform tool.)
And here is another way to do it: opacity masks.
- do those six steps at the top of the post, but turn off ‘ignore white’ in the image trace options.
- lock everything except one image trace layer. Select all; cut. Yes, cut.
- In the layers palette, click on the circle to the right of the now-empty layer’s name.
- In the transparency palette, press the ‘make mask’ button. Check ‘clip’ and ‘invert mask’.
- Click on the big black square that appeared in the transparency palette, and paste. Now you have an opacity mask. You can see its outline if you do view->show edges, and you can see it in the transparency thumbnail’s palette, but nothing shows up on the screen. That’s because the opacity mask is a greyscale image that affects the transparency of what it’s attached to, and right now it’s attached to an empty layer.
- Click on the empty square in the transparency palette to go back to editing the layer, and draw something in it. Maybe a big black rectangle. Maybe a colored one. Maybe a pattern fill. Maybe draw two circles and blend them, that’s what I did here. And then duplicated and slightly offset them to create a cool morié pattern in the image.
- Repeat steps 2-6. If you want to move some of the stuff you drew in step 6 without moving the opacity mask, then click the chain link between the two thumbnails in the transparency palette. Otherwise you’ll move the opacity mask as well.
- Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could also try unchecking ‘invert mask’ on one layer and using it to overlay art in the lighter areas of the image, rather than the darker.
There are other ways to do this – you could expand the image trace (with ‘ignore white’ on), turn it into a compound path, and use it as a layer clipping mask for the layer full of whatever imagery you want to draw; you could probably do something involving destructive operations with the Pathfinder palette, too. Which is a major sin in my book as I like to do non-destructive edits whenever possible.
If I was to rank these methods from most to least editable down the line, it’d be opacity mask > pattern fills > layer clipping mask > pathfinder stuff. For instance, I wanted to add a little extra shadow under the chin to help distinguish it from the face. With the opacity mask method I could just go into a layer mask and draw some black shapes over the image trace. Adding more shapes the pattern fill way can be a little finicky with keeping the fill patterns in alignment; adding more shapes to a complex layer mask is even more fiddly, and destructive pathfinder operations have to be done completely from scratch.
You can also do a similar trick with Astute Graphics’ WidthScribe palette, if you feel like spending some money for a plugin that only has a bunch of YouTube tutorials and no manual.
Or, “how the sausage is made”.
So remember that show pitch I made to show to Nickelodeon at SPX? They didn’t take it, but I’ve been continuing to work on it, with a lot of help from Nick – to the point where the front page of the pitch now has both our names.
We’ve been hanging out and figuring out things about the characters and the world. It’s starting to become fairly strange and very much its own thing; hopefully soon it’ll be in shape to toss a new version of the pitch by my friend who works in Nickelodeon’s development department and has offered to pass it around there.
Recently I decided we had enough textual revision for me to start fooling with a theoretical intro for the show. Or rather for a pair of intros, since there’s one for each side. I spent a morning watching cartoon intros on YouTube, and ultimately decided to start by borrowing the shot sequence from the “Real Ghostbusters” cartoon from the 80s. It’s a pretty efficient minute-long sequence that nicely introduces the team, gives you a tiny hint about their personality, tells you what they battle against, and that they are pretty confident in their job.
I rendered this down to its bones – just a quick list of shots described in the most generic terms possible – and started drawing versions of each shot that fit Parallax. And as I did this, I had to make some visual decisions I’d been putting off. Namely, what everyone’s spaceships looked like. And what each side’s logo looked like, since I wanted to swipe the way the Ghostbusters intro filled the screen with the logo like three times. That’s a nice piece of sigil work right there.
But mostly the spaceships. I’d been putting off the spaceships. I do not love drawing spaceships and didn’t really know where to start. It needed doing, though, so I finally sat down and came up with a good way for the two sides’ battle craft to combine: the Federacracy’s fighters would just happen to be the right size and shape to be carried around by the Union’s mechs. Which are faster-moving and more maneuverable, but lightly-armed.
This choice cascaded into other things: I wanted the Federacracy’s ships to be better-armored than the bigger Union mechs, but I also wanted them to be light enough to be carried around, so I ended up deciding that their Lucky Ancient Technology Find was great force-field technology. Which then gave me some inspiration for their logo.
I also figured out things like explicitly codifying the Union’s spooky take on VR – every ship/planet/etc they own seems to be much larger on the inside than the outside, because a large percentage of the people there are actually simulations being run by the local AI, in a sprawling virtual world. Conveniently these people are referred to as “ghosts” who live in the “ghost halls” of the ship, and can’t be seen by non-Union folks without the standard augmented reality implants they all have, so they come off as Creepy People Who Talk To Ghosts We Can’t See. And that gave rise to a plot idea about a Union “ghost ship”, drifting between stars in power-conservation mode with the whole crew living as ghosts. Who then become fitful holo projections, then half-finished “zombies” crawling out of the respawn tanks when the Federacracy crew finds them and digs through what they think is a dead hulk looking for intelligence/a mcguffin/Ancient artifacts/whatever.
We’ve got a nice little list of A- and B-plots that we’re in the process of winnowing and shuffling into about a dozen episodes. Turn those into a couple paragraphs apiece outlining each episode, and I think I’ve got a pitch. There’s still some art to do – I’m redrawing all the character portraits now that I’ve redesigned the uniforms, and taking a second design pass on at least the Union crew – but I feel like that’s not a ton of work. I could be wrong on that. We’ll see.
Anyway. The rest of this post is a bunch of the sketchbook pages I filled up while thinking up all this nonsense. Enjoy this glimpse into the process of designing a whole world.
Next: design Union mechs (which is coming along), do a round of work on the Federacracy characters who are not already Just Perfect (Olivia and the Baron were designed back around 2003, and I really just can’t improve on them, I’ve tried), do nice drawings of the revised cast in their revised uniforms, (possibly in ZBrush, which I am attempting to learn this week) make at least one decent picture of each capital ship and a drawing of the fighting craft, and of course hammer on that list of a dozen episodes and that list of plot ideas until it feels like there is some flow between them all and a decent balance of standalone/arc-y stories, and turn those into nice tasty little paragraph summaries. Then it’s ready to start pitching to the various Sausage Factories as a tasty new kind of sausage they could hire me to make.
A friend was trying to do some comics and having some trouble with getting the lettering to work, so I did a couple quick pages of Things I Think About When Lettering My Stuff.
I do not claim that any of these tips are The One True Way To Letter. Just that they are things that tend to make my own comics more legible. (I say this because I see a lot of lettering tips about How To Superhero Letters that take a super dogmatic tone.)
There’s a lot of stuff I left out: I did not go into using differently colored balloons, the use of different types of edges for thought balloons or for shouting/electronically transmitted stuff (or for hints about tone of voice), or why I sometimes choose centered text, sometimes left or right justified, and sometimes do paragraphs with indents. I also didn’t go into translucent word balloons – I feel that solid white balloons look super clashy over modern softly-colored art. I also left out the rant about how I feel the ALL CAPS SUPERHERO LETTERING is something best left in the past, where it was a good idea due to the terrible reproduction those things got then. Which also means I left out the digression about the weird little rule that you should never write a superhero comic about someone named Clint Flicker because of how it looks if you type it in all caps and aren’t super careful with the kerning or start having the ink bleed…
Anyway. Hope this helps someone a bit.
Here’s a thing I’ve been kind of wanting for a while, and finally nailed: that dotty, super-spitty-airbrush look.
- Draw a black circle.
- effect->brush stroke->spatter, play with the parameters until it looks good
- object->expand appearance
- object->image trace->make
- window->image trace, play with the parameters until it looks good
- object->image trace->expand
- drag into brush palette, make a scatter brush
All the brushstrokes in that screenshot are done with the same green with varying opacity settings: 50% for all of them, normal/screen/multiply mode.
You probably shouldn’t try to fill in a whole image with this as things would get pretty slow to render; use it to create accents.
You could try different starting shapes and different effects – maybe a triangle that’s been put through the ocean ripple effect is just what you want. Kinda looks like a lot of messy angular brushstrokes, huh?
Or how about if I add a ‘roughen’ effect to the paths I drew, on top of using the scatter brush?
Wow, it sure looks like I made a lot of twitchy little brush dabs there, doesn’t it. Thanks for doing the work for me, Illustrator!
Edit, some time later: Or how about that oh-so-coveted spitty airbrush look? Seriously, I see people asking for that one all the time.
Caveats: You don’t want to try and draw an entire picture with these kinds of brushes. Illustrator will slow way the hell down. Lay in flat shapes with simple filled paths, then come back in and paint highlights/shadows with your Messy Brushes.