Pricing my work: subtle considerations.

There is a nuance I find myself thinking about lately when I quote prices for commissions.

The obvious thing to ask is “how long will this take me”. This many characters will take about X hours, a background at a certain level will take Y, complicated characters will add Z hours, multiply that by the hourly rate I like to get and I get a number. I’ve been doing that for ages, pretty much every artist figures this part out early on in their career, as well as things like “changes ain’t free and you should make that clear to your clients”.

But lately I’ve also been asking myself how long do I want to spend on this piece?. And more and more that’s an important question. It’s time I’m not spending drawing stuff that has to please nobody but myself and the people who support me on Patreon, it’s time I’m not spending doing things I enjoy that are not drawing like video games or broadsword class or whatever. It’s time I’m not spending doing mundane stuff like making sure the dishes get washed and the trash goes out. It’s also time I’m not spending hating a thing I’m drawing because it has gone on entirely too long and it is just drudgery, which means I start doing a half-assed job just to get the damn thing out the door. I’ve done that a few times and I really dislike doing that.

This makes the question of edits and changes a lot more fraught. In general I am blessed with clients who have paid for art many times before, have model sheets for their characters, and are gonna be delighted with anything I draw, so change requests are likely to be super minimal, if there’s any at all. If all you have is a text description of what you want with no visual reference, I’m pretty likely to say “nope” unless you’re also saying you’re gonna be pretty delighted with anything I’d do, and are waving a nice chunk of money at me to boot.

I do not have any real conclusion here. I guess I’m mostly pretty delighted to be this high up the ladder of artistic success where I don’t have to be the poor bastard on the artist side of this tweet that was doing the rounds today:

(Apparently this is from a vtuber whose schtick is “bitchy demanding spoilt princess”, and I sure do hope they paid a regal price for all those complex revisions. And that the initial deal with the artist was one where the expectation was that it would have a lot of revisions. If it wasn’t, I honestly would have said “well I guess I can do some of those but this is a lot, and I’m gonna need more money to do all these tweaks” to the first revision, and “that’ll cost you a significant percentage of the original price, and this is the last round” to the second revision. And maybe quietly put this client on my mental Never Again list.)

The Breakup Bees: A Relationship Technology

Some time ago, Nick and I went to Archie McPhee and got the usual sort of stuff one gets there: tiny plastic lizards, pens shaped and scented like strips of bacon, action figures based on famous philosophers, etc. Goofy novelty stuff. Cheap, silly trinkets.

I don’t remember everything we got on this particular trip, but one purchase ended up being unexpectedly life-changing. One handful’s worth of bee finger puppets, their injection-molded faces set in eternal, happy smiles.

As we wandered around Seattle on that sunny summer day, we made a decision: Any attempt at a breakup must be performed via these bee puppets. Why? Mostly because it sounded funny at the time. Condemning our future selves to the punishment of having to waggle finger puppets at each other when they were angry was an absurd image.

The bees ended up on my bookshelf after that. Sitting in a line in front of books. In sight, but out of conscious thought. When we left Seattle for New Orleans, they came along; not long after I had bookshelves, the breakup bees were hanging out on one shelf again. The magic books this time. Which seems appropriate because they kind of turned into a little bit of relationship magic; it turns out that they work pretty damn well at defusing a lot of the tension that’s been built up by whatever’s driving one of us to threaten the other with the Breakup Bees.

We now have this way to unambiguously say, this thing you are doing is going to ruin this relationship if nothing changes. And that’s valuable. And it’s also a really silly way. We’re waving a bright yellow smiling finger puppet at each other to do it; while things can remain surprisingly tense for a bit, the bee still brings a powerful note of comedy to the whole affair, even before we get to the point of expressing our displeasure in the high-pitched buzzy voice appropriate to speaking through the puppet.

And we have a way to measure our displeasure. There’s five of them; obviously all five only come out for a serious, full “we are breaking up right now” moment.  There’s a big jump from no bees to one bee, but there’s also a good way from one bee to five. So far we have never had to deploy more than one bee at a time. I really can’t imagine what it would take for us to have two or three out, let alone the whole five.

We have expressed the seriousness of our desires for each other to change some behavior as “one bee’s worth”. I have been lectured on doing an unpleasant financial matter I was avoiding through the medium of a plastic bee breakdancing and singing a song. If something’s stressing one of us out while the other’s gone, we can take a bee and leave it in each others’ work areas, with the option of putting it back on the shelf before it’s seen. This impulsive joke has turned out to be surprisingly effective.

They don’t have to be bees – find something that works for your sense of humor and your significant others’ – but I heartily recommend this as a way to keep your relationship healthy. 3-10 absurdly cheerful-looking tokens of we need to talk.

how I work: file organization

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 Off 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. Maybe even make sub-folders, here’s a peek at the ‘books’ folder in Rita.

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. When I first started I had a separate directory to move finished stuff into and that was just a pain in the ass, every time I’d load in a finished file I’d have to help Illustrator re-find any rough scans I’d used.

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.

Comics Advice

A friend asked for comics-making advice on Twitter. I had some. Oh, did I have some. Maybe some other people following me would like advice on making comics from me, so I’ll cut and paste them into a blog post (and expand on them a little)…


Don’t. They’re a ton of work and a major pain in the ass and there’s a zillion other people making comics and getting people to look at anything longer than ten panels these days is an uphill battle.

But if you must…

Find your own level of reuse. Backgrounds. Character elements. How much are you comfortable with? You probably don’t want to assemble 90% of your panels out of art you drew once and copy/paste forever, but you also probably don’t want to draw every tiny screw on your main character’s prosthetic arm every damn time. Consider how you can limit how complex you can get on a page – are you allowed gradients/hatching/etc? Are you going to limit your palette? (I like doing that a lot.)

If you’re full color, how can you make this fast and easy to repeat? Can you make brushes for complex parts of character? For instance if a character has a tattoo or a complex logo: make a brush, deposit tons of detail with one quick stroke. Pull out the brush specifically marked as being for character X’s hair. Maybe end up with close/mid/long shot versions of these things, because you need less detail for longer shots, your choice.

Some of the styles I’m accumulating for Parallax stuff.

(Organizing brushes/color palettes/graphic styles/etc by character can be super helpful. The more you can pack into one click, the better; lately I’ve been starting to make lists of Graphic Styles in Illustrator, labeled with something like “Olivia prosthetic arm”, “Union logo”, or “Lexy hair cu”; these might just be a simple flat fill, or they might be a complex assemblage of settings and brushes. It’s a lot faster to go from a rough to a finished drawing this way than it is to manually pick a color and a brush and go at it. I dunno if other art programs can do this but it’s super useful if you’re an Illustrator person like me.)

Decide how many pages/week you want and how much time you wanna spend, enforce this rigorously (until you don’t). I mean I went from two pages a week on Rita to a climax that took six months to draw and it was… pretty hard. Worth it but hard. I’d usually spend 2-4 hours drawing Rita on most weekdays because I am a big slacker compared to most comics people. Or most comics people are workaholics and I am not; decide what fits into your life and your finances.

And: abandon “perfect” for “good enough”. If you still think it needs to be better when you put together the collection, then you can spend a little time fixing it. You’ve aimed yourself at a schedule of X pages every Y days, with Z hours available to work on it; you can’t lavish three days on finessing every panel.

(Personally the schedule that works best for me is “aim for two pages a week, don’t sweat it if life gets in the way”. That way I never feel the temptation to waste time drawing a “SORRY NO PAGE TODAY” image. If all you have to work on the comic this week is two hours, you’re a ton better off putting those two hours into working on the next page, or that crazy scene-setting spread coming up in ten pages, or plotting, or anything. Yes, I know a lot of the webcomics pioneers will tell you you need new content on a constant, never-broken schedule. This was true back in the days before Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or a zillion other ways for someone to subscribe to your regular feed of updates; now I think it’s not so crucial. You still wanna aim for regular updates, because that will keep you constantly working on the comic. But use your limited drawing time wisely.)

If you can’t write worth a damn then you need to find someone to work with who can. Ideally come up with something together that you both love playing with. And: Make sure your main character is FUN TO DRAW as you will be drawing them a LOT. What that means, exactly, is up to you. You know what you love to draw. You know what you can just about draw with your eyes closed. Use this knowledge.

(Writing is its whole other domain. There is a ton of writing advice out there. Here’s some of mine.)

Don’t make all your characters just like you. Flip a coin for every character’s gender, unless there is a compelling reason for them to have a particular one. Or roll a die if you want to include genderqueer/enby/etc types. Same for skin tone and whatnot. And consider cultural/racial associations even if you’re drawing cartoon animals! It’s really really easy to default to making every single character a straight white dude, because we have so much history in the US of comics being by and for straight white dudes.

Put your first draft dialogue in the page, if you’re working digitally then keep refining it as you work on the art. Always make sure there is room for the balloons, and that the reading order flows from one to the next, before you invest a ton of love into some background detail that ends up being the only place to cram a word balloon. For more on this, go check out this essay by Eddie Campbell; I do not claim his guidelines are the One And Only Way, but my stuff got a lot more readable once I started thinking about the word balloon placement this way.

Don’t get lost in studies and pre-planning. It’s easy to do this. Very easy. Ultimately what matters is “did you get the next page done?”. That said, usually if I find myself blocked on a page it’s because it’s time to sit down and nail down the plot of the next few pages, maybe do some super-rough layouts. (I don’t write a formal script in advance, just an outline.)

Make page templates. Use them. Traditional? Draw your margins on a piece of paper, add in markings for common page divisions, put that on the lightbox and put a blank page on top of it and rule out the panel borders you figured out in your thumbnails. Digital? New page from template, oh look now I have a file for this page already set up with the standard palettes/brushes/styles, several layers of grids I can turn on and off (maybe to use straight, maybe to just use as a skeleton to build something crazy and fluid off of), the beginnings of my standard layer setup, some word balloons to copy-drag, and everything else I need to just dump my notes in and start drawing.

Using references is not cheating; never underestimate the power of a reference selfie for that hard pose. Or a reference photo of a family member, lover, or studio-mate. Or something from a Google Images search. Or a maquette. Use it long enough to get what you need out of it, then put it away and do the rest of the drawing yourself. But speed up those hard poses.

Anyway. “Don’t draw comics, kid, they’ll break your heart,” as Jack Kirby once said. It’s a lot of effort for a tiny, tiny chance at enough people reading it to support you in the time they take, never mind the dreams of it turning into a transmedia franchise that makes you and a lot of other people a lot of money.

How To Write Gooder

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.

Some Thoughts On Lettering

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.

some-thoughts-on-word-balloons some-thoughts-on-word-balloons-2

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.

your adobe illustrator lesson plan

Someone on /r/adobeillustrator posted an image and asked what parts of the program they should explore next. I ended up giving a list of most of Illustrator’s major features, ranked by how I think about them and how I sort of see them in different levels of complexity:

core stuff: global palette swatches, flat-color shapes with the pencil tool (double-click and play with its settings, the defaults suck), layer organization, draw above/below/inside (and clipping masks as well), transparency. Also of course all the basic shape tools and the pen tool (never turn more than 90° between two points, pull curve handles out to about 1/3 of the length of the curve segment they control, avoid s-curves between two points).

finesse: gradients, blurred shapes, line blends, pathfinder (I almost always hold the alt key when visiting that palette to keep my source paths live), play with bitmap effects and find 2-3 that don’t mostly suck (I find most of them to be kind of ugly, but I love using a soft/hard light mezzotinted rectangle at the top of the layer stack to apply texture to my work, also blurs can be super useful), line width.

don’t repeat yourself: blends, art brushes, scatter brushes, maybe symbols though I rarely use them, pattern fills. each of these is a powerful way to make complicated work quickly; each of them is the right tool for the job sometimes. play with them, learn their quirks, learn when to use one over another.

your invisible assistant: distortion meshes! Make a 1×1 d-mesh, then use the perspective mode of the free transform tool, maybe push the mesh points around a little more, and voila, something complicated in perfect perspective.

advanced: funking up your paths with live effects, layering multiple fills/paths/effects in the appearance palette, saving them for later use. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, as I find ways to make a faux-painterly look that is still clearly not “fake painting”, and renders quickly as my comic book pages get more complicated.

stuff i never use: gradient mesh (too fiddly, doesn’t play well with global swatchs), charts, autotrace.

And maybe that’s the outline for the book on Mastering Illustrator that I’ll probably never write.

Illustrator tip: Symmetric drawing.

Here’s a way to quickly do repetitive designs with Illustrator. The examples and directions are for a kaleidoscopic effect; you could also use it for a simple vertical or horizontal mirror.

1. Make a big rectangle. No fill, no stroke. Like, really big, bigger than you intend to ever let your design get and then some. Put its center wherever you want the center of your design to be.
2. Click on the circle beside the layer’s name in the layers palette.
3. Effect->distort and transform->transform. Choose a rotation value (something like “360/5” will work if you don’t want to bother doing the math), type a number in the ‘copies’ box (say, “4”).
4. (optional) Lock the rectangle you drew.
5. Deselect all, appearance palette->flyout menu->clear appearance.
6. Draw some shapes, watch them be automatically duplicated. You can make something super complicated very quickly this way!

Step 1 is the key to this; if you don’t draw the giant rectangle, the center of everything on your layer may shift every time you draw a new path.

You could do this on multiple layers with different repetition settings. You could also do this on a layer with sub-layers inside it, to make working on different parts of a complex design easier.

You can edit the repetition settings by repeating step 2, and visiting the Appearance palette.

If you want to define this more interactively, you might enjoy Astute Graphics’ Mirror Me plugin. I have it and I never use it, because they tend to only provide video tutorials of their stuff and I am very much a RTFM sort of learner.

some tips on motion



I drew this yesterday when someone asked for tips on drawing action. There are lots more things I could have said, lots more rules of thumb I could have mentioned. But these are the ones I thought of before I decided I was done drawing and went back to trying to kill the Shadow of Yharnham so I can progress in Bloodborne’s story. Which I still have not done.


So you want to do a graphic novel. That’s great! And you think you have the writing and drawing chops to do it all by yourself. That’s great too!

But if you want it to be entirely painted, and your only idea of how to write is to throw a few characters into a situation and see what they do, you’ll probably never finish it.

Because comics take a lot of time. And comics don’t pay very well. And shit happens.

Figure out where your story is going, and how to get there in about 200 pages, and find an art process that won’t take too much longer than the pencil and inks of the B&W days. Or you will never finish your story.

(Me? I’m 10-20 pages away from finishing Decrypting Rita. It’ll be 200-210 pages, depending on if I decide to do the epilogue I’ve been debating the need for. But my mother dying kinda took the wind out of my sails for a bit. I’ll probably get back to it soon; I’ve been working on it fairly frequently for four and a half years now, and comics are kind of my day job thanks to Patreon.)