graphic styles for comics production

So right now I am working on a 13-page comic about a lady magician and her demon sidekick getting into trouble at a rave that 2016 me roughed out. 2022 me found it recently and decided it’s still good, so I’m finishing it.

Today I did an important part of bringing it up to 2022-me’s standards: I’m making Graphic Styles for everything in the model sheet. This took about two hours total; the model sheet contains a generic version of these two characters (seen above), as well as them in Magical Rave gear, and Khebunassvem (the demon) in Combat Mode.

This is no small amount of fiddly bullshit; it takes time to pack all this stuff up into named swatches, and time to think about the most efficient way to make Illustrator draw a bunch of shit for me. This was two hours on top of character designs that were 100% done by the standards of 2016 me. Plus a few design revisions, Chloe used to have straight hair but I decided curly felt better.

Two hours is nothing to sneeze at. But this is the payoff. These are the paths I have to draw, using these various styles. Illustrator then does a bunch of stylistic stuff to it and makes it look cool. I don’t have to fiddle with drawing any of those ragged edges, or even remembering which brush I use. I just say “I’m gonna draw Chloe’s hair”, find the right section in the Graphic Styles, click on the appropriate style, and draw a loose shape that Illustrator noodles a bunch of curls around. Kheb’s tail and its little spade is just one line. All that Kirby Krackle in Combat Kheb’s wings and aura is done by Illustrator around simple shapes. Doing most of the rest of this comic is now gonna be super fast; I just look at my roughs and quickly flesh them out into full drawings, without ever having to fiddle with trying to remember what brush I used at what size and in which color. If I ever draw another story with these two then I can reuse all this work. Probably with a little time to design new costumes for whatever situation they’re in.

If you wanna have a look at the Illustrator source and see what kind of crazy tricks I used, it’s over on Patreon.

paintbrush full of stars

what’re you up to peggy? oh nothing much, just getting stoned and making a pressure-sensitive star brush out of Astute’s Stipplism effect and their Dynamic Sketch tool

not shown: stroke is a circular gradient fill set to go along the path via the path-alignment controls in the gradient window, from (cyan at 100% opacity) to (cyan at 0% opacity).

if I turn off the stipple effect it looks like this:

so all these stars are coming from a few quick vector lines that I can easily push around in a bunch of ways

and I think that’s pretty cool


anyway back to being stoned and drawing <3

gator gator gator gator

How to quickly make a repeating pattern brush from a long image, without wasting your time swearing at the Pathfinder palette.

  1. Draw a funny little alligator. Or a pickle. Or a snake. Or an abstract pattern. Whatever.
  2. Make two duplicates of the whole gator, and the rectangles you want to crop it with.
  3. On the first gator, delete the left and right rectangles. Then select the whole gator and the center rectangle, and do object>clipping mask>make.
  4. Select the now-invisible clipping mask. Copy it. Deselect all. Edit>Paste in back.
  5. Select the clipping mask, its contents, and the invisible rectangle behind it. Make a pattern from it.
  6. On the second gator, do steps 2-3, except keep and duplicate the leftmost rectangle. Make another pattern.
  7. Third gator, third rectangle. Steps 2-3 again.
  8. Make an art brush using all gator part patterns.
  9. Enjoy your gator brush.

(Or make an art brush directly from the art in step 4 instead of making the pattern, set the Brush palette to List View, then alt-drag the front and back parts of the gator into the appropriate slots in the brush instead of making patterns.)

The secret sauce here is the invisible rectangle behind everything. If you have one of these, then Illustrator will use this as the boundary of an art/pattern brush. If you don’t then it’ll use the bounding box of everything, including the hidden clipped parts – make another three copies of the gator and skip step 3 to see this in action. Without the clipping mask it’ll still work but you’ll get the whole gator image drawn along the path, overlapping.

In general I recommend staying the fuck away from the Pathfinder palette, it rarely behaves like you expect it to and will make you swear for hours on end. Use clipping masks/Draw Inside, pattern fills, or opacity masks instead.

Here’s an Illustrator file demonstrating this:

Total Peganthyrus Vortex

that moment when the drugs kick in and you realize that there is absolutely nothing in the universe except you and your infinite reflections

So one of the things I do to put off getting work done is to go to the Illustrator subreddit and answer people’s “how do I do this” questions. Yesterday there was someone asking how to do this:

 to which I replied

  1. draw a thing, select the thing
  2. object>distortion mesh>make with mesh, just make it 1×1
  3. mesh tool, click on the edge of the mesh around where you want to make stuff wavy, zoom in close and click slightly above this place so that there are now two mesh lines very close to each other
  4. select the top two points of the mesh and the upper of the two mesh lines you just created, drag upwards
  5. make a couple more mesh lines in this space you’ve opened up, move ’em around
  6. also play with the settings in object>envelope distort>envelope options, a low setting on the “fidelity” slider can make some really interesting glitches.

(You could also go old-school on this and find a photocopier; moving stuff around on the glass as the scan head is moving creates similar effects. Do a dozen or so tries until you find one you like, then scan it, and autotrace/work over it in AI.)

And today someone asked how to do this:
…where I suggested

Draw one vertical line of arches. Make it into a pattern brush. Draw a circle using this brush. Duplicate the circle and rotate it a little and change its color; play with opacity masks.

Making the varying blur/sharp parts is something I’d have to think about for a while in front of Illustrator, offhand I’d probably do it by drawing three arches with a green stroke at 0%, 100%, and 0% opacity, blending them, then duplicating the blends to make the line of arches to use in the pattern brush. Might have to expand the blends before making them into a brush.

I’d verified that the warp effect worked by doing it to a copy of the picture I drew yesterday, which is where the “play with the distortion effect settings” part came from – I liked how a low fidelity made a total mess of things.

So after spending about fifteen minutes fooling around with those circular patterns this morning to see if my idea worked…

…I realized that I could very quickly use this as a tool to make something akin to Escher’s “Circle Limit” images with a lot less work than he had to put into those. So I fooled around a while and this was the result.

Here’s the outline view, with the distortion mesh on and off – stuff you put inside a distortion mesh goes to a weird netherland, and vanishes from the main canvas unless you say “swap the dmesh for the stuff inside it so I can edit that”.

The two dragons at the corners are repeated by use of the Transform effect; getting the right settings was made a ton easier by using Astute’s “Stylism” tool, which provides nice interactive on-canvas controls for this effect and several others instead of Adobe’s modal dialogue boxes full of numeric fields.

If you wanna see the source, it’s up on Patreon. If you want a print of this, it’s on Redbubble.

shortcuts: many

Today, one of the people on the Astute Graphics slack posted a spreadsheet they’d made to analyze the text generated when you hit ‘export text’ in Illustrator’s keyboard shortcut prefs.

I, uh, kind of have a lot of shortcuts here, don’t I. It is nice to be able to quickly confirm how full the alphabetic keys are – I have all of ten keys left in the “command-something-letter” department, and seven left in the “letter-maybe-plus-shift” area. (These are two distinct shortcut zones, [key] and [shift-key] are generally for stuff in the toolbar, while [command-something-key] is for stuff in the menus. And a smattering of other stuff not in the menus.)

This doesn’t capture actions bound to the f-keys, nor does it capture scripts that I trigger via Quicksilver. I have a lot of shortcuts.

Illustrator: sluggish previews, and solutions for that.

When you start doing complicated documents in Illustrator, full of live effects and crazy magic, things start to slow down. Not surprising, really: you’re asking it to do a lot of work every time you need the screen redrawn. It makes some attempts to cache as much as it can, but it can only do so much. Here are some things you can do to help it out.

Change the preview mode. In the past few years, Adobe added the capability for Illustrator to use your computer’s graphics card to draw the preview. And if your work is beneath a certain complexity threshold, it’s great – it runs faster than the old CPU renderer ever could, fast enough that they’ve added a switch for “realtime editing” where everything you drag around updates at full color instead of as an outline. But if you cross that threshold? The performance drops off a cliff. Hard. And suddenly you are staring at the spinning rainbow cursor for multiple minutes when you’ve changed something, or just tried to move the view around. The old CPU renderer can still start to slow down in extreme examples of these cases, but it won’t be anywhere near as bad – I’ve never gone beyond “a few seconds”, even in my heaviest drawings.

What mostly seems to invoke this is (1) a lot of layered transparency and (2) a lot of bitmap effects. But I’ve managed to make it happen in other circumstances, like a recent piece that had tons of complex, opaque pattern fills. You can do a quick check to see if this is why things are slowing down by doing view>view using CPU; if Illustrator suddenly starts performing better, then you’ve found it. Note that “view using CPU” only affects the current window on the current document; if you routinely work in ways that make the GPU renderer choke, then consider going to the Performance panel of the main prefs and turning it off permanently.

Maybe the GPU renderer works better if you have a cutting-edge graphics card in your desktop system that can get 600fps in the latest games. I’ll never know, I haven’t owned a computer I can’t stick in my bag since I lost my G4 to Hurricane Katrina.

(This is also often the solution to “I have weird render glitches in Illustrator”, by the way. The GPU renderer is a lot newer than the CPU one, and GPU compatibility is a constantly moving target. Each major release of Illustrator since this was added has had distinctive GPU rendering bugs that pop up on some computers; usually when they get fixed, new ones get introduced. Maybe eventually the Illustrator team will figure out how to find them all and make sure no new ones pop up despite graphics card manufacturers constantly changing things out from under them, but maybe someday Sisyphus will get that rock to the top of that mountain, too.)

Layer thoughtfully. Divide the paths that make up your drawing into layers with meaningful names. And then turn off parts of the drawing that are finished, or are not something you need to see for what you’re working on now. This is super easy to do with comics: I make each panel as a set of layers inside a layer with a clipping mask shaped like the panel border, and while paying attention to the overall composition of the page is important, there’s also a lot of parts of the process when I’m zoomed in on one panel, and can turn off the rest to gain a lot of speed. With single images, I might create a “foreground” and “background” layer and throw the appropriate layers in there. This helps in a lot of other ways, too – thoughtful layering makes it easy to lock parts of the drawing you’re not working on, for instance!

Rasterize finished layers. Target a heavy, finished layer by clicking on the circle to the right of its name.

Then apply effect>rasterize. Probably at at least 300dpi. Illustrator will turn this layer into a bitmap and use that for the preview renders instead of drawing it all from scratch. You probably want to lock the layer, too. When you are done with the whole drawing and want to do your final render, or need to edit something on this layer that turned out to not be finished after all, unlock it, target it, and use the Appearance palette to turn off the Rasterize effect. Warning: Do not do object>rasterize. If you do this then you will lose the original vector art and will have to copy it from an old backup of your file. You do have some kind of regular versioned backup system in place, right?

I call doing this “freezing” the layer, after a feature in an old vector program that did a lot of natural media emulation back around 2000 when even the fastest computer you could buy was probably less powerful than your phone is now. In Creature House’s “Expression”, you could lock a layer, and then if you clicked on the lock again it would change to a little snowflake to indicate that it was “frozen” – which meant that it was both locked, and that it was being rendered from a cached bitmap instead of the vector art. I think Expression did some additional work to make sure that any transparency in the frozen layer was handled properly with regards to stuff on layers below; Illustrator won’t do this, so a few things may look a bit odd.

This can be applied to layers that contain other layers, too, so you could rasterize entire finished panels, or otherwise stick chunks of finished art into one layer – say, if you’d decided the foreground was all done for now, just make a new layer called ‘fg’ and drag a bunch of layers in there. And if you are one of those masochists who works on a single layer and groups everything you can apply this to groups too.

A further refinement of this technique is to create a Graphic Style that’s just the rasterize effect, and apply this to layers you want to do this to. When you want to turn it off for everything, just select the Graphic Style, then visit the Appearance palette and turn off the rasterize effect, and do “redefine graphic style” in the Appearance palette’s menu. Then wait a few seconds as everything gets redrawn from the bitmaps.

Save without PDF compatibility. When you first save a file, you get some options. This is one of them and it’s always on. And I always turn it off. This is mostly just gonna effect your save times and your disc usage, but it can help a lot. Because when Illustrator saves a file with that on, it actually saves a PDF with all your effects expanded, and a copy of the AI file crammed inside it. Got blends, fill patterns, art brushes? Expanded into many more points and paths. Got bitmap effects? Turned into a bitmap. Which is saved in a manner that is in the running for inclusion in a list of Top Ten Inefficient Image Formats. If you are doing simple work then you’ll get files that are twice the size of an un-pdf-compatible AI file; complex work can easily end up 10x the size or more. And that will be reflected in how long it takes for Illustrator to save the file. It won’t affect the preview update speed like the rest of the suggestions in this post will, but it’ll still slow you down if you’re saving regularly. (Which you are, right? You’re not sitting there with a file saved for three days straight, hoping that the crash recovery will save your bacon if it crashes, right? Because it won’t always do that, even if you’ve gone to the prefs and turned off “turn off data recovery for complex documents”. Build that habit of hitting command-S when you take a break, when you finish a significant chunk of the document, or when Autosaviour pops up and reminds you that it’s been a while since your last save.)

As a bonus, sometimes files saved with PDF compatibility on will become corrupted in such a way that the AI file embedded inside is illegible. Illustrator will then load in the PDF. With everything expanded and unedited. And you will swear, and scream, and be very sad. Or at the very best you will sigh and go digging in your backups, and profusely thank Past You for making sure those were happening regularly without any effort on your part. Keep PDF compatibility off and this will never happen. You’ll need to generate a PDF when it’s time to interoperate with other programs; take care to keep those separate from the original AI files. Like in their own folder or something. And close the file immediately after saving the PDF version so you don’t accidentally decide to make a few changes that go into that instead of the AI version.

frizzly hair

“What tools are good for drawing kinky hair in Illustrator?”

Here’s an Appearance stack that I whipped up in like ten minutes that’s a good start.

kinky hair – open up the Appearance and Graphic Styles palettes to explore just what I did here, click on some effect names and play with the settings, find something better than I did in ten minutes.

It could use a lot of refinement and maybe I’ll do that sometime soon. But this is a decent start IMHO. One major refinement could be to make an art or scatter brush with some squiggles, and add that as a stroke on the “kinky hair” style.


I just put together a little Automatic Kirby Krackle style that I’m pretty happy with. It could be better and maybe it will be by the time I’m done with the drawing I’m doing it for, but it’s more than good enough right now.

The top is the lines I drew, the bottom is what Illustrator turns it into when I use the following Appearance stack:

The magic here is in setting the “coruscation” scatter brush stroke to 0% opacity, and turning on Knockout Group for the whole path. This makes the brush’s clearness punch through everything applied to the path, instead of overlaying it on top of whatever other strokes and fills are applied below it.

And to give you a start on this, here’s the current brush settings. If I really wanted a serious Kirby Krackle I’d probably have two or three copies of the brush, one for big balls closer to the edge of the shape, one for smaller balls that go further in, and maybe one somewhere in between.


(Why has this been sitting in my drafts for a month and a half, this looks perfectly postable…)