Drawing Better B/W Comics

Sandra Chang-Adair's Thoughts on Creating Black and White Comics

Sandra Chang-Adair’s Thoughts on Creating Black and White Comics

I’ve always had an innate drive to continuously improve myself, perhaps it’s just dissatisfaction over my abilities. I’ve always enjoyed learning and I strive to better myself in art, kung fu and fencing. One of the best compliments I received in recent years was at a comic book convention when a fellow artist informed me that he and his friends have been following my artwork over the years and were impressed over the constant progression of my art skills. I’ve been in the comics scene since the 1990’s, (yes, I’m old), and I hate to say that some of my peers have been creating art the same way since I’ve known them when I first met them. Now being critical of others is not fair, so I tried to take a harsh, objective look at my own comic book art. I can see the improvement in my painting, but I have to admit, my new comic book work resembles my first comic book series, Achilles Storm, with little change. And sad to say, it’s missing the passion and vitality of the young, struggling artist! Being a comic book artist involves many skills: figure drawing, story telling, perspective, understanding of layout, and the ability to draw just about anything from landscape to buildings to animals, etc. Through the years, my perspective might have gotten slightly better (and I definitely need more work in that department), but the contrast work in black and white is worse! I also need to improve my layouts, they are quite mundane and the narrative should move in innovative ways. So being unsatisfied with my new pages, I decided to study some of the old masters of comic book art.

One of the great artists for layouts and spotting blacks is Wally Wood. I found this interesting cheat sheet by him on laying out two people conversations, which would get boring if you have pages of just dialogue. I have no rights to this, but I think it would be helpful if you want to download it.


Wally Woods 22 Panels That Always Work!!

The virtuosos for black and white composition are Alex Toth and Marcos Mateu-Mestre. Mateu-Mestre has a book called Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytelling that explains the best techniques for the visual communication. I highly recommend this book for comic book artists and story boarders. A more contemporary genius of composition is John Paul Leon. I came across his artwork by accident when I was on Ebay looking for ├ępee fencing equipment by Leon Paul. I was amazed by the realistic portrayal of people and scenes in his black and white comics. An inker that worked with John Paul Leon for a number of years and an awesome comic book artist in his own right is Shawn Martinbrough. He has this incredibly useful book, How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Techniques of Visual Storytelling. Martinbrough has a more stylized approach to his art and he breaks down the theory of drawing black and white comics very clearly. I own both books and I use them as reference. I compiled the following cheat sheet of faces and lighting. I’m going to share this with you, so feel free to use it. I don’t own any rights to the photos contained in it, so I hope I don’t get into trouble for using them. They are for reference and personal use only.


My Shadow and Light Portrait Cheat Sheet.

I still have to spend more time studying the books by Mateau-Mestre and Martinbrough, but I’m going to share with you the results of adding blacks to my pages in issue 4 (still in the process of creating) of Gothic Geisha. I should have named this article the Beauty of Black, lol. I had already completed these pages, so I didn’t design them with contrast in mind. It’s always harder to fix things after the fact, so remember to layout your pages as thumbnails with contrast from the beginning. I’ll try to heed my own advice for issue 5. I use Manga Studio Pro 5 to create my comic pages. You can see in some of my original pages, I used texture (chicken scratches) to add interest in the background. I eschewed this for cleaner blacks and I think the contrast creates a more striking page. It’s hard to cover up detailed line work and lovely drawings, but I think the result has definitely more impact. Designing your blacks from thumbnails makes the overall process of creating comics faster, you don’t have to draw everything, you can strategically spot your blacks and deliberately leave out line work. The viewer’s imagination can fill in the missing lines which makes for a more captivating piece of art. It is better to design your page so the detail is where you want the focus to be on your page. Drawing everything precisely on the page pulls attention away from the area of focus. Concept painters for Environment Design only light the areas in their art to grab your attention, the rest is left in shadow or is painted with sketchy brushstrokes with a minimum of detail.


Page 1 of Sandra Chang-Adair’s Gothic Geisha Comic. The heroine, Akemi awakens in the middle of the night with prescient feeling of foreboding. She peers out the window and sees her nemesis stalking her in the rain. I designed some blacks originally, but the building in the last panel is quite boring. My page doesn’t convey the sense of isolation I originally intended in my script.


Gothic Geisha Issue #4, Page 1 with more blacks and contrast. Although I loathed to cover the details in the building and Akemi’s beautiful face in panel 2, I think my page has more impact with the stark contrast of black and white. The building pops better and it feels more like a dramatic, stormy night.


Gothic Geisha #4, Page 3. Kenji is arrested and interrogated by a Captain Malcom Smith, a corrupt Unopolis official. Although I had some shadows on Kenji’s face in the last panel, this dialogue seems pretty boring. You don’t feel Kenji is threatened in any way.


Gothic Geisha #4, Page 3. Now with the addition of shadows on their faces, the dire predicament of Kenji is a little more apparent. It most likely would have been better if I designed the contrast in the beginning during the thumbnail stage. Hindsight is 20/20. I probably need some shadow of the back of the Captain’s head (especially since he’s in the foreground and it’s a nice trick to put black in the foreground to draw the viewer’s attention into the page). I’ll add it later…lol.


Gothic Geisha #4, Page 7. Okasaan Alicia visits the Apex Ops (special black ops) soldier, X909. X909 is a pretty moody and depressed fellow. So adding that gray texture in the background doesn’t really do much but confuse the viewer. The first and last panels of X909’s face has some nice shadows, but overall, the page is lacking mood.


By adding shadows and removing the gray chicken scratches, the overall page looks more interesting and much moodier. Analyzing this page again, I think I can add more blacks and push the page even more (especially in panel 2). Maybe Okasaan Alicia in panel 3 can use some shadows and I should remove the reflected light on her face in panel 4.

Thanks for reading my blog and I hope you enjoyed sharing my journey of improving my comic book noir skills. Please follow my Gothic Geisha Comic Facebook Page and visit my new Sandra Chang-Adair website, Steampunk Fantasy Art.