This week: Cartoonists on their brushes
These last four weeks have been all me talking about how I do things. A point I want to emphasize is that my methods are my methods. The reason I always try to explain why I do what I do, and not just what I do, is so that you can see the path of reasoning that led to the way I do something. Everyone has different needs, and the path of reason may lead to different places. To prove this, I interviewed Hope Larson, Erika Moen, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and Craig Thompson about their relationship with the brush. As you'll see they all use and treat their brushes in very different ways.

Erika Moen

You went from using mircons to using the brush in your Strip DAR. From the reader's perspective, it looked as though you came out of the gate right away able to make smooth, meaty brush lines, but in fact you practiced for a long time before allowing the brush into your work. What did you learn about using the brush during this practice period, in terms of what you should or shouldn't do?

I've always preferred the look of brushwork, as it tends to be more fluid and undulating than pen lines, which are generally stiff, straight and mechanical. Although Howard Cruse manages to ink with pens and make it look like brushwork, so obviously I'm generalizing above.

Though I did try to practice using the brush before taking it to DAR pages, I kinda felt like I was just spinning my wheels. Not sure how to explain it, but I'm not much of a sketcher or someone who draws just for the sake of making a picture. Almost exclusively, I am only motivated to create art when it's in the form of comics. What I'm trying to say is that my inking didn't improve until I put brush to comics page.

Oh, and what tools you use make a huge difference too!! My work also HELLA improved once I stopped using printer paper and a shitty brush. Working bigger gives your brush room to have line variation and make nice, smooth long strokes. Now I use a Windsor-Newton Series 7, #2 brush (oh goooooood, it made suuuuuuuuuch a difference) and I ink on 11x14" Bristol board.

And the reason why my inking DID improve after I started using it in my weekly comic? Shame is an incredible motivator! Thousands of people and some of my idolized peers look at my comic each week and I don't want them to think I suck. Over the course of a week, I go back and review my comic several times to identify what looks shittiest. Backgrounds, proportions, confusing/superfluous lines, awkward word balloon placement, too much text for one panel, etc., etc. Outside feedback has been INVALUABLE to me. You, the folks down at Periscope Studio and my husband have given me the most useful, honest feedback that's really pushed me to grow. For the next strip, I try to avoid or improve on those specific weak points.

My advice to new inkers (of which I am still one, I should add. I've only been doing this for the last six months, at most) is,
  • Work big! Buy the expensive brush, it actually is better.
  • Bite the bullet and ink your "babies" (that pet project that you want to be PERFECT). If you're inking something you care about and not just a scrap that only you are going to see then your brushwork WILL improve.
  • Make your inked project public and update it regularly. If I could do more than just one comic a week, I'd be a muuuuuch better artist a lot faster.
  • Get honest feedback from your peers and people you respect. Ask them what needs work, what doesn't read clearly enough. AND DON'T GET BUTTHURT ABOUT IT. Thank them and then wait till you're alone to sulk.

How has your working method changed with this new tool?

Oh yeah. You can't brush ink on-the-go like with pens, so I've had to schedule my time more. Other than that... oh yeah, I've been simplifying my drawings too, to make them easier to ink.

You've chosen to keep using the marker for some parts of your work, for very specific reasons. Can you tell me why, and what effects using the marker versus the brush for some parts of a drawing has?

I still use a pen to ink the panel boarders, letter, and ink the smaller details that I'm not confident using a brush on yet.

For the panel boarders and lettering I think it looks better to have straight, rigid lines-- which is what pens do best.

For the small details, well, I still don't have as much control over the brush as I'd like /:) But the amount of small details I use the pen on have been getting smaller and smaller each strip. Maybe in another six months I won't use the pen for the little stuff at all?

Bryan Lee O'Malley

Bryan, in your early work your characters looked very similar, but your approach to the linework was very different. It started much looser, accented with lots of scritchy lines and textures, and over time you've striven for linework so smooth it almost looks like illustrator lines. Was this smooth style always what you wanted, but something you had to work to be able to achieve, or have your aesthetics changed over time?

I think when I started out I didn't really have the technical ability to execute a consistent style, so it wasn't something that I really worried about. I tried to let things evolve naturally.

Definitely for a long time I'd draw something in pencil or marker and be satisfied, but when I tackled something with the brush it had a good chance of coming out strange (or just bad). Still, I think I liked that feeling in some perverse way, and I definitely had my eye on the prize. The prize is the ability to ink like Jeff Smith by the time you're 30.

I don't think I'm there, and I'll probably never be as technically proficient as Mr. Smith, but I'm definitely about a thousand times better than I was five years ago.

If someone wants to produce a smooth, even ,almost mechanical line, they have to use their tool differently than for a rough line. You've clearly mastered the smooth line. How does one achieve such a thing? Do you hold the brush a certain way? Do you breathe differently? What did you learn along the way as you strove for smoothness in your art?

I've been using a "real" brush since about 2001 or 2002, and I started using "good" brushes (a Winsor & Newton Series 7, first) around 2005.

I can recommend nothing except constant practice, and building a relationship with the brush. They're fickle little bastards, but if you find a good one you have to work with it, let it breathe a little. Let it help you find the line, rather than trying to force it. Try different types of paper, too; paper surface can be just as important.

And remember to try new things at different points in your development - I just recently discovered that, these days, vellum-finish bristol works better for me. A rough finish used to drive me crazy, and now a smooth finish drives me crazy.

Things change!

Craig Thompson

It seems to me, as a reader, that French comics and life drawing totally rocked your world after Goodbye Chunky Rice. In the process you totally changed your brushwork. I imagine it took some experimenting to produce the effects you wanted, and I'd like you to share your experiences from that process. What's different about making your new lines versus making your old lines? Did you have to make any changes to your working method to accomplish this?

You are totally right to recognize the obsessions with French comics and figure drawing that shifted my inking style. Near the completion of CHUNKY RICE, I was sick of drawing cute stubby cartoonish characters with perfectly round heads and sick of the slick brush line. Partly, I felt, the slick brush line was too easily emulated with vector-based computer graphics. Sometimes, it was difficult to distinguish if a drawing was hand-drawn or not (now it's far more difficult to decipher). I sought a more raw and human line, and when I discovered the work of Blutch and Baudoin in December 1998, it completely blew my mind.

I inked the last page of CHUNKY RICE on February 2, 1999 and inked the first page of BLANKETS on August 24, 2000. The year and a half in between, I was working on the thumbnailed version of BLANKETS. And I have to admit I spent a lot more time on figure-drawing rather than honing new brush techniques.

The thing was that my CHUNKY RICE brush style was a bit contrived. The lines were modeled -- you know how people often simulate a brush line using markers? They draw the outside of the mark - thinning and widening the line, and then fill it in. I was often doing the same thing with a brush. These weren't the marks that came down naturally when I "drew" with a brush. The were labored over. Traced over to crispen the edge. So the transition to the looser, more expressive style was easy/natural. I just started "drawing" with the brush. And my brush experimentation took the shape of short anthology contributions.

Most notably a nine page piece entitled "Integrity" for the SPX anthology EXPO 2000 drawn in April 2000, and my BIBLE DOODLES mini-comic crafted in summer 2000.(Besides surface techniques, they also fiddle with themes of religion and sexuality.)

If I had any method then, it was to ink QUICKLY. If I remember correctly, I inked that nine page "Integrity" piece in one day. I took my time to pencil and compose the pages over the course of a week, and then just slathered down the ink on a single Saturday. I could probably use a dose of this method now, because my brush line has again grown labored - the HABIBI pages are so measured and detailed...

With all your complex patterns and sharp, tiny fingers, you're clearly still a precision inker at heart. It's not easy to control a brush on a scale that miniscule. How do you approach tight lines as opposed to sweeping gestural lines? Do you hold the brush differently? Breathe differently? Use really tiny brushes?

There's no grace to my method. I hold my pencil and brush in a clumsy fist - like the child just beginning to draw at age four. And I use the same brush for the tidy, precise lines and the grand & sloppy dry-brushing.

BLANKETS and CHUNKY RICE are both inked with the same brushes - the lesser of the Winsor Newtons -- Cotman III -- size 2. With HABIBI, I've upgraded to the Winsor Newton series sevens. And it's true that my method quickly destroys those twenty dollar brushes. But it's how I feel comfortable working -- getting lost in the process, and not worrying if I'm ruining the tools. I was always impressed by people who can switch up tools on a single illustration -- ink tiny lines with a nib, perfect brush lines with their precious brush, then fill in blacks or rock the dry brush with some old, rattier brushes. I've watched Blutch work with brush pens and he'll do just that. He'll have one brush pen with a crisp tip and a shallow ink cartridge to do precise lines, then a pen with a full cartridge to gush down patches of black, then a brush pen that looks like Beaker from the Muppet's hairdo or the toothbrush used for scouring bathroom tile to make those raw ragged dry-brush strokes.

Until recently I'd never seen a non-brush Craig Thompson inked page. Was the brush your first tool?

Yup, the brush was my first tool. In community college, age eighteen, I was given the opportunity to draw a bi-weekly strip for the school newspaper, and from the start I labored clumsily with a brush. Inspired by "How To" books, I suppose, and the work of Jeff Smith and Mike Allred. I'm happy I learned first with a slick brush line. Like a low-brow version of Picasso painting academically and figuratively before delving into abstraction. I learned to control the brush and lay down precise lines, before giving into chaos. (Of course, I started first with a cartoony style, and had to learn backwards to get some handle of anatomy and "realism". )

I drew my earliest pages big, and shrunk them by approximately 50% to sharpen the lines, but even then the final result was gushy thick. With BLANKETS, I reduced only 70% to preserve the "sincerity" of the line. What you see in print is closer to what I actually drew.

From the pen work I've seen from you, you're equally competent with both a marker and a brush, so I assume you've made a conscious choice between the two. What do you love so much about the brush? And are your comics exclusively drawn in brush, or is nib and marker showing up in places that I'm not seeing?

For the record, CARNET DE VOYAGE is the only book I've drawn with brush PENS - you know, those Pentel Pocket variety. I love how spontaneous those things can be and how they perfectly suited a portable page. But in the controlled confines of my studio, I prefer dipping a real brush in an ink well - it's more meditative and deliberate, and as mentioned in your earlier question, I feel like I can tempt a wider variety of lines out of a brush than a brush pen.

I'd love to do a book in nib-pen. In experimentation so far, I've been turned off by the aggressive scratch of metal nib tearing up the page. The fluidity & sensuality of brush suits my overall style more. Still, I'm fond of the scritchy drawings made in my CARNET DE VOYAGE when I lost my fancy brush pens in Morocco and had to resort to cheap marker pens bought in the souqs. I love the gritty and fragile and atmospheric effects that nibs are capable of, and would enjoy playing with that in the future.

Hope Larson

Pretty early on in your art you latched onto smooth, wet brush lines without much in the way of shading or texture. Did you ever make comics that had rougher lines?

Not really. I don't have a lot of opportunities to experiment while drawing my books, but I would like to experiment with drybrush at some point. That will probably mean investing in some cheapo brushes that I don't mind ruining! Did you ever use a different tool than a brush, or was the brush your first and only love? (I know you use nibs for some stuff, but I wanted to ask that as a leading question, because I think many will be as surprised as I was to hear how much nib is in your work.)

The brush is my one true love. I used quite a bit of nib (mainly G-nib) in Chiggers, but as I got closer to the end I found myself relying more and more on the brush. For the book I'm drawing now, Mercury, I've gone back to all brush. I do still use nibs, but only when I need to draw something really small.

Having drawn in a similar style myself, I know that learning to use a brush with that level of control is very difficult. What did you learn about using the tool as you were striving for this style ?

The only real secret is practice. It took me a while to get comfortable with the brush, and get comfortable shelling out wads of cash for size 3 sable brushes, but these days inking is something I do more or less by instinct. It's not effortless, but I don't need to pay full attention, either. I can shut off my brain and cruise.

I actually discovered my favorite brush through Jim Rugg's interview on Comic Tools. Raphael Kolinsky #3 for life! I don't take especially great care of my brushes, but they still last quite a while. I've inked 204 pages of my book and I'm only on my third brush.

My favorite ink is Pelikan Tusche A Drawing ink. It's not an especially dark or opaque ink, but it has a wonderful consistency, and doesn't flake off, bleed, or gum up my brush.

I hold my brush, somewhat awkwardly, between my thumb and the first knuckle of my index finger. This is pretty much how I hold a pen or pencil, too. I don't particularly recommend it.

Next week: speckly shit