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2009/7/31

(Had a hard time eking out the time to make this post. If anyone was eager to see it, I apologize for the delay!)

Did not go quite this extreme.

On Monday night of this week, I completed number thirty of thirty comic strips I had challenged myself to create, one per day, for thirty days (skipping Saturdays, which I used for site maintenance). You can follow the chain of posts I’ve made about this challenge, starting with the first, followed by a second day update, and a mid-point update.

As I worked my way through the second half of the challenge, I found my discoveries for improving speed and efficiency plateau–maybe inevitable–but I also found myself backsliding a bit as I grew acclimated to the schedule. I wound up working five or six hours a night several times during the second half, while the first half typically saw me finishing in an average of three.

This didn’t leave me a happy cartoonist. I was thrilled to be getting the work done, but there were a couple times I nearly threw in the towel simply because I could barely stay conscious. There were times, too, that I couldn’t remember drawing large chunks of certain strips, running more on subconscious steam than conscious gas. Dangerous territory, when a wrong keystroke could erase an entire night’s work. Knowing that I had made my challenge public, and had great folks cheering me on, was pretty much all that kept me going at 2am, when my head was bobbing like those guys from Night at the Roxbury.

Aside from the techniques and process improvements I’ve learned and blogged about already, I’ve also gained three truly key learnings:

  1. I can, when needed, successfully juggle Odori Park on a daily comic schedule with a very busy family and a very busy day job, but
  2. It’s not sustainable, unless I want to sacrifice my health, my safety (sleep-deprived driving is not good), or my family life (there’s only so long you can skimp on quality time before it has negative consequences).
  3. I must not take the time I have for granted. Given the delicate balance I’ve just described, every minute counts, and I have to keep a fire burning in order to really use all those minutes. It’s all too easy to get complacent, and let things slide (I have all night, I can take my time…).

I could also say:

  • It’s vital to have a rest day. Saturdays became more valuable for the extra sleep I could get than the time I could spend updating the site, etc.
  • Character design and careful selection of art style can make a huge difference in speed, although
  • Nothing beats day-after-day repetition to make drawing a daily comic as natural as pouring water (okay, maybe an overstatement, but I have found it much easier to let loose and trust my hand in the inking stage since I’ve been drawing these characters every day).
  • When working digitally, one should invest in RAM! Nothing killed my rhythm more than having to wait five minutes for a file to open or save.
  • Artist Drew Baker had a tip for beating the heat (overheating being a problem with tablet PCs that led mine to lock up and lose work a couple times): Create a custom power profile that leverages most of the settings of “power saver” mode, but with screen brightness turned up. (I also found that listening to podcasts/mp3s/etc.–which I like to do while working–on a separate machine rather than the one on which I was drawing helped keep things cool and running smooth.)

Before I wrap this up, I thought it might be enlightening, or at least entertaining, to outline my working process today, after the challenge (and highlight how it’s changed):

  1. I keep a notebook, as mentioned in a prior post, for collecting all gag/story ideas whenever they arise. I’ve settled on a hardback Moleskine notebook as my master note repository, and a small flexible notebook (thanks, Samantha!) I keep in my pocket for capturing notes on the fly, which will later be transferred to the master notebook. I’ve always handled writing this way, but I used to have notes all over the place.
  2. During lunch at the day job, or in the early evening (if lunch was overly busy), I refine the gag in question and pencil the strip on notebook paper (and actually in ballpoint pen, not pencil, since the inability to erase helps me avoid overrendering, and the black lines show up better in the next step). Previously, I handled penciling directly on my tablet PC, but I’ve found doing it on paper both gives me better ability to see the “big picture” while drawing (an important thing for me during this step) and allows me to make use of pockets of dead time for the task, where pulling out the tablet would be problematic at best.
  3. Once I’m ready to dig into the meat of the work (which, during the challenge, was at night after the family was in bed, but has now returned to early mornings so that I can salvage some couples time at night) I “scan” the pencils, which usually (since my scanner’s not currently hooked up) means taking a photo with a digital camera and transferring to my PC.
  4. Next, I launch Photoshop and make any changes needed to the pencils, and letter the strip (with a homebrewed font and hand-drawn balloons, which I’ve found best for speed and flexability).
  5. Finally, I start inking, usually at 50% zoom (balancing my ability to see more of the picture with closeness to counteract Photoshop-tablet jitter). When I plan to have gray lineart in a background, I’ll draw it on a separate layer (see the next step for why). Not much else to say here. This is my longest single step, and hasn’t changed much.
  6. I fill in blacks and grays next. I try to restrict myself to a max of two fill grays: 40% and 20% (and if I’ve made some gray lineart, that goes 60%). I’m taking inspiration from some Pogo books I have, where Walt Kelly really just used one gray tone, to great effect, and minimized effort. I used to handle grays by filling with black and changing layer opacity, but now I use a Color Overlay filter, so that I can control what happens when gray overlaps gray.
  7. I’ll grab a copy of the black inks, the grays, and the word balloons (Copy Merged helps consolidate many layers in the source file to three here) and paste them into a new file which I convert from Grayscale to RGB mode (no sense in working in RGB mode before this, where it would just slow the computer down), so that I can change the gray layer (via another simple Color Overlay filter) to sepia. My prior process was, in a nutshell, more manual, and hard to describe, since I was still feeling my way through it.
  8. Last step is saving out the strip large, as a TIF (for future printing), and small, as a GIF, for the site. I tried, under good advice from reader “sktiZoman”, to set up Photoshop actions to handle both this and the previous strip, but I haven’t figured out how to make it flow smoothly without getting caught on the more manual parts of the process. I’ll keep trying.
  9. All done! Go to bed, or go to work!

I’m sure I’ll do this again sometime–probably next time I need to build up my buffer–but what I’d really like to pick up now is technical tips for speed. What corners can I safely cut that maximize efficiency but minimize the quality impact on my work? I thought I’d intuit more of these as I worked through the thirty strips, but the reality I had to accept was that, given the style in which I’ve chosen to work, it takes as long to draw these characters and settings as it takes. In a presentation at San Diego Comic-Con–which I caught via Tom Racine’s excellent Tall Tales Radio podcast–Stephan Pastis, of Pearls Before Swine, mentioned that after three or four failed syndicate submissions, he decided to spend as little time drawing as possible, which led him to draw straight in inks (no pesky pencils), and to the flimsy-limbed characters we see in his comic today. Not sure I could throw in a wholesale style change for Odori Park at this point, but it’s food for thought.

Thanks, everyone, for your support!

So who has tips to share?

:: 6 Comments... ::

  1. 30 Days: Post-Mortem | Any Comic Strip

    [...] Go here to read the rest:  30 Days: Post-Mortem [...]

  2. Rich Barrett

    This is really interesting stuff Chris and very relatable for me right now. It’s a real challenge to fit comic work into your work schedule and family life. I’ve upped my own output drastically over the last few weeks but I can’t imagine producing anything daily like you’ve been doing. You hit on a lot of important points here though about routine and discovering for yourself what is sustainable.

  3. Chris

    Thanks, Rich. I’m glad if my experiences bear useful info for anybody else. Naturally, there’s no magic pill, but I can’t help feeling I’m missing some secret somewhere.

  4. What a Day!

    [...] not only for rising to the challenge but also for giving us the benefit of his experience.  In the notes on his working process, he gave me a little hat tip for some notebooks I sent him. What a nice [...]

  5. Whitey

    Thanks for sharing this — sounds like you learned a lot. It’s tough to find a balance between speed and quality and style, isn’t it? Also, thanks for the mention/link.

  6. Chris

    Yep, it’s the old rule of three, Whitey: speed, quality, and price, pick any two. (Maybe “price” is the secret; I need to hire someone to draw my comic…) :)
    Glad to link!

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