Odori Park, by Chris Watkins Odori Park - A webcomic comedy of culture shock in love, life, and family, by Chris Watkins


:: Posts Tagged ‘process’ ::


For your consideration, the following information:

  1. To support my thrice weekly comic posting schedule, I should be creating one new comic every two days, minus Saturdays (reserved for site maintenance and other mundanities). I’m falling behind this pace.
  2. The 24 Hour Comic is a personal challenge in which a cartoonist strives to create a 24-page comic in 24 consecutive hours. Some creative types have developed modifications.
  3. Thirty days is a good length for a personal growth challenge.
  4. Publicly stating your personal goals is a good motivator to reach them.
  5. Abraham Lincoln did not wear turtlenecks.

With the preceding tidbits in mind, hereby let it be known that, starting today, for the next thirty-five days (ending 7/27), I will endeavor to create one complete comic strip per day (minus Saturdays, as mentioned above; that makes thirty days, natch).

Given my scant spare time, this means I’ll be attempting to squeeze the creation of each strip into about one hour (just like a 24-hour comic, but spread out more). I don’t intend for the quality of my comics to suffer, so that means I’ll have to come up with some creative new techniques to speed my process (which is sort of the whole point of the challenge). The bonus is that, after thirty days of this, I should have fifteen extra comics with which to bolster my strip buffer. Then it’s back to eating bon-bons.

Twitter followers, please take note: I’ll post the net result of the previous evening’s struggles to my Twitter feed each morning. I’ll likely also make updates–though less frequently–to the blog.

Wish me luck!

One day down, and I’ve come up with the following thoughts:

  • I must start on time. (That’s 10pm most nights.) If I didn’t fear it would slow my poor tablet PC to a crawl, I’d look into scheduling a nightly UStream session.
  • No breaks. I should get any drinkage and snackage prepped beforehand.
  • Reuse old inks as pencils. I’ve done this sporadically in the past, but never considered it part of the process. Given further thought–even though I prefer to draw fresh “inks” every time–I have to wonder why I should reinvent the wheel in pencils if I’ve already drawn something nearly identical in the past. (Thanks to Scott Kurtz’s drawing session for the brainstorm.)

To break down last night’s action: Pencils took :30, lettering took :20, inks took :45, fills, grays & touch-ups took :10, finishing steps took :20.
(Not included: Writing & thumbnails, which I did during lunch in about 20 minutes, and late night breaks for a bowl of cereal and to find my sweatshirt, which also took about twenty minutes.)

It seems like there must be some way I can speed up that “finishing steps” portion, which involves converting to RGB, switching grays to browns (I work in grayscale to keep the computer working as snappily as possible), and formatting a copy for the Web. It’s really waiting for the computer to finish saving and opening files that eats a lot of the time. More RAM? Hrmm…

On Thursday night, I finished the fifteenth of the thirty comics I’m creating in my “one-a-day” personal challenge. Being halfway through, it seems like an appropriate time to share more lessons learned (your mileage may vary):

  • It takes me an average of three hours to make a strip. That includes writing, thumbnails, lettering, penciling, inking & finishing. There’s really nothing I can do, short of changing my drawing style, to speed this (aside from whatever incremental improvements my speed gains through drawing these characters repeatedly over time).
  • Repurposing old art as pencils for new (a prior idea I listed) doesn’t do anything to save time. It takes just as long to find the right pose and modify it for context as it does to just pencil the art from scratch.
  • It’s turning out that pencils aren’t really even the time consuming part. Inks are, because I’m concerned more with final appearance at that stage.
  • Penciling on good old fashioned paper (I had been penciling and inking directly in my tablet PC) actually gives me more accuracy, and a bit more speed, since I can see the whole image at once, and can spin it to my heart’s content. (Maybe this would be different if I were working on an ultra big ultra swanky Wacom Cintiq instead of a tablet PC laptop screen.)
  • If I can’t reduce my overall time to completion of a strip, at least I can break it up. Keeping a notebook in my pocket allows me to write on the fly, and I can refine, thumbnail, and pencil over lunch. This means less work in a single sitting, and more opportunities to make use of little pockets of dead time through the day. All hail productivity!
  • Photoshop actions can potentially help save me time in the finishing step, for applying sepia hues and saving out versions, as long as I create the actions correctly.
  • It pays to be loose in the inking stage. I gain speed, quality, and enjoyment. It pays to be a bit more precise in the penciling stage. I can’t make up for poor underdrawing in the final rendering.

More to be shared as I sally forth! Thanks to everyone who’s sent me ideas, suggestions, and cheers of support–it means more than you know! (This daily comic thing with a day job and family is hard work. How Corey Pandolph and Brad Guigar manage their prolificity is beyond me…)

We still rent. We’ve been saving up to buy a house for a goodly while, but we’re continuing to save so that we can make a big hunk-a-hunk-a burning down-payment. As my son was getting bigger, our apartment was starting to feel smaller. Much smaller. So, about a year ago, we switched to a rental townhouse. We chose one with a semi-finished basement (concrete floors) and three bedrooms. That’s one bedroom for us, one for our son, and one to use as an office/studio.

Well, the time has come, as I suspected it might (and as followers of my Twitter feed have seen clues) for the upstairs office to make way for a third bedroom. (Yay! but Boo!) Last weekend, I moved my studio into the dank recesses of the spider-infested basement. Sort of.

See, I’ve worked digitally for a long time, and for years that meant drawing first on paper, at least for pencils/initial inks, and then finishing with a Wacom tablet on my desktop PC. But then, about two years ago, I bought a tablet PC (a Toshiba Tecra M7, to be exact). The Wacom caused an evolutionary leap in my working methods, and the tablet PC did the same. Today, location matters much less, because my studio is really this:

To make things a little more comfortable, I often like to use:

It’s because of the tablet PC that I was able to keep up making comics during numerous trips to Japan in 2008 (it was a bumper year for travel), without having to drag around a bag-full of art supplies, oversized paper, etc. I still like working in traditional media, and someday I think I’d like to graduate to a Cintiq on the digital side, but for now, this is a great set-up for producing a thrice-weekly comic strip.

FYI, I’ve not yet finished the basement set-up, so if anyone’s interested in seeing photos, let me know, and I’ll try to post some. Same goes for details on my experiences with the tablet PC–if you’re interested, I’d be glad to drone on endlessly about it :)

(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?

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to join Chris Flick (creator of Capes & Babes) and Matt Stout (creator of Big Sandy Gilmore) for an episode of The Lightbox Podcast. (That’s the episode for 11/27/2010.) The Lightbox often focuses on the processes of comicking, and in our chat, we talked about my process for writing and drawing Odori Park, creating digitally vs. traditionally, and everything from making books to attending comic conventions. It was a lot of fun talking with Matt and Chris, and I’d be pleased as punch if you gave it a listen: The Lightbox Podcast.

Last week, I recorded myself drawing Friday’s comic, and thought I’d put the video up online for folks who might enjoy a peek at my cartooning process. Here it is, and please let me know if you’d like to see more of this sort of thing!

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