The toughest thing about learning to draw is just figuring out where to start. There’s so much information out there that it can quickly lead to mental overload, and that’s when you just stop altogether. So let’s break down a strategy that’ll get you from where you are, to where you want to get with your work. You can’t learn shadow until you know form, and you can’t learn form until you learn proportion, and….anyway, you get the idea. So without further ado, here’s my handy guide so you can keep your progress on track.
Where to start
Get “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” by Stan Lee and John Buscema. Your first step in figure drawing is learning your basic shapes that make up a figure. A vest shape for the chest, underwear shape for the pelvis, and so on. And draw a proportion diagram.
Once you’ve got that down, it’s time to go on to gesture drawing. You don’t need to know anatomy to do this either. Just go through comics that you like, or photographs if that’s your choice. You can also do this with life drawing. The point is to get comfortable with quickly drawing in your basic shapes in a variety of poses. You should spend a week doing this before you move on, and then gesture drawing needs to be a part of every day you spend studying. I suggest a half hour at least.
Ok, Now what?
You’re getting more comfortable with gesture drawing, proportion, and moving your basic shapes in space. The next big step in your development is anatomy. Find good anatomical reference with a google search, or find some good anatomy books. Which one is not as important as you may think because you’re just learning where all the muscles go. You’ll learn how to draw them convincingly in just a bit. So don’t worry if you’re drawing correct muscles, but it’s not looking the way you want it to yet. Anyway, how long this takes you really depends on how quickly you can learn to draw all the muscles on your own without having to refer to your reference. Draw arms for a day, then legs, torsos, backs, and necks. Heads come next, so don’t worry about them now.
Find a copy of George Bridgman’s Guide To Life Drawing. Or Bridgman’s Complete Guide To Drawing From Life. It’s the same book. Step one with this book is to not read the words. Trust me on this. It’s a rabbit hole. I couldn’t understand a word. I mean, by all means, if it makes sense to you, then you’ll get more from it than I did, but this whole drawing thing is hard enough as it is without venturing into complex theory. You can see where he’s going with the pictures, and that’s what we’re here for. This is where you’ll find out if you’re going to make something of this whole drawing thing or not. And it’s not hard. You just have to draw that whole book twice. Do you have the patience to do it? I’ll tell you right now that artists I’ve worked with that have done it have succeeded, and artists that haven’t have not. Simple as that. Draw the whole thing, and then draw it again on your own. Look at the picture, close the book, and do your best. I got this advice from Kyle Hotz, and I wouldn’t be a working artist without it. Oh, I almost forgot! Don’t draw the heads. They’re strange, and you’ll get so much more from Andrew Loomis for heads.
You’ve drawn your Bridgman. And so you’re a lot further along than most right there. But now it’s time for Loomis. This is where we start drawing heads. Heads are as important as the rest of the body put together, and so you should devote a good amount of time to this. I think two weeks is good. Now, keep in mind that you’ll have to keep going back to brush up as you go, but we’re working through foundation, and right now the goal is to lay it down as well as you can.
Body Language and Expression
I actually went back and added this one after I finished. It’s so important, I don’t know how I overlooked it! Body language is all about acting with your characters. The good news is that if you’ve been gesture drawing every day like you should be, you’ll be well on your way. Be sure to draw characters interacting in natural ways. Sitting in chairs, slouching in chairs. Just slouching. Angrily shaking their fist, drinking a cup of water… Be creative. Your writer will be, and you’ll need to make your characters convincing to match the script.
Facial expressions are all about moving the features to get emotion across. Obviously…. You need to learn to hinge your jaw properly, and Loomis should have taken care of that for you. Practice using the mirror, and practice using artists that do it well, which leads us to our next big step!
Find an artist to emulate
You’ve got your foundation under you, so now it’s safe to start looking at the way other artists make their choices with their figures. You want to be a comic artist, so you need to draw comic art. But drawing from other artists without knowing your anatomy, or how to properly break a figure down is a sure fire way to end up with very stilted results. That’s why we were patient and we did it right. At this point you should be able to see where the muscles go when you do your studies, and also where different artists are taking liberties, or have holes in their own knowledge. So copy, but don’t forget what you’ve learned so far. Build your forms, and break down your artist’s choices. You’ll develop your first layer of your own style this way too. As you find new influences, your style will grow and reflect that. It’ll become a mashup with your own flair baked in.
Find an artist who shadows anatomy well, and copy it. Then do it on your own. And be aware of where the light is coming from. If you can’t isolate light sources, you’re looking at an artist who isn’t using them well. Mike Mignola’s Seed of Destruction is great for this. You want to stay away from multiple light sources. Just one light is manageable at first, and lots of artists never go away from it.
Perspective and Backgrounds
Ok, you can draw figures, and you can do a reasonable version of your favorite artist. I mean, it’s not going to be perfect, and you’ll be working on it forever, but it’s getting there. And I hope you haven’t neglected your gesture drawings! Also, anatomy. You’re going to forget things. Brush up. Assess your progress, and double back through the things that you’re uncomfortable with. Are hands giving you trouble? Fill pages with sketches from artists that do them well. You’ll internalize them, and they’ll become yours. Same with feet, and everything else. There are going to be detours along the way, and you need to stop and take the time to improve your weak points.
But I was going to talk about perspective! Get yourself a copy of Framed Perspective Volume 1 by Marcos Mateu-Mestre. He’s got it all broken down in that book. I think the best approach to draw perspective in a practical sense is to draw a grid on the page, and lighten it down enough that you can sketch your forms easily on top of it. I’ve got a video on that.
Here’s a trick that helped me a lot when I was starting. It can be tough figuring out what perspective to use for a given panel. Go through a book from an artist that does it well, and find a shot at an angle that you think would work. Copy the perspective. It’s ok. You’re not going to copy the background. Just the perspective. Now you can draw in your own background assured that you have an angle that works.
Composition and Storytelling
This is simple stuff. Trust me. You can find endless books telling you how complex it all is, but don’t do that to yourself. How to Draw Comic the Marvel Way is just about all the composition you’ll ever need. Learn how to frame panels, organize elements of your shots, and compose with shadow. And don’t overthink it! You have a focal point, and supporting elements. Make sure your focal point isn’t being cut off the edge of the panel. Storytelling just consists of establishing the scene, so generally a longer shot where we can see everything, then moving in to the action. You need to go from left to right, and top to bottom on the page with your panels. Make sure to leave more room for anchor panels. Those are just panels that show a key action. For a really in depth look at everything that’s possible, check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
You’ve run the gamut of everything involved in creating comics. But let’s face it. There really is a lot more. You’ll have to learn clothing folds, and textures, and body language, and expression. Devote time to them each like you would any other part of your learning. I tried to divide this into a roadmap that makes sense, but with art, your learning will never end. That’s the fun of it though, right? Right?… This whole journey will lead you to your first samples. You’ll fall on your face a bit, and that’s where you’ll find out what you need to devote more time to. And your first job will go that way too, but as you get more comfortable with each skill that goes into this job, you’ll find that they’ll start to inform each other, and you’ll grow faster than you thought you could.
I wish you the best on your journey!