Varying the thickness of your line can improve your art in several ways. It’s an incredibly powerful tool at your disposal. Using thicker and thinner lines can have three different effects.
Heavier lines indicate shading. Letting your lines get heavy in areas that are further from the light source in the illustration (and thinner are they’re closer to the light) can add instant three-dimensionality to your drawing.
Lighter lines fall into the background. You can push items into the back of the scene by drawing them with lighter lines. Drawing a heavy border around an item will bring it to the foreground.
Lines can be used as compositional tools. Lines of a heavier weight can organize the shapes into a unit. You can use similar heavier lines to tell your readers what items are important in a clutterered scene.
One popular visual method is to draw a heavy outline around all foreground characters. This look can be very striking, and the main result is that the foreground pops nicely off the background. But, like adding salt to a recipe, it’s something that needs to be applied judiciously.
Look at the lines that are used to create the images in your comic. If they’re all the same weight, you might be missing an opportunity to compose your scenes more effectively.
I contacted some Webcomics.com members and asked their permission to use their comics as examples so I can discuss this topic. Now, I want to point out one important thing before I go any further. I’m not saying that these folks are poor artists. But something they all have in common is that they draw with a line that does not vary in weight — or varies very little. I’m using their work because I can add heavier lines and lighten up lines elsewhere and show rather dramatically what I’m talking about.
Lair of the Lizardmin has a wonderful look, but all of the lines are almost exactly the same weight. Now, since it’s presented in grayscale or color, this isn’t a huge problem, but it does make it an excellent comic for the demonstration.
So check out the before, at the top. Look how hard it is to discern foreground from background — especially in visually active areas like the back on the right-hand lizard’s goggles which falls against the vertical lines of the doorway. Similarly, check of the scales on the left-hand lizard against the console of behind him.
When you fail to separate foreground from background you image tends to flatten out. And — worse yet — you could end up with an image that is ambiguous, confusing or impossible to interpret.
Now, I hit these lines rather heavy to make my point. but check out how adding a heavier line width around the foreground characters makes them stand out against the background.
I’m not advocating simply outlining your comic. As awkward as it is to say, if you really want to see how I think line weight should work in a comic, look at my own comic to see how I try to work this into everyday use. But as an example of the general principal, this does a pretty good job of making the point.
Varying the line width helps compose the image.
Biff the Vampire
Biff the Vampire is another comic with a very engaging style. And once again, since the artist uses greyscale, this isn’t a huge issue (but it makes the comic an excellent guinea pig for this discussion). Having said that, as I was working on this example, I noticed some areas where a little interplay between thick and thin lines would help bring out the character design as well as help out the composition from time to time.
For example, that vampire on the far left in the comic below… he has a goatee. But until you start tracing like I did, I’ll bet you’d never notice it. But it really adds some personality to his character. and it’s getting lost amidst a tangle of lines that all blend together as Erik is drawing the jawline and neck and shirt.
Now, look at the second panel — between the heads of the characters on the right, Can you find the negative space? Do you know where the back-of-the-head of one character ends and the front-of-the-hair of the other begins? Even with the gray? It’s a little ambiguous, isn’t it. Especially since the hair comes down to a point right at the same place the middle character’s wings come up to form a point. (But unintentional tangents is a great post for another day.)
Check out how a heavy line under the lead character’s goatee — and a light line separating the goatee from the chin — help to define this nifty character design. Heck, when negative space gets too small (like between the other two characters in the first panel) I’ll just fill it in as solid black (just like I did with some of the logos we discussed a few weeks back).
Again, it might not be such a great idea to hit it as heavy as I did in the example, but look how a heavier line around the characters helps to define the image and make the actions and gestures more clear. For example, I guarantee you missed the hand gesture of the person on the far right in panel one.
Here’s another pass at Biff.
I took the opportunity to clarify the image not only with lines, but by applying an axiom I discuss here from time to time: Anything that doesn’t add to the image subtracts from it. I know it’s easy to apply a transparency filter and let the lines filter through word balloons and sound effects and narration boxes. But all of that is simply visual noise that’s making your text harder to read.
It’s completely off-topic, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hit a pet peeve. 🙂
Back to the issue at hand. That sound-effect bubble? Well, it has to act as a third panel in the composition. But since the actual panels on either side of it have such heavier lines, it fails to do the job. As a result, panel one comes crashing into panel two and it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I beefed up the line to the sound-effect bubble, and now it can do its job.
Freaks n Squeaks
OK. I lied, not all of these artist are using a consistent line width. In Freaks and Squeaks, the lines have a lot of variation. But it seems to be variation for the sake of variation — rather than planned-out composition. Before is on the left, and after is on the right.
Once again, I’m simply trying to use my line to separate foreground from background — and keep one foreground character from blending into another.
Using solid black in your character design is a dicey proposition as well, and it’s going to dictate that you’re extra careful with your composition. For starters, you simply can’t have solid black silhouettes in the background if your characters have solid black features. Also, you’re going to have to use white lines on those black shapes — otherwise the features are going to become shapeless blobs.
Here’s another pass.
Pay particular attention to the second panel — where is becomes completely impossible to tell where one character ends and the other begins. The action is completely lost in a mess of similarly-weighted lines.