Mailbag: Thumbnail sketches
Q.: Would you consider doing an article on story boarding a webcomic strip/ page? It’s something I always struggle with – essentially starting the page from scratch. My approach is generally to find a picture online that has the layout similar to what’s in my head and draw roughs accordingly. A lot of tutorials I’ve found don’t actually spend much time on the process outside of drawing rough shapes and slowly filling in the details, but it’s this initial composition – the rough shapes/camera view/what to show in a panel I always struggle with. Do you have any thoughts or tips relating to this?
A.: What you’re talking about is thumbnail sketching. (Storyboarding is another topic entirely.) It’s a very helpful part of the comics-creating process — and it’s one that many of us under-use (or skip entirely). As such, it deserves a little exploration…
A thumbnail sketch is not the rough draft of your final comic. Don’t confuse it with pencilling your comic. A thumbnail is a small sketch that maps out — very loosely — the major elements, shapes and tones that will compose your panels.
I find that it’s particularly helpful to thumbnail my comics as I write them. This is a great opportunity to position the characters in the scene so I’m not creating word-balloon headaches later on when I’m drawing the actual comic.
This is also where I can play with things like shadow-placement and camera view.
Oddly enough, when I’m thumbnailing these scenes, I end up seeing opportunities for improving the writing itself. Different juxtapositions of characters and backgrounds can often suggest relationships and insights that I couldn’t have imagined when I was in the writing phase of my creative process. Here’s a good example. After I wrote this strip, I roughed out a pretty standard set-up. By numbering the word balloons, I can rough in balloon placement easily. And although I have panel breaks in mind (denoted by the horizontal lines), they’re not written in stone.
It’s not bad, but I wanted to see what would happen if I had the grim reaper in the extreme foreground of the first panel — by way of introducing the character with more clarity. Both times I drew the second panel, I really felt the three-part word balloon was weak visual story-telling. However, putting the two main speakers in the foreground gives me a really nice “reveal” moment when the girlfriend shows up. She gets framed by the two foreground figures. Finally, instead of the walk-away, over-the-shoulder punchline, I thought it would be more natural for the conversation to simple end with both figures at the fore. Like so:
That’s not bad, but that second panel is weak sauce. Then it hits me: If I establish a horizontal panel for the opening scene, I get to have this really nice “meeting in the hallways” set-up. Plus, I can break the second panel into three sub-panels — which gives me a chance to match the scenes to the words. The rest falls nicely in place:
Bottom line: thumbnails are quick sketches that help you work out compositional issues before you start drawing.
Would anybody else be interested in sharing their thumbnailing process? Hit the FAQ link in the menu for information about submitting a post. You can even upload images. If you run into any problems, just get in touch!