the arting process

Lately I have been confronting my weaknesses rather than pretending my strengths. One of the things that fell out of this self-inspection is a desire to improve my artwork in concrete ways. So, if you like drawing how do you get better? In an earlier post I suggested practice and then a lot more of that, but there are more precise steps you can take as you practice!

So I’ll got through the process of the latest Sand Dogs image I’ve drawn and talk about concrete steps I take to get to a better image.


I resisted this for ages. That’s stupid. It’s fine to envy artists who can just pull amazing


stuff, technical stuff out of their heads. It’s also fine to take a stab at it yourself. But nothing beats a good reference image. In Sand Dogs I’m going for a dieselpunk feel and one of the hallmarks of that aesthetic is accurate (if modified) technologies. So I want Sand Dogs equipment to either be wildly out-of-context or very much in context. Almost every drawing has an historical easter egg, something an enthusiast can point to and name. I like doing that myself.


So since this image was inspired by a picture I saw of a Citro├źn P7 half-track, I figured I better get that right. So that’s my first reference image.

I wanted to draw a picture that came from play testing, and the scene I decided on had a machinegun, specifically a Chatellerault. But I’ve already drawn that it in another piece so I decided instead for the Lewis gun because its fat barrel shroud is nifty looking. And the circular magazine.


The other thing that was happening was a plane was attacking! So I grabbed an image of a plane too. I failed to identify the plane at the time but I see the wing is reinforced with wire struts and the landing gear isn’t retractable so I’m safe, I think, in guessing that it dates from the 20s or 30s.

I dunno why wordpress is messing with my vertical spacing like that. Cut it out, wordpress.


So I paste these things into my digital workspace (I’m using Adobe Sketch on my iPad)


and sketch them in blue pencil. I use blue pencil because it’s easy to remove with an old timey photocopier. Kidding. That’s why everyone uses photo-blue pencils and it’s not relevant any more. Hasn’t been since the 80s when photocopiers started picking up blue. See, you used to be able to sketch in blue, ink over it, and then take a photocopy and that copy would not capture any of your sketch! Your photocopy was your final image.

That’s not how it works. It’s blue because of tradition now.

So two things about this. No three. First, I traced some bits. That halftrack undercarriage was crazy detailed. I am not ashamed of tracing. Second, I drew some perspective lines based on the perspective cues in the image itself so that I could use those if I needed to for other elements. Otherwise they look collaged in. Finally I free-handed the leaping moustachioed gentleman. I’m pretty proud of that.


IMG_0546Next I put a layer over the pencils and start inking. Again, all digital, and for Sand Dogs I’m going for a fairly fine-lined style, similar to The King Machine. Thanks to modern technology, ink can now be erased. This is an astounding achievement. This is better than Apple Watches (by a long long shot in my opinion). I’ve seen the inkwork of some of our very greatest professionals and they are heaped with whiteout and paper patches. Again, obliterated by the photocopier, usually. I can erase.

IMG_0548I do. I erase a lot.

At this stage you can start to trick yourself. All that blue pencil acts as shading you don’t have. It gives your image depth and completeness that you don’t have. So before I’m finished inking I turn off the pencil layer to see just how crap everything is. And so there is a long process of detailing and shading to compensate for the missing pencils.


IMG_0549For the shading process I add a layer underneath the ink and completely paint the elements in view with white. That’s because the canvas colour on my software is slightly gray and I want my shading to start from a white base. Then I start adding grays with a brush tool. I do not generally try to blend my grays with this style: I want the limited palette of a comic book and so I usually stick to two or three grays.

I start with a medium light gray and just find the shadows. Decide where the light is coming from. And then I add darker elements, pushing the depth deeper and making the scene more dramatic. I usually discover that when I go too far, make things too dark, it’s pretty awesome. This process has a lot of back and forth in it.

IMG_0553Since I’m not drawing in colour, I’ll indicate colour changes with a … grey. I do this with some trickery — I create a colour layer and set it to multiply (it takes the gray underneath and uses it to darken this layer). So I can decide that, say, the guy’s pants are darker and paint them grey and they will inherit the shading choices I made. The shading will basically come through the colour layer. Juan Ochoa taught me this. Go buy all his art.

Somewhere in there I’m going back and editing the ink detail. For sure I fixed up the bogies a couple of times.

And then I crop it and call it done. It’s not done. I’ll keep tinkering right up until publication. A real pro would be done when the cheque arrived.

Notice I added some dirt? That’s a grey watercolour brush and has a nice subtle effect. It goes in or over the colour layer.