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Artists Who 'Cheat'

“Do you think using something like Daz would be considered cheating?”...

I recently received this message from a member of the How to Draw Comics Facebook Group, Sean Northridge.

It’s a really good question. And it’s a topic that surfaces from time to time within the comic art community.

Drawing is one of the most difficult skills to hone. Especially drawing for Comic Books. It takes years of constant dedication, learning and practice to even get a handle on the fundamentals.

Most of us are in it for the long haul though. Our unrelenting passion to create gives us the motivation to stick with it, and in turn, get better at drawing.

To fulfill that passion can take a while. Sadly, we don’t have magic drawing pills that we can take, go to sleep and wake up talented the next day. Learning how to draw is a slow, arduous process.

And many of us are impatient.

What we don’t realise is that even after we’ve learned everything we can learn about drawing comics, the time it takes to actually draw up a finished comic book is also often drawn out.

Being a Comic Book artist ain’t no walk in the park. Fast and easy are about the last two words you’d use to describe a career in comics.

But we all know, time is money. And when you step out into the Comic Book industry you quickly realise that you’re torn between delivering quality or quantity.

It’s always been this way… As a Comic Artist, your natural tendency is to put your best foot forward and create something visually stunning everytime pencil goes to paper. Yet at the same time, we’re forced to dial back our artwork to a level of quality we’re often less than content with.

Either that, or we’ve simply got to get faster…

Optimizing your technique might be another way to put it. Turns out that speeding up your process happens naturally with practice, as you become more confident and comfortable with your workflow.

But there is another way to get even faster. So much faster in fact that it’s almost ‘cheating’.

And that’s to take Shortcuts. Plain and simple. Cut massive chunks of your workflow out of the entire drawing process so that you can skip further ahead in less time. That might mean using references, that might mean tracing, and it might also mean building the underlying structure of the art work using 3D models first.

Of course, this can be taken too far. In no way would I ever advocate stealing another artist’s work, characters and design ideas, or tracing over their illustrations and calling it your own. That’s not to say you can’t do that in order to learn, but the original artist always needs to be credited.

But tracing over a photo reference you’ve taken, or a 3D scene you’ve constructed in a program such as Blender or DAZ 3D isn’t bad, or wrong. DC Batman Artist, David Finch once mentioned that even he’d experimented with programs such as Google Sketchup to layout some of the scenes in his comic book panels.

It’s cheating. But it’s also optimization. And that’s never a bad thing, if it allows you to produce faster, at a reasonable quality.

In fact the more you optimize, the more you can have the best of both worlds. You’ll have the time to put in the decorative details, you’ll make less mistakes, meet your deadlines, and likely make more money at the end of day.

So what’s the catch here then?

Well, there are some artists that tend to turn their nose up at the idea of cheating when it comes to drawing comics. Which is fair enough. We hate the idea of another artist taking shortcuts and coming out on top of us.

But the reality is that as a creator who wants to earn a living doing what you love, your artwork becomes a commodity. It’s the product clients pay you for.

Sometimes you’ll have the freedom to spend as long as you like perfecting your comic art down to the last detail… but in the real world, that’s a rarity when working with a Comic Book studio.

The thing that matters the most is the end product. That’s it. Your fans will only ever see it in it’s final form, they’ll never know how hard you worked to bring it to that point. They’ll never be there beside you during the creation process.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter how you reach the finish line. So why wouldn’t you use all the resources at your disposal, all the tools you can find to speed up your process? When it comes to producing comic art, it’s usually the rabbit that wins, and not the tortoise.

Now, before I wrap this up… I need to confess something to you that’s going to make me sound like a huge hypocrite…

I personally don’t trace or construct my Comic Art from 3D models or photos. I use lots of photo and anatomy references for the purposes of accuracy and inspiration for the illustrations I create from my imagination.

But I never trace them or copy them by eye to create a replica.

The reason for this is... I never want to be in a place where I have to lean on these shortcuts as a crutch. They’re great, and they work well. But you get good at what you practice, and if you practice incorporating them into your method, you’ll no longer be challenged. And that’ll weaken the fundamental drawing skills you have in the areas they’re taking care of.

I purposefully challenge myself with every new Comic Book Illustration I create. I figure out it’s construction from scratch and work through the mistakes. And it does take longer for me to produce the final product.

But everytime I push myself to manually create my perspective grids, compose my scenes and pose my characters, it keeps those fundamental drawing muscles toned. I get to ride my bike without depending on training wheels.

So I’ve had to find other ways to optimize my Comic Art workflow to get faster at drawing. Things such as working from a distance on the digital canvas, skipping the pencils and moving straight onto inking, and balancing out the amount of detail I use in my rendering.

When all's said and done, using drawing aids such as 3D models, scenes and photography to construct your comic book illustrations is your call. And whatever you decide to do is perfectly fine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Traditionally, Comic Artists have always used drawing aids, such as stencils, compasses, rulers and light boxes. Because they know that it’s just not worth the amount of time it would take to draw a perfectly straight line by hand, only for it still be more wobbly than if it was drawn using a ruler.

That’s my two scents. What are your thoughts? Do you use any drawing aids when it comes to drawing comics? Do you feel one way or the other about artists who do? Let me know in the comments below.

Take care, and keeping on creating.


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