When you read an article like this, it’s mostly chock-full of what types of pencils and programs to use to render the best type of art you can, or anatomy and things like that. While that’s great stuff to know and will surely go a long way toward making you a competent and successful artist, that’s not what this article is for. Yes, I’m an artist, but I don’t ply that as my first trade—that would be writing.
So I know what you’re thinking: “What gives this guy the right to tell me how to become a comic book artist?” It’s up to you how seriously you want to take my advice, but as a publisher and editor I’ve been in the business of creating comics from beginning to end, and I’ve learned a lot of things that I think can help you achieve that goal.
The first thing to do is to be honest with yourself. This sounds a lot easier than it really is. My first career choice was to become a comic book artist, and when I was in my teens, that seemed like a very realistic idea. What I didn’t know was that I just didn’t have the chops to be a regular comic book artist. What I mean by that is not that my art was not up to snuff, but that I didn’t have the drive to sit and learn, and to produce the work. Don’t fool yourself: drawing a single character is nothing compared to the work that goes into breaking down the an entire comic page. I didn’t have the drive to follow through to the end result.
I didn’t realize this until I was a little older, when I realized I was happiest when putting my thoughts into words. So what do I mean? Be honest with yourself. If you like to draw, that’s fine, but can you be a comic book artist? I’ve met a lot of extremely talented artists who could work at either Marvel or DC if they only had the passion and drive necessary to get there. They are still great artists, but not great comic book artists.
The next thing to be honest with yourself about is what your style will allow you to do. I’m a firm believer that there is no such thing as bad art, just different styles of art. That being said, you have to be realistic about what kinds of stories your style fits. If you have dreams of working for Marvel or DC at some point in your career, then you’d better be able to draw in a style they want. If you can’t, that’s okay—but be honest with yourself. You will save yourself tons of headaches if you realize that your style of art isn’t suited for that type of work. Sergio Aragonés, the artist of Groo the Wanderer, is an incredibly gifted artist. He is detailed, fast and has a great eye for laying out panels, but his art is not suited for a serious Spider-Man comic book. Try and figure out where your style is in the landscape of comics, and try to find work that fits your style.
Now that that’s out of the way, the next big thing you have to do is draw, and by that I mean sequential art. Character designs are great things, and necessary, but a character design does not make a comic. What you need to do is to start actually drawing full comic pages, and by that I mean pages of four or more panels. Splash pages can add a great impact to a book when done right, but you need to learn to tell a great visual story with your layout and with a dramatic eye. One of the easiest ways to set yourself apart from the crowd is to show the story from different angles and points of view. This is tricky because you have to be able to do that and still make it feel genuine and not forced. I always tell artists to study Jack Kirby and my personal favorite, the late, great Mike Parobeck. You can find single pages of their art on the web which will help you see what I mean. Frontal shots of characters are boring if that’s all you’ve got.
Another easy way to set yourself apart from the rest of the artists out there is by learning to draw backgrounds and believable surroundings. Sure, guys and gals in spandex are fun to draw for most people, but if they are traveling through panel after panel of close-ups or extremely basic backgrounds, it will hurt your work overall.
The next thing you need to do is to build a portfolio. This might seem to be a simple thing that everyone should already understand, but you would be surprised how many artists just don’t do this the right way. Your portfolio should be full of illustrations—not just your pin-ups of superheroes, but also panel work. Lots of panel work. Draw as many different things as you can think of, and take yourself out of your comfort zone in your portfolio to show your diversity. Having this in addition to the standard super-types exchanging blows will go a long way to show that you are a well-rounded artist.
Next is your resume. I know a lot of you out there are saying to yourself right now, “You can’t have a resume if you don’t get work,” and that’s partly true. But you can get work, and a lot of work. Go to Digital Webbing or Zwol and look at the help wanted pages. There is a ton of work just waiting for you. This is where the great old debate about getting paid for your work comes into play. I have heard artists complain and say that they will not do any work if they’re not getting paid. Okay, that’s fair, but if you don’t want to work for free, or possible back end pay, then you better be doing it for yourself. What I mean is that you should always have a project in the works. If you don’t have a paying gig, then always have a back-up project that you work on while you’re waiting for a paying gig to come along. Artists do not realize just how important this is. Being able to go to a publisher and show them that you have been working on an ongoing story of multiple issues is huge!
Let me paint a picture for you. Have you ever wondered why an artist has gotten to work for Marvel or DC, when you don’t think their art is anything more than average? You want to know why and how that person got that gig? He got it by showing that he can produce work on a regular basis and meet deadlines. The number-one way you can do that is by producing work of your own. In today’s society anyone can create a book and throw it up onto the web for free. So if you’re not getting the regular paying gigs to give yourself a resume, then do it yourself, or find some other creators to collaborate with, and make something—anything. You never know, what you put together might be the next Walking Dead.
Last but not least, submit, submit, submit. Send your stuff out there. Who cares if you get rejected? Every successful artist has a drawer full of those rejection slips, or emails, and that’s if you’re fortunate enough to get one. But what you do by submitting is get your work in front of the people who make the decisions. They will see your improvement your determination, something that is very important. Throw your art work up everywhere you can. There are tons of pages on Facebook, and all over the internet, like Deviantart, where you can set up pages and show your work off for free. If you follow these tips, you will find yourself making a network of connections and associates that will help you achieve your goal of becoming a comic book artist. I have referred tons of people for work to others, something that can happen to you if you get your stuff out there.