Crafting a story – Art direction

When making a comic, a lot of decisions have to be made. One of the most important ones is deciding on the way you`re going to present your comic visually. This is often called the art direction. It`s a term you hear a lot in, for example,  animation.
This is where you`ll do lots of tests and sketches. And it is what I want to talk about this week. I`ll show you the style for my comic that I settled on for now and share with you four questions that may help you finding an art direction for your story.
Last week I finished a styletest for the Reminiscence comic and, apart from a few things with the colour I still want to test out, I`m pretty much set. Here is the result:
2014 08-17 Brushes test_Bern en Lilina
This is not the first test I did. I did many, even before setting on any designs for characters or anything. The style you choose to make the comic in will obviously affect how you draw the characters.
Now, when I say ” style” I mean your drawing style, but also the overall look of the product you`re making. You can draw in your own style but how ” cartoony”  or ” realistic”  or ” surreal” it looks may vary.
When starting to draw a comic there`s a few questions that need answering and the easiest way to find those answers is if you know what you want to say and how you want to say it. While bearing in mind your own limitaions and strengths, the possibilities are literally endless.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself in regards to the look and feel of your comic:
Question 1: What is my story about? What kind of tone do I want to strike, and what period and genre(s) is it placed in? 
Story content, message and setting are a good way to start building a mood for your story.
It`s like telling a story in real life, is it a serious retelling of events that you experienced? Are you trying to get friends to go to a concert with you and are you telling them how awesome the band is? Are you telling a joke?
You`ll use different wording, expressions and tone for different kinds of stories. And speaking of comics, since an image can speak a thousand words, the way you present that image will set expectations and mood in your story.  What you want your audience to feel when they read your comic?
The story of my comic is incidentally a bit dark in places but it`s mostly a tale about friendship, adventure and self discovery, so I didn`t want a too heavy a style. I wanted it to be fun and entertaining to read, but to have emotion in the right places. That is why I went with a loose brush to use for inking, that doesn`t give me too clean lines and not a too bright a colour palette, but still colourful and no heavy shading.
Every style choice will affect the mood and feel of the comic and thus also the message you`re sending, so it has to fit the story you`re telling. If your story is more realistic and the setting is a big part of the story, the obvious choice would be to go with a technique and feel of that setting. Think Disney`s Mulan. The whole linestyle, colours and backgrounds fit the setting perfectly.
You can also go with something completely different to shake things up, but always do it with a reason that ties into your story.
Question 2: How much realism am I going to put in?
You may have a natural drawing style but usually that`s not the only thing you can do, and it may vary, depending on how much realism you are putting in the drawings and the thing you let yourself be inspired by.
The way you treat reality in your story has a huge effect on how it comes across.
Think how much different the Simpsons look, as compared to Disney movies, for example. It`s a vastly different drawing style, sure, but the amount of simplification also plays a big role here. Hand drawn Disney movies generally have really detailed backgrounds (and even their movies differ vastly from one another) while the Simpsons have very clean backgrounds and very simple unnuanced colours. This all adds to the story they are telling through the Simpson family.
Tying this back to the first question, these are all decisions that have to be made, based on what your story is about.
I recently bought a comic by José-Luis Munuera, a swashbuckling pirate adventure story called “the Campbells.”
Munuera has a really energetic, fluid, style and great, wacky character designs that fits this adventure story with a heart perfectly. Another comic I just got in the mail is the Abominable Charles Christopher. This is a comic featuring animal characters with a lot of human traits. It alters between humorous and more serious storylines and the style is a perfect hybrid between realism and characters that are stretched in the realm of cartoons just enough for it to be funny at the right times.
For Reminiscence, I wanted to still make it slightly realistic, but also introduce a more cartoony look than my usual style to keep things lighter. I draw less detailed noses for example, more extreme hair, no irisses in the eyes, a bit of exaggeration in the shapes etc. to give it a more fun look. Of course my own drawing style will still come through, but I think the more cartoony elements even add to that and make it more distinct than usual.
Bern_001
Question 3: How will the pages look?
What you do with panel placement, page format, camera angles, panel borders, balloon style, colours etc. all will affect the way the style and feel of your comic is perceived
If your content frequently comes out of the panels, and if your borders are not always straight horizontal and vertical, then your comic will more dynamic, it might be good if that`s the story you want to tell. On the other end of the spectrum, if you use a lot of white, or broad open panels, few panels on a page, your comic might be perceived as a more calm or epic story.
And when you make a comic on the web, who says you need to have pages in the first place?
Question 4: What materials and techniques will I be using?
The materials you use will influence the style and how the comic will come across. Heavy inks look vastly different from pencil and watercolour and give a different feel.
This is also a good time to think about the amount of time certain techniques will cost you. After all, you`ll have to crank out page after page. So you might want to go with something that is doable but is still visually interesting.
For Reminiscence I decided the drawings and compositions are the most important part. I want to get those absolutely right and then the colour should enhance that. I don`t want to rely heavily on shadows and making everything look realistic. This can take up much time and, like I said, I want the style to be light and simple. So I might go completely without shadows in the colour and try to bring out dimensionality through my inks, or add a little bit of gradients here and there. But that is yet to be figured out.
Do you have any additions to these questions? How do you go about deciding on a style for a comic, illustration or other project?
Share in the comments!

2 comments

  1. Tiffany says:

    I mostly think about the time it will take me. After that then I think about the tone of the story that’s how I gauge what colors to use. Its weird, I’m always trying new things.

    • I think it`s very good to keep the time it takes you in mind. It has to be doable after all. 🙂 New things are good to shake things up and it`s always nice to try out new stuff, as long as I keep in mind I still have to do the work (I can get really distracted by new things too haha) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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