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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: how to draw a cartoon

I was experimenting last year with a MS Paint technique that produced semi-naturalistic results. The last image in the file is dated September 7th — two days before my fall classes started.

This one is dated September 6th, three days before classes:

The digital process is both odd (I showed part of the process here) and painstaking (I suspect actual artists would just draw something with a fraction of the effort), so it’s not surprising that I didn’t carve time out of my semester for more of these.

I’m now well into my winter semester, and though I was hoping to develop some of these images into comics, not only are they time-consuming to make, I don’t have the skill to create two detailed images that seem to represent the same person. In comics-theory terms, I call that recurrence, and the more naturalistic two (or more) images are, the harder it is to produce the viewer perception.

That’s one of the reasons most works in the comics medium are drawn in a cartoon style. Not only is the simplification practical (fewer lines to draw), but the exaggerations also defines a character quickly and distinctly.

Style also involves line quality. I have a pet peeve against computer-graphic line art that looks like computer-graphic line art — I think because of the artificially perfect sameness of the line widths? So for me, creating a recurrent cartoon requires designing not only an easily reproducible set of lines to represent a simplified and exaggerated character, but also a line style that’s interesting apart from the subject matter.

I started with this:

Not sure if the top lines register as hair or a nun’s habit. The absence of a body doesn’t help to clarify. So I expanded, still emphasizing a quick gestural representational style.

Technically, those figures aren’t made of single lines but of double lines that together scissor out shapes from a black background (my MS Paint hacks are easy to demonstrate but hard to describe in words). I’ve also been experimenting with using layers of words as texture, which (for reasons I don’t understand) reveal/create hidden colors when layered:

I like the effect in other contexts, but not particularly here. The process is interesting though. To create the word textures (“text-ures”), I started by making colored shapes, unsure which I would convert later:

I wasn’t planning on keeping any colors, and though I needed literally any three as a step in the process, my unexamined choices don’t seem random. Brown is a skin color, auburn is a hair color, and vibrant green only makes sense in clothes. Though I probably have a vibrant green shirt somewhere in my closet, my own hair is dark brown, and my skin could be called beige (probably Type II on the five-part Fitzpatrick skin scale).

If I had been subconsciously imitating my own skin, I might have created this:

I have also been working on a next monograph tentatively titled “The Color of Paper: Representing Race in the Comics Medium,” which includes analysis of the paradoxically representational qualities of background colors. Looking again at the text-ured versions, the interior areas of the figures’ skin is literally the white of this digital background. But I’m not sure if viewers register that white as “White” skin:

To explore that ambiguity further, I changed to grayscale colors: black lines, dark gray shapes, light gray shapes. The combination often creates the impression of black-and-white photography: the figure exists in color (somewhere) but is depicted (in the image) as though actual colors have been converted to naturalistically corresponding grays.

What does that reveal about impressions of race and ethnicity? I’m not sure. Is this a White person with dark hair in a medium-dark dress?

Is this a Black person with white hair and a white dress?

I don’t know the answers — including whether different viewers experience the images differently. I just applied for summer research funding to conduct a study about those sorts of perceptions (hopefully to be included in “The Color of Paper”), but while I was trying to design a cartoon, my visual preference first fell on this combination:

Which I then tested to see if I could create new images with a recurrence effect for viewers (including myself). Is this the same person?

More recurrence attempts followed, plus a return to “text-ured” clothes and hair:

I also vacillated on skin. Should it be light gray or should it be the background white of the negative spaces within the black lines?

The light gray I think is racially/ethnically ambiguous since the color ranges of skin for White people and Black people overlap (in the center of the Fitzpatrick scale). The background white could suggest very light skin and so would be less racially/ethnically ambiguous — although I can cite examples of Black characters depicted in this style too.

So I kept experimenting:

I eventually settled on a final design: white hair, light gray skin, text-ured dress, and width-fluctuating black lines. I chose that combination in part because the interior light-gray shapes interact with the black lines, imperfectly filling the spaces and so leaving inconsistent white edges. I find that stylistically interesting both to create and to look at. The “text-ures” are also fun to warp in a way that suggests fabric to me, and leaving the negative space within the area of the hair adds a contrast to the other two approaches.

So what race is my cartoon?

I still can’t say. Light gray interiors make the figure ambiguous — at least when judging race and ethnicity by skin color alone. Facial features are at least as important, and when skin color is indeterminate, the significance of facial features rises accordingly.

But that’s a topic for another blog.

My co-author Leigh Ann Beavers and I wrote in our textbook Creating Comics: “You have a character. Now you need to know what it looks like from any point of view. Draw it fifty ties (yes, fifty!). You’ll be the world’s expert by the end of this exercise.”

I’ve not hit fifty yet, but I’m getting there.

Though, who knows, maybe I’ll go back to semi-realism again too. Here’s one of my first from last May:

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