How to create great illustrations and comics

I read a post by Seth Godin a couple of weeks ago, and in it, he mentions that:

“No one reads a comic strip because it’s drawn well.”

I almost yelled out a loud “YES!” (barred only by the fact that I was in a public place at the time) because that’s one of the main things I keep harping on and on about whenever I speak to students or people who tell me that their work isn’t good enough to be shown.

It’s not about coloring in the lines, nor making that perfect technically executed piece.

It’s not about making sure you’ve dotted out all your i’s and crossed all your t’s.

It’s not about comparing yourself to others, nor putting yourself up to impeccable standards set by others.

I’ve come across so many different illustrations, comics and graphic novels that might not be fit into the mainstream standard of “pretty” – but are powerful, thought-provoking and edgy. Here are a few examples:

Brian Rea: Avoid This

Avoid This – a collection of illustrations by Brian Rea (who also regular on the NYTimes, illustrating a segment called Modern Love)

Hyperbole and a half

Allie Brosh illustrates how dogs don’t understand basic concepts at Hyperbole and a Half

Amanda Vähämäki : The Bun Field

Excerpt from The Bun Field (published by Drawn & Quarterly) – a collection of five stories by Amanda Vähämäki

Kate Beaton

Historical figures with a twist of humor by the inimitable Kate Beaton

The Oatmeal - My Dog: The Paradox

The Oatmeal – a webcomic by Matthew Inman that pokes fun at almost everything under the sun.

Ryan North - Dinosaur Comics

Ryan North draws dinosaurs that talk in Dinosaur comics

Cyanide & Happiness

Rob DenBleyker for Cyanide & Happiness

It’s all about the story behind them that makes them stand out. 

Just think about it:

What makes you want to scribble your thoughts down so quickly that you don’t mind the messiness of the process? What experiences, thoughts and things that you want to say that you find yourself continuing your lines right off the edges of your sketchbook – just so you won’t have to turn the page and lose that train of thought?

What propels you get your ideas out there as fast as possible?

Great illustrations/stories/comics start with ideas first, execution second. If your idea doesn’t resonate with others, no amount of great execution can help – and on the other hand, if you have a great idea, execution is secondary to the transmission of the idea itself.

Your fans (or non-fans) will figure it out sooner or later, no matter if it’s the former or the latter.

More: Cyanide & Happiness


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15 Replies to “How to create great illustrations and comics”

  1. Excellent post, Amy. I was struck by Seth’s recent blog posting as well, and I really like the way you’ve summed this up. You’ve given me even more to think about.

  2. Ella says:

    I totally agree about function over form with storytelling and humour, I wouldn’t say that all of these aren’t drawn well though. I think some of them do show a clear knowledge of how the human form works as well as the physics of movement. I know it’s not necessarily relevant here as this is more about conveying a message and how it doesn’t need perfect drawing skills but I do notice a lot of illustrators being labelled as bad at drawing when in fact they’re very skilled and choose to use their own style even though it doesn’t show off what good draughtspeople they are. I know you aren’t saying this of course Amy! 🙂

    I totally agree though that you shouldn’t be afraid to put yourself out there. My students often tell me they can’t draw and that’s why everything they do is digital. I have to point out to them that the early sketching is about ideas over anything else and how you can convey that idea regardless of skills. (I then go on to tell them that they can learn to draw and that people don’t pick up instruments and say they can’t play them before they’ve even thought to learn and practice!)

    1. amy says:

      Haha! Yes, you’re right Ella – what I meant was that some of these illustrators don’t fit the mold of the skill sets that people expect of comic artists (think Marvel-type comics, for one!) even though they are perfectly well-versed in figure, proportion, space, etc. It’s just a conscious decision to channel their own style, which I found refreshing.

      As for your students, I can relate as I get that a lot too – there is this fear of making mistakes prevalent among them that I constantly have to shake them out of. Perfection is overrated and often gets in the way of expression.

  3. Deepti says:

    This was really helpful! Being somebody who’s not been illustrating for too long, I know I have way too many points when my worry and apprehension about my skills tend to overtake the good sense that I just need to get my work out there. Your posts give me a boost every time I read them, and remind me of what’s important. =)

    1. amy says:

      Aaw thanks Deepti!

  4. cotey bucket says:

    I love this observation, and the Godin piece.
    (did you read today’s; about drawing the owl?)

    I’m actually working on a post right now about getting over the precious artist syndrome and getting our work out there no matter what. Feed back is not the enemy.

    Another thing a friend and I just started yesterday was sketch conversations on twitter. it’s like one panel improve, there’s no time to be worried because you want the conversation to keep moving, so you just pump it out quick and slap it up. Super fun.

    Great stuff as always Amy.

    1. amy says:

      Thanks Cotey! Yes, I just read about the owl, and he’s spot on about that too.

      I love drawing improvs – really helps the mind to let go and be free. No competition and it’s all conversation. Visual conversations!

  5. Adelina says:

    You always come with the right post at the right time, Amy! Just today I was struggling a bit internally speaking because I ended up in a bit of a rut. I haven’t really drawn seriously for about 3 weeks and I feel like the paper is a big scary space. In the end I decided to conquer my fear and drawn one element of a piece I had been attempting to create for quite a while. I finished the element and I felt so disappointed in myself, my skill and the merry-go-round of the doubt started to move inside me. I know the ‘feel the fear but do it’ is a topic for another post but if I think about it, the source of all my discomfort this afternoon came from trying to be somebody else, nit picking at my style and essentially, wanting to be like the ‘better’ ones out there.

    1. amy says:

      Thanks so much for sharing Adelina! I know it’s hard when your head is swimming with doubt and visual vignettes of other people’s great work seem to cut into your confidence. But think of it this way – there isn’t going to be another person that’s better at being YOU. And if you aim for being another person’s second best, you might have to get in line with others who are doing the same (not that you’re doing so!) In trying to be like them, you are not using that time to explore your best self.

  6. ketepo says:

    Amy, I usually agree with you, but this time i think …it’s a little more difficult than you wrote. The idea in my opinion has to mix with the technique and -important!- the style… ’cause if the idea is over everything and stands alone as the example of the dogs in the car – (awful draw and style seen a lot of times – you artist might choose another form of expression, like writing for example or photography..everything that mixes well (sorry for my English :)) I study a lot to express my comics and illustration (maybe in an awful way .. even I hope is not so ) and i think that the beauty in any form is the point…Beauty even as Ugliness, it’s just a point of view. But drawing things quickly..=..= always gives me suuuuperbad feeling! Ops! I have written too much! Bye and thanks for the ideas of your blog, it’s alway interesting! ^^

    1. amy says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ketepo! Allie Brosh’s drawings were one of the first comics drawn in that style that I knew of back when she first started (messy, quick slap on the digital canvas). Now it’s all over the place and doesn’t look quite special, but it did back then because it went along with the stories she had to tell, and these stories were also hilarious. Having drawings to go with it just made it extra special.

  7. Natalie says:

    I want to thank you for this post! I have been asked to illustrate some very special books but my self doubt has been eating me alive and I haven’t managed to put paper to pen because I haven’t practiced drawing NEARLY enough to feel confident to just do it which makes the whole process uncomfortable. You’ve helped me so much with this.

    1. amy says:

      Natalie, congrats on the commission! And yes, push through the self-doubt and the uncomfortableness of doing something new – you’ll find your groove soon enough! Good luck!!

  8. Jesse says:

    I’m just going to say: YES!!!!

  9. Shaun says:

    “If your idea doesn’t resonate with others, no amount of great execution can help – and on the other hand, if you have a great idea, execution is secondary to the transmission of the idea itself.”

    I’m not sure I *totally* agree. I can get behind the notion that artwork, no matter how pretty, can’t salvage a terrible story. Any number of mainstream comics can attest to that – and then you have abominations like Rob Liefeld. (Crap story, crap art. A RL comic is a guaranteed disappointment wrapped in inanity. The Kinder Surprise of storytelling.) But I disagree that a great idea comes first, before the way that idea is executed.

    To me the problem with this idea is that communicating an idea requires the use of the exactly appropriate words. In the same way, creating a comic requires the use of a visual style that is appropriate to the narrative. That we can split off the ‘idea’ from its execution, and then call the former more important than the latter, seems to me to be misguided.

    When I sit down to draw, I can’t say that I have a clear, fully-formed idea of what I want to draw somewhere ‘in my head’, which I then put on paper. What I put on paper is the gradual working-out of a nebulous, ill-formed impression; I’m trying to clarify the idea, not just execute it.

    I do agree that certain styles of art which might be called ‘mainstream’ simply won’t work for certain types of story. I’m thinking of David B, Jeffery Brown or some of Art Spiegelman’s stuff. But I definitely don’t think that execution is secondary to the idea – the two go hand-in-hand.

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