Hari's Corner

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Workflow tutorial: how to draw a digital comic strip entirely with free software

Filed under: Tutorials and HOWTOs by Hari
Posted on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 10:51 IST (last updated: Tue, May 15, 2012 @ 12:49 IST)

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In this workflow tutorial, I will share my tools and techniques to create an entire digital comic with nothing but free/open source software and a digital pen tablet like Wacom or WizardPen.

Drawing a digital comic is hard work and I am not going into the artistic techniques of drawing or composing comics. There are plenty of online resources for learning artists. What, however, is not so easy is to achieve a good and efficient workflow that allows you to forget the tools and concentrate on the actual product - which, in this case is digital comics.

Luckily you don't have to blow a whole lot of money in order to get a decent set of tools for digital comic creation. There are some great open source graphics software that closely resemble the expensive proprietary software that most digital artists prefer and use.

Drawing an entire comic strip involves four major steps with a few minor steps which I will outline below. To follow this workflow tutorial, you need a working installation of (preferably) Linux or any platform that supports your Wacom (or similar) pen tablet and the following software:

First step: Pencil in MyPaint

I fire up MyPaint and use the Pencil brush to create the rough pencils. This is usually done in the default layer. Pencil stage is important because it is the guide with which I "ink" the drawing. Most mistakes in drawing, scene composition etc. should be caught and corrected at this stage.

For comics, I usually draw the rough borders around the intended panel for a guide at this stage though the boxes will not be inked in the next step.

Pencilling in MyPaint

Second step: Inking in MyPaint using a Pen tool

Once I have finalized the pencils and made the necessary corrections, I create a new layer above the pencils layer in the MyPaint raster file and begin to "ink" the pencils carefully. I usually find it convenient to reduce the opacity of the layer containing the pencil drawing so that it is easier to visually separate the layers and make sure I'm painting the inks on the right layer.

I usually vary the pen size to achieve different thickness of strokes so that the drawing gets a bit of depth of field.

Inks and pencils in MyPaint

Note that at this stage, the rough pencil borders will not be inked. It is much easier to create the actual border with the box tool in Inkscape than to painstakingly sketch the straight lines in MyPaint and still end up with uneven borders.

Third step - Vectorization with Inkscape

This is when I fire up Inkscape for a bit of magic.

Before that, I'd like to share my reasons for preferring to "ink" with MyPaint rather than in Inkscape directly. I could, of course, have exported the pencils directly to Inkscape and then inked the whole comic in Inkscape, but I now prefer the other method as digital inking in a vector graphics package is a painful and slow process as I've found out. Purely vector inking also tends to look a bit stiffer and not as natural. The benefit of inking in a raster paint program and then vectorizing the inks is that, while the vectorization makes the lines look smoother, at the same time the "organic" flow of lines created with a pen tablet using pressure sensitivity and realistic brushes is preserved.

Finally it's much more convenient to assemble the final comic in a vector graphics package.

At this stage, I export the inks from MyPaint into a PNG file. Note that I have hidden the pencils at this stage. We no longer need them. It's also time to put away the graphics tablet. :)

The below is the exported PNG from MyPaint:

Exported inked drawing in PNG

Now I open Inkscape and choose File->Import to get the PNG image into Inkscape. Once this is done, I adjust the image to a reasonable size and then choose Path->Trace Bitmap

Trace Bitmap dialog in Inkscape

This step actually vectorizes the black and white bitmap and creates the paths in Inkscape for the entire drawing. I now remove the imported bitmap from the page.

Finally at this stage, I draw a thick border with the box tool around the vectorized panel and make any small adjustments needed in the vectorized paths to make sure the drawing doesn't overflow the box.

Vectorized drawing layer in Inkscape with panel border

Fourth step, colouring and shading

Finally, the fun part. Colouring the panel and giving it life. I now create a layer beneath the inks layer and call it "colour" layer. Here I use the fill tool to flat colour the different regions of the panel. However, for a black and white comic, you can skip colouring if you so wish. In this case, you would need to do a lot more in the inking stage in MyPaint as the shading will be done directly after inking.

Here is how it all looks after colouring:

Coloured panel in Inkscape

Shading is usually a good finishing touch as it adds a bit of depth and sparkle if necessary to your finished illustration. There are different kinds of shading techniques preferred by comic artists.

I now add a new layer above the colours layer and I simply use semi-transparent blobs and shapes of darker and lighter shades to achieve shading:

Coloured and shaded with Inkscape

Fifth step - speech bubbles

Now I create a layer on top of all other layers for the speech bubbles. Usually speech is above the drawing layers, and I use this simple technique to achieve speech bubbles. Other comic artists might prefer to have more interplay between the speech and the drawing which might make it more complicated.

I add the speech text and bubbles.

Final coloured, shaded panel with speech bubbles

Last but not least: Exporting into PNG/JPG

And finally I export the whole image to PNG or JPG. I usually choose a lower resolution for web view. For printing, you might choose a high DPI like 300 or 600 DPI. This is the best part of having a comic in vectorized format. You can quickly export it at different sizes without visible jagged edges or inconsistent/blurred lines which is a common issue with raster programs.

Here is the final result in PNG:

Final comic panel exported from Inkscape

At this stage I usually open the image in GIMP and check if there are any "transparent" regions in the drawing which I might have missed out colouring. This can usually happen for white regions as the background in Inkscape is white and you can forget to fill them in.

I also export JPG if necessary from GIMP because PNG might be too large in size. While PNG is the best lossless image format and the quality is excellent, some image hosting sites automatically convert PNGs to JPGs and this might result in poor quality of the final output, so in such cases, doing your own JPG conversion might be better.

Some tips

Additional Notes: In this tutorial, I have shown only a single panel, but you can extend the same technique for multiple panels, simply by drawing the additional panels besides and beneath the first panel and following the tutorial below. Sometimes, it may be necessary to move or adjust certain panels, which can be achieved by selecting the relevant path nodes in Inkscape and moving them together after vectorizing the inks.

So this is my comic creation process. Hope it is of benefit to my readers.

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