I’ve been excited to be making a lot of new books with illustrators in the last few months, including a book with Jarod Roselló, one of my favorite writers and comics artists. I’m hoping to showcase some of his drawings for the children’s book we’re working on together soon. In the meantime, though, I remembered that a while ago—it was actually back in 2016—Jarod and John Dermot Woods (another great writer and comics artist) had a long “inside baseball” style conversation about their drawing techniques. They both have new projects of their own coming out, so I thought now would be a good time to showcase their interview. Read on—there are lots of great links and pictures below.
John Dermot Woods: You’ve told me that with most of your comics improvisation is key to their composition (and your fun). This is a pretty foreign practice to me. Outlining, planning, thumbnailing define my own method. (And “fun” is rarely a word I use to describe this undertaking.) How does what you’re holding in your hand aid or hinder your tendency to improvise? I know you draw almost exclusively with a pen and I primarily use fussy Windsor and Newton Series 7 brushes dipped in black inks of various precise viscosities. It seems that we can draw a pretty easy semiotic analysis from this simple contrast.
Watch a video review of the Windsor & Newton Series 7 Brushes
Jarod Roselló: I should be careful with how I use the word “fun.” Cartooning-fun is probably a better way to put it. I follow the same path you do: outlining, planning, thumbnailing (and thumbnailing again and again) before I even start penciling. But I think of each step as rough guidelines, so every time I return to the work, I use them as suggestions or inspirations, and let the tool and my hand (and my mood) dictate how it will actually construct itself on the page. This keeps cartooning feeling that “fun” I was talking about, which is probably more the sensation of surprise or suspense. For instance, my pencil lines are often very light, and not always exact, so when I start inking over those lines, I look at them as general guidelines, but I let the pen decide what the ultimate line looks like, and often it’s a significant deviation from the pencils. Each tool makes different marks on the page, and how I’m feeling in that moment—whether I’ve slept well or had something to eat or had too much coffee—affects how my hand moves on the page. I don’t try to control any of this, I let it affect the comic I’m making. I think this is why I like pens, I can still kind of pretend I’m sketching in my notebook.
How do you take your body into consideration? Do you wait until your hand isn’t shaky to ink? Do you redraw and redraw until you have the exact image you were attempting? I’m thinking of the ways different cartooning styles allow for “mistakes” while others are really dependent on the precision of the line for the overall aesthetic experience. What allowances or limitations does working with a brush provide?
JDW: Using a brush, I have to be mindful of SLEEP and COFFEE. Late night inking doesn’t work when the eyes get tired, nor does late morning, if I’m on my third cup and my hand starts to vibrate. There’s something very restrictive about drawing with a brush, and I appreciate that. To use the brush the way I want to, my finished pencils have to be quite tight (not that my art would suggest it). And I have to be at my drawing table to do it. I sketch with a Pentel brush pen and other portable tools, but only do my finished pages with a series 7. This method definitely puts me in the Ware/Tomine camp (once again, not that my art would suggest it) of planning and refining and leaving little to chance.
I’ve consciously tried to move away from this and introduce looseness into my process. The Lynda Barrys of the world are the ones who amaze me. Her improvisation and working with mistakes is something to which I aspire. I’ve tried some things: I now work on smaller Bristol that I can carry with with me in my backpack. I put the brush and ink away for awhile and started drawing with Rolling Writers. I did a daily drawing for my Tumblr for several months to get some ideas going. A couple of summers ago, I did Frank Santoro’s Comics Correspondence Course and that was huge. His approach is so conceptual and holistic that he gets your to forget about paper and pens and just think about the way a page looks. That’s when I started drawing on index cards directly in pen. At first it was a great to way to plan and thumbnail, but then I started doing finished panels right on the flimsy cards.
JR: I had Simon Moreton Skype into my class this past semester the week we read his book, Plans We Made, and my students asked a lot of questions about his process. His art is minimal in that he’s using the fewest possible lines to suggest the object he’s drawing. And he draws everything in a thick, soft graphite. It’s really beautiful on the page but also really striking in what is absent. He’s eschewing what we’ve come to hold as the cartooning traditions: thumbnailing, penciling, inking with a brush or a nib. When asked about this stylistic choice by one of my students, his response was essentially that he feels he should use the least amount of lines necessary for representation and recognition: if a curved line with a few circles beneath it is read as a car, then his drawing has done its job. I admire that approach and I kind of envy it to a degree, though I don’t know if I could ever replicate it.
A page from What Happened by Simon Moreton
JDW: Moreton’s simplicity is haunting. He makes comics that make you want to draw. It’s funny that his cartooning approach seems so rare, as it basically defines the very essence of cartooning: simplification in pursuit of essence. If you apply his answer to you student, it is basically the bedrock advice of the fiction writing workshop, the guiding principle of the post-Hemingway era. Yet, in the world of comics, where visual brilliance reigns over all those other things comics ought to accomplish, this is still seen as an almost avant garde approach.
So, yes, my approach is pretty uptight, but I’m trying to reform, open it up. I also find myself bringing things together more digitally now, with “originals” as an afterthought. How do you use your computer to make comics? When you drew Those Bears for Hobart did you think of it as a “webcomic.” Did you approach those episodes any differently than the ones you drew for print?
JR: Those Bears was an odd project for me. I’ve been writing and drawing it as I go, which is really outside my normal process of writing and thumbnailing the entire story before I even pencil a page. But because of the serialized nature of the webcomic and the fast turn around time, I’ve altered my process to great personal anxiety. Most notably, I leave a lot to Photoshop. I pencil very loosely, even sometimes just basic shapes, and then ink only the lines I’m most certain of–the contours, the boundaries and outlines of objects–while leaving the smaller, finer details blank and filling those in on Photoshop. I think a lot of it has to do with the anxiety of making permanent (in ink) stylistic decisions I was making right on the spot. I think if you don’t make comics, you don’t realize that you kind of need to know exactly how you’re going to draw the sleeves on a sweater, for instance, from the start, because you’ll have to draw it over and over again and maybe for years ,and what an awful thing to realize three-quarter of the way through a 200-page book that you actually want to use hatch marks. Something about making comics for the screen rather than for print made it also seem okay to rely on my digital pen rather than my inking pen. This way, if I do make a change, I don’t have to edit and rescan in my originals, I can just open a file and get to work.
JDW: You’ve certainly learned to use your digital tools because, other than the grays and half tones (which looks mechanical, but not digital, per se) I would have thought every line was etched into bristol.
JR: In Activities, you use a lot of digital coloring for the gray tones, but you also have that story, “Guides”, where you’ve collaged together drawings and black and white photos. What’s the original art there? Is that a helpful notion anymore? How else are you using digital production in your comics these days?
JDW: I drew “Guides” like a decade ago when I was living in Tokyo. Those photos are pictures I took when I was riding my bike to and from work each day (over an hour each way). The drawings, I think, were just done with a Micron on scrap paper. I somehow wanted to bring together documentary image and impressionistic and that’s what I came up with. Using photos in comics can be pretty terrible, so I’m wary of using them, but when I’m doing impromptu drawings for Tumblr or whatever, I find myself drawn to collage. I think my next comic will rely on it more heavily. Currently I use it to provide textures or clothing patterns or interior design elements to add some contrast to the flat digital colors I normally use.
Jarod, have you ever considered making a comic with a totally unfamiliar set of tools? Like just getting out some finger paints and the back of cardboard box and going at it?
JR: Almost every time I start a new comic, I tell myself I’ll use a different set of tools this time. I have tons of markers and colored pencils, and I’d love to move off the black-white binary of line art, or at least to experiment and play with different color lines. I never do, though. Part of it is that I’m color blind and color both confounds and frustrates me and after years of that frustration, I’ve learned to mostly ignore color, not just in my art making, but in my entire life as well. So black and white comics are actually very comforting to me. The other part is time. When I was younger, before I had kids, I would buy tools, spend months learning how to use them,and then goof around making new comics. It’s how I learned to use a nib in the first place. But, the lack of that free time scares me back to pens and ink. That said, I still fantasize about making comics from cut out cardboard pieces like Philippa Rice’s My Cardboard Life or doing a Lynda Barry-style collage or even just using watercolor. I love watercolor, it’s probably the technique I most covet. I read Sarah Glidden’s and Lewis Trondheim’s comics with a mixture of awe and envy.
JDW: I’ve spent hours looking at Sarah Glidden’s pages. ‘Covet’ is the exact word. I’ve experimented with watercolors (and watered down acrylics) but I don’t know how to use them. My dream would be to put everything on hold and just learn how to paint with watercolors. But, like you said, kids, full time teaching, when is that going to happen?
You’re color blind? Wow. I’d love to see how that was reflected in your use of color. Of course, as a creator, I imagine it would be frustrating to not be able to appreciate what your readers see in your work. Do you think you’ll be compelled to work color into your comics?
JR: I’ve never felt compelled to work in color. So many great comics are in black and white. Color still seems optional and maybe even anomalous. I’ve been doing more all-ages comics lately, and for that I feel a little more pressure to color them. The good thing is with Photoshop, I can actually color, even if I can’t totally see what I’m doing. My strategy is to take a page of a comic I really like—I’ve used Ben Towle’s Oyster War and pages of Aaron Renier’s Unsinkable Walker Bean (colored by Alec Longstreth)—and copy each of the colors onto a blank digital page, and use that as a pallet. I know these colors all go together, and I like the way they look, so that’s usually how I can color something without it looking absolutely awful. And I ask my wife to double-check everything, as well.
JDW: You’re also a writer and an English professor, Jarod. Are you particular about your tools for writing? Your pens, notebooks, hardware, software, desk, etc.? I find I’m much more flexible when I’m writing that when I’m drawing, and my tools are constantly in flux (sometimes, a pencil in a notebook on a train, sometimes a laptop in a coffee shop, sometimes a fountain pen on the back of my tax return).
JR: I really don’t like writing by hand. The kind of prose I like to write feels deeply connected to the movement of my fingers on a keyboard, to the arrangement of text on a digital screen. I don’t think this is a better means of writing, but like cartooning, my method of writing is deeply entangled with the kind of writing I do. Lately, I’ve been writing prose broken into “panels” across a page. I showed a friend, recently, I story I was working on, and she said, “This looks like a poem,” and I said, “No, this looks like a comic!” So, make of that what you will.
There are so many elements involved in making comics—writing, drawing, illustration, painting, collage–and the different tools and approaches to each of those—pencils, pens, brushes, ink, photos, paint—do you ever find yourself just overwhelmed with the medium? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve quit comics or promised to quit comics. Of course, I can’t really quit. Comics doesn’t let you quit. It’s too much trouble, for sure, but it’s too much fun at the same time. I think about those maybe-apocryphal quotes from Jack Kirby, “Comics will break your heart,” and Charles Schulz, “Cartooning will destroy you.” John, is your heart broken? Are you destroyed?
JDW: Undoubtedly, Jarod. Comics are a compulsion, but the medium is a constant reminder of my limits. For me, the gap between idea and execution is so huge that it can be crushing. I can’t help but want to do big things with comics, but it’s so damn hard. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I get the urge to turn my work into a comic, but I simply don’t have the time. Then even my prose work feels compromised by comics. I think that’s images always seem to find a way into my fiction. It’s a concession to comics, however much I might claim that illustration and comics are two completely separate undertakings.
Next Time: John and Jarod discuss the relationship between drawing and writing.