I thought if only I could afford to buy all those fancy comic book art supplies I would be able to make professional-looking comics. I resigned myself to the idea that it would be years before I was wealthy enough to become a comic book illustrator!
I continued drawing comic pages, all the while believing that their shortcomings were the result of sub-standard tools.
How Al Milgrom taught me that the most important component of a comic book isn’t the art supplies used to create them
I regularly attended small comic book conventions in Michigan with my Dad and my brother. It was at one of these shows that I had my first encounter with a professional comic book artist.
Al Milgrom was his name, and he had worked on most of the major characters Marvel published at the time. You name the character, Al Milgrom had probably had his hand on them at some point.
He had drawn or inked Spider-man, The Avengers, and Captain Marvel.
I had brought with me to the show some pages I had drawn, and he was kind enough to take a look at them. He offered encouragement and good advice about what it would take for me to grow as an artist.
But what he did next changed my view on everything. He grabbed a standard HB pencil and on the back of a sheet of paper, drew up a quick layout for a Spider-man page. That was it!
A pencil and a sheet of paper. It was an epiphany.
I had just discovered that if my comics were substandard, the only reason was me.
At that moment, I realized that comics can be created using the simplest of materials. I had to let go of the crutch of believing that my comics weren’t good enough because I wasn’t using expensive pencils and high-quality papers. The most important component of a comic book is the imagination of the writer and artist who creates them.
Comic book art supplies aren’t as important as the artist using them, but the right tools help
The materials you use don’t dictate your ability to create, but that said, professional supplies and tools do add a nice polished finish to your work. You can grow your cache of supplies slowly and as you can afford them.
In this blog we’ll look at the tools used to make traditional comics. In a future post we’ll cover alternative publishing.
The following is a list of materials that are often used by comic book professionals and will be helpful to you as you grow as an artist.
The first, and most obvious, tool you will need to get started is a pencil. Pencils come in a variety of grades which represent varying degrees of hardness/softness and lightness/darkness.
A standard #2 pencil used in schools and offices can be a starting point, but over time you’ll probably want to use a softer, darker lead. Standard pencils range from a very hard, light pencil (9H) to a very soft, black-pencil (9B). ‘H’ represents hard. ‘B’ represents black. The range is from 9H to 9B (see chart). Each pencil will have identifying markings on for you to know what type of pencil you are using.
Most comic book illustrators prefer something in the range of HB to a 2B pencil. The very hard pencils can grind into your paper and make it difficult to erase after you’ve inked your page, but a very soft pencil will easily smear if your hand moves over the paper.
You can also purchase a lead holder or mechanical pencils and individual leads for them rather than use standard wooden pencils. The choice of lead hardness/softness remains the same.
If you’re using a pencil, you’ll need some way to keep them from getting dull. You can purchase a small hand held sharpener at the dollar store or you can go all in an pick up an expensive electric pencil sharpener. Some artists even prefer to sharpen their pencils to a need-sharp point with a knife or razor. Of course, if that’s your choice, be careful not to cut yourself. Blood, sweat and tears is just an expression!
After the pages are drawn in pencil, most comics are then inked. This means that the pencil layouts are drawn over with black ink to help the artwork print more clearly and consistently.
There are many types of pens that can be used for this. There are cartridge pens that hold ink (such as Rotring pens and Staedtler pigment liners) and nib-pens (like Speedball or Gillott nibs) which are dipped into ink. In both cases, you’ll need to experiment with different sizes to see which pens you’re most comfortable with.
When using cartridge pens, try to use those that have archival or pigment inks, meant to preserve your work longer without fading.
Most inkers use a mix of pens and brushes when they work on pages. This allows for a variance of line weights and makes the artwork more interesting to view.
The brushes most often used by the top pros are Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes. They are also among the most expensive! They are a bit of an investment, but when maintained properly, can outlast most cheaper brushes.
Brushes come in all different shapes and sizes. Finer brushes from 0-3 can be used for detailed linework while larger and wider brushes are used for filling in large areas of black.
Over the last number of years companies have developed brush pens (eg: Micron Pigma Brush) that have a soft and flexible tip to emulate a brush stroke. These can come in handy for getting brush effects when you don’t have all your inks and brushes with you.
Black India ink has been the staple for inking comics since the earliest days. There are many brands available and they vary in thickness and coverage. Find one that you’re comfortable with. I’ve used ‘Higgin’s Black Magic’ ink for years and get very good black coverage with a nice fluid flow.
As mentioned earlier, you can draw your comics on any type of paper you’d like. Most major companies supply their artists with 11″ X 17″, 2-ply Bristol.
Most art stores offer several brands of this type of paper and even sell comic sheets with all the ruling and registration marks pre-printed on each sheet.
Your collection of art supplies will grow over time. Some of the materials you can keep an eye out for to help your drawings are rulers, a T-Square (for panel borders and keeping lines parallel), triangles and ellipse templates, water jars for cleaning brushes and jars for storing brushes and pencils, cleaning rags, white corrector fluids and erasers.
This is much easier today than it used to be. Almost any image you need can be found with a quick online search. Whether you have favorite reference online or prefer to collect physical books and magazines, it’s useful to have access to sample pictures of people, places and things.