HOW *I* DO IT :: Tools Baby Tools

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how much of what (little) I know about cartooning came entirely by happenstance--the number of deep, important, foundational lessons I've learned about making comics that I've essentially OVERHEARD BY ACCIDENT is... well, it's pretty much all of them. Honestly. There are a couple of good ones I picked up from Understanding Comics, but the main guts of everything I know came largely by accident. The idea that anyone would read my comics and think "I wonder how he DOES it??" is a crazy one. On the other hand, I'm a very optimistic person. With that in mind, I'm going to do a series of posts on how I make comics, post comics, print comics, sell comics, and so on. It's probably going to be total genius. We'll see. Let's start with the easy stuff this week, some sweet tools: If you are new to making comics, I can save you a lot of time right at the beginning: it does not matter what tools you use to make comics. Let me repeat that: IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT TOOLS YOU USE TO MAKE COMICS. It especially doesn't matter early on. Do you know why? Because everything you do for the first couple of years you will one day hate with every iota of your being. They'll probably be fine more or less, but when YOU look at them all you'll see is mistakes and bad jokes and too many words and not enough black and so forth. The one thing you WON'T think is "hmm these would have been better if I'd used a #0 Series 7 brush." I promise you. Save the important tools for when you make some important comics. Which, for most of us, will be never. So just have fun and relax. Having said that, I'm a super primadonna about tools, although I'm getting better about it. Some things I prefer because their less-fancy cousins don't work right for me. Others I like because they have very specific effects. But honestly, the tools REALLY ARE the least important part. James Jean can make a drawing that will bring tears of joy to your eyes with a cheap ballpoint pen. Focusing on what tools you use will rob you of years of your life, frustrating, terrible, swear-filled years. But on the plus side, fiddling with a bunch of different tools is good in terms of experimenting, broadening your artistic vocabulary, etc. Anyway, here's what I, Dustin K. Harbin, use to make comics: PAPER: I use Strathmore 500 smooth bristol board, which you can see up in that photo up there. This is probably the fanciest thing I use, now that I've given up brushes. The 500 costs a lot more than its cheaper Series 300 and 400 cousins, but it's heavy duty, can take a lot of pencil/ink/erasing before it starts to break down, and even handles inkwash and watercolor without too must protest. But most importantly, I almost NEVER have problems with it bleeding, which is what pushed me to start using it in the first place. Having said that, ink bleeding has a lot to do with the type of ink you're using too, so you may have PERFECTLY SATISFACTORY results with a cheaper paper. Because good lord, the 500 is pricey, especially when you're broke like me. I buy mine in 11" x 17" pads, which I cut in half to give me 8.5" x 11" sheets. Almost all my comics are that or smaller. For comics I almost always use the "smooth" (or hot press) 500 bristol, but I like the "vellum" (cold press) for commissions, especially if I'm using a flexible nib so the tooth of the paper shows up in the strokes. PENCIL: I use this little thing (above), although mainly because I stole it a million years ago and have managed not to lose it in all that time. The shape of the pencil isn't that important, although I like how heavy the metal makes this one, it feels substantial, the weight makes it sit in my hands just so. But honestly I pine for the old Quicker Clicker pencils of the 80's, which were my #1 shoplifting target besides Transformers. Sadly, they changed the shape of those pencils, so now they're all crazy looking. In the 80's they were transparent and straight and gorgeous. Anyway, the pencil's not nearly as important as the LEAD, which is of course what makes the mark: I use .5 mm 2H lead. H is for "hard"; I'm not sure what B means, but something synonymous with "soft" I'm guessing. As I'm sure you know, a harder lead yields a lighter line. The lighter the line, the less you have to erase, which means the less you wear down the tooth of the paper, and more importantly the less you injure your actual inked lines. Depending on what kind of pen or ink or use, you can really pick up as much as half of the ink when you erase, especially with certain disposable pens like Microns, etc. I almost never erase pencils anymore, unless I'm going over them with inkwash, or if it's a commission piece where I think the recipient will prefer a cleaner original. [Hunt 102 and Zebra G-nib] PEN: For inking, I have moved almost exclusively to dip pens. Which really are just called "pens", but it gets confusing. "Nibs" also works, but whatever you call them, you're probably going to get a blank look for the first little bit in the art store. Odds are you are the first person in a long time to ask where the nibs are kept. [the finicky but powerful Hunt 108] My go-to nib is the classic Hunt 102 crowquill nib. It's a not particularly flexible nib, small enough for someone who works as small as I do, but stiff enough to provide a predictable, steady line. I've been using the much more flexible Hunt 108 lately, but they're much more finicky. About half of the 108's I try don't work right though, which adds a preamble of frustration to inking. The 108 is flexible enough to give you a line with weight and body, but it can trick you--very similar to a brush, although much more predictable than that. I also use the Zebra G-nib, which I find to be a little better than the Nikko. It's a stiffish nib, good for larger lines. I know a lot of people who use G-nibs, to great effect, but I've had mixed success with them so far. But as with most tools, these things change over time. The nib that one day is impossible to use, tomorrow you'll think of something it's perfect for. I also use Rapidographs, mainly for lettering, panel borders, some other details, etc. I almost never use disposable pens like Microns for "real" work, mainly because I like to keep my nib muscles supple. But also because I prefer the line I get out of nibs, and I think the originals look better that way. I'm a little fussy about that. Most people, myself included, would agree that that's a total waste of line, and the original is the LAST thing you should be thinking about when working on your comics. If you're Paul Pope and are doing giant gorgeous 18" x 24" pieces and they sell for a couple grand, then yes, you should worry about that. But otherwise, maybe your worries will be better spent elsewhere. Having said all that, once again, USE WHATEVER YOU LIKE. I do use Microns like crazy for sketching, planning, writing, etc., especially the colored ones. INK: I recently switched to what will probably be the last ink I switch to: Dr Ph Martin's Black Star matte ink. It's literally as black as tar--it's PITCH black, and holds up really well to eraser. It's totally waterproof, but mixes with water fine for washes and the like. Best of all, it works in Rapidographs as well. Weirdly, it works much MUCH better than the actual Koh-I-Noor ink they sell for Rapidographs. I haven't had a single instance of Black Star bleeding yet. The downside is that it clogs in Rapidographs a little faster than the regular ink. Not an issue if you're using them continually, but if you're going to go a week or more between uses, be ready to clean the pens. BUYING: You can get most of this stuff online--if you have a local art supply shop that you like, try to get them there if you can. Those places are really nice to have right in your city, but they can't stay in business if you don't spend money there once in a while. I live in Charlotte, NC, and there's a Cheap Joe's right down the street from me, and they're very nice. Plus they're headquartered in NC, so that's a double-plus. I also recently have bought bristol from Dick Blick, pen holders from Akadot, brush pens from JetPens, etc. Okay! That's probably enough for right now. I'm going to try and do one of these a week--next week I'll do a shorter post about secondary tools (pocket brushes, markers, rulers, like that), and then move right into some process and publishing related posts.

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