Drawing styles for graphic novels

I was in portrait class this evening and I started thinking again about the difference between cartooning and drawing. When you draw cartoons or comics, you’re drawing an interpretation of what things look like. Even though we’ve pretty much moved beyond the eyes-popping-out, falling-down-when-shocked exaggeration style of cartooning, cartoons still take their power from a combination of what things actually look like and an interpretation of that based on gesture or emotion. In contemporary graphic novels, art styles run the gamut from really cartoony (Lynda Barry, Tintin, Persepolis, Courtney Crumrin), to a combination of cartoony and realistic (Blankets, manga, maybe Marisa Acocella Marchetto), to stylized realism (Sandman, superhero comics) and the fairly realistic (American Splendor).

The kind of drawing I’m learning right now is very observational; the ideal is to draw exactly what you see. This is hugely useful and a real art — and a very traditional art — but it’s not appropriate for comics, if for no other reason than that doing a 24-page issue would involve far too many lights, models, sets, and lengthy drawing sessions! Even though I’m improving by leaps and bounds at this kind of drawing, I’m still not quite sure how this is going to translate into illustrating my graphic novels and short comics. I guess it’d be like going to ballet class to prep for contact improv: your physical awareness, flexibility, and just general prowess would improve dramatically from all the pliés and arabesques, but the language of ballet is so different from the rules of contact improv that you wouldn’t actually be learning anything about contact improv per se. That’s the position (ha ha, no ballet pun intended) I find myself in with the drawing practice I’m doing. It’s all fantastic and no doubt extremely enhancing to my general artistic ability, but it doesn’t have any direct effect on what my graphic novels will look like. I still have to figure out a new language for those.

I already know my style will fall somewhere in between purely cartoony and highly realistic: I’m too much of a stickler for realism to feel comfortable in the former, while I’m not a good enough technician to succeed at the latter. Anyway, I think Gone will be best served by a semi-realistic style; I doubt a skinless face would have any kind of impact on a Betty-and-Veronica-type figure! But I have yet to try drawing comics now that I’m a better observational artist than I used to be.

I guess, you know, there’s the style I’ve done for many years now, where faces are highly cartoony but body shapes and backgrounds aim to be more realistic. I developed that style because I wasn’t capable of doing anything more realistic, but I wonder if I tried it now what might happen. I would hope to have more realistic perspective, more nuanced shading, a greater variety of angles, and more variation in line, not to mention more detailed faces. Actually, looking back at “Blank Canvas,” I’m surprised at how good it is in spite of lacking all these things. Rats. Now I feel I’ve set a ridiculously high bar for myself: draw like that, only much better. And I remember how long “Blank Canvas” took me… well, actually, I did it in one day I think, but that was an extremely painful day. 😉

Well, I’ll figure it out. I’ve made huge strides in the past few months; I feel confident I’ll be able to produce what I need. The longer I work at this creative thing, the more my skills develop to suit my purposes, and the easier it gets to make what I want. But I need to remember that it probably will take me a fair amount of trial and error, and a lot of deliberate experimenting with media and styles, to come up with something workable for my first graphic novel… and that’s BEFORE all the refining and research and practice on the book itself. In other words, coming up with my cartooning style is only the beginning of the beginning. But it’ll happen, eventually it’ll happen.