Diamond in the Roughs

The manuscript is in sections all over my studio, covered in notes and brightly colored page markers. A mug of lukewarm coffee is to my right, a silent inkjet printer is to my left, and directly in front of me is my computer, wacom tablet plugged in and ready. I’ve been sitting digitally drawing for days, and haven’t looked back at a single thing I’ve drawn. What am I doing? The Roughs!

The physical illustration process for almost any book begins with the “roughs,” an initial set of rough sketches that go along with the text. For myself I like to get through this stage as fast as I humanly can, because a blank piece of paper (or a blank screen) is one of my biggest fears, a world where every mark can become an instant, ugly scar. Without a break-neck pace I’ll endlessly revise and revisit drawings, resulting in zero progress and crushing self-doubt. It almost doesn’t matter what I draw or how bad it is in the first pass; the point is to get something completely done so that I have a place from which to start editing. In my first pass at the 36 to 40 rough scenes of interior art, how many times did I draw three West children pointing at maps? At least three (yuck!) but from there each scene could only improve. I’m happy to say that by now all of the “map pointing” has hit the cutting room floor.

One of the things that keeps me moving during the Roughs is an even more terrifying shape than a blank white rectangle: a black diagonal line keeping time on The Chart:

This metronome for progress is one of the most useful illustration tools I own. Back in February, when I learned that I would be illustrating Sarah Stewart Taylor’s THE EXPEDITIONERS, I also learned that I’ve only have 12-14 weeks to do the book from start to finish. The drawing experience would be a marathon, with some sprinting and high-jumping thrown in for good measure, and I needed a gun to get me sprinting from the start. The Chart was directly inspired by the ever-talented Alec Longstreth (Basewood), a former teacher from The Center for Cartoon Studies, who uses this tool to track progress on his own work. With an aggressive goal of reaching 40 interior drawings (vertical axis) in the time span of 8 days (horizontal axis), there was absolutely no time to be afraid of the blank page. The rest of my to-do list may have failed, but this angry line kept me on track at a pace of five rough digital drawings a day.

Of course, not everything drawn in the Roughs stage is bad, and sometimes I even hit on something terrific. A stellar composition! A character design that rings true in future drafts! Or even a concept can be relocated to work better earlier or later in the manuscript. The Roughs give me a foundation on which to build the book, and each successive pass gives the structure more definition.

In THE EXPEDITIONERS, one of my favorite drawing moments is when the eldest brother, Zander, discovers a new species of slug. Here’s the full sequence of drawings, from concept sketches to digital rough (above) to the final rough draft before it goes to final art. This reflects about four weeks of worth of change. Note that after the digital rough draft, I abandoned the idea of having the characters posing with the slug in favor of showing the slug alone, as if from the character’s point of view. The result is, I feel, a much stronger and more interesting compositon:



I’d like to thank Art Nouveau, the Viennese Secessionists, Japanese postcards, and everyone who’s ever posted photos of cool slugs. More roughs and sketches from other scenes coming soon!

3 thoughts on “Diamond in the Roughs”

  1. You said “a blank piece of paper (or a blank screen) is one of my biggest fears, a world where every mark can become an instant, ugly scar.”

    “In one of his letters to Theo, Vincent wrote something like “…ah, the mute insolence of the blank canvas, sneering at me as if to say ‘You can not!” If van Gogh could feel this way, there’s probably no solution to the fear except to just start doing the work, warts and all.

    For me, that blank sheet of bristol has so much potential that I usually begin an incremental defacement, with panel borders (can’t go wrong there, eh?) and penciling in the word balloons, which sort of help. But when I start drawing in the figures all the fears start flooding in. Like you, I tend to race through the stick-figures/wire-frame/sketchy backgrounds phase because I know that if I try to work carefully I’ll end up freezing in disgust.

    When I try explaining this to non-comickers, they usually ask “If it’s so upsetting, why don’t you do something else?” I’m pretty sure that they would not understand the answer.

    Love the process posts. The only time I’ve drawn digitally was for a week-long course in animation. There was no way that I was going to produce and scan some 400 drawings for a 60-second film in four days, so I used my Wacom Intuos. Never worked so quickly in my life, which was kind of liberating. Gosh, but those were crude drawings I produced, but then, so were everyone’s.

  2. That’s the great thing about roughs! You can sort of back yourself away from the fear by sprinting toward the finish, and in the rush you don’t have nearly as much time to be afraid. It’s a fear very familiar to everyone in the arts, and I am confident that it does not go away whatever fame or fortune may come from one’s work. But I have gained a lot of ground over it, even from CCS; I now can acknowledge the presence of fear without listening to the “I’m not creative enough” story it likes to tell. The monster is still present, but has become a much more comfortable companion, if that makes any sense. :)

    You’ll also notice that, though I know perfectly well how to book bind, lately I’ve resorted to $.99 Mead graph paper journals to use as sketchbooks. They come pre-defaced with blue lines. Very handy!!

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