Student spotlight: Hilary Allison

Ah, summer school. Matt and I have taught an undergrad summer course at the School of Visual Arts most of the last five or six years, called Cartoon Hothouse. It’s an intense format: six hours, once a week for ten weeks (as opposed to the regular semester classes, three hours for 15 weeks), and Matt and I and Tom Hart team-teach, all three attending the first, last, and middle sessions, and then overlapping in various combinations for the rest. Despite all this, and despite the name “hothouse,” the fact is, the class often devolves into a real mess by the end. Hey, it’s hot, it’s hard to concentrate. And enrollment is often low, because everyone wants a break over the summer (which is good in terms of individual attention, but if anyone is misses class, the energy level falls), and those who do enroll often have the wrong motivation, usually involving making up credits, not pushing themselves to excel. So it’s not uncommon for us all, teachers and students, to be a bit ground down by the end of the class. This summer was shaping up to be no different. Enrollments were so low, we combined the beginning and advanced sections, and Matt dropped out so Tom and I could teach with Keith Mayerson (who usually does the “advanced” section with Gary Panter and another teacher.)

But then, a little bit of comics-school magic happened. Keith and Tom and I knocked heads over teaching style and content, and came up with a combined approach that, I think, became the best of both styles. And the students were terrific. Any teacher will tell you, that’s the key to a wonderful class for everyone involved: students who show up, who work, who contribute, who care. We had a (small) class full of them. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring two of students whose hard work on various specific issues paid off major dividends. This week, Hilary Allison. Soon to come, Lisa Anchin.

Hilary is an undergrad at SVA in cartooning, entering her third year. She’s incredibly energetic and involved in her learning process any time of the year (she’s one of the incoming organizers of Cartoon Allies, the very active student comics association, on top of doing her regular work), but something clicked in her brain this summer, and Hilary committed herself to her work with an intensity I rarely see.

The project

When we started the summer, we asked all the students to tell us what they thought they were bad at. I remember Hilary saying that she felt she used color as a crutch (examples of what she meant in the link).

Hilary: “I wanted to learn to use black and white only.  In the past, adding midtones had been my easy solution to defining volume.  When I wanted to make an element stand out, I reached immediately for color.  And it works wonderfully…. until suddenly you’re doing all of your assignments in full color.  (“Oh, it doesn’t require that much extra time…. not THAT much…. This time it won’t… much.”)  So I limped along with the color crutch while my composition and line-quality muscles got lazy.”


She had some definite models in mind, and we added a few to her list.

“Some favorites:  Bizarro (by Dan Piraro, not that other thing), the Far Side, Bloom County (discovered in the Hothouse class!) Frazz, Calvin and Hobbes, and Doonesbury.  The latter three are a conscious influence on the writing/pacing/joke-unfolding in my strips.  I’ve tried to emulate Windsor McCay’s clean lines, Jef Mallet’s shot choices (that’s Frazz again), Walt Kelly’s balloons and lettering, and Jaime Hernandez’s everything.”

Note especially that Hilary was trying out McCay’s heavy outlines with fine interior linework when she started the class.

Here’s where Hilary was at (more or less) when she started Hothouse. Already funny, and already in possession of substantial cartooning skill, but a bit rough when it came to final execution. After all, she’d only been a full-fledged comics student for a year (first year at SVA is a general art foundation course).

Note that the storytelling is clear (we workshopped this one pretty heavily in class),  and the gesture of the character is excellent, but the drawing itself is a bit clunky, with heavy McCay-influenced outlines, lots of texture and detail, and less-than-perfect lettering.

First, we began by pushing her to clean up the distracting doodly textures, and lighten up on outlines. But she was still drawing at a quite small scale. This strip, like the one above, was thumbnailed at 2.5″ x 8″, blown up to only about 3.25″ x 10″, and penciled and inked at that size. She considers this strip perhaps a halfway point between the beginning of the process and the end. Hilary: “I was starting to get into the clean-line groove but had abandoned black along the way.”

She began to lighten up and simplify, and to use better-quality bristol (her fave: one-ply Borden Riley Bleedproof). She used a flexible crowquill pen to ink.

Original size

One of our projects in class was to try emulating a master cartoonist or two. Hilary tried Walt Kelly and Jaime Hernandez. (This activity is in DWWP Chapter 8 on pg. 122: Line for line)

“For the “Masters” excercise, I inked a panel from Jaime Hernandez’s The Education of Hopey Glass and a panel from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.  Jaime’s art looks like it ought to be a breeze to trace, but my attempt at maintaining his precision in fluid strokes was largely a bust.  Just practice?  I learned a more reaffirming lesson from the Pogo strip…  That is, enormous originals make for extremely forgiving reproductions.  At a glance, you wouldn’t catch my counterfeit.”

Here is Walt Kelly’s panel: Hilary blew it up to about 7.5″ high, probably close to the size he originally drew it. It’s drawn in brush. Hilary’s copies follow.

As you can see, when the original and two copies are reduced back down to print size, the evidence that Hilary is less experienced is almost unnoticeable. As a result of this experiment, Hilary went from drawing her originals at about 3.25″ x 10″ to 4″ x 13″ within the 10 weeks, and is now “testing the advantages of 5″ x 15″.” The original version of Planck’s Guide to constant conversation (above)  is an example of the former, and the Cartoonists United strips (below) the latter. This despite her extreme student-budget frugality and distaste for using too much expensive paper!

Here’s how she describes her learning process:

Step one: Make comics the way in which I’m comfortable (At the beginning of the summer, this meant working thumbnails to a state of near refinement on printer paper, copying up by about 130%, lightboxing onto smooth vellum and then inking with a G-Nib or itty little brush…no Ames guide, no T-square).

Step two: Try what teachers and friends suggest, often expecting to hate the results. (You and Tom said “Work bigger”—I thought “Not worth the time and money, but if you sayyy sooo.”  Keith said “Try a crow quill [nib]” for better line variation—I thought “Will those lines even show up then?  Aren’t quills just for hatching?  I want clear clean lines!”)

Step three: Eat my hat.  Retain effective techniques and materials. (Working larger works magic… and the quill was just the ticket.  Tom introduced me to what is now my favorite paper, Borden Riley Bleedproof.) And forgo anything ineffective for the next round. (Transparent vellum [tracing paper] is too susceptible to bloppy ink.  Still using what I bought, but probably won’t buy again.)


Finally, Hilary’s new process started to take shape. Here’s an example of one strip all the way through the stages of development.

Thumbnails. These are a bit less visually developed than the ones she was doing at the beginning of the class.

Here's a first pass on pencils. (Original size 4" x 13")

And here's a second pass, traced from the first on a lightbox, and tightened up.

Here's the third, final pencil (again traced and tightened up), with lettering and panel borders inked. The writing is cleaned up and pacing fixed here. Now featuring my fave line Hilary wrote all summer: "Luck be a lady, I have it on my iPod!")

Hilary was experimenting with inking on tracing vellum at this point. She inked this strip several times. Here's the first attempt.

Here's the second pass.

Herr's her final inks for the first three panels.

She inked the final panel on a separate sheet.

And here is the final strip. Hilary took all the pieces and composited them in Photoshop. We discussed black spotting after final inks were finished, and decided that yes, the kid's sneakers should be black! That is the level of attention to detail Hilary was into at this point.

Here’s the second strip in this series, just for fun.

Here’s the final, redrawn Constant Conversation strip shown above.

Note the lovely black spotting in this one, now.

What’s amazing is that Hilary went in ten weeks from a talented student with promise, to a near-professional level of polish. Although it’s less amazing when you realize how hard she worked: she finished more than thirty-six strips in this incredibly painstaking, attentive manner.

(“Finished,” hah.) Then there are about twenty more thumbnailed strips floating between “scrap this,” “finish this,” and “save this for something else.”

It was a year’s worth of thinking crammed into ten weeks. She was already funny and inventive, with very good comic timing (though, yes, we did also critique and work on writing of the strips).I expect to see her name in webcomics lights very very soon now.

Reach Hilary at HahaHilaryAllison at gmail. See if she’s finished her minicomic and can send you one for a few bucks.


7 Comments to Student spotlight: Hilary Allison

  • by Jessica Abel

    On August 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Note all you SVA students and grads: an EPIC post on one of your own! Check it out!

  • by jahhdog

    On August 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Nice article/post.

    I liked seeing Hilary’s work and reading the way you teach the students through the different exercises.

    The positive effect of the lessons definitely shows!


  • by Gokul Gopalakrishanan

    On August 21, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Hey, Nice Work.Interesting to see a work unfold.Liked especially how the constraints of the panel boxes have been conquered.

  • by Tom Hart

    On September 1, 2010 at 1:34 am

    Yes, Hilary was a powerhouse and SUPER DEDICATED, and I had a special twinkly teary eye when she’d bring in new work because she’s working with old fashioned comic-strips, god bless her. Having spent the last 5 years working that particular format inside and out (and exhausting myself of it), I couldn’t help but want to guide Hilary both to her peaks in the form then rush her away to other venues and formats. Comics will break your heart, but the comic strip format will leave you for dead.

    Anyway, Hilary learned and learned and learned. As you can see above. Good job, H.A.!

    Everyone go look at her link

  • by -Nas

    On October 29, 2010 at 3:54 am

    This post is really inspiring, and the comics made me laugh a lot!

    I’m just now starting into the book as a “Ronin”: 36, with a wife and son, and really wanting to see if I can “do this”, at least for myself. Seeing this progress, and reading this story of lessons learned and hard work is just super encouraging, so thanks.

  • by Jessica

    On November 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks for commenting! Glad to hear you’re on board–we’d love to hear about/see how things go as you progress through the book. And we sympathize with how hard it is to get comics done with small children in the house, believe me!

  • by Douglass Chavoustie

    On October 31, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    I wish I wasn’t eating cake while reading this!

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