Activity: Improvised one-page comic using live models

Last summer while co-teaching a pre-college intensive comics program at SVA, Lauren Weinstein and I came up with an ambitious “live” cartooning activity, the kind of thing you can get away with when you have an art school’s resources: big studio, models, props.

Our idea was to combine life drawing with cartooning by having the students draw the models directly into narrative scenarios in sequeqnce on a single sheet of paper. It was one of those “so crazy it just might work” kind of ideas, but we wanted to see how the spontaneity and expressiveness of life drawing might be harnessed into the service of comics.

We see all the time students who don’t have the skills yet to draw from their head, or who are too caught up in a particular drawing style, yet when they draw a human figure from observation they can produce lovely, confident drawings.

Logistically this is a fairly complicated activity but we pulled it off last summer and I did it by myself with undergrads last fall with great success. In fact, I’m scheduled to do it again in another week or so.
We decided to have the kids lay out a large sheet of bristol board (14″ x 17″ would be ideal) with a penciled grid of four panels—meaning the comic would be made from four poses. We realized quickly that the storytelling challenge would be that students wouldn’t be able to predict what the following poses might be so they would have to be nimble and creative in adapting the four poses to whatever narrative situation the poses suggested.
What follows is a partially illustrated step-by-step from last summer’s initial experiment. We did it in about three hours, then last semester I managed to pull it off in about two and a half. I imagine there are many variations possible on this idea.

Live Improv Comic with Two Models


  • bristol board laid out for 4 (or 6?) panels
  • pencils and inking tools
  • 2 models
  • costumes
  • props
  • lights
Students vote on costumes and props if there is a choice (but be prepared to make a call).
Call on class to set up and agree on first pose. The pose should initiate dialogue and/or suggest the beginning of a conflict. In take two of this activity, I added a stipulation that the models needed to be in physical contact somehow with the idea that this would increase interaction and drama.

Our models conveniently arrived with a monk's cassock and a red dress with devil horns.

Each panel should take about 30 minutes including: voting on the pose, drawing the model (we encouraged minimal pencils followed by working in ink), finishing drawing while models take a 10 minute break. Students could add dialogue at this point but we recommended holding off until the end, when the story had fully taken form.
Students then propose and vote on each subsequent pose. Review and discuss blocking, narrative movement, balance, etc., with each pose. I made observations about how one pose could be seen as a reaction to the previous pose; that what we wanted was something that suggested a shifting of power or control of the situation.
We took a longer  break between poses 3 & 4 (SVA models are supposed to get a 20 minute or longer break at some point in the session along with shorter 10 minute ones, but it’s also good for the students).
As we started the  last two panels (in 4 panel version) we realized that those two panels could be drawn in reverse order to keep options open (ie draw panel 3 in panel 4 position). In fact, i’m pretty sure one student in my undergrad class drew each pose in a random panel, then stitched it into a narrative at the end.
Lauren and I circulated and encouraged students while they worked. During poses we emphasized composition and framing as much if not more than anatomy and drapery. In between poses we emphasized things like editing story on the fly and black spotting.
Try to leave extra time at the end of your class session to ink and letter, aiming to finish comic in class. Models should be available to model poses,  drapery, etc.
In the end, we got some great comics out of students with this exercise. It was especially useful as an intensive storytelling workshop where everyone could compare their process and its results to those of their peers. While the drawing tended to be on the rushed side, we found that a lot of kids make breakthroughs in design and in spotting blacks (the Faustian scenario certainly helped in that regard!).
Here are a few of my favorites from that first session, and remember—this is a boast, not a defense—these kids are all under 18!

© Kristi Hoi

© David Shatan-Pardo

© Sofia Ruzo

© Vinnie Mazzone

© Shannon Wong


6 Comments to Activity: Improvised one-page comic using live models

  • by Jerome J T Guerrero

    On April 2, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Love the different viewpoints.

    Suggestion for Ronin like myself. Look at photographs and make up a comic or storyline based on the photograph. Being a photographer, it’s easy for my to look and make a quick analysis of the emotion that eyes convey. I try to remember events that I’ve been to – my last comic was based on a legislative day at the Texas Capitol. I saw the previous rep sitting in the current rep desk acting like he was still the rep…. It was a comic just waiting to be captured!

  • by Matt

    On April 2, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Great idea for a DIY variation!

    The different poses present real problems for the students in terms of blocking and narrative clarity. I forgot to say that the second time I did this I had the models change positions each pose to give a semblance of dialogue/180-degree rule. Though now that I type that I see that I should’t have them swap positions, just pivot by a few degrees so that you have the option of and “over-the-shoulder” shot set up if you want….

  • by Jessica

    On April 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    I think you could kind of simulate this as a ronin if you were in a place (like the legislature) where people were going to stick around for a while in a similar, but not the same, position. Maybe at a street performance of some kind (tip the performers!)? In a cafe–not just the customers, but the staff. The problem is no one really sits still for long enough to do detailed life drawing, unless they’re really sitting a long time, like reading on the train, or sleeping…and then you’ve got not much variety in poses. a series of photo could work, though.

  • by Jarod

    On April 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    And if you wanted to play anthropologist, you could sketch and take notes on people’s behavior at an event or just out in the world (quick thumbnails?), then make the comic later. It lacks of the spontaneity, but still preserves the storytelling challenge.

  • by J T Guerrero

    On April 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    @Jarod: good idea! Some are blessed w/ a photographic memory (my son) and can get the detail like Jessica says. But for slow people like me, it challenges me to draw quicker and get the pose down. I do quick sketches while I’m at my other son’s football practice and games. It’s helping me to remember certain poses – good workout. I am good a remembering conversation – so my comic will have bits of dialouge from actual conversation. One series was about my son’s football games – the mom’s dialouge was from actual comments from the MOMS at the football game. I confess that I create my comic by drawing it in and then “write them caption” afterwards. My challenge is the drawing – I can make up dialouge until the cows come home!

    @Jessica: sometimes I see a photograph and it speaks to meets (I hope that didn’t come out too weird) and I know I can use it somehow.

    @Matt: did the students have different viewspoints? I think that adds to the different story lines.

  • by Tom Hart

    On April 4, 2011 at 7:31 am

    This is great (I saw it at the time) and we’ll definitely be doing it at our school!


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