Matt’s comics process I: from thumbs to lettering

This is the first of a two-part post where I’ll walk you through the method I used to make a typical comics page. There are tons of ways to do this and this is just one of them, submitted for your approval, adoption, or rejection. (It’s also, incidentally, a small preview of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, Volume 2 [working title], where it will appear as a sidebar along with a similar series from Jessica.)

This post covers thumbnails up to final pencils and inked lettering. Now, when I start making thumbnails I like to use a simple template I designed, which is photocopied on to letter-sized copy paper:

I can’t remember the exact measurements off-hand and they’re not important. What is important is that this live area box (it’s the size of the comic, not the paper) has a 3:4 ratio, the kind used in magazines and most European albums. Most comics books and manga are drawn at a narrower 2:3 ratio (and for more than you can possibly stand on this subject, please read Frank Santoro‘s amazing series of posts on page layout at Personally, I prefer the wider page (along with perhaps a nostalgic connection to Euro comics) and I have used it for almost every comic I’ve drawn since the mid-90s. The consistency is important to me because it means anything I have done in the last 15 years or so can be easily formatted together in one platform. You know: like when they give me my own Library of America edition.

There are tick marks showing the standard division into three or four tiers. An advantage of using this template for thumbnails is that it helps me visualize how the compositions are going to work reduced on the printed page (or screen). One thing this system doesn’t address is how the pages work as spreads: that’s something I’m thinking about incorporating into my process soon, though I’m not sure how. For one thing, every time you cut or add a page, the entire layout of your comic is thrown out of whack so in that way it’s good not to get to tied to your spreads until the work is taking a pretty solid form…

My thumbs start very loose and sketchy. Only when the composition and storytelling start to work do I tighten up the drawing a bit. I’ll often do this by tracing onto a new sheet of office or tracing paper.

an early thumb draft (though not the very first)

a revised thumb traced from the previous one. Last two panels pasted in later.

When I have revised the thumbs to his satisfaction, I scan them, enlarge and print them to my final working size and uses a light box to trace them lightly in blue pencil on drawing paper. As I said above, this gives me a true transfer of the proportions and compositions that I developed in my thumbs, though it doesn’t mean that I’ve got the whole thing drawn!
I use cheap and lightweight drawing paper at this stage for two reasons: cost and traceability. It’s thinner, so tracing is easier, and it’s not necessary to use expensive bristol board when you’re not planning to ink on that paper.
My method also calls for extensive sketching and note-making, so I usually have a lot of reference materials tacked up above my drawing board as well as saved on my computer. I might have Jessica pose if I’m hitting a rough spot (though too often I waste time trying to find a photo of the exact pose I have in mind in Google image search!).

A snapshot I used as a basis for the cramped kitchenette setting

I may use tracing paper to move or modify a drawing, and I may replace a drawing completely if it isn’t turning out how I want. A major model for my approach is Charles Burns, who shared with us some of his techniques in chapter 5 of  DW&WP (A closer look: a master cartoonist’s penciling method, p. 57).

My page (top tier only) now looks like a very sketchy version of its eventual self. Notice, too that since I have placed the lettering in the thumbnails I can just trace the word balloon as a placekeeper, here.

Now I tighten up my loose pencils freehand. I tend to use blue pencil to find the forms I want, and then define the line with graphite pencil.

This panel isn’t tightened up in the last panel because it’ll be a traceback


If you are repeating a panel or a background, a great time saver is to draw it once and then trace it on to your bristol board. Although it’s even faster to cut and paste the finished panel on the computer, inking anew from a tracing ensures that your drawing still breathes and has some spontanaeity to it. In animation, this is called a “moving hold”.

On this page, panels 7 and 10 will be traced back from other panels since all that change are gestures by the character. Panel 5 is a zoom in on panel 3, so I've drawn the larger version, drawing out of the border and into the unused space of panel 7. I will then scan this drawing, reduce it, print it and trace it into panel 3.

Sometime during this process, I will have laid out my bristol board (it’s a mechanical chore that can make a nice break from penciling and visual problem-solving). Once I’m happy with the pencils, I will tape them to back of the bristol board and place it on the light table. I will first lay out lettering guidelines with the Ames guide and T-square, then pencil the lettering carefully. Then I ink the panel borders, the lettering, and the balloons or boxes in that order: I think you should always ink your lettering before your balloons because you never know how the size and shape of the lettering is going to change once you’re actually inking. (When you do the borders is less important.)

In this case (it varies a little from comic to comic) I inked the panel borders with a #4 brush run along the edge of a ruler and lettered with either a Hunt 102 or a Hunt 22 nib.

I then trace the rest of the pencils, which I do lightly with a hard pencil, 4H or 6H:

last panel is blank because I will trace it from a printout

This is the reduced printout of panel 5 (second tier) that I use to trace the final pencils for panel 3.


tightened-up pencils and lightboxed drawing in panel 3

I make a final review of the traced pencils, clarifying detail and making minor adjustments with an HB pencil. One drawback to this method is that it’s hard to trace really fine detail through 2-ply bristol board, so I save that kind of stuff for this final pass of pencils.

final pencils after tightening up details and adding sound effects

Now the page is ready to ink, a process I will walk you through in a later post.

The page I’m working on here, by the way, is from a comic called “Hiram’s Pantoum”, one of a series of comics I’ve been working on based on the pantoum poetry form. I posted about it a few times on my own blog: here and here.


9 Comments to Matt’s comics process I: from thumbs to lettering

  • by David

    On May 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    That’s a great post, Matt. Really insightful. Thanks very much for sharing. I’m looking forward to the second part. Looks like an interesting comic too, by the way.

  • by Matt

    On May 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks, David!

  • by Joel Gill

    On May 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    This is great. I really like those tick marks for the page layout. Imma steal dat!

  • by Matt

    On May 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Steal away, that’s what it’s there for.

  • by Demon Hanzo

    On June 9, 2011 at 6:07 am

    I always enjoy looking into the processes of another artist. I had a blast reading this article. Didn’t know about the term moving hold. Thanx

  • by T.J. Kirsch

    On June 14, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Extremely interesting post! I Now know what to call ‘tracebacks.’

    Here’s a post I wrote on my digital process;


    TJ Kirsch

  • by David Geary

    On September 14, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Thanks, Matt. Clear, concise and oh so helpful. Cheers DG

  • by Kirbyfan

    On June 20, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    I work traditionally, just love the craftsmanship of pencil and paper.

    I’ve looked all over and can’t find the answer to this question?

    I do my thumbnails to fit on 8.5×11 paper, here’s my question, using a photocopier (told ya I’m traditional), what percentage should I enlarge them to fit the 11×17 art board? Is it 40%, 50% etc. Just want to know if there’s any exact percentage.

    Any help is greatly appreciated!

  • by Jessica

    On June 22, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    Hey Kirbyfan –

    Check this out–does it help?

    You can also use a proportion wheel to figure this out.

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