Making Biff

I’ve done multiple versions of the “my process” post over the years. It’s constantly evolving and changing so lots of details will be different 6 months from now.

First step is writing. I set aside at least 1 hour everyday for writing. Depending on what my family is doing I sit in a chair or go up and sit on the bed forming a “chair” out of a bunch of pillows. I then use an iPad and check my email, browse a bit of twitter and check a few blogs I follow. My morning routine is pretty standard with getting woken up by my son, getting cereal for him, watching some Thomas the Tank Engine. Scrolling through email and twitter gets some other ideas bouncing around in my head so that all my strips aren’t about cereal and trains.

On this particular day the item that sparked the comics was a tweet by Steve Wolfhard.

So then I opened up Simple Note on the iPad and starting thinking of things that would happen between Biff and a wizard. Simple Note is a basic text edit program that instantly syncs between the iPad and the cloud so I can easily get at my notes from my computer when I’m drawing the comics later on.

I usually write one or two versions of the caption and then a short description of the image in parenthesis. Here’s the snippet I wrote down for this strip:

Never get in foot race with a wizard.
Never challenge a wizard to a foot race.
(legs are tree trunks)

Now I move to my computer to draw the strip. I’m currently using a late 2008 white MacBook and a Wacom Cintiq 20WSX. (The Cintiq is basically a monitor that you can draw on.) I’ve had various ergonomic problems associated with being hunched over a computer all day so back in January I stuck a table and a milk crate on my desk and converted to a standing workstation.

This more closely replicates standing at an easel which is how I learned to draw in art school. 7 months later and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a chair again.

Next I open up my blank comic template in Photoshop CS4. The file is 3000 pixels square and in CMYK. Because all my comics are eventually printed in a book I create the original files in the CMYK space and convert to RGB for the website. The conversion is a lot more unpredictable going from RGB to CMYK.

I use a blue pencil on layer set to 50% opacity and block out my main subject.

Then on a layer above that I’ll us a red pencil for contrast and refine the sketch adding details like hands and a face.

I turn on the black border as a guide and resize the figure for a better composition. Biff is looking to the right of the panel so I need to give room for him to look into. If he was over on the right side it would feel cramped with his gaze meeting the panel border.

On a new layer below I sketch in the background elements. I angle the hills and clouds to give the panel a sense of movement following the direction Biff is looking. I arrange the background clouds to lead your eyes in an arc from the top left of the panel (usually the first part you will look at) through Biff’s eyes to the second cloud. This should give you a split second distraction before you notice the visual gag of his legs being tree trunks.

After looking at it I decide to move the horizon line down and give more space to the sky. I think this makes Biff seem taller and more like a tree.

Now on a new layer I use the aliased pencil tool to “ink” the foreground elements. I like to have most of my lines be long smooth strokes so there are lots of little bits where I overshoot and have to go back and erase the excess.

Here’s the final foreground inks.

On a layer beneath I ink the background shapes. I don’t stay very true to the shapes in the sketch, I’m more concerned with smooth lines rather than accuracy. This layer is set to 60% opacity to show some of the green color I’m going to put underneath. This pushes those shapes further into the back than if they were solid black. The clouds are left for the color layer.

Now on a single layer below the background inks I use the bucket tool and fill all the shapes with a flat color. While doing this step I realized I wanted black lines separating the tree trunks from Biff’s blue jeans so I drew them here on the color layer.

On a new layer above the color but below the inks I make my shadow layer. I use the pencil tool set to 50% grey with the layer set to multiply. This is darker than the shadows will be in the final strip. The darkness just helps make everything more visible when drawing. I zoom in and draw the border of all the shadows. My shadows are only loosely based on how shadows actually work. I mainly just use them to help define some shapes and to separate foreground and background objects.

Then I bucket fill all the shadow shapes.

Here’s the final shadows.

Then I run a photoshop action that sets the shadow layer to 15% opacity, duplicates it, changes the mode to color burn and sets the opacity to 30%. I turn on the white frame and black border layers and the art is done.

After hopefully remembering to save the file I run another action that opens up my web template, reduces this file and pastes it into the template. I copy and paste the caption out of Simple Note, run spell check and save the final web file.

Check out the final strip here.


3 thoughts on “Making Biff”

  1. Bill says:

    Really great step-by-step. You’ve given me a couple new things to mess with in photoshop.

  2. Lynn says:

    Wow, a standing station. Wish I had the room to do that. I ALWAYS hunch over my work and it’s really screwed up my back and legs. Working out helps (when I manage to do a week or more at a time), but sometimes life gets in the way.

    Well, we’re cleaning house now, so maybe I’ll be able to eventually convert part of our converted garage into a mini studio. And finally buy that Cintiq I’ve always wanted.

    In like, a thousand years from now anyway.

  3. Nice to see some step by step progress. Always fun to see those.

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