John's Process (Updated)

There is a nice discussion going on over at the Daily Cartoonist about cartoon geek stuff like inks, brushes and papers and also a wonderful little video of Mike Cope that shows his inking technique. We also have the terrific video podcast interview of Mark Tatulli in which he shows quite a bit of his process, tools and technique. And when Cathy Guisewite was generous enough to allow the entire NCS into her house in 2009, I got to see her studio and the whole production process for Cathy strips.

All this has me thinking about John's process for creating Edison and how much I take for granted that his method is universal to the cartooning profession. I am finding that it is not. Some folks use brushes, others pens with nibs, micron pens, brush pens, #2 pencils, non photo blue pencils, you name it. A number of people seem to use lightboxes and tracing techniques. And many cartoonists now do everything completely digitally with drawing tablets. And, when I saw the Exhibit "One Fine Sunday in the Funny Pages" I got to see the variety in sizes of originals - this case shows a good range  from large to small.

John's process is pretty simple. He writes up his scripts on the computer and prints them off for later - when he doesn't have access to a computer and writes on paper, he finds it is much more difficult to quickly follow a thought for editing or punching up a joke a little.

Next, he cuts down his boards - he uses an 11x17 pad of Beinfang heavyweight smooth surface carton bristol and cuts it in half for two dailies per page.

He then lays out the gutters in pencil - John works in many panel formats, some jokes are 3 panels, some 4, occasionally 2 and, very rarely, one large panel, all the panel decisions are made in the script stage.

Next are pencil roughs - and by roughs I mean rough. Vague heads and gesture bodies for composition and position. (This is generally the point at which I hear swearing. Which would be because of the poor quality of today's #2 pencils and the even poorer quality of today's erasers. The erasers are particularly vexing as they always seem to be falling apart and falling off the pencil. Thank goodness for his art erasers.) At this stage, the size and location of the word balloons is determined. He lays down pencil rules for inking the dialogue and hand letters it, first in pencil, and then with a rapidograph pen.

Then comes a fairly tight, but not too dark, pencil sketch with all the details - both the people and the props.

Once a strip is fully pencilled, he inks over everything with a Winsor & Newton Scepter Gold II sable synthetic brush - either size 1 or size two as needed for filling or detailing and Speedball super black india ink. He tried brush pens but was disappointed both with the quality of the black color and the longevity of the pen tip.

Finally, he erases any pencil still showing, scans them into the computer for separation into layers and copies them over to my computer for photoshop coloring.

The only computerized part of the process is the photoshop color (my job) and the prepping for the syndicate needed for newspapers. And - I'm going to brag on him here - his originals are extraordinarily clean. I almost never see any white out except for the occasional tidying up of gutters.

I must confess - when we got married, John had all this incredible fine art he had done - paintings, drawings etc. and when he started doing graphics full time, I really lamented the fact that he hardly did any art anymore that I considered "hands on". It was all about composition and layout and color at the ad agency. One of the things I love most about the comic strip is watching him create these beautiful little paintings every week.

A word about digital tablets. For 4 years I colored every Edison strip with a mouse. It didn't bother me that much to work with it but it did give me terrible hand cramps after long coloring sessions. About 5 months ago I acquired a wacom tablet and started using that. What I like about it - better line control when I have to add lines close fields, better control in tiny areas (and John gives me a lot of them sometimes) great airbrush control and less hand cramping. What I don't like about it. Drawing with the thing just doesn't feel right and I don't like the look of the line I get. Perhaps, with a better pen tool and more practice, I would change my opinion about that, but for now I like it much better for filling in John's color than for creating my own art. But then, I'm a diehard pencil fanatic. I do very little with a brush.

And finally, here is where the magic happens.

I know, I know - he has a gorgeous studio downtown with a fabulous drawing board. Which he does use. But the truth of the matter is that the lion's share of the inking winds up happening here - in our family room, on an old sewing machine table. And that is because - working almost 24/7 as he does, the only way he gets to spend time with us is to do some of his work alongside us. Watching Star Trek.

Update - I just realized that I left out the photo of the "One Fine Sunday" exhibit. I have put it into the body above where it belongs.


  1. Thanks, Anne!

  2. Mike,

    You are so welcome! Thank you for sharing that video - it was beautifully paced and executed and I especially liked the choice of music. It's always to interesting to see how people work.

    If he ever gets the time, I'd love to see John do something like that.

  3. I'd love to see a video of John drawing too! It doesn't take too long to edit together. Just sit a webcam over the drawing board and work away as usual.

    Here's a secret ... The HD video is 720p resolution, but the original footage is higher resolution. Those camera cuts between closeups were primarily done during the editing stage. Even the subtle zoom-in at the beginning is artificial.

    The hardest part of the whole thing is trying to mentally ignore the fact that you're on camera :)

  4. Thanks for the extra info! Very helpful if we ever get our act together and do a video :-)