The webcomics blog about webcomics

Legibility II: Line

But the most important and stunning discovery I made at Chouinard, one that has been shared by every artist, cartoonist, painter in history … was the ability to live by the single line — that single honest delineation of the artist’s intent. No shading, no multiple lines, no cross-hatching, no subterfuge. Just that line…. That is rule 1 of all great drawing. There is no rule 2.
— Chuck Jones, Chuck Amuck

There is nothing you should pay more attention to than line. How thick? How thin? Long continuous swoops, little sketchy bits, how black to make it? All of these are important, and any of them can serve the artistic vision, but keep in mind that your line will probably affect the overall look and feel of your strip than anything else. Pick a line and commit to it, keeping in mind that all those characteristics of your line are working for you or against you.

If the line is overly sketchy, disconnected, or too light, it causes a sort of cognitive dissonance. Something deep down in our brains (probably something to do with hunting antelope on the open veldt) keys in on breaks from regular patterns. Sketchy, incomplete lines make your brain stop and go, “Wha?” If that’s what you wanted to accomplish within your story structure, great. Check out Alex Robinson’s Tricked for a good example of this; no, it’s not a webcomic. Read it anyway. But if the line isn’t intended to convey that “Wha?” moment, it just makes things tough on the eyes.

Also to keep in mind: if you ever intend to print, you may find that lots of little lines, lines that are overly fine, or lines that are less than fully black aren’t going to reproduce well on paper (or at least be more expensive). You can save yourself a lot of reformat work later by finding a good line now. Let’s take a gander at two of Shaenon Garrity’s Narbonic sample strips one from 2000 (it’s the first strip from the second week “The Job Interview”), and one from 2005 (the first strip of “Battle for the Lost Diamond Mines of Brazil”).

These provide a nice comparison because Shaenon Garrity hasn’t changed her character designs or panel layout a great deal over the years, but check out the difference in line. See what happens in the later strip? The smooth, thick, black lines give a strong visual contrast that makes the panel pop off the screen; by comparison, the earlier strip looks muddier and washed out. Even though there’s more and larger text in the second example and the panels are packed fuller, they’re easier to read. A clean line can also allow for greater amounts of background details to still be clearly distinguishable. Naturally, it’s possible to take this way too far.

“Chuck Amuck” and “Chuck Reducks” are basically a single cartooning bible in two volumes. I owe a lot to Chuck Jones for writing those books. Great article.

One of the great regrets of my life, maybe THE regret, is that I didn’t take the time off work to fly across the country to meet Chuck Jones back in 1996 when I had the chance to do so.

He was doing an appearance at his gallery in Santa Fe, dedications only on purchases made that evening, invites for existing customers only. The gallery director arranged the final payment for my first purchase of one of his originals (I have ten, now) to fall on the day of the event, so I got an invite.

When I couldn’t make it, she made sure to get him to sign it for me before they shipped, which was damn nice of her. Still, I am very sorry to this day that I missed that chance.

Yeah, I always wanted to meet him, but I know if I ever did I would have just turned into a stuttering, drooling moron and made a fool of myslelf. I’ll have to be content with soaking up his bottomless wisdom through his books and films.

I don’t think those two Narbonic strips are a particuarly good example of your point. The improvement between first and the second strip is more a change in Photoshop skill than line quality.

But yeah, line = important.

Easiest way in the world to improve the look of your comic: add spot blacks. Without dark, solid shapes to interrupt and guide the eye, the whole image flattens and looks pale. Fortunately, you can fix this in about five minutes (or five seconds on Photoshop) by just coloring stuff in. Drawing is easy!

I also switched to a slightly thicker pen between those two Narbonic strips, but a thicker, bolder line would look even better.

[…] So, something PJ wrote got me to thinking about what makes for a good webcomic — archives that you can easily (and freely) navigate are the key advantage of webcomics over their print brethren, despite certain business models to the contrary. Jeff once remarked on the importance of infrastructure, including navigation, forum, and blurb space. And I’ve written about the importance of legibility in artwork. But what else is necessary for a really good webcomic? […]

[…] Gary Note: Whatever else this series may or may not have accomplished, it certainly got some feedback. Read through the comments for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. If you haven’t done so previously, check out the work of Lucas TDS, Paul Southworth, Sylvan Migdal, Shaenon Garrity, Jeph Jacques, Christopher Livingston, Sam Logan, and Christopher B. Wright. That’s a lot of webcomics experience talking, and well worth listening to, especially when they agree with me. Okay, onto Part The Last! […]

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