Yaoi Art: From Pencils to Inks

In previous articles, I’ve been discussing the process of creating a graphic novel using, as an example, the first comic in our upcoming Yaoi 911™ short story collection, “A Shot in the Dark.”

I’ve covered writing and formatting the script as well as using thumbnail sketches as an aid to creating final pencils. Traditionally, the next step in the process would be to ink those pencils. So, let’s talk about what that means, look at how the process has changed in the digital age and, of course, show you examples of cute boys covered in digital ink. 🙂

(If you’d just like to look at the art, all inked pages for “A Shot in the Dark” can be found here.)

Please note that some of these pictures are not safe for work and are not for children. If you are under 18 years of age, please do not click to read the complete article or read any further.

The Rise of the Inker

The separation of tasks between a “penciler” and an “inker” is much more American comics style than Japanese and to understand why this separation of roles occurred, we need to look at a little history.

In the early days of American comics (and for some time after), if you wanted to print something, the lines had to be fairly dark and that meant replacing all the pencil work with ink using either a dip pen or a brush. At first, artists would ink their own pencils, but as the comics industry progressed in the United States, the process was soon divided up. Artists found that they were able to pencil more books if someone else did the ink finishing, which meant more money for them and, perhaps more impactfully, less expense and more profit for the publisher: a popular artist was able to put their name on a number of books each month — helping sales — while lesser names could make the work inked and print-ready. Thus the role of inker (and eventually the roles of letterer and colorist and other members of the comic book assembly line process) was born.

It’s easy to think of inking as a mere technical skill, as no more than “tracing” the pencils. But as you will see from our examples, excellent inking is, in fact, excellent art and thus requires an excellent artist. There are many creative and artistic choices an inker has to make while interpreting and refining the pencilwork, so it is far more accurate to think of them as “finishers” than as the “mere tracers” they have often been accused of being.

Why would an inker need to have strong art chops? Well, some pencilwork is fairly sketchy and in that case, the inker obviously has to make a fair number of creative choices. But even with relatively detailed pencilwork, like Karla’s, translating those panels into final production pages still means making important creative decisions such as

  • what tool to use to apply the ink (dip pen, mechanical pen, marker or brush)
  • what line-weight to use while inking (line-weight being the thickness used while drawing each individual line)
  • whether to “improve” anatomy or make other changes to the lineart
  • as well as how to best to realize the overall effect the original artist was going for now that the work must essentially be completely recreated.

And they have to balance all these choices and considerations with the desires of an editor, their boss, who often has no art training.

It is certainly no easy task and you can see why many inkers are offended to be referred to as “mere tracers.”

The Inker’s Role

As finishers, the inker’s technical responsibilities are to increase clarity and enhance the sense of three-dimensionality (on what is a 2D medium — paper). But, as is the case for every member of the creative team, the inker’s primary responsibility is to the story and its readers.

Obviously, removing the temporary penciled construction lines and darkening the remaining object lines — the work most people think of when they think of inking — both enhance clarity. But for things to be truly clear, panel contents must be also be readable — that is, a fire hydrant must look like a fire hydrant, not a tree stump; a bicep must look like a bicep, not a tumor. This requires a strong knowledge of anatomy and rendering as well as a good sense of what best serves the story: Is that head three times normal size because the penciler was not paying attention to anatomy or was it a deliberate expressionistic choice to represent the character’s emotional state? Should lines in a bookcase be left wavy and uneven to keep the sense of dynamism in the linework or cleaned up and straightened for a more realistic effect? Sometimes the penciler or editor is available to answer these questions for the inker, but not always — and these are choices only a skilled artist should make.

But why exactly is clarity — and thus the inker’s job — so important to the story? Because confusion about what an object actually is will stop a reader dead in her tracks. Sure, sometimes you want a reader to take a moment or two to understand exactly what is happening in a panel — perhaps allowing that reader the intellectual challenge and pleasure of discovery — but most of the time, you’d like her to forget she is engaged in the process of reading at all! You want her caught up in your narrative.

Clarity in the art is essential to visual storytelling because by avoiding confusion, it also avoids distraction. It lets the reader become immersed in the world and characters of the creators. And for creators like myself, that immersion is the Holy Grail.

And of course, another way an inker can enhance this sense of immersion is by adding a sense of depth to the linework. Creating the illusion of light falling realistically on objects makes the art (and thus the story) seem more “real.” As the vast majority of Japanese comics is typically printed black and white, most manga fans are well aware how much texture and three-dimensionality can be created using nothing but black ink and white paper — the inker actually has many techniques at her disposal to create dimensional and lighting effects such as cross-hatching, variance in the line-weight and, especially in manga, the use of screentones.

Again, each of these techniques creates a different effect for the reader and understanding how these effects impact the storytelling is essential. Too little shading and everything looks “flat” — too much and it just looks like a busy mess.

Digital Ink

Modern technology is, of course, changing inking as much as any other part of the comics process, so now we have the possibility of “digital inking.” Thus instead of using a pen and India ink, an artist can use a Wacom tablet and a program like Corel Painter or Adobe Illustrator to create final linework. (Many creators are also very enthusiastic about using Manga Studio for their inks.)

Using these applications to “ink” has the advantage of being

  • non-destructive (fixing a screw-up is only an Undo command away!)
  • more precise (you can zoom-in nearly infinitely)
  • allows you to directly create digital files from your work (which are now expected by the printer)
  • and, if you use vector art, allows the possibility of creating work that is resolution-independent (which means that the same linework files can be used in a small manga book as well as a huge convention poster with no loss of quality)

(For an interesting, if slightly dated tutorial on using vector graphics this way, check out John Rauch’s “Digital Inking in Illustrator 10.”)

What We Did

In the case of “A Shot in the Dark,” both Winona and I felt that creating our “inks” in Photoshop using vector art would, in the end, give us the best quality and most flexibility; it would create the cleanest possible lines when printed as well as offer me the opportunity to use the art for a variety of purposes after the book was published.

As it was always our plan to color this work, Winona made the choice to ink Karla’s pencils using a “dead line” (that is, a perfectly even and consistent line-weight with no variance within an individual line — although different lines might, of course, have different thicknesses), and with minimal shading, so it wouldn’t distract from the depth effects she planned to use with her colors.

Thus her main task at this stage was to enhance clarity — the shading and three-dimensional rendering would, for the most part, come later.

So, let’s take a look at some of the ways she did that.

Examples From “A Shot in the Dark”

For most pages, enhancing clarity in the inks mainly involves a general clean-up of the line work — especially when the pencils are as tight and well-done as Karla’s. For an example of this, take a look at the changes in Page One, paying particular attention to the last panel.

Page 1

Pencils Page One Inks Page One

Clicking on a thumbnail page will activate our cool Javascript-based Lightbox viewer. Once you have activated the Lightbox, click on the right side of the page for the next page, the left side for the previous page, and the X at the bottom-right of the script page to return to this site. (You can also use the keys “N”, “P” and “X” to navigate.)

Overall, Winona’s inks look pretty close to Karla’s final pencils. In that last panel, you might have seen that the lines in the bookshelves and dresser have been evened out. You might have also noticed that the Demon’s legs have been shortened to be in better proportion to his body. Mostly likely, though, the biggest change that caught your eye — after noticing that we decided to fill the panel gutters with black — was that all the magic and shading have been removed — and this is because, as I said, they’ll be added at the coloring stage.

But even doing just a light clean-up, changes were still made here for the sake of story clarity as well. Continuity errors (like the tilt in Aman’s head in Panel 1 and Panel 4) have been fixed and the door is much more clearly a door in this panel. (Minor alterations, yes, but I believe they do have an effect on the overall realism of the scene for the reader, if only on a subconscious level.)

Now, sometimes, for the sake of the story, an editor will actually ask for specific changes to the art at the inking stage. For Page 3, upon reflection, I felt that the Demon’s expression in Panel 2 wasn’t snarky enough for his “Fee Fie Foe Fum” line, and asked Winona to sneer it up a bit. In Panel 6, Ben’s eyes felt a bit cartoony to me and I had Winona dial them back. Being a skilled artist, she had no problem accommodating me:

Page 3

Pencils Page Three Inks Page Three

Sometimes it’s the poses and gestures that an editor decides to change at this stage and Page 7 offers a good example of this. In the first panel, I felt it wasn’t clear that Ben was actually leaping to his feet and that he looked a little awkward in that pose. Winona fixed this with a simple reposition of his right leg.

Page 7

Pencils Page Seven Inks Page Seven

(In addition, you might have noticed that we moved the hologram back behind Ethan’s feet to add to the illusion of depth, so even without shading considerations, enhancing the three-dimensionality of the work at this stage is still important.)

Occasionally, the changes to the art are more significant. In Panel 2 of Page 9, I felt our leads (particularly Ethan) were looking a little androgynous for this comic and believed the anatomy of the kiss could be improved. Similarly, I felt that Ben’s eyes in Panel 4 also needed to be cleaned up. This is an important romantic scene, after all, and strong, compelling anatomy and poses are very important. I think you’ll agree with me that Winona found great solutions to both requests without making it feel like we’ve suddenly turned the page on a complete different comic.

(This one is an 18+ page, so if you’re under 18, please just take our word for it and don’t click on these thumbnails…)

Page 9

Pencils Page Nine Inks Page Nine

Now that’s what I call a kiss! 🙂

You might also have noticed that even though, for the most part, texture has been removed in the inks, Winona actually added some nice detail in the sheets and pillows in both Panels 1 and 3. Again, it’s touches like that which really add to the feeling of realism…

Panels 1 and 3 of Page 11 offer some more examples where the anatomy was improved while keeping within the style of the comic.

Page 11

Pencils Page Eleven Inks Page Eleven

Here again the look of the eyes are brought more in line with the rest of the story without losing the impact of the emotional expressions.

Trying to improve good art is a fine line to walk — particularly when given such detailed pencils to begin with — but I hope you’ll agree with me when I say that I think Winona did a really great job.

It’s Starting To Really Feel Like It’s Coming Together

Honestly, I had expected the inking stage to be fairly boring, but this part of the process actually turned out to be quite exciting for me — I got to see pencils I was very happy with being transformed into inked art I was thrilled with. There was a very special synergy that came out of Karla and Winona working together that I think made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And shortly after, when I started to receive the colored pages, I had the euphoric experience of seeing one of my scripts more perfectly realized than I’ve ever felt watching one of my films.

But that’s a story for a future article… 😉

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