Yaoi Art: From Thumbnail Sketches to Final Pencils

The process of creating a graphic novel goes through many stages. First you write a script. Then, working with an artist, you come up with character designs. The next step is for the artist to create “thumbnail sketches” for each page. (And based on those, she creates the finished pencils.)

Thumbnail sketches are rough drawings of each page meant to show the intended panel layout and what the artist envisions drawing in each of those panels. (The writer’s equivalent for this would be the “rough draft.”) Creating these sketches, while being a fair chunk of work at first, saves a lot of time when it comes to creating the finished pages and is essential to ensure that the writer and the artist are communicating effectively about what is needed. (You don’t want to find out that a crucial plot point or panel is missing from the art after the artist has spent ten hours carefully drawing a finished penciled page!) In addition, because of the much smaller time commitment involved, it gives the artist permission to take big chances with the art — and in taking those risks, truly outstanding art can be created.

Now to show you some examples! 🙂

(Click below the fold to look at example Thumbnail Sketches from our first Yaoi comic “A Shot in the Dark” — and their corresponding finished penciled pages as well!)

A Nearly Perfect Translation

To give you an example of what a thumbnail sketch looks like (and how they translate into finished pages), take a look at how page 14 of “A Shot in the Dark” went from script to thumbnail to finished page. (If you want to read the dialogue in a more comfortable fashion, you can download a PDF of the script.) Notice how once the thumbnail sketch was finalized, the transition to the final penciled page was very smooth — the layout and contents of each panel are nearly identical.

Page 14:
Script Page Twenty-TwoScript Page Twenty-Three Sketch Fourteen Pencils Page Fourteen

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.

In the thumbnail sketch, you can see how Karla used the alphabetical letters from my script to indicate what dialogue should go where. (In How to Write A Full Script, I talked about using these letters in the script as a time-saving technique for the artist.)

Notice also how, just from the thumbnail sketch she sent, I actually had a very good idea what the final page was going to look like. Even though this sketch is rough, I could see that the final art would do a great job of telling our story and showing us these cute guys in a tender moment.

For another example of a nearly seamless translation, take a look at

Page Five:
Script Page NinePage Script Ten Sketch Five Pencils Page Five

Again, overall, the sketch and the final pencil match up very well. But Panel 4 is quite different and that shows how creating great art for a Yaoi comic involves a number of revisions, large and small. Many of these improvements will come from the artist as she is creating the final pages, but even though the script is done, creating the finished work is still a collaboration.

After I receive the Thumbnail Sketches from an artist, I spend a lot of time writing up notes, carefully detailing what worked really well and what things I thought might be improved upon. In the case of this page I was concerned that the “screen direction” (to use a film term) between the panels might be confusing for the reader — that it might be unclear exactly where the characters were and what was happening. You can see it was also something Karla and I were working on while the Thumbnail Sketches were being revised:

First and Second Revision for Page Five Thumbnail Sketch:

Sketch Five - Rev 1Sketch Five - Rev 2

In addition, you can see how at this stage we were also addressing “acting” (I felt that an expression for “contempt” was more appropriate than “fury” in the last panel, considering Ben’s snarky line) as well as discovering nice additions to the look for the characters (such as giving the Demon claws in Panel 3.)

The Joy of Finished Pencils

Now, it’s amazing how much information a simple sketch can convey — but it was always a special pleasure [magic, actually] to see that sketch transformed into a final penciled page. Really, seeing the final pencils gave me the same rush as seeing one of my film scripts turned into an actual film. And working on revisions at this stage was just as fun for me as working with flesh-and-blood actors as a director.

In the end, I felt that Karla came up with a nice solution to the screen direction problem by using an overhead shot in Panel 4 — no confusion where our characters are in relation to each other here! (And I love the great expression of contempt in Ben’s eyes in the last panel…)

Page Five – The Final Penciled Page
Pencils Page Five

For some more examples showing how the art develops from thumbnails to finished pages (and a chance to look at more of Karla’s fantastic pencils), take a look at these pages:

Page Two:
Script Page Four Script Page Five Sketch Page Two Pencils Page Two

Page Four:
Script Page Eight Sketch FourPencils Page Four

Here again, you can see how the art changed quite a bit from the thumbnails that I approved. Knowing when to continue revising at a particular stage and when to move on to the next stage can be tricky, but for me, once I see that the thumbnails are telling the story clearly and engagingly — and that no important details have been missed — it’s time to take it to the next level. Usually that means an artist will have it by the second revision of the thumbnail, almost always by the third.

The thumbnails Karla sent me are an excellent example of balancing speed in creation with enough detail to enable me to give coherent feedback. And as you can see, the end result was more than worth the time we spent at this stage. 🙂

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9 comments

  1. I’ve been working for the first time in a project like this and I must say I’m impressed about this pencil samples, it’s the first time I see her work and I think Karla is a really great artist. I know how hard can be the work of pencil comic pages, but in the end is great to see the final pages and all the hours of work have a reward for artist and writer. I think this is a good example for people who want to work in something like this, it can be dificult but with patience, talent and the love for what you do, you can do great comics.

  2. Hey Wolf!

    Good to see you here. 🙂 Yeah, I really think Karla did a great job, too — and hopefully this article will be helpful for other creators.

    I'm looking forward to getting your work up here too. (Although, people already get to see your cute little Tanuki up in the top banner… Hopefully, that will keep our kawaii quotient up at the right level… 😉 )

  3. Hey Nara,

    I've been reading my way through your comic, Legacy of Light, on your site, and I have to say, I was impressed with your page layouts — I couldn't tell what page number it was, but I especially liked the layout you used for the page that starts with the line "Today is our anniversary…" and the character is getting drunk.

    And, of course, I love that the story is about angels and demons — as you can see from "A Shot in the Dark" that kind of theological stuff is a special interest of mine in fiction.

  4. ^_^ not much theology, they're just seperate empires fighting each other. Though I do mess with the notions that darkness=evil and light=good. Both sides are pretty ruthless during the war.
    :I have to rework some pages, since my art has changed so much, so it'll take even longer to finish: I like playing around with layouts, I think it adds an extra level of interest for the viewer.

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