wattersmith part 1: reflections on drawing bill watterson

Starting back in December of 2013, I began a daily drawing practice focused on environments by some of my favorite comic artists. By now I’ve accumulated a sketchbook on Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) and Jeff Smith (Bone). Taking on the tools, working processes, and styles of two other artists has been a challenge, but it’s also taught me some things. Here I’ll begin sharing my notes on the experience.


Tools and Process (gleaned from The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book):

  1. Little to no penciling save for more complex compositions or items (mechanical equipment, for example)
  2. Red sable brush and India ink; I went with a “standard” #6
  3. Pen nib for a handful of small details (Calvin’s shirt stripes, for example)

There’s incredible vivacity and animation possible with the red sable brush. It can be hard to contain at times, but what life! Up until drawing Watterson I had only used synthetic, and I never imagined how much of a difference there could be between the two!

Despite leaving Calvin and Hobbes out of these drawings, there’s still an amazing amount of movement and energy to Watterson’s environments—especially ones from wagon-race strips.

Watterson: Decision Hill
Watterson: Decision Hill

Despite the killer point it can get, the brush definitely has limits to how fine its marks are while still moving naturally; applying the needed amount of pressure forces a very fine point to broaden just a bit. This took some getting used to.

While at first I was over-extending my brush use before finally picking up the pen and nib for extra-fine lines, with time I became able to use the brush for nearly every mark needed. And yet, I also came to better respect the line between brush-appropriate and nib-appropriate marks, coming to identify ahead of time the few areas where the drawing would be better served if I omitted brushwork and returned with the pen.

Watterson Forest Walk
Watterson Forest Walk

For the few drawings mostly in shadow, I figured out I can better recreate the drawing by starting with a pen and nib to outline the shapes. After that I can go in with the brush to liven those lines up and add the value. Was this cheating? I guess so, in a way. But it sure did work!

Drawing only loose pencil layout marks was intimidating at first but liberating overall. With a little time and practice, I could figure out the general composition, mark the major objects, and then get right to the inking.

I took on increasingly complex compositions as the weeks went on. It was very satisfying to see the results of this—especially when I look back at some of the quicker / weaker drawings of my first week. These complex drawings took more careful—but still relatively loose—pencil prep. I felt OK with this, though I would assume Watterson didn’t do as much.

Watterson: Kazam
Watterson: Kazam

It was easy to add too many marks for things like grass or the areas of trees where dark transitions to light. Despite an abundance of marks enough for the eye to get properly “lost” or to “blur” these areas in Watterson’s drawings, it clearly takes skill, precision, and restraint to pull this off.

Watterson: Looking for Frogs
Watterson: Looking for Frogs

Overall, drawing from Watterson took care and control—and yet it still had so much life to it, so much spontaneity through that supple, wonderful brush and a youthful imagination.


Next time, reflections on Jeff Smith!

Published by Tyson

writer/illustrator • heartfelt fantasy adventure comics • current project: LUCKY STAR PEKKU

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