Next in my reflections on drawing environments in the working style of some of my favorite cartoonists: Jeff Smith and his classic Bone. (Read my Bill Watterson reflections in case you missed them.)
JEFF SMITH, BONE
Tools and Process (gleaned from an interview of Jeff Smith by Sardinian Connection)
- Really loose or sparse penciling, more for laying out composition of the ink-based drawings
- #1 “horse hair” brush and India ink; couldn’t find exactly what this translated to in standard brush-speak, but I assumed it meant red sable
- Not stated but seems to be the case in Bone: pen nib for occasional cross-hatching / blending work — but, I could be wrong!
My drawing process here felt extremely tight and tense. Smith’s style is clearly cartoon, full of fluid lines, rounded shapes, and simplified forms. But it can get dense with tiny tic marks and carefully overlapping shapes. For some drawings I got the same sensation as when typing up quotes from a book — looking incessantly back and forth between my drawing and the original, tracking all the little visual details in an attempt to get my translation as accurate as possible.
While looking at Smith’s final work is always a joy, drawing some of his compositions left me feeling cramped and dizzy. Working with all of those visual details in such small spaces gave my hand and brain a serious workout!
Thankfully each panel also contained areas with plenty of open space, which likely saved me from running myself into the ground. For the reader it also provides the right visual complements that help make Smith’s compositions so enjoyable to view. There’s enough detail to feel like you’re looking into an actual world, but your eye and mind as a reader don’t get overloaded.
I’m coming to appreciate the high degree of discipline that Smith employed; I think I actually felt it myself at times while recreating these drawings.
I do suspect some of my cramped and dizzy feelings were blown a little out of proportion due the technicalities of book-printing. Often published comics and comic books are reduced from their original drawings, which would explain why, despite Smith saying he only works with a no. 1 brush, I resorted to a pen nib every once in a while.
I also had some brush woes. I just couldn’t find a good no. 1 sable brush that didn’t loose all of its bristles after one or two cleanings (gentle cleanings, I swear!). I generally stuck with either a small synthetic, which just doesn’t move or feel “alive” like a sable brush, or a slightly larger sable. Both of these made the task of drawing these smaller-than-normal versions that much more of a challenge.
What’s more, earlier on I found occasions where removing the characters from a piece threw off the composition. While I certainly missed the characters I removed from the Calvin & Hobbes drawings, my recreations’ compositions from Watterson still generally seemed to work. Not so much with a few Smith pieces I recreated.
I always understood that the characters of Bone were of course at the center of the story, but it wasn’t until drawing pieces like the one above that I realized how close the visual relationship can be between characters and environments. So, many of my later Smith drawings break from my original self-imposed rule of omitting characters to focus on strengthening my place-drawing skills. I suppose I could only tempt myself so long without giving in to the temptation!
Still, I enjoyed the workout! Allowing myself to include the characters gave a surprising amount of extra emotional payoff. And I seem to have a soft spot for shots with lots of spotting (areas of black). Not only do I find them specially descriptive and capable of conveying strong emotion, they also make a piece quicker to finish. :-) The same went for Watterson drawings too, and I used similar techniques with ink-laden Smith drawings as those I developed with Watterson.
I added an extra wrinkle to my spotting-heavy drawing techniques thanks to all of Smith’s night-sky pieces. At first I actually tried drawing around each and every star, which was an enormous chore and time-sink. I soon began implementing a wider brush for big spotting areas. Eventually I learned to cover the entire sky with pure black and then add stars with a white gel pen.
Suffice to say, drawing from Smith was a different experience than from Watterson. I’ll talk more about that in my next set of reflections. In the meantime, I recommend you take a look at the full Jeff Smith sketchbook; there were many more pieces I wanted to include in this post!