Robot 6

How not to draw manga: Some free advice

How to use how-to books

I’m sitting here looking at a stack of how-to-draw-manga books, and I’m feeling very guilty.

These books were sent to me as review copies, and I feel it’s my duty to review them. They are thoughtfully designed and beautifully produced, and they aren’t cheap. People think being a reviewer is all beer and skittles and free comics, but those comics aren’t free; they carry a serious responsibility with them, and I’m afraid that in the case of these books, I have failed miserably.

The problem is that I don’t believe in the basic mission of these books. I say this as someone who once had aspirations to being a fine artist and who later edited art-instruction books. Let me explain.

When I was in college, I loved the idea of being an artist, but I lacked talent. That didn’t stop me from soldiering through school — I have a BFA and an MFA in studio art — but when I got out into the real world and started trying to make my way as an artist, I realized I lacked both the knack and the spark I needed to be successful.

Nonetheless, I went from being a terrible draftsman to a better-than-mediocre draftsman during that time, and I didn’t do it by reading books. I did it by drawing. So here’s the advice I have for all aspiring comics artists everywhere: Draw from life. You’re better off using those how-to books in an interesting still-life setup and drawing that than copying the illustrations you will find inside.

Those illustrations are the end point of a process you are just beginning. The flaw that I see in a lot of amateur manga is that artists fall in love with the stylization before they are able to create a convincing form in space. How many manga characters have you seen that have big eyes but no back to their heads? Or elaborate costumes but no three-dimensional presence? Start with what’s in front of your eyes and see where that takes you.

If you open these richly illustrated manga books, what you will find is a series of character designs. Again, they are carefully thought out and beautifully drawn, but they have a sort of generic feeling to them. If you aspire to drawing a particular genre of manga, then presumably you are already reading that genre and you don’t need someone to point out the standard features of demons, peach girls, or semes and ukes. (If you aspire to drawing a particular genre of manga and you aren’t already reading it, stop right now and either switch genres or start reading.)

The other problem is that there is a lot more to making manga than simply designing interesting characters. For some reason many artists tend to stop there — go to the Artists Alley of any convention and you will see page after page of pin-ups of manga-style characters but very few actual comics. Storytelling is a lot more than character design, it’s storyboarding and composition and pacing, and actually having a story to tell to begin with. The manga character books deal with none of this.

There are some useful books for would-be manga creators that cover a lot more ground. While neither of these is for beginners, I recommend Tania del Rio’s Mangaka America and the Tokyopop book How to Draw Shoujo Manga, which is written by editors from the Japanese publisher Hakusensha. What I like about these books is the way they get into the nuts and bolts of making comics, from thumbnailing to panel borders to choosing the right pen. Too many art-instruction books (and remember, I used to edit them) are all about how the author achieves specific effects — “how to paint shimmering skies” — which is interesting but not particularly useful to anyone else. A good book can’t make you a great artist, but it can save you from making some rookie mistakes along the way. That’s what these books do.

I’ll add one more, which is not specific to manga: I was the editor of Christopher Hart’s first how-to book, How to Draw Cartoons for Comic Strips, and I’m obviously biased on this topic, but I think it’s pretty good. Several professional comics artists have told me they used it when they were starting out, which makes me feel old but also like I have contributed something to the world.

As for the thick books of character designs, they do have their uses (aside from still-life props). They make nice picture books, and the art is usually pretty good. Looking at the characters might inspire you to create a new character, or even spark a story idea. That’s all to the good. Just don’t let reading these books become a substitute for the hard work of drawing and more drawing. That’s still the only true secret to success.

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Comments

8 Comments

Well spoken. I think there is a general tendency one finds in aficionados of comic art to be enamored of the specific style or surface that a particular artist has without really appreciating the structure that holds together a good comic story or illustration. I certainly have seen that among a number of my students, there is a serious background in reading manga and watching anime that inspires their work. I think it’s great to appreciate an individual style, but just as important to develop one’s own tools.

Copying other’s illustrations is not a bad practice to develop some basic understanding. Certainly in some schools, the tradition has been to learn painting or drawing by trying to copy a masterpiece. That work and the effort that goes into it has some real merit.

As you say though, ultimately an artist needs to forge their own understanding by actually observing, rather than simply reproducing a memorized shape. There is a point where rather than drawing an oil can in the style of Jim Lee, Masamune Shirow, Mœbius, or Jack Kirby, one needs to see and draw the oil can for oneself.

And indeed, what I believe we are now beginning to see are some delightful new “hybrid” styles in which comic artists, both in the west and the east, are moving beyond the strict conventions of the manga that originally inspired them and fusing this style with other aesthetic sensibilities that allow for a whole new visual language.

Good article!

This. Oh, this. this. this.

It cannot be said enough that drawing a character is exactly nothing like drawing a story.

I like your “How to use how-to books” very much.

I worked in a bookstore for a few years, and the number of bad How-to-Draw books was astounding, particularly because a lot of the authors apparently couldn’t draw.

For books by people who can draw and give a good foundation of skills, I would recommend Ben Caldwell’s ‘Action Cartooning’, the Antarctic Press ‘How to Draw Manga’ books, and ‘Drawing Words and Writing Pictures’ by Abel and Madden.

It reminds me of a post I did a while back (half-joking, but only half): http://worst2first.tumblr.com/post/22756484486/a-modest-proposal-to-replace-all-those-how-to-draw

Wow, Brigid. This is a fantastic piece. It’s definitely something that all aspiring manga artists should take note of. It’s true: pin-ups are the easy part, storytelling is hard.

And yes, while I haven’t bought any How To Draw Manga books, the ones I’ve browsed through at the ol’ Barnes & Noble are a) overpriced and b) not very useful.

I was once told that saying an artist is relying on “their particular style” is just making the excuse that the artist really “doesn’t know how to draw at all”. This is pretty harsh, but many times it is true…especially when the artist lets the style overpower storytelling. Since illustration in a narrative medium, an illustrator must be able to tell a story with their images. The style is there to support the story.

When the style overpowers the storytelling, then your audience will totally miss the narrative. In fact, the only message the artist’s audience will receive is, “Hey, look at my drawings of strange disproportionate eyes with highlight that make no sense.” Bad manga has become a lot of flare with none of the substance.

I think your statement sums it all up: “The flaw that I see in a lot of amateur manga is that artists fall in love with the stylization before they are able to create a convincing form in space. How many manga characters have you seen that have big eyes but no back to their heads? Or elaborate costumes but no three-dimensional presence? Start with what’s in front of your eyes and see where that takes you.”

We need to stop nurturing bad art.

I am a huge fan of this piece, Brigid! Thank you for posting it.

Lol, If I remember Well in the first volume of bakuman the protagonist threw away all his how to draw comics books

It’s times like these I have to bring up this strip:
http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/anime-news-nina/2008-05-07

Wow. I learned something new about you, Brigid!

I generally didn’t recommend the Hart books when I worked at B&N, since he didn’t seem to have much of a resume aside from writing books about drawing.

I generally recommended Hogarth’s dynamic books, Eisner’s first book, Understanding Comics, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (good superhero how-to), and then the very specific Graphic Sha books, which, while manga based, could be adapted to other styles. Jack Hamm has a series of books, of which I really liked “Cartooning the Head and Figure”. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel” by Gertler and Lieber is excellent, as each comments in the sidebar about the other’s chapter. Plus they create an 8-page story in the book, showing you the production involved! For technical know-how, the DC Guides are great! David Chelsea’s perspective books are (heh) eye opening!

After I left retail, First Second published Abel and Madden’s “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures”, a comics textbook, for classes and independent learning.

For little kids, I liked the Walter Foster DC animated books, like “How to Draw Batman” by Ty Templeton.

And if a parent or guardian was nearby, I’d recommend that the aspiring artist take some drawing classes, or walk over to Central Park and draw from real life. (I used Liefeld as an example of how cartooning can be inbred…he learned from comics, not from instructors.) I’d usually “plus one” a cheap sketchbook with the purchase.

If you want to draw comics, I suggest you take some animation classes. I have yet to find a bad animator-turned-cartoonist. Character design, storyboarding, extremes, storytelling… all important to animation. (And you might be able to use your art degree to make a living!)

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