Friday, April 10, 2015

Advice for aspiring comics artists aged 14-18

(If you are more interested in storyboarding for animation, please check out this post!)

 I visited my former high school this week to talk about my career in comics (and, to a lesser extent, storyboarding).  In the process of preparing for the talk, I built this massive block of text with advice and resources for artists age 14-18.  I wanted to post it here for anyone interested, and update it over time as I think of new things, or people poke me for forgetting things.
*If any links are broken, any info is outdated, or you have unanswered questions -- let me know!*
It's not perfect, it's not complete, it's colored by my experiences and preferences, but I think it could help if you're interested in a career in comics! :D Here you go:

Advice for artists under age 14:
Draw/write what you want and have FUN!

General advice for artists ages 14-18:
1)      The most exciting and the scariest thing about this is that there’s no road-map or formula for success.  Comic artists are self-employed and they design their own job/career based on what works for them.  The industry is changing every year.  You have to be willing to find your own path, explore, make mistakes, and constantly, CONSTANTLY be learning and adapting as you go.  Learn to enjoy the process and realize that even the artists you love are still developing and trying to improve themselves.
2)      It’s possible to make a good, even great, income from art.  But if becoming rich is important to you, this is probably not the best path!  Most people I know are still working very hard in their 30s and 40s just to meet expenses.  They live in inexpensive cities and have frugal lifestyles.  Many artists rely on their partner while they are between big projects.  Many artists do not have a plan to retire someday, and many do not have health insurance (if they do, they get it through their partner or pay for it themselves).  They do what they love and I don’t think they would trade that for a stable career in dental hygiene, but it’s something to think about.  Be honest with yourself.  It’s OK if you want a better chance at financial stability.
3)      Your character as a person is by FAR the biggest indicator of how successful you will be in your career.  Be kind, be positive, be honest, be reliable, and don’t let your ego get so big you stop listening to others (that’s when you stop growing!).
4)      Be social!  Seek out and connect with other aspiring artists.  Join art clubs and online forums.  Go to local conventions, lectures, and book release events at comic shops and bookstores.  Post your work to Deviant Art, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. and follow people whose art you like.  Draw in person with other people whenever possible – you’ll learn a lot from each other!  Other artists are not your competition; they’re your network.  You’re on the same team and you can help each other a lot.
5)      Remember to keep the fun alive.  Artwork has the word “work” in it for a reason, but it’s important to do things that just feel fun, too.  If you want to take a break from comics and do some oil paintings for a while, do it!  That could really reinvigorate you artistically, and you might come back to comics with some fresh new approaches from what you learned oil painting.
6)     You can learn a lot from copying.  It’s OK to copy other artists as long as you don’t try to pass it off as your own work.  Copy pages from your favorite comics – even trace them if you want – but site the work that you’re copying if you post it anywhere.
7)      However, eventually it’s important to develop your own voice.  You have experiences, opinions, and ideas about the world that are unique to you.  You draw things in ways that no one else does or can.  It might be scary to be different, and those things might feel like flaws while you’re in the early stages of your career, but your unique qualities make you distinct, and could become what people love most about you as an artist.
8)    Rome wasn't build in a day.  They say it takes 10 years of hard work to become an overnight success.  You'll probably see some stories about outliers -- young people with insane talent or success for their age -- but please don't use them as benchmarks for whether or not you're on track to be successful.  People develop and peak at different rates.  As long as you keep doggedly working to improve, it's just a matter of time before you get there.  To give you a very rough ballpark of how much time you should expect to invest, I drew comics for free for 5 years, then joined a syndicated site that gave me some pizza money for 2 years, then started getting paid a little bit to draw comics for other people (not enough to live off of) for 3 more years, and then I was getting paid enough to be able to do it full-time.  So for me, 10 years turned out to be the investment of time before I was able to draw comics for a living.
(Another personal example: I applied to storyboard positions in animation studios for 7 years before getting a positive response. As I turned 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, it started to feel like maybe it just wasn't going to happen for me; there were so many people graduating and getting jobs immediately, I thought I was out of the running.  But I'm so glad I stuck with it, because it did finally happen, and age does not matter in the grand scheme of things!)

Specific advice for artists ages 14-18:
1)      Get an email address that uses your real name and ditch
2)      Keep sketchbooks around you.  Draw in them as much as possible.  Keep one in your backpack.  Keep one by your bed and draw one thing before you go to sleep every night.  It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be finished, but open your sketchbook and draw something in it every night.
3)      Experiment and be open to different types of art and storytelling.  You’d be surprised how helpful a drama background or knowledge of a foreign language can be in a comics career!  There are many kinds of comics and each one can teach you something valuable; try not to get so focused on one style or author that you neglect others.  If you’re into comics from Japan, try reading a few from France.  If you’re into superhero comics, try a few indie titles (and vice versa!).  It’s great to have a broad base of knowledge, to be curious and open-minded, so you can combine influences and find a unique style rather than just copy things that have already been done.
4)      Read books, watch film and animation, attend plays, listen to all kinds of music, and think about what works and what doesn’t work in other people’s stories.  What do you like about Harry Potter?  What don’t you like about Twilight?  What can you learn from that and implement or avoid in your own stories?
5)      Start a webcomic – there are ways to do it for free, and it’s the best way to become consistent, find your voice, practice storytelling, build an audience online, create a brand / entity that editors can find, and learn to be your own boss / manage your time.  There aren’t rules; you can really experiment and do what you want to.  And who knows?  Maybe a publisher will want to print a nice collection of your work once you’ve got a few hundred pages!  For inspiration, check out these webcomics/blogs:
a.       Hark, A Vagrant! (
b.      SuperMutant Magic Academy (
c.       Tragedy Series (
d.      Bouletcorp (
e.       The Oatmeal (
f.       Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (
g.      A Softer World (
h.      Emitown (
i.        Strong Female Protagonist (
j.        Girls With Slingshots (
k.      Lunarboom (
l.        Les Petits Riens (
m.    Tu Mourras Moins Bête ( 
n.      Bambiiblog (
o.      XKCD (
p.      Hyperbole and a Half (
q.    Smackjeeves ( – hosting site with THOUSANDS of webcomics
6)      Everyone has an epic, 12-volume story in the back of their mind, but work on SHORT stories while you’re developing.  Trust me!  Focus on getting good at telling a story in 20 pages or less.  It’s important to learn how to END things, not just begin them.  Plus, an editor can read your 20-page story in 15 minutes and see your skills as a storyteller.  It’s very important to have complete stories to show.
a.       If you don’t have a story you want to draw, or you’re not confident writing stories yet, start with autobiography.  Make a comic about something funny that happened with your friends, or a vivid memory from your life, or just something that happened today.  Another way to practice writing is to make a non-fiction comic about something that you know by heart, like how to make your favorite recipe, or a non-fiction comic about your favorite musician / historical figure / author.
7)      Get your hands on a tablet, scanner, and Photoshop or knockoff image editing software if you can.  Learning to draw digitally has been VERY beneficial for me, and a lot of people transition to working digitally for good reasons (it’s fast, clean, easy to make changes, and travel-friendly).  A lot of lucrative art jobs like storyboarding and graphic design require digital art skills.  This isn’t something you absolutely NEED right now, but keep this on your radar and look for opportunities to learn digital art skills.
8)      Draw from life as much as possible!  Even if you want to draw very abstract or stylized characters, you still definitely want to know how to draw realistically.  Realism informs good cartooning.
a.       Sit in a café and sketch what you see (I like cafés downtown where I can sit facing out a window and people-watch)
b.      Go to the zoo and draw the animals!
9)    "Should I go to art school??"
My thought here is: don’t feel like you have to go to art school.  It’s great if you can afford it, but don’t borrow money or go into debt because you think you have to attend an art school.  The truth is that art schools put all of the resources you could ever want at your fingertips, and that’s a great thing, but they won’t do the work for you or guarantee a job when you graduate.  YOU are the only one who can put in the work studying and practicing, and honestly you can do that from home, or in your free time while you are getting a degree in another subject.  Employers are more interested in your portfolio than your pedigree.  Employers care about what you can do and whether or not you are a reliable person. 
I will say that I think an art school education might matter slightly more for people interested in animation.  It's helpful to have those 4 years networking with professors and other young artists; knowing someone who knows someone in a studio can definitely help you land that first job.  And animation studios that offer internships sometimes ONLY allow current art school students. :-/ But I work in the story department for Disney feature animation now, and I did not go to art school. And there are plenty of other people here who are self-taught! 
Here are some alternative sources of art knowledge you can use to self-study:  
Stephen Silver - 
The library! (I listed some specific titles under “Resources” below)
For Portlanders, the Independent Publishing Recourse Center (“IPRC”) on SE Division is a non-profit organization that helps enable individuals to self-publish. The IPRC provides affordable classes and workshops, access to printing/publishing tools, and an extensive library of zines and self-published works. 
Youtube / Vimeo (type in “tutorial” + SUBJECT and explore) – a paid monthly subscription for quality software and art technique tutorial videos. You can sign up for a free month trial period. I like, but I’ve found that a little searching around online brings up comparable tutorials for free.
Adobe TV - 
Alex Grigg – how to animate in Photoshop 
Christ Oatley - - interviews with hundreds of professionals working in animation, links to resources, and positive & inspiring messages for aspiring artists
Inkstuds – insightful interviews with cartoonists 
Griz and Norm - tutorials by a talented couple who work at Disney They published a wonderful tutorial book called "100 Tuesday Tips"
Crayon Dragon animation tutorial:  
Animation Mentor and AnimSchool are online animation programs that several working animators have told me they used and would recommend to others
10)     "How do I make money as a comic book artist?  Who is paying me?  Who do I work for?  How do I apply for a job?" So again, comic book artists are self-employed, freelance artists.  You don't have a steady income or benefits or anything from one single employer.  You hustle to find your own gigs - keep social media presences, post new artwork daily if possible, contact publishers and attend local events and comic conventions to meet people and self-promote.  You take on multiple jobs at the same time, because there will be months when you can't find any jobs.  You set aside about %35 of your income to cover taxes at the end of the year. You invoice your clients yourself when you want to get paid.  Sometimes you have to wait a LONG time and send increasingly stern invoice emails to get paid.  Sometimes clients flake out on you and you don't get paid at all (this has only happened to me once).  It's a lot of work, but there are some nice benefits like working from home and choosing the hours you work.
11)     "How much can I make as a comic book artist?"  This is one of those things you'll never see spelled out clearly online, because it's always changing and it depends on you and your specific career.  Artists can earn money in myriad ways, from ad revenue on their webcomics, Patreon pledges, Twitch accounts, having their IP "optioned" for film, selling prints and tee's a really big topic and I can't speak to all of it.  But just so you have SOME idea what to expect, I'll tell you some specifics from my life.  In my first 4 years as a freelance artist I worked my butt off (focusing mostly on drawing things for publishers, taking commissions from individual people, and selling printed goods at comic conventions).  I earned 18k in my worst year, and 45k in my best year.  Here are some rates I experienced:
  • $0 for a 300-page graphic novel for a mid-size publisher (I was compensated with 200 copies of the book, which I then sold at conventions for $20 each)
  • $50-$200 for commissioned drawings (like, "draw my son as the Flash")
  • $2,500 for a 160-page graphic novel for a small publisher
  • $200/page (pencils, inks, and colors) for a mid-size publisher
  • $160/page (pencils and inks) for a French publisher
  • $300/page (pencils, inks, and colors) for one of the "big two" publishers
  • $1,800/page (pencils, inks, and colors) for an advertising campaign for a big corporation (this is an outlier, to be sure, but this kind of stuff is out there)
Advice for artists over age 18:
1)      Get a clean, simple, modern-looking website with samples of your work, information about what kind of work you are available for, and your contact information.  Keep it updated and answer your emails regularly!
2)      Buy business cards with your name, email address, and website URL ( makes small print runs of affordable, quality business cards, and I like as well)
3)      Attend life drawing sessions / courses whenever possible (Portlanders can check out Hipbone, Dead End Drawing Club, PNCA’s open sessions, and Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. In LA there are affordable life drawing nights at Center Stage Gallery)
4)      Attend comic conventions / anime conventions / pop culture conventions.  Walk around, observe, meet people, exchange business cards, ask questions.  Bring a portfolio with samples / printouts of your best work (10-15 pieces is enough). Visit publishers’ booths and ask if there is anyone available to look at your portfolio.  If there isn’t, ask if you can leave your business card behind and express interest in working with the publisher.
5)      Solicit feedback from a variety of professionals* and LISTEN to what they say.  If you can get a portfolio review with a publisher or an artist at a convention, awesome.  If you are enrolled in an art class where the teacher is willing to give individual feedback, awesome.  When someone spends their time giving you feedback on your work, even if it is critical, thank them and be humble.  Don’t make excuses or argue – it’s hard to learn with your mouth open.  Portfolio reviews can be nerve-wrecking and disappointing experiences, but if you go in with a humble attitude and willingness to learn, you can take that feedback and improve by leaps and bounds!
*OK, one thing. Don't just surprise-attack people with your portfolio. Ask if they're doing portfolio reviews, or if they have time to look at yours. At conventions this can be a really bad time for artists, because they're trying to sell their work. Some artists are open to portfolio reviews, but many are not. Ask and respect the response.

How-to books:
1)      Drawing People: How to Portray the Clothed Figure
2)      (Anything and everything by Andrew Loomis.  I find the sexism and lack of diversity disturbing, but there’s good info in them, too)
3)      The Animator’s Survival Kit
4)      Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
5)      An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists
6)      How To Make Webcomics by Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Dave Kellett, and Brad Guigar – a thorough, extremely helpful guide to making a webcomic. Covers everything from setting up a website to creating your characters to selling merchandise at conventions.
7)      How to Draw Anime & Game Characters (volumes 1-3) – there’s some cheesy stuff in here, but it is REALLY great for learning to design characters, draw a variety of expressions, draw faces from many different angles, and pay attention to body language and acting
8)    How To Cartoon The Head And Figure by Jack Hamm
9)    100 Tuesday Tips by Griz and Norm
10)   Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers
11)    Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes
12)   Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators
13)    Color and Light: Life Drawing for Animators

Classic comic creators/titles to check out:
1)      Will Eisner (The Spirit)
2)      Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy)
3)      Hergé (Tintin)
4)      Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa)
5)      Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four)
6)      Rumiko Takahashi (Maison Ikkoku)
7)      Steve Ditko (Spider-Man)
8)      Mary Blair (Disney concept art, Golden Books)
9)      Naoki Urasawa (Pluto)
10)  Katsuhiro Ootomo (Akira)
11)  Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns)
12)  Alan Moore (Watchmen)
13)  CLAMP (Card Captor Sakura)
14)  Akira Toriyama (Dragonball)
15)  Morris (Lucky Luke)
16)  André Franquin (Gaston)
17)  Art Spiegelman (Maus)
18)  René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo (Asterix)
19)  Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl)
20)  Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets)
21) Bill Peet (author and Disney story artist)

Contemporary creators/titles to check out:
1)      Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim, Seconds)
2)      Faith Erin Hicks (The War At Ellsmere)
3)      Fumio Obata (Just So Happens)
4)      Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis)
5)      Aude Picault (Fanfare, Transat)
6)      Craig Thompson (Habibi)
7)      Bastien Vivés (Polina,
8)      Scott McCloud (The Sculptor)
9)      David Mazzucchelli (Asterios Polyp)
10)  Daniel Clowes (Ghost World)
11)  Alison Bechdel (Fun Home)
12)  (Superman Red Son)
13)  Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki (This One Summer, Skim)
14)  Bill Willingham (Fables)
15)  Mike Mignola (Hellboy)
16)  Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Bakuman)
17)  Hiromu Arakawa (Full Metal Alchemist)
18)  Katie Shanahan (storyboard artist)
19)  Madeleine Flores (storyboard artist at Disney)
20)  Hilary Florido (storyboard artist on Steven Universe)
21)  Chris Samnee (Daredevil)
22)  Gurihiru (Avatar: The Last Airbender comics)
23)  Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie (Aya of Yopougon)
24)  Joann Sfar
25)  Becky Cloonan (Gotham Academy)
26)  Kate Leth (Kate Or Die)
27)  Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (The Wicked And The Divine)
28)  Brandon Graham (King City)
29)  Erika Moen (Dar!)
30)  Joelle Jones and Jamie S. Rich (Lady Killer)

1)      Adobe products (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Flash, etc.) – Adobe’s software is the standard for many industries.  It’s expensive, but students can get big discounts, and there are free 30-day trial versions available of most of the programs through the Adobe website.  Check to see if your school and/or library have Adobe software.
2)      Corel Paint Shop Pro – a very good, much more affordable Photoshop alternative
3)      Manga Studio – TONS of people use Manga Studio to make comics these days.  You can buy the program for like $60, and it was designed explicitly for the creation of comics, versus Photoshop which was designed with photograph manipulation in mind.

Art stores:
1) sells all the good stuff
2)      Kinokuniya has lots of great pens from Japan
3)      Dick Blick has a good selection of supplies and an online shop

Art supplies:
  1. "The Only Sketchbook You Will Ever Need" by Bee Paper is my FAVORITE sketchbook.  Pens, pencil, watercolor, copic markers all look fantastic and don't bleed through to the next page.  With everything except copic markers, I can draw on both sides of the paper, which makes them last twice as long / saves paper.
  2. Platinum Co. Carbon pen – used by Sarah Glidden and Boulet!  A travel-friendly, low-maintenance alternative to pen nibs.  Draws thin, graceful lines, even if you're heavy-handed like me.  You can buy replacement cartridges in bulk on
  3. Pentel pocket brush pen – the tool that Craig Thompson used to draw Blankets, and Emi Lenox used to draw Emitown!  It’s a travel-friendly, low-maintenance alternative to using a brush.  Can draw thin to very thick lines, and mimics the line quality of a brush.  You can buy replacement cartridges in bulk at Kinokuniya and
  4. Windsor & Newton series 7 sable Kolinsky (size 1, 2, or 3) + Windsor & Newton Black India Ink – the traditional American comics inking tools.  If you buy these, make sure to also buy a good brush cleaner like The Masters Brush Cleaner And Preserver and take care of your brush!  Dip the brush in water before adding ink, wash it after every time you use it, and store it somewhere the hairs won’t get bent or bumped while it’s not in use.  I’d say start with the Pentel pocket brush pen and buy a “real” brush later if you feel the need.
  5. Copic markers – these are fun, but expensive.  Start with a couple and see if you like them.  I love the neutral gray colors for shading characters and adding effects in my sketchbooks.
  6. Kuretake disposable pocket brush pen (fine or extra fine) – these are great pens for general drawing, and not hard to get the hang of.
  7. Strathmore series 300 or 400 sketchbooks – great paper for drawing with most art supplies, except maybe watercolors.  If you use Copic markers, put a piece of scrap paper behind the one you’re drawing on, so that they don’t bleed through and ruin the next page.
  8. For digital drawing, Wacom makes the industry-standard tablets (pressure-sensitive drawing surfaces that connect to a computer) and cintiqs (same thing, but the tablet surface is a monitor, so it feels more like you’re drawing ON the screen).  I’ve been very happy with a Wacom Intuos 3 tablet for over 5 years.  The Bamboo line of tablets is affordable and I’ve heard good things about it.
Conventions, groups, and events (some of these are just west-coast-things, cuz that's where I'm from and what I know):
  1. Rose City Comicon ( September, Portland
  2. Linework NW ( April, Portland
  3. CALA December, Los Angeles
  4. CTNX November, Burbank
  5. First Thursday – galleries in NW Portland open their doors every first Thursday of the month around 6:30pm with casual receptions for their new expositions.  Check out Floating World Comics, Pony Club, Sequential Art Gallery, Compound, and Upper Playground
  6. Association Internationale du Film d'Animation (“ASIFA”) – the Portland chapter is very welcoming and organizes all kinds of enriching screenings, social gatherings, and workshops for animators and people interested in animation (
  7. LoopdeLoop – a bimonthly challenge to animate a looping clip based on a prompt.  Very fun, informal, and excellent practice for animators.  Submissions that meet the requirements are screened internationally.
  8. 24 Hour Comic Day (October) – an insane challenge to draw a 24-page comic in 24 hours.  I have attempted this three times and finished it ONCE.  Sometimes comic shops host all-night parties for participants; you can locate one on the 24 Hour Comic Day website:
  9. Hourly Comic Day (February 1) – a more reasonable challenge to draw one comic for every hour that the artist is awake on February 1.  Great practice, a lot of fun to post your comics online (#hourlycomicday) and feel real-time community with other artists doing the challenge at the same time.
  10. Portland Indie Gaming Squad (“PIG Squad”) – group of programmers and artists that meets up for fun events & game creation challenges.  PIG Squad encourages creators to meet one another and form collaborative teams.
  11. One Game A Month – an online challenge for programmers and artists to form teams and create one game per month based on a prompt.  A very fun and informal way to practice, meet people, and build your resume/portfolio. (
Portland publishers:
1)      Dark Horse Comics
2)      Oni Press
3)      Top Shelf
4)      Microcosm Publishing
5)    Image Comics

Portland comic shops:
1)      Floating World Comics (NW Couch)
2)      Bridge City Comics (N Mississippi Ave)
3)      Cosmic Monkey (NE Sandy)
4)      Things From Another World (several locations)
5)      Excalibur Comics (SE Hawthorne)

1)      Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Titmouse, and LAIKA all offer internships
4)      Helioscope Studio – the intern program is currently on hiatus, but keep an eye out for future openings (for candidates 18+)

Art industry job sites:
3)      Ubisoft – international game development company
4)      AFJV – French job site with primarily video game art positions, many of which seek English-speaking candidates
6)     Companies  Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Titmouse, and LAIKA have job portals on their websites, and their open positions/internships might not show up on aggregate job sites.  Bookmark studios you’d like to work for and check their job portal every week or two.
Advice from other people:
     1)   This is Everything I Know by Spike


  1. Really really great post. Thanks!

  2. Good stuff. Wish I was 14-18 again so I could learn from this and get a much stronger start!

  3. Very on the nail. Simple. Straightforward. Excellent.

  4. Excellent!
    I would add "How To Cartoon The Head And Figure" by Jack Hamm to the list of how-to books.

  5. This post is fantastic! Thank you for putting this together, it will surely help many young (and not so young) artists.

  6. Great post! I appreciate you adding what type of pens to look for as this can be a complete mystery for anyone just starting out.