Guest blogger, Patrick McEown: Process (3/3)

Again, like the story, my method of working is somewhat convoluted and non-linear. Writing and drawing are part of a fluid process whereby they each respond to one another almost simultaneously. I move back and forth very quickly between the two without either one really becoming subordinate to the other. I’ll imagine a scene and quickly thumbnail it, but then a bit of dialogue will suggest a different trajectory, or pacing, so I adjust. Once I’ve got some momentum, it pretty much writes and draws itself.

The only real structural limitation I had to contend with was the page count, so after I had a basic outline of the main events/key scenes in my head or in notes and thumbnail sketches, I broke them down into roughly 5 chapters of varying length. As mentioned above, what would become chapter 2 and 3 came first, but not in their entirety. Parts of 1, 4 and 5 started to take shape before 2 and 3 were complete. I tried to let the story take its own course as much as possible before reining it in. Originally it was about 16 pages over the limit, so I had to scale it back and figure out where to make the cuts. But even so, it wasn’t too arduous. A few places are maybe a little too dense as a result, but I don’t think it compromises the story in any significant way. Once the sequence of events started to solidify the transitions arrived through intuition, as if they were already there. I kid you not.

As far as visual storytelling goes, sequence, angles, pacing, etc., at this point in my life, it pretty much just appears in front of me. The choreography of the figures’ gestures guides the story for most of the book. I may change an angle or drop a panel here and there, but I don’t think I ever got seriously stuck with Hair Shirt. Maybe I should be more rigorous next time, but I didn’t want to overthink this one. I mean, I pored over things and weighed the options after I had images on paper, but there was no point where I was staring at a blank page with no idea of how to proceed.

Because of the loose and spontaneous approach, however, refining the drawing to the point of legibility made the drawing process more elaborate than you’d imagine. Page/chapter sequence notwithstanding, the pages were initially roughed out very quickly on 2-ply bristol with a 0.7 HB mechanical pencil. It’s light, so it’s easy to adjust as you go. Things get tricky though, because my drawing has become more gestural with age, very loose and spidery, and I rarely erase before inking unless I have to, so more densely worked areas become almost illegible fields of grey to anyone but me. I can pick out the lines I want in the inks, but erasing becomes treacherous because the build up of graphite underneath the ink makes if difficult for the ink to bond with the paper so when it comes time to clean up and erase I can lose a lot of the finer ink work if I’m not careful.

After about a chapter of this, I decided to scan the remaining pages into Photoshop, break each PSD file down into layers of varying line weight (too complicated to explain, but quick to do) and then print them out on bristol in non-repro blue or light grey before going to ink. Text was mostly finalized before the inks went down, but some areas were left blank and then lettered in overlays if the dialogue hadn’t been fully resolved or if the panel was too complex to ink around the word balloons. All the dialogue and sound effects were subsequently relettered by hand for the French edition.

The colour is a whole other story unto itself. Let me just say that I have rarely had the opportunity to work in full colour, so my chops are nowhere near what they need to be for a project of this size, but I also had some fairly clear ideas about how the colour should work from chapter to chapter, even if I didn’t have the experience to pull it off by myself. Enter super pro colour surgeon, Liz Artinian. Liz and I have never met, but we both worked on the Venture Bros. for CartoonNetwork’s Adult Swim. I had been drawing storyboards and Liz was colour supervisor on the show. Production was on hiatus and I was desperately casting about for someone to at least help me with the colour. Hair Shirthad been languishing in finished black and white for more than a year while I was completing my Master’s thesis and then trying to bounce back from the debt I’d incurred as a grad student. Gallimard had provided a generous advance, but I still needed to take on outside work to make ends meet, hence the storyboarding (plus, it is an awesome show). Sensing my distress, my boss, Chris McCulloch, suggested that Liz might be interested in taking a crack at it.

As it turned out, I couldn’t have found a better person to collaborate with. I coloured the cover and I had some colour templates fully worked out for a few scenes with some half-baked ideas and reference for others, but there were still huge swathes of the book that I was drawing a blank on. Liz did a deft job of stepping in and gently tweaking the few sections of colour I’d made successful attempts at, but more to the point she completely overhauled the complete wrong turns I’d taken with others, while saving the modeling I’d done with shadows on the figures. She was able to intuit what I envisioned for a scene with only the most basic descriptions. It was uncanny.

It was all conducted via internet. I would scan and clean up the line art in Photoshop here in Montreal and FTP them to Liz in NYC. I’m pretty sure she was using a Wacom Cintiqtablet that allows you to draw right on your monitor. Once we got up to speed, I would supply her with a few reference images (sometimes backgrounds from the Venture Bros. that I’m pretty sure she’d been responsible for, in fact) and she would literally have roughs done overnight. We would confer back and forth a fair bit before she went t clean ups/finals, but there were only one or two small sections that I asked for significant changes on, otherwise I would occasionally suggest or make some small adjustment, but she generated easily some of the best colour schemes in the book with little or no direction from me. Her modeling of forms with shadows and directional lighting choices were outstanding. It added so much more dimension to the story. Colour is crucial to the emotional timbre of Hair Shirt and I can’t imagine how it would have looked without Liz’s remarkable sensitivity and expertise.

Thank you, Liz. Thank you, Chris. Thank you, dear reader.

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Hair Shirt by Patrick McEown is published by SelfMadeHero and is available to buy online and in all good comic shops and bookstores.

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