TUTORIAL: Beginners Thumbnailing for Comics

Beginners Thumbnailing for Comics by Archie Templar. 

Okay. So before I start, I have to remind myself that this article is about thumbnails and thumbnails only, as the temptation is always there to meander and link one aspect of making comics to another and before you know it you have a directionless piece that attempts to cover a multitude of areas that others  who have vastly more experience and are more talented than me should be doing in other tutorials.
This piece is also speaking very much from personal experience as someone who considers themselves an independent comic artist.  You can read that as someone who doesn’t get paid in full or as someone who gets to do whatever the hell they want with the creations tapped from their imaginations.
On this point is also important to remember that this is written from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have editors breathing down their necks for deadlines, but who has all the time in the world (when time allows) to create comics.  Even so, as I have discovered over the years, “discipline” isn’t actually the dirty word I always thought it was and being able to plan a comic from it’s very basics until the point where you actually get to do the final art can make for a more structured, and by extension, visually better comic book.
What are thumbnails?  In it’s most basic description thumbnailing is a tool used by a comic artist to bridge the gap between the written story and the direction the final art and layout will take.  It does not dictate the final style that will be used and therefore it is always important not to be too precious about the “art”.  What you are trying to accomplish is the progress of the narrative through very simple images that will inform what the final panel layout will be.
Thunbnailing isn’t for everyone and some people prefer the freeflow technique of creating panel after panel on the spot without the need for confining, however, for the needs of this article I want to list some of the benefits of thumbnailing.  I’m sure I will not cover everything and would be happy for any comments to be made about things I will have missed.
Art carries a story:  All artists have different ways of going about thumbnailing but what is key is that the layout and progression of the story can be seen visually, without any words to distract from the artwork and the visual story being told.  A danger that often happens in comics is that a panel that may become so text heavy that the accompanying artwork serves more as a splash page image rather than helping carry the story along.  If someone who has never read a comic and can pick up a well planned thumbnail layout and follow what is going on through following the panel progression then that is a sign that the visual aspect of the comic has worked.
Textual elements and placement:  For comics that will contain text, whether it be dialogue boxes or speech bubbles, the placing of these in thumbs can make a huge difference and needs to be decided at the layout stage.  If the dialogue boxes were not decided on at this stage it could lead to a case where you have committed to the flow and positioning of a particular image within a panel only to realise that an entire section may need to be inhabited by words.  If these are not planned for, the final art would have to be altered and the symmetry of what you are trying to achieve could be knocked out of balance, or equally, you would attempt to cram the words in there by any means necessary, resulting in awkward and hard to follow texts.
The comic strip panel:  It is not just the symmetry of the art within the panels that can help with the flow of a comic, but the panels themselves.  As with so many visual arts, when something is done right it may not even register and the eye comfortably glides over it but when done badly it tends to jar the optics and we immediately become aware that something is not quite right.  At the thumbnailing stage you can decide exactly what will work best for the story you are telling and how the art should be framed, so to speak.
Pacing:  If a comic is going to be in printed form then deciding how the page setup will work in order to create a big “reveal” is another very important aspect that thumbnailing will cover.  For any die hard comic fan the very physical act of turning the page to see what lurks on the other side when engrossed in a story is a big part of the payoff.  It is one of the best things about the comic medium that no other visual medium can lay claim to.  If both the writer and artist can create the perfect pacing on this front then a comic stands a better chance of being revisited again and again (see; The Jokers appearance at Barbara Gordons front door in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke).
I hope this mini article has outlined the basics of thumbs and the advantage of using them as a tool in the comic book creation kit, but the biggest lesson of all about thumbnailing is that it is not work wasted.
All the best and happy scribbling!

Fig 1. In the example below the progression from scribble to almost finished piece shows how even with a thumbnail done it does not necessarily dictate what the full final image will look like but importantly it helps with the panel layout.  It shows the original penciled sketch which was about 10cm x 5cm, then the pencils on A3 paper, followed by the inks (with the figure added in afterwards as the scene didn’t make much sense without him), and then finally the colours done in photoshop.  As said before, this is an almost finished piece; still to be added would be fast-lines to give the train movement and a degrading of the colours to take away that sickly pristine look and of course the dialogue boxes.



Fig 2. These randomly placed thumbs are from the same story arc and show how mostly emphasis is placed on the figures rather than the world they inhabit (read, backgrounds).  As no third party will be seeing these thumbs in full sequential order I can afford to be very loose on the sketches, focusing more on the panel symmetry and ensuring that each panel leads to the next without too much of a “cut”.  As mentioned before, the placement of the speech bubbles has been decided at this stage, I only add one or two words from each written section for my own reference of what dialog will be said in that panel.

Fig 2
Fig 2