Cerebus No. 300

Tracing paper preliminary pencil drawing

Thank you for your successful bid on one of the tracing paper drawings which went into the production of the final issue of Cerebus.

Throughout the 26-year-and-3 month production of the 6,000-page Cerebus storyline, as a comic-book illustrator, I went through a number of phases and different techniques which I used in penciling and inking the characters. For example, for a long period of time, I used non-reproduction blue pencil to “rough in” and gesture of the characters I needed to depict and would then “tighten up” the drawings in soft lead pencil prior to inking them. And then, for a period of time, I dispensed with the blue pencil and went right to lead pencil both for layout and tight penciling.

During one of these phases, I also began to use tracing paper as a means of correcting imbalances and inaccuracies in the drawings. This technique involved getting a close approximation of how I intended the finished drawing to look and then flipping the tracing paper over and either drawing a finished version of the figure directly on the other side of the sheet or putting another sheet of tracing paper over the first one and doing the finished version on that separate sheet. When a final version of a figure was achieved (in reverse), the finished drawing was then turned face down on the artboard and—by tracing over the image in pencil—a light pencil impression of the finished drawing was transferred to the artboard which could then be “tightened up” in pencil and inked.

This approach has its strengths and its weaknesses.

The biggest strength is that in flipping over the tracing paper—because you see the image in reverse—you are able to look at it through fresh eyes and to see and correct obvious errors in the drawing (an arm that’s too short, an elbow that’s a fraction of an inch too low or too high, a fold in the clothing that is falling a little too far to the left or to the right, a head that is tilted at a slightly different angle than what you intended) so that the drawing itself tends to become technically more accurate. The arm is the right length, the elbow is where it is supposed to be, the fold is where it is supposed to be, the head tilts the way you intended it to.

The biggest weakness is the real danger (practically a certainty) that you will lose some spontaneous quality inherent in your initial drawing. Some part of the “reverse side” drawing will not be as good as the initial drawing or the transferred image will not be as good as the “reverse side” drawing or—in tightening up the lightly transferred image—you will lose some quality that the initial drawing possessed, the “reverse side” drawing possessed and/or the lightly transferred image possessed.

So you have, on the one hand, the strength of a more accurate drawing as well as the weakness that the figure will have a tendency to look more “posed” for largely unknown and unknowable reasons. That is, sometimes an arm actually looks better and adds a more dynamic or dramatic quality to the drawing when it is a little too long. It is, of course, easy enough to just “undo” the correction by erasing the arm and making it longer again. But as with movie acting, there are very often “takes” that work better for inexplicable reasons. You can make the arm too long again, but it isn’t long in the same way that the initial spontaneous drawing had been. And the more you try to restore it, the more you emphasize the incorrect quality and are unable to recover the spontaneity of the initial drawing.

This is a big reason that many comic-book creators pull their hair out. There are so many unknown factors which contribute to making a good figure, a good panel and a good page that, what should be an easy ABC exercise for an accomplished professional is often as mysterious and uncertain as the first time we tried to commit a human figure to a piece of art paper. There are times when your drawing is effortless and spontaneous and your results are significantly better than your average work. There are other times (most of the time for most of us) when it is a lot of hard work, guesswork, trial and error and aggravation just to produce work that we are only vaguely happy with. For obvious reasons, all along I had hoped that—in the month when I would finally be drawing Cerebus 300—that I would be in one of the former phases: a phase when everything just seems to land on the drawing board looking the right way, when I could see everything more clearly and when everything about the drawing was coming easily to me. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case. Instead I was in a phase where about every third or fourth drawing needed to be “worked over” pretty thoroughly on tracing paper before I was comfortable with the way it looked. But, my loss was the Cerebus art collector’s gain: there were a fair number of finished and unfinished tracing paper drawings by the time I had finished my part of the book on 17 December 2003.

At the bottom of this page, you will find a designation for your tracing paper drawing, indicating what page and what panel in Cerebus 300 it is associated with, whether it was a finished drawing (that is, the final image that was transferred directly to the art board), a preliminary rough (an initial spontaneous sketch which was used as the foundation of the later more finished picture) a tightened rough (which was not an early spontaneous picture but which also wasn’t the final image that was transferred directly to the art board) or a rejected rough (either an initial spontaneous sketch or a “tightened rough” which ended up not being used for the designated page and panel).

Thank you again for your support of Cerebus and myself and I hope you enjoy your “piece of issue 300”.