Monday, March 2, 2009

Method II

"If I were a better artist, I'd be a painter, and if I were a better writer, I'd write books.. but I'm not, so I draw cartoons." – Charles Schulz

After all the thinking, penciling, inking, erasing and scanning is all done with this batch, it’s time for playing on the computer. Specifically, an antique, gasoline-powered Mac OS X (v10.3.9). Works for me…
I’ve scanned the original pen & ink line with a tiny Epson (Perfection 2580) on “black & white” setting (as opposed to grayscale) @ 300dpi with a beefed-up threshold of 150, saving images as a TIFF. Then they are cleaned up in either Photoshop or Adobe Streamline where I can get rid of all the goofs so I don’t look like such a slob in print. The drawings are then converted into a vector format (as opposed to pixel-based), saved as an Illustrator file and finally opened up in the Macromedia Freehand (MX) program. I’ve really become accustomed to the subtle trademark of a vectored line and how it has become my signature style with the cartoons, to the point where it’s as much of an aesthetic choice as line weight and type of tool (even when conversion renders such details moot). Originally this approach was taken in order to facilitate “shading in” enclosed areas quicker & easier when I broke from doing it manually, now it’s been integrated into business as normal. As a counterpart to this method I can now enjoy reverting back and doing it “old school,” which seems paradoxically liberating and creative.

Also I’m painfully aware of the industry standard being Adobe Illustrator these days, and my options are rapidly becoming limited insofar as old habits, but I’ll limp along until the time is right for evolving along like a good little consumer – punctuated equilibrium is the term I believe. Hell, along with the myopic championing of Mac platforms, which every once in a while I’m forced to acknowledge comprises something relatively insignificant like 10% of the total computer-users out there, it’s all mostly just a simple matter of what you were brought up using. Just because I find Macs and Freehand easier and more intuitive to use doesn’t necessarily man they are the only tools that work; both Fords & Dodges’ll get you where you need to go, both work and both break down about the same too (which is why Toyotas kick their asses, and the metaphor fails). With technological advances in general, I tend to plateau pretty quickly and become rather function-specific; just getting and doing only as much as I need to get the job done without expending any unnecessary time or money.

After scanning, cleanup & conversion, now the panels can be digitally tweaked; usually fussing around with centering text within balloons, balancing and spacing individual words and letters out until they read right and flow smooth and easy, correcting typos, bolding line weight for emphasis, rotating everything so that it’s level etc. I have a template all ready to go with the Nuggets header (plus my logo and backup signature if I forgot one) and a palette of grays, and it’s coloring fun, hours of endless entertainment. So nice to finally be able to stay within the lines with the aid of powerful graphics programs - if my grade-school art teachers could only see me now...

Might seem limiting, but it’s amazing what one can accomplish with only ten tints at your disposal, making me the master of nuanced value (“I’ve done so much with so little for so long, that now I can do anything with nothing”). Also one needs to take into account the paper on which the work will be printed, as newspaper steps everything down a notch. Prior to adopting and integrating computers into my work, only ten years ago, I used to manually apply either Letratone or Duotone brand name adhesive-backed tint screens, first tracing a general shape over the area to be shaded with an Xacto knife, then peeling it off and burnishing it down directly onto the paper, and lastly trimming away the excess again with a knife. In conjunction with the fact that I would commonly use Flairs, Papermates and Sharpie pens on regular Xerox paper, the shelf-life of these originals is severely limited – even my works from twenty years ago are now drying, cracking and flaking apart, and the inks spreading and yellowing into the paper fibers as the decidedly non-archival materials begin to decay with exposure to light & air.

After tinting, the file is “saved as” a 300dpi TIFF, and then opened in Photoshop to again “save as” a grayscale (as opposed to a default RGB file), flattened, resized, and is finally ready to email off to the newspaper. This is also the stage where specifically with the editorial panels I spiffy up some of the gradient effects just slightly, as there’s vastly more options and control in Photoshop. I leave the Nuggets alone, preferring in most cases to let the shading sit as is (unless it’s to be colored in CMYK, which is another whole post).
Then a PDF is also emailed to Date-line Digital Printing for copies or loaded onto a flash drive for hard-copy review packets, and finally a low-resolution web version is saved (72 dpi) for posting on-line. Shown here is the progression from the raw scan of the inked versions of two sample panels, then the cleaned up vector version, and lastly the completed cartoons with shading.
And oh yeah, speaking of archival concerns; there’s the BACKUP of all files, onto both CD/DVD plus external hard-drive, eventually…

Wordplay aside, yeah, I still hate chard with a passion (childhood trauma), and at the risk of killing the joke, or, dissecting the balloon; char is a species of salmon native to the arctic.

“I was unable to sleep and I would stay up and draw these little cartoons. Then a friend showed them around. Before I knew it I was a cartoonist.” - Lynda Barry


  1. Hi, Jamie. After you've tinted and flattened (by that I take it you mean to merge the tint layer with the line art layer?) the drawing, doesn't the newspaper or magazine printer need those tints to be in the form of dot screen tints instead of digital tints? Or am I missing something? Maybe they've got digital presses instead of old-school offset? Anyway, many thanks for your excellent posts regarding methods!


  2. Hey Jeff:

    Thanks, and hopefully somewhere in all this is something like an answer, much of which you may already be up on, so pardon the ramble!

    Depends on where the cartoon’s going to wind up/what it’ll be ultimately used for: the answer’s gonna hinge on the requirements of the publication and the limitations of their print process.
    Specifically in the case for newspapers (and increasingly most other publications) they generally have low print resolution, and will print all images i.e. photos in JPG format, which is in RPG – so all the painstaking details I sweat over while working in CMYK gets flushed away anyways.
    The automated/digital process converts what it’s given then translates and prints it in those dots; it’s not anything I have to worry about on my end anymore, except for the considerations below. Besides, watching the color copier these days I just put it down as alchemy or magic (yeah, that's a great answer).

    I use the TIF file format as it’s a good compromise balance between preserving detail & resolution and a big honkin’ file size, plus being a common format.
    Flattening it and saving as a grayscale also knocks down the file size – though folks with better resources than I (like faster computer + internet connection) don’t have to worry about such things. You also have the option to compress the image size while saving it, which might take some experimentation to find the balance between file size and acceptable level of detail. Sometimes folks like to use PDFs, which are pretty spiffy as far as compressing too, and are also a universal format. And then there’s some clients that will flat out tell you the minimum pixel dimensions they’ll need, and in-house art departments appreciate having too much to work with rather than not enough.

    I also usually save the image size at least a few inches larger than print size, just for “in-case” insurance: it’s one-way, so I err on the side of caution and purposefully overshoot expectations. Glossy magazines will have much higher thresholds – last I heard the industry standard was 600dpi at least, and print 4-color process CMYK, which might be a factor to consider: hedging against potential future uses my raw files are always saved at the original dimensions, and the print versions are saved separately, the web-versions also.
    It’s happened before where for example I’ll need to convert a cartoon into a tshirt image with spot colors, and been really glad the original line art was saved, or at least everything kept separated.
    I was trained in Photoshop for computer coloring using a time-intensive process (channels & layers, trapping colors, superblacks etc.) all for 4-color printing, which I really don’t do anymore but it’s useful to have that knowledge, especially for bigger special pieces.
    So for example, being an impatient & lazy slob I’ll do everything right on the same layer, unless it’s a particularly tricky spot or an effect that I’m not sure of committing to yet.
    As I mentioned in the original post, one of the reasons I plateau with technology (sometimes known as stuck in a rut) is I’ll stick with whatever is the simplest and easiest, and using black + white (+ shades of gray), vectored line art in a graphics program like Freehand or Illustrator is second nature to me – all the exporting is mainly just to get the art print-ready.

    Always best to double-check with someone at the newspaper for details – some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten were from the graphic artists and the staff photographers, as they have the experience and know-how on what they need to get the job done and looking the best it can.
    Which can quickly reach the point of infinite regress since nomatter how much I slave over something, it’s outta my hands once I turn it over, plus newspapers aren’t known for subtle, nuanced artwork. Long as it ain’t my fault I can live with it – nothing worse than the horror of your work looking awful in print.
    Of course, that assumes it was funny to begin with…

    Hope this helped a little - cheers

  3. Thanks, Jamie. You bet it helped! Going to try converting to vectors for starters. Thanks for all your great insights and tips (Hmmm, maybe I should call them "Nuggets"? - -well, they're gold to me). Here's to plateaus over ruts.