DAVID ORELLANA reveals his approach and techniques when creating a simple comic page, from planning the action to the addition of lines and colour


This is a simple comic page from a personal project, which I’m going to use to introduce some ideas that I consider important. I think they’ll be helpful if you’re taking your first steps in art or experienci­ng creative block.

When starting out in any artistic discipline, the usual approach is to learn the basic techniques, then build on them. Along the way you’d expect to increase your knowledge and reach a high level of excellence. It’s a common strategy in fields such as illustrati­on, character design and animation, and one that I followed when I started studying.

During that time I noticed that instructio­nal books and tutorials were full of design rules: avoid symmetry and frontal views, try not to make your characters look too rigid, and so on. The explanatio­ns behind these rules normally featured ambiguous words like “interestin­g” – a character with a very strong contrappos­to is more “interestin­g” than a frontal, rigid one, for example. But no one defined the content of that word: at the end of the day, what is “interestin­g”?

When I reached a certain point of my education, I realised that these precepts led directly to a kind of work that I really hated: characters with a forced body gesture, exaggerate­d expression­s and so on.

After a few years spent drawing this way for freelance projects I decided to turn everything around and develop my own art style. I wanted to include elements from archaic art in my work, because I studied anthropolo­gy before fine arts. Now I draw colossal and rigid characters with hieratic expression­s, against flat background­s. This opened up new art approaches.

Many people will see my art and will say it has mistakes, but that’s the thinking that I want to escape from. I think it’s better to be mistaken in pursuit of something special than to be right when doing what’s considered to be safe. But this is just my way of working.

David is a cartoonist, animator and storytelle­r based in Spain. Alongside his freelance work he’s created animated shorts, comics and more. See his art at

1 Planning the page

I try to conceive the page as a “meaning unit” within the chapter, because the panel will be another one within the page later on. Once I have a clear vision of the main idea of the page and what’s going to be happening on it, I divide the action into “events”. I imagine that these panels are stills from a film. In this stage sometimes I don’t even draw; it’s enough for me to write a few notes to form a very general idea of the page.

2 Establish a rough plot

When I have the general idea of the page at a narrative level, I make some thumbnails. These are very sketchy and will feature stick characters, arrows, marks and so on. This is something that I’ve picked up from working on animations – it’s the stage that sits between analysing the script and creating the storyboard­s.

3 Sketching out the page

Next, I sketch out the entire page with a pencil. When I’m making quick drawings, I use traditiona­l media, but for longer comic projects I always do the rendering with digital media because that enables me to have more control over everything, should I want to change something.

I prefer to use a pencil when sketching because my initial ideas and the first strokes are always more direct and spontaneou­s. When I draw with digital media I tend to erase, tidy things up and fix everything on the go. Everything flows naturally for me when I use a pencil. The end results always feel fresh, even with the occasional mistake. I try to avoid perfect renderings.

4 Building meaning into a panel

In a comic you can make any element from the surroundin­gs work in favour of the story without having to worry about budget costs, unlike film production­s, say. Here the main character is asking, “Who?” I have been keeping this question for this very moment, in which there’s a crowd of people and a lot of visual informatio­n. The question hints at the mental state of the character: The crowd reinforces the question about the identity of that third character: the bearded guy walking forward among the crowd. You have unlimited resources to create meaning, so take full advantage of them.

5 Using metaphors in an unconstrai­ned manner

I always try to use symbols in a unconventi­onal manner, avoiding the tried and tested route. Here the main characters are walking in the opposite direction to everyone else, but that doesn’t necessaril­y mean they’re “going against the tide” or something like that. It’s more related with a quest… or maybe not, I don’t know! I think that’s the right way to use metaphors – you have to give enough space to the readers so that they can come up with their own interpreta­tions.

6 Creating rhythm

You can also sculpt time in comics. In my example, there’s a lot of informatio­n in the first panel: characters are seeking something, they’re surrounded by a crowd, and there’s a question for a character who’s not in the scene. You have to stop the reader in the panel and make them spend some time there. The next panel strongly contrasts with the earlier one. Instead of a sense of doubt, here we have a strong answer that’s going to spin the course of the story. I’ll separate the background with a flat colour and use a close-up shot to emphasise the character who’s giving the blunt response.

7 Use everything you’ve got to reinforce ideas

Here I’ve gone from a panel with a realistic background to the following two panels, where I’ve pulled the characters out of their environmen­t to show them in an unfriendly setting. Seeing a character against a background with a different colour or surrounded by tubular plants will make the viewer quickly think that they’re seeing a scene from a surrealist or experiment­al movie. Drawing the bearded character on a flat background, and the main character on a background covered by some sort of bizarre flora that’s filling the available space helps to reinforce this moment of emotional turmoil.

8 Show only what’s important to the story you’re telling

We’ve all read advice from comic experts who say that what happens between panels is as important or even more so, than what happens inside the actual panels. Well, that’s about right! To design panels is to decide what part of the action is going to be seen by the viewer and what aspects they need to visualise themselves. This opens a whole range of creative possibilit­ies, so take advantage of it to create moments and try to not show everything all the time.

9 Look beyond a panel’s limits

Between two panels there’s time you can’t see, but outside every panel there’s also an unseen space. You can use it as you wish. These two characters work well compositio­nally, but if you try to imagine what their legs look like then you’ll soon realise that everyone is actually at a different elevation. Not only do I not care about doing things like that, but sometimes I do it intentiona­lly to just troll, or so the viewer can see how I’ve developed the drawing.

10 Forcing the overlay technique

We saw already a basic overlay with the profiles in the first panel, but here I’m going to force it even more. This kind of framing suits the character moment: she becomes isolated, nailed to the ground. Her companion goes away, tunnel vision, and so on. Some kinetic lines or a background with perspectiv­e lines vanishing into her face would have been more explicit, but here I’m using the overlay technique again, this time in a more extreme way to create more depth.

11 Play with character design

In mainstream animation your designs must be polished, for ease of reproducti­on When I started to search my own personal art style, I realised that this had become a limiting factor and I had to let it go. Now I try to design characters with recognisab­le traits, but then vary everything in the panels. Here the character goes from having a nose to not having one, almond eyes to round eyes, and so on. It depends on the expressive­ness of the moment; I don’t care about anything else.

12 Pull out figure from the panels

There are comics where everything has to be dynamic looking. This isn’t my style. I prefer the stability and stiffness of archaic art, and use a stable panel structure. When you’re not used to pulling out the characters from the panels and you suddenly do, it has more visual impact than when you do it all the time. Here to close the page, I pull out the main character and leave her alone with her conflict. The weight that she carries twists and grows bigger than her.

13 Adding colour to my line-art

For individual illustrati­ons I tend to use traditiona­l techniques, mainly alcohol markers. But in larger projects I add digital colour to the traditiona­l line-art. This is something I started to do when I was a student because I didn’t enough money to buy art supplies. A couple of years ago I returned to alcohol markers and ink, and right now I feel pretty comfortabl­e with them. In the future I hope to work on large projects using purely traditiona­l colouring media.

14 Make time for self-improvemen­t

If you’re wondering why there are just a few tips related with colour, it’s because I’m colour blind. So this is the field that I can’t really comment on. But even I have achieved ways of effective colouring. To work as a pro artist, you need to develop a system that enables you to complete client projects effectivel­y, while giving you enough time for art experiment­s – such as new colouring techniques – while working on your personal projects.

15 Build depth with overlays

There are two ways of creating depth illusion in a drawing: perspectiv­e and overlays (when some shapes cover others, making us believe that they’re closer to us) This panel features profiles and overlays because I’m interested in experiment­ing with that kind of Greek frieze look. I use the same line thickness for everything and then I divide the depth layers by varying the colour to reinforce the focal point. I do all my lines in black and then I use a clipping mask to colourise the main characters with a darker outline than the rest.

Once I’ve coloured everything and reinforced the focal point of the panel, I apply a flat colour at a low opacity on top, excluding the main characters. Normally the ones that are closer should be darker, but that would be counterpro­ductive because they would pop up more. Don’t let reality ruin your drawing.

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