Tips for Watercolor Comics: Watercolor Basics

I should note here that I consider comics to be as legitimate a form of fine art as any acclaimed novel, or any admired painting, but unfortunately, the art world, and especially the gallery system, does not consider comics to be a form of art.  The distinction is theirs, not mine.

Recently the Watercolor Basics series has reached a turning point- we've begun to cover topics relevant to watercolor comics, rather than general watercolor, or watercolor for fine art.  Way at the beginning of the series, I wrote a post about the difference between watercolor for illustration and watercolor for fine art.  In that post, I glossed over the basics- I wanted to establish a reason why my Watercolor Basics series would focus on watercolor techniques useful for comic artists and illustrators, rather than covering more traditional watercolor techniques.

While researching for the Watercolor Basics series, I've realized that there is plenty of information for serious watercolorists, and plenty of information for hobbyists who are interested in light dabbling, and very little information for comic artists and illustrators.   In most posts, I include links to Second Opinions and Outside Sources to guide those interested in the topic to more information- most of that information comes from those two camps.

Learning how to paint with watercolor in a fine art sense can help you improve greatly as a watercolor comic artist, and while I encourage you to go out and do studies and learn how to handle watercolor effectively, it's not a prerequisite to painting watercolor comics.  Comics that utilize watercolor can vary from elaborate masterpieces to very simple limited color affairs.

Super Mario Adventures- Kentaro Takemura and Charlie Nozawa

Displacement, a graphic novel by Lucy Knisley
Mind MGMT, Matt Knidt 
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, illustrated by Shotaro Ishinomori

7" Kara by Becca Hillburn
All of the comics above handle watercolor differently and utilize different treatments to tell a story in comic form.  Some use very simple one layer techniques, some are fairly rendered out.

How Watercolor for Comics/Illustration Differs from Fine Art Watercolor

  • You have less time to complete a piece- comics are consumed quickly, and there's an expectation that webcomics will update frequently and consistently.  Even print comics have tight timelines, so if you're going to watercolor comic pages, you need to hit on a method to produce them quickly.

  • Each page is multiple illustrations, so some techniques that work on standalone illustrations just won't work for comics.

  • Small illustrations (panels) may be difficult to execute, may require a reduction in detail.

  • Consistency can be a huge factor- comic pages are read quickly, so characters need to look consistent.

  • Affordability may be a factor, as you're using a lot of materials to complete a longform product like a comic.
    • You may need to compromise on your papers or paints in order to complete a longterm watercolor comic project.  
    • Cheaper papers have unique considerations- cellulose papers are inexpensive, but tend to dry fast and may have limitations to wet into wet blending
    • Cheaper paints have unique considerations- may use dyes rather than pigments or may use fugitive pigments

  • Lightfastness, permanence may not be an issue
    • Your final product is not the finished painted page, but the printed book
    • Final pages may never go on display, may end up stored in archival boxes
    • Due to costs, you may find nonpermanent, fugitive watercolors to be an economical solution

  • Need to be able to reproduce your pages in print or online- digitizing is important
    • Will need to invest in a good scanner
    • Will need to invest in physical storage-hard drives, Cloud storage, or both
    • Will need access to software for corrections

  • Often will not have exact color reference to work from (besides your prior pages)
    • Many fine artists work closely from photo reference- this is a luxury most watercolor comic artists don't have.  You can use reference, but you're going to be cobbling together multiple sources to create a single image, and this has unique and often frustrating challenges.

  • You can use inked lineart- this will make the coloring process much easier, but may flatten the image.

  • You often can't just throw away a whole page over one botched panel.
    • Comics are too time consuming to toss a page for a single panel
    • You have to learn how to make peace or how to make it work

  • You can make digital corrections
    • Alter the hue
    • Alter the saturation
    • Several decent faux watercolor brushes available, or you can make your own
    • Good for touchups, fixing seams
  • You can work digitally in addition to traditionally.
    • Lettering
    • Adding a shading layer
    • Corrections

  • You may need additional supplies or more pre mixed colors in order to get work done in a timely manner
    • Convenience colors
    • Larger welled palettes
    • Watercolor Pencils
    • Colored Pencils
    • White Gouache

Watercolor comics aren't easy- they're time consuming and under appreciated.  They aren't necessarily the best choice for webcomics, as you're limited to working in large spaces, rather than being able to work on the go.  Its not something you should undertake lightly, and is definitely not a good first choice for someone who is new to comics.

That said, watercolor can be a rewarding medium.  There's something wonderful and almost magical about working in traditional media, and you may find yourself with an art supply addiction.

In the end, all that really matters is that you get your pages done, and they look good.   Unlike with traditional watercolors and watercolor competition, you do not have to answer to anyone else for the process you use in comics- all are legitimate methods of making work.

If you're new to my blog, don't forget to check out my Watercolor Basics series! I take you through the entire process- from selecting your materials to preparing your images, to painting your pages!

online watercolor course

Watercolor Comics to Inspire Your Work:

Los Pirineos- Sara Woolley
Displacement- Lucy Knisley
An Age of License- Lucy Knisley
Beautiful Darkness- Fabien Vehlrmann and Kerascoet
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past- Shotaro Ishinomori
Mind MGMT- Matt Knidt
Super Mario Adventures- Kentaro Takemura and Charlie Nozawa

Secret Identity Shorts: P1    P2 
Ignition Zero
7" Kara- Becca Hillburn
Sections of Bittersweet Candy Bowl

comics for kids, kids read comics, watercolor comic


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