How to Write & Illustrate your first Graphic Novel? Part 2/3: THE GRAPHIC PART

Updated: Mar 28


How to plan your graphic novel according to animation pipeline? Step by Step


The process I took to develop “Gateh Gateh: Worlds beyond boundaries” was something like below


1. Draft to Script

2. Edit

3. Outline & Story beats


4. Storyboard

5. Color Keys

6. Style Guides

7. Environment and Story Moments

8. Character Designs


9. Layout with Emphasis on Flow

10. Pencil

11. Ink and Color

12. Lettering


13. Assembling and getting it printed


To make it easy, we can see it as 3 distinct parts: Writing, Design & Illustration, Editing. Although they crisscross and ideas evolve so the structure is applied loosely. Keep a note book for sketches and ideas!


The Writing


This happens when you are certain that you want to marry an idea after taking it out on multiple dates and meet with all the crazy relatives. Write your draft deliberately poorly. Get in the zone and just let it flow out onto the paper or screen, no judging, stopping, or thinking. Then go back to it when your mind is sharp to analyze. Apply the structure to it, adding actions, explains, exaggerate, removing parts. Do it in multiple sessions on different days so you have fresh eyes and heart to be objective and enthusiastic. Edit until you are content and then ask for feedback from your trusted friends whose opinions on this matter is respected by YOU. These 5 or less people are someone who care for you and can tell you the cold, hard truth. I did not have this step because it did not come up in my research, oops! Well, I learnt.



Once the story is good, you design your outline with 1 beat per page ideally. The beat is the main action happening on this page. Sketch out where the significant action/decision of the main characters will land in the total timeline of the story. The basic story structure is

  1. Normal World

  2. Inciting Incident

  3. Break Into Act 2

  4. Midpoint

  5. Break Into Act 3

  6. Climax

  7. Resolution

There was an analysis of a Hell Boy short comic's anatomy by Jake Parker in which he showed us how Mike Mignola centered the Midpoint of the story right at the middle of the comic. You can do that, or adjust the proportion of the timeline to emphasize your point. The key is to connect all the plots' emotional charges and see if you have a good roller coaster ride for the audience. You don't want them be have a steady happy and sunny ride from beginning to end. See mine below:



Now that you have a general idea of how many pages and where each of the 3 acts starts and ends, we can work on the storyboard. These are panels from the outline with stick figure and simple scenes drawn onto them, notes to self and some word bubbles.


On each page, I decided where the biggest panels would be and how to make all the supporting panels on both sides flow into and out of the main ones. (I learnt this from Enrique Fernandez's tutorial on creating BRIGADA.)


It is like that time management skill, you put the most important and biggest task in first, then the medium ones and the small one will fit around. Lines of action are important here. Pay attention to the proportion and shapes of the panels, the page composition and the pacing of dynamic versus static beats of the story. Pacing was what I did not learn to do well the first time. Please let me know in the comment if you know of any good sources.


The framing of each panel could be very playful and aid your story telling process as seen in this masterful Youtube analysis of Witch Hat Atelier.



Btw, this chicken scratch won't do if you work in team. But because I was only talking to myself, I understood perfectly what I wanted to communicate and remember, it was fine. Not having to make presentable storyboard cuts down a ton production time.


Although shapes and compositions are some what universally understood, colors have different associations and meanings depending on which cultures we are depicting so do more research on that.

With the story taking shapes and the emotions to be conveyed in each page clear, we create the color key. I took this idea from animation. Shape and design will communicate feelings, but color make the strongest and most visceral impact.

Use your own painting or "steal" from others the palettes that fit your story moments and transitions. Steal in the sense of Austin Kleon !


The Graphic part of a graphic novel. How to find the right visual language? Design!


Style guide is where you have fun. Go back to the folders of arts, movies, and inspiration in your sketchbook or on your computer, Pinterest or bookshelves and pull out everything you want to include in your project. Think of the feeling you had when you hold your most favorite graphic novel in your hands.

Be a kid, you have the permission from your 5-year-old self!


Now ask yourself what would be the most appropriate in term of tone and voice to carry the message of the story. With that list of artistic attributes, trim down your influences. For example, I decided to make this book lighthearted, colorful and have lots of nature and ancient culture references. Then you can study your chosen pieces for lines, value, edges, colors, texture, pattern, composition, etc. Nail down why you like certain style and why it is a good fit for the story. Good is enough is better than never-ending options.

Make your decisions and move on.

Remember your conflict identification above? You better have one because that tensions between 2 things will drive your design. In our reality, we need contrasting dualities to create matter. Easy example would be the stark difference between the warm, soft, earthy design of Luke and Leia versus the cold, hard, inhuman suits of the Stormtroopers in Star Wars. Another epic one is the green, sunny, close to earth feel of Hobbition versus the blood red, dark sky, towering intimidation of Mordor in Lord of the Rings.

The pair of chosen contrast for “Gateh Gateh Worlds beyond boundaries” is free flowing versus structured. I won’t spoil the story for you. Here are some design chart to make sure every decision is conscious to a degree.



From that chart (line, shape, value& colors, edges, pattern, texture, rhythm, etc.) you can create the environment, character and keyframes. For example, the city in my story is built from stone which represent permanence. Some characteristics are borrowed from the ancient Mayan’s architecture. The town’s main monument is a classical Doric column carrying the founder’s bronze sculpture. Everything points to the fact that this town is built on a proud history and it is very hard to shake that structure. The technology you see later in the book was designed using similar principle with influence from the Artec’s sun disk and pocket watch. On the other hand, the Dibuoi's society is nomadic, without technology or ambitions to "climb the social ladder", fluid and in tune with nature and the non-sensible side or non-useful side of the material world. They are cladded in earthy color and muted green with pale skin from living in the forest. Their clothes are not rigid or symmetrical. The fastening details of their garment and belongings are strings in contrast to precise holes and buttons contraption of Adnana's culture.





That contrast of the 2 worlds needs to be reflected in the characters, creatures and their environments.






It is very helpful to draw multiple characters together because it shows you how they relate to each other. Include the simple gesture they would make as if they were physically in the same space with the others. Take lots of notes of what you like or not satisfy yet, what does it remind you of, etc. Remember: nothing is lame or unworthy. Taking stocks of your ideas will help you expand the story beyond the current edition too, for sequels and such. Then hide the prominent Easter eggs to hatch it later when time comes.


The design process is back and forth so you can jump around and have fun. They all inform each other if you get in on the right wind. Develop some scenes that excite you the most and depict the environment and interactions in them. These are called story moments or keyframes in visual development for animation.













Illustrating Your graphic novel

If you are an artist (I assume so because of the title of this blog post), we are at home finally. To figure out what is the right medium for this story is fun! I experimented with watercolor because I painted digitally so much for work that I wanted a break. It didn’t work out, so I decided to use photoshop but use whatever makes your heart pump faster.



A few elements to make your process more efficient

  • If this is going to be printed, do your painting in CMYK mode at 300 dpi, and make sure the total interior pages is divisible by 4 whether you want the final product to be case bound, perfect bound, or saddle stitched.

  • Make a page template with borders and gutter strips to save you set up time. Put your character line up and essential reference (texture map, repeating shapes, etc ) in the file. Then multiply that 1 file into as many pages you need and keep the original template.

  • Decide based on your Storyboard where the tier (row of panels), splash (full page), spread (image spanning multiple pages) are. Do they flow well reading wise? Locate them first to make the best bang for your bucks.

  • Speech bubble and caption box placements. You can make your own fonts if you are crazy like me. Google it, it is free and fun. Leave them blank for now with enough space planned.

  • Gather references. Use Puref or Photoshop or anything that could organize your inspiration and inform your story.

  • Sketch out your cover thumbnails but illustrate it last! Your skill will change and so is your style. Try as you may, you won’t paint the last page the same way the first. So let your cover wrap up your journey nicely. Gregory Manchess said that he jumped into the middle first so people couldn't guess the difference in his progress. It is up to you.

Here is my process






If you find this post valuable to your own path, please consider sending me a coffee. 😉 My Venmo is @Rubi-Do-Trinh