Brigid Alverson gives some free advice on how not to draw manga

Over at Robot 6, Brigid Alverson wrote a very eye-opening piece on how-to draw manga books, and that you should proceed at your own caution. Ms. Alverson has an MFA in studio art and has edited how-to books, so she’s someone who definitely knows what she’s talking about.

So here’s the advice I have for all aspiring comics artists everywhere: Draw from life. You’re better off using those how-to books in an interesting still-life setup and drawing that than copying the illustrations you will find inside.

Those illustrations are the end point of a process you are just beginning. The flaw that I see in a lot of amateur manga is that artists fall in love with the stylization before they are able to create a convincing form in space. How many manga characters have you seen that have big eyes but no back to their heads? Or elaborate costumes but no three-dimensional presence? Start with what’s in front of your eyes and see where that takes you.

If you open these richly illustrated manga books, what you will find is a series of character designs. Again, they are carefully thought out and beautifully drawn, but they have a sort of generic feeling to them. If you aspire to drawing a particular genre of manga, then presumably you are already reading that genre and you don’t need someone to point out the standard features of demons, peach girls, or semes and ukes. (If you aspire to drawing a particular genre of manga and you aren’t already reading it, stop right now and either switch genres or start reading.)

The other problem is that there is a lot more to making manga than simply designing interesting characters. For some reason many artists tend to stop there — go to the Artists Alley of any convention and you will see page after page of pin-ups of manga-style characters but very few actual comics. Storytelling is a lot more than character design, it’s storyboarding and composition and pacing, and actually having a story to tell to begin with. The manga character books deal with none of this.

Ms. Alverson also offers some of her own recommendations of How To Draw Manga guides that actually are useful. But the point remains: if you’re making a comic, you’ve gotta know how to tell a story visually.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 14, 2013, in comics, The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. But if you don’t start with the style, then it’s not “How to Draw Manga” anymore, is it? It’s just “How to Draw”. And you can’t do a “manga genre” and call it just another comic book. That’s just crazy talk.

    • I think what she’s saying is that the manga books focus more on the obvious aesthetics (the big eyes, the fiddly costume details) and not enough on the storytelling aspect. Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” book actually does a good job of explaining how Japanese and Western storytelling methods are rooted in different narrative traditions. In a Western comic, one scene tends to flow to the next. In a manga, though, panels jump around from different perspectives rather swiftly. (I think the example he used showed one person talking, and then the next panel showing a knife chopping a cucumber.) The technique is less linear, and it also fills in lots of environmental detail.

      • Understanding Comics is twenty years old, though, and more and more “manga” techniques have been filtering into Western comics in recent years. I think McCloud also says in Making Comics that he looks forward to the day when we don’t use “manga” to separate “Japanese” comics from other comics.

    • True. A lot of these books are perfectly fine if you are using them to refine your core skills, or pick some some neat tricks, rather then using them to learn how to draw. Although there are a fair number that are shitty even given that! The same can be said for how to draw super hero books and how to draw in Photoshop books and how to draw Disney books and so forth.

  2. I’m good at writing stories, but I don’t know where to start as far as *drawing* them. Do I go for an art class that teaches realistic portrayal? Do I try to go the book route? Total noob here.

  3. She gives some good advice (it is in fact some of the very first advice you’ll hear from any decent art teacher, and it applies to any art style or genre in addition to Manga). But then what gets me is that she links herself to Christopher Hart, the grand admiral of teaching superficial style instead of substance. Maybe he’s not like that in the book she linked… I haven’t read that one.

    But then it also hit me: For someone with such a low opinion of How To Draw books, what is she doing editing How To Draw books for a living?

    • I think it more or less has to do with the job of being an editor, which means being the one with standards and having to sift though a ton of books that don’t meet those standards.

      For example, if I was an editor for a company that specializes in sci-fi/fiction, I will bet that I’d have to sit through a lot of really crappily written novels before stumbling across a gem worth publishing.

      • You know, I had never thought about that. It would probably be an especially tough job to do, especially while having a degree in art. There are a lot of bad How To Draw books out there.

    • Hi Hawk! I don’t edit art instruction books any more—it was something I did back in the 1980s, and that Christopher Hart book I edited was, I believe, his first, and as I mentioned, several successful comics creators have told me they found it useful. I haven’t looked at in a while, but I was quite pleased with it at the time.

      As for why I was doing it, I don’t hate art instruction books. I was well aware of the limitations of art instruction books at the time, but a job is a job, and I felt that as someone who had been making art for years, I could make the books better. Overall, I think I did—one of the books I edited now goes for over $100 on eBay.

      My point was that I have read a lot of these books, tried to use them as a working artist, and also engaged with them as an editor, and while there are useful art instruction books, lavish books of character designs are better treated as picture books, possibly used for inspiration, than as guidebooks to be copied.

  4. Someone mentioned Understanding Comics there, but Making Comics is actually my favorite of Scott’s books. .

    Personally its a bit disheartening to see how the idea of what manga is has changed, especially among western fans. Ask people “what is manga” and most of them will probably answer that its about beautiful eyes, silver hair, japanese characters, etc.

    While that’s not really what manga is on the core-level. I think more of these fans should start reading stories from say, Osamu Tesuka, who invented the manga. Which is to say he invented the unique movie-like storytelling that gave a unique sense of immersion when reading his stories.

    I think theres something very wrong in an action manga if most of it is just nicely detailed standing characters talking all the time. Comics are a visual medium after all, and movement and motion is what makes action look cool.

  5. Oh yeah, forgot to mention, houses some of Loomis’s books, Successful drawing probably my favorite. Really valuable books too, people complain they have this scent of elitism to them, (which they have somewhat, they’re a product of their time after all) But if you can skim past some of the old attitudes, theres some really good and simple rules to memorize which will make drawing much easier. Especially makes the perspective-rules seem much easier, those won’t look so frightening anymore.

  6. Thanks for posting this! It’s a nice help.

    I don’t really draw comics, but these are valuable guidelines when just drawing in general. It’s a lot easier to draw a statically posed character than to draw a scene, but a scene has a lot more energy. One of my favorite drawings I’ve ever made was a busy grocery store. While none of the character designs were outlandish, it was frighteningly difficult to make them all fit in the same space, because in real life people aren’t just drones standing there to fill up space.

  7. Yea this is good advise, basically what it boils down to is that the first step in drawing manga is to learn to draw realistically.
    Which by the way is true for any unrealistic style, you need to know what the stuff looks like and works in real life then you can start to “deform” it to fit a given style.
    Same goes for cartooning.

  8. Viz launched a new online manga site, Square Enix is giving away digital volumes for free and Kodansha had no new licenses—but they’re working on getting a Facebook page up! Here’s a quick check of all the manga news so far at San Diego Comic-Con 2011 !

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