Drawing Words

My attempt at ‘scenario 1’ in the ‘action within a drawing’ exercises, chapter 1.

IN THE INTRODUCTION to Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, ‘a definitive course from concept to comic in 15 lessons’, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden do a lot to build up the kind of feeling that I used to get when I enrolled in an evening class; a slight frisson of whoa! – what have I taken on here? combined with the delight of getting started on something fresh and challenging.

Above all, their ambitious scheme of work really doesn’t seem scarily professional and they create a friendly atmosphere; it’s like the creative buzz that you can get finding yourself part of a group of disparate talents in a new class.

Well, I’m too impatient to wait for someone to set up a course here and I’m not going to take up their suggestion of starting my own ‘Nomad’ group, fun though that would be, because I can’t wait to get on with the 15 sessions. But I’ll definitely miss the discussions at the end of each session where everyone puts their work on the wall and I’ll miss the jam comics, where you draw a panel of a strip then pass it on to the next student. I’m intrigued by those.

Working on my own, at my own pace, I’m what Abel and Madden call a Ronin, named after the masterless samurai who roamed around feudal Japan. That’s so cool!

Defining “Comics”

In discussing the definition of ‘this thing we call comics’, they point out that it’s not tied to a genre, such as superheroes or manga, they see comics as:

‘. . . a medium, just like “film” or “painting.” You don’t think film necessarily means movies about gangsters or cowboys, do you? Or that painting always depicts realistic landscapes? Film, painting, and other media are ways to express ideas—any you like. Comics is like that too. It’s a container for ideas.’

Action within a drawing

The exercises start not with a comic strip but with a single panel and the aim in the first ‘drawing time’ session is to depict five specific sorts of action. I enjoy these little problems and I feel that it’s good for me to do something different and work a) straight from my imagination rather than from reference and b) in pencil (and they allow you to use an eraser too, so don’t panic).

In my work as an illustrator I’m invariably up against some kind of deadline, so I never have the time that I’d really like to be playful or inventive, also I’m always working for print and I generally go for pen and ink to produce crisply printable linework or, if it’s colour, pen and watercolour, again using the pen to give a bit of definition in print. I’ve hardly if ever used pencil – it can go a bit grey and smudgy in half tone reproduction – but now I’ve got an excuse to use it and I’m finding it so relaxing.

I’m working on office paper as they suggest, so there’s no feeling that I’m going to ‘spoil’ a sketchbook with a duff drawing.

I the freedom of knowing that what I draw doesn’t have any significance beyond the exercise.


I started the running figure in what I’d call a cartoon style (above, left) and soon got into thinking what props would I add to emphasise the action – a billowing coat, hat coming off his head. Then I thought this isn’t an exercise in using props or building a character nor am I obliged to draw in a slightly unfamiliar ‘comic’ style.

I find the concept of comics being simply a medium for expressing ideas is liberating. I don’t have to start feeling that I’ve got all that baggage of a century or more of comics history to emulate. Here it’s simply the idea of running that I need to focus on.

Speeding Car

Another of the action drawing exercises; ‘a ball falling’.

I say that I’m trying to avoid working in any style but, for this speeding car, I couldn’t help going for some 1930s streamlining, the sort you’d find in Tintin story or in a Goofy cartoon on how not to drive that I remember.

I’ve just finished reading Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw & Sell Comic Strips. He’s a professional with years of experience, so his book is full of practical advice, the low-down on how the business works and the nuts and bolts of putting together a comic (he edits, or did edit at the time of writing, the British science fiction comic 2000AD). But compare his advice on drawing cars:

‘Drawing cars convincingly is where many artists fall down. Readers are likely to be very familiar with what cars look like, so you better make sure you use good reference.’

with Abel and Madden’s more encouraging:

‘If you don’t know how to draw a realistic Porsche, just draw a rectangular shape with a few circles under it: instant car!’

Exercise 4; ‘a person staggering’.

The latter approach isn’t going to get you a contract to draw the next instalment of Spiderman but I know which of those gets me itching to pick up my pencil and have fun.


Jessica Abel & Matt Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures website (lots of additional resources here, if you’re tackling the course in the book)

Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw & Sell Comic Strips

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  1. This sounds like a lot of fun! One of my sons used to draw a lot of comic strips. He was really pretty good! The exercises sound very thought provoking. Have fun!

    1. It looks so easy when you look at someone else’s comics or cartoons but to achieve that effortlessness demands an awful lot of skill and forward planning. It’s got to be readable and it’s got to work. I’ll probably realise that I was really destined for still life drawing.

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