This is Pi Art²

Welcome to This is Pi Day ….’s Artist Blog — Pi Art² — where I write about the tools, technologies and techniques I use to draw a weekly web comic.

Do you Like (Drawing) Web Comics?

Pi Art² is the companion site to This is Pi Day, an independent web comic about fatherhood, running, video games, science, art, independence, integrity, imagination and just generally … family adventure. It is created, written, illustrated, and promoted by Brad Salomons from a quiet suburb of a remote Canadian city called Edmonton, Alberta.

This site will slowly, week by week, start to build a small collection of videos, articles, and tutorials by the artist about the technology & tactics used to create an online web comic. I will cover topics such as drawing in Inkscape, file and art library management, running a social media channel and website, and finding inspiration.

WordPress: Your Cartoon Content Management System

Personally, I’ve been a user of the WordPress platform since the versions started with a 1-point-something. I don’t write that to brag or to make myself seem older than I really am or come across too abruptly as the unpaid endorsement fanboy that I might just be, but instead to give a bit of gravitas to the next sentence.

WordPress is not perfect, but it’s an awesome, virtually free, highly-flexible piece of software that has helped me build multiple-dozens of websites and post literally millions of words to the web.

I’ve built blogs, portals, forums, more blogs, retail front ends, business tools, serious sites, weird sites, and more than one online comic book. If you’ve decided that you want or need a website to do something like this — to post your comic online, say, like I have — WordPress is a tool that should definitely be on your shortlist.

…even though you do have many options.

For example, in my real life (the professional one, where people pay me money to do this kind of stuff) I am in charge of the website for my local municipal government which serves millions of visitors every month and communicates important government information and alerts to those visitors. I manage a team of amazing web folks who work in a system related-to, but very, very different from WordPress. That system is what is called an “enterprise CMS”, and is to WordPress what an industrial-scale factory is to a tradesman with a van and a toolbox.

Sometimes all you need is a tradesman with a van and a toolbox.

What the Heck is a C-M-S?

The term CMS stands for Content Management System.

Simply, it is a piece of software that takes your content — words, links, documents, and images — and helps you to organize them in a way that results in files that are useful to a web browser.

I’m writing these words in the WordPress CMS. I’m typing them into a text editor window inside, the same window that would let me add formatting, links, images, and even little customized widgets that might be useful inside the text.

WordPress, at it’s very basic, is a tool that mashes together the design of a website (the template) with your words and links (the content) and uploads a set of files to anyone who visits your web address (the website).

And to overcome the (purposeful) simplicity of WordPress (which really is a robust piece of software all on it’s own) people around the world in the WordPress development community have programmed hundreds or thousands of “plugins” which can be activated inside WordPress to give it new features, from simple tweaks to what you see managing content to complex new applications that help you build websites with amazing interactivity.

Some of those plugin are free, some cost money. Some of the templates you can use to change what your site looks like are free. And some cost money. If you have the time and the skill, you can climb inside the guts of those plugins or templates tweak them… or even make your own.

And going back to my original claim, I’ve been a user of the WordPress platform since the versions started with a 1-point-something… and I’m still finding digital dials to turn and clever little customizations that can be made if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and give your keyboard some exercise.

The Limitations of a Passive Website

On the flip side, here in the year 2018, passive websites (like this one) seem to be trending passé.

It’s a Dead End

While part of me feels a definite need to build and maintain a digital monument to my comic, a “home” to my artwork, I do so acknowledging that there is little actually going on here to justify any real costs that I might put into it. A few dozen visits per day feed my analytics bubble. A few minor engagements that come sidelong through vaguely related search hits. A curious passer-by who thinks there might be something of consequence hiding between the comic panels.

It’s All Me

Most of my audience lives on Instagram or Facebook.

The people who like and share and comment and enjoy my work are not coming to my website… and even if they did, I’m not sure I’m offering anything extra of value besides a fire-hose of my work. It’s the difference between going for coffee with a big group of friends where you might show someone a few pics of your latest trip overseas… and having just one person, randomly, to your house to watch hours of your vacation videos.

The Payoff is Low

I host this website on a personal home server. About a year ago I bought a Raspberry Pi 3 (no relation) and installed a little LAMP server and a firewall and plugged it into the DMZ of my home internet router. I paid all of sixty bucks for this setup, and I pay about twenty bucks a year for a domain name and the DNS routing service. Factor in a dime worth of electricity per day, I spend about a hundred bucks per year keeping this site alive, or about as much as I’d pay for some really budget shared hosting.

I make zero in return. Maybe I just suck at business. Maybe I’m just building my brand and investing in myself — see below — but either way the payoff doesn’t even cover my very basic expenses.

I’ve recorded about 1,600 unique (non-me) visitors in the first 9 months of 2018… or a little less than 6 people per day see my comic. My that math, in 2018 I should expect to see about 2,200 readers. Not terrible, but it means I’m PAYING 5 cents per visitor to my site. I don’t want to shill for Facebook, but I ran an advert on social media via Facebook and Instagram and got a little over 1,000 impressions for ten bucks… or less an a penny per reader.

The Advantages of a Passive Website

I’m in Control

Barring the possibility of catastrophic disaster through a server meltdown or a successful hack or whatever, by posting on my own website I retain control of my art. I get to decide how people read it, consume it, link to it, share it.

I’m Investing in a Brand

This is a long game. I’m drawing comics for fun, not profit, but everything I draw and everything I post is part of one big cohesive effort to create a bit of a name for myself. A website is part of that package.

It is What You Make It, For Better or Worse

And ultimately, the simplest advantage comes down to payoff for the effort. I COULD put a lot more work into making my site better and more interactive. I don’t. I dump comics here, write a few words to please the SEO gods, and go back to Instagram to like other people’s work. The opportunity is vast, and it will be what you make of it, how much work you put in and what you can do with the little bit of space you’ve carved out with an (ultimately) inexpensive little home-brewed website.

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This is Pi Day publishes strips on Saturday mornings. Minor strips show up whenever I have time to make a new one.

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We regularly celebrate at the great circle of math, science and technology culture. This is Pi Day has been calculated as the product of one geeky dad, one curious kid, and an irrational volume of corny dad jokes.

On Lettering: Choosing the Right Font for Your Comic

As of writing this article and about a year an a half into publishing my web comic, This is Pi Day, I’ve switched lettering fonts no less than three times.

I’m just about to switch for a fourth time.

In the era of hand-drawn and hand-lettered comics, a font was –bluntly– the artist’s printing style. All caps? Neat. Scribbles. Expressive. Clean. Uniform. Varied. Messy. Tilted. Rushed. A thousand different adjectives could probably be listed to outline the variety of options available to the hand-letterer of a classic strip.

In the era of digital comics, I like many other artists before me, have looked to the web to choose, download, install, and nudge into the framework of our art a font that blends into the process.

Why Use a A Font?

My art is entirely based in vector graphics. I have in recent strips dabbled in hand lettering some of the more expressive bits of text. A “GAH!” or a “AHGHHK!” as my character falls off of her bicycle becomes a blurting bit of background drawing, firm black letters that I mark out as part of the scene.

But for the bulk of my text I fall back to using a font because of one reason: simplicity.

Simple quick layouts.

Simple consistent lettering.

Simple adjustments and tweaking to my scripts.

I need simple because drawing a comic is not my full time job. Drawing a comic is something I squeeze into the time-gaps in my busy life, so if I needed to hand-letter every strip, then tweak that lettering to match the style of my art process every time I massaged the script, I would be lucky to produce one comic per month.

Font equates to simplicity which means I’m faster and more productive.

Also, a font package, when used effectively, becomes part of the visual identity of your comic. It becomes part of the look and feel that define your style. People when they read your comic may ignore some of the fine details of the artwork, but I’d bet most of them read the words. Most of them use the font.

A font is usually the most legible option.

A font is reliable.

A font can be used across your art, your website, your printed materials, whatever, to create a cohesive characterization of your work.

So Why NOT Use a A Font?

Alas, one thing that has never sat right with me about my font choices, and why I’ve switched three (about to be four) times, is that a font is someone else’s art.

Maybe it’s a free font you downloaded off an internet site. Maybe you’ve actually bought a license. Maybe it was just something you found on the pulldown font menu in your laptop. Maybe it was made by a corporation. Or maybe some struggling artist hand-designed the font you’ve now chosen to letter your strip…

Whatever that font is, chances are good that it’s someone else’s art… invading your strip.

I’m all for synergistic design, using multiple tools, concepts, scraps, samples, or styles to create something new. But, the font thing has always bugged me.

A font is generic.

A font is limited to what the font creator made.

A font may be owned by someone and you may not actually have permission to publish something using the font you’ve been incorporating into your work for years!

Making Your Own Font

I will disclose that the reason I’m writing this post now is simple. During a summer hiatus, and as I prepare to jump back into regular publication, I burned off some of my creative energy moving a step closer to a clear lettering conscience: I’ve designed my own font.

To be precise, I’ve design two fonts: PiDay Bang & PiDay Chat. A mash-up of these two fonts will become my new lettering style.

PiDay Chat is destined to be my primary lettering font, for basic dialog:

PiDay Bang will be used for emphasis or expressive text:

Not that designing a font is for the feint of heart. It’s been more work to create what I’m calling “Version 1.0” of both these fonts than it was to create any of my character models. Arguably, the font has become a character in and of itself… or it will be.

And more vital to the act of this work… I own it: artistically, and maybe more importantly, legally.

Choosing a Font

Yet, you don’t have the time or the skills to make a font, and you just came here looking for some advice on picking a font.

What would I recommend?

  • Before you do anything else, make sure you’re allowed to use it. Copyright, licence, creative commons. Fonts actually have a lot of rules around how they are used and how you can reproduce them. Don’t assume. You can wipe out years of effort by using a copyright font only to get blocked from sharing your comics because you couldn’t be bothered to find something legally valid to letter your panels.
  • Simple always wins over fancy. Always. Pick something clean and basic. If you think you needs a fancy, curly, scripty, ding-batty, over-designed text, then it will detract from your message. I’m not going to tell you to use sans-serif or handwriting fonts or any of that stuff, but if you’re even thinking of Brush Script or Cabin Sketch I’m going to recommend you go for a walk and think it over… hard.
  • Try lots of different fonts used in different ways. Letter some sample comics in different fonts, styles, sizes, kerning, and angles and see what you like and what best blends with your art style. Try long blurbs. Use one or two word pieces of dialog. Block it, bubble it, use background color or patterns to test it out. If you run into trouble testing, you’ll always be compromising your art for the font. Not good.
  • And ALWAYS — ALWAYS — aim for legibility over style. Don’t use a font if there is any doubt about how a letter looks or sits on the page. If readers can’t actually read your comics, then you’ve lost them.

Switching Between Color & Greyscale in Inkscape

Making comics is making art, and art often (if not always) involves a number of aesthetic choices.

Comics, going back to the era of traditional print media, have frequently been printed in black & white or shades of grey. As an artist you may never consider taking beautifully coloured comics and posting them in greyscale… or, just perhaps, you’ll make a creative decision (as I have) to call back to traditional three-panel strips and use a desaturated palette.

In that case you may someday need an easy way to flip back and forth between colour and greyscale art, objects, and models and it’s not entirely obvious the best way to do this in Inkscape 0.91.

Getting Started

Let’s say, for sake of example, you have a bit of art that you’ve created in Inkscape (in color) that you want to turn into a black and white image for use in a non-color strip.

While there are plenty of ways you can do this (hand colouring objects, using extensions, exporting in color and desaturating in another piece of software) there is a simple way inside Inkscape that (a) is quick and consistent and (b) allows you to re-colourize your art at a later date.

Filters > Color > Greyscale

Of course, you’re going to want to select the object(s) that you want to convert to greyscale before reaching into the filter menu. In this case, using a filter is powerful choice because as you’ll see in a later step, you’re not actually changing or removing the colours, but on a per-object basis masking it into a different mode.

In fact, if you were to open up your SVG file in a text editor and look at the objects that make up your art (and you can actually do this) you’d see that after applying a filter, the colours are all still there but there is an added property attached: a filter code. This filter code essentially tells the software to turn that colour into a shades of grey based on the settings you see in the next dialog box.

Choosing Filters > Color > Greyscale is going to present you with some knobs to twiddle.

Feel free to adjust to your personal aesthetic, but for my purposes I’ve generally found the defaults to work pretty good.

Then, press Apply.

The result is that the object to which you’ve applied your filter is now on screen (and if you’re exporting it later) in black and white (or specifically, in greyscale… which is 256 shades of black or white).

Here you can tweak colors, adjust colors (all in greyscale of course) and continue working on your art … which is the important part.

You’re not branching your art into two different sets of models.

If you’re the type of artist that works from a library of reference art, you want models that you can re-use, edit later, anywhere and everywhere. In this case, permanently creating a set of art that uses a different colour palette is a waste of time and leads to the chance of character inconsistencies…. but most importantly wastes time. Did I already mention that? Oh well, it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning twice. Stop wasting time.

In this example, my magpie is a character that appears frequently in some comics. In fact, there are three magpie characters that I use (it’s subtle, but it’s my thing!) and each are differentiated by the slightly different palette used for their wing feather highlight.

If I do some work on this guy now and decide I want to convert him back to a full colour model, maybe because I decide I want to use this model later on in a full-colour comic, then I don’t want to muss around with trying to go through my art object by object and color-matching everything. I just want him back in beautiful full colour so I can get back to drawing.

So, how do I convert it back to a full colour model?

If you’ve used the filter, it’s actually quite fast and simple:

Filters > Remove Filters

After all (and as I will repeat so often in these articles you’re going to be sick of reading it) as a piece of vector art your drawing is just math. By adding the filter you never actually removed the color, changed the color, or altered the palette. (You may have done that in tweaking afterwards, but that’s a whole different article.) As written above, you’ve just added more math: a bit of extra code to that makes up that calculation that is your art objects. This command reaches into each selected object and punts that bit of added math (ie the filter code) to the curb. No more filter, no more greyscale.

So… simply remove the greyscale filter:

The result is that you’re back to where you started (as far as colours at least).

Draw on my little magpies, draw on…