Category Archives: The Art

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…