How not to draw manga: Some free advice

I'm sitting here looking at a stack of how-to-draw-manga books, and I'm feeling very guilty.

These books were sent to me as review copies, and I feel it's my duty to review them. They are thoughtfully designed and beautifully produced, and they aren't cheap. People think being a reviewer is all beer and skittles and free comics, but those comics aren't free; they carry a serious responsibility with them, and I'm afraid that in the case of these books, I have failed miserably.

The problem is that I don't believe in the basic mission of these books. I say this as someone who once had aspirations to being a fine artist and who later edited art-instruction books. Let me explain.

When I was in college, I loved the idea of being an artist, but I lacked talent. That didn't stop me from soldiering through school — I have a BFA and an MFA in studio art — but when I got out into the real world and started trying to make my way as an artist, I realized I lacked both the knack and the spark I needed to be successful.

Nonetheless, I went from being a terrible draftsman to a better-than-mediocre draftsman during that time, and I didn't do it by reading books. I did it by drawing. 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.

There are some useful books for would-be manga creators that cover a lot more ground. While neither of these is for beginners, I recommend Tania del Rio's Mangaka America and the Tokyopop book How to Draw Shoujo Manga, which is written by editors from the Japanese publisher Hakusensha. What I like about these books is the way they get into the nuts and bolts of making comics, from thumbnailing to panel borders to choosing the right pen. Too many art-instruction books (and remember, I used to edit them) are all about how the author achieves specific effects — "how to paint shimmering skies" — which is interesting but not particularly useful to anyone else. A good book can't make you a great artist, but it can save you from making some rookie mistakes along the way. That's what these books do.

I'll add one more, which is not specific to manga: I was the editor of Christopher Hart's first how-to book, How to Draw Cartoons for Comic Strips, and I'm obviously biased on this topic, but I think it's pretty good. Several professional comics artists have told me they used it when they were starting out, which makes me feel old but also like I have contributed something to the world.

As for the thick books of character designs, they do have their uses (aside from still-life props). They make nice picture books, and the art is usually pretty good. Looking at the characters might inspire you to create a new character, or even spark a story idea. That's all to the good. Just don't let reading these books become a substitute for the hard work of drawing and more drawing. That's still the only true secret to success.

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