(Continued from Part 4: Brush and Ink)


There are countless ways of developing new characters. For this exercise, we’ll be working on faces. Ask students to draw a 9-panel grid in their sketchbooks and to draw a different abstract shape in each square. The shapes are not supposed to represent or look like anything at this point–they are simply shapes. Make sure that the shapes are drawn with a pen–this forces the student to keep drawing, even if they don’t like what they have done. They will need to find a way to build on what they’ve drawn.

Next, we move on to faces! Invite students to find a face in each shape, and then draw it, using the contours of their forms as starting points for eyes, noses, ears and mouths. Encourage human and animal faces.





Even Pixar understands how powerful a simple shape can be in designing a character. Check out this article in the New York Times on how the main characters from Up were based on squares and circles. (Even more info here!)



Invite students to pick their favorite of the nine faces, and to draw a new 9-panel grid in their sketchbook. Have the students list a range of emotions on the board and then draw their character’s face expressing each emotion in the nine squares. Discuss body language and how each student communicated their emotions (angry, sad, happy, surprised, scared, worried, etc). Invite students to use emanata in their drawings. Help the students focus on communicating the expression, rather than on adding detail or gradients. If students are stuck on an expression, have them act it out. What is happening with their mouth and eyes? What direction are the eyebrows going? Are there more curves or sharp angles?


Consider the following wordless comics and ask students what is happening in each panel. Does it tell a story? How? Can a comic tell a story without using words?


“Owly” by Andy Runton


“Garfield” by Jim Davis


“Quimby Mouse” by Chris Ware


Pass out a pencil and a sheet of 11×14″ smooth Bristol board to each student and invite them to lightly draw four panels in pencil. Explain that you will be making a four-panel wordless comic, focusing on facial expressions and body language to communicate the character’s emotions and intentions. Encourage students to use the character they have created today (from the 9-panel character development exercise) to tell their story. After lightly pencilling in each panel, students can use a combination of brush and pen to complete the comic. This should take roughly 1 hour to make.

Once finished, discuss the students’ comics. Focus on facial expressions, use of panel shapes/sizes, emanata, body language, and story. Is the narrative clearly communicated? What is it that moves our eye forward to the next panel? How can we tell what each character is thinking/feeling? Is there evidence of a three-act structure? Note the drawing and inking techniques that students have used. Do the techniques work with the story, to further clarify what the character is thinking and doing in each panel?



Start with Part 1 to learn more about the workshop and what we’re doing, and be sure to subscribe for more posts (top-right of this page).

2 Responses to “HOW TO MAKE A GRAPHIC NOVEL (5/7)”
  1. This is so great. I loved the Pixar stuff.

  2. Hi! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the outstanding work!

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