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Comic Book Penciling with Stephen Platt

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Even if you profess to not knowing Stephen Platt … well, you probably do.

Platt attended Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto Canada for nearly three years until he was hired by Marvel comics in the middle of his sixth term. During his first year at Marvel he took over penciling duties on Moon Knight, producing some of that title’s seminal work. With a newfound reputation under his belt, he then hop scotched over to the newly formed Image Comics where he drew various titles until 1999.

Then, proving you can go home again, he returned to Marvel, Platt for a longer stay and took over art duties on such venerable franchises as Cable and Wolverine and also the best selling Wolverine/Cable graphic novel written by Joe Casey. He then began work on his own creator-owned title, the best-selling Soul Saga published through Image Comics. Platt has collaborated with some of the industry's most respected writers including Alan Moore, Jeph Loeb, Chris Claremont and the aforementioned Joe Casey.

In epic comic book style, Platt then expanded his artistic prospects by branching out as a conceptual artist and art director for the film industry. He began in music videos collaborating with such artists as U2 , Eminem , Moby, Dmx, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Will Smith and Jamiroquai. Rapid advancement led to move into feature films, and Platt provided artwork for various studio projects including Torque, Blade Trinity, The Fog, and pre-production concepts for Blood and Chocolate, John Carter of Mars, and the upcoming Outlander from the Weinstein Company. Stephen is also a member of Ninth Ray Studios founded by renowned Star Wars designer Iain McCaig.

One wonders when the dude ever sleeps, but then again, people of such rare and prodigious talent rarely do.

But Platt was not too busy to have recently created for The Gnomon Workshop an instructional DVD based on his own unique, highly detailed method of penciling for comic books. Called Comic Book Penciling with Stephen Platt, it is a must have for anyone who professes more than a passing desire to work in comic book art.

However, this DVD is no cake walk. While it is packed with anecdotal information about Platt’s introduction and early life as a comic book artist and contains an amazing amount of visual information about his penciling process, it is certainly not for the faint of heart. As fans of Platt’s artwork already know, he could probably claim the title of "Crosshatch King," and he is perhaps the most deserving recipient of the MS Award," (Most Strokes, if you don’t know, and you don’t because I just made it up) which best refers to the amount of detail he invests in each panel as to the number of inkers who have been ground under the treads of this hefty highbrow of the 2H.

But I digress.

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In Comic Book Penciling with Stephen Platt, the artist covers how to create thumbnails for a comic book composition and then how to select one of them to turn into a fully rendered pencil sketch.

He begins by showing some examples of his work. In the audio overlaying a gallery of some of Platt’s finished pencil renderings, he says, "Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of my work. Let’s take a look at some of the ways I indicate some surfaces, indicate some textures, and how we drop things into shadow and how we bring things forward." Platt then maintains that what allows him to eventually concentrate on the detail is a very rigorous thumbnail phase where he works out numerous compositions.

Platt draws a small rectangle about the size of his hand into which he quickly blocks out a composition. Platt maintains, "Once in a while I’ve gone straight to the page, but it’s always when I know it’s going to be something simple."

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As he sketches the first thumbnail – a large hulking figure in the background and a taut, muscular female figure in front – Platt says, "It’s a pretty easy process. A lot of anxiety slowly begins to subside when you get started because you can just basically play here and a lot of things happen here … It’s a very quick development tool … I just like to see it happen. I don’t like to have any expectations of what it’s going to look like or what it’s going to convey. It’s really good to explore and not have a preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to look like. Don’t be afraid to fail. There are no failures … just things that didn’t work, or things that weren’t appropriate for what you wanted to do."

The introductory thumbnail section sets up what is the hallmark of this DVD: Stephen Platt rambling on stream of conscious-style about Stephen Platt. He’s a pretty engaging guy with a lot to say and he says it continuously during the DVD’s 130 minutes of run time. In some people’s hands, this might be death, but Platt has a lot to say and his ramblings are the perfect counterpoint to watching him sketch, render, crosshatch, and shade.

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Another perfect example of this occurs as Platt is finishing his first thumbnail. He says, "When you’re dealing with comic books, you’re dealing with a lot of emotion and a lot of dynamism. When I first came in (to comics) one of my favorite artists who I had total respect for and who I felt was a total amazing visualist … one of the first things he ever said to me when I first got to talk to him as a young guy just starting out in the business was make sure it’s emotional, make sure it’s dramatic because if it’s drawn well but it’s missing those two other things … it’s kind of like what’s the point? What we’re doing here is telling a dramatic story and we’re looking for drama … Drama and self expression and emotion are so, so key in making successful comic book visuals."

Platt draws and inks three thumbnails on the DVD, though he emphasizes that for a real project he might do many, many more. With an good idea of the composition of the finished piece now in his mind, as well as the general layout of surfaces and textures, Platt enlarges his rough thumbnail and begins to create a larger, more finished version.

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After choosing a certain thumbnail for further exploration in a larger format, Platt enlarges that rough thumbnail using a photocopier and then makes a new, more detailed sketch using a light box. During the remainder of the DVD, Platt shows how he indicates change in form, graduated shadows, texture and mass, all while maintaining a dramatic graphic expression. In addition, he discusses industry conventions as well as advice on portfolios and how he has earned the living that he has being a penciler in professional comics.

While it is difficult to judge the quality of any DVD without first watching it, here are a few of Platt’s verbal vignettes so you can gauge the quality of the man’s thought/speak:

Platt on rendering out his blacks (even on a pencil sketch that’s going to be inked; most pencil artists place an "X" in large areas that are supposed to be completely black): This is a graphic image. This image, when it goes to the inking stage, has to translate black and white. There’s no tone. I remember that was one of the first big adjustments I had to make when I got out of college. It was a shock. There was no tone. Being a graphic illustrator is very different from being other kinds of illustrators where you’re allowed to use tone. … The more blacks you drop in the more dimension begins to emerge off the page. It stops being flat and starts to become a three dimensional, voluminous kind of image. … I make sure those shapes are pretty deliberate."

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Platt on adding drama through costume elements: "I will jump around … sometimes it’s good to move around to find areas in the neighborhood that you want to define early on. And costume elements for me are something I tackle early on. Some people say it’s a detail element, and it is. But sometimes there’s a lot in the details, so I’ll take shapes that I see in the cotume and I’ll elaborate on those a little bit. It’s crystallizing your world, crystallizing the costume elements; it all adds to character at the end of the day. It’s all about character, it’s all about drama, it’s all about emotion, it’s all about expression, and you have to have those things or you’ll have a really well done, academically correct, boring drawing."

Platt on the rendering process (in this case by rendering a bicep shape): "When I’m working on the bicep, I’m doing these very careful curved lines, basically drawing around that cylinder shape, but not going all the way. Then I start to thicken up the lines to indicate where that shadow is darker, where the graduation begins to darken. I’ll darken up those lines as they go toward the bottom of that bicep."

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Platt on turning his paper as he works: "I turn the page, obviously. Whatever angle is most comfortable for you to establish your easiest drawing angle. Whatever makes that drawing most accessible for you physically… just turn it. I’m always turning the page all the time."

While Stephen Platt is an incredible artist who can impart an amazing amount of knowledge on how to pencil for the comic book industry, what’s most important to keep in mind while watching Comic Book Penciling with Stephen Platt is that you probably won’t leave the DVD being able to pencil like Stephen Platt. To quote the Mighty Thor: "That would be nigh on impossible!" But what you will take away from the experience are incredibly vivid pictures of how this talented artist organizes himself to create exhaustively meticulous sketches that don’t lose their dynamic tension through the detailing process.

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And regardless of what kind of characters and compositions you yourself draw, that’s a valuable lesson to learn.

Note: All Images Copyright ©, The Gnomon Workshop, Inc.

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