Comic Art Portfolio Critique

Art critique is hard.

We create art as a form of expression and, because we put ourselves into the work, receiving critical feedback is a difficult process. Everyone wants to be complimented on their hard work, especially by working professionals in the field they aspire to be a part of.

Part of my job for the past 15 years has been to give portfolio critique. I’ve done it as an art instructor (teaching at Seneca College), as a project manager (when I organized creative services projects at UDON for ten years), and now as a comic professional (looking for possible artists to collaborate with on future creator-owned projects).

In that moment when you’re looking at someone’s artwork and they’re waiting for feedback you have to make a crucial value judgement:

What kind of feedback is going to be most useful to their development?
Does this person need kind encouragement or intense critique?

I’ve gotten pretty good at making that snap second decision but sometimes I still get it wrong. Every so often someone comes up to my table excited to show their work and they leave frustrated or angry at me. It’s pretty demoralizing for everyone involved.

The safe bet would be to just happily encourage everyone (even if that means they’re left with a false impression of the quality of their work) or refuse to give feedback at all (they can’t get angry at you if you don’t criticize their work) but I feel that’s disingenuous. I understand what it’s like wanting real evaluation and hoping you can use it to better your skills. I want to help artists improve their work.

At this point I try to limit myself to giving critique in person at conventions. It’s way easier to get a sense of what the right approach is when someone is right there in front of me. Also, if I tried to give proper feedback to everyone who asked online I wouldn’t have enough time to work on my own projects or have a social life (what little social life I have right now thanks to cascading deadlines).

All that said, I’m going to show you an example of an online critique I recently gave because I think the advice applies to a lot of comic art portfolios I see online and in person. The mistakes made were pretty common. This person has formal art training and isn’t a beginner. They specifically asked for critique so I didn’t hold back.

(Note: Everything I cover below relates to a portfolio built around modern/big two-style comic art. I don’t think every artist should draw the same or needs intensely detailed artwork in order to be considered professional, but the basics I talk about are helpful for almost any style, especially when you’re first getting established.)

• On many pages you’re not leaving enough room for dialogue or sound effects. Adding lettering would make those pages claustrophobic and cover up important elements that are part of the storytelling. Always draw pages with dialogue in mind and, whenever possible, work from an actual script rather than just illustrating silent scenes from your head.

• Your use of shadows and light is inconsistent from page to page, which comes across like you don’t have a strong understanding of light direction and volume. Your light sources are all over the place (except for when they’re coming from a very clear source like magic or a superpower) and your use of thicker or thinner lines has very little consistency. For many of your pages an inker would have a difficult time translating the pencils into any kind of a consistent look. You’re using lots of pencil shading to add texture and cover up weak drawing but that doesn’t help an inker who usually needs something more substantial to work with.

• Your anatomy looks like it’s kit-bashed from reference material (especially other comic artists and body builder photos) instead of being informed by actual drawing from life and a knowledge of anatomy. In some panels you’re exaggerating anatomy and other times you’re using photo ref or different comic artists as your inspiration and it shows. There are some panels that look good, but the other weak ones make it clear that you don’t have the innate knowledge or, if you do, it’s not coming through in your drawings.

• Your backgrounds are also quite inconsistent and I don’t get the sense that you have a strong understanding of perspective drawing. Don’t get me wrong, you have some perspective in your scenes, but it’s basic with a bunch of random detail-texture lines thrown on top of flat boxy walls. You’re rushing through the backgrounds and because of that most of them look poorly defined, both in terms of construction and a sense of depth. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about the characters. You’re adding all kinds of inconsistent shading to try and cover the page in ‘stuff’, but the actual sense of space is not clearly established. I don’t get a solid sense of the environments because, as far as I can tell, you don’t have a clear understanding of how they’re constructed. When I want to tell the difference between an amateur and a professional most of the time I can see it in their backgrounds. Yours aren’t coming across strongly.

• Watch out for line tangents, parts of a drawing where lines at different depths intersect and they look like they’re interacting with each other when they shouldn’t be. They confuse the viewer and flatten the sense of depth in your drawing. The best explanation/tutorial I’ve ever seen on line tangents was put together by Chris Schweizer. Read it!

• Leave more space on the edge of your pages. Storytelling should never be pushed right to the edge since it may end of up getting cut off during the printing process. Even if the sample pages you sent already have the bleed cropped and there’s extra breathing room on your originals I’m not seeing here, some of your panels are crushed in far too close to the page edge.

• Your page layouts are flashy, which is not necessarily good or bad, but accompanied with inconsistency it looks like you’re breaking panel borders and using odd panel arrangements to cover up a lack of understanding of the basics. That said, your left to right reading flow is pretty good. My eyes move through each page in the proper order and I know what’s happening, so your overall storytelling is okay.

I can tell you worked hard on these sample pages and most casual observers would be impressed with them but, in my opinion, they’re not professional quality. I don’t think they’ll move the needle at a larger publisher and you still have a lot of work to do to get to that level.

That’s comic portfolio feedback focused on intense critique rather than encouragement. Hopefully the person receiving it doesn’t want to punch me in the face or burn all my comics.

In broader terms, here are the most common problems I see with comic art portfolios:

PERSPECTIVE and VOLUME: Learning to visually ‘build’ with proper perspective, draw characters, scenes, and objects with a consistent sense of volume, and showcase a thorough understanding of depth and form is tough, but it will make a huge difference in the quality of your work.

ANATOMY and CONSISTENCY: Understanding how the human body works and being able to draw from life with a sense of gesture, structure, and clarity is a lifelong pursuit. A lot of beginners think this doesn’t apply when they’re drawing stylized figures but I, and most art directors/editors, would strongly disagree. Even when you’re stylizing your work there should be a consistent approach to the figure, even if it doesn’t conform to realistic anatomy.

CLARITY and COMMUNICATION: Comics are about storytelling. If the reader can’t follow the action and the story isn’t coming across clearly then the artist isn’t doing their job. Well defined panel to panel flow, good staging, clear storytelling, and strong body language are an important part of the craft.

I know there are exceptions. Yes, there are artists who ignore the above and still get work. Showing me dozens of examples of artwork that ‘break the rules’ doesn’t change the critique I’d give and here’s why:
If you want to consistently impress with your work and stand out in a field where thousands of other artists want to break in and ‘go pro’, concentrating on improving your perspective, anatomy, and clarity will always be beneficial.

If you want to get a better sense of how much/little detail is on a professional comic page, take one of your favorite comics to a local photocopy place and get them to blow up a few of your favorite pages 150% on to 11″ x 17″ paper. That’s approximately the size the artist was originally working at on most North American comics. At that full size you’ll get a better sense of how large each panel really is as its drawn, how much space is left for dialogue, how detailed the figures/environments are, and overall line thickness/line quality.

As you work to improve your skills, understand that it will probably take years and lots of mucked up pages before you approach anything resembling ‘professional quality’. There’s a term in animation we use called ‘pencil mileage’. No matter how many tutorials you read or critiques you receive a good chunk of your learning in art takes place by putting in the time and creating thousands of drawings.

If you found this post interesting or helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter) and share the post with your friends. Please consider buying some of my comics online, from your local retailer or from me in person if you see me at a convention. Also, please don’t ask me for a portfolio critique if you’re not prepared for critical feedback.

  1. Joshua Wilcox

    I’ll be honest, sir. I wish I could receive critiques like this for my work. I crave the kind of honesty I see in your critique, because I can’t improve as an artist if someone doesn’t tell me what I’m doing wrong.

  2. I definitely crave honest feedback and critiques, I’d love to hunt you down and have you rip apart my work. It’s rough, I have found since being out of a learning environment finding honest strong critiques from people is pretty dang hard. I look at my art and I know there’s areas I can totally improve upon and I’m far from professional quality but it’s hard finding someone that has the eye and skill to really offer feedback to help me grow. It’s easy to find praise and have people pat me on the back and blow smoke up my ass but someone willing to tell me my lettering is atrocious or my panel layout is a hot mess is like winning the lottery.

    This con season I’m going to try and break away from my table to see if I can find industry people to help me figure out what I can do to grow and be a better artist.

  3. I just wanted to thank you for putting this information out there, like others have said, its hard to get honest and analytical critiques. And even from reading what you had said about another person’s artwork, I feel like I can apply it to my own work and there are also a lot of concepts that I hadn’t even thought of that I could use to improve my work as well. You sir, are a scholar and a saint!

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