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Clayton Crain is proof that computers make life easier. Crain, the illustrator behind Marvel’s upcoming Ghost Rider re-launch (written by Garth Ennis), relies on computer programs and imagery to create his art. Crain talked to Comic Foundry about what it’s like working with Ennis and Ghost Rider and how he creates his mind-boggling art.
How did you get this project?
I was working on the Venom vs. Carnage book and they (Marvel) asked me which of two titles would I like to do. One was Ghost Rider and the another was…I don’t remember, but it was more superhero-oriented, and I went with Ghost Rider, which was probably the best choice because I think the darker stuff is more interesting for me.
Because of your style?
Because of my interests. I think I like drawing fire and skulls and stuff. I never put myself in that vein, but it seems to be easiest for me to do. I would never search out for a dark story title, I would love to do a Spider-Man but this just happens to be the kind of work that I find myself doing.
Can you take us through your process?
It’s all done by the computer. I sketch in the computer. I have a few sketchbooks around but they’re nothing grand. I’ve seen some with certain artists’ sketchbooks and they’re nothing like that. Anyway, I start in the computer and pretty much just work in Photoshop and I make a layer called thumbnail and I use a Wacom tablet to draw my images and when I’m done with the thumbnail, I size it down and send it as a jpg to Marvel. They approve it and my sketch is already on my file so I dim it a bit and start blocking things out, using a lot of layers, locking layers.
So I end up with a lot of layers. I have a file that’s 7” x 10.5” at 300 dpi and I create layers and work in them — I’ve been learning how to make the comic book look clean, just figuring out how to use Photoshop. I knew very little about Photoshop when I started, I had about four years of just playing, but getting around to actually drawing in Photoshop all the time I learned a lot.
What do you think is the best Photoshop technique you’ve learned in all that?
Those clipping masks…I use them in my panels. I’ll create a clipping mask in a folder and it keeps everything nice and clean in my panel and it’s very useful. My favorite thing is creating depth masks and having backgrounds blur out or the foreground blur out. It’s probably the most fun thing to do. Because after you’re all done and you create a flat image and have a depth mask, you give it some strength and some focus by blurring out the background.
How long does this whole process usually take you for a single page?
It takes me about two days a page.
But that’s because you’re doing the whole process as well.
I sketch it out, and most of canvases start black, so I just end up adding color to it.
And why do you start it with black?
Because if I quit at any time it’s in the dark, because you can quit at any moment and it’s all filled in for you. It rarely ends up that I can just go in and add a little light in there because I get so interested putting in the backgrounds and I just end up drawing everything. I think that’s the real reason why it takes me so long to do a page, which is about 8-10 hours a day, it’s because I keep working on the backgrounds and I’m really trying to pull back from doing so much in the backgrounds. It’s probably a sign of weakness that I can’t trust the design or something, but also I enjoy doing it.
Do you use a lot of reference for Ghost Rider?
When I got Ghost Rider, the big thing that helped me out was I went online at one of those anatomy stores and I bought a skull. It has a working jaw, and I can move it in any way so I can have a complete understanding of what I’m drawing.
Do you ever use any photo work? Would you ever photograph the skull and bring it in?
I’ve taken a shot of the skull and used it as reference, but I’ve never taken the skull and put it on the comic page. That’s no fun at all. Also, I don’t think it’d fit. It’d look weird. One big reference tool I’d use is I’ve incorporated into Ghost Rider is using 3D. I’ve been using LightWave 3D and when I got this book I took about a week – it took me about four days, I think – and I created the bike and modeled it in LightWave. Since then I’ve changed it and put textures through it and every time you see the bike it’s been rendered in a LightWave program. I still have to do a lot of things to it. Every time I take a shot of it I have to match it to the page, I have to draw or paint a spherical map, that way anything reflective in the map would come out in the render. Then any time I bring it into Photoshop I lock the layer, draw on top of it and make it fit in the book.
Why do you use choose to go the digital route?
I enjoy traditional work, like working with acrylics or ink wash — I like them. But in terms of speed, I’m not a very clean artist, so I just know if I were to do it traditionally, it’d be quite a mess and there’d be a lot of problems with that and the computer gives me so many more choices. I have no original artwork, but I guess that will make having the comic book worth it. Once it gets printed, that’s about as original as it gets.
Do you feel like the computerized style pigeon-holes you at all?
I think it’s opened more opportunities for my artwork than penciling. Penciling, I have almost all my pages that I’ve ever penciled. I hated selling them – I had a hard time figuring out how to put a price tag on them, so it wasn’t worth it. So with doing the digital stuff, not having to worry about selling my original artwork has been pretty nice. And being able to draw almost anything, with pencils, I’ve never been too good at the shorthand – This is how you draw a nose: you put a line here and there. I never really got a decent grasp of that, so coloring in the computer, I could possibly do artwork for all sorts of different mediums, like magazines or videogames or whatever. Not that I’m going that direction yet – comic books have been my interest. But I think it opens up that door eventually if I need to go that way.
What do you think this computer style allows you to do that a regular penciler wouldn’t be able to?
It lets me get the mood that I was going for. When I was penciling I thought of an interesting effect, an extreme with a light. And I really don’t want to tell the colorist what to do, because they know how to dodo their job and they know how to get it done. And with this, if I want an effect I can do it myself. And this is a big thing – you can go and finish the book and say you didn’t like something you did at the beginning of the book you can go back and fix it. You don’t have to concern yourself with you fixing it, the inker fixing it, the colorist fixing it, and you end up needing two other people to get it done. I can just open the file and fix it and save it as a new layer. Then I still have the previous version and can see if that works. It’s pretty flexible.
You know, there really aren’t too many people doing this type of rendering. Where are you looking to for inspiration?
I usually use photographs for referencing, and if I see a movie scene that I like I’ll bring that in. But as far as other artwork, I did reference a bit in the New Avengers to determine how dark their comic book was versus how dark it printed. That’s one concern of mine – the printing. I will really only know when it comes out if it was correct or not.
And how do you check for that?
My editor gave me some files from the New Avengers and it allowed me to look at the comic book in front of me and look how it comes out on screen so I can see how close it came out and how dark it is versus how dark mine is. There’s a lot of dark scenes so I was trying to figure that out.
What were you looking for specifically? Just how the CMYK configurations print?
I think the printing of Ghost Rider will be a lot better than the Venom vs. Carnage, because I didn’t prep my configurations to go from RGB to CMYK, so I did that before Ghost Rider and I also learned to sharpen my pages up because I noticed that a lot of my Venom vs. Carnage pages were blurred. So now when I look at the New Avengers it’s a lot of looking at the darkest point on the page, excluding the black- just mainly the color….It’s a little bit of guesswork, but I’ve seen the cover printed for Ghost Rider and I’m pretty pleased with that and I think it’s coming out a lot sharper than Venom vs. Carnage. Because coming from a computer monitor where it looks really sharp, to going to a printed page, it’s a bit different.
Is your monitor color-calibrated?
I don’t calibrate it constantly. I really don’t concern myself with it deeply, as long as it comes out looking okay.
I guess because you know how it’s going to print.
Yes, and if it really became a problem I think they’d tell me.
I guess your style also has a more realistic feeling than just a straight pencil. Do you ever have the fear that this realistic style takes away from this suspension of disbelief that’s imposed in comics?
I don’t try to make everything look too real. I try to make it look a little cartoony. I probably don’t try to keep it that way, I just allow it to be that way. I don’t try to make everyone look realistic, if I even could. Sometimes you’re drawing people and trying to make them look real but you’re not. I think keeping it kind of light and not going too far into realism and keeping the colors bright – even sometimes the characters don’t have real eyes, sometimes I give them little fake eyes. There’s some painted stuff that I’ve seen and they try and get really real. The page kinda looks like a dream. It has a bit of a wash through it. I think this is a little lighter than that.
How do you go about depicting fire? I mean, it has this lively feel to it and is almost unpredictable. How do you button that down to the page?
Sometimes I still struggle with that and it comes out not to my liking. A lot of it is trial and error. A lot of it’s looking at fire. A lot of times I’ll take a snapshot of a movie with fire, or a scene from Smallville, or an explosion. What I saw when I started drawing the fire I was using a linear dodge or with a screen, and they just weren’t doing anything for me. So I just used a normal layer and I put down the orange with a brush and had it on screen. And every time I overlapped it, it would get a little hotter in the center and do a lot with that brush. Then I’d go in with the smudge tool and use that on certain parts but leave other parts with a clean edge. Then doing a few more layers over other layers so it doesn’t seem so flat. I may do another layer under that, behind the fire. A lot of it’s trial and error.
How conscious do you have to be of the upcoming film?
You know, I’m interested in seeing it but I only think about it when I see something about it. Being that I have no contact with anybody from the movie, you know, my contact is Marvel, and if they liked something I’ve done, they can send it off to them or however far down the chain they can actually send it. I don’t concern myself with the movie because even if I liked what they were doing, I probably couldn’t do it because I think Marvel would have to get the rights to the character design from the movie. Maybe they have the rights, I don’t know.
When I look at Ghost Rider I go by what I imagine for Ghost Rider or what Garth has created and what previous readers expect from Ghost Rider, not from what Hollywood has come up with.
Seeing that you have this different style than most, how did it go working with Garth and him trying to plot out scenes and pages?
I’ve just been doing what Garth tells me to do. When they said I was working on the book Garth said he was excited, and that was good enough for me to know that we’re going to be working as a team on this. I haven’t spoken to him yet. A lot of times he’ll write something to see what I’ll do with it and it is interesting in the end. It’s Garth’s idea, but what you see is me trying to interpret his written word. For the most part, I think we work pretty well together. So far he hasn’t said, “Hey, change this.” I’ve never sent in a thumbnail that deliberately does not follow his storyline. There have maybe been one or two pages where they said, “Hey, where’s t his guy?” And I completely missed it between reading it and sketching it out. I’ve been doing comic books for a while and I’ve had my moments of not being professional and not being a very good team player with some writers, but once I started working for Marvel, being more professional is probably the best way to stick around.
What have you changed that’s helped you with that?
I have a lot more respect for the writer. After I worked for Top Cow I started writing some of my own stuff. I would’ve loved to have it printed, but I’m a horrible writer. It’s more because I wanted to draw particular things and I wanted to draw particular moods. And then when I got this work for Marvel, I had no problem doing what they wanted to because I think I’m pretty decent at working on a concept, but creating one on my own, a whole spectrum of a story, I think I’m a second man. I kinda embrace that.
The funny thing about working with Garth is that he writes dark stuff and I’m trying to make what he wrote dark and I’m trying to add my own sense of darkness to it and then there’s Marvel who, right before even starting it says, “Let’s try and keep it back a little bit,” because they don’t want it to get out of hand. You can’t just go out and do whatever you want — you have to think of a lot of people. I think it’s just being more responsible.
And I have to wonder, what happens if your computer crashes? That’s everything, right?
If it crashes, usually everything is saved on my iPod every time I back it up. Every now and then Photoshop will freeze on me and I might lose 15 minutes of work, but it’s better than losing an hour of work.
—Interview by Tim Leong