Artist Alex Heizer has a range of influences which include Japanese traditional art and manga. Here, he shows us the basics of using screen tones in comics or manga production, plus some experimental ideas for making your pages look really cool by experimenting with them. Here we go:
For the up-and-coming comic artist, there are a lot of new digital tools which allow you to give your black and white inked pages a full range of grays. This gives the finished look greater depth and variety while still being reproducible on both digital and offset presses. Traditionally, comic and manga artists used screen tones and, despite the widespread availability of digital tools, they are still being used today, especially in Japanese manga.
One of the major benefits of using conventional screen tones is having more control over the finished product. You can finish the entire page without having to relying on another computer program. When you scan, print or copy screen tones, they reproduce just like the original – unlike digital versions, which look much different onscreen than printed.
Screen tones are patterns and gradients made up of black dots printed onto a clear plastic film with adhesive mounted to paper on one side. The printed patterns make it so when you print with black, it simulates different shades of gray without having to print lots of different shades of ink. If you check out any black and white comic or manga, you will see every gray area is made up of very small black dots. When a reader looks at the page, their eyes naturally mix the black dots with the white paper, fooling them into seeing an appropriate shade of gray.
1. Finish your page. You don’t have to ink them, but it makes it easier to reproduce on a copier. Either way, once you put down the tones, you won’t be able to edit the artwork – so make sure it’s as finished as you would like. When creating your page, use a good quality board. Lighter weight papers will not be as resistant to cutting as the heavier papers made to handle ink and tone.
Tip: Plan out your entire page before laying down any tone.
2. Choose a tone. Place the sheet of tone over your artwork in the area you want to fill. The semi-transparent backing paper allows you to see your drawing as you line up the section of tone you want to use.
Tip: Be careful not to handle the tone with your ﬁngers. Oil from your skin will cause the adhesive to stick less.
3. With a new blade, use an art knife to cut the sheet of tone. Cut it out slightly larger than the area you want to fill. By using a new blade and cutting lightly, you’ll be able to cut through the tone without cutting through the backing sheet.
4. Remove the cut piece of tone from the backing sheet using the tip of your knife. Be careful not to handle the tone with your fingers. Oil from your skin will cause the adhesive to become less sticky.
5. Put the main tone sheet aside and line up your cut piece with your drawing. Lightly lay it onto the page in the correct position. At this point you’ll be able to move it around to make sure it’s perfect. Once you have it lined up, press firmly with your fingers to set it in place, so it doesn’t move as you cut it.
6. Starting with the edges, begin trimming the excess tone using your art knife. Use a ruler along the panel borders to make sure your cut is straight. You can also use the ruler on any straight cuts inside the panel or french curves if you want a perfect cut.
Tip: By trimming off small sections it is easier to remove fine details. However, if you have cut your piece a lot bigger than you needed, trim off larger sections to make it easier to reuse the trimmings.
7. Working in a methodical manner, begin cutting out the tone. Start on one corner of the tone sheet and work your way around in one direction until you cut the entire piece out that you are going to remove.
Tip: You can use a lot of things as a burnishing tool, whether itʼs a professionally made tool or something you already have around the studio. The important thing is that you want to be able to apply direct pressure on a small area but to not scratch the tone while youʼre doing it.
Tip: By trimming off small sections itʼs easier to remove ﬁne details. However, if you have cut your piece a lot bigger than you needed, trim off larger sections to make it easier to re-use the trimmings.
8. When cutting, keep your hand in the same position and move your arm. This will give you smoother, more accurate cuts than if you keep your arm in one place and rotate your hand or only the knife as you move through a cut. While you may not have a problem with smaller cuts, it’s best to develop a solid technique for all your cuts.
9. As you cut, smooth out the edge of the tone that will be left on the panel with the back of your thumbnail. This will affix it tighter to the paper and make it easier to remove the cut tone.
10. As you work your way around your cutout, periodically use the tip of the knife to lift away the tone you will be removing. This keeps it loose and makes it easier to remove without splitting. It is especially helpful if you are cutting out a lot of small details, like hair.
11. Continue to carefully cut your way around the figure until you have it completely cut out.
12. Using your knife, gently lift the cutout piece from your board.
Tip: Be very careful wherever there is an angle that two cuts meet, such as the tip of the hair spikes. If the cuts do not join up solidly, either piece of the tone sheet may split as you try to separate them.
13. Save any large cutout pieces by placing them back onto the tone backing paper. Even scraps as small as 1/4 inch can be useful, so save as much as you can to reuse later.
14. When reusing a cutout piece of tone, use the same method you used before. Place the tone over your drawing and cut a slightly larger piece to transfer to your page.
15. Line up your new piece of tone and trim it the same way you did before.
16. Once it’s in the perfect place, use a burnishing tool to press it to the page. Start in the center of the piece and work your way close to the edge. This fixes it into place well enough for you to trim the excess, but still leaving the excess loose enough for you to remove easily.
Tip: You can use a lot of things as a burnishing tool, whether it is a professionally made tool or something you already have around the studio. A burnishing tool is typically like a pencil with a very dull, rounded end. You can also use the bowl of a plastic spoon, the tail end of a ball-point pen or even the eraser end of your digital tablet stylus. The important thing is you want to be able to apply direct pressure on a small area but not scratch the tone while you are doing it. Finish burnishing down the tone. Youʼre done!
You can also experiment with the tones themselves. You can use the tones as a base and customize them. Hereʼs examples of two very common customization techniques.
1. Mixing tones: Some tones can be mixed. Also, because of the dot pattern, if the tones are lined up a little off, you may get whatʼs called a Moiré pattern. Of course, in the right location even a moire pattern can look really cool! Hereʼs Y-1071 mixed with Y-1638:
2. Removing tone: Using the very tip of your art knife, lightly scratch across the surfaceof the tone. This will remove some of the black tone ink a little at a time. By working slowly, you can create highlights or even clouds in a toned sky.
Below are some examples of creating different effects using only a few tone sheets. By being creative, you can use the same tone to give a completely different feel to two different panels.
1. Here is a completed version of the tutorial panel. I mixed tone from sheets Y-1232 (the background, eyes and mouth), Y-1071 (hair and shadows on her arms and dress), Y-1578 (for the dress polka dots) and Y-1638 (for the highlight on the heart necklace.)
Additionally, I did a few layered tones here. I layered Y-1071 twice for the hearts on the hair clips, Y-1232 twice in the mouth and Y-1071 layered with Y-1578 in the dress.
2. In this example, I created a dark, grungy background by mixing two tones from Y-1578 with the even tone of Y-1071 (on the wall panels) and the gradient from Y-1578.
3. I used the dot pattern from Y-1578 that I used in the first example to create a festive background for this couple and Y-1071 for her hair and some light shadows. This kept the panel fun and energetic, while visually bringing the figures forward off the page. Whenever you have a busy background, keep the figures shaded very simply. When you have very detailed and heavily-shaded figures, give the panel a very simple background. This allows your characters to stand out from the background, dynamically.
4. For this panel, I only used Y-1638 for the background and a few shadows on the figure, plus Y-1071 for all the other shading. Again, you can see how simple shading balances out with the heavy background to allow the figures to pop off the page!
5. For this page, I used only the four tone sheets I have used throughout this tutorial. I also extended my range of tones by layering multiple tones. By using a few tones resourcefully, you can create and add virtually unlimited amounts of textures and moods to your work.
So, that’s it! I hope you find this tutorial useful and try your hand at using screen tones in your comics and manga production.