The Art of Line: Form-Contour Lines


the hidden art of form-contour line

Form-contour line rendering has a long history of artistic use (as can be seen in the examples above showing classical figure studies). It is unfortunate that during its inception, this method of rendering was rarely seen by the contemporary general public. The technique evolved as a process used to study forms; these drawn studies would ultimately be used as elemental tools to assist the creation of painted masterworks. This advanced style of form-contour line rendering was not witnessed in ‘masterworks’ until the invention of lithographic printing.

Lithographs were first created as a cheaper means of producing literature; however, it didn’t take long for the process to evolve and become a tool for artists to produce and distribute artwork. Lithography involved carving lines into a plate which would hold ink. The image was transferred to paper by being sent through a machine that would press the ink onto the page. This groundbreaking method of reproduction demanded the application of complex line techniques. For the most part, lithographic lines borrowed from previously developed methods used in sketch studies. As a result, this wonderfully constructed rendering technique, previously a mere scaffolding, became the beautiful visage of the masterwork itself.


Once lithographic printing took root, the art of rendering with line contour evolved to new heights. Examining the technical feats of these 18th-century lithographic prints is awe-inspiring. Artists created a full range of tones using line alone (although eventually techniques of lithography allowed for tonal washes using a chemical process). Standing at a distance, a lithographic image will produce a similar range in tones one would encounter within a photograph. This variation of tone is almost entirely obtained through the use of line contour.

Form contour lines, being the primary foundation of lithographic prints, are lines that flow across the form. This technique creates the illusion of both tone and depth. Since the lines trace the forms, an additional layer of information is encoded into the image which gives the observer further clarity of the forms. There are several line contour techniques used to help create the illusion of shifting tones. One method is spacing the lines tighter together progressively as the form travels further from the light. When the form-contour lines are pulled closer together they produce a darker tone. Another technique is having lines rounding toward the light become thinner in their application. Inside the interior of the shadows, an artist would add the addition of cross-contour lines when necessary to add a bit more clarity to the forms as the forms become darker in tone.

Albretch Dürer lithograph

Albretch Dürer lithograph

The real beauty of these lithographic masterworks is that artistic display of the understanding of the form of an object. Paintings do this entirely through tone alone, allowing the reader to register the form with their own eye’s ability. With lithography, an artist is showing their ability to understand form and the lines act as an exhibition of the act of application. In some ways, this style of art was a precursor to the invention of a ‘painterly style’ in which the painter desires the viewer to see their strokes and thus act of creation (the artist's mental processes).

from lithograph to inking

The real beauty of these lithographic masterworks is their technical display of the artist's comprehension of forms and dimension. Paintings display depth and dimension through tone alone, which allows the reader to register the form as an eye would observe light in nature. With lithography, the artist is able to show off their understanding of form through the act of line application. In some ways, this style of art was a precursor to the invention of a ‘painterly style’ in which the painter desires the viewer to see their strokes and thus witness the act of creation (the artist's mental processes).

Bernie Wrightson Inked drawing

Bernie Wrightson Inked drawing

form-contour lines in comics

In the world of comics, form-contour lines are universally employed. Typically not to the degree one would find on a traditional lithograph. Most comic artists don’t use a heavy amount of form-contour lines to create the full range of tones to mimic photography, due to time constraints and deadlines. However, they still utilize the trick of having form-contour lines express the rounding of forms into the third dimension. Below is an example of some minimal use of form-contour lines to round the forms of the figure. This small bit of information conveys so much to the readers subconscious whether they are aware of the marks or not.

Arthor Adams Inked drawing

Arthor Adams Inked drawing

With comic line work, there is a balancing act between the line work and the coloring. Prior to digital coloring programs and improvements in printing, the coloring process was flat. Therefore it was the responsibility of the line work to render the forms through a heavier use of form-contour and hatching lines. Ultimately, with modern forms of digital-coloring, the tonal variations are created more efficiently on the computer. Thus, most modern comic art directors tend to hand pick cleaner line work and pair it with more lavish coloring. However, the best case scenario is a well-balanced use of form-contour lines in combination with the right balance of tonal coloring.

Line contour is a rich application of rendering form and as long as there is black and white illustration it will continue to evolve and grow for years to come.

The Art of Line: Simple Line Contour


The War on lines

Some moments stick in your mind like spoiled taffy, bitter-sweet. Sometime back in 2002, I woke up eager to attend my first academic life-drawing class. Strolling to class with my morning coffee I felt confident I was going to make an impression on my professor with drawing abilities. The model struck a pose and my pencil began christening the fresh art pad with a wonderfully rendered line drawing of the figure before me.

After finishing our first long pose we were instructed to post our finished pieces upon the class wall for examination and critique. The professor most likely wanted to see where our coordination - and more importantly our artistic mental abilities - currently stood. Scanning the wall, the professor finally approached my drawing and I awaited the adorning review. Instead, the instructor began a crushing critique that haunted me for the entire year. “Stop drawing lines. You need to stop thinking in lines.”

The advice was a double-edged sword. I had previously only studied comics, an art form with highly stylized and skillfully applied lines. My hope was I would learn more about the mental process behind the techniques I had been studying. My entire artistic foundation was yanked out from under me. For a while I was devastated, however, It did help me break my addiction to my constant use of line. As a result, I was forced to start thinking in three-dimensional forms. However, it left me in a state of confusion for a long while as well. I grew up on comic books which held the beauty of line as a powerfully graphical tool. Lines in comics are an expressive cornerstone to the original art form. Yet to further the art education I was asked to let them go.

A comparison of figure line contour with the rendered form of a figure.

A comparison of figure line contour with the rendered form of a figure.


What I have come to understand since then is that an art school worth its salt will first heavily focus on a classical chiaroscuro approach. This is designed to break a young artist’s tendency to draw two-dimensionally. When we first learn to both observe and draw we typically begin with the line. We notice the borders of an object and try to ‘outline’ it and then use lines for prominently overlapping forms. Alongside that, most developing artists copying other illustrations and photos. By copying the shapes and tonal variations the artist is tricked into thinking they have an understanding of three-dimensional form. When in fact, your eye is being trained to transfer a flat image to a flat image. This habit trains the mind to think and observe in flat, two dimensions. While it may develop strong hand-eye coordination (which is an important element to drawing) it limits the artist's ability to convey the world to mere contour.

A good professor knows this and has the difficult job of taking a promising student and forcing them to evolve. The goal is to expand the artist’s understanding of perspective, three-dimensional forms and their interactions with light and shadow. This focusing on light and shadow and representing forms which bend into the third dimension on the page is called chiaroscuro. This school of thought, taken to its extreme, discourages any direct use of line. The professor teaching the class indeed views line as a lesser technique compared to the rendering of tonal form. If any line is granted it is used merely to plot and construct the design of the page, but even in this area, the blocking of shadow forms is preferred to line.

However, throughout the history of artists, the use of line has been evolving in tandem with tonally rendered representation. The oldest use being line contour drawings of animals in cave paintings dating over 20,000 years ago. These simplified forms speak to the symbolic mind and represent more the concept of an object rather than attempting to capture a photogenic copy of the forms. The power of this type of image, distilling the essence of an object to a simplified line, was rediscovered by modern artists in the 20th century.

Left: Cave Paintings; Right: Picasso’s line drawing

Left: Cave Paintings; Right: Picasso’s line drawing

This simplification of forms through line is a powerfully minimized graphical representation. It condenses of the visual world to a stripped down image which is quickly identifiable by disposing of the unnecessary elements. Line use has since branched into many different approaches and styles, but this being the oldest and most simplified, I thought it would be the best place to start when exploring a discussion about the art of line.

Ancient Origins of Simple-Line Contour

The use of line was observed in the earliest forms of visual communication (as I’ve already touched on referencing per-historic cave paintings). As line-rendering techniques evolved and complexified, there still remained lineage of exceptional use of simple-line contour which continues even to this day.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Ancient Egyptian images were intimately intertwined with their written language in the form of hieroglyphs. In a way, we can see the visual tree of words and images begin to split into two distinct branches as history progresses. This early method of communication is sort of the primordial ooze of both pictorial art and literature. Egyptian images were symbols and their symbols were images, and lines were used in both for clarity.

Greek Vase Painting

Shifting forward a few thousand years, it’s worth taking a look at the Greek vase painting. Here the approach to figure representation is similar to the style of early Egyptian hieroglyphs but the skills of application have evolved. Narrative images wrap around the pottery intertwined with decorative symbols. The attention to detail and the elegance of the rendered forms are much more nuanced and life-like than the stiffness found in hieroglyphs. Greek vases are broken into two eras, red-figure, and black-figure. The red figures are outlined in black paint and thine black lines are used to detail the figures themselves. Black figures have their interiors painted in black and the lines are removed to reveal the color of the pot. Both styles are incredibly stylized and very graphical in nature and create a distinctly recognizable image.

Turn of the Century Simple-Line Contour


Mucha, to me, is the purest example of a blending of the two approaches. As a painter, illustrator and graphic designer during the Art Nouveau era his knowledgeable range of skills contributed to his original style. Here we can clearly see the simple-line contour techniques of old but in conjunction with the masterful planning and composition techniques that grew out of the Renaissance. His avoidance tonal rendering contributes to the delicate feminine appearance of his work. Tonal variation and gradients are used minimally and as a device to create a focal point for the eye. The art salons of his time were dedicated to the traditional craft forged during the Renaissance. Mucha's departure into minimalism was part of a movement of the era and opened the door for other artists to explore simple-line contour as well.

Henri Toulouse Lautrec

Toulouse Lautrec was another well-rounded artist working as a painter, illustrator, print-maker as well as a caricaturist. It’s my belief that Toulouse Lautrec’s unorthodox style emerged from his involvement in caricature. Caricature has its roots firmly planted in the comics realm and thus has a history of utilizing simple-line contour. This merging of worlds led to Lautrec's innovative voice.


Simple-line contour was an essential element of the two emerging art styles of the early 20th Century: Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Previously we discussed Mucha, essentially the face of the Art Nouveau movement. The equivalent artist in Art Deco would be Erté. Branching out from illustration, Erté became a recognized fashion designer for the theater as well as film. His simple-line illustrative style became the look associated with Art Deco figures.


Beardsley, inspired by Japanese woodcuts as well, as the waters of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, developed his own black and white style using simple-line contour. His work acts as a nice transition from the examination of the painting/academic world towards artists within the comic art world; this is partly due to his exclusive use of black and white and partly due to his methodology. Beardsley was definitely well versed in the fine art world of his time but chose to swim in murkier waters and make his own vision. He preferred to focus on the grotesque and perverse without worry of being shunned by the art world. This freedom allowed him to make art through a more exploitative and unique lens.

Comic Book Simple-Line Contour


Tradd Moore has a distinct style within the comic industry, sporting clean and elegantly flowing lines that carry their own life-force. The power of simple line contour lies within not just the flow of the line, but a strong understanding of balancing positive and negative space. It is through the simplicity of line that the focus is on the shapes and how they move and sing on the page. Tradd’s work has roots in the wonderful history of simple-line contour, but he molds his style and shapes to the format of the comic book medium. His original pages are a work of art unto themselves, but the experience a reader receives reading one of his graphic novels is a living work of art. For this reason, I suggest heading over and picking up his latest book, The New World, hot off the press at your local comic shop (or if you must, on Amazon).

Thus concludes this little exploration of Simple-Line Contour. Ultimately, most comic artists use a variety of techniques including variations of line-use within them. I wanted to explore the idea of finding the essence of a style by tracing it to its roots and following where it has led. Since I’m not studying for a PhD in comics, I have only touched on the surface using my prior art historical knowledge. However, there are many interesting links within the world of comic book art that have ties to various art lineages. This is something I plan on exploring more in future posts. For now, hope you’ve enjoyed the read and until next time, keep making comics!

Designing a Comic Cover (Part 2 of 2)


If you haven’t yet read it, first check out part one of this two part series; the first article focused on my philosophy in regards to comic covers and their importance to a comic. To reiterate I made three main points:

  1. A cover should set the tone and mood for a series and reflect the story being told.

  2. A cover should act as a ‘hook’ that peaks the readers interest in the story to come.

  3. Cover designs should be instantly recognizable across a series.

For part two, the focus is going to be on the process of developing a unique cover design with your comic series in mind. As an example, we will take a look at the cover design process for the series, “13” by Chris Massari in which I’ve been hired to design cover work. The series focuses on the legend of 13 Shaolin monks who helped to defeated two rebel dynasties in 7th-Century AD.

Step One: Gathering Reference

My first step is to gather reference material and begin to study the subject matter surrounding a series. This is the foundational structure upon which all the creative visuals will build. Often the smallest detail can become a cornerstone upon which a unique concept will be built. Luckily for this project Chris is actually an astute researcher and had assembled a great amount of reference for me to begin with. This initial gathering of reference is the first round of reference collection. As a direction is narrowed down, more specified references will need to be gathered for specific elements. The most important part of this step is to ‘get your head in the game’. You want to start charging your creative mind with the subject matter of the comic series.

Alongside your subject references, it’s also important to start contemplating the mood & feel of the comic series. Chris had expressed two major influences which he had in mind while creating of the series: 300 by Frank Miller; and Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue. Upon exploring the two series, there was a quick realization that they had very different tonalities from one another. 300 had covers which were loud, graphic and implying excessive violence, where as Vagabond chose calm, serine and quite moments in between violence and conflict. Therefore, my approach pitching design direction to Chris was to explore both paths at their extremes and then offer a third option, the middle way, trying to incorporate the essence of both books.

Step Two: Sketching and Thumbnails

Once the reference is gathered, its time to pour a big cup of coffee and let things rattle around in your creative mind. In the early stages of sketching it is important to think in broad strokes. This prevents getting lost in the details on any one concepts. Let yourself be playful and explore without restriction.

With a sketch book and pencil in hand, I begin to pluck images from my mind onto the paper. I began traveling down the direction influenced by, Vagabond. The reason for this is that I believe in finding elements that will make a cover unique on the shelf. I appreciate the Eastern manga style of exploring quite moments within a story. This is very popular in manga comics, however it is incredibly rare in the American comic market. Next I studied the 300 covers and tried a more minimal approach then I attempted to combine the feeling of the two together. I always thumbnail covers at approximately 2” X 3”. Here are the results of the sketching stage:

  1. Eastern Influence: The first direction explores a solitary moment of contemplation prior to battle. The image of a warrior monk gazing at his reflection in a pond, mentally battling the decision to participate in war. This concept is visited again in the last direction with dramatic a twist. My initial take was to focus on the warrior’s entire figure and have it enveloped by the environment. This concept focused on the old adage that a person pushes out onto the world to shape it but the world is always pushing back shaping the individual. I wanted to have a few falling flower petals to evoke a trickling in of danger into this serine environment.

  2. Western Influence: Frank Miller is known for having graphical covers. They are loud and scream ‘danger’. I wanted to use typography stripped down on a red background incorporating a weapon in with the number 13. Ultimately if this comic was going to be a blood bath, this would be the direction to go. Thankfully, Chris was much more interested in merging the essence of comics from the East into the Western market than repeating the traditional excessive violence found in American comics since the 80s’s.

  3. East Meets West: This was my attempt to marry the two extremes. I wanted to take a moment after battle, pull back and show a moment of contemplation. This time we see the actual reflection of the warrior’s face as he meditates on the actions he has taken. By displaying a blood stained face inside a calm pool of water there is a juxtopsing of violence and peace. The sword next to the puddle helps to reinforce the idea of battle. Chris appreciated this direction, but was really excited about exploring the direction of the first thumbnail that had a more Eastern influence.

Step three: refining Thumbnails & finalizing reference

The next stage is my favorite part of the process; crafting the final direction and solidifying the details. Chris and I both decided the image needed more of an allusion of the war to come. After expressing interest in perhaps having a few arrows landing in the scene, Chris suggested using a wheel as a nod to dharmachakra (representing the Buddhist teaching and walking of the path to Enlightenment). To add to the metaphor, we chose to have the wheel be broken. This sybolizes that the monks path to enlightenment, through isolation, was broken and about to be challenged by the war to come.

These little symbolic gems grow as the image is revised. In each phase there is a potential for new elements that build upon the previous ones. Keep in mind, it is important to edit and remove just as much as you focus on adding to an image. For example, we had also discussed adding a crane, as it is the bird representing Vajrapani (the god venerated by the Shaolin monks). However we decided that it took away from the quietness which the image so effective. Also, it wasn’t directly relevant to the message of the first cover, so in the end it was kept out.


After cementing the direction of the final composition and elements, there was another round of gathering references specific to the image. These were the last bits of detail to assure that everything looks and feels proper. It may seem like a lot of effort sorting through images, but it will pay off in the end.

Stage four: Rendering

This article isn’t focused on how to create a cover image, rather it revolves around the thought-process behind creating a cover image. Therefore, I won’t go into the details of execution, but I will examine the thought behind the color palette I chose.

My approach to rendering a cover varies depending on the project. With the covers for “13” I wanted to bring elements from the East and incorporate them into my western style. I’m not an artistic chameleon, ultimately I want my images to feel recognizable as my personal style. However, I did want to capture the essence and tone of Chinese ink wash.

I love the mood of these long scrolls, especially the fog it catches drifting up from the water. It creates a stark contrast of dark and light tones. The goal was to create a tonally dark foreground that quickly becomes lighter in tone due to the fog of the environment.

There is an intentional limitation on the amount of color in the scene. This limited color helps to evoke the feeling of ink wash scrolls. I chose limit the color to the primary elements of the scene: the monk; the flower petals, and a touch of color on the wheel. The majority of the scene is a de-saturated cool grey which allows the character to be the central focus. Having established this approach on the first issue one, it will be subsequently applied to every cover following. Part of the fun of cover design is establishing a rule set and then experimenting within that structure.

With all that in mind, below is the result of the final cover image for 13 issue 01. As always, if you enjoyed the article, please share and like on social networks and the like. Until next time, Keep Making Comics!


Designing a Comic Cover (Part 1 of 2)

There is the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” While this may be true for a novel, in regards to a comic book cover this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Every writer will tell you that the first paragraph should set the tone for the coming novel. The importance of this introduction is referred to as the ‘hook’. A comic book is unique in that it is a combination of images & words which together convey the story. Given that comic books are a visual medium, the cover in turn becomes the ‘hook’ to its story.

A classic example of a cover’s impact on story comes from the most well known graphic novel, WATCHMAN. Dave Gibbons uses the cover as the first panel to the series. The cover’s abstract yellow background covered in a blood stain works as a strong attactor. It isn’t until the reader opens to the first page that the abstract yellow transforms into a smiley face button in a pool of blood on the first panel.


To me, this understanding of a cover’s connection and ability to elevate story is what separates the banal monthly comic covers from the masterful works of art. Considering that graphic novels (trades) are often a collection of monthly single issues, it is important to take into account a design thread that ties an entire series together. Now, obviously not every cover should be a literal first panel to a comic’s interior. That treatment would quickly become redundant. However, there are many unique and interesting ways to utilize a cover to set the tone of a book. Let’s take a look at a few examples of comic series with strong cover design.

Southern Bastards

Interior art and cover design by Jason Latour.

The covers for this series are a prime example of strong and consistent design and storytelling. In general, cover art is strongest when illustrated by the same artist working on interiors. This isn’t to say there aren’t talented ‘cover artists creating covers, however there is a dissonance that occurs when the art varies from cover to interior.

For the cover art on SOUTHERN BASTARDS, Jason’s use of bold, loud monochromatic red (with a few hints of other neutral color tones) cries out at the viewer from the shelf. It elicits danger and screams, “There will be blood.” Each cover also reinforces an allusion to violence through the use of a ‘weapon in hand’ in the central figure. If you examine the single issue covers across the story arc, they tell the shifting of power from one issue to another. One could easily explore a an entire blog article on the series covers in themselves (and may do so in the future) but I’ll save that analysis for a later time. Mainly, I included this series because it’s heavy monochromatic red design made it unique to anything else on the shelf and it remained consistent throughout the series.

The Wicked + The Divine

Interior art and cover design by Jamie Mcklevie


The Wicked + The Divine has one of the most powerful series of cover designs in the industry and is immediately recognizable. The story revolves around 12 gods who remerge from generation to generation in relevant/current forms. Each cover is starkly centers on a frontal portrait of one of the gods. This playful framing acts as an introduction and focus on each character individually. It also creates a wonderful rhythm for the reader and becomes a glue tying the issues together (Side note: it also is a perfect enticement for collectors). The super saturated color palettes all tie together nicely and sets the supernatural tone for the series as well. The unique logo design goes a long way to make the covers an instant classic.

The Vision: Little Worse Than A Man

Covers by Mike del Mundo


Here is an example to counter my earlier statement that the best comic covers are done by the same artist working on the interior art. This series of covers by Mike del Mundo wonderfully sets the tone for the series capturing a - pastel, perfect, picturesque, 1950’s, white picket-fence - life with an abnormal ‘super’ twist. The color palette again elegantly ties the series together perfectly. Everytime one revisits the comic shelves its easy to spot the book month-to-month. This attention to detail is incredibly important to draw in returning fans and it makes for a wonderful collection for comic collectors.

Void Trip

Interior art and cover design by Plaid Klaus


Here’s a little ‘shameless-self-promotion’. When I was designing covers for VOID TRIP I was incredibly conscious of establishing a consistent look and feel for the series. I chose a vibrant candy-colored palette with neon greens and purples. The story is about a psychedelic road trip in space, so the greens evoke glowing galaxies and the purples feel like the warm gaseous clouds of space. The logo I intentionally designed to be intimately small since you typically find loud/large logos on the shelf. Also, I made the logo center frame and used it as a symbolic element throughout each cover. Representing a sun, a void and the force of life. Again, I built a lot of symbolism into each cover, which I plan to do a unique blog post about at a later date.

For now, what I’d like to leave as a take home for fellow comic creators is that a cover should not be thought of as a ‘shiny lure’ to attract a reader. It does have to be that, but it should be much more. Covers should be a cohesive binding agent for the series and should also tell the story’s arc at a glance. In addition it must immediately capture the mood of the series by setting the proper tone.

Hopefully this article has helped shed some light on the value of a comic book cover. That way you can avoid the awful and meaningless, ‘character montage’, covers which are designed to push books based on fandom…like so…

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