Patterns in Comics, ideas from life drawing experiments

There are visual and verbal ideas, in comics, the visual is often dismissed because there is almost no grammar or language to discuss it. But comics are a combination of the visual and verbal. Verbal fabrications are the way we construct much of our consciousness, here’s one.

Put a green next to blue.

While you can write a thousand words to describe it is ultimately impossible to capture it in words because it works with a different part of the brain. To discuss comics with my self, I want a vocabulary that forces me to think about that different part of the brain.

I want a language for myself to make comics that are alive not the same old same old. When teaching Flash and HTML I learned about pattern languages, a vocabulary of solutions that programmers use as a generalized starting point for many of their problems. It gave me a way to explain what the heck a data file meant in relationship to their cute animation. It was a language of ideas and solutions that could give you a starting point for writing specific code.

Since comics are the most complex art form, developing a language to understand what that blue and green are doing next to each other is important to my growth.

“Pattern Language” are comics just narrative dressmaking? 

The programmers swiped the idea of a pattern language from the architect Christopher Alexander whose 1977 book “A Pattern Language” first introduced it. Alexander looked at architecture and cataloged a set of solutions to problems, abstracting them out to principles that could be combined in various ways to solve building problems. As Wikipedia puts it “A pattern language is an organized and coherent set of patterns each of which describes a problem and the core of a solution that can be used in many ways within a specific field of expertise.”

Understanding the pattern language for code gave me a clear view of the principles behind many of the ideas such as “Model View Controller” that dictated how much of the web interacts and what designers of the web have to work with.

In Buddhism, you start with learning the pattern “The Four Noble Truths”. One, there’s stress. Two, clinging to things is what causes stress. Three, the way to end it is the 8-fold path. Four, is the eightfold path, another pattern in itself, it’s right view, right resolve right speech, right action right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism A pattern language to take away the stress we live with.

A pattern language gives you a way to work with principles in complex situations and develop new solutions by how you combine them. Buddha solved the problem of doing the dishes, hopefully by creating my comics pattern language I can solve some of the problems of doing comics.

The secret to drawing like Barry Smith, Jim Lee, or Richard Diebenkorn and dating hot chicks.

A few years ago (26 actually), I had coffee with a cute babe from life drawing class. Both of us had read Sir Kenneth Clark’s Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance. The book was a catalog of how Rembrandt had studied and mastered ideas from the Italian Renaissance and we went on about poses, light, and dark and composition for a few hours. Eventually, I got to see her library from Jackson Pollack’s drawings, Tin Tin and a “A History of the Comic Strip” by Couperie and Horn, which I hadn’t seen since my high school library, among a pile of others. This was long before the Internet existed, so I had to marry her to get a hold of that “Comic Strip” book, obviously.

All artists swipe from other artists if Rembrandt did it I’m pretty sure it’s okay for all other artists to do it too. When you swipe you can copy the surface or learn the ideas of what the other artist is doing. When you began to use their solutions in different ways that is when you are subconsciously developing a pattern language out of those other artists. What Sir Kenneth Clark is did was establish patterns Renaissance artists set up and how Rembrandt used them.

The secret to dating hot chicks? Find one who has read all the same books you have. But when you marry them the problem is the duplicates of all Rembrandt, Picasso, and Herge books you have.

How do you speak Comics?

Verbal fabrication is how we use words to control our minds and understanding what we are doing. But if there is no defined vocabulary for comics shaping my thought, visual swiping, and working from your gut. So I’ve spent ten minutes a day cutting up life and sketchbook drawings into four-panel pages as an easy social media post. It’s to see how my life drawing would feel as a comic. But it’s all working on my gut based on whatever visual knowledge that has developed over my years of looking. In writing text for the posts, I saw a set of patterns for myself to play with.

By writing out tweets like Scale jump between panels, or Bands that use solid black shapes as directional lines to control eye flow, I have a verbal fabrication that I can use to dirct visual fabrication within the page. The challenge is to integrate the visual fabrication into the narrative stories I’m working on.

Comics patterns have existed for a long time

All comics, of course, start with Jack Kirby, the 4-panel grid is obviously a pattern that Jack for many years. Legendary Marvel editor Jim Shooter used an old Kirby comic to teach his $1.98 storytelling lecture. While he didn’t use the “pattern language” vocabulary he did lay out the fundamentals of “Full-Figures in Action” and Fore-Middle-Back as a way of being clear in storytelling. Kirby also used “Foreground in” using perspective and design to suck the reader into the story. It was often it was followed by Foreground out when the story exploding out at you when he wanted a dramatic scene. “Scale jump” is also a pattern Jack often uses, jumping from full figures to close ups.

Each of these can be used to do fresh exciting work like Kirby’s or ignored and look like much of mainstream comics output.

The future of patterns in my universe

The goal is to build a list of patterns from my life drawing comics and other’s work. This takes study thought and practice with doing comics. This blog needs a Comics Patterns Wiki to list the patterns.

Software Design Patterns

The first WIKI or nerds aren’t just for comics

Jim Shooters Lesson on storytelling

The basics of storytelling

Wikipedia on pattern languages, a good overview of Alexander’s ideas and plenty of discussion

The bloody story of preening maniacs fighting over control of ancient Rome. Adapting into 200 pages of thundering expressionistic comics. For sale in print here!


Getting Old

At 30 I knew everything.
I did “cool, different” comics, politically active and went to El Salvador to actually learn about truth justice and the American way. At 31, I chased a girl to California, got dumped and diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.At the time, there was nothing that could be done for MS other than die, thanks Oakland for ruining my life.
Maybe, maybe not.

But in life drawing class I met a cool hippie chick doing yoga. Thanks Oakland for introducing me to the love of my life. Marriage and kid followed, but comics collapsed, my cool different comics were hated by the comics editors who controlled the work. They made sure that I had no work and no health care.
Maybe, maybe not.

By 40, I could barely walk. The cool hippie chick attacked the health care system to get me access to Copaxone, a new drug for MS.The drug worked and play with kids was again possible. Commercial comics were gone for me but I went other ways, learning to program, non-profit work, teaching HTML.

At 50 I ran the get out to vote for one tiny little section of Minden Nevada from a teacher’s home, we elected a Black guy President of the United States. Then we passed the ACA, the health care that had been the threat hanging over my head, the black cloud of my life lifted.
Maybe, maybe not.

Now at 60, phone banks every week leading up to another get out the vote weekend. Now Republicans want to take away peoples health care, bankrupt our country and drive it into hell, maybe, maybe not. I’m doing the comics I really want to do for the first time in my life, maybe they’ll make me famous, maybe not. So in sixty years what have I learned?

Maybe, maybe not is a good motto for life.


What is Rubric Power?

I always got better results from students when I gave them a clear written rubric of what the goal was of the assignment. Last night I discovered why. Life drawing can become the routine like morning yoga where you just do it “because” and don’t focus on barking in downward dog

But having stated that I want to work straight lines against curves forced me to question drawing arms of a bony model. Skill and having habits is perhaps the easiest way to stop thinking when working.
In drawing you can question every line or just draw the same old same old.

Placement in each panel is determined by scale of your figure. Making figures a different size from frame to frame implies some point of time or new gesture or experience.


5 Minute Warmup Drawing


To break up a composition into 3–5 main shapes, create a center of interest through focusing the direction of the brushstrokes and shapes.


  1. 4 panels per page, Define space into 3–5 shapes with pencil, focus on the foreground, middle, back, 30 secs.
  2. Define the center of interest and goal of the picture in my head.
  3. DO a 30 second gesture of the main figure.
  4. Block in main dark areas.
  5. With lines focus on curves versus straights in all of the shapes.


The positive and negative of the drawing is clear. The center moves around in each panel at least. The drawings brush strokes don’t just don’t represent the shapes but move the eye through the picture through direction and repetition.
No defined center of interest
Size of all the shapes are the same