This post is the first of “the Comic Process” series! Horray!

My main goal with this series of posts is to share the things I’m learning along the way of making my first graphic novel “Atana and the Firebird“, as well as my thoughts on the process. Sort of like wrap-up posts as I proceed along the pipeline. This is meant more as a documentation of my journey than a tutorial, but I hope this series can be of use to anyone starting on their comic/graphic novel journey!


In short, thumbnails are the little sketches that helps you figure out what anything you draw is going to look like, typically contained in a box of similar ratio to your final piece. An art instructor once told me they’re called thumbnails because they’re supposed to be the size of your thumbnail. The sentiment is: if a composition works at the size of a stamp, it’ll work at the size of a poster.

My comic thumbnails are bigger than my thumb and look like this:

[examples are from a project that isn’t “Atana and the Firebird” (and therefore a little messier) because let’s be honest, I have no idea how much is appropriate to share from that project yet.]

I write in the last word of the sentence each bubble contains so it’s easier to keep track of where I am in the script. I’ve blotted most of them out here for ~confidentiality~ reasons.

My thumbnails are drawn quickly and badly and without any detail but it’s enough because I’m the only one that needs to be able to read them. Sometimes I’ll cross out a panel and redraw it close by (as seen above), or I’ll paste a post-it note on top of larger fixes so that I don’t have to redraw the rest of the thumbnail. I think it’s important to remember that thumbnails are just a quick way to get ideas down on a page, I change paneling and composition at the penciling stage all the time, thumbnails are just suggestions to myself.

For long form comics I print out a template for thumbnails so that it speeds up the process by reducing the step where I draw the template each page, and keep everything at the ratio the final page is going to be in so I can scan these and layer them directly in my PSD files.

[the template looks like this, printed on 8.5″x11″ paper]

Here are some things that I like to keep in mind as I draw thumbnails:

  1. Page Count. Since I’m drawing with a pre-determined maximum page count, I track how many comic pages each page of script translates into. This varies wildly: some pages of script can become up to 5 pages of comic if it’s action heavy; other pages of script have a 1:1 script-comic ratio. The important thing here is to not go over the page limit. At the end of each chapter I note down how long the chapter was, and how many pages total it makes the book.
  2. Composition and Paneling. This is probably the most important bit personally. The thumbnail stage is where it’s easiest to get an overview on the pacing of the pages.
  3. Include Relevant Information. a.k.a making sure all plot relevant details from the script are included! Sometimes a detail is too small to draw and I’ll just write a note to myself in the margins, and an arrow pointing to where it’s supposed to be.
  4. Perspective. This ties into composition; I like to draw in rough perspective grids at thumbnail stage so that I know what “camera angle” each panel has. (Weirdly enough these tiny perspective grids are more helpful to me when I get to penciling than any big, straight-ruler, big perspective grids.)
  5. Character Gesture/Expression. I think of these as 10 second life drawings: the drawing is Bad but it’s the idea that counts.

Since it’s my first experience doing thumbnails for a whole graphic novel, here’s a fun challenge I kept running into: it’s hard to turn my storyboard brain off. (For the strangers reading this I was trained for storyboards.) I constantly want to draw in-between poses that serve no purpose in a comic format. Comic deals with brevity and clarity, and time isn’t continuous between panels; it’s just hard to remember that sometimes.

After sitting at my desk for a couple of weeks I finished thumbnailing my first book. It was a strange experience holding the little stack of paper that is the first messy iteration of “Atana and the Firebird”. It’s the bare bones, nothing but the bones, of my comic book. It feels oddly euphoric. I recommend the experience.

[this example is “Atana and the Firebird”]

Now I must build and rework these bones until I have something called “pencils”.

Until then,