What Does a Penciller Do?

C. K. Lanz

A penciller is an artist who works in pencil helping to create visual art forms like comic books, manga, and graphic novels. Working from a writer’s script, pencillers illustrate the action described and design the individual page layouts. Pencillers are skilled drawers who are flexible enough to adapt to different styles and have a collaborative mindset. Consistency and an ability to keep deadlines are also crucial for these artists.

Manga style running girl drawn by a penciller.
Manga style running girl drawn by a penciller.

In most cases, creating a comic book, manga, or graphic novel is a collaborative and often concurrent effort. Production begins with a writer who writes a script that includes instructions for scenes and layout. A penciller next sketches out preliminary drawings in pencil based on the action and layout instructions in the script. A letterer may add the words, an inker will draw the final art over the penciller’s work, and a colorist will then scan the inker’s work and add color via computer software. Editors and the cartoon artist, if there is one, are involved at each step in this process.

Creating graphic novels is a group effort, with a writer, penciller, letterer, inker and editor working together.
Creating graphic novels is a group effort, with a writer, penciller, letterer, inker and editor working together.

Pencillers have a crucial job that can make or break a project; they bring the writer’s script to visual life. A typical script will control the story’s pacing by dividing the action into panels and describing the scenes for the penciller to illustrate. The penciller illustrates these scenes and arranges the panels in a way that will engage the reader without adversely affecting plot and character development. Some writers will communicate the basic plot only, giving the penciller a fuller creative reign.

A basic page can be divided into six panels or three rows of two panels each, yet static page design would eventually become tedious for the reader. As a result, pencillers will vary the page layout and design depending on what is happening in the story at a given point. Panel size and shape can vary when setting the scene, emphasizing the action or increasing or decreasing the pacing. Characters may sometimes break through the borders of a panel, especially if the penciller wants to direct the reader’s attention to an adjacent panel.

These artists give the illustrations a basic structure to any text. They are responsible for the anatomy, viewpoints, and perspective. Rather than churn out rough sketches, the penciller resolves any problems with perspective and anatomy while leaving sufficient room for the text by planning word balloons. These balloons or narration boxes must be placed so that the reader will read the comic in the most logical sequence. The artistic style and character design must be consistent throughout; otherwise the reader may become confused.

Pencillers are typically adept at drawing anatomy and architecture. Consistent practice is key to perfecting these skills and developing a personal style of art. They must be able to envision a scene in their heads and put it down on paper as well as develop a sense for engaging panel layout. Being flexible and willing to work productively with a team are additional important skills. Finding and keeping jobs also depends on an individual’s ability to stick to a schedule, keep to a deadline, and produce consistent work.

Basic penciling equipment includes drawing utensils, sketch books, and sufficient workspace. Reference materials can also be helpful, especially if the penciller has to draw a specific landmark or setting. Some pencillers use drawing tablets that allow the artist to draw using computer software. A website can help pencillers market themselves and connect with fans.

Many pencillers work freelance, but it is possible to begin practicing penciling without a job or a script. Scripts are available on the Internet or in printed compilations. A productive practice method involves choosing a script for an unfamiliar comic book or graphic novel, penciling the action, arranging the panels, and then comparing the practice effort to the published product.

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