The Art of Visual Storytelling: How Comics Work | Learn with Smithsonian | Phil Jimenez & The Smithsonian Team | Skillshare

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The Art of Visual Storytelling: How Comics Work | Learn with Smithsonian

teacher avatar Phil Jimenez & The Smithsonian Team

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      What Makes a Great Story


    • 3.



    • 4.



    • 5.

      Visual Storytelling Tactics


    • 6.

      Alternate Script: Drawing


    • 7.



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About This Class

What makes a great visual story?

Telling a compelling sequential narrative with words and pictures is a critical skill, whether you want to work in comics, give a compelling visual presentation, or simple create a strong creative connection with an audience.

In this 30-minute class, master writer and artist Phil Jimenez shares his visual storytelling process, honed over two decades working with DC and Marvel Comics. You’ll learn how to:

  • Translate a comic script into a sketch
  • Use references to inform your drawings
  • Communicate action and drama in a panel-by-panel format

This class is perfect for artists, writers, creatives, and everyone who wants to hone their visual storytelling skills — no previous drawing experience required! By the end, you'll be able to identify key elements that make up the best stories, and find the emotional core of a great narrative.


Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at theSmithsonian is estimated at nearly 138 million, including more than 126 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History. Learn more at

Meet Your Teacher

Phil Jimenez is an American comic book artist and writer, known for his work as writer/artist on Wonder Woman from 2000 to 2003, as one of the five pencilers of the 2005-2006 miniseries Infinite Crisis, and his collaborations with writer Grant Morrison on New X-Men and The Invisibles.

Jimenez teaches a life drawing course as part of the undergraduate cartooning program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he himself once studied. He has also held figure drawing classes outside of SVA, at places such as the LGBT Center in the West Village.

Jimenez has been named one of Instinct magazine's 2006 "Men of the Year," listed as one of Entertainment Weekly's "101 Gay Movers and Shakers," and has served as an Inkwell Awards Ambassador since September 2011.

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1. Introduction: Hi, my name is Phil Jimenez. I'm a writer and artist for DC and Marvel Comics. I've been drawing comic books for the past 25 years, covering the adventures of characters like Superman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men. I'm also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts and a mentor for high-school students at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. The best part about trying comic books is that I get to explore the width and breadth of human experience using these fantastic characters, who are kind of like modern day versions of Greek gods, and their adventures can be large or small, grown and big, or tiny and personal, but they're always human. I'm going to show you just how easy it is to draw a comic book page even if you've never done anything at all ever, even if you think you're the worst kind of artist. That doesn't matter. We all have a story that we want to tell. I want to make sure that you have the skills to be able to tell them, even if you're a little nervous about picking up a pencil and paper. So, the best part of this class is you are going to be learning by doing. I'm going to provide you with a comic book script that you can work from. It's a really easy script. It's something I've written that shows you the basics of storytelling and visual narrative. You can adapt it in any number of ways. If you want to tell a superhero story, that's great. If you want to talk a story about your mom on thanksgiving, that's great too. The story is yours to tell. It's the structure that I'm interested in. This class is presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. The National Museum of American History has a vast pop culture collection of objects ranging from Star Wars to the X-Men, that provide a lens into our American experience and the stories that have been told and continue to be told throughout the world. In May 2015, the Smithsonian launched a course from the National Museum of American History, the rise of superheroes and their impact on pop culture, with Stan Lee as one of the instructors. Over the past year, 60,000 students have taken the course from over 160 countries. Students and fans have asked us for more. This inspired us to create this Skillshare class. So, this class will really focus on essentials visual storytelling. This is for any skill level. You don't need a lot to tell the story. You just need what's in your head, what's in your heart, and some pencil and paper. We'll take care of the rest. 2. What Makes a Great Story: I think there are two or three things that make for a compelling story. The first are great characters. What makes a character great? A character can look like us or not like us. They can be human. They can be robots. They can be an alien from another world. But they have to have aspects of humanity that we relate to, that we can connect to. Storytelling is all about relationships. The relationships between characters. The relationships between characters and objects, sometimes through both. Stories is also told through action. Characters have to be doing something. A lot of people think that action means violence, it doesn't. It simply means movement. The best way to tell stories with characters is to keep those characters moving. To show us what these characters believe inside, as well as tell us. So, really what's the difference between a narrative and a novel, and a visual and a narrative? A story that you're seeing in pictures as opposed to when you're singing words. It really comes down to things like action. Is someone standing there with their arms crossed? Standing proud and tall? Are they hunched over, looking sad, a little depressed? All of these are going to tell your reader what your character's thinking and will help convey your story. You don't really need a lot to tell a great story. You just need your imagination and a story to tell. Remember, stories are all about emotion, they're about connectivity. You need to tell a story that people can relate to. You need to have characters that people can connect to. No matter what they look like, no matter where they're from. Just make sure that the essence of those characters is human, and they have qualities that anyone from any place will be able to see within themselves. That's the reason people will follow your story. That's the reason people will care about your characters, because on some level, they're just like them. Where we begin drawing a comic book? Ironically, you begin with words, a script. The art for comics is generally generated in a couple of different ways. One of the easiest most simple ways is a basic plot, the action for the narrative you just subscribed page by page but without the word balloons. This way, an artist can interpret the action any way they want to. Once they're done with the page, they send it back to the writer to add the word balloons and the text later. This is a very simple sample script we'll be using during the lesson. While the story was conceived as a single page in a superhero comic book, I provided the second interpretation if you want to practice and draw a comics but not necessarily draw superheroes. Of course, the simplest plot can be adopted in any number of ways. These are just two of the possibilities. But you should tell the story you want to tell following the basic structure of the page. So, the first thing I like to do when I get a script is break it down. What does that mean? It means I analyze the page, looking for the most important parts of the story. The stuff I'm going to emphasize in the pictures. Panel one: An establishing shot of the CITY. Nighttime. Dark clouds frame the tall buildings. It looks like it's going to rain. So, the establishing shot of the city, it doesn't say which. It's up to you to decided. Do you want to go for a big city like New York City? Something smaller, straight out like Los Angeles. Something that might even be more exotic like Dubai. It's up to you. The panel also establishes that it's nighttime and that it's going to rain, which means there might be clouds, which means the city will be lit. The buildings will be black and silhouetted with lights coming through them. Think about this. You've seen images like this in TV and film. You know what a city looks like at night. This is about establishing mood. It's about establishing the location as a character as much as the people within it. Panel two: A shot of the hero atop one of the buildings. Her/his cape billows in the nighttime wind. She/he's is looking down the ALLEY below. Something is amiss. Here, we establish the hero. This character can be a hero of your own creation or someone that you know from pop culture already. It can be a him or a her. It can be you. It can be an entirely fictional creation. It doesn't matter, but the hero is the protagonist. The hero is the most important character of your story. Panel three: In the ALLEY WAY, TWO CRIMINALS are staking out the BACK DOOR of a store. Their hands are full of bags of LOOT. So, when I break down panel three, I notice three things; the alley, the criminals, and the loot. The alley, of course, is environment and explains where we are. The criminals, the most important characters. Are they hardened criminals? Have they been doing this long time? Are they just teenagers out to get their kicks? The loot. Are we talking about bags of money or small devices they've stolen from an electronics store? All important decisions. What story are you telling? Panel four: The criminals look up to the sky. Close on their FACES, startled, stunned. They can't believe what they're seeing. They've been caught and they know it. When I break down this panel, it's all about their expressions. They're looking up. They've seen something they've never seen before. They know they've been caught. Why are their expressions important? Because they tell us how to react. It's not just about them. It's about our emotional response to the story that we're being told. The biggest panel on page: A big shot of the hero pouncing down on the VILLAINS. A real sense of drama to this panel. Perhaps, one is toppled over by a boot kick of the hero. On every comic page, there should be one panel that's bigger than all the others. It's usually an action shot. Here, it's all about the hero and his dominance over the villains. The heroes leaping down from the top of the building. The villains looking up, shocked, they can't believe it. What you're trying to do is capture that shock. Capture that scale. Capture the excitement of movement as the hero leaps from the top down upon her villains, stopping them from their criminal deeds. The most important thing a student can do while reading a script, is read the script. I know it sounds a little crazy, but I can't tell you the number of times I read a script and missed an important word, left out an important scene, and had to go back and redraw something. Be thorough when you read. Make sure that you read every line, and make sure you highlight all the important parts of each panel. That way you don't miss anything and that way the story is told properly. 3. Reference: So, I know that when I first breakdown a script, the first thing I start doing is thinking about, what it's going to look like? What are you going to be drawing? So, I start thinking about my resources and start hunting for reference or books, museums, the web, wherever I can get inspirational ideas to better tell my story. A lot of young artists think of reference as cheating, but it's not. It can only help you and all professional artists use it, they're just really good at hiding it. So, there are two types of reference, one is inspirational. You need to draw a city? You look at every city you possibly can. Get an idea of how cities work, what they look like, what the buildings are like. The second is specific, that means when you have to draw a specific building, a specific car, a specific kind of dinosaur, you find reference that is specific to that element that you need to draw. So, what makes for a great reference image? Let's look at a few and compare some notes. The first image I'm looking at, is of a surfer. Now, most people would see some guy about to crash in the waves. The first thing I see is a superhero flying. The reason this is such great reference is because you can use it in multiple ways. You can obviously use it literally as reference for someone surfing in a hard wave or like I would use it, as a reference for superman flying through space. The reason I think it's useful is because of the outstretched arms, the expression of the figure, and the clarity of the image of itself. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen students try to use really blurry images as reference. I encourage you find a good, clear, crisp photograph, so that you have all the information you need to draw from. Another image I particularly love is of a dancer leaping in the air. A lot of people just might see a female athlete at her finest. I see action, someone getting blasted back from a energy ray gun, someone reaching for the stars, a giant leaping for heaven. The thing about reference is you have to interpret it, so even if it's a literal image, you'd have to figure out if you can use it and what special ways it can contribute to your own story. This image of the squirrel reminds me just how tricky animals are to draw and why reference is essential when you draw them. Just like people, animals have specific anatomy, specific expressions, specific character. Look at photographs of the animal you want to draw, don't make them up out of your head, especially when there are so many resources for you. The Smithsonian X 3D site has a continually growing selection of 3D models that are the perfect reference for artists. You can view any number of objects, from the front, the side, the back, underneath, the top, even in profile. This is exactly the kind of reference you should be using when you're learning how to draw. So, I know a lot of young people don't like watching black and white movies, but I have to tell you, sometimes the best resource, the best reference you'll ever find are caught in those old classic movies from the '30s and '40s. They're shot in black and white, so you got a lot about light in color and they loved a good period piece, they loved costume. So, you can see all sorts of people and all sorts of costumes from all different time periods. It's amazing reference and I highly recommend using old movies to source your specific reference needs. So, the trick with reference is we're not human cameras. I'm not expecting every image to be photo-realistic or photo ready or perfect, but I think you should have a few images for every panel that you draw. I tell all my students, you should have all the reference you need for each panel for each page. Some like to fudge a little bit, but I don't think they should. They should always have some sort of resource with them, no matter what panel they're drawing. 4. Drawing: So when I break down a story, the first thing I do, is think about the size of the page. I know that sounds really silly, but it's amazing the number of students I see who want to tell a story in a certain dimension, and then do their breakdowns in a completely different dimension. Once I've decided on the dimensions of the comic page, then I have to figure out how to break the story down within it. For that, I use panels. What do I mean when I use that word? Panels are the squares, rectangles, sometimes circles, the shapes that frame our story. In the script it says there are five panels, which mean there will be five V shapes on the page when we're done. Once you have your page, now that you know what a panel is, how do you decide what the panels look like? How do you decide how big they are? Where they go? Well that's determined by the script itself. What does the script call for? With this script, the first thing we do is the establishing shot. I like to do establishing shots, like movie shots, long, narrow, usually at the top of a panel. Our second shot, is the shot of the hero. Because it's so important, because the heroes the protagonist of our story, I'd want to make that a big panel. But because I also read in the script that it's not the biggest panel on page, I need to make sure that I leave room for the rest of the panels on the story. The third and the fourth panel I'm going to do roughly the same size, as a bit of symmetry to this, but it will also connect with the third and the fourth panel together, visually. One of the things I always like to do when I'm designing panels, I'm thinking about the narrative, or I think about these things called invisible diagonals. I know that sounds really complicated, but the thing that you always want to do, in any story you tell, is move your camera around. What do I mean by camera? I mean that you're the camera, and that every one of these panels is a snapshot from the story that you're trying to tell. The more dynamic and exciting the snapshot, the more exciting the panel, the more exciting it is for the reader, and the more successful your story. So once I gestured in my breakdown, and loose pencil, I'd like to go over it in ink. Here's a thing, we're still in break down stage, you don't have to worry about drawing every line in every box. Sometimes they'll fit, sometimes they won't. These are gestural drawings. What does that mean? It means you're trying to get the big emotion of the panel. You're not worried about specifics yet, you're not worried about details. What you're trying to get a big sweeping lines, dramatic lines, that help convey your story, in most exciting way possible. As you can see, I'm not really worried about the specifics. I'm worried about the shapes, things like light and dark, how big things are on the panel, or how small. If I draw outside the lines, it's okay, we'll fix that in the pencil stage. Especially in gesture, especially at this stage, I encourage a little bit of speed. It's okay. You don't have to be careful here. Have fun, move through. If you don't like the way a panel looks, redraw it. Do doodles on the side of your layout. It doesn't matter. This is where you're figuring out what your story is going to look like, and what the best parts of your story will be. I know there's some of you out there that think you can't draw, but I'm here to tell you, that's the last thing I'm worried about. If all you end up doing are stick figures, that's okay too, because it's the story you tell with this figures that matters. And sometimes, the most poignant stories, can be told with nothing but a few lines, and a little bit of ink. So once your breakdown is done, it's time to move on to the actual pencils. As you can see, I'm just transferring out the layout, I'm copying the shapes, just as simply as I would have done on the layout itself. Once I've been edged out the panel borders, I start to erase a little bit of my base, the under drawing that I don't really want anyone to see, because it's just there's a guide for me. I don't think there are any hard and fast rules to what you need to draw first. Some people start with the establishing shot, others would go right for the hero. For me, I'm interested in our villains. For some reason, right now I'm in the mood to draw faces. In many ways, it's their expressions, their shock, that will lead me through the emotion of the rest of the page. What is it they're looking at? What is it they're so surprised by? So I'm using these pictures to inform what I'm doing, by taking a look of the real world. What happens when someone screams? Or frowns? What happens to their face, how their muscles contort, and then take that information and transfer it to my own drawings. Again, I'm not trying to copy it, I'm not trying to be a living human camera, and I wouldn't encourage out of you either. What I am though trying to do is see what happens to people's faces in the real world. In this case, a raised eyebrow, a wide open mouth, wide open eyes, a lower jaw. All that led to the emotion of the panel that I've just drawn. So, here's an example of two different ways I drew the same face in two completely different styles. I just want to show you. It doesn't matter how you draw, it doesn't matter your skillset. You can get the same information in two different ways. So the trick with reference is not to get too lost in it, but just be aware of the specifics. Because it's in the specifics that you get the stuff. Arch of an eyebrow, line next to the nose, mouth open or closed. It's that stuff that you're looking for, the rest you can make up as you go along. 5. Visual Storytelling Tactics: So, let's just take a look at some of the finished drawings. You'll notice that with this establishing shot, we're looking straight at the city, actually is a cinematic view here, wide, not very tall to give a sense of scope of space. The establishing shot itself should determine the panel size and shape. If it's a small place like a house, you won't necessarily need this long narrow panel. One of the important things about this particular establishing shot is it's neutral camera position. The camera isn't above the city or below, it's just there. So, the second panel establishes our hero or heroine, as the case may be. As I noted before, the camera is below her slightly. We're looking up at her as she looks down. By looking up at her, it gives her power. It establishes her primacy in the panel itself. Also, there's just a hint of the building that she's standing on. The building is part of the city, and it connects her to the establishing shot. Also, by having her look down, it gives her an action, an action that will follow into the next panel. One of the things I did here was give her a cape. You'll notice it's billowing a little bit in the wind. One of the things capes and hair are great for are suggesting movement. The wind of the city blows to the cape and makes it billow backward. Because comics are silent still medium, we have to fake movement and fake sound. We do this by drawing capes and clothing, and movement, and sound effects. One other thing to point out about this figure is her crouching position. This is the figure in action. I like to remind people that action isn't always violence. Action is body language. It's posture. It tells us something about the character. The trick with visual storytelling is that each panel should lead to the other with no confusion about time or distance. Here in panel two are lead characters looking down and telling the reader where they should look next. One of the things I did was reestablish the hero or heroine in panel three. In this case, however, I'm looking over their shoulder and looking down at the thing that they were looking at in panel two. In this case, it's the two criminals running out the Back Alley, the arms full of loot. By placing the camera over the shoulder of our heroine, that allows the reader to see through her eyes. So, panel three is probably the most complex panel on this page. It's an interesting mix of camera angle and perspective. Panel four of course, is a focus on the criminals who are heroine is hunting. What I really wanted to focus on here was a look of surprise. It tells us exactly what they're thinking, and it puts us in their shoes. You'll also notice the panel is directional. In panel two, our heroine is looking down. In panel four, our villains are looking straight up. This connects the two panels and connects the actions of hero and criminal. So, panel five is our final panel. It combines elements from all the previous panels. It's the biggest, and it's the most important panel on the page. What I like about it is that, it's the highest action on the page. It's a cliffhanger panel. Our heroine is the center compositionally. Her scale in the panel suggests her importance. It tells us she's a real threat to these criminals. We're below her, therefore, she has the power, and we know that she's about to kick their butts in the next page. Here are a few things that define this drawing. One, there's just more line work. There are more techniques on display. The drawing is full of specifics: the texture of the water tower, the ornamentation on the building, even the strands of her hair. I use more lines to define the expressions, even creating texture in the man's beard. I use a lot of heavy shadow here. You don't always have to do that, but in this case, it defines and delineates the character. Here, the shapes of the buildings of the city are more specific less generic. So, here I actually used a lot of whiteout to make corrections on this face. So, a lot of what I'm talking about right now is surface detail. But remember, these pages all use the same camera angles and layouts to tell the same story. Once again, it doesn't remember how detailed you get with the drawing, how many lines are on the page. It could be one, it could be a thousand. No matter what, all of those lines should be directed to the same goal, which is telling a great story. So, if you're new to drawing, I just want to give you three basic tips that will help you break down your story and take you to the next level. The first is always remember your reference. Even if you're not copying that reference, it's going to suggest that basic shapes you're going to need to break down your story. Tip number two, when I'm breaking down a story and I can't seem to connect the figures or actions panel or panel, sometimes, I just draw arrows between them. If I have two characters having a conversation, sometimes, I will draw a straight line from one head to another to make sure their eyes are connecting in panel. Remember, storytelling is all about relationships. It's mostly about relationships between people. Use these lines, use these arrows to connect them. The third tip I would give you is rhythm. Be careful of the size of your panels and the size of the figures within them. Make sure to always vary them. This is the fastest way of making your drawings more dynamic. So, I've been talking a lot about faces. So much storytelling is done through expression, and I just wanted to give you a few basic tips that might help you while you're breaking up your story and finishing your page. The first one is, faces don't have to be complicated. Again, you can draw faces with the most basic shapes: a couple of dots, a circle, three lines for a forehead. I don't want to get lost in the details. It's the emotion that I'm interested in. It's the emotion that tells the story. Speaking of which, bigger is always better. It seems a little crazy, but the bigger the smile, the harder the frown, the bigger the tears, the faster the story is told. Use yourself as reference. Do you want to see what someone looks like when they're laughing, or crying, or yelling? Pick up a mirror. You might feel silly, but it's the best reference you'll ever have. So, I drew the page in a couple of different ways. This is what I call a more cartoony style. It's more graphic. The lines are thicker. They're more bold. The images are flat because there's not a lot of excess rendering or cross hatching. You'll notice are on a lot of extra lines. One of the things I like to think about when I'm working in this style is the line weight. So, I'm going to give you a couple of tips. One, I often find students use the wrong pen or brush when they're working in this style. Change the pen or brush size to create different line weights. Remember, you want thick bold lines here, graphic lines, which means that you might need a thicker pen or thicker brush. There's going to be fewer solid blocks on your page, means there's going to be a lot of open white, fewer areas of heavy moody blocks. The open white creates a sense of graphicness. I really do like these faces a lot. The line work is simple. The exterior contours are bold, but there's a lot of expression in them, just the downturn of the eyebrow or the raised eyebrows. The second figure, their mouths wide open as they look up trying to figure out what's about to pounce on them. There's a lot of expression in these faces, and that's really what it's about, conveying the emotion of the story to get us to the next panel. So, as you can see, looking at these examples, it doesn't matter your experience drawing. Everyone can create a compelling and dynamic visual story. So, go grab a marker, some paper and draw. Draw multiple characters, use lines to share relationships, create movement that builds the action. You'll draw your readers in, and you're going to create an amazing visual story. 6. Alternate Script: Drawing: So, a great story doesn't have to be a superhero story. A great story can be an everyday story about everyday people. So, you can use the class script and tell a dozen different kinds of stories. You just have to change some of the elements. So, here's my alternate interpretation of the same story. So, Panel One, it's an establishing shot just like any other other story, but here it's a suburban house. I decided to move the camera up, bird's eye view, sort of like we're looking down at the house from the trees. I just like the angle. Panel Two, it's the establishing shot of our lead character. In this case, it's a mom coming home from the grocery store. You can see here I drew a few elements surrounding mom as she carries in the big bag of groceries. I drew the table, cabinets, some elements of the kitchen. All of these elements in panel two connect with the establishing shot of panel one. One of the important moments in panel two is to have mom looking over her shoulder. She sees something as she walks into the kitchen. In Panel Three, we see exactly what mom is looking at. Two kids are raiding the refrigerator, going for dessert well before dinnertime. In Panel Four, I have the kids shocked. I placed the camera below them to ensure that the readers get the sense of impending danger that they have, ice cream on their faces to further suggest the nature of their crime. In Panel Five, mom is still the biggest figure in camera, but here I spun the kid's face forward running to us. That way we can see their expressions; they're laughing, smiling. They know they've gotten caught. That's a bit of levity, a bit of comedy to the panel. 7. Conclusion: The number one thing I hope you learn in this class is that everyone has a story to tell, including you. I hear it all the time people say, "Oh, I don't know what story I would tell. I've got nothing to say." I can guarantee you, everyone has something to say, including you. So, if you want to tell a story about superheroes, if you want to tell something much more personal, something about you growing up, or something about your inner family, just tell it. Don't be afraid simply because you think you can't draw. Don't not do it simply because you think you might fail. Trust me, you have a story to tell, and that story is worth telling. You just need a few tricks, a few tools of the trade to tell it. The beautiful thing about visual storytelling is that we're all visual creatures. A single image can convey the meaning of a thousand words. You just don't need that much. You just need a couple of powerful moments, in a single panel on a single page to tell a story that can affect millions of people. So, thank you for joining me, thank you to the Smithsonian Institution. Now, go draw and show me your stories because I for one, can't wait to see them.