How to Draw Action in Comics---a Tutorial

Scene from a new project, which I will be revealing soon!

An animation director once told me that my static art seemed to have more action in it than his artists were able to capture on film.

I was more than a little surprised at his compliment as I had never even thought about it.

But when you chose Albert Uderzo, the artist behind Asterix the Gaul as your main artistic influence, you couldn't help but be influenced by the action he managed to get into his beautifully crafted panels: the man was a genius at depicting it.

When I first started studying Uderzo I naturally began to fill my work with the kind of action I was seeing in the Asterix books, and this has, over the years, now become second nature to me.

So today I am going to pass a little of that knowledge on to anyone who's interested. This wont be a one size fits all approach to drawing action, but more likely the first in what could be a fairly big topic. But hey, you have to start somewhere, right? And maybe this will be your Uderzo moment.

Below I've given you two approaches to the same situation. In the first I have emulated what I see so much of in comics or cartoon strips: the overuse of action lines. Now I've nothing against action lines but too many pictures are filled with these confusing little buggers; the are, to me, the 'apostrophe argument' of the cartoon world.

Action lines should only be used to show extreme movement. Action like a rocket coming at you from the horizon, or a cannonball as it courses through the sky; in other words, an image that needs to define great speed and not, as is the usual case, to show someone running to catch a bus or train.

What I do in these situations--- and I've illustrated my point with the second picture--- is to use the angle of the shadow the character is casting to denote movement by setting it a little behind him; this gives the impression of forward motion. Also, another good trick is to show flecks of dirt in the characters wake. This, once again, gives the impression that he has kicked up dust from the pounding of his feet.

It's exactly the same effect but a lot less cluttered and a whole lot cleaner.

Next up, think of an image of someone hitting a table and you will probably visualise a fist slamming down with zig-zaggidy marks around it to denote impact.

That's fine, but if you think again and think about how the action impacts on everything around it, you will realise that when the fist connects with the table---making all those zig-zag lines--- you would also visualise a cup and saucer, or a tea-pot or a plate of food spinning into the air with its contents rising off the plate. And wouldn't the table be bending from the impact of the blow?

The character himself, how would he be looking? He's hitting the table. Is it an act of anger or violence? Show that action, show the anger, not only in his face but his body and posture. What direction was the blow coming from prior to the impact? Show it with lines, after all this is a furious speed moment.

The first illustration shows impact, the second one shows impact and action.

Can you see what I mean?

Another way of showing action is to not show action but instead to imply action.

Let me explain: In the illustration below, from my graphic Novel, the Night of the Village Idiots, the bartender has fallen down the stairs and crashed in amongst the contents of his beer cellar.

Now I could've drawn him laying there with a few stars rotating about his head, and in many cases that would've been fine. But I really wanted the illustration to have impact, so I gave it a large, open panel and depicted the aftermath of the fall, leaving the real action to the readers imagination.

Some of you may say that that is cheating, that I got out of drawing a busy panel. But did I? I still drew a large panel, with a lot going on. But to draw a previous panel with bottles and cases flying all over the place and then put this panel in afterwards would've been too complicated a page and so I deferred the action to the readers imagination.

If you only take one thing away with you today it should be this: When drawing action think about how that action impacts on the world around it. If your characters running down the street think: what time of the year is it? If its Autumn (or fall), show leaves being kicked up. Is it a wet day? Show puddles being splashed and dampen your characters hair down; maybe furrow the brow---just like you would if you were caught out in the rain. If its snowing, have your character bounding through the deep snow; no one can run through snow, you leap and bound.

Remember, think about the action and your picture will show life and form and have a natural fluidity to it.

Now I could go on for another two miles of blog post on this subject, and I probably will come back to it as it's a subject very dear to my heart, but for now I will leave you with this one final device to use when denoting action.

This idea wasn't invented by me, but it is a vastly under used trick in the field of sequential cartoon art.

Below I've laid out an example from a page I drew for the Dandy comic depicting Ollie Fliptrik, a skateboarding hero I illustrated and sometimes wrote. In this idea I had the wheels of the skate board turn into springs to aid the skater boy to leap objects. But in classic comic fashion, it goes horribly wrong and the skateboard, and its newly acquired springs, turn our hapless little chap into a human slinky.

Now rather than show this over a series of pictures, like the writer would have me do, I animated it. I simply thought about how the character would move, which steps he would land on and where he would end up. All that was left for me to do was insert inbetween pictures and the action is complete.

(This picture was scanned in half completed so you can get a rare view of how much, or little, work goes into my layouts and finished pictures.)

I hope you've enjoyed this little tutorial. Like I said above, I love drawing action and I will no doubt return to the subject in future posts. I will also produce other cartoon tutorials, running the scales from the basics, through intermediate right up to cartoon masterclasses. I hope you will come along for the ride and enjoy what I do. Maybe you will pick up a few tricks and mix them into your art. That would be fantastic.

On a final point: If you would like to ask me anything about cartoons or what I do on this here blog, then please leave a comment below. If you would like some advice on how to do a specific thing within the cartoon world, and would like to see a tutorial on it, then please let me know and we'll see what I can do.

Thank you.

I hope you liked this post and have had a good look around the site at the many others. I have plenty of exciting projects on and plan many more ideas for the Cartoonist Diary website and blog and I would love to have you come along for the ride. If you like the sound of that, then please sign up below and get a link emailed to you every time I post something new


All artwork and the written word are copyright Karl Dixon