Award-winning illustrator Fumio Obata offers a look behind the scenes, sharing his process of developing The Garden.
The world of Gardening
There were many new things that I had to do for the first time during this project. Adapting someone’s full script for a graphic novel was one of them, but being introduced to the world of gardening was really something! Of course, the story focuses on diverse themes that include meditation, but as an illustrator, drawing plants and flowers was going to be more fun and challenging.
I looked forward to this challenge and started my own research into gardening technique. Then I began acknowledging proper artisan skills and gradually became overwhelmed by its altitude! Also I made it complicated after setting the location of the story in South East England, where I live. This was to create as much authenticity as possible… but then I learned the plants and flowers could easily change according to the climate and land where they are planted.
Some readers may find that I was being too fussy, but there could be some readers who probably knew gardening inside out, and I had them in my mind. Gardening is a thing that matters so much to so many people – Joanna, our heroine, is saved by it!
Locations and photo references
Having set the story in my local area, I started taking photos of friends’ gardens and looked for professional gardeners to consult me on what sort of plants and flowers they would plant in their gardens from mid-February to April. In total I took 690 photos (!) to illustrate the locations written in the story, which also includes the scenes in Kyoto where Joanna learns about Japanese gardens.
Below are some of the pages that were directly inspired by the photos I took in various garden locations:
Since the script was already delivered, it was straightforward for me to move onto the storyboarding stage. Storyboarding is usually a fun part of the process!
Some creators might do this stage rather roughly with less detail, but I usually give more shapes to my drawings at this early stage. It is to be read as a legible strip for the writer and editors to check whether the flow works and the panelling design functions as I intended. It is vital that it has to be read at this stage to avoid any changes in my finished illustrations afterwards, like during the proof reading stage. Although changes do sometimes still happen, the point is minimise the damage as little as possible.
The other reason for doing quite a bit of work in the storyboard stage is to cement the characters’ personalities and substances as people. I believe characters grow through drawings, and creators have to draw them quite a lot to OWN rather than BORROW them.
Some people do character designs first and make a turn-around template before doing storyboarding, but I don’t like that process. I think it should be the other way around. In my case, I aim to own my characters during this quite intense storyboard stage, and after its completion they are usually well under my skin.
Characters only come alive within a narrative set-up, so I have to let them act as soon as the script is there. For me the appearance isn’t important. I think the characters’ body languages and gestures are the ones that bring the authenticity and substance. We can always pin down the character appearances in detail afterwards before starting proper pages.
The importance of character interactions
What I enjoy most in comic books is to illustrate interactions between characters. When they respond to each other there are subtle shifts in power and balance within their conversations and gestures. That makes them very genuine and human-like. When I do the very first sketches of a story, it would be always scenes of character interacting, that kick-starts the rest of the imagination.
Below are some of my favourite scenes that I enjoyed doing in terms of interaction:
Backgrounds are characters too
The other thing I knew would be different in this project was that we had one crucial non-human character: the garden that Joanna builds. And for this part I had to plan out the basic lay-outing of it before the storyboard began, otherwise I couldn’t decide the compositions and camera angles. In total I had about five stages of development for that. The garden wasn’t just a background but it was another as important character as the other human characters, so inevitably it had to be cared for.
Now I could make a miniature model of Joanna’s garden if I were asked. (Although I admit that there are some tiny inconsistencies, so I implore you not to look for them!)
Concept as a world view
If you are a creator and interested in doing your own graphic novels too, then I would like to repeat the importance of paying attention to backgrounds of the story.
I teach Illustration at university level and I know how comic books, graphic novels, animation and game designs have become norms among young creators, but they will often focus too much on characters and overlook the world view of the story. I know this because when I was younger I was the same.
Read more of Fumio’s advice for comics creators on SOLRAD’s Knowing is Half the Battle.
For example, concept art is a pillar of creating a Sci-Fi movies, animation, and games, but it can’t be illustrated tangibly without understanding the story’s world in realistic way. It took me a while to realise that concept art is not about illustrating visuals but focusing on the laws and rationales of the world. It is not to be resolved and concluded by illustrating the appearances but through writing and thinking about what kind of world that is. What kind of food do people eat, what jobs do they do, and what kind of commerce is usually practiced…? And along the process of constructing it, a theme and message will naturally emerge.
We may make stories that focus too much on characters’ inside, so I would like to say, let’s look at our surroundings and environment just as Joanna does near the end of her journey!
After doing the detailed storyboards, the next step is doing pencil roughs before the painting stage. At this stage, I make sure every detail in character appearances and backgrounds will be as correct as possible. I care about perspectives, so I do proper vanishing points to make sure the feel of the space in the panels is genuine.
Although sometimes, realistic rendering does not guarantee a genuine feel, so I tweak a bit to create a fake reality. The point is that it only has to be genuine in illustrative terms and a realistic approach often kills that dynamism. That’s the reason why I never trace from photographs; I use them as reference a lot, but always draw them from scratch and change certain bits, like skewing perspectives so it can belong to my world.
Trace, transfer, and paint
I use watercolour paper for the final painting, but before that, I trace the pencil roughs and transfer the plans onto the final paper. It takes ages, but the quality will be guaranteed.
I always get nervous when it comes to painting. I use acrylic based inks and watercolour but the first touch/stroke of the brush is everything. That brings freshness and dynamism to the illustration but also the direction of the light. Before touching down the brush onto the surface, I think hard about which direction the light comes from.
Like many watercolour artists do, I also use various types of brush for each purpose and area. After applying the washes, I use dip pens to strengthen the outline. This method came together during my artist residency at La Maison Des Auteurs (The House of Authors) in Angouleme, France.
I change the colour as needed after scanning into the computer.
My relationship with Manga
Because I grew up in Tokyo, Manga is deeply embedded in my DNA! Today there is a well-established method for how to draw Manga that is globally shared among young people, but I think it puts a lid on individual styles and makes it harder for them to flourish.
I have been having a very ambivalent relationship with Manga since studying at art schools in the UK. There, individualism and originality are encouraged but sometimes it creates friction between teachers and students.
When I was an art student, I often had to defend myself doing Manga, but after a while I moved on because I was touched by the diversity and new thinking that continuously broke old moulds and preconceptions. These are the engines of art schools and the UK’s creative industry grew up with the same progressive ideas.
In comparison, Japan is a country of artisans and manufacturers that find pleasure in improving the quality of existing methods. It’s rather inward-looking, but things work effectively because they use the proven method.
Today Manga is an establishment and I have that deeply rooted in my DNA. I notice the visual influence especially in laying out panels. It is effective but frustrating as I observe my own limitations. My aim is to evolve this mother tongue, the Manga DNA, gradually through doing more books. That’s probably the shortest way to get to true originality, as there is no dramatic eureka moment in most creative journeys!
I am very grateful to Sean Michael Wilson and the Liminal 11 team for giving me the opportunity to work on The Garden. It has helped me to get back to making comic books and introduced me to exciting new people!
THE GARDEN IS OUT NOW!
It’s also available worldwide from your favourite local or online bookshop!