Jeff Smith's Bone Artist's Edition the Great Cow Race

Spotting Blacks with Jeff Smith

#Inktober is almost here.  I mentioned it in my column this week over at

Jeff Smith's Bone Great Cow Race Artist's Edition

I’m doing my research for it now.  One of the first things I did was open up “Jeff Smith’s Bone: The Great Cow Race Artist’s Edition.”  Smith is an inking master.  His line is fluid, alternating thicks and thins where they need to be.  The inks on Bone are the high gloss sheen that makes the book’s visuals so memorable.

They also serve as the book’s coloring.

OK, fine, there is a color version of “Bone” now.  Done remarkably well by  Steve Hamaker, too.  I’m a purist, though.  “Bone” will always be a black and white book to me.  No remodeling for the sake of Scholastic can ever replace the original work.

So many of the tricks that colors do can be done in the inks.  In a black and white comic like “Bone,” they had to be done that way.  Today, I want to talk about one of those ways.

Spotting Blacks

In looking back on “Bone” today with a critical eye towards the inks, the thing I discovered that surprised me is that Smith is really great at his ink line, but he’s exceptional about spotting blacks.

It’s something I can recall hearing comic strip artists talk about years ago.  They always included black areas in their strips to help give their strips both weight and contrast.  It helped to set the mood and establish lighting, but it also helped give the strip a presence on the newspaper page.  All thin black lines would easily melt into each other, and let nothing stick out.  Give a character so much as a black shirt, and suddenly you have a strip with a bit of weight to it. Done right, the black areas can help with the storytelling, focusing the reader’s eye just where the author wants them to be.

The book, “The Sequential Artists Workshop Guide to Creating Professional Comic Strips” by Dan Hart, gives basic advice about spotting blacks for beginners:

If you don’t want to think about it too much, make sure there is a little bit of black on most of your characters, a lot of black on some, a little black on objects of interest and then some black behind your word balloons if your balloons tend to be at the top.  What this will create is a natural series of dynamic focal points (the black on the characters and objects) and a large contrasting block framing your main action.

Crude, but I bet it’s 10x more effective than doing nothing.  And when you’re just starting, it’s good to

In more comic book terms, Stephen DeStefano wrote about it on his blog a few years ago:

It’s almost a lost artform. Very few comics artists, especially mainstream comics artists spot black areas any more. I suppose in this day of photoshop bells and whistles, it seems an anachronistic way of creating depth for an illustration.

But it is a lovely art. There’s a finesse and specialty to spotting blacks. And it doesn’t serve exclusively to create the illusion of depth. It can create mood. It can be used as a storytelling tool, a way to specifically focus your reader’s eye. And, at it’s most ephemeral, it can be used to create a rhythm, and vibration to an entire comic book page.

He goes on to give quotes and examples from the likes of Kyle Baker and Keith Giffen, amongst others.

To DeStefano’s point, most everything artists used to do with inks then can be done in color now.  Color can hold a line back.  Color can separate out layers of the art.  Ink thicknesses aren’t even need for that, necessarily, if you want to give the colorist a little extra work.  Inks are becoming a style element now, as much as anything.

Color also devalued one of the best inking tools we had, years ago: DuoTone/Zip-a-Tone. As a personal preference, I love the stuff when it’s handled well, but the sculpting you can get with color now makes that useless, except as an artistic flourish.  Today, those effects can be applied in Photoshop, but the days of the X-acto knife (or the liquid that you’d paint over treated paper to get the effect) are basically over. I still like the look, but it feels anachronistic in modern comics.


Jeff Smith Spots His Blacks

Jeff Smith handled spotting his blacks beautifully in “Bone.”  Look at the seemingly random areas he placed blacks on a page of Bone.  Sometimes, they’re just in a section of the grass one of the Bone boys is sitting on.  Sometimes, it’s the side of a cliff.  Others, it’s there because the lighting is so dramatic and contrasty that it’s required. But it always helped your eye to read the comic in one way or another.

Let’s take a look at a few examples and see how he used blacks in his storytelling.  (Pardon the quality on some of these images. I couldn’t fit the Artist’s Edition book on my scanner, so I took cell phone pics and then cleaned them up as best I could.)

Jeff Smith spots blacks in Bone in this scene where Smile Bone is surrounded. In his cow suit.

Smiley Bone is surrounded by rat creatures.  Check out the black area around him that separates him from the rat creatures so perfectly.  It also helps to set them further behind him.  Without that black area, Smith would have been drawing a lot of rat fur behind Smiley, which would have made the whole thing too busy.


Jeff Smith spots blacks in Bone in this scene with just the forest


Not a character in sight here.  Smith spots his blacks to separate the levels of the scene here.  The silhouetted grass in the lower left corner puts it up front.  The silhouetted trees in the back set those way far back, while giving the mid-level trees something to be contrasted against so that they’re more easily seen.


Jeff Smith spots blacks in Bone in this Great Cow Race scene

See the black path the race is happening on ?  There’s no reason for that ground to be black.  When you see the panels of this scene surrounding this one, the ground is never black.  But here it works to guide your eye to seeing where the race is headed.  It also works to separate the cows from each other.  The silhouetted trees at the top of the panel push into the background, also helping the cows to stick out more.  And it keeps the panel from looking like a coloring book page.

Jeff Smith spots blacks in Bone in this scene where Grandma Ben walks alone

When you want to isolate Grandma Ben and show her loneliness, here’s how you can do it.  There’s no background. Lots of negative space.  The fence and grass behind her cut out before intersecting with her.  And her heavy black dress stands alone in the panel.  She’s completely isolated and alone in this panel, and that spotted black helps.

Spotted blacks help to tell the story in all of these examples.


Bonus Reading and Viewing Material

If you read nothing else about spotting blacks, read this Zander Cannon article, in which he goes over an example of a panel and the process by which he spots his blacks, along with the reasons for each. My favorite quote from his article is this one, about lighting a scene using blacks:

In order to not have everything blend into the background I keep a little rimlight on the far edges of the trees. I call this “cheating”.

I plan on writing something about rim lighting for this site in the weeks or months ahead, so keep this quote in mind for when we get there.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

One Comment

  1. Nice article. I wonder if the coloured versions of Bone ever swap out some of the blacks for colours. I’m thinking specifically the path in black in the example above. I’m trying to picture how such a panel would look like in colour if you kept the path black. It doesn’t look too good in my mind’s eye.