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Carousel 010: Getting Organized

The new year is upon us, and it's a great time to start some new organizational habits. Drawing comics poses special challenges to organizing your studio: Every comics project will generate a lot of material and information to keep track of. So here are eight tips that should help tidy your workspace, and streamline your workflow.

1. Flat Files

If you draw comics on paper, you know that the pages stack up quickly. Even if you toss out your preliminary sketches, your final pages must be stored. But standard 11x17" comic art boards won't fit in a typical folder or filing cabinet, and pages stacked in cardboard boxes can be difficult to find later. Where else can you store them?

"Flat file" cabinets are a great solution. Each drawer is wide and low, to house stacks of large paper. I use one from IKEA called "Alex." In one drawer, I keep personal sketches. In another, my advertising and illustration work. The other drawers house my current and recent comic projects. (Old projects that I no longer need to access easily can be stored elsewhere, in boxes.) Sometimes a publisher will need a second scan of a page, or a reader will wish to purchase an original; on those occasions it's great to be able to go straight to the correct drawer and find the page quickly.

2. Nested Folders

Storage can also become unwieldy if you work digitally. Even a single 20-page comic will generate twenty thumbnail layouts, twenty pages of pencils, twenty of inks, twenty of colors, twenty lettered pages, and whatever revisions and alternate versions you create along the way, along with cover art, reference photos, etc. That's a lot to leave floating around on your desktop, as I've seen some artists do! To organize my folders, I nest them, as follows:

[Comic series title]


                  [Issue1] [Issue2] [Issue3]


                  [Issue1] [Issue2] [Issue3]


                  [Issue1] [Issue2] [Issue3]


                  [Issue1] [Issue2] [Issue3]


                  [Issue1] [Issue2] [Issue3]





                           [Character A] [Character B] [Character C]

         [Documents -- contract, invoices]

In each "Issue" folder, I have a "done" folder, for art I'm no longer working on. I place pages into that folder as soon as they're done, so that I don't have to scroll past them to find my active pages. And in each "done" folder, I have a "final" folder, for print-ready art, and a "web" folder, for smaller files of the art that I may wish to share via email or on social media.

Keeping my folders nested this way allows me to find any comic page I need at any time, without having to wade through dozens of irrelevant files.

3. Naming Conventions

When you have dozens (or hundreds!) of comic pages to keep track of, it's important to use a uniform naming convention. This means that the name of every file is as similar as possible, differing only as much as it must to distinguish that file from the others. For example: Suppose you are pencilling the first page of the first issue of Captain Super. You might use the following naming convention:


The "A" indicates that this is the first iteration of this page. If you later go in and fix Captain Super's costume, you'd name that second version of that page "B." Etc.

Here's the naming convention for the inks on the 12th page of the third issue of Captain Super:


And so forth. Naming your files this way, consistently, will allow you to cast your eye down an alpha-numeric list of files and find the desired one at a glance.

4. Cork Board

I often need reference pictures up where I can see them, so I pin my reference pics to a large cork board beside my table. This way I can check them at a glance, and easily swap them out for other images, as needed. This is much more convenient than stacking them on the floor or on my drawing space, taping them to the wall, or letting them clutter up my computer screen. A pre-digital solution—but still handy.

5. Dry Erase Calendar

I also have a large dry-erase board hanging on the wall near my workspace, with the weekdays marked on it, and spaces for the dates and month. Each month, I number the dates and write in what pages I plan to be drawing each day and what deadlines I need to hit. This way, I can see at a glance where I'm at, schedule-wise.

There are similar calendars available on the computer, but those take up valuable work space on your screen—unless you minimize them, which precludes checking your calendar "at a glance." 

6. Pen Holders

If you use a lot of pens and pencils, you know the frustration of picking through a pile of drawing tools to find the one you need. A rotating pen holder can help avoid this trouble. It's a round, upright cup, divided into half a dozen sections, which spins like a Lazy Susan. I keep pencils in one section, thick pens in another, thin pens in a third, then erasers, etc. To grab the right tool, I need only spin to the right section.

If you use fewer than a dozen tools, an art tray can be useful. This is a tray that you screw to the side of your drawing table, which holds pens and pencils within easy reach.

An even cheaper, simpler solution is a large cup. Choose one about half the height of your pens, and made of a heavy substance, like ceramic, to prevent it from toppling when filled. (A small planter, or large candle holder, may be heavier and work better than a drinking mug.) Place all of your drawing implements into the cup tip-down, so you can identify and withdraw them quickly, without confusion.

7. Tackle Box

There are tools I don't use hourly, but still need to access every so often: lead refills, eraser refills, ink refills, dip pens, compass, X-Acto blade, etc. These I store in a fisherman's tackle box, which has nested, horizontal compartments for easy access. (Art supply stores sell similar boxes, but your local sporting goods store may sell tackle boxes cheaper, depending on what you find.) These boxes can also be sealed and carried, in case you want to bring your supplies on a trip—even if only a trip downstairs, to work in front of your TV! Much more convenient than dumping your supplies in a drawer, or all over your desk, or having to dig them out of a bag.

8. Receipt Box

If you're beginning to work professionally, you'll want to save your art-related receipts for tax deductions. Receipts have a habit of being light and small and rumpled, and escaping their manila folder, so I recommend keeping them instead in a box or sturdy bag, like a gift bag. Set your receipt box in an out-of-the-way corner of your workspace, and dump your latest art book/art supply/art software receipts into it at every opportunity. Next January, dump out the box and count your deductions!

Proper organization may seem boring, or even antithetical to the creation of art. We romanticize the wild-haired artist, starving in a messy loft, surrounded by canvasses and spent bottles. But in reality, the better you can organize your workspace, the more quickly and smoothly your workday will go, allowing you to focus on your creative choices and not on where you left this pen or that file. Clearing the tracks of your workspace helps your train of thought to pass through.

See you here next month!

Jesse Hamm’s Carousel appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!