Scott Adams’ tools of the trade

For some heavy, geeky navel gazing, head over to to read how Dilbert creator Scott Adams draws up his strip. His blog post talks about the evolution of his process from paper, pencil and zip-a-tone to his now paperless Cintiq 21ux process. There’s also a 4 minute video of him using his Cintiq.

Most syndicated cartoonists still draw on paper, then scan the art and e-mail it to their syndication company. They’re going to be pissed when they see this video and realize how much extra work they have been doing.

I love the paperless process, but lament that there will be few Dilbert originals (or any originals as time goes on) hanging in the Cartoon Research Library as artists transition into paperless processes.

46 thoughts on “Scott Adams’ tools of the trade

  1. “they’re going to be pissed when they see this video and realize how much extra work they have been doing”

    I couldn’t disagree more. John not only takes great pride in the fact that Edison Lee is drawn in the traditional manner with ink (speedball) and paper (bienfang bristol) he enjoys it and wouldn’t be interested in producing a comic any other way. It’s not about the workload, it’s about the artform. He even does the lettering in ink rather than on the computer. The only part the computer plays in the process is the adding of copyright/syndicate info etc. and the photoshop color. And as the person who does the color, if I could be producing it in watercolors ala McDonnell Sundays rather than photoshop, I would jump at the chance. I find photoshop limiting artistically even with all the new tools. Then again, I’m an accoustic musician rather than electric so I guess I’m “old school” all the way!:)

    I’m not dissing folks who produce their work digitally, its just that the ones who don’t may have made that choice deliberately rather than not knowing what they’re missing.

  2. It was very interesting, and cool, the process of the paperless comic strip! I am by no means a Luddite, but the whole thing that got me into cartooning, the staring at the blank piece of paper, and then creating a 3-dimensional world out of two dimensions, still thrills me to the core. I don’t know what it would take to get me to give that up.
    Maybe if there were no more pens and paper was scarce and expensive, and there was plenty of electricity and computer technology to go around………..yeah, right…….

  3. I balance the old/new school by hand-drawing the characters & key props and then create the backgrounds, color, letter, etc digitally. For me there’s something magical about the feel of a pencil on paper.

    Though I agree 100% about the advantages of using computer software, but I would miss the part of cartooning I enjoy most if I went paperless.

  4. Anne, I understand there are things gained and things lost, and each has their own preferences. I think those that love the traditional art form, more power to you!

    My preference is using a stylus pen, tablet and photoshop (for over 10 years), and it’s great. It’s hugely flexible. Who am I? Nobody … it’s just my preference. The traditional art form things, like originals and the feel of the ink and textures of the paper … all that lost. When it comes to the ink, I say good riddance! When you look at Dilbert, are you looking at the art form or the cartoon? Does it matter if OSU has the original or you can look at the original (or copy of) PSD file etc., etc. Those that have enjoyed Tom Richmond’s tutorial on caricature in photoshop helps show an art form that’s digital, but an art form none-the-less.

    I originally looked into it for shading and lettering, which it does great, but going sketch to final in photoshop (or other paint program) is great. Some cool features include working in layers (makes layout flexible and easy), fades, shading, sizing, layout, coloring, lettering, no scanning lossy-ness, among other things. 😉

    My 2¢

  5. I’ve started using a ballpoint pen in a regular lined comp book, scanning into photoshop, adjusting threshold and shading it in photoshop. I’m more relaxed with the cheap paper and pen and photoshop cleans it up really well.

  6. I draw with light sweet crude on the hide of freshly murdered polar bears. I use a homemade blend of Absinthe children’s broken dreams for color.

    Scott Adams is going to be pissed when he sees how much more fun I’m having.

  7. “does it matter if OSU has the original or if you can look at the original”

    Well, probably not to a lot of people. But looking at reproductions of great paintings in art books did not compare with the strange thrill I got when seeing these paintings in person. I was unprepared for the odd sensation on the back of my neck when I saw all Seurat’s tiny little dots up close at the Art Institute or the sheer enormous dimensions of the Rubens’ at the Ringling Museum. When visiting the Caniff exhibit at OSU it was so inspiring to see all the smudges and the white out.

    I’m not suggesting anyone who produces art digitally is making anything less worthy or interesting. I just think there are people who really enjoy the old fashion production process and won’t be jealous of Scott’s process in the least.

  8. I can’t begrudge anyone from going digital or in Corey’s case bludgeon-al, but I count myself in that small group that loves the feel of paper and to see the white out and faded pencil marks in original art. It’s a near religious experience when you see an original from a master (MacNelly, Schulz, Watterson) up close.

  9. Agreed, Alan.

    Really, I still use a busted, wooden speedball pen, dipped in india ink on (crookedly) cut bristol board.

    I’m a computer geek and I love the stuff that Photoshop can do, but the quiet sound of a metal pen scratching the bristol can’t be beat. There are a lot beautiful mistakes in there that you can’t get with a pen tablet.

    I…uh… Did I just post something serious and lucid? I must be sobering up.

    To the liquor cabinet!

  10. I’ve never met Scott Adams, but in the video he doesn’t look like he’s having a lot of fun. Looks kind of assembly line to me. But whatever works for him is his business and I wish him well.

    Personally, I enjoy the pencil stage of any drawing. That’s when I experiment with different facial expressions, hair shapes, postures, etc. Penciling is when all the surprises come, when I stumble upon an ingredient of the drawing that I never expected, something that really makes the drawing stand out. I tried using a Cintiq for a while, but quickly put it back in the box and haven’t touched it in months.

  11. I had the same thought, Randy! He has the excitement of a book-keeper in tax season.

    It’s kinda fun to see everyone’s process, though. I know I really enjoyed watching Tom Richmond’s process, for example. Here’s one I put together for my readers:

  12. I’m a paper, pencil, pen & ink guy, too. And while there are pros and cons to both digital and paper art, what it ultimately came down for me is that with digital art, there’s no physical original art. For some, that’s no big deal. But if you’ve ever been to the cartoon library archives at Ohio State, where you stand face to face with the original art of Winsor McCay, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, etc., etc., etc., you realize just how important having the original physical art is. A print out of digital art simply pales in comparison.

    And doing the art on paper just seems more “human” in its creative nuance. Digital art can be too perfect and somehow soulless. It just comes down to doing the work in pen and ink on paper is far more enjoyable and artistically satisfying than doing it on the computer for me. But that’s just me. Everyone needs to find what works best for them in what they’re trying to produce.

  13. “I tried using a Cintiq for a while, but quickly put it back in the box and havenâ??t touched it in months.”

    Then can I have it? 😀

    I’m torn on this one actually. I personally work digitally (Wacom Intuos, not Cintiq, unfortunately) and HAVE grown to like some of the advantages. But this isn’t due to a burning love of doing it this way… it’s because of space issues and familial relations:

    a) My “analog” art table just doesn’t fit well into our current home.

    b) I can complete my comics literally in 1/6th the time it used to take doing it the old way; going back would mean an even bigger chunk of time taken away from my family.

    Ultimately though, if I had my way, I’d go back to pen, ink and Bristol board in a heartbeat. There is indeed something special about truly feeling like you created something, instead of just manipulating pixels.

  14. Can’t wait till “Edison Lee” is being showcased at OSU. NOT. If I were you, I’d worry more about the writing than the drawing.

  15. The comment seems to assume that all the old ink-and-bristol crowd just haven’t realized there is any alternative …

    which begs the question: how does he imagine these people would get to see his video?

  16. “Most syndicated cartoonists still draw on paper, then scan the art and e-mail it to their syndication company. Theyâ??re going to be pissed when they see this video and realize how much extra work they have been doing.”

    Extra work? I suppose Ikea lovers would say the same of those who handcraft beautiful furniture.

  17. After working for 4 months on the 21ux I’ll say there is no greater thrill than being able to sketch right into the computor. I felt it actually made drawing easier. It was heaven. I honestly don’t know what any of you are holding on to, unless you’ve never got to use one because they cost 2 grand.

    Cintiqs things are the future; they cut production time in half and the “beauty” of pen and ink lines can be gotten just as easly from Painter X or alias sketch book. If you’ve got the money there’s no reason not to go all digital.

    The cintiq would make digital paintings like these an easier chore:

    These are done by kids in their twenties. They’re growing up with the technology and mastering it. I found their sites in a book called Digital Masters volume 2.

    Yes Watterson and Schulz were great. But when creating a comic strip, why not look at styles outside of the comic strip realm, where it looks like everyone is copying Watterson to some degree. This isn’t Manga people! I mean I don’t look to Watterson or Schulz anymore when I want to see great illustration. There are better illustrators than Watterson. Sorry!

  18. Tom,

    I don’t think an editorial comment on Edison Lee was asked for. This is a professional forum and your comment has nothing to do with the topic being discussed.

  19. I am stunned at Corey’s waxing nostalgic about putting pen on bristol, but I completely agree with him.

    Wiley makes an extremely valid point. With all the doom and gloom about the fate of the industry and the art, what will happen 80 or 100 years from now when there are no physical originals of some very crucial classic comic art?

    But really in the end it all comes down to personal preference. If all digital production is what blows your dress up, then by all means go for it.

  20. I enjoy the tactile experience of drawing and inking on paper too much to ever give it up entirely. I use the computer for coloring and some touch up. I don’t judge those who do the work completely digitally at all… more power to ’em, but it’s not for me.

    There is also a certain amount of closure involved when you hold a finished piece of art in your hand and have physical evidence of the work and sweat you just put into it, as opposed to having a few more “1”s and “0”s on some hard drive somewhere.

  21. Wow – he actually draws each strip fresh? I figured he’d just cut and paste, given the range of expressions. Boy is he gonna be pissed when he discovers how much time he’s been wasting.

    I’ve been using a Cintiq now for a few months, (the 20″ version) and I’ve cut my animation production time by at least a third, as I can go from scanned frames directly to inks without rescanning. Not to mention cutting my paper usage in half. That being said, I love an original as much as anyone, and if I have a frame that I’m particularly fond of, I’ll ink it by hand for archiving.

    (I just re-read the first part of my comment, and it seems a bit snide, but I don’t mean to come across that way… cut and paste just made sense to me for what he was doing.)

  22. Dave, nice video. Tom C. cold and inappropriate.

    To clarify my comment on hand drawn original archives … I plan a trip up to OSU in a few weeks to research some styles, so I wasn’t minimizing their importance and usefulness. It is cool seeing “raw” originals and trying to figure out techniques, etc. And appreciating the extra effort needed to produce them. Digital “original” files have minimal intrinsic value for collecting. There is no such thing as selling the “original” artwork, since all printouts are the same.

    That aside, I’m stay digital. But as most have said, whatever makes your boat float. (Or in Corey’s case, kills his polar bear …)

  23. Look, I’m not sayin’ I’m responsible for the current plight of the polar bears. The rest of you got them in their current state through the warm glow of your technology warming the atmosphere.

    However, when they do die off, I’ll need to find to something else to tickle my creative rendering fancy.

    Anyone know of a good blue whale hide dealer? I’ll also settle for beaten seal hide. As long as I don’t do the beating… My heart goes out to the animal kingdom and all they provide for us consumers.

    Ha… Oh, Peggy…

  24. Dave, That video is awesome — being an amateur (at the moment), I am always looking for the quickest way to get up the learning curve and when an artist shares his or her secrets it is immensely appreciated! (Most of my In Cold Blood strips are created on a commuter train on the way to work with some stranger looking over my shoulder.)

  25. The “Wood pencils, chemical laden paint and dead-trees” crowd vs. computers? First, Dilbert is not art and if you’re going to copy/paste your typeface why would you draw the same character over and over? Boy is he going to be pissed, etc. etc.

    Computers made it possible for people who can’t draw, to draw.

  26. â??Wood pencils, chemical laden paint and dead-treesâ?

    But it’s the chemicals that make me funny, so does that mean these items made it possible for the unfunny to be funny?

  27. “Computers made it possible for people who canâ??t draw, to draw.”

    I don’t know if that’s exactly true, Mike. I’d say it’s more like, “computers can make it more difficult for people to develop skills and style.” It’s easier to cut and paste than to create new. It’s tempting to let the software lead you instead of you leading it. But beyond that, digital is just a different set of tools that can be used and abused just like analog.

    As for Mr. Adams, I think he spent enough years with pen and ink to develop his style as far as it was going to develop — which, by the way, I think is great. It fits perfectly with his strip and his humor. Now, having watched the video of him working, he seems to have taken it a step further — he looks very much the beaten down cubicle-dweller churning through a corporate task list. Life imitating art or art imitating life?


    This is actually an illustrators site, whose work in Illustrator is excellent. I worked with him for about a week before he left the job i was at. I post this because there seems to be this notion that nothing beats or equals traditional pen and ink media.
    Illustrator is a pretty awsome program depending on the artist.
    Scotts Video doesn’t really show the full potential of what you can do with a cintiq.
    I’m pretty sure most of the work on this site was done with the wacom tablet, had he had a cintiq, his life would’ve been easier.

  29. Dating myself again but in the 80’s, the illustration market in this country was stout. I can trace the decline w/ parallel to Adobe, stockart and the internet. Suddenly every art dir. I knew was finding cheaper art and computer generated images and the value on image dropped like a rock. Just my own experience but I didn’t branch off into ed. cartoons because I had too much to do. Many of my collegues went into housepainting faux finishes on dining room walls. Did the computer facilitate this? Without a doubt. Adapting to the market is historical and a necessary evil of a free market. If Jim Davis wants to dictate into an earpiece tomorrows cartoon, I have no problem. Me? I still go thru 2 pencil sharpeners a year.

  30. Computers are nothing more than another tool, just as a pen, pencil and paper. One still needs the creative genius to render unique things with either. There’s also the beauty that comes about in melding the best parts of both. I can make my genius look even more geniusy by scanning and coloring in Photoshop.

    To say one is better than the other is snarky and short-sighted.

    It really comes down to nothing more than preference.

    And genius. You need the genius part, too. Which I have, of course.

  31. Ditto that Corey.

    I think it’s also somewhat dependent on how folks use their tools as to how much they draw vs. how much “stock” stuff they use. Drawing with a cintiq or wacom table is still drawing. Mixing and matching and working with prefab shapes and figures isn’t so much. But neither is drawing on paper using templates, rulers and etc.

  32. “there seems to be this notion that nothing beats pen and ink”

    Phil, I hope I did not give that impression. I was referring to Scott’s implication that the “pen and inkers” are missing something and will be kicking themselves for using a process that takes longer than the cintiq. As otherse have said, it’s whatever materials make you happy.

  33. As I said before, there are pros and cons to both. It’s simply a matter of what you’re attempting to produce, and where the final production is going to go, to find what works best for you. There is no right or wrong here, as it’s all a matter of personal choice.

    One of the things I don’t like about doing all the work digitally is that it makes you too dependent on technology. I use the computer for scanning in the work and uploading to the syndicate or American Color, and to color my Sundays. Even with that limited use, I’m very dependent on all my equipment working. If my scanner suddenly goes out when I’m working on deadline, I’m in a bind, but I can still FedEx the original art as we did in the “old days”. But if I’m entirely dependent on the computer to do all the work, well… I’d be screwed. I don’t like being in that position.

  34. â??Computers made it possible for people who canâ??t draw, to draw.â?

    Oh absolutely!

    In my case especially. And I think that’s a GREAT thing.

    I not only said pfft! to drawing, I said pfft! to drawing in Flash. That’s why I went with 3D animation instead. I need to be fast, since I’m attempting the monetization of animated editorial cartoons on the web. An apparently impossible task to succeed at, given past comments here. ;-/

    It’s the ideas and the writing that are important. (Not that I think I’m particularly good at that yet.) Get the medium out of the way, and get your thought out there in a timely manner that communicates.

    BTW, I’m an architect that remembers mylar, electric erasers, and Rapidograph pens. We still handled as-built linen drawings at the time, and made rude comments about how old method they were.

  35. I’m not knocking the fun and efficiency of digital, which I’m sure are considerable, but my pen and paper still worked after a hurricane took out the electricity for ten days. And I kind of like a rough, non-slick look.

    With the economy collapsing, I imagine soon comics will come full circle back to cave drawings, drawn with dye made out of crushed berries, smeared on the crumbling walls of former banks.

  36. No doubt some, including me, get too dependent on the technology working right. Have you ever tried to check out a book at a library when the system is down? They can do it (there is a manual process), but they won’t do it. Or have a clerk try to make change on their own. Sad, but funny in a way.

    Nothing like a pad and pen or pencil for sketching anywhere!

    This spoof mac ad comes to mind

  37. Rich I can imagine some poor disheveled librarian with stamp pad ink all over her face and hands trying to stamp the back of your library book and exclaiming, “HOW DO YOU WORK THIS CRAZY THING?!?!” As the computer sits defunct in the background with an out of order sign on it.

  38. I prefer pen and paper mostly because I do most of my art out in public places. The coolest part about this is that people see me and get curious. Then they want to do something. It’s pretty inspiring to watch. My friend and I once went into a bar with a coloring book and 100 markers. After about a half hour, people started coming up and asking if they could have a page and a few markers. We almost had everybody there coloring.
    I don’t think a laptop would get that kind of response.
    I think the traditional way of creating art is just more fulfilling. But maybe if I were a professional, I would feel differently about it.

  39. What a great story, Leah…

    Maybe we could get the candidates to color together. It could be the great mediator!

    Obama: “Do you have the “flesh” color crayon, John?”

    McCain: “Sure, Barak! I… uh… Uh oh.”

    Or not.

    Still a good idea, tho.

  40. I watched this clip in amazement.
    I still have a hard time finding the
    on/off button on my computer.
    I especially was in awe of
    Mr. Adams Clean desk.
    I wonder if he has a wastepaper
    basket ? Wow!!!

  41. â??there seems to be this notion that nothing beats pen and inkâ?

    Phil, I hope I did not give that impression.”

    Nah Anne, I mean the bonus’s of pen and ink are obvious. It’s nice to have originals. I have tons of pen and ink originals of my own. It took me two months of every day use of the wacom tablet until I could finally control what I was doing on screen. If there’s any objection to digital, I’d say it was a lack of control, but that is eliminated with the cintiq. I still can’t draw straight into the computer with a wacom tablet and making lines in illustrator could be so much easier if I could draw on screen, which is why I have a unique appreciation for the cintiq. I have to make digital art every day for work. Even coloring is faster and easier and more accurate with this. I’m I the only one that is drueling over this thing? Raise your hand if you’ve ever used one, and then tell me it’s not so great.

  42. One last observation: If there is some sniff of an ethics of art and artists component in this discussion, I’d like to make the observation that there is no difference in computer generated techniques and drawing on graphix paper that, when painted w/ the accompanying magic juice, reveals those uniform parallel lines. A mainstay of and tired characteristic of the editorial cartoon.

    Somebody take the paintbrush away from the elephant. It ain’t art.

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