How I Art Direct A Graphic Novel: Cooking the Onion

This is the second stage following the Onion Method: An Outlining Method for Graphic Novels. You got the onion…now how are you going to present it? This post will talk you through how I craft the art direction of a graphic novel… weaving the thematic and character motivations established earlier in the outline into its final, ultimate mode of language: the visuals.

A TL;DR of the Onion Method

I outline my story based on two principles: the Thematic Thesis and the Character-driven Plot. These two principles inform, influence and interact with one another in such a way that they are like layers. And if I build enough layers, I get a full story. An Onion.

You can read more in the original post.

So I have an Onion. Now what?

If you’re a writer making a prose book, then having the Onion by itself is enough. Since I write and illustrate my own graphic novels (and you probably are too), there’s an additional step (actually, several steps) in the Onion Method.

For those who are not familiar with visual storytelling, there are several steps comics artists are required to do in order to turn a graphic novel script into a graphic novel proper.


In prose, the writer evokes imagery through text and subtext. In comics (or graphic novels), the author-artist uses the imagery to evoke text and subtext.

In graphic novels, when the artist receives the script, they are not just reading it to obtain text and subtext. They are also highlighting important moments (to convey into panels); deriving and connecting symbols and visual leitmotifs; thinking about ideas like colour, atmosphere, character design, composition etc. They are translating this text and subtext into images, and these images are then read by the reader.

Creating and reading a graphic novel involves multi-layers of interaction between author-artist-reader.

a. The author creates a scenario, a scene, a story. This is all written as text. In the graphic novel, the text is mostly the hidden foundation for the visual storytelling. The skeleton before the body before the personality.

b. The artist uses the author’s textual foundation to transform those words into pictures.

The artist is not just the pretty hand that makes pictures – they are also an author in their own right. Telling a story using pictures requires a different set of knowledge and skills – in comics, it’s the ability to convey tone, portray emotion, control pacing (and essentially, time), set mood, create tension, encode symbolism and subtext, all in as few lines as possible, and without prompting the reader to read more text!That is why the artist is so important in the process of creating and reading comics! Without pictures, or if the text supersedes the pictures, the book is nothing more than a novel with accompanying illustrations.

c. The reader reads these images, and receives them as information to be processed by the brain, which guesstimates the text and subtext based on what’s happening in the pictures. This is what I feel distinguishes comics from illustrated novels — the reader doesn’t need to read the presented text (or in some cases with foreign comics, to know the language) at all to understand the story. Because the text is already subconsciously written by the reader!

And that is what fascinates me to comics as medium of visual storytelling. I initially started as an amateur prose writer. (In fact, most of my literary influences and writing process are situated in prose) Then over time I realised my narratives are heavily dependent on imagery: a colour appearing consistently in the foreground and background, recurrent flashbacks, disjointed symbolic objects… writing this as adjectives, turns of phrase, etc would prove difficult and heavy-handed! The one way to put this into reader’s minds, subtly, nicely, prettily, without calling attention to it as RED NEON COLOURED SYMBOLIC OBJECT, is draw the red neon coloured object and hope the reader notices and adds it to their mental interpretation of the comic.

As an artist, how do you build the images you can use to evoke text and subtext in the reader?


(very in-the-weeds ideas incoming, but super important to understand the process of creating graphic novels)

So let’s talk about language.

Images are one of two core foundations of language, the other being sound.

In fact, the written word (letters, punctuation, etc) is basically a type of image. A letter consists of several lines bent into certain shapes, forming an image that represents a particular sound. Then the combination of certain letters together produce certain associations/images attached to that particular combination. For example, the letter combination C-A-T produces both the sound ‘cat’ and the image of the actual feline itself (a tabby, a British Shorthair, whatever your default idea of a cat is). This is amazing if you remember that C-A-T is basically just a bunch of lines. You can see this clearly in more pictorial-based languages, like Chinese and Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the effect is present in English, Arabic, etc.

With graphic novels, the image – rather than the sound – is the primary mode of language. The artist bypasses the creation of the words to the creation of the image itself (the top arrow of the above diagram). The artist interprets the script using the artist’s library of ‘personal observations from the world, symbols and compositions created by past artists, objects, rituals, art theories and a thousand more’ to build the alphabet that becomes a graphic novel’s language.

And it’s this language that will create the entire book.

The Library of Images

As artists we are so privileged to have more than 45,000 years worth of visuals from thousands of civilisations, traditions and lifetimes to be inspired by. From the Chauvet Cave Paintings to Japanese woodblock printing to the shape of a thousand spoons.

And the best part is, art is a universal language (or at least, the closest thing we have to a universal language). If we can see, we can read images. Unlike writers who are limited by language barriers and the kinds of books they can read, we have access to a wealth of art history undeterred by linguistic changes, differences, erasures. *

*not to say that this library is free from the problems of colonialism, problematic visual stereotypes, inherent biases, and gatekeeping. But we’re simplifying for the purposes of this post.

We may not be able to read ancient Greek, but we can see their murals, statues, buildings, mosaics, jewellery etc. And we can pull from these sources to make our art. Remix, transform, borrow. The possibilities are endless.

Here’s an example from the first volume of The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya. It shows you how I take from the library of images to interpret and language-build from a script.

The script for these two pages:
Z: Sure, just let me put this (the teapot) back.
Zeynel is on his way to do so, when he notices Ayse standing at the doorway. He shoots her a look of desperation, as if trapped.
He turns around. ‘Excuse me a moment’
Z: (he puts his head through the carpet curtain and bends down awkwardly (he’s unusually tall)) Ayse, s-she’s here to buy carpets! What am I supposed to do?? I-I know nothing about carpets. I had to distract her somehow
A: Shh! Why are you panicking? You did pretty decent. Let me deal with her now.
Z: (relieved but looks concern to hide his relief) You sure?
A: Yes I am! Now shoo!
Ayse struts in naturally as Zey trails behind her
A: Hello, (extends hand and kisses the lady’s hand) Madam Fatihah? Am I correct?
Lady: Ahh, you’re the girl merchant. It is me, as the angels prophecised. Where’s your father?
A: I don’t know. (looks at Zeynel) But since he’s not here, would you like to get started anyway? We prepared a catalogue for you earlier.
Zeynel and Madam are sitting in front of Ayse (he’s sitting some distance away), as she rolls out a carpet.

The Carpet Merchant is a story set in 17th century Ottoman Turkey. So this is the section of the library I should look at to build its visual language. I go around and do research. I come back with a better understanding of Ottoman arts and visual culture, and then I do my work.

And the library of visual languages that transformed the script into a graphic novel. Iznik tiles; the composition and flat style of Ottoman miniature; the motifs, colours and patterns of Ushak rugs; Ottoman embroidery; and the fashion of Ottoman-era Turkey. This is not including the character designs and prop designs. Every page of this book is informed by this visual library, and everything from the visual library comes together to build text, subtext, worldbuilding and emotion.

Just like every graphic novel has its own Onion Story, every graphic novel has its own unique language. Each book is individualised and different.

I can’t tell you what your graphic novel should look like. That’s something you have to figure out yourself.

But I can show you how I figure out mine and you can borrow from that. Tweak the method as you wish. The fun in the Onion Method comes from playing by ear.

The goal is to get to the point where the GN language doesn’t rely on the use of sound-based images aka words to tell its entire story. Yes, maybe sound is needed (afterall characters need to speak!), but it shouldn’t always be required to understand a GN, especially if the reader doesn’t speak the language of the dialogue/sound effects.

Understanding English is required to fully understand the dialogue and going-ons in the panels of this page…
But in this page, no understanding of English is required. The ‘GAMER SQUAD’ text helps for context, but it is decorative. We don’t need any text at all to understand that the girl is feeling left behind and abandoned by her friend. The visuals are the language that tells you this. This is what this post is about: teaching you to build this language for your GN.

But ok cool cool, you say. This rambling is so long and I am struggling to see where the Onion part fits in. Here it comes –

Cooking and Creating

I like to compare this interpreting-and-language-building process to cooking. Consider:

You’re a skilled cook. You pick up an Onion from somewhere.

Now as a chef, your job is to translate this Onion into an actual meal. While the Onion is an essential part of the meal, it can’t teach you how to measure ingredients, knife skills, your understanding of flavour, presentation, your relationship with the ingredients, etc. In fact, this Onion is reliant on your skills as a chef – the things you learn from experience, your mental library of flavours – to justify itself. To be transformed into fried onions, baked into tau sar piah, whatever.

This is you as an artist when you are interpreting and language-building from a script or outline… or an Onion. Like a chef, you are attempting to create something that a script/Onion can only suggest. The script is the guide to the meal, not the meal itself.

And the audience – the reader, the food-eater – sees only the meal. It doesn’t matter if the audience knows the words in a recipe, or understands cooking… what matters is that the food looks and taste good. And when those two goals are accomplished, the chef (the artist), the Onion (the script/outline) and the food itself (the graphic novel) are justified.

But of course, turning a raw ingredient into an actual meal requires a process and other ingredients (which I will collectively call a Recipe). And before the Recipe can be undertaken, you need to make a decision on what meal it is that you want to cook.

Choosing What to Cook From an Onion

Okay, so you have your Thematic Thesis and a Character-Driven Plot. How do you cook it in a way that justifies, enhances, supports those two principles?

I am going to use Seance Tea Party as an example.

In the first Onion Method post, I described how I created Seance’s Onion Story. You can read the process in the last section of that post, but the end result was this:

Seance Tea Party is about a 12 year old girl, Lora, who is afraid of growing up. The book’s thesis is that while that fear is legit (doesn’t help that society is so obsessed with youth and adventure stories being for the young), there can be joy and magic found in being older. When you grow up, you don’t have to lose yourself, your childhood magic or the things you love; and you don’t have to keep the things that hold you back. In fact, growing up allows you to access another kind of magic: freedom. Lora gradually comes to terms with this, but she won’t need to figure this out alone. She has her family, her new friends, and a mentor to be her role models.

Cool, cool! Now let’s see how I can cook this Onion!

For Seance Tea Party, I wanted it to be like a modern-day fairytale. So I took inspiration from the style of vintage Golden Book Illustrations and illustrators who work in children’s books. Lineless, colourful, whimsical, and nostalgic. Slightly rough with a vintage/retro feel.

Here was my moodboard, taken from my library of images:

Tadahiro Uesugi, Gordon Laite, Tatsuro Kiuchi, Annette Marnat, Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, Genevieve Godbout, Felix Vallotton, and Rifle Paper Co

And this is the resulting aesthetic:

There are some other influences as well: French comics (the handwritten text, handdrawn speech bubble and the panelling), fall colours and Halloween, and of course, the experience from my previous webcomics.

So I’ve got the Vintage Children’s Book But It’s a Comic look settled, which will (hopefully) reinforce the idea of childhood and fantasy and imagination. Nice. But what about the other parts? Especially the part about how you don’t lose childhood magic as you grow up?

Cooking the Onion

Alright, so I have to figure out how to depict growing up visually.

The obvious one is Lora’s physical appearance. Her hair is longer and dyed purple, she wears dark lipstick and assumes a witchier, more gothic fashion sense. If you already know Lora’s personality and interests as a child, you’d understand that this change in appearance is not at all out of character for her, even though it’s different, older, more teen. She honours her childhood love for the spooky and witchy by making use of the grown-up tools she finally has access to: makeup and fashion. So yes, you don’t have to lose who you are when you grow up. You just express it via new alternative channels. That’s done.

Then there’s the less-obvious. It’s embedded in the formal language of graphic novels: the panel borders, the layouts and the gutters.

Panel borders

In the beginning, the panel borders are wonky. They were hand-drawn, not lined with computer-equivalent of a ruler. The borders stay like this for many pages.

However, in the middle of the book, as Lora gradually moves away from play-pretend and becomes more comfortable with the teenage way of Being a Person, the borders lose their wonkiness. I stopped hand-drawing them, using a ruler instead. You can see the shift in these two side-by-side pages.

This shift is SO subtle (I haven’t seen anyone notice it yet), but it does make a difference, even subconsciously.

The other thing that reinforces this change in these two pages is how the imaginary friends (the fairies) stop appearing outside of Lora (and outside of the panels). They become confined into the borders of a piece of paper. I’ll talk more about the fairies later.

Anyway, the borders remain straight until the final chapter, when Lora has to reach out to her imagination to comfort her fears and help her get out of a problem. SPOILERS AHEAD

In this page, the borders slowly lose their grid-like straightness as Lora reignites her imagination. Take note of the middle row of panels. Also the fairies come back. (Emerging from behind the panels!) 🙂

When you flip this page, it hits you with a big impactful visual change.

And as the scene progresses, the borders eventually stop being relevant anymore. They break.

Which brings me to the next section.

Page Layouts

I mean, I do this all the time, but I am using my weird page layouts more purposefully to say something about imagination.

In the earlier chapters of Seance, there’s a lot of panel-breaking, full-bleed page layouts. The one I showed you earlier with Lora cycling down the street to school is the first layout like that.

Over time, they become less frequent, replaced by grid-like layouts with lots of white space. All of the art is contained inside the borders now.

And just like the wonky borders, the full-bleed page layouts return in the final chapter.

Which brings me to…

Page gutter

Gutters are the negative spaces between and around panels. They are underrated tbh, and I used them to my full advantage. People did notice this at least!

Again, in the beginning, many pages have gutters that are filled in with backgrounds, like the three double-pagers I showed you. But for pages with mostly white space, the earlier pages have gutters that are filled in by fairies and sparkles. (Drew Shannon of The Montague Twins graphic novel called them ‘confetti’! Which makes me smile.)

As mentioned earlier, over time the fairies and the backgrounds gradually disappear, becoming more confined within the panels. (Or in the fairies’ case, hiding behind the panels out of sight or inside the borders of a piece of paper) Again, they return. And from then on, they remain.

So like, what does this do??

The panel borders and page layouts and gutters all come together to reinforce the theme that magic stays and can survive the transition between childhood and adulthood (even if it’s sometimes forgotten in the busyness of growing up).

They don’t just act as supplementary to the story. In fact it’s those three that build the visual language for Seance Tea Party, because they make up the entire book from the first page to the last, and they assume a function that is inseparable to the narrative, the same way the dialogue is inseparable. Both are telling the same story, text and subtext. Together they make a whole meal.

I honestly don’t know if executing all these visual details even means anything to most readers, but as an author, it does a lot of work for me. Because of the medium that I am working with, I have to make use of the library of images and the unique qualities and devices of comics to take on the function of text and subtext. Even if most people don’t notice them, subconsciously, these details have to be doing something.

If nothing else, they are fun. I enjoy cooking Onions; they give me opportunities to look into different parts of the visual library and find new ways to play with the graphic novel format. And it reminds me of the flexibility and breadth of imagery as language. How they are still so many new ways to tell a story.

(Visual literacy is important!!)

Anyway, I hope this helps. Again, the Onion Method is simply a framework, a set of tools that you can use to help you outline and visualise the graphic novel you want. Feel free to tweak and modify the Method. 😀

And remember, have fun!! Cook up a storm!!

Other reading:

How I Applied the Onion Method on my Alexander the Great Comic
This one is interesting because it’s in development. (I haven’t yet finished the script for this, though the outline is fully-fleshed out) Just another look into my thinking if you enjoy this type of thing.

Hello, hello

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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