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A book tells a story with words, and a sketch or painting portrays a story with images. A comic book tells a story with words and images. Evanston’s Lucy Knisley (pronounced “nigh-slee”) creates comic books for which she writes the story, draws the images and colors the pages. She creates complete visual narratives ready for publishing. 

Lucy Knisley in her studio.

Her books, or graphic novels, are considered middle grade and young adult fiction by publishers and target 8-18 year old readers.

Her first seven published books were fictionalized memoirs of her own childhood.

To date, Knisley has published more than 15 comic books. She also does other professional illustration work, speaks at Comic Con as well as other conventions and works with young adult school groups.

Most of her work is done in her home studio and on her porch. I know this setting well, because in full disclosure, I met Knisley when she and her husband bought my house. 

The studio on the third floor is a large west-facing room with great light and a walk-in closet. Knisley has a worktable used for painting and crafts, shelves filled with her books as well as books authored by colleagues she admires, and a closet full of supplies. She writes and sketches in an ergonomic, correctly adjusted chair with a desk surface attached.

Knisley’s studio as described by the artist.

The tools of her art include an iPad on which she scripts the stories in Microsoft Word. She uses Blackwing pencils and plain paper to sketch scenes, and then will color the work digitally or with watercolor paint.

Some of Knisley’s books.

Knisley typically works on many stories at once. She says she keeps “multiple plates spinning” so she can move ongoing between publisher demands and illustrations. Normally she completes one book per year, but she lost her childcare during COVID-19 and had to extend her publishing timetable. 

Her latest comic book, Apple Crush, is the second in the Peapod Farm series. It was released this year and is available from many book sources. The first in the series, Stepping Stones, was on the New York Times bestseller list. Recently at a signing at Booked, a local bookstore targeted to children, the books quickly sold out, but they now have more in stock.

Knisley starts creating her art after getting her son off to school. Work time is 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but during that time she also gets on her bicycle, where she contemplates her projects. 

To start a comic, she has an initial conversation with her agent who she has worked with for more than 15 years. This is a time to brainstorm the next project that will ultimately lead to another book proposal for a publisher.

If accepted – which has become more likely now that prior books have sold successfully – it is time to start working with an editor on a story line, which is like a script for a play, showing what characters will say and indicating what they will do. The script is loose at this point, and will develop in detail as Knisley sketches and lays it out. 

Knisley’s “At the bookshop.”

With the story line settled, Knisley starts on the visual elements of the comic book. She lays out each page into panels which are the little boxes that organize each comic book page.

Any given page can have from one to nine panels. Five or more is typical and a one panel or full-page panel is called a “splash page.”

In each panel as needed, Knisley lays in word balloons where the script will be added which helps her establish a pace for the story.

Next, she draws the scenes and the words into each panel chapter by chapter. At this stage, she focuses primarily on getting all story aspects perfect.

There is no color added yet. This step can be done digitally, but she prefers to do it manually using pencil and paper. However, when done digitally, it is easier to send to her publisher. It is a tradeoff Knisley decides on for each work.

When satisfied with a chapter, she sends an online copy to her editor, and the editor proceeds to edit it. Once they fully agree on a chapter’s details, it is time to “ink” and color. Knisley goes over all the pencil lines with an ink pen, and, then, the book is colored. 

Lucy Knisley’s studio and her color palette.

Knisley says in the past she has completed the coloring herself, usually with watercolor, but she knows she is a slow colorist, and the publisher demand for new work is high. So she has recently contracted a wonderful colorist who can color the comics using the palette of colors that Knisley selects. 

Once all the chapters are complete, all the pages for the book are sent to the publisher and there is a wait time before the book is published. During the wait, the cover is designed and all interstitial – that is, not the story content – pages are completed.

Knisley says that she always wanted to be an author and an artist, so her work fits her perfectly. Since moving to Evanston, she feels lucky and amazed to meet many other women comic artists that live here. “Evanston is a huge comics town,” she says.

To see her books, you can visit the Evanston Public Library, or her website at www.stoppayingattention.com, where you can learn more about her as well as buy her comic books. Her Instagram is @lucyknisley

Jean Cunningham

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.

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