The Grids

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Four panels, and Sixteen.  Colors care of Rothko.

Four panels, and Sixteen.
Colors care of Rothko.

I don’t recommend it exclusively,
but for sure grids are handy to think about
when it comes to laying out your comics page.
In lieu of a better idea they are reliable,
and save a lot of time over all
in getting comics done.

Seth in his recent documentary reiterated an idea I’ve heard from him before – early in the film he says that he feels the regular grid layout he favors is particularly suited to depicting a person’s interior life. I’m not so sure about that myself, at least not for my own interior life. But I do find grids a joy, and for new students I find the transition from using traditional page reading flow conventions [text in a book: left to right, then down back to left.] on to competently more elaborate and adventurous page designs, is best started with a basic grounding in the grids. And as the title suggests I have a general favourite too.

Grids are just that, divisions of the page based on fixed proportions. Understand you can modify and play with them in all kinds of ways, from knocking out walls to throwing a dutch angle on the whole thing, and more. They are not rules of any kind, just good basic patterns to utilize and use in page design. But the do benefit from being easy to read, clear, and well composed.

I use several kinds of grid templates as rules of thumb for many pages, often driven by the story beats and what we’re trying to accomplish with the page. The following four grids are a great starting point to think in terms of. And all the page templates I’ve posted have markers on them for each of these, making it easy to use them for layouts and thumbnailing.


A Six panel grid, and the one and only, my favorite, the Nine. Colors care of Rothko, kind of, post Photoshop.

Memorize these four examples. The classic bit 4 panel page, the 16, or the 6. But I think I use the 9 panel grid or some variation most of all.

These are for more traditional print media/tablet read digital comics, but I think you can also apply them on their sides, as basic jumping off points for monitor favoring aspect ratios found often in web comics.


4, 6, 12 & 16: Grids that divide evenly along the middle, work well for web comics that will be collected for print volumes!

One strategy in planning for a web comic layout that you can translate into a print collection is to work with grids that split the page in an even half.

Online it’s two pages; in print stacked as one.

This presents new challenges to layout, and it complicates doing full splash pages or two page spread designs. But it makes the scaling of lettering for legibility, and keeping of a constant aspect ratio for both fairly doable. Some examples of page layouts that suit that approach are 4, 6 horizontal, 12, or 16.

Now unfortunately my favorite grid, the 9 panel, does not do this well. And I still like it best. But given its most common these days for people to first start making comics online. I thought I should mention this.

Still, 9 I love the most. Many many pages I’ve drawn use them, often with a few walls knocked out, but essentially intact. It’s often pleasing in its reading rhythms. Narratively in 3 x 3 moments, echoing nicely the classic three act story structure in some ways, and visually it’s the Golden Mean on its end.  So probably just a strongly familiar structure.  And I enjoy thinking about the beats across the page like visual Haiku. Having the option to up the ante with the 16 panel grid, and a few steps down with the 6 & 4, the 9 is to me often the perfect basic workhorse of page grids.

This map shows many of the possible variables you can derive from it! I based it on a square template David Petersen posted here about his love of that format for Mouse Guard.

So many options to consider. Count your beats and pick one that fits!

So many options to consider. Count your beats and pick one that fits!

Here’s some examples of my own use of it.
These pages are from my own graphic novels,
Dream Life & Therefore, Repent! [free to download].

It’s a good medium density page design, using it leaves me
a lot of range to raise or drop the number of beats on the page,
and get a lot of story done in each page over all.
I think these examples give a nice wide range of examples of that.

These were all of course more overt uses of a Nine panel grid baseline, you can as the map shows, join up panels/cells on each page as you need, and modify using dutch angels instead of right angle panel shapes. Or for that matter, non cuboid panels! Round or organic forms can be made to work fantastically. And I’m a fan of taking it even further and interlacing the imagery in a montage/mural inspired layout. Doing away with the grid and traditional forms of closure, smearing space and time sometimes.

But the grids when used well benefit from the immense familiarity from Reading text typically left to right and then down. The lend overt means to structure space and time in your story. Consider when choosing the form of the page and each panel, as it relates to the story it depicts. If you have notions about ways of modifying a given base grid, then give it a try. We’ll cover some more advanced design and reading flow stuff in another post but I’m all for just trying the basics for now.

Here’s a gallery of some other pattern examples to suggest various ways you might distribute panels on a page. These are templates for Comic Jams, something we’ll talk about in another post soon! Printed them out so people could just get on with drawing and not have to worry about layouts! Some are clearly grid based, but in fact ALL are. Trick 6 Organic is just 2x2x2 six panel grid, drawn with curved inner gutters.

Exercise: Take a regular 8.5″x11″ inch copy paper, and pencil a light nine panel grid on it. Then pick a short scene from a film you like. Then watch it and choose nine moments out of it to use to describe it on one page. Just make these rough sketches for now, pencils at the most finished. Focus on selecting the nine moments that best evoke what it is you like about the movie.

Feel free to use a video of the film and pause it on the moments to sketch it into the panel. You are allowed to knock out as many as three panel walls total, and don’t forget to think about how to present the dialog if there is any.

Caution, Don’t pick a scene where someone gives a really long speech, or any long scenes in general! Whatever they say or do needs to fit into word balloons for 9 panels max and I want to see the full scene described from it’s first shot to the last!