Struggling with manga art? Sonia Leong has the answers

Manga artist; a mermaid drawn in the manga style
(Image credit: Illustrations by Sonia Leong)

Manga artists make it all look so easy. The manga art style looks effortless but most of us have asked the question, 'how do I draw manga?' at some point. It's a style of art that most artists have been inspired by in some form, whether it's the stylised character design, subtle colouring or sense of motion. Even if you're not a huge fan of manga and anime, there are skills and approaches that every artist can learn from in manga art.

One of the leading manga artists is Sonia Leong, who has a number of books to her name from manga to teaching books where she reveals some of the core techniques used in her art. You can read her tutorial 'How to create an authentic manga comic strip' for inspiration. The artist's latest book, The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Drawing Manga, is published on 27th April (Ilex Press, £16.99).

Like many Sonia came to manga at an early age, for her it was after a Japanese friend lent her a copy of Nakayoshi Magazine and she discovered the all-female Japanese manga artist group, CLAMP. A read of that manga group's Magic Knight Rayearth and she was hooked on the sharp lines and darkly whimsical art. "I had never seen comics that looked so beautiful," exclaims Sonia. "The stories were epic and the art was elegant and attractive."

Manga artist Sonia Leong's influences

Manga art; a photo of a female artist

Sonia is an experienced manga artist, author and teacher  (Image credit: Photography by Pat Lyttle)

Sonia's art is influenced by everything from fashion to music and video games (she finds character customisation a unique way to draw motivation to experiment and perfect her art.

"I try to read manga from different artists," she tells me. "I like seeing the choices they make in how they render features, or linework techniques they use, and see if I am able to do the same thing but in my own style." 

When it comes to her own books Sonia says the fantasy light novel series, The Chronicles Of Ciel is her favourite (there are two books, the first being A Brush With Magic and the second book A Spell Of Scarlet). These are not traditional manga (comic books) but are prose "with lots of full page splash art," she explains. Visit Sonia's website to see her catalogue of great manga, books and commissions. 

The books are published by Sweatdrop Studios, a small publishing house set up by Sonia and her friends. "It's entirely created by me with no outside control," she says, adding: "I was also nervous about how my prose writing would be received, but it's been extremely popular and my fans love it!"

Manga art; illustrations of girls, one on a bike and one a student, in the manga style

Sonia Leong's new book reveals how to draw manga characters (Image credit: Illustrations by Sonia Leong)

Here latest book is instructional, and expands on another of Sonia's talents as a teacher. The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Drawing Manga covers everything from how to get started in this unique and surprisingly complex art style as well as how to get more from your tools, both traditional pens and pencils as well as the best digital art software. There are tips on layouts, composition and lettering; as the title says, this really is the complete beginner's guide.

So what are the common mistakes newcomers to manga fall into? "Thinking it's so easy and that it all looks the same," declares the artist. Good manga artists should first be good artists and so have an eye for anatomy and traditional rules. Then you learn how to break the rules.

Sonia tells me: "Manga style is a series of choices, often used to streamline an image down to clean, crisp, minimalist lines. We have to have a broad knowledge of how to draw everything (humans in particular) then we pick and choose our lines very carefully to render our images cleanly."

Manga art tips and techniques

Manga art; two faces drawn in the manga style

Learn how to draw the same manga character as different ages (Image credit: Illustrations by Sonia Leong)

The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Drawing Manga is excellent at portraying how to perfect some of the most common manga art techniques. The book is divided into chapters and then into bite-sized chunks of learning, such as drawing water or understanding panel pacing and cropping, A chapter on manga anatomy covers drawing faces, bodies, hands, feet, and then pulls it all together to teach you how to create unique characters with their own styles.

This is the technical process of 'how to' but for Sonia beyond this how you put it all into practice, particularly if you're planning a years-long series of books (manga notoriously last for decades). 

Sonia explains the most demanding, and rewarding side to drawing manga: "Maintaining consistency on a longer running series drawn over several years! I juggle different projects and I work in different styles to different client specifications, so when I need to return to work on the next volume of a series after a break, I have to remind myself all over again about the character designs, matching the style I've already used for previous volumes and the formatting for that type of book."

If this sounds like hard work, and it is, manga art is also incredibly rewarding. There's a dynamicism and life to manga that few 'styles' achieve. For Sonia it's a love of drawing "sparkly eyes, fluttery lashes, long flowing hair, gorgeous costumes and lots of blood" and of course blood. "I like having the time to craft an action scene with beautiful characters slicing through an enemy with a big sword," she says. 

If you're feeling inspired you can use the best colouring pencils, watercolour pencils and artist pens to work traditionally, or use digital art software such as Procreate; Sonia suggests using Clip Studio Paint – read our tutorial 'How to draw manga in Clip Studio Paint' to gauge how this app works.

"Clip Studio is one of the best all-in-one packages out there for the price," confirms Sonia. "It's great for all types of comic book artists, whether you shade your pages in or in full colour, if you need to letter a whole book, if you're drawing a fancy cover."

Manga art; a book cover for a new manga training manual

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Drawing Manga is a great resource for learning the basics of manga art (Image credit: Illustrations by Sonia Leong)

There's no better time to begin experimenting and perfecting manga style art, either. Mainstream comic labels are influenced more than ever by manga and anime has become a cornerstone of most streaming services, not to mention how The Simpsons anime makeover went viral last year.

"Manga has spread all around the world and is recognised as mainstream, especially with major TV streaming services making Anime so easy to access," explains Sonia. "This applies to webcomics too. Translations of comics are done very quickly these days so readers can enjoy them soon after the original books are published."

It's an art form that keeps Sonia busy. The artist has Volume 3 of The Chronicles Of Ciel, Volume 2 of Love Stuffing (a romantic comedy series I'm working on), a Western style comic book covers with motion comic capabilities, "an art book of cute characters based on food", two different webcomic series, and of course, "a ton of school visits and comic conventions to go to! I'm always busy…"

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Drawing Manga by Sonia Leong is published on 27th April (Ilex Press, £16.99). You can pre-order and buy the new book from Waterstones.

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Ian Dean
Editor, Digital Arts & 3D

Ian Dean is Editor, Digital Arts & 3D at Creativebloq, and the former editor of many leading magazines. These titles included ImagineFX, 3D World and leading video game title Official PlayStation Magazine. In his early career he wrote for music and film magazines including Uncut and SFX. Ian launched Xbox magazine X360 and edited PlayStation World. For Creative Bloq, Ian combines his experiences to bring the latest news on AI, digital art and video game art and tech, and more to Creative Bloq, and in his spare time he doodles in Procreate, ArtRage, and Rebelle while finding time to play Xbox and PS5. He's also a keen Cricut user and laser cutter fan, and is currently crafting on Glowforge and xTools M1.