Building a Japanese house for a Victorian gentleman

I try to keep the locations in Chronin as close to reality as I can, given my limited resources and the fact that many of them no longer exist. But Gilbert's house in Kyoto provided a chance to do some creating, rather than recreating. I wanted him to live in a typical Japanese building, but I also wanted the interiors to look like the home of a Victorian gentleman, interested in Japanese culture but ultimately unwilling to sacrifice the comforts he's accustomed to.

There were several steps to building Gilbert's house, and then drawing pages which take place there. So I thought I'd talk about it a little here, for anyone who might be interested.

Kyomachiya -- Kyoto Townhouses

Merchant's houses in Kyoto were very distinctive, due in part to the peculiarities of how land was once taxed in the city. The width of your house -- how much street-front you took up -- dictated how much you paid in taxes, not the actual size of the building. As such, Kyomachiya were very long and narrow, often as few as 5 meters wide and more than 20 meters deep, with a dirt-floored corridor running along one side. That corridor was where the kitchen was located, and often lead to a garden in the back and the large, thick-walled storage sheds that stood there. The front room was usually a shop of some kind, with the residential parts of the building located toward the back or upstairs on a second floor. Because of their long, thin shape, Kyomachiya were sometimes referred to as unagi no nedoko -- eel beds.

(read more on Wikipedia, or at this website dedicated to their history and construction)

Gilbert's House, in particular

I wanted for Gilbert to live in a Kyomachiya, but I knew the inside of it wouldn't be usual. As he lives alone, his house is smaller than most. And as he's an Englishman, he has different opinions as to what makes a comfortable home, and also understands that his exotic manner is part of his appeal to his Japanese clients.

I decided he would try to strike a balance between the two cultures. His house has the raised wooden floors, sliding screens, cabinetry and kamado (stove) typical of a Kyomachiya. But the floors are polished hardwood instead of tatami, and most of the rooms have western-style furniture and decor.

The first floor has three main rooms: the front room, where he meets with clients and conducts his business (this room would be a store in most Kyomachiya); the middle room, his office, where his desk and all his books are kept and he does most of his work; and the back room, which he refers to as the "Japanese room" and uses for relaxation and entertaining. This last room faces the small garden behind the building, has a low table and cushions on the floor for sitting, and displays local art objects along with those you'd find in the average Victorian parlor.

Quite a few scenes in the last chapter of Chronin Vol 1 take place in this house, so I knew I'd be spending a fair amount of time there. I also knew that I wanted his home to be crammed full of stuff, and that most of that stuff would be curvy, elaborate, difficult-to-draw Victorian furniture -- not to mention all the complicated Japanese cabinetry and sliding screens -- that would give me a killer headache to tackle unaided.

So I decided it was worth the time to construct his house in 3D, using Google Sketch-up, so that I could use it for reference during those scenes! I'd never done any modeling before, but this seemed as good of a time to learn as any.

First I built the three rooms, including the cabinet in the front room that doubles as a staircase. The sliding doors were built as "components," which meant that I could replicate them as many times as I needed to, and could change all of them at once if I found a problem.

Once I'd finished with the house itself and the furniture I wanted to build (the step cabinet, a large chest in Gilbert's office and the architecture of the tokonoma and shelving in the Japanese Room) I still had a lot of empty space to fill. Lucky for me, there's a rather extensive library of furniture and objects that other people have already constructed, searchable from within Sketchup and easy to download. Learning to actually place those objects in the model was trickier than I'd expected, especially as my computer lagged ridiculously, but I got the hang of it eventually. Most pieces had to be modified, but I don't want to think about how long it would have taken me to build everything from scratch!

Once that was done (and it took about three days! yikes!) I could go back to drawing pages!

Using the model in a panel

Unlike most of Chronin, where nearly all the backgrounds were drawn from scratch -- sometimes using photos or woodblock prints as reference, sometimes not -- the scenes in Gilbert's house are drawn with a very particular process.

First, I sketch out very roughly where I want the characters to be and how the panel will be composed:

Then I go into Sketchup, move around inside the model until I have the right angle, and export a 2D graphic. I'll often export it in more than one style and then combine them, as some details show up better in one mode than in another (the frame of the mirror in this shot, for example.)

After I lay it into the panel, sometimes I realize it's nooooooooot quiiiiiiiiite lining up the way I wanted it to. This was one of those times!

On the second attempt, though, it looked more like I wanted it to!

Then I go in and refine the lineart...

Once I've traced over the parts of the sketchup image I want to use and laid in other detail (in this case, a map of Kyoto) this panel's as done as it's gonna get for now!

This process makes things go MUCH faster than they otherwise would. Alas, once this scene is done it's back to drawing the backgrounds unaided once again!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go scrounge up some reference for Tenryu-ji.

(Oh, and while I'm here: If you want to read about my struggles with comicking or interesting links I turn up during my research, you can follow me on Twitter!)

Still highly impressive.

I believe my initial tweet was: "fucking a, woman!"
I've always wanted to use sketch-up
(I even dwnloaded it)