Comic speech bubbles, or cartoon bubbles, have several important uses in comic strips, comic novels, and even single-panel cartoons. They are the standard method of displaying speech inside comics and cartoons. That’s why it’s important to be very familiar and comfortable with making these speech bubbles, because more often than not you will need them in order to convey your cartoon’s idea to the reader.
In this guide I’ll show how I easily create speech bubbles in Photoshop. Keep in mind that every artist has developed their own personal method or style in creating a speech bubble. Therefore, don’t limit yourself to this tutorial; use it as a stepping stone to your own technique.
Why Use Speech Bubbles
In order to most effectively use speech bubbles, it’s important to know their purposes. The most important are the following:
- Convey speech – Obviously, the first and most basic purpose of any speech bubble is to convey characters’ dialogues (speech) to the reader without intruding on the drawing.
- Make distinction between speech and drawing – Most speech bubbles are very plainly colored (black and white) and are for the most part universal in shape; so that the dialogue is distinctly separated from the drawing. If you decide to use colored speech bubbles or fancy lettering, first consider whether or not it’ll blend in too much with the art.
- Dialogue order – The layout of speech bubbles in a panel declares the order in which the text is meant to be read. A neatly laid-out dialogue will make it easy to read through the comic. Generally, dialogue goes from top to bottom and left to right. Therefore, a speech bubble in the top-left corner will be read before one in the bottom-right corner of a panel.
First Step: Set Up Your Layers
Begin by opening your cartoon drawing and adding two new layers as follows:
These are really the only layers you’ll need for basic speech bubbles. The “Text” layer (orange) is where you’ll type the dialogue, the “Balloons” layer (blue) is where you’ll draw the bubbles, and we won’t even touch the layer with your cartoon drawing on it. It’s important that they be in that order. This is how the layers are set up with all of the examples in this tutorial.
Double click on the balloon layer to open its Blending Options window. Click “Stroke” on the left menu and choose the following settings:
This is a neat little trick that makes it very easy to add black outlines to the balloons and saves a lot of time in the near future. You’ll see.
The Basic Speech Bubble
I’ve entered sample text on the text layer. Unless you are making square-shaped speech bubbles, try to confine the text to an elliptical shape. Use a font that is easy to read, and triple check for spelling errors.
Select the balloon layer and choose the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M). Move your cursor to the center of your text (eyeball it), then click and drag while holding down the Alt button on your keyboard until you have an elliptical selection that encases the text. You can move around the selection with the arrow keys or even trying again until you get a nice spacing all around the text.
Now, to add the tail of the bubble, choose the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) and while holding Shift on your keyboard, create a sharp triangle marquee that overlaps the elliptical marquee. Your selection should now be similar to this:
Press D and then X to choose white as your foreground color. Now fill the selection on the “Balloons” layer by pressing Alt + Del.
Voila! The bubble is now colored white and automatically attains a black outline. This is thanks to the “Stroke” we’ve added in the layer’s Blending Options window. So there’s your basic speech bubble with a straight tail.
Curve-Tailed Speech Bubbles
If you want to have curved tails from your speech bubbles, it only requires a few extra seconds of effort. All the steps before the elliptical marquee are the same as on the previous page.
Once you have an elliptical marquee around your text, you can fill it with white to automatically give the ellipse a white color and black outline.
Choose the Pen Tool (P) and make sure it’s set to “Paths” in the tool options. Now, using only three clicks of the mouse, make a sharp triangular shape that overlaps the oval bubble.
Now we have to tweak this tail to give it a curve. Choose the Convert Point Tool; it is in the sub-menu of the Pen Tool. Click the first little square that’s inside the oval and drag until you get the desired curve. Do the same with the second square inside the oval, but do not touch the square that’s on the sharp end of the tail.
After getting the curve you want, right-click the area within the lines and click “Make Selection” from the menu. Fill the selection with white.
Pretty simple, right? Right.
Lightning-Tailed Speech Bubbles
Lightning tails, as I call them, are used to indicate technical or electronic speech, such as speech from a television, radio, or even a robot. They’re easy to make if you started with the above steps.
Begin with a regular straight tail.
Here’s where the advantage of using the Stroke option via Blending Options over the Stroke option in the Edit menu really shines. We can manipulate the tail’s shape in any way and the outline will adjust automatically.
Choose the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and select the lower two-thirds of the tail.
Watch how simple this is: Choose the Move Tool (V) and use the arrow keys on your keyboard to move the selection right or left. The gaps between the sections of the tail are automatically outlined with a stroke.
Repeat the above step to the lower section of the tail to get something like this:
The same can be done to curved tails:
Extruding Text Speech Bubbles
Just for a little variety, once in a while I like to use what I call “extruded text.” It is simply text that is intentionally too large for its speech bubble. This is a good idea to use when a character is shouting, because it puts a lot of emphasis on the text.
Start with some large text. I rotated mine a bit just for effect.
Add an oval balloon around the text just as in previous steps, except this time, make it intentionally a little bit too small for the text to fit.
We can’t just leave it like this because it’s messy. So, while holding Ctrl, click on the “Text” layer once. This should select the contents of the “Text” layer while still keeping the “Balloons” layer our working layer. Click “Select” in the top menu, then “Modify,” then “Expand…” Insert 2 (or any amount you desire) and hit OK.
Now hit Alt + Delete to fill the selection with white. You will get a neat outline of the extruding text.
Connected Speech Bubbles
If you have a lot of dialogue in a single panel, you may want to connect a single character’s speech bubbles so that you don’t have a bunch of tails all over the panel. Also, you can connect bubbles trans-panels if a character continues to speak but does not appear in the following panel. This is easily done by filling a marquee selection made with the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L).
Don’t use this too much, though, because too many connected bubbles may make it harder for a reader to initially understand whom the speech is coming from.
Thought bubbles are cloud-shaped, and indicate to the reader that the text inside the bubble is not being said out loud, but instead being thought of or dreamt of. Again, you begin by making a regular oval balloon around the text as you would with a normal speech bubble.
Choose the Brush Tool (B) and make sure the hardness is set to 100%. Use the square bracket keys on your keyboard to increase or decrease the brush size. With a white foreground color, simply begin “dabbing” the brush along the edge of the oval balloon. Thanks to the layer’s automatic stroke (via Blending Options window), every time you click along the edge with the brush you add a “puff” of cloud. Continue along the edge, varying the brush size all throughout. To finish off, use the brush to make several dots decreasing in size to act as the bubble’s tail.
Now you’re ready to add neat speech bubbles of any kind to your comics and cartoons. Once you learn how to make the bubbles shown in this guide you should easily be able to make any other kind. Just remember: Don’t limit yourself to this tutorial; use it as a stepping-stone to find easier methods (if you can) and to develop your own style of speech bubbles.