Monday, March 24, 2008

Songs Perverse, and Songs of Lament

For kicks and giggles I thought I'd do a sort of process rundown post, ala Matthew Woodson or James Jean, detailing how I went about creating a recent image. If anyone finds this post interesting or useful, let me know and maybe I'll do more in the future!

Here's the original drawing in pencil and ink (click on thumbnails for larger images):

I wasn't at all happy with how the small hand-lettering was going on the scrolls, so I decided about 5/6ths of the way through that I'd probably be far better off just trying to do it digitally.

Due to the size of the image--I was working at about 27.5" x 10"--I had to scan it in two pieces and digitally combine them into one image. Fortunately, Photoshop CS3 has an amazing feature that can do this automatically and (as far as I can tell, at least) flawlessly. After scanning, I lighten all of the blue and darken the blacks before using a threshold filter to switch it to straight black and white:

The digital lettering ends up being acceptable, after a whole lot of fiddling. I get rid of the hand-drawn circles, deciding I'd rather use perfect digital shapes. The plan is to put portraits (which I've already drawn) of each of the respective characters into those circles.

I set the linework as a multiply layer, and create a flat color layer beneath it to figure out a general color scheme. After a lot of experimentation, I decided on a triadic primary color scheme--primary colors have a vibrant, child-like appeal to them that I think is appropriately warped, given the subject matter.

I add a few layers of rendering to some of the objects to draw out the forms a bit.

Adding the color holds takes a long time, but it is always fun to see what a difference it makes. This time I push the background backward by lightening those lines, and decide to play around with colored linework on the text. I think it gives it a more frenzied, neon-sign type of effect that I like.

I mask off a bunch of the foreground and add a few gradient layers to the background to create some lighting and atmosphere. Things are starting to come together now.

I add another layer to put a few highlights on the characters, add some lighting effects to the main display text to give it a little more substance and unify it with the environment, and put some gradient layers over the characters.

I decided the display text was a bit *too* jarringly bright, so I tune it down a bit in an effort to keep things harmonious. Then I add some lighting effects to create some more atmosphere. Finally, I add an adjustment layer to give the whole image a very slight red tint--didn't plan that part, but everything was looking a little green to me, for some reason. This helps to unify the composition:

I'm happy with the advances I'm making as far as my drawing, though it's clear to me I've got some work to do if I plan to keep adding hand lettering to my work. I do like how the display text turned out, for the most part, though I have to remember just how time consuming it is to make that look decent and plan my days accordingly!

Friday, March 21, 2008

It is the 21st Century (Pt. 2)

Jillian Tamaki is a Brooklyn-based illustrator who has had her work featured in SPIN, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Christian Science Monitor, among many other fine publications. What I enjoy most about her illustrations are the simple color pallettes and expressive brushwork--I think I might benefit from incorporating some of that looseness into my own work. She keeps an excellent sketchblog on her website, Her upcoming graphic novel, Skim (co-created with her cousin Mariko Tamaki) should hit bookstores soon.

What led you to your decision to work in illustration?

My programme at the Alberta College of Art and Design (I graduated 2003) was a very old-fashioned course with a half-illustration and half-design curriculum. I went into the programme with the intention of being a designer, but was drawn to the illustration side of it quite by accident. When I first entered ACAD, I don't think I even knew that one could make a career out of illustration. Or that such a thing even existed.

What historical artists have been influential to you? What contemporary artists?

An abridged list, in no particular order: Impressionism, Classicism, David Hockney, Beatrix Potter, Norman Rockwell, Hokusai (and other Japanese ukiyo-e), Disney, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Andrew Wyeth, The Brandywine artists, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, religious paintings, photography, Inuit printmaking, Hergé, Ralph Steadman, manga, fashion... I sort of pick and choose from a lot of influences. I try to not look at too much contemporary illustration, actually. Because I think it's really easy to be (over)influenced and that one should really look beyond peers and the internet for inspiration. That said, there are some people I really admire, including Maira Kalman, Vivienne Flesher, Frank Stockton, Yuko Shimizu, Nathan Fox, Seth, Julie Doucet, Tomer Hanuka, Edel Rodriguez, Rutu Modan, and on and on...

Describe your style of illustration and your artwork in general, in your own words.

I don't think about my "style" too often, but it is figurative at its core. People not only have an aesthetic style, but also a "conceptual" style. I would describe mine as narrative. It's quite a traditional style.

Throughout your career as an illustrator, has your method, style, or way of working gone through any major changes?

I would say that it has evolved in a methodical manner. My abilities have increased considerably in the 5 years I have been illustrating simply because I do so much of it (thankfully). I do not try to "establish" a style or maintain a style. I think about the pictures I would like to make, and I play around with techniques... eventually the two come together in projects and if they're successful, I refine the process.

How have changes in your life affected your work over the course of your career?

I moved to NY in 2005. I'm not sure of any concrete changes (I had already been freelancing fulltime from my home in Canada), but I have to think that being in NY, the epicenter of our industry, has had a positive effect. I have met many fellow illustrators and am free to be inspired by the amazing culture here.

What goals do you have for your work, and for yourself as an artist?

My sole goal is to be working as an illustrator when I'm 70. To sustain a career.

In your opinion, what is the biggest drawback to a career in illustration--and how do you deal with it?

There are some annoying parts about being a freelancer. It's great to not have a boss, but it means you are solely responsible for own success. There is a business-end to the industry that perhaps students aren't aware of. Some things about running a business are boring, annoying, unglamourous, unfun. You have to learn how do those things and suck it up. That's it.

What do you think of the current illustration market / industry?

It's treated me well thus far (knock on wood).

What does it take for a young illustrator to be successful today?

This is strange, but honest: you have to be good. Don't waste your time if you don't have the talent and/or motivation. No amount of promos, websites, mailers, new items in your portfolio will do you any good if the work is not up to snuff. I know talented people that will not succeed because they don't have the motivation, and I know motivated illustrators that don't have the talent (or are at least not producing the work).

Step #1: Make something that people want to buy.

It is the 21st Century (Pt. 1)

For one of my assignments in an illustration course I took last quarter, I was asked to interview a contemporary illustrator about their work, the current illustration market, to what they attribute their success at "breaking in," etc. I ended up interviewing two artists by e-mail: Jillian Tamaki and John Phillips. I've admired the work of both of these fine people for some time, and it was a pleasure to be able to hear what they had to say.

John Phillips is an alum of SCAD's illustration program who graduated a few years back. I wanted to talk with a talented person who had been through SCAD's illustration program and see what his or her post graduation experiences had been as far as finding work, and have long been impressed with the meticulous craftsmanship and quiet beauty of his work. Samples of his work may be found at

What led to your decision to work in illustration?

When I went to school in Charleston, I noticed lots of street art -wheatpasting, tags, paintings done on newspaper scraps and hung up. Artists like Kevin Taylor and Shepard Fairey were based in Charleston, and after seeing their work I began painting on anything I could find -newspapers, wooden boards, sheet metal from air-conditioning vents, stonewalls of downtown buildings, you name it. I eventually came to a pointwhere I wasn't going to class anymore. The whole idea of college was depressing to me, in a way - still is. I was staying up all night working on a dozen things at once, not sleeping - a housemate of mine told me about a friend of his who had just been accepted to SCAD, and I knew I had to get there. I took my portfolio to a review and got a scholarship. Before I knew it, I was enrolled and living in Turner House on the bottomfloor, 021.

What does an average workday in your life consist of?

I work full-time at a weekly newspaper in Mount Pleasant, SC - The Moultrie News. I'm a graphic artist, which is just another word for graphic designer. I don't illustrate anything here, aside from the occasional filler ad. I might design a dozen or more ads in a day, and I do the layout for the Moultrie News and the MUSC Catalyst newspapers. We are also going to the internet in March, and I'll be in charge of uploading and managing the ad content and graphic side of things for our site.

What historical artists have been most influential to you? What contemporary artists?

Warhol, Jasper Johns, Red Grooms, Basquiat - Early on, Van Gogh was my favorite painter. You won't find too many things about his paintings that aren't the absolute truth. Everything from his brush strokes to the subject matter. Colors and perspective were the only things he really manipulated, and even that was more about emotion than anything else. Emotions can be tricky, though. Contemporary art is little more than decoration, and I try to stay way from that. It's not always easy to do.

Describe your style of illustration and your work in general, in your own words.

Style is a flaw. You can be any style you want, as long as you can force yourself to be flawed. Some have to try harder than others, but this was never difficult for me. You have to pattern yourself after someone, but the important thing is not to simply imitate what another person is doing, but to be exposed to everything that artist has been exposed to. Parts of my work are very concise and calculated, while others are totally visceral and spur-of-the-moment. It's a purely unconscious thing for me, and I can't explain it any better than that.

Throughout your career as an illustrator, has your method, style, or way of working gone through any major changes?

Everything I've done has changed and remains the same, all at once. The most important thing an artist can do is keep moving. Don't ever let yourself believe that you've arrived anywhere. I've worked on everything from dorm room floors to industrial drafting tables. There really isn't much difference between the two.

How have changes in your life affected your work over time?

It's impossible for someone like me to create something that isn't affected by my life, whether in a complete or insignificant way.

Out of all the pieces you've created, do you have any favorites?

My earlier ink drawings were successful in more ways than my laterwork is. I wasn't relying on any kind of reference, and I was working in a more intuitive way. It's not easy to explain how you create an ink drawing without any planning or prior sketching. Most of those earlier ink drawings were done by just putting the brush and ink to the paper and moving my arm - not thinking about anything.

What goals do you have for your work, and for yourself as an artist?

Wherever you look in the arts today, you won't find anyone saying much, if anything. Painting is decorative, illustration is trite, musicis formulaic and songwriting is all but inconsequential. I'd like to make something that breaks new ground, or picks up where earlier artists left off - bridge the gap, maybe.

Do you think your experience at SCAD was an adequate preparation for a career as an illustrator? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. My time at SCAD was an exercise in the harsh reality of self-motivation and suppressed ambition. No one pushed me harder than I pushed myself, and that would have been a large enough problem had it not been for a complete lack of any communal or competitive drive from my friends or anyone else. Basically, ever professor I had assured me that I would be getting lots of work right out of school, which was untrue, forany number of reasons.

What is the best advice you can give to a student preparing to enter the field of illustration?

Advice is one of those things that might help some people and hurt others, but I would try to find steady work long before you graduate. Finding work as an illustrator is extremely difficult, no matter how much of a knockout your portfolio is.

What is the best part of being an illustrator? What is the worst--and how do you deal with it?

The best part of any line of work is that if you enjoy doing it and you're good at it, to do it for a living is rather surreal. Conversely, if you can't find work, it can make you question your own abilities. You constantly have to balance those two ideas. If you can't, you won't make it.

What do you think of the current illustration market / industry?

If you look at the work today, you get an overwhelming sense that it's just too much and not enough. Early on, ideas were held above anything else. Towards the 80's, technical flare was given more weight. Now, it seems the market isn't too concerned with what anything says or how it looks, either. As long as something appeals to people on a grandscale, it'll work. It can't stay that way forever, though.

What do you think about illustration representatives / agents? Have you / do you use one?

I tried to get an agent right out of school. I must have contacted twenty or thirty. They either told me my work wasn't commercial enough,or that I would have to keep trying. This is a hard thing to grasp when you hear one thing from professors and something entirely different from those who can help you get somewhere with your work. Now, more than ever, you probably need an agent to be successful, and that wasn't the case a few years ago. Getting an agent is very difficult, though.

What does it take for a young illustrator to be successful today?

Success is relative. I wouldn't say that I'm a successful illustrator yet. The only way to make it is to keep trying new ways of getting where you want to be. If one way doesn't work, don't keep trying it over and over. Approach it in a new way, and keep going. If you want anything to work, you have to work at it. It's not going to happen all by itself, even if you feel that it's your destiny, fate, or whatever else to be there. If you want something badly enough, and you don't give up, you will make it.

Churchill can take his pseudo-witty quotes...

I did a piece as a gift for a fan of Nathan's that goes to SCAD. Thanks for the support, Corey!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Well There's One Thing to Know About This Earth

I'm struggling with this weird form of writer's block right now. It's not necessarily that I don't have anything to write about, but that I don't know how to do it, and am not necessarily sure I want to bother anyway. Though my illustration work is going in what I think is a good direction, working on comics is just exceedingly frustrating right now. Something about all the left-brain thinking necessary to constructing characters and plots is really turning me off at the moment... I just feel like drawing and feeling what's right instead of forcing myself into analyzing everything meticulously and trying to have everything so glued-down. Oddly, I feel like there are few people at school that I can talk to about this kind of thing, which makes it all the more frustrating. Even Nathan Pretzelberger stuff is getting hard to work on... things generally just don't seem that funny to me after what I've dealt with the last few months.

I need to find other people's work that I'm really genuinely interested in; start feeling inspired, start feeling like art matters again. Like I'm not just throwing more dirt onto a hill. It's frustrating that I find so few comics that interest me these days, though that's probably due to not looking hard enough / in the right places more than anything else.

I did have the privilege of reading Shaun Tan's The Arrival, an amazing piece of art that manages to both be profoundly beautiful and speak (I should think) universally--a difficult balance to strike. As time goes by I'm noticing how much potential power there is in "silent" sequential work.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Maybe removing the idiosyncrasies and crudeness of language makes artwork speak to us on a more visceral level, somehow. Chris Ware's got some great examples of this, like the God comic in the big red ACME collection and (especially, to me) the old Quimby the Mouse strips. I've always thought that one of the advantages traditional literature has over sequential art is that a writer is capable of leaving so many more blanks for the reader to fill in on their own (the act of which is one of the primary reasons we connect with a piece of art, I'd suggest)--but maybe comics has the ability to do something similar, just in its own unique way. Anyway, what I'm really trying to say with this paragraph is: go buy The Arrival as soon as you can. And read it.

I'll post some recent work when I get back in Savannah--this computer can't seem to handle .tifs or .psds correctly for whatever reason. I'll try to do a rundown of my process for my illustration final too, which should be fun for a lark, and hopefully interesting to at least one of you out there. In the meantime, I'm resolving to read a lot more than I have been--especially short stories. Anybody have any recommendations?