Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Alphabet of Thorn

I started this as a digital piece way back in January 2011.  (Has it really been 3 years already?  Really?)  I've been meaning to do some illustrations in coloured pencil and this seemed like a good candidate, since it had a simple design and the digital piece wasn't going anywhere.

Here is the last WIP of it I posted to this blog.

So this version has a few problems with it, but I like it quite a bit better than the digital.  The face turned out much better.  I'm not entirely sure about the texture.  I've been looking at the famous Drew Strouzan's work and wondering if I should experiment with pencil crayon over watercolour.  Apparently he used an airbrush with acrylics, but there's no way I am going to buy an airbrush.  But it seems to me that you could do something interesting and similar with watercolour.

Anyway, my plan is to do a collection of illustrations in pencil crayon.  Except that I am going to have to buy more pencil crayons because this drawing (painting?  This week someone said that people refer to pencil crayon works as "paintings" which I find very odd) has used up a good chunk of my frequently-used colours.  Now that I am replacing my Prismacolors with Polychromo pencil crayons I'm going to have a devil of a time matching the colours.  Apparently charts exist, but you have to pay for some of them.  Which means that I will be making my own (rather incomplete) charts.

Back to this picture.  It is loosely based on the fantasy book "The Alphabet of Thorn" by Patricia McKillip, which is not a children's book but it is a book I would have happily read as a teenager had I been one in 2004.  Right now I am trying to decide what book to do next.  Today I am leaning towards Bunnicula, but I may tackle something I haven't read before.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


I love drawing portraits.  Faces are one of my favourite things to draw.  I could be an awfully happy portrait artist except that I hate to approach people and ask them to model.  I think I ended up a landscape artist at least partly because you never have to ask a tree whether you can draw it.

So most of the time I end up either using photos, or quickly scribbling people in the wild.

Well, for the January Sketchout someone in our sketch group suggested that we have a portrait party and it has been one of my favourite sketchouts so far.  I had two wonderful hours of indulging in my usually furtive hobby, then I had a spectacular omelette, and then we may have converted the waitress.  I'll have to keep an eye out for her at the next meeting.

Anyway, here are two of my fellow sketchers:

About a week after that I ended up at a board game cafe and sketched some patrons while people got caught up on gossip and decided on which game to play.  These were random people at other tables:

I think the girls were playing Cards Against Humanity, which is horrible and wonderful and if you have a black sense of humour and some friends you should totally play it.

I think that one of my resolutions at some point should be to start asking people to model for sketch portraits more often.  Every day do something that scares you, right?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Making Mistakes

Lots of new artists get fairly good at doing one kind of thing, like an animal or a character,  and then become hesitant to do anything different because it always "looks bad".  They learned how to draw by formula and now they find breaking away from that formula to be very difficult.  The long-term solution is to learn the basics and the underlying theory of what they're trying to do, and then practice until it works.  But in the short term they have to stop being afraid to make mistakes.

I hear a lot of "I want to get better at X but I'm afraid of ruining this drawing".  Well, here is what happened to me that eventually helped me escape this thought process.

I used to be awful at inking my work.  Really bad.  I wanted to make comics and desperately admired black and white art like Wendy Pini's but my own lines were feathered and uneven and I always made mistakes that "ruined" the drawing.

So whenever I made a picture that I thought was particularly nice, I would not ink it.  I would put it away in a drawer and save it for later, for when I got better.

A couple years later I came across all these pictures while cleaning out the drawer, and I realized that they weren't very good.  My skills had improved, but the pictures hadn't.  They were "ruined" in my eyes anyway, without me even getting the benefit of better inking skills.  I reworked some of these pictures and because I had improved my drafting skills, I was able to make a better picture in less time.

When I realized that I could always re-do the picture and improve it, the disappointment I felt at "ruining" a picture started seeming like a temporary frustration, which made it easier to deal with.  Instead of putting away an unfinished picture and thinking "I'll finish it when I'm better" I started putting away messed-up pictures and thinking "I'll redo it when I'm better."  Together with some other changes in my attitude towards art, I was able to experiment more and learn more quickly.

The lesson I learned was this: don't be afraid of screwing up.  You get infinite re-tries.  And as your skills improve you will find your old work to be less and less impressive, so there is very little point in trying to protect it at the expense of improving your skills.  Unless that picture has special sentimental value to you, go ahead and mess it up.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Don't Plan Epic Comics

I've been thinking about comics more lately.  Partly because I feel awful about not finishing Gothbunnies and letting my readers down, partly because I ran out of podcasts to listen to in December and started going through Webcomics Weekly again, and partly because I am putting together a book of my other comics.  Also Hourly Comic Day is coming up in a couple of weeks.  Which reminds me... it's almost time for Neil's and my Floating Anniversary.  Is it weird that I remember my anniversary largely by the fact that it happens around Hourly Comic Day and I occasionally draw a comic about it?

Anyway.  Comics!  I've been seeing some posts around lately about people's rather grandiose comic plans.  They are going to make a 500 volume epic story with a cast of hundreds.  They have a thousand-page novel that they want to turn into a comic.  They will start three series simultaneously.  Everything will be drawn in a photorealistic manner.

This kind of plan lasts for approximately 10 whole pages of work.  The fact is that a comic book requires an obscene amount of drawing.  When I was drawing Gothbunnies, each black and white page took me about 7 hours to make.  I was working full time at the time, and I was able to make about one a week.  I have nothing but admiration for people like Tom Siddell who worked full time and used to spend his weekends drawing Gunnerkrigg Court AND update it three times a week.  There is a reason why he is a full-time comic artist and I am not.

But what this means is that a 200-page black and white graphic novel with fairly simple art takes about 1400 hours to make, or about 10 months if you are working a fairly standard full-time workweek.  So no, that 500-volume epic is not going to get made unless you clone yourself (or hire assistants and spend literally all your time in the studio.  In which case congratulations, you are now mini-Marvel.  I look forward to reading your stuff.)  That thousand page novel is going to turn into tens of thousands of pages of art.  Visual storytelling compresses description but expands action greatly, and you have to show everything.  And if you want to make a photorealistic comic, you had better be able to do a photorealistic page in 8 hours or less or you are still going to be drawing that same comic when you're 90.

Comics take a long time, and every inefficiency in the process is multiplied by the number of pages in the comic.  If you are interested in making comics, start small.  Test out what is feasible before you commit to a large project.  Anyone can do just about anything for 30 days but is it still going to be fun in 30 months?  I can confirm that your readers are going to be pretty mad if you end up stopping your comic 200 pages in because you didn't plan it out well enough and totally underestimated the amount of work it was going to take.

This is also something that an artist has to keep in mind when they are reviewing job offers.  The writer has great plans.  But the writer will be doing a fraction of the work that you will be doing.  Get compensated fairly!  Very few comics make a lot of money.  You will not be seeing grand royalties from the book.  Ask for a decent page rate and if the writer doesn't want to give it to you, don't take the job.  There will be three other unknown writers posting similar projects tomorrow.  You're not missing out.  If you really really like the project and the writer can't afford you, enter into a full partnership so you own half the project and make the writer handle everything else.  You are going to be too busy drawing to do it.

So there you go.  Come back on February 2 or 3rd to read this year's installment of Hourly Comic Day!

PS - does anyone have any art-related podcasts they listen to that they can recommend?  I have gone through the archives of Webcomics Weekly, Escape from Illustration Island, The Animation Podcast, Ninja Mountain and Seqalab.  I am now working my way through Welcome to Nightvale but they are only 20 minutes long!  (I can recommend all of the above, by the way, if you are an artist who likes to listen to podcasts while they work.)  Right now I have to listen to the local radio stations and yesterday they had a guy somewhere in the city trying to sell clean urine.  Please help.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Palette Knife

One nice thing about working with the palette knife, as frustrating as it is, is that it gets me to use a great deal more paint than I normally would.  I have always been a saver, I use materials sparingly and only let loose when it's obvious that I am about to drown in art supplies.  I have also been told that the way I use acrylics is unusual (which it probably is, as I started painting in acrylics after a number of years spent painting digitally and the latter definitely has influenced the former).  So I have fallen into the "it's my style" trap a little, thinking that if my work is unique it must also be good.

But I get bored.  I get bored and then I hear about a thing and I immediately want to try it.  I ended up buying this case of palette knives at Lee Valley on a whim several years ago and when I saw Linda Wilder's wonderful mountain landscapes I had to drag them out and try to use them.  (There aren't many role models for the landscape painter in acrylics, every time I see a painting I like it's either in oils or pastels.  And while I'm willing to give oils a go, I am extremely hopeless with pastels and Neil tells me that they will give me rainbowlung.)

So palette knives.  It's like painting with spackle.  My first attempt was a total disaster which I eventually rescued with a bristle brush.  The second attempt was a half-total disaster, but people inexplicably liked it.

This is my third attempt:

This is the Japanese Garden at the Butchart Gardens in Victoria.  I enjoyed the gardens there tremendously, although they were rather crowded.  It wasn't until we hit the Japanese Garden and it started raining a bit that the crowds thinned out.

With this painting I think I am finally starting to get somewhere with the palette knife.  I really like how it turned out.  And I think I am in denial about the colours I like.  Neil and I were joking about people buying paintings to match their sofa, and I remarked that the colours in this painting would make for rather hideous decor.  Then I took it into my living room and it matches not only my sofa, but the walls and rug as well.  It goes with them so nicely that now I am thinking of painting a three foot tall version and sticking it up on my wall.  So I apparently am not only the sort of person who likes orange and green, but the sort of person who matches paintings to the sofa.  Go figure.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Artist Statement

Today I am rewriting my artist statement.  It is difficult to find a fancy way to say "Winter is 7 months long, and I need to be outside.  Then I want to tell you all about how great it was out there, even though there were bugs and I got rained on a bit."  Also "quit building suburbs on top of all this great lanscape already".  Sigh.

It has been interesting to realize how much of my painting has probably come from my childhood in northern Alberta.  Even a simple trip to the city involved sitting in the back of the car for five hours staring at trees and farms.  I have never recovered from it.  It is one of the great sorrows of my life to be married to a man who hates sitting for extended periods of time and who seems largely unafflicted by the exploring bug.  The average number of road trips I go on in a year is almost one.  I plan to change that as soon as I stop feeling bad about renting hotel rooms.

The Canadian landscape really is magnificent, and it's not just the mountains I'm talking about.  The mountains are great.  The first time I saw them I thought they were going to fall down on me.  My monkey hindbrain just couldn't understand how those gigantic lumps of rock managed to stay up.  But actually it's the fairly ordinary contrasts of colour that really get me.  I remember walking around as a kid in late August or early September sometime and seeing the slopes above the Clearwater river golden with sunlit poplars, shining against a bank of dark clouds.  Or driving along the highway in the late afternoon and having the golden-reddish sunlight turn the larches a strange orange-green colour.  Or traveling by bus at twilight in the winter and seeing the violet snow-covered fields pass beside me, with tufts of dull golden grass popping out from the snow.  Crabapple flowering season.  Ice fog.  Eye-punching fields of canola.  It's those things that squeeze my heart and make me want to bring them home.

The other thing is that as one grows older, some of these things disappear.  I think that the last time I was in McMurray, the land across the river where I used to admire the trees had been clear-cut.  I have no idea what they're going to build there.  I don't really care.  It can't be as good as the poplars used to be.  These days I want to record things so that I remember them when they're gone.

These necessary blurbs that one has to write about oneself are sometimes more useful than one thinks.  I always start out thinking that I'm going to produce a pile of bullshit and end with a great deal of introspection (and some relief that I no longer live up north and don't have to talk to anyone I used to know in Junior High School).  It's good to be reminded of why we do this, on occasion, especially if things have been going slowly and one starts to lose steam.

As soon as the statement and bio are done, they are going off with a gallery submission and then I will begin work on another painting, knowing a little more about what it is that I want to record and why I want to record it.

It looks like my old college site is finally gone so I had to dig this out from the depths of my hard drive.  The trails where I used to go cross-coutry skiing with my dad and brother when I was in high school.  The winter may have been long and cold, but it sure was beautiful.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

African Violet

One of the things that I would like to do this year is slow down and make better work.  Back at the beginning of December, Kev Ferrara pointed out that I ought to be drawing with more sensitivity and I agreed.  My pencils have gone to hell since I took up ink.  I think I have the expectation that I can go over everything twice, so I don't need to get it right the first time.

So I promised that once my deadlines were up and the holidaying over with, I would do more work in pencil, and let it never be said that I don't keep my promises when it suits me to!  I've been working on this African violet since January 1st or so.

I admit, it was a harsh start.  I started with the outlines of the flowers to the left and worked my way right until I hit a logical stop.  The first thing I discovered is that my pencil sharpener is crap.  I am going to have to dig out my leadholders and avoid splintered leads.  Or start sharpening the pencils with sandpaper.  The next thing I discovered is that my hands shake.  How do I manage to work in ink?  I don't know!  I think I save it for the afternoon, when the coffee has worn off.

Thirdly, my accuracy is crap.  Thank god I draw plants.  Nobody ever knows how wrong I got them.

I did enjoy shading all those scalloped leaves, though.  They are so beautiful and fuzzy and folded and variegated.  I wish I could remember what this variety of violet is called.  I once received a number of cuttings from a family friend of my in-laws so I have a few unusual varieties.  I used to have more but some fell victim to various moves and lack of attention on my part.  This is one that has always done particularly well.

My tips for pencil drawings: keep your pencils nice and sharp and work from left to right (or opposite if you're a lefty) so you aren't dragging your hand through the graphite and smearing everything.  It's a good rule to adopt while working with ink, too.  And keep your eraser clean by rubbing it on a clean piece of scrap paper or you'll inevitably end up with a dark blotch where you don't want it.

I hesitate to call this drawing a success, but at least it is a good start.  I will try to have one still life or another on the go pretty much all year.  I suppose one of these years I should do a Bargue or cast drawing but honestly I'd rather just get more accurate with violets.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy 2014!

We spent a quiet evening at home, playing games.  I went out to see the community fireworks when I heard them start up.  It was -20C so I threw on some wind pants, my eye-searing rainbow sweater jacket and a thick woolen hat and walked out to the alley.  I should have put some boots on too, I got snow in my shoes as I tromped down the bunny path beside the garage.  A lot of snow has fallen in the past couple of days.

When I got to the alley I decided to go further, to the end of the block.  That's where the school field is and where they were shooting the rockets from.  It was a nice, crisp walk with green and blue and gold stars exploding overhead.  I reached the mouth of the alley just in time for the finale and even though these fireworks are not nearly as big as the ones downtown on Canada Day, it was still a great feeling being close enough to hear the "phut phut" of the rockets leaving the launcher.  At the end of the show a group of people standing across the road from me yelled "THANK YOU!" at the fireworks crew.

A few years ago I wondered whether it would be fun to be a pyrotechnician so I researched the job a bit.  And I bet it would be, but apparently there is not much money in it.  Like with most fun things, I guess.

Later on Neil and I drank a cup of sake celebrating New Ears Day while watching the neighbourhood hares nobble on some hay outside our kitchen window.  Five minutes after midnight some overzealous neighbour set off their own fireworks and the hares scarpered.  But we have seen the omens for the New Ears and I can tell you that the new year is going to be slightly splotchy on the back, a little hairy, and it's going to go by very fast.

Anyway!  Enough banter.  Time to plan out the year.  This year I plan to do the following:

- Concentrate more on my traditional art skills.  I will be doing more slow still lifes in pencil and really try to improve my observation and rendering skills.  I have been used to working too quickly for too long, and the quality of my traditional work suffers for it.  You can't rush quality.
- Improve my digital art skills.  In contrast to traditional work, I think I can streamline my digital processes quite a bit more.  There are a lot of tools I am not taking advantage of because I am old and dumb and lazy.  I really need to change that.
- Do more children's illustration traditionally, designing it digitally to fix a lot of the issues that drove me to digital art in the first place.
- Play more.  I liked working with the palette knife.  Learning oils was fun.  I even started a silly journal book just for myself.  I should keep doing new things so I don't stagnate.
- Get outside to paint much earlier in the year.  I should be able to make at least 30 finished paintings in 2014.  I don't have to stew indoors until August.  I should research what I paint, too.  Writing is one of my strengths, I should use it.
- Make prints to sell at Art Walk.  People asked for them last year and I should deliver.
- Start talking to galleries.  I'm pretty sure I could get some of my paintings into a small gallery right now.
- Be more active in my business and in the local art community.
- Waste less time arguing on forums!  And just waste less time, period.  I have proved to myself that I can work much harder than I do.  I need to set up a schedule that gives me long chunks of uninterrupted time to work, while still allowing me to exercise, run errands, and get out to the garden.  I suspect this will mean longer chunks of time working in the morning and evening, leaving the afternoon for exercise and errand-running.  I will also need to plan out my day the night before so that I never have to stand around wondering what to do next.  Because inevitably what I do next is fix myself a snack and read a book.

Hopefully this will translate to having more work and earning more money while still improving my skills and having some time to potter around on my bike and in the garden.

Outside of my business, in 2014 I would like to take a canoe trip, set another bicycling milestone of some sort, take an art workshop, grow some potatoes and onions, and do more sewing.  I am currently working on my first crazy patchwork quilt.  I'm curious to see whether it will turn out to be a monstrosity.

Hopefully I'll be able to bring people a little deeper into some of my projects, with progress photos, my philosophy on art, and all the things I've learned and am learning as I go.

Anyway -- all the best for 2014 everyone!  I look forward to writing another set of these in one year and seeing how well I did.