Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So Long, 2014…

I figure it’s the perfect time to take a look at this last year in a nutshell:

I wrote a novel. I spent some time fussing with it last week and think it’s finally ready to go somewhere. I don’t know where that somewhere would be, but that’s always the case, it doesn’t worry me.

I figured out a new way to illustrate with paint that is faster, smarter and more likely to help with my sanity in future projects. I still have a long way to go with it, mostly dealing with my mental issues because I keep trying to play by the rules of Western Art or work ever larger; two things that really have nothing to do with how I work or what I want to accomplish. I’ll get through it. I always do.

Then there was that whole new book about witches and the nonsense which comes with such an event. It’s always nice to hold a new book and see how it turned out. Then there were all those new people to meet, places to go, lectures to give and the like. Since most of my time spent working on a project is spent in isolation, the release of a book is like a massive celebration.

As far as years go, that’s a rather busy one. As I said last January, it would be a restructuring year. I’m only at my best when I’m moving forward, so I assumed that taking a huge leap forward would allow me to do some rather impressive stuff. Strange as it may sound, that’s exactly what happened. Consequentially, I’m leaving 2014 feeling pretty good. The last few years  beat me down, but all the changes I implemented this year gave me more enthusiasm than I would have expected.

I have a feeling 2015 will be even more interesting. Professionally speaking, it should be a vast departure from how I spent my time over the last ten years. For one, I’m stepping into the world of independent publishing, though I have to admit, not by myself, but rather with a handful of like-minded artists and writers who feel as I do, that given the technology at hand and the speed at which we work, it just makes sense to pursue new avenues of production as well as traditional publishing. I’ll go into this more next month when everything goes live, but for now I’ll just say that my goal is to put out several books in 2015.

That means I’ll be writing up a storm. I know, that’s not really much of a revelation since I’m always writing up a storm. However, instead of me writing things and tucking them away, hoping some publisher will like what I’m doing and take a chance on me, I’ll take the very best of said writing and put it out there. Just having that option, of being that independent, gives me a huge rush. It’s like there’s suddenly a healthy amount of oxygen in the room.

I’m not really sure what will happen with the painting. Will my new books be illustrated? Are we talking spot illustrations? How about something wordless? Or that etsy site everyone keeps telling me I should build? So many options. I hate options. Needless to say, where the painting will go is the biggest mystery for the coming year. Having reduced my tools to the bare minimum was huge step forward. I always have to keep in mind, there’s ambition and there’s idiocy. I was mistaking one for the other and that tripped me a few times this past autumn. I kept thinking I could be someone else when  I should have been thinking about who I am. With that sorted out, I can go into winter knowing the scale in which I need to work and the tools it takes to accomplish a beautiful, finished painting.

I still find myself a little confused by the fact I can produce so many images so quickly. Having spent years working to fill 30 or 40 pages with 30 or 40 illustrations, it’s weird to know I can think of something and get the gist of it on paper in 20 minutes and that if it’s not quite what I want, it’ll only cost me another 20 minutes to redo it. I’m used to having a lot of ideas, shelving most of them and working with just a handful. Being able to actually work with almost all the ideas that pop into my brain is overwhelming. I still haven’t worked out a good system for dealing with it. That’ll come in time.

I guess that wraps up the year. My next post will be on the 6th. And it will be an awesome one. I’ve been working on it in my head for the last two months, mostly trying to edit out all the swearing. I have a lot of cool stuff to make before I shed this mortal coil, 2015 is the year I hit the gas. See you in the new year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Dark Days of Winter

It is the best time of year, without doubt. White skies, cold winds and long, dark nights. I’ve often thought I worked best during the long winter months, but the truth is, the time of year makes no difference on my output. I’m so crazy, I work equally well spring, summer and fall. But I like the romantic notion of whiling away the hours in a small pool of warm light in a dark room, the bone-chilling blackness of a winter night just beyond the window.

Yeah, can you tell this is my favorite time of year? Could my prose get any more purple?

All right, an update of things from my toasty bedroom studio:

Well, there’s painting. I spent a few stray hours trying my hand at just black paint on white paper. I was thinking, what with five months of focused talent under my belt, I would create something good; half Wyeth, half sumi-e. Turns out, I came up with 100% crap pie no crust. As with most of my epic fails, I quickly panicked, believing all my hard won skilz had evaporated. Nothing good ever comes out of such moments and I found myself grasping for my charcoal pencils. That was yet another terrible idea. As if I couldn’t make things worse, you know once I proved to myself that charcoal was another epic fail, I busted out the pencils. Ugh. Now, to be honest, the pencil drawings weren’t that bad. They were nice, precise, detailed and fit my belief that small illustrations are the way to go; but they took so damn long to make. It smacked of my days doing pen & ink. Consequentially, I spent a whole day making a pile of frustration and disappointment. And then, before going to bed, I tried making one, small painting with both black and white paint on gray paper. Of course, it worked. In less than twenty minutes, I had what I wanted.

Clearly, I’ve found my thing, as far as illustration goes. I keep battling it, maybe because I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to know what I need to do for the foreseeable future or because I’m just a stubborn idiot. Or perhaps it’s just my desire to be more than I am, the foolish notion that I can do anything I set my mind to and it will be cool. Whatever my issues, the truth is, as far as my career as an illustrator goes, I know what I need to do and anything that doesn’t fit my very simple process is a painful distraction.

Basically, I need to clear my world of such distractions, things like charcoal pencils and paper I can’t use… beautiful, beautiful paper. Keeping art supplies laying around is a recipe for disaster. I will freely admit to a lack of willpower when it comes to such things. My mind spins around new ideas at such a silly rate, it’s almost impossible for me not to grab something I’m not supposed to and attempt to bring a little bit of this or a little bit of that into reality, which leads to wasted time and driving myself nuts. The self discipline I employee to create my books is a gift on loan from my muse. My natural state is one of constant change and chaos. So, to help my muse out, it’s best if the only things within reach are the very tools that give me what I need rather than all the bright and shiny stuff that almost-but-doesn’t-quite give me what I want.

So… I guess I figured out that much. Behold! My new, stripped-down art supplies:

Black and white acrylic paint.
A handful of brushes.
A pencil and erasers.
Gray and black paper.
Water (not pictured but I think you're familiar with it).
Paper towels.
A piece of glass.
A razor blade (for the all important task of scrapping dry paint from my glass palette and not for desperate measures on days when everything sucks).
A ruler.

And that’s it. If you want to paint like me, the whole mess will set you back less than fifty bucks. I think my pencil was the most expensive purchase at $12, but I bought it when I was inking and wanted to own something fancy. Yes, I still get excited to see all the dazzling art supplies available in the city, but I don’t need any of them. 

The rest of my attention goes to my secret project. You’ll hear everything about it in January. In fact, in January, I will need your help to spread the word, far and wide, about the secret project. But let’s just say, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, editing, scanning, proofing, worrying, swearing, smiling and crossing of the fingers. More on that next month.

So… it’s Tuesday morning. It’s cold and ugly outside. Excellent. Time to get to work.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Only 18 Days Until Craft Day!

Yeah, that means nothing to you. But that’s the countdown to the fake holiday my family created so that we can justify getting together between Thanksgiving and Xmas in order to do yet more stupid stuff. This time last year, I was so deep into inking the Salem Witch book, I didn’t really come up for air over the entire holiday season. It was my year without Craft Day, Xmas or New Years and was utterly depressing. Consequentially, I decided I would not schedule myself to death over the holidays ever again. I’m doing my best to keep that promise… so, 18 days until Craft Day.

Santa arrived early and dropped off a new desk at our apartment. Knowing I would never be satisfied with any desk ever, I gave Mandy the design specifications that best fit our urban life and my ever changing artistic dreams and told her to come up with something. Turns out she has a thing for Mid-century furniture, who knew, and she had these lovely little desks whipped up for us. They are small, modular, devoid of all ostentation and tough as nails; pretty much what we need. Thus ends my great desk quest. I now own the perfect winter hat, electric guitar, Orioles baseball hat, pencil box, drawing box, 1977 Darth Vader action figure and desk. My list of desired material possessions is nearly complete.

The real question is what to do on said desk? As I continue to watch traditional publishing crumble, as I see no one has a clue as to how to use the internet to create a truly last and impactful career (I have a few thoughts in that department that you will hear about very soon), I find myself wondering what is the best use of my time as an artist?

For the last decade, I put all my eggs in the “do this and you’ll get published” basket. That was my default thinking. The only reason I started any kind of illustration was to get my stories published. Prior to that I was just writing, writing, writing. I hadn’t drawn in years. But I knew that illustrations would get me in the front door, so I found the best medium for me and hammered away at it. The choice of pen & ink had little to do with what medium I wanted to use as a means of expression and everything to do with which medium would make the best reproductions. And ink worked well, it was cheap and distinctive. It kept me in the game, constantly moving forward. But let’s face it, my work, inked or painted or whatever, was never going to be mainstream and as the publishing model of the past dies a dreadfully slow death, mainstream is the only place to be if you want to make a living.

Fortunately for me, making a living has always been of secondary importance. First and foremost, I dreamt of making cool things. Which puts me in a strange place. I think I’ve been here for awhile, but like most important changes, it took me a long time to realize I was somewhere other than where I thought I was. It’s sort of like this little piece of Taoist wisdom: if you believe you’re on The Path, you’re not on The Path. I thought I was fulfilling my creative potential making books and building the foundation as a career author and illustrator… but really, I was killing time so I could realize that I’m far more of an independent and self-sufficient artist than I ever thought I could be. It’s not money that supports my creative drive, it’s the simple fact that I’m going to make cool things regardless of what the world thinks. If it’s books, wonderful, if it’s something else, wonderful.

Ironically, the trouble with realizing I have more freedom to be creative, by no longer caring if the work I do fits the guidelines of how a book is made or how an image reproduces, I find myself overwhelmed by choices. There was a beauty in knowing that to make a good book, something that would print well or scan well, I had to play by certain rules. Pen & ink fit those rules well and that’s why it was very easy for me to stick with it, without wavering, for a decade. But now, since I don’t care about industry standards of an industry which barely cared about me, I can do anything. And that’s problematic.

What to do? Sure, I’ve been talking about black and white acrylic paintings on paper, but you have to keep in mind that was a solution to a production problem: how to work fast, monochromatically and still get printable/scan-able results to make kickass books. It paid off but it hardly addresses the problem before me: what do I want to do to make awesome Art (if it becomes some kind of book, yeah!, if not, yeah!)? Do I focus on writing, as I planned to do back in January, since it’s the fastest, cheapest, most dynamic and natural, creative thing I do? Do I crank out story after story after story, getting some published, self-publishing others, tucking gems away in my archive? Do I step back to where I was as a 14 year old boy, that kid who didn’t think of anything beyond making cool stuff, and fire up the oil paints knowing that I’m going to make Art and not worry about anything beyond my studio walls? Thinking that way, I can almost taste the linseed oil. Do I dust off the cameras and take up photography again, I mean, there was a time when to see me without a camera was damn near impossible. Prior to being an author, literally all of my success/acclaim came from my photography. From a time management point of few, no medium is as fast as photography. Plus, hello, making oodles of prints is fun for everyone. But what about my inner Wyeth? That place where the simplicity of a large, beautiful, pencil drawing, a medium that doesn’t translate well to reproduction, rules unchallenged. God knows as I change gears and working methods, making quick drawings would have its advantages.

I think you get my point. Life is weird.

2014 has been a strange year. The first six months were devoted to writing and I knocked out a novel. The last five months were devoted to painting as illustration and I developed a new, functional style. All and all, a good year. But I think the true value of my time was in breaking myself from the mindset that my success would be determined by how things went in the “publishing world”… Yes, I went into children’s literature with the na├»ve belief that if I did really good work, things would go the way I wanted. That was my mistake and I accept responsibility for my naivety. Things didn’t go the way I would have liked. However, since my goal was to do good work and I did good work, that turned out to be a reward in and of itself. And it’s a reward that will continue to come my way so long as I keep kicking and punching. I have far too many cool ideas to waste time dreaming about what could have been.

In fact, it’s time to get to work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Oh What a Difference a Weekend Makes

This past weekend was my chance to put my new production ethic to the test. My goal was to whip up a handful of illustrations for a soon-to-be announced project. Very soon to be announced, like let’s just get through Thanksgiving and I’ll be ready to spread the word about very cool things. I’m so excited I just want to start yapping and yapping about all things new and cool. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Back to my weekend and the work I had to do. This new project called for 11 illustrations and a cover image. That’s twelve paintings. My early aspirations were to complete all 12 paintings on Friday and then spend the weekend navel gazing or watching college then professional football because what else is there to do this time of year? But, as you recall, part of my new work ethic is that I don’t kill myself, working from sunup ‘til sundown, as well as many hours in the dark. Given that my paintings skilz are newfound and that I only work on such things in small chunks, I did not complete the paintings on Friday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday. I wrapped up the last painting on Monday afternoon.

That said, I was far from discouraged. In four days, I painted 12 illustrations for a single project. 13 if you count the one I screwed up and had to repaint, but let’s not talk about that. The total number of hours spent making those paintings was just under 20. That’s slower than I’d like, slower than I need to work to do a large, graphic novel, but given the parameters of this project, it was pretty good. Especially when you consider that to do the same work in pen & ink, it would have taken between 72 and 96 hours. At this point in time, I have no idea how I could have survived something like that.

Plus, the more painting I do, the faster I’ll get. Remember, I’ve only been at this for five months. I had fifteen years worth of rust to knock off my painting brain. But I will get faster as I grow more comfortable with what I’m doing and how I do it. In time, projects like this, which will require roughly 20 illustrations, will become routine and I’ll knock them out of the park in far less time.

It’s still strange to not devote the whole of my being to making illustrations, thus negating any kind of normal life. For instance, on Saturday, I didn’t get started until noon and I put my brush down at five thirty so I could make my way across town and take in a double feature of classic films at the local movie palace. Such things did not happen last year when I was inking the Salem book. Or in years prior. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to work and to live. I don’t regret the last decade’s worth of work. I’m quite proud of what I accomplished. But I think this new approach is far more likely to keep my sane and productive. I’m looking forward to the time when it won’t seem weird to spin out a project in a few weeks rather than a few months or years. I think, for a while at least, it’s going to feel like magic.

Hm… that might be it at the moment. With the impending holiday and the painful travel it warrants, I think I might be tapped out for now. Give me a week and we’ll see what I can come up with. I’ll sum this little post up with the notion that heading home for the holidays without the pressure to get back to my desk and slave away feels pretty nice. Very strange, but nice.

Safe travels and all that crap to one and all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Genius Works For the Plateau.

I’m not sure when or where I heard that little phrase, but I’ve always believed it. Basically, it means  normal people get excited when they do something great, something out of the ordinary, despite the fact that such things tend to be anomalies. Then, when they can’t reproduce such great heights, they become disappointed and quit. Genius, on the other hand, sees the long, dull, seemingly unending plateau between those magical peaks as the the place where the real work happens. I think it’s part of the reality that drives a lot of talented people out of creative endeavors. They think being creative is a sprint up a wondrous peak, when the reality is, creativity is more like an ultra-marathon… through Hell… in summer… while being chased by winged sharks with atrocious halitosis.

I’m five months into my rebirth in illustration via acrylic paint. In that time, I’ve been working the same plateau. For all the changes in scale and format, my work felt like it was similar is quality. Not bad, just not good enough. I wasn’t surprised by that. I had a lot of learning to do and very little time to do it. But I like pressure. I like pushing myself to be better than I was yesterday. It always leads to good things. Honestly, I was just trying to paint well and paint fast. The latter was easy, the former, not so much.

And then I did a little painting over the weekend. By a little, I mean literally very little, time-wise. As part of my new take on my illustration, I’m into doing an hour or two of focused work rather than twelve or fifteen of slavish production. Mostly, because I’m done driving myself crazy. Plus, I no longer to be so insane to complete illustrations. And now I know this as a fact because I knocked out my best painting thus far. Ten minutes on Saturday, ten minutes on Sunday, ten more minutes on Monday and it was finished. Longer than I wanted to spend, but such is life. Compared to the twenty-odd hours I would have spent to do the same image in pen & ink, I’m OK with a thirty minute piece of wonderful.

Keep in mind, this painting is the anomaly. For now. Which means I need to scan it and put it out of sight because it is not the end of anything. It represents the starting gun of the next ultra-marathon, what with the fiery purgatory and flying sharks. I have no idea how long this next plateau will last, but it hardly matters. I have to put one foot in front of the other and go. Eventually, there will be another peak, another great painting, another anomaly. My work will improve by yet another small increment and I’ll move on from there. Remember, the only work I care about is whatever is on my desk. The moment it’s done, it’s as if it never existed.

As my aside for the week, life is weird. It took me a few weeks to install my new time management plan. Now that I’m only “working” for a handful of hours a day, I suddenly find myself reading more. Sure, I’ve always read a lot as research for writing and illustration, but before I became crazy, I used to consume tons of books. It’s kind of nice to read just to read. (Of course, this is where I clarify that I rarely read for ‘pleasure’. I read to learn facts and consume ideas.) Imagine my delight when my nephew handed me three books and the thrill I felt when I found myself plowing through them. It’s fun to read about the Bach Cello Suites and Pablo Casals, Verdi and his thing for Shakespeare, and an exploration of Jacob Riis and journalism/photography of Gilded Age New York just because I can. And if you don’t recognize any of the proper nouns I just used, come on! Why not? I have no idea where all of this crap will lead my ever-wandering mind, but odds are it will be awesome. Nothing is ever wasted. It’ll pop up somewhere.

Off to spend a few (60 to 120) minutes writing or painting and then living like, well, like you people seem to live. Man… I could get a hobby… maybe… Or jog. People still jog, right? How hard is crotchet?