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?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Shaky, New Beginning.

It’s always painful to stumble into a glorious, beautiful Veterans’ Day after yet another depressing Election Day, full of lovely policy makers destined to make November 11th more meaningful, one body at a time. So annoying. Let’s just call this one of the days of the year when my optimism wears thin.

On to other topics.

I started this year with the idea that it would be the year of writing. I was going to write the living hell out of everything. I had six good months of writerly focus. I’d ditched pen & ink, started a few projects with the stink of good novel potential all over them and dreamt of a life where I wouldn’t need a desk, thereby gain ten square feet of breathing room in the old bedroom. Remember when I envisioned finding an old, sleigh-style pew to type and take naps upon?

Then July rolled around. I finished the first novel of the year and decided to take a break from writing for a bit. Not being one to just kick back and relax, I thought “wouldn’t it be fun to find a replacement medium for my illustrations”. I hardly expected to  be successful. Most of my experiments over the years were profound failures. They kept me on track with the ink work and now that the ink work was extinct, I naively assumed new failures would keep me on track with the writing. Of course, life never gives us what we expect.

Five months later, painting rules the roost. Yes, there is still a lot of writing going on but nothing like what I was doing in the first half of the year. I’ve been trying to figure out why that is, why I’ve been won over so completely?

I think it has to do, in part, with the fact that paintings develop so quickly. I can do so much in so little time. Sure it’s great to pump out a lot of interesting work and move on, but that’s not the only thing that comes faster these days; the mistakes happen with the same rapidity of the successes. You have no idea how lovely that is. Yes, it leads to a full recycling bin every week, but you have to keep in mind, back in my ink era, it took days of effort just to make something complete enough to know it was a failure. Then days more to redo it. I think I was far more tolerant of egregious mistakes when I worked in ink just because to fix them was a fate worse than voting Republican. But now, I can screw something up in like five minutes. Instead of containing the quiet rage that comes with such a mistake, the kind that would send me into a guitar playing frenzy for countless minutes, I can just start over. And if I screw up again, I start over. If practice makes perfect, then I’m on course to make something wonderful. I don’t know when, but eventually.

But then a friend used  just yesterday to describe this sea change in my attitude, one that I think explains things so much better. He said of my quietly growing obsession with painting, “It’s simply that my true mistress has finally returned…” The accuracy of his metaphor surprised even me. It was painting, not writing, not book making, not drawing, not pen & ink, not music, not photography, that started me down this creative path. My very first art supplies were a set of acrylic paints purchased at Boscov’s sometime in my 14th year so I could paint landscapes. And like all student grade paints, they were gone in the blink of an eye. I mean, what did I or my parents know about paintings or paints? The acrylic paints were quickly replaced with half full tubes of ancient oil paints, all earth tones, that my dad used when he refinished furniture. With those ruddy colors (colours, for my UK fans), everything broke open and I’ve been lost to Art ever since.

Of course, I think it’s paramount to know how to draw and I didn’t really learn how to do that until I hit college, but I continued to paint because that’s what you do in art school. When I found myself in the real world, I continued to paint, not that it went anywhere because, though I knew how to paint, I didn’t know how to market my work. Eventually, writing and drawing came to the fore because they are the media of the truly starving artist and that’s what I was. I never imagined they’d open the door to making books. Just like I never imagined making books would open the door to serious painting. But here I am.

Hence my surprise when the true mistress of my heart showed up in July with a handful of shitty brushes and a few  tubes of cheap acrylic paint.

It’s all very strange how things play out. I have a feeling they will continue to be strange for a while to come. I can’t imagine anything better as I wrap up my year of writing… er… half year of writing, half year of painting. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It’s Not the Size of the Ship That Matters…

There’s this new thing in my life, a very strange, re-occurring event called ‘the weekend’. What makes ‘the weekend’ rather peculiar is that nothing really happens during ‘the weekend’. I mean, sure there’s the usual eating, sleeping and general mucky mucky of life; but aside from that, there’s no work. It’s all very odd. A five day work week? Who could have imagined such a thing? It’s clearly un-American.

The only real problem I see with having ‘a weekend’ in my life, is that I now lose two days worth of crazy, just the sort of thing I usually ramble about in this blog. How can I expect to be respected if I only work like a slave chained to the oar of a Roman galley Monday through Friday? And what’s going to happen when I really get going with my quick paintings as illustration and only have to pour a handful of hours per day into my work and still produce high quality stories in the shortest amount of time possible? It’ll be anarchy! Madness, I tell you, madness.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Most of my creative time this week was devoted to solving the problem of making paintings to fit the page design for the next book. Since it will be the first project in paint, there are a lot of problems, not all of which have to do with the medium itself, but rather my take on paint and what I can do with it. If you recall, last week I nailed down a design that is both structured and dynamic. Yeah me. After a solid week of thinking about it, I’m convinced it’s just what I need. One problem solved. That set me up for the next problem, what scale do I work in?

Initially, I went into the painting thing at a large scale because it was fast and loose. But, the better I became at handling paint and the more detail I needed to conjure image after image of the same character, the more time I needed per painting. So, my quick, gestural paintings of 10 minutes ballooned into detailed, gestural paintings of 30 to 40 minutes. Of course, this all sounds idiotic when compared to my 20 hour slog-fests with pen & ink, but you have to keep in mind, I’m talking about making a big book as fast and cool as humanly possible. The difference between a 10 minute panel and a 30 minute panel is huge.

Let’s say I want to complete a page of six panels, knowing that making two or three completed pages per day is my goal along with having a life, a job and my sanity. A page of 10 minute paintings would take one hour. Just one measly hour. How many of us toss at least an hour per day in the crapper doing nothing? We all do. But to complete a page of paintings in an hour… After ten years of pen & ink mania, the thought of plowing ahead with a book by doing one page in the time it takes to listen to most of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is downright dreamy. Now, think of that same page painted in 30 minute panels. Six panels times 30 minutes per panel equals 3 hours. That’s a chunk of change. That’s a short Ken Burns documentary. That’s The Police box set. That’s making dinner, eating dinner and cleaning after dinner. I think you understand where I’m coming from with this.

So… imagine my surprise, when in my frustration, I found myself experimenting with paintings made to scale with my design and seeing something happen, something that worked. I went into things with the notion that if painting large was taking too much time, then I could trying working teeny tiny in the hope that it would take less time, simply because of the reduced proportion. In theory, it should work. However, when you start to work really small, things like paint only gets so thin or brushes only get so tiny become an issue. Not to mention the whole ‘I may not have the talent to pull this off’ factor.

I whipped up a few pages of blank panels, each the size of my smallest image, 3x3 inches, and went for it. Turns out, there is potential. It’ll take me some time to work through the logistics of how to make the marks I need to make things look good. But it won’t take so much time and will require almost no materials. At this point, my tiny paintings take about 15 minutes, but since I still kind of suck at this, that’s not surprising. It’s really only a matter of time before I plow through a page full of images at a ferocious pace.

Needless to say, I’m a bit excited by this turn of events. For one, working small is my thing or has been for a very long time, and given my urban lifestyle should probably remain my thing. Second, it eliminates my problem of how to layout and scan a book made with large paintings. As cool as that would be, imagine of the mental puzzle involved with keeping all those images in my head, I can simply design, draw and paint a page as one object of various illustrations. Instead of hundreds of pieces of paper scattered to Hell and back, I might just have one stack of papers, neatly arranged and numbered. Thirdly, perhaps most important of all, I might be able to paint a whole book for under $50. If I splurge for the nice paper, I could bump the price to $90, but if you recall, my initial estimates for a book done in paintings were in the $300 to $800 range. As great as it is to be a starving artist and all, it’s actually kind of nice to eat. OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit, but really, the less a project costs, the more likely I’ll have the funds required to tackle future projects. Let’s say I have $800 laying around. I’d get my guitar fixed. Then I’d take the remaining $500 and make ten more books. I’m not a genius when it comes to math, but I know I’d be more excited to have ten more $50 books on the shelf with my name on the spine than one $800 book. I’m funny like that.

Off to paint and do other author-y stuff.