Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Single-Tasking! Or Something Like it!

What’ve you missed? Eh. The normal crazy, more or less. Is it funny or sad when one can use the phrase “normal crazy” and have it apply to a variety of situations without raising an eyebrow? Ah, never mind. It’s a waste of brain power trying to figure some things out. Far better to push on, bringing dreams into reality. Or perhaps that’s my problem… whatever.

Getting back into the swing of things in the wake of the 2015 New York City Teen Authors’ Festival wasn’t as tricky as I imagined. I think I have a healthier perspective on what I’m doing than in previous years, which meant my time trotting around the city, participating in various events, was more or less a vacation than a full-stop break in my creative action. If anything, it gave me too much time to entertain too many ideas. The last week was spent reining in my thoughts rather than jumpstarting them.

I really need to make a sign to put over my desk that says, “Tim, you are not a multi-tasker! Love, MGT. ” I keep finding myself trying to do too many things. When I first got into this book thing, that was not a problem because I didn’t know anything and hadn’t succumb to the foolishness of believing I could have a career out of making books. Things were pretty simple: think of a cool idea, research said idea, write about said idea, draw said idea. I would do those things, it would take 18 months and I would pat myself on the back and say good job. But then, as happens, I found myself with more options and more daydreams which led to a dilution of my focus. At first it was small, just two projects, one being more or less a side project. Then the side projects started taking up more and more space on my desk and in my mind. Now, there are tons of silly things going on. I spent the better part of the week clearing space to work on one thing or something like that.

So, right now, here are the things at the forefront of my brain: daily writing of 200 words or so for a novel I’ve been messing with since 2012, an illustrated Box Book about Rapa Nui for July, a collection of short stories for my April Box Book and last but not least, all the crap involved with trying to create a Civil War graphic novel with my nephew. As if that nonsense wasn’t enough, I kind of had a break through dealing with the reproduction of my black and white acrylic paintings, which brought all that stuff back into the mix. Therefore, my desk and brain are equally crammed with crap.

Clearly, that’s too much for me to handle. Or I can handle it but I want to have a life as well. And the truth is that I work better when I compartmentalize and complete one task at a time. That was the reason I took up the painting in the first place, to buy me more time to tackle projects with speed, the idea being that I could complete each one quickly and move on.

Mental triage was required. The 200 word daily writing doesn’t really mess me up much. It takes maybe ten minutes and quickly accumulates into a good bit of writing. I don’t really have to worry about it but I do need to make sure it doesn’t expand much beyond those 200 words. That means stopping, mid-sentence if necessary and moving on with my day. Oddly, it’s kind of hard to stop when things are flowing, but it can be done.

The Rapa Nui book needs to go on the backburner. Given that I intend to paint the images, I have a ton of time to hit my July deadline.

The short stories are another story. Most of them need some tweaking, which takes time. But like the 200 word writing, the trick is not bingeing on the editing but to take it in small doses, maybe thirty minutes at a time and move on. The sooner I can do that, the sooner that whole project is completed.

 Which leaves the bulk of my time to work on the Civil War book, which as it turns out, is where I should be putting my time and effort. The Civil War book is the largest undertaking and the one which requires the most interaction with others and since the others tend to work a lot slower than I do, means I need to give them more attention rather than less, so the whole ball of wax keeps trundling forward. 

With that explained, to you and myself, I’m pushing on. So… what does that mean? Mostly it means developing a painting style and experimenting with it while slowly and steadily sketching things which will become the finished images for the Civil War book. First, I had to set up a system for painting. It’s strange to be working with paint, on a homemade paint box as an easel, under the glare of a single bulb. It’s like I’ve gone back in time and am in my 3rd floor bedroom in Camp Hill, PA, in 1990. Add a jerry-rigged stereo that converts all cassette tapes to mono and the dulcet tones of _ and Garfunkel (remember, it’s a mono playing stereo which means the music is going to lose something) and all is right in the universe.

With my new studio set up accomplished, on to the painting. In my early black and white acrylic painting on toned paper work, I worked with a three phase system: gray washes for depth, black paint for detail, white paint for highlights. The paintings worked well, the reproductions, not so much. The gray washes flattened into broad areas of boring crap. Hence me complaining about the epic fail and my unexcited return to ink. Of course, I’ve been tinkering with paint for months and until such time as I use all of it or get it out of my apartment, I’ll continue to tinker. Usually, that’s a bad thing. However, it dawned on me if I could make my paintings with a two phase system: paint with black for depth and detail, add white for highlights, I could remove the part of the equation that didn’t work. And that’s what I did. I sat down on Saturday to experiment. I made five paintings in two hours using straight black and white paint. Then I scanned the paintings and messed with them. Everything looked good. But then I tried something new, I photocopied them. The quality of a photocopy isn’t far off the quality of low-fi printing. Lo and behold, it worked. The trick, it seems, is to use pure black in such a manner as to give the illusion of gray. Hell, I can do that. And so, painting is back in the mix.

With the need to hone my skilz and add stuff to my website and twitter, I’ve started a series of small paintings. The first one goes up on timothydecker.com today. Yeah, I know this is yet more stuff on my plate and what happened to my single-tasking… but really, more painting means better painting so get off my back, old man! You don’t know what it’s like to be me! I’m a rebel, I tell ya, a rebel!

Or something like that.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

And Then, One Day, I Got In…

What, I’m the only guy who saw Tron Legacy? It wasn’t a bad movie. The production design alone was well worth the viewing. The soundtrack was good too. Anyway, what I’m really referring to was my week’s worth of New York City Teen Author Festival events which wrapped up with a half hour signing at Books of Wonder. There are those who think if you’ve had a signing at Books of Wonder, you’ve made it. I tend to think if the book exists and I can hold it in my hands, either in print or screen form, then I’ve made it. The trappings of the publishing industry don’t really do much for me anymore if they ever did.

But is always nice to meet new people and see how things work.

Last Thursday, a bunch of authors and I invaded a school on the edge of Chinatown and did a little reading/Q&A deally for a few hundred students, grades 5-8. It’s always fun to do anything that allows for interaction with the kids. I mean, that is why we do this, one hopes. When I cut through all the delusions I’ve had about why I make the books I make, I’m pretty much left with the simple reality that got me going in the first place: I write cool books so that kids can change the world. But I digress… If you are looking for new authors or new books, it might behoove you to check out the work of my stellar teammates:

Then there was the symposium at the NYPL at Byrant Park, you know, the place with the big, stone lions guarding the steps or the stacks of books haunted by the skeleton-faced librarian in Ghostbusters (FYI, there are no stacks of books, they are hidden deep in the bowels of the earth and you have to ask for them or something). Like all symposiums, there was a lot of talking and listening. It’s sort of like if everyone on NPR showed up at your house and sat around gabbing and drinking bottled water. A good time was had by all.

Then there was the signing. I had the good fortune of being placed in the trenches with Selene from my school visit team and Laurie Crompton, both of whom helped make the event delightful and entertaining. For those of you who’ve never been part of a book signing, it may seem like it’s the “funnest” thing ever and I will admit there are times when it is; but on a certain level, it’s a lot like showing up at a junior high school dance and hoping against hope you won’t be all alone at 10:55, standing in the shadows next to the bleachers when they turn the lights down low and play “Stairway to Heaven” so the more amorous couples can get to 1st base and maybe take a pretty good lead on 2nd. The bigger the signing, the more likely you are to be the wallflower. And how fun is it to be the wallflower? Exactly. But it’s all part of the game, so we play. Whatever, grab your honey and follow the Zeppelin link to ten minutes and fifty-one seconds of making out.

Having a few days away from my work, seeing what is out there and what should or could exist in the book world, I’m back at it with renewed vigor.

Project one, Rapa Nui. I’ve started on my first illustrated book for the Box Book experiment. I think of it as a pocket picture book. At 5x8, it’s going to be a nice, little volume of at least 45 fully rendered drawings… maybe a few spot illustrations thrown in for effect. It will also be my first book where I can bring my A game to small images, which I think is really one of the strengths to working in pen and ink. Did I mention the whole being back to ink thing? Yeah, despite a lot of messing around with a lot of different media, nothing works like ink and it’s silly of me to fight it anymore. I’d rather devote my time to actually producing good books than figuring out how to produce good books. I’d like to think this Rapa Nui tale will be ready by July.

Project two, the Civil War graphic novel. With a small mountain of text and history stuff handed to me by Tom Decker, the nephew, it’s time to turn a good story into a visual reality. Again, thank god, I’m back to ink because this is a project that requires my best form and coolest vision. After a few months of batting around a number of sizes and layouts, I’ve settled on one that I think will bring structure and freedom to both the story and the images. With that decision made and a satisfying “Whew!” I can move on to the truly daunting task of taking a script full of dialogue and exposition and cut it into tiny bits and make them fit the confines of a 200 page, 6x9 inch graphic novel. This is very much like putting together a 5,000 piece puzzle without having a picture on the box as reference. Good times, good times. Though, in all honesty, this is the best part. This is the creative time when the magic happens, which is the most fun, duh. After I figure out where everything goes, it’s all about inking and listening to music and movies and kind of being on autopilot.

And somewhere in the midst of all this crazy, there is every day life and little bits of writing flitting about. Slowly but surely, those little bits of writing accumulate into ever larger stories. In time, they become colossal and therefore useful… but that will be a blog post for another day. Time for me to get to work.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy Green Drunken Northern New Jersey Day.

In my hometown, the big holiday is Memorial Day. They honor the fallen with a long parade consisting mostly of fire engines, then a bunch of people stand in the only real cemetery in the borough before walking a few blocks to buy hot dogs from what must be a very worthy cause, the Republican Woman’s something something. The event marks the beginning of summer.

Around here, the big holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, when all the white people who fled the city in previous generations come back to walk the JC streets, bagpipes blazing, so they can drink free Guinness at our distressed but beautiful movie palace. The event marks the beginning of spring.

See, city folk and suburban folk aren’t so different.

Moving on, this week is the New York City Teen Author Festival. If you live in the area, you should attend some of the various events, a schedule of which you will find here: http://nyctaf.com/. There are like 130 authors doing a variety of stuff, mostly talking about their books and what it takes to be an author of the YA genre, so if you see anything interesting, you should come to the city and take it in. I believe New York has highways, bus and train stations and two airports to make such a journey possible, though truth be told, I’d fly into Newark because it’s the only airport within 20 miles you can get in and out of without committing some form of road rage manslaughter.

My participation in the festival includes being part of the Big Read, where I am part of a team of authors who go into a city school to infortain the student body. It’s always my favorite part of the week. On Friday, I am part of a panel, reading a little ramble of mine, at 2:50, as part of a huge symposium at South Court Auditorium, New York Public Library, 42nd Street. Then on Sunday, I’m part of a the mega book signing at Books of Wonder, hopefully jotting my name on lots of copies of the Salem book, at 1:30-2:00. How could you not want to show up and support me? Who doesn’t like symposiums? Or standing in line at a book signing?

Anyway, that’s the excitement of the week. I’m sure a good time will be had by all.

As far as my productive life goes, the specter that Civil War graphic novel project is looming on the horizon. After a year of experimentation, I’m a tad bit wiser about how to confront such a labor intensive project. I know I’ll have to use ink. There’s no getting around it, nothing else reproduces as well given the technical limitations of making a cost effective, 200 page book. Knowing something that large would kill me, were I to employ my old style and working method, I put some effort into blending my newly acquired brush skilz with my formidable pen skilz. The image below is my first stab at doing things a new way.

I know it’s not the most dynamic image, but that wasn’t really the purpose of creating it. My old system was simple: draw a rough image on the inking paper, then cover it with a million lines until I had a good illustration. To make an 8x10 inch image, it would take about 10-15 hours. A good chunk of that time was me solving visual problems in the drawing as I went, stuff like “that arm is wrong” or “this perspective is off”. The rest of the time went into creating the mind numbing but stunning looking textures I’m slightly famous for. At the time and for picture books, it was a cool way to get things done.

But this is 2015, it’s a different world. This drawing of an airman may look like everything you’ve seen me ink in the past, but trust me, the process to create it was very different. First, I made a fully rendered pencil drawing on a separate sheet of paper. Then I thwapped it on my light pad and transferred all the relevant information to my inking paper, something I was loathe to do in the past ‘cause it felt like cheating. With all the visual problems solved in the pencil drawing, I could just hammer into the image with brushes full of ink, building high contrast areas in seconds rather than in hours making layer upon layer of miniscule lines. Once those areas dried, I brought in the detail with the pen. After hitting both the major tonal areas and detailed places, I could be a bit more judicious with the pen and brush, pulling the drawing into a well balanced whole. Instead of taking 10-15 hours, I produced this 8x10 inch drawing in 90 minutes. A new personal best.

I’d like to think this is something in the “game changing” mode, but we’ll see. With so much of my career in flux these days, I feel more like I’m jumping from one piece of an ever changing ice flow to another rather than standing on terra firma. With a bit more practice, I think I can do a lot of good work with this new system and remain sane. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Backsliding Is Annoying…

… Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Previously on The Punk Ethic: Tim was going on and on about shifting his thinking and his behavior away from unending hours of toil in the name of illustration to produce a single book every two years or so to a new paradigm in which he writes like the wind and produces four kickass books a year for a YA audience (and older people stuck in their adolescence).  Meanwhile, he would continue to pursue avenues in the visual arts so long as they didn’t burn him out or consume all of his time. There also might have been vampires in the high school or Big Foots (Big Feet, Big Feets?) lurking in the dark woods near the place where the teenagers drink bad beer, a place known as ‘The Fort’.

Yeah, things were going swell for me in 2015. The new book, the Box Book nonsense, the new kind-of-broken desk, the red pencils… Then I got kind of wrapped up in the notion of doing a Civil War graphic novel and, as per usual, my daydreams got the better of me and I went off on a three day bender of design and layout. I was utterly convinced that I could produce any story I wanted as a graphic novel. And it wouldn’t kill me and I wouldn’t need any help and I would be an awesome, independent artist and they’d talk about me for generations to come. Let me tell you, they were three heady days.

Now, you must keep in mind, in years past, such creative madness led to cool things like my Black Death book layout and things of that ilk. When I get riding the cray cray, I can ride it a long time. That was my usual thing: go nuts, find an alternate reality and stay there until Mandy said I had to come home. I could and would be lost for months at a time.

Great as that was, that’s not part of the current plan. Fortunately, during a bout of insomnia, it dawned on me that I was being an idiot. Yes, all those designs and layouts I was developing could, indeed, become books. But at a steep price. As soon as I start talking about doing something that would be 150 or 200 pages, I was talking about six to nine months of labor. Or more, depending on my schedule. Yes, I could take that time and turn that idea into a real book, but it would take a year or so at best.

Suddenly, I was back playing the same game that drove me nuts just a year ago. That hardly fit my desire to try new things and bring a new kind of cool to my already profound collection of mad skilz. And did I mention the high chance of burning out yet again? Not burning out is high on my list of things not to do in 2015. That and not to try any runny cheeses which I imagine, quite correctly, taste like snot.

Since my goal is to make the best books possible while increasing my average level of happiness, I wisely shelved all my carefully crafted layout ideas. Then, to take things one step further, I raided my file of potential projects and put anything that was illustration heavy into a new folder and shoved it all the way to the back of my filing cabinet. Perhaps someday, I will be in a position to take on such projects. If so, I know where they are. Until then, I’m going to focus on two different challenges: the deceptively complex task of writing a clear and beautiful sentence and falling in love with the work of people who already do or have achieved that goal.

And when I get the itch to be all artsy as I am wont to do because being artsy is a terminal disease, I’ll crank out a beautiful, red pencil drawing or bust out my camera. I still have time to bring my A game to the visual arts, I just don’t have massive piles of damn near unlimited time for them. I can still rock it, just in a very different way. As proof, enjoy my drawing o’ the week and a little still life/kind o’ portrait photograph.

I’m going to change, I’m going to reinvent myself even if I have to, metaphorically, punch myself in the junk every day so I remember not to waste time doing anything stupid.