Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yep, Simplified. Done.

It’s taken me a long time to get here, but I like where I am. The past week was all about making decisions that I will have to stick with for a while. With said decisions made, it’s time to see what I can create.

Not unlike the old days of pen & ink, I’ve whittled down all my art material options to the ones that allow me to do what I need to do.

The biggest decision was to continue along my path of black and white. Like with a lot of things in my creative life, it has to do with things that are obvious but somehow seem to baffle me. So, like being a Type A person or being hyper competitive, things about myself I didn’t realize until recently, my love of achromatic artwork is an old, deep-seated thing that I can’t just change like a pair of dirty socks. If you look at my oeuvre thus far, you’d be quick to note that well over 95% of the artwork I’ve made is black and white. Tons of pencil drawings. The massive charcoal drawings of my college years. The black and white photography years. The decade of pen and ink. To say I’ve merely dabbled in color is pretty accurate. None of my intense or successful work has a hint of color. Even my red drawings are monochromatic and could easily be done in black. As I’ve move forward, messing around with things as I have been for the last year, I’ve never been able to get excited about color for more than five minutes.

The only explanation I can offer is color doesn’t interest me very much. Mostly, I think it has to do with the fact that I’m fascinated by composition, the arrangement of things in a given space, which doesn’t have much to do with color. I can be a compositional madmen without having to meddle with all those reds, blues and yellows, so it hardly makes sense to burn extra brain power bringing color theory into the equation.

Then there’s the whole simplifying things to the lowest terms. So… white paper, black paint. Can’t get any more simplified than that. Maybe white paint on white paper but that is hard to print in book form. As soon as color becomes part of the game, you need more of everything. More supplies, more time, more thinking, more money in printing… It’s a pain that doesn’t add anything to what I am trying to do, as proven by the success I’ve hard over the decades.

Then there’s my notion that everyone has a little device in their pocket that they can use to make a fully colored reproduction of the real world whenever they want to. The ubiquity of digital cameras and screens makes it even more important than ever to do work that removes the viewer from the real world. It’s like everything is screaming loud color all the time, so working in black and white is like pressing the mute button. Sure, there are people who hate that. There are people who don’t see the value of it. But it’s a good change from reality. The world is busy and full enough for all of us, art should be something that doesn’t feel like everything else.

Lastly, when I was growing up, I watched a lot of World War II documentaries and read a lot of history books. There is no getting around their influence on my development. I got sucked into those dark times through the photos and films and, back in the 1970’s, they were all in black and white. Sure, people did shoot a lot of color and thank god it’s all come to light in the last two decades, but there is no shaking those initial images. The style, the horror, the humanity… all in grainy, glorious black and white. I’ve been doomed ever since. There’s no fighting it.

Plus, if the goal is to make really thick graphic novels, color isn’t an option.

Look forward to more and more black and white paintings. Lots of them. I have my paper, my paint, my brushes, my painting box and pretty much nothing else. Fortunately, I don’t need anything else. With these very simple tools, I can bring to life any story I want. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, there were a lot of things I wanted to try, but I’m here and it’s time to get to work.

That said, my Rapa Nui book is now underway. I had thought of doing a book of short stories, but the  more I looked at what I was doing and how my books are being received, it made more sense to move the Rapa Nui book to the fore. Here’s the skinny on it: Rapa Nui is a fable of sorts telling the story of Easter Island, mostly through illustration. When I thought of doing a story about Rapa Nui, I was thinking of it as a picture book. But with new options at my fingertips, I’ve been able to expand my idea to something more grand, as a story about Rapa Nui should be. Instead of a 40 page picture book, I’m making a 120-ish page… um… graphic novel meets picture book thing. I call it a tone poem, which Mandy thinks is a terrible phrase for marketing anything, but it’s kind of accurate. Basically, it’s a book with the simple, poetic language I love from my picture book brain, with lots of single page illustrations. There are no ugly speech balloons, panels or sound effects. Just beauty and hubris.

Anyway, if all goes well, you’ll be able to see it very soon.

Good news, everyone!

Box Books has a new title: Jamison Odone’s Poor Joseph. Yet another spectacular, charming, illustrated book to break your heart and brain. What child or adult man-child doesn’t need to read about The Elephant Man? And told with classy illustrations to boot. Yes. This is what our Box Book experiment is all about, bringing the awesome. All aboot? Yes. So, check it out. Well done, Jamie, well done.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Simplify, Focus, Produce.

It’s kind of funny that when things are tough, and conversely, when things are exceedingly smooth, I find myself thinking the same three words: Simplify, Focus, Produce. It’s only when things are in that middle malaise of not too stressful and not too interesting that I find myself spinning my wheels and praying Netflix will provide something not-so-lame to binge watch.

Fortunately, it seems I’ve found a patch of smooth water and fine winds. That means I’m slowly but surely crushing it. Everyday is another tiny step forward, full of ideas coalescing and paintings that don’t suck half as much as the paintings from the previous day.

And strangely enough, I think it has to do with those three magical words. I put those words in that order way back in 2004. Prior to that, I was pretty much a loose cannon. Any idea that popped into my brain which seemed like it I would lead to something good was an idea worth following. I know there are some people out there who work that way, and god bless ‘em, but for me, just following any desire tends to lead to pretty much nothing. Sure, there would be the occasional great image, but most of what I would do was middling at best and certainly uninspired.

For example, I have a strong love of photography. Coming out of college, photography seemed to be the best bet for me to play the gallery game, or so I thought. I left college with a lovely Ricoh 35mm SLR with a very humble/useful 35-75mm lens, which my parents bought for me at the local Boscov’s department store that had, for no apparent reason, a photography section. It was as basic a camera as one could own. Nothing fancy, nothing to brag about. And it worked to perfection. I took a whole crap load of good photos with that camera. It definitely fit the “simplify” part of the mantra and led me to tackle the “focus” and “produce” aspects in turn.

But as I said, I was all over the place back then, so almost as soon as I returned to my hometown (note to college students reading my blog: do not move back to your hometown after college, go somewhere else, anywhere else…), I got it in my head that I needed something more or bigger or better. I did not actually need anything, but such was my crazy. So, within a few months, I had my dad building an 8x10 camera from a very fancy kit, which paved the way for some very pretty but extremely expensive photography, and I sold my fully functional Ricoh 35mm and replaced it with other fully functional but slightly classier 35mm cameras that worked just as well.

Over the next few years, the number and kinds of cameras at my disposal grew. Everyone who had a camera under their bed gave it to me. Every time I stumbled into a flea market, I’d find a functional antique. And as they say, mo’ money, mo’ problems, the more cameras I had, the less likely I was to take a great shot; not because I didn’t have the where with all to use every camera in my arsenal, but because I was overwhelmed with options. Sure, the 35mm was lightweight and gave me that photojournalist style I so loved, but it was grainer and rough, whereas my 8x10 was huge and unwieldy, but the images from it were utterly flawless and pristine… Thus, the spinning of the wheels.

When I sat down to make books, the very first thing I did was settle on a single medium. I chose ink, despite the fact I’d rarely used it, because it did everything I needed it to do in order to go from the page to the printer. Over the last few years, I’ve been a bit less focused, looking for the next thing. It got to the point where it was kind of like owning too many cameras. Yes, all these art supplies can lead to great illustrations, but really, I’m a one medium kind of guy. I’m not saying I’m going to marry a particular thing and make tons of art babies, but whether I like it or not, I’m a bit serial monogamous when it comes to my art supplies. I’ve done the crazy, I’ve done a decade with ink and now it seems like I’m going to spend a lot of time with acrylic paint.

Simplify. Acrylic paint. Simplify. Black paint on white paper or white paint on black paper. I’m pretty sure I can’t boil down this acrylic painting thing any further than that. There are times I think a dash of color would be nice, but right now, my goal is to make the most press-ready images possible. And do them hella fast. The faster I work, the greater the clarity of the reproductions, the more inspired I will be to take on new projects and tell new stories.

Here’s hoping the “simplify” part of my mantra is more or less taken care of these days. That means I can move on to the brain breaking “focus” part… ugh. Simplifying is all about the physical limitations of the medium while the production of images is all about how much music and Netflix it takes to keep me sane while working; but that pesky focusing thing… that’s the killer.

Oh well… it’s what I do.

Good luck doing whatever it is you  do.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hm… Rules? Well, If I Invent Them… Maybe…

Spring must be in the air because it feels like Claritin season. How can so much crud flow from such a little nose?

All right, down to business: being awesome.

With the realization at the beginning of the month that the profound differences between commercial success and artistic success were getting the better of me, I decided to focus on the one that I can actually do something about, my artistic success. I figure, if being 100% artistically awesome remains in my control, I should set up a few rules so, as I go about changing from my pen & ink world of the last decade to something new, I keep my integrity intact. Thus far, I’ve only come up with four. And keep in mind I will change these rules in an instant if I need to in order to continue being awesome. I mean, rules are nice and all when I’m being all philosophical but if they fail my creative desires, out they go.

The first rule is a carry-over from the pen & ink days: work cheap. Yes, I’d love to have an unlimited budget and supplies out the wazoo. Or have a studio space separate from the space in which I live so I could pretend to go to the office and get things done Mad Men style. But that’s not how things work and I really don’t expect that to ever change. Yes, I would go all top shelf with paints and papers if I could, but that would hardly change the look of my books, it would just make me feel better about my legacy. Yes, I just laughed out loud when I typed the line about “my legacy”. The truth is, if I found myself in possession of the funds necessary to have a studio and be all fancy, I’d put that money to more charitable pursuits. I do amazing things in the smallest square footage and with the silliest of materials. Working cheap might even enhance my illustration because I can do a tremendous amount of experimentation and development, for next to nothing.

Next up: work fast. As cool as it was to spend umpteen hours per day making an ink rendering and then doing it again the next day and the next, it was very time consuming. I devoted my thirties to inking books. I’m going to devote my forties to myself. That’s a big part of why I’ve been working so hard to switch to painting and why the whole Box Book experiment began. In the past, I was going with the flow of what I thought an illustrator and writer was supposed to do if he or she wanted an conventional career. And, were it 1920, it might have worked. However, it’s 2015 and none of the old rules apply. I wish I’d figured that out a little earlier as it would have saved me some heartache, but such is life. I know more now and it behooves me to apply my knowledge.

Then comes: rein in my ambition. Dealing with my ambition was not an issue when I was inking things up simply because it took so long to complete one project that I didn’t have time to entertain any other notions. If my new work ethic pays off and I can produce four books a year, then I can do more. The trick is, doing more doesn’t mean doing everything. My silly, optimistic ambition says I can do whatever I want. It’s very much the ‘I can eat chips for every meal’ kind of thinking. Clearly, I can’t do that. So, just like in the inky days, I need to decide which projects deserve to be completed and which should wither on the vine. Not every idea is worth investigating.

And lastly, the strangest of rules: work with other when possible. After a decade of fighting in the trenches, cut off from my comrades in arms, I’m tired of going it alone. Isolation is very boring. Yes, I will continue to make stuff by myself because it’s what I do, but, I’m actively working with other talented people as well. What can I say, it’s fun to work on a project with someone else. Sure, it can be infuriating and frustrating or lead to attempted murder, but it’s still more entertaining that sitting here, talking to myself and wondering if anyone will understand what I’m trying to do. Knowing someone else is on board for the ride makes the whole thing less stressful and more interesting. Seems like a no brainer.

We’ll see if these rules can hold water. The books of 2015 and 2016 will tell us.

As for my real life, a major shout out to the folks at Frostburg University  and the Frostburg Children’s Literature Centre for hosting a successful graphic novel workshop and lectures for Jamison Odone and myself. The students were engaged and interested in the nuts and bolts of serial, illustrated storytelling. I think we had some interesting conversations and a few minds were opened to new possibilities and opportunities. And that’s really all one can hope for, I mean, I think that’s the goal. Only time will tell.

I’ve rambled on long enough for today. Time to paint a little.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Three Things...

What have you guys missed? Firstly, I’m in Pennsyltucky, midway on my trip to Frostburg University located deep in the rolling hills of Maryland, to work a graphic novel seminar/workshop thing with my old comrade in arms, Jamison Odone. And secondly, I’ve become a lot more don’t care-ish about the commercial aspects of being an author and illustrator. Thirdly, I’m having a can of soda for breakfast, which is really weird despite the fact that during the dark years of my twenties, when I was lost in the wilderness, doing so would have seemed quite normal.

Let’s start with the firstly, Frostburg, the university who loves me more than any other or at least is willing to demonstrate said love. For that, I love Frostburg in return. Plus, it’s my eldest niece’s alma mater, so the university has a special place in my heart for that. And their Dead Animal Zoo is top notch. I will not explain that remark any further, you’ll just have to go there and be dazzled in person.

Basically, on Thursday, Jamie and I will try and pour as much information as possible about how to take an idea and turn into a graphic novel into the minds of the people who signed up to listen to our creative genius and really bad jokes. The name of the game is how to take a story and break it into manageable parts so as to make a daunting challenge seem like something which can be accomplished and completed. I even made a Power Point presentation, though now that I think of it, I should have added some music… I guess I could just play songs from my phone… you know, something to heighten the drama. Drama!

Should be fun. They want to make graphic novels, I’ve made graphic novels. Seems like a good match. Good times, good times.

I’m skipping to my thirdly point, soda for breakfast. In hindsight, it was not the best choice. Since I went decaf, many years ago, the appeal of the soda breakfast vanished. Instead of the one two punch of simple sugars and caffeine, I just get the sugar. Then I think I’m going to get fat and die and they’ll have to bury me in a couple of refrigerator boxes all duct taped together or one of those shipping containers that are always falling off huge freighters traveling from China, filled with the things America desperately needs like off-brand iPhone chargers, cheaply printed Bibles and corn ball deep fryers. Needless to say, I will eat a whole lot healthier for the remainder of my trip.

And back to my secondly point, being don’t care-ish. Since this is the third “5 Five Year Experiment” of my career, I’m doing things differently.

My first five years were spent learning how to make books, mostly because I didn’t learn that stuff before actually sitting down and making my first book. Fortunately, things went well during that phase. I learned how to streamline my work ethic and I made good stuff.

The second five years, I focused on being more professional, mostly because I didn’t need to worry so much about the book making, that was second nature at that point, and because I foolishly thought publishing was a business that made sense and not an insane asylum run by the inmates. Anyway, I spent my time learning the ins and outs, jumping through hoops and more or less trying to be a more "commercially successful" person with a glowing business acumen and can-do spirit.

Yeah, those five years didn’t go so well. I made two wonderful books and piled up a huge collection of ideas which soon will be books produced under my Box Books standard, but otherwise, it wasn’t the best use of my time and energy. There’s no reason to go into a long explanation of how publishing really works or how marketing dollars determine the supposed value of one book versus another, because you’ll get so depressed you’ll never read anything again. Nor is there any reason to list my history of disappointments. I’ll just say, I said yes to every opportunity offered and 99% of them evaporated before my eyes. On one hand, I’m happy because I put myself out there (and will pretty much continue to do so though in a modified form), on the other hand, it was both very annoying and depressing.

Which brings us to the current Five Years, which started in January. It took all of 2014 to process the feeling that I’d wasted a lot of time trying to be an ideal author/illustrator in the publishing world. That pissed me off. I hate wasting time. I have too much to do. Far too much to do to spend weeks and months going cap in hand to people who really don’t want to talk to me because my work isn’t the same cookie cutter stuff they’ve been selling for years. Forgive me from trying to raise the bar in children’s literature.

Anyway, it all boils down to the simple fact that, artistically speaking, I’m hugely successful. I make the books I want to make, the way I want to make them, while working with extremely talented people who bring their tremendous skilz to bear to help me make really cool stuff. The reviews reflect that. The comments of industry people reflect that. And most importantly, the comments of the kids confirm it. The whole point behind what I do is to positively affect the mind of a child. So long as I continue to do that, I’m golden.

With that in mind, I’ve kind of decided to no longer worry or care about the commercial aspects of what I do. It’s a huge waste of time and energy and only leads to frustration and stress. Sure, I’ll continue to do things an author does, the school visits, the signings, the social media, the whatever, but I’m doing that stuff because I want to do it and if something doesn’t work out or simply falls through, who cares. Things happen, whatever. I’d rather put my time and talent behind my work, not peacocking around trying to get attention from rather blind business people who can’t comprehend what good work is. They’re never going to get what I’m trying to do and I’m never going to make something for them which they can sell for six digits and market into a summer blockbuster. We’re from two different planets. And their planet is really toxic and ugly.

Hence the don’t care-ishness. The goal of this five years is to create and complete all the ideas I’ve stockpiled during my hoop jumping years. And then find ways to get those ideas out there. In some respects, I’m just getting back to basics. Make a book, make it awesome and see where it goes. Yeah, it sounds stupid and God knows it won’t make me rich or famous, unless I get really lucky, but it’s so much more constructive and healthy than merely pitching ideas for books and waiting around, twiddling my thumbs, while people who can’t quite understand why or what or how I do what I do decide my fate. What a stupid, stupid waste of time.

So, don’t care-ish Tim is off to work on a Civil War graphic novel and a couple of titles for Box Books. Because being wickedly creative is what I do. Every day. I hope you can do the same. Pees out!