Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stealing From the Tao Te Ching

I can’t believe it’s 5:22 pm and I haven’t blogged yet. Usually, I have this thing up by mid afternoon at the latest. But not today. All apologies.

I find myself still wrestling with how to do the illustrations for this book proposal. Every time I think I’ve figured things out or found a clear way forward, something pops up and I’m back to square one. Needless to say, it’s very frustrating.

The biggest issue is what medium to use for the illustrations. Each medium has its advantages and its drawbacks. Where I gain a little of this, I lose a little of that. Considering I’ve spent the last decade doing one thing, living with a well established set of advantages and drawbacks, suddenly having to discover and then evaluate new media takes me out of my comfort zone. Of course, we all know that getting out of ones comfort zone is a good thing, but it’s a serious pain in the butt when things remain unresolved.

Take today for instance. I’ve been working with the black and white acrylic paint on gray paper, trying to make it do what I need it to for the panels on the illustrated page. While things continue to look good, there’s stuff that paint simple can’t do. A good example would be small figures as background elements. Once a figure gets to be about an inch or inch and a half tall, it’s too small for the paint because paint is a thick, globby medium. That means I can’t design any illustrations with much going on in the background, which limits my vision of what I can do. It is frustrating. I have to re-imagine everything. That’s not a deal breaker, but it does take time and energy.

I decided to try another experiment, taking a sheet of Dura-lar, which is a clear plastic, placing it over a drawing, then tracing the image with an etching needle into the plastic, then filling the scratches with ink so as to give the appearance of an ink drawing without actually laboring to do so. In the world of printmaking, this is called intaglio. In the world of my illustrations, it is called another failed attempt.

Being frustrated, I made a few paintings, which got a little closer to what I need but were still not there. Being ever more frustrated, I decided to try pencil again, though this time instead of scanning it, as I have done in the past but with poor results, I tried photographing it and then Photoshopping it. The results were better, but still not good enough. Plus, it still took too long. So I went back to the drawing board, this time with ballpoint pens which I knew weren’t good enough to work but I was so desperate to move a single inch forward… Another twenty minutes spent, another failure.

One of the aspects of my personality is that once I get a project in my sights, I’m pretty much going to hammer away at it until something breaks. Usually, the break is a breakthrough and I can bound forward knowing I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. This time around, I wonder if I’m the one who is breaking.

There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching that keeps popping into my head. Now, like all good Taoist philosophy, it lives in a gray area, where today’s correct interpretation is tomorrow’s grave mistake. But it goes like this “When two great forces oppose one another victory will go to the one that knows how to yield”. So, I’m sitting here wondering what the forces are in this struggle with illustration and how I can be the one to yield, because after all the time I’ve put into this thing, I’d sure like a victory.

Clearly, I need to spend sometime with that quote in mind as I survey all the crap I’m doing for this project. With all the changes coming to my world: the daily paintings, Box Books, having a social life, looking for fulfilling employment, etc., the battle I’m fighting with this book is different than the ones I’ve had in the past. If I’m to win this battle, I’m going to need to know when to strengthen my resolve and when to give in. Lately, despite all my experimental failures, I’ve maintained a pretty stiff upper lip but it might be time to let some things slide, to yield a little, and see where that gets me. It’s not like I have anything to lose.

With that, it’s time to end today’s post and today’s time spent banging my head off the drawing board. I put in my time. Whether it seems like I’ve made progress or not is hardly important. Progress was made and tomorrow there will be more.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Everything Comes Down to Numbers

Let’s get right into it. I used the month of July as an experiment. I was working a little gig in the city, there was a holiday full of travel and fun, there were guests to be entertained. It was the perfect month to see how well I could ink pages for a book while having a life. See previously, I would have shunned working in the city, ignored every occasion to leave my desk and only fitfully acted the part of host and guide to family and friends sweet enough to visit the JC. All because of my consuming desire to make another book… because that’s what career driven d-bags do.

But I had a busy July lined up, the conditions were ideal to test my new working method: inking in small packets of time interspersed with doing cool things far away from the moody lightly of my westward facing window. I could work, collect data and then see how things went. My hypothesis was that since I had mad ink skilz and only one project before me, I could knock out pages quickly enough to allow me to do other things besides making said book. Things like: standing, eating, sleeping, etc.

July began and I got to work, as well as commuting to work,  going to Mets games ‘cause why not and entertaining people in our lovely albeit hot apartment. Really, if you want to visit, I suggest dropping by in October or November, it’s wonderful around here for those two months. The rest of the year is a punch in the face.

I didn’t give my experiment another thought. I just worked. I did what I do, I inked, I solved illustration and production problems, I watched many episodes of The X-Files and listened to countless albums. Occasionally, I would take a break to play a musical instrument. Inking felt good, the pages started looking good, I started to believe I was on to something.

With July over, I sat down to compile my data and see what it had to say. Basically, there is no way on God’s green earth  that I can continue to work in ink as I have for the last ten years. Not if I intend to work more outside the house, which I do, and if I intend to live more outside the house, which I do as well. The goal of leisurely inking a book in nine months to a year melted like a Jolly Rancher in the rain.

Let me give you some numbers: A 200 page graphic novel would require roughly 1,000 panels. Guestimating the layout isn’t easy without having the complete text to look at, but all my estimates varied between 1,600 to 900 images. Odds are we’re talking 1,000 to 1,2000. But 1,000 makes the math easier. So, that’s 1,000 individual visual ideas. Sounds like a lot, it is a lot, but it’s what I do so that’s not a deal breaker. Things get ugly when you multiply the number of images times the number of hours it takes to produce them. That’s the killer.

When I started inking, I was working on a page about 8.5x11, the idea being to create a layout that could easily transfer to the independent publishing world of Box Books if need be. I quickly deduced that was not working. There was way too much real estate to cover per image. Yeah, the panels looked great but they were huge swaths of white space drinking up ink. Consequentially, I reduced the size of the page, something closer to 6x10. That seemed to do the trick. I was still working larger than say Lies In the Dust, but still smaller than picture book size. With that problem solved, I got to work and didn’t think about much outside of making cool drawings for the rest of the month. I kept track of the time is took me to produce a finished panel and to produce a finished page.

Back to the numbers. At first, when I was working on the large page, I was putting in roughly 6 hours per panel. That’s probably my old average, or something close to it. 6 hours per image for 1,000 images is 6,000 hours. Of course, not every image takes as long as another, making a big chunk of an image black takes less time than drawing a lot of hands  or faces. So, I reduced that number to 5,000 hours. Which is still insane. No one could pay me enough to spend 5,000 hours on one book. And then to think that 5,000 hour thing would have to be tackled in 3 hour chunks… Even at 25 hours of drawing per week, it would take 16 years to finish the book.

I know these numbers sound ridiculous, but the truth is, for the last decade, I’ve put  ridiculous time into my work. I called it a career and assumed, mostly because of the good reviews and my promising debut, that eventually, the time versus money aspects would balance out. That did not happen. In fact, the opposite occurred, I worked more hours for less money. Hence me ditching ink and beginning to find ways to bring my work into reality according to my own rules. All of my crazy experimenting over the last two years was an attempt to create a viable working method which would produce high quality art in a reasonable amount of time. But really, putting hundreds, even a thousand hours into a book’s illustrations is not unthinkable. That was my norm.

Obviously, that does not work anymore. Then I looked at the numbers for the smaller format pages. I put roughly 3.5 hours into each panel. Not bad, cutting my time almost in half. That’s smile-worthy progress, right? Instead of 16 years, I could be done in a tidy 9-ish. Ugh.

Even when I got smudgy, which is to say cut corners in my drawing, design and inking to produce images that were, let’s just call them below my standard, the numbers still worked out to unthinkable amounts. The best I came up with was a 1,000 images in 3 years. In 2007, I would have jumped on that. I would have said I can spend 3 years making drawings with a pen point the size of a flea’s penis and produce a beautiful book… that’s worth my time. But it’s 2015 and I say to hell with that.

Away went the pens, in came the black paint, white paint and gray paper. Without doubt, those are the tools which give me the best results in the shortest amount of time. Of course, this means an entire sea change as far as my thinking goes, like “Out with hyper precision, down with minute details!” and “Bring on the restlessness of gesture and joy of ‘letting paint do what paint does!’…

I have a lot of stuff to talk about as far as the painting thing goes, most of which I will save for future posts, but to keep with our numbers theme of the day, it takes me roughly 30 minutes to paint each panel illustration. That’s 1,000 paintings in 500 hours. So, if I put in 25 hours of painting time per week, I could finish all 1,000 images in 5 months. Of course, I understand it will take some extra time to do my first book with paint, but not very much. And as I paint more, which I’m doing like a freaking fiend, it will take me less and less time to make each image, so that 5 month thing probably isn’t too far off the mark. But let’s call it 6 months. Which would you rather devote yourself to, knowing that the work you make has dubious commercial value and is only deeply loved by the smartest and most devoted of fans on the planet: 6 months or 3-16 years?

Yeah… no brainer.

Welcome back to Tim’s World of Whirlwind Painting! Please follow my daily paintings on Twitter or my website… and soon, places like Instagram and things of that ilk.

Off to follow the advice Helen Keller once finger-mumbled, “Keep kicking ass, my dear fellow, keep kicking ass!”

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

And the Other Stuff.

Unlike previous summers over the last decade, I found myself working nights, getting paid to see concerts other people could see for free. Good times, good times. Honestly, I think this was the first summer in a decade that actually felt like summer, mostly because I experienced so many sunsets. However, all those hours spent in the city were hours not spent sitting on my ass, toiling away at drawings.

It’s not like my brain as a shut off switch. I’ve looked for one, I’ve longed for one, I’ve dreamt of one; but it doesn’t exist. So, those 40 odd minutes journeying through the bowels of the city had to be spent doing something. Consequently, I took the time I used to spend sitting on the couch with the headphones, magic pen and tablet and turned them into writing time on a dingy subway car, headphones crammed in my ears, working with whatever pen was handy, hacking away page after page in a tiny notebook. I’m pretty sure I looked like the crazy guy on the train, mostly because the motion of the car made my handwriting, always dubiously legible at best, appear even worse.

The truth is, I rather like writing while on the subway. I’ve had that realization many times in the past and have entertained the notion of doing most of my writing on the subway were I ever to find myself with the time and funding to do so… which I’m now fairly certain will never happen. But it’s really easy to find productive hours on the subway.

There are two wonderful aspects to turning the subway into my writing room.

First, no one can get in touch with me. Well, that’s not so true anymore as the MTA makes more stations wireless and stuff, but for a long time, once you were underground, you were entombed in a world of your own making. For someone who loves distractions as much as I do, putting myself in a place where my everyday world couldn’t possibly intrude was lovely. I’m sure that in the next five years, all the peace and quiet beneath the city will turn into just another hot spot full of idiotic, internet bullshoose. It will become very annoying.

Second, it’s like a trip to the aquarium. You watch the fish come and go before you. There are all kinds of fish too: pretty ones, forgettable ones, big ones, little ones, quiet ones, loud ones, robust ones and some poor fish who are very likely to be “sleeping” at the top of the tank by the end of the day. A great mass of humanity shuffles into the car, grabs a seat or handhold, and then shuffles out. In a city that foolishly prides itself on its 1%ers and all the gratuitous nonsense that comes with living in a mausoleum of steel and glass, the subway is the last remaining place to see the other 99% and, to a large degree, take in information about their lives. For an experiential thief like myself, it’s the perfect place to find little bits of this and that and tuck them away for a future bit of writing.

And so I scribbled the bulk of summer away in 40 minute chunks beneath either Manhattan or the Hudson. It’s surprising just how quickly the pages add up. Five pages here, five pages there. Next thing I know, there’s twenty, thirty, forty. All without the slightest effort. Working is easy when there is nothing else to do. Of course, this does lead to the problem of having to sit down and type, but that’s not a problem I intend to worry about about until autumn. I figure when the weather turns, I’ll have plenty of time to sit inside and wish I was somewhere with trees full of fiery leaves and endless white skies.

For now, I’ve got to ride the rails and see where they take me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

It’s the Little Things…

I may have used that as a blog title before, simply because when I get back to the bare-bones basics, it is all about the little things. My dreams of working on huge canvases or massive rolls of paper vanish, replaced by 8x10 inch sheets of drawing paper covered in small panels. Suddenly, 3x5 inches of space is enough for me to conjure a vast, empty landscape drawn in microscopic lines of crisp ink. Or create the endless reaches of a star-filled night sky.

And that’s what’s been going on around here. If it doesn’t relate directly to the production of ink illustrations for the Civil War book, then out it went. I know I’m always talking about how slash and burn I get when it comes to keeping my desk organized, but this is really as close to barren as it can possibly get. Because I’m a little weird, it really does help keep me on track. When the only stuff I can work on, literally, is the project I need to work on, then a lot of work gets done. During those burnout moments when I would usually reach for another drawing or project or notebook, I find myself picking up a different page of this project and doing a little bit of drawing or layout. It’s not always fun. Sometimes it is downright painful, but it works.

Of course, being focused, avoiding distractions and dreaming of bringing the awesome to this particular project yields good results. Considering I purposefully avoided pen & ink for the better part of 18 months, you’d think there would be some warm up time needed to stretch the old muscles and get back in shape. Nope. I’m right back into it, eye-ball deep in the trenches, whaling away with the reckless abandon I’ve always had… not that anyone looking at what I do would ever use the words “reckless abandon” to describe it, but trust me, I work with reckless abandon, albeit, tiny reckless abandon. Once I wrap up what is essentially a book proposal for the Civil War project, out it goes. Then we play the wait and see game. I hate the wait and see game.

Now that I’m back to pen & ink, I’m back to never needing to go into an art supply store again. Makes me a little heartbroken. Going into an art store for me is like going to the Homecoming dance by yourself as a freshman. There are all those cute girls and everyone is supposed to dance so you create the foolish notion that you can probably dance with a cute girl or two but the reality is you’re just going to stand in the shadows, next to the bleachers, drinking watered down fruit punch, nibbling a poorly baked brownie that you don’t even want because you don’t like chocolate but the only people who would even talk to your were the ones working the student government bake sale table and that guilted you into buying it, wondering why you’d ever wear a turtleneck shirt and cardigan combo out in public with your hair coiffed to the ceiling by your sister, only to go home before they play Stairway to Heaven. Yeah, going into an art store is just like that. All that cool stuff, thousand upon thousand of dollars worth of wondrous supplies, all utterly useless. It always makes me a little bummed. Though, now, I'm starting to wonder why...

Anyway... So… I said to Mandy, hey, I need you to make me a pen rest. And she was like what the hell is a pen rest? I showed her the little blob of kneaded rubber eraser I’ve been using as a pen rest, a little chunk of eraser with troughs pushed into it to keep my pens and pencils from rolling across the desk as they are wont to do. I explained that the pen rest makes it easier to pick up the thin pens and protects their delicate points from getting smooshed. The next day, she gave me a hand sculpted pen rest. You can’t buy something this cool at the art supply store. Oh no, you can’t. And with that, I have everything I could possibly need to go into another year of hardcore pen & inking.

Yeah, when joy comes from something as simple as Sculpey sculpted skulls, you know it’s all about the little things.

Off to do my thing. Get out there and do your thing.