Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zeitgeist or Something Like It

I’ll keep this post brief, what with the coming holiday. You have things to do, I have things to do. The non-stop race to January 2nd is about to begin. Godspeed to everyone involved. I hope you survive the season. Really, it’s a marvel that anyone does.

First with the updates. After several weeks of effort and getting my nephew to lend his editorial eyes to the project, I finally wrapped up the edits for my first Box Books novel. Walking through 400 odd pages of text is a lot more time consuming than knocking out a picture book of 125 words. But now I can check things out and soon release the title, making this a record, two book year for me.

And now that I understand the amount of time it takes to do things, especially the things outside of my control like the printing of the proof and shipping, I am better prepared to hit 2016 running. I’ve already started the edits for my third Box Book, which I hope to release in January or February. Of course, it’s annoying when things take longer than I want them to, but such is life. At least the books will exist and you will be able to own them if you choose to. Which is the goal.

On to painting, still hammering away. I don’t know if I’ll keep working as small as 5x7, but switching gears has given me new ideas. So let me go into the biggest one that occurred to me as I rode the A Train, bored out of my mind.

It all comes down to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age for those of you less in the know. See, when I was in college and studying to be a gallery-oriented artist, the whole game was about getting the show. You’d get the show, frame the work, promote the show, sell the work and be a successful artist. Of course, no one taught us that the odds of getting a show are small, that framing a show costs more than you could ever make from the show and that no one will come to your show and you will not sell anything anyway because such an honest portrayal of reality of a starving artist would cause students to go into less risky occupations. And yes, some artists do make their living selling art, but that number is so ridiculously small that to gamble that you are going pull it off is akin to playing the lottery… I don’t mean to sound so dire, but that’s how the world works. It’s not my idea. It’s our sad reality. Personally, I would much rather have people buy paintings instead of assault rifles which are only designed to kill lots of people very quickly. But I live in a country filled with remarkably stupid, short-sighted and frightened people. Shrug…

But I digress. Anyway, since the name of the game was get a show, fill the show, sell the show, we were still supposed to play by the rule of the 20th Century Art World: big is better. You know, make a painting that will fill a wall and put a big price tag on it. Or make something that would look lovely over the sofa. Because that’s how art was sold. You needed a good size object to fetch a good size price. The agents believed that, the collectors believed that, so the artists believed it.

And for a while that was the case. But not for me and not for my generation and certainly not for the future. Which is good because working large has never done much for me. But here’s why the wheels have come off the bus for that old fashioned thinking and why I think I’m finely making work the way I want to for an audience which seems keen to accept it. Our zeitgeist, when it comes to nearly all things visual, is more and more palm-size. Think about it. How much crap do you ingest, every day, on your phone? Or tablet? Or maybe slightly larger on your monitor but most likely smaller…

Which means, my work doesn’t have to look good at say 22x30, the standard size of a sheet of watercolor paper and the scale I used for most of my college career. In fact, my work doesn’t have to look good at 8x10. But it damn sure better look good at roughly 3x4 or thereabout. ‘Cause whether I like it or not, whether you like it or not, that’s how everyone looks at almost everything that isn’t literally in their physical presence.

Fortunately, I do like working small. It is nothing but advantages for me. The costs in time and materials are reduced, storage and scanning become easier. I can do more and explore more, far faster than I could in the past. But I still need to slay the dragons of my college education. Which is hard because my professors were good and they meant well, they just couldn’t see how things would change so drastically in such a short span of time. It behooves me to get in touch with the spirit of the age and create heaps and heaps of hauntingly good work. Perhaps it might behoove you as well. Something to think about…

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Keep On Keepin’ On

You wouldn’t think I would need to tell myself that at this time of the year, what with all the bleak and cold; but it seems I must. It’s good you weren’t around the JC this weekend, I actually inched my way back toward all things inky, making lists of projects I could do with, say a fountain pen, and which projects I could do with the new paintings. Then I thought about all the projects I could and prolly should simply abandon. Then I thought I could give up the whole mess and settle into a luxurious life in customer service at some corporation that might stay in business long enough to fire me instead of retire me.

But then Mandy said, you’re an artist. Meaning me, not you, my faceless followers though I’d like to think you’re all artists in your chosen fields. Her point being, I can take up another occupation, perhaps excel at it, buy a Porshe, tag great white sharks and go out in a blaze of glory like Paul Walker… which reminds me it’s been too long since I’ve seen Varsity Blues… but that hardly matters since I’m an artist and the making of art is always in the forefront of my mind. It’s a terminal condition and it guides nearly all of my decisions, from when to wake up to if I should go to sleep. A subtle and secondary meaning behind Mandy calling me an artist was for me to get my act together and stop wandering around the apartment with armfuls of materials which would not, even on a good day, lead to anything productive. I have a thing, these days it’s the black and white paintings on toned paper, so I’m supposed to do my thing.

And it’s taken me the better part of three days to get my act together.

But back together I am. Not 100% sure why or what I’ll do with myself, but that hardly matters. This game is all about knocking a little something out of the park, each and every day.

Oddly enough, I think my last round of discontent or crisis of faith came from a totally new place. See, in the past, the work I would do was time consuming. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the massive, charcoal drawings I did in college, the large format photography I did after college or the decade spent inking; every medium I’ve ever chosen to work with took a long time to use. Yeah, stuff looked good when I was done, but that came at a price in hours, days, weeks. And that was fine. I was willing to pay those prices to get those results.

However, and this is where things get crazy for me now, I didn’t require a lot of ideas, mostly because I couldn’t work on a lot of ideas. One or two interesting notions and I had enough to explore for the countless hours it took to realize those ideas. If I thought of a cool drawing, I would pour myself into that idea until it was done, hours or days later. Sure, I had lots of ideas, just like you, they kept coming whether I liked it or not, but I only had time to knock out the precious few.

But now… it’s a whole different story. If I do two paintings a day, that’s two full and complete ideas. Add to that sketches for illustrated books. And the random moments of beauty I stumble across and attempt to capture. Where I used to complete a fraction of a single idea after days of concerted effort, I now complete a handful. Which, for the first time ever, puts me in a place where I need more ideas than I have. Or more good ideas than I have. I’m used to thinking something and tossing it out the window because I won’t have time to do anything with it, which is actually a habit. A bad habit.

Hence the mini-meltdown. Suddenly, I find myself in the position to have a thought, crappy or otherwise, and the time and process to do something with it. Suddenly, I need all those ideas I used to have and near instantly forget. But I’m not in the habit of catching or storing those ideas. I’m still in the mode of gleaning only the best ideas for future use. Which has me in a weird place, scrambling to generate more good ideas than I’m used to generating. And I think over the weekend, rather than just suck it up and bring my A Game to the new work, I just pooped out and said to hell with all this effort, I’ll just get out the ink and that way I’ll just need a single idea and that will kill a week. Which is stupid. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’m on to something new and better. And if that means I have to get off my lazy ass and spend more time imagining stuff, so be it. I mean, that’s why I get paid the big bucks. You know, in theory. 

To facilitate this new kind of thinking, I’m messing around with some other paper I wanted to test for my painting, but in this case, work 5x7 inches. This forces me to work faster, which forces me to have more ideas, thus getting the ol’ brain working at this new pace. New paper, new habits, new pace; win win win.

Now to do it…

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Goldilocks-ing the Goldilocks’ Effect

Or me trying to figure out why I’m being so weird as of late.

Hi, everyone. November is flying by at a chilling pace, as is 2015. Were it not for the pages of writing and stacks of drawings and paintings, I would really wonder just where the year went. That said, it’s time to start evaluating my year so as to better prepare for 2016. I’m sure someone out there is saying, Tim, it’s only the 10th of November, what’s your rush? As it turns out, my rush is to amp things up, not coast into this coming winter.

Time to explain my odd post title. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my painting method, one that requires some serious thought and concerted effort to change. Basically, it goes like this: when I got started painting, many months ago, the goal was a complete painting in 15 to 30 minutes. Quick and awesome, that was the plan, quite a departure from the years spent in the ink mines, where massive time consumption and awesome were the watchwords. Ideally, I would take a little bit of the speed I’d acquired doing sumi-e paintings and couple it with my mad drawing skilz and invent a way to make some good stuff in a handful of minutes.

At first, I was pretty good at hitting my 20 to 30 minute limit. Those magical, 10 to 15 paintings were rare indeed. But I was doing well with completing a painting under a half hour. And that kind of kept going with the Civil War book proposal paintings. Which is not surprising when you remember graphic novel images have to compete with text and design elements, so they are not, for the most part, complex compositions. Simple paintings should take less time. But then I started doing a painting a day, Monday through Friday, as a means of practice and to get some more work “out there”, wherever that maybe. Australia at times or someplace equally remote, I guess.

And I watched as my time to complete a daily painting ballooned from 30 minutes, to 60, to 90 and now they occasionally verge on 120. Yeah, clearly something is amiss. I haven’t changed the size of the paintings, the content is similar, the paint is the same and I’ve pretty much painted in the same place since August. But something is going on. Which got me thinking…

Over the weekend, I had a chat with Adam the Photographer about the costs of doing what we do. And by that, I wasn’t talking about the dollars and cents we poor into our passions, but about the time and energy it takes to have an idea and then to realize it. Like, for instance, doing a still life is low cost because it’s just stuff sitting there, ever ready to be painted or photographed. All one has to do is arrange it, light it and go to town. On the other hand, there’s portraiture, which is just one expense after another: you have to talk to someone and convince them to pose, then there’s scheduling issues, location issues, travel, costuming, lighting, weather, dealing with the two personalities with different ideas, etc. Compared to doing a still life, making a portrait is akin to planning the Normandy assault.

But we do it. We do everything we can, the expensive and the inexpensive, because we want to. And that’s where I started thinking about why my paintings are taking longer. Because I enjoy them. Normally, one wouldn’t think that was a problem, enjoying what one does. But in this case, it’s screwing me over because my enjoyment of the painting process is getting in the way of the painting process itself. The goal, as stated above, was to paint fast. That was of primary importance. I enjoy it regardless of how quickly or slowly I paint. The pleasure of making something cool is essentially the same, fast or slow.

Of course, this all makes sense. Without having a contract to fulfill combined with a decent amount of time to accomplish my daily tasks, there’s no temporal or financial reason to stop me from painting on and on and on, as slow as I like. The sense of urgency I want to inject into my work is an internal thing, it’s not forced on me by the outside world. But so is my sense of enjoyment. And when one internal thing, my urgency to develop a fast illustration style, runs into my internal desire to enjoy a pleasurable experience, we know which is most likely to win. When does any of us choose the frustration of exploration and failure over self-delight?

Consequently, as I’ve been painting away, without much of a care in the world as far as things go, I’ve found myself filling more and more time with the act of painting. Sure, it’s a great way to learn things and it helps me leap forward at a pretty good clip, but it doesn’t help me with my goal, that of working faster. It would be one thing if I was mass producing painting, like 4 per hour for 4 hours a day. But I’m not. And that’s an issue that must be dealt with.

The trick, of course, is figuring out a functional way to deal with this problem.

I was thinking about this while at the laundromat. Through the din of Telemundo, I had the thought that during my inky days, the emphasis of my illustration was that technique, meticulously drawn images, combined with engaging stories would do something for me, and maybe some kids out there. And it did. For ten years, it worked like a charm. But those days are over. And yet I think I’m still hanging on to the first part of that successful combination, the meticulous nature of what I did. This whole change to something else, to something fast and messy, gestural and lively, is a huge change of gears and even though I can understand it intellectually, my talent is still trying to catch up. Every time there’s a chance for my previous creative behavior to rear its ugly head, I find myself backsliding. Hence the growing amount of time per painting.

To combat such behaviors, I’ve decided to divide my work day into much smaller chunks and to use other activities between said chunks to keep me moving. The logic being, if I don’t stand at the easel for 4 hours, I won’t make a single painting which requires 4 hours to produce. If I have 1 hour to paint and I need a finished painting in that time, then I’ll knock something out in that single hour and move on with my day. Or maybe I only get 30 minutes… Even better, right? And then I can go run, which is good for me and makes me feel less fat and lazy… which could inspire 30 minutes of writing or cleaning the apartment. Why, suddenly, I’m painting more and faster, while writing and being healthy in a neat and tidy apartment and still allowing myself the privilege to do stuff with my life, like take in the city or travel. Which, if you recall, was the motivation for the whole “need for speed” philosophy to my new work. To kick ass and have time to take names. Or something like that.

So… we’ll have to see how this new time management scheme works. It’s all about getting things “just right”. Fingers crossed. If it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board for moi. However, if it does actually get me moving, things could get very interesting very quickly.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Bronx Bomber Ain’t Got Nothing On Me.

All apologies for my tardy post, but someone had to go to the Bronx to lecture to aspiring artists on illustration and book making. It was fun, as it usually is, to get out of my comfort zone and ramble on and on about things I sort of know something about. As entertaining as it is to blather on about myself, as I am so wont to do, the real joy of this kind of experience is meeting the students and finding out what they’re making. I love interacting with insightful and talented students just figuring out what to do with all their crazy energy. Regardless of what they say, I tell them to do more.

I know it makes my mom all nervous but I rather like going to the Bronx. Yeah, parts of it are sketchy, but so what. But I still get a thrill about being a silly, suburban kid from the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, who dreamt of making paintings and art, who managed to discover writing and illustrating the coolest children’s books and who gets to hop on the 4 train at the Brooklyn Bridge and ride uptown, beneath all the wealthy a-holes in Manhattan, to pop up in the Bronx and meet people intent on being as awesome as I strive to be. Never in a million years would I have imagined such things. And yet, it’s kind of my normal. So normal, that I have to take a step back and say to myself, this is not the normal of most people I know. But I like it. Plus, I got to give Yankee Stadium the finger, twice. Go, Orioles! (Or if I have to cheer for a local team: Go, Mets! … Oh you poor boys, so close. Let’s hope you learn the magic of small ball for 2016 season. Base hits are really quite useful, more so than the occasional home run. Just saying.)

Back to my thing today… the theme of my lecture was 4 truths of professional illustration. Things I wish I’d known when I was 20. Sure, using the word “truth” is the fastest way to sound like a jackass, but there are some truths to this industry. I didn’t learn how things worked until I was in my 30’s. So, if I can help a few budding artists to dodge some mistakes that I blundered into, them my talk was worth the effort. Yes, they’ll go on to make their own mistakes, but hopefully, they won’t make my mistakes.

Then I talked about my work for a bit. It’s always strange to put up the sketches and illustrations from my books. I don’t usually see them all at once. Nor do I usually look at them and think about what I was doing ten years ago verses what I did five years ago versus what I’m doing now. So it’s always disorienting. Like to look at the sketches of The Punk Ethic, which are flimsy and loose, and then look at the illustrations, which are tight and refined, it’s almost like what I wanted to be doing was making messy paintings but I was stuck in my inky groove. And of course, looking at those tight, refined ink drawings made me long for all the detail and precision, things that are not part of my painting world and with good reason. It takes me some time to put it all into perspective, to say to myself, yes, those are pretty cool drawings and I could make more, no doubt about it, but that was then and this is now and there are new things to do. Although I understand that fact on an intellectual level, it’s a very different thing to feel in my heart. But I know it to be true. I love my inky past, but I’m very excited about my painty future.

Plus, I got to show many paintings to the students and get their take on things. This is the first time a good chunk of my painting work has been “out there” where people can talk to me about it. In some respects, I’m in a similar position as the students, trying to feel my way into a new avenue of exploration. Yeah, I come to it with decades of knowledge and experience, but it’s still new. Anyway, the paintings were well received, which is nice. It’s one thing to make a painting and post it online or tuck it away in a box, all the while thinking it’s kind of good. It’s another thing to tape it to the wall in front of 50 students studying illustration and book design and find out if it’s working. Needless to say, I’m a bit more confident that I’m on the right path with this painting nonsense, I just need to keep hammering away at it.

Speaking of which, I’m off to finish my daily painting before it gets too late and before I have to return to doing normal life things like washing the dishes and falling asleep.

Pees out!