Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It Snowed. Shrug.

Moving on, nothing like a long, quiet, winter weekend to think about where I am and what I’m doing. The where I am question is a bit of a pickle. Thankfully, the what am I doing question seems pretty much resolved.

I had one of those moments when I thought back at my previous books and longed for the safety net of well-intentioned publishers and strangely happy reviewers. ‘Cause once you have someone who seems to like what you do, it’s easy to find yourself expecting everyone to like what you do. Which is a form of delusional thinking, but whatever. And since I was missing those heady, optimistic days, I sort of had a yen for all things pen and ink. Which is never good.

Of course, my reason is simple: no one has seen my painting work in an illustrated book form, so they have nothing to compare to the ink books. You can look at my paintings or you can look at my ink illustrations. Nothing exists which merges the new medium with the old format. And there’s a good chance that might remain the case. I have no idea where painting will take me, so I can’t assume it will lead to children’s book illustration. That makes me feel a little less than confident. Which is silly.

So I spent some time wondering if I’m making the right decision or if I should hedge my bets. To do a lot of painting while doing some inking on the side. But I’m not one to hedge my bets. Even if something is a long shot, I’m all in.

And then Mandy said, flat out, no pen and ink, no fountain pen drawing. Nothing that sucks up every hour of every day. And nothing that makes me more miserable than happy. It was hard to argue with her logic so I didn’t even try.

For as proud as I am with my previous work and how happy I am to have put it out there, I think it’s time I come to grips with the fact those days are long gone. I’ve changed, my publishers have changed, the industry has changed. To think that what I was doing in 2006 would make me as artistically satisfied in 2016 is ridiculous. I ran with pen and ink for a decade. That was enough. It’s time to have my nephew hide my inking supplies while I get my head in the game with painting.

Perhaps painting will lead to new ways to illustrate. Perhaps it will allow me to do battle against the forces of Art… or Evil. Or anything else that pisses me off. Odds are it will. So long as I go into it with my usual level of intensity and commitment, I have nothing to worry about. I just need to suck it up and do the work. When I’ve made enough stuff, all the successes and all the failures, I’ll be able to see where I am… and then, who knows… But I’ll have all my what’s and where’s sorted out, which is a hell of lot better than wandering around my snowed in apartment like a clueless jackass.

Off to paint!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Winter is Coming.

I guess that phrase is supposed to mean something to people who watch too much TV, but really it’s just a statement of fact: winter is coming. We have the cold, soon we’ll have the snow. Then New Jersey will look beautiful. For about one day.

Into to this wintry mix, I find myself trying to figure out what project to take up. Or if I should even take up a “project”. For me the idea of a project is something that is long term and meaningful. Those are watchwords for me. Or they always were and I simply forgot them at some point. Things like making books and getting shows would be considered projects. Collaborations with other talented people are also projects. Pretty much anything that I can’t do in a single sitting feels like a project, though to be fair, I really only give something project status if it is going to take several months to accomplish.

Finding a project would be my usual course of action now that I’ve found a promising medium in which to work and have enough supplies to get started.

But then there’s this new thing: the stand-alone art.

I never considered the work I made before college or during college as actual art. I knew I was learning. I knew the work was shallow and derivative. Some of it might have looked cool, but it wasn’t going to stand the test of time. It existed as a platform for my education. Almost all of that stuff has been trashed or is in a box somewhere. The only work which carry any value are the portraits because they captured a little sliver of time. I’d love to go back and redo them, I’m far more skilled now, but that’s just not possible.

The post college years were spent doing photography and I can claim some success with that medium. But I couldn’t get into the whole idea that nabbing a single photo was enough to call it a great, creative day. Photography made things too fast, too easy. Instead of trying to get that one good drawing or painting a day, I could land a handful or dozen good photos in just a few hours. That was part of the reason I stepped into the world of large format photography, with its cumbersome equipment and arcane knowledge requirements. But it didn’t take long to get those down to the point of knocking out a few good photos in a very short span of time. Somehow, that just didn’t feel like I was putting in the necessary “effort” to be a “real” artist.

Of course, my thoughts were all complete crap. But they drove me onward. First to writing gobs of fiction and then into the world of children’s literature. Talk about projects, my pen and ink books were the epitome of projects. Months of reading and research. Months of writing and designing. Then months of painstaking, and at time painful, illustration. I certainly felt as though I was putting in the necessary effort and was, therefore, a real artist.

For a while, that was enough. I’d achieved my goal. It didn’t matter what I was doing. It didn’t matter what happened to the work after it left my desk. My focus was on being a crazy artist. I wanted as much of work as humanly possible, if not more. Because I was in such a bubble of my own artistic delusions, I didn’t realize I’d painted myself into a corner. There was only so much work I could do and very few places to submit my work once it was completed. I’d become a real artist and in doing so, cut myself off from everything an actual, real artist needs to continue being productive. That bubble was bound to pop and so it did.

Then came the years of experimenting. And how’d that start? Sumi-e. Of course it did. There is nothing so antithetical to endless days spent in mindless toil as sumi-e painting. Five minutes here, ten minutes there, boom done. Move on with your day. I’ll admit it took years for my conscious mind to get the not so subtle differences between days, weeks, months spent hunched over my desk lost in oblivion and a minute flicking ink onto mulberry paper to create a complete and perfect painting. But last summer, it all clicked.

Which leads me to the issue at hand. For the last half year, I’ve knocked out paintings every day. Yes, they are small and odd, but they are pretty cool. Worse yet, they are kind of fun to make as well. But they don’t have that project stink to them. Each is essentially a stand-alone piece. Yeah, there are reoccurring themes and various pieces obliquely relate to one another, but that is always secondary in importance if important at all. My goal is simple: sit down, paint, get up, go on about my life. I realize that doesn’t sound difficult or complex, but you do it and see how it works out. Good luck with that.

It seems what I’m trying to do, and succeeding at, subconsciously at least, is turning stand-alone pieces which represent a single day’s worth of effort into something worthy of being “projects”. My time off over the holiday helped sure the footing of this new idea. As has the near constant flow of positive feedback from people who are either finding my work for the first time or coming to it anew. I may not be very bright, but I know when something is working. If am happy about what I’m doing, even though I may not understand the psychological mechanics behind it, and if other people are enthused about my work in the same way they were when a new book was released, then something is working.

What does that mean for things that I’d traditionally classify as projects? I have no idea. But it surely means there will be more paintings flying around the room.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I’ll Say It Again…

“Follow your blocker!” But this time, it’s for me.

All right, it’s 2016. Time to bring it old school and demolish stuff. To conquer unabated, which I’m pretty sure has nothing to do with conquering but now it does because conquering rocks. Or conquering does in terms of self-expression through art and other meaningful ways to get through our cruddy little lives.

So the funny thing is, within just days of starting this year, full of vim and vigor, I sort of halfway got it into my head that maybe I wasn’t completely sure about this black and white acrylic painting on toned paper thing that is working really well and that I should try something else. Fortunately, I have gone down enough false paths and wrong turns in the last five years that it took barely five or six minutes to realize I was going the wrong way and stop.

Which gets me back to “follow your blocker”. When I said that, like years and years ago, my point was both clear and simple: find the one thing that works and do it. Don’t waste time thinking about other ways to do something. Don’t waste time trying to figure out why what you are doing is working. Just thank your lucky stars that Fate has given you a skill and the wherewithal to recognize and nurture it and then get behind it and run like some huge dude in a Cleveland Browns’ uniform is going to crush you.

At that time, I was still into ink. For ten years, my solution to every illustrational problem and pretty much every artistic problem was to tuck myself behind my skilz with ink and follow it toward the end zone. Day in, day out. It wasn’t rocket science. It wasn’t complex. And sometimes, it wasn’t meaningful or the correct thing to do. But it was incredibly productive.

When I was just out of college and trying my hand at all sorts of things because I hadn’t found my calling, as it were, I was rather unproductive. Now, unproductive for me doesn’t mean not making things. I’ve always made things because making things is a sickness with me. But I was unproductive because I made a lot of random things. You couldn’t look at what I did and see the hand and mind of the same person creating something larger than the sum of the parts. I’d dabble here, dabble there. It was an endless parade of almost hits and not quite theres. And some people like that kind of creativity and that’s fine for them, but I wanted something more. And so I got bummed.

Then came the inky days of the books. Everything clicked and I learned to follow my blocker. Lo and behold, I made progress. Which led to projects that were, in scale and complexity, the cool sort of work I’d always wanted to make. Plus, when people saw the work, they could see how it evolved and how different books related to one another. It was exactly what I wanted.

However, ink was a time killer. And thus the years of experimenting to find something new. Which I’ve found with the black and white paint on toned paper. I have literally done more work with it in the last six months than I have for anything that wasn’t a book project. I found my blocker and I’ve been following him right into the teeth of the defense. Every time I get knocked down, I get up, reset and follow my blocker again. Hundreds of painting and clear growth are proof that I’m on the right path.

But sometimes, I’m an idiot and get a silly idea to switch it up a bit. I mean, since these paintings only take like an hour or so, I have time to switch it up, right? No. No I do not. When I switch things up, it’s like going back to the pre-book days when everything was up for grabs and I didn’t know my ass from my elbow. What do I make during those moments, I have no idea, it always ends up in the trash. I’m just glad it doesn’t take me so long to realize I’m being an idiot.

So, Tim, follow your blocker. Get out your piece of toned paper, knock out a quick sketch, tape it to the easel, fire up the black and white paint, kick up the jams and do the one thing (other than ink) that works. Don’t wonder about other ways to get an idea from your skull to the page. Don’t think about how this painting thing works. Just shut up, put your head down and follow your blocker.

I’m already made more than ten paintings this year and have a bunch of Box Book ideas on the front burner, which puts me lightyears ahead of where I was last January. And I have a feeling things are only just beginning to come up Milhouse.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Into the New Year or "AT-AT in Provence".

And so, a new motto: 2016: It’s What We Do. Of course, that doesn’t really make sense to you, yet…

It turns out my plan to take a few weeks off over the holiday and do nothing was actually a pretty good idea because there wasn’t time to even think about getting anything done. With ever-expanding families and those rare chances to see old friends and what seems to be their ever-expanding families, I felt as though I spent most of my time traveling from place to another, occasionally finding time to eat or sleep. Add to that the need to see the new Star Wars movie in 3D IMAX ‘cause seriously, who can afford to do that more than once in NYC, and I had a packed holiday season. Hopefully, you had the same.

Oo! I did have time to channel my inner Van Gogh to crank out this tiny painting I’ve titled “AT-AT in Provence”. Thoughts?

But back to the motto for the new year… The best way to ‘splain it is to tell a little anecdote. My dear friend, Alison, and her husband, Gareth (check out his books and website if you’re into graphic novels), were in my parents’ neighborhood and so we got to spend a little time with them. Which somehow led to my father showing off his 3x4 foot, photographic print of one of the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. If you are familiar with black and white photography, you’d know this print is a true, silver halite print and not some cheesy poster cranked out by a website on a crappy printer. We’re talking about the kind of print you only see in a first rate museum or gallery. We quickly explained that we made the print a decade ago when we were all really into photography. Gareth asked if it was for a project. Alison chimed in with “No. It’s just what they did for fun.”

And that got me thinking… With pen and ink in the rearview mirror and my days of suffering for attention in the publishing world a thing of the past, what the hell am I doing if it isn’t fun? See, Alison touched a nerve, long since dormant. Regardless of whether I have a goal or specific, professional project in mind, I tend to get really involved in what I’m doing and take it the highest level possible. Mostly because I’m a touch crazy. But slightly because it’s kind of important. Living in a time when nearly everything is commodified and temporary, there’s something nice about stepping out of line and putting my time and attention into something that will exist just to be beautiful. I don’t have to sell it. I don’t have to explain it. I merely need to make it. And, usually, such activities are fun as well.

So, let me take you in the Way Back Machine and tell you how that giant print came to be… I’m pretty sure it was 1998-ish. You’ll understand my lack of specificity as I go on. My friends, Greg and Adam, were gung ho for all things photography and having no draughtsmen or painters around, so was I. We did shows, we printed like crazy, we seemed to find and buy a new camera every three days. It was photography drunkenness. The amount of work we produced is staggering. But we didn’t even think about that.

One day, while looking at what sort of printing paper was available, we stumbled upon the fact that you can buy a roll of photographic printing paper that was 42 inches by 30 feet. Which made us wonder just how big we could print. Surely we couldn’t print one image on something 42 inches by 30 feet, not without turning a whole room into a camera obscura, a plan we actually did contemplate for a few days. But we could print stuff that was 3x4 feet with ease, or so we thought. And thus, a roll of paper was ordered and the preparations began.

It’s one thing to work in a tiny dark room, making 8x10 prints. Anyone can do it with just a modicum of skill. It’s quite another to figure out how to print something 3x4 feet or slightly bigger in some cases. The logistics are a mess. But we liked things like that. We liked stupid challenges. Better yet, stupid challenges that involved DIY problem solving and shoestring budgets. ‘Cause there’s always something cool about making something magnificent with the stuff you have around you, probably because no one ever believes it can be done.

It took the better part of a month to build all the crap we need to print and develop our images. Then came what we now refer to as The Weekend of Pain. Adam swears it was two weeks of pain. I’m pretty sure it was just 36 hours of pain. My dad was only there helping for like 5 hours, so he recalls the whole thing going smoothly.

Simply put, we cut our paper, hauled it to a room designed just to expose the image via an enlarger attached to the ceiling (which required a team effort to focus the negative and a great deal of swearing), transported the exposed paper to the darkroom (which required a light tight box we quickly dubbed “the casket”), followed by baths in gallons of a photographic chemicals and water washes, then carefully hanging the finished prints to the ceiling beams of a grungy basement to air dry. Each print took hours. And given the amount of money we’d spent on chemicals and their functional life when mixed, we didn’t dare take any real breaks. I think we stopped every once and awhile, for 30 minutes, to eat.

We went to work on Friday evening, worked through the night, watched the sun rise, worked until dark on Saturday, saw the clock tick past midnight and didn’t quit until Sunday evening. I have no idea how we didn’t end up killing one another. I’m certain the idea of murdering everyone involved and going home to sleep passed through all of our minds. But the truth is, despite many unforeseen setbacks and the sheer effort needed to pull off such a bizarre escapade, the prints were simply awesome. And I mean that in both the literal and cultural meanings of the word. Each time we finished an image and tacked it to the ceiling beam to dry, we took a moment to stare at it wonder. Somehow our stupid idea, built upon our odd skillset and knowledge, along with tons of basic materials, turned into gorgeous photographic prints that were simply unattainable by any other means.

For all the pain and suffering, it was fun. And not only that, it was productive fun, which is why I have a huge photo of Point du Hoc, should I ever own a wall to hang it upon. And why my dad has a huge photo of a volcano in Hawaii. And why Greg and Adam have photos of whatever they printed… I can’t really remember as I’ve tried to black some of those memories out… It was a traumatic weekend.

Now, to tie this ramble together, that huge photo and the story of how it came into being, along with Alison saying that kind of weekend was what we used to do for fun got me thinking. Yes, I loved making books and I thought it would lead to a career, but it wasn’t very much fun. And sure, there are those people who disparage the notion of having fun while working. They can go screw themselves. Whatever. The point is that my past proves that I can create refined work at a high level of accomplishment without having to be all sad inside and dour. Most of my screwy experiments in my pre-book days prove that it doesn’t take an outside influence with a checkbook to unleash my crazy and whip up something awesome. It just takes self-discipline and a good idea. I seem to have both of those in spades.

And so, this year, the only thing I have to say about my art or my direction with it is: it’s what I do.

Welcome to 2016. It’s going to be fun and awesome.