Friday, March 4, 2011

"The Owl-Signal"

Haven't done a "process-post" in a while, so here's an overview of the steps that went into this one particular panel. Think of it as a visual take on the director's commentary on a DVD. Actually, speaking of, there is an increasing number of spiffy video demos from cartoonists getting exposure on-line: some excellent resources for such geeky voyeurism (+ interviews and profiles) is over at The Comic Archive, Comic Riffs, Comic Book Resources, Comics Comics, and as always, the one-stop clearinghouse over at The Comics Reporter. Hopefully sometime over the next month I'll give recording a short a shot using some of the gear loaded up on the new iMac.

Way More Below the Fold... 

After culling a set of possible contenders from the sketchbook (starting with the doodled ballpoint pen rough above) the composition is penciled out: major areas delineated and initial shapes blocked in. A rectangular layout, mostly horizontal but in this case vertical, is only a starting point, as are the pencil lines. Gauging by the preliminary rough posted below it’s obvious how much tweaking around goes on. Knowing that this is just a temporary template, there’s no need to erase any guidelines at this point, so I can be a slob and work right through and over what I know is ultimately going to be inked on anyways, so I rely instead upon making successively darker marks to indicate where the final line will follow (or thereabout). Hence the ghosting around many objects as everything gets tentatively plotted out, and add-ons are accounted for.
A good example of domino theory and the interconnectedness of even a simple design is in how after the lighthouse was done, the owls were nudged about, which in turn determined the text balloon placement. That in turn affected the overall composition by knocking everything over to the left after extending the panel border to the right to accommodate the changes (which was much easier to do at that point than redraw everything else). So it’s a constantly evolving process with revisions made on the fly, and learning to go with the flow, even if it means your damned precious and perfectly symmetrical layout is now out the window. Proving once again the value of a thumbnail… providing you remember to look at it. Then again, I hadn’t the slightest idea exactly what the inner mechanics of a lighthouse really looks like, having only a couple of other experiences with related reference sketches. So working up these roughs is an opportunity to literally see what looks like it might make sense, which is all you got to go on when you’re making shit up.

There’s usually a big-to-little approach with penciling in the foundational elements first – this is in line with many a beginning drawing exercise, say with sketching a one-point linear perspective of a hallway or multi-point perspective of an interior space: you might want to have a wall up first before worrying about where to hang the door or put in a window, or start in on any incidental details and textures. Same with this panel: first starting with a base – the main body of the building, then the light unit, the cap after that, and next a railing which now has a place to go around and be set upon, then in turn the owls, who have something to sit on etc.

Continuing on with the inking stage: as of late I’ve completely stopped taping up my paper onto boards, preferring to keep the sheet of Bristol loose so as to easily facilitate the constant spinning around during inking. This is because I tend to juggle simultaneously inking the overlapped objects that are in the foreground first, along with working from the center of the piece outwards. This has the advantage of cutting down on accidentally smearing one’s freshly inked lines, and since the page is free, I can more easily turn it to better position for extended strokes. The natural limit is a few inches or so when drawing from the wrist, barring running out of ink in the nib - then one has to reload it, rematch it with the same exact spot and continue on with the line. Have to admit, when the blinders are on and I’m locked into a drawing, there’s sometimes a tension when first tackling just one single, simple line, and a corresponding sense of satisfaction when successfully pulling it off. For me at times there’s a split-second hesitation immediately before freehanding a tricky shape or embarking on a long curved line or an uninterrupted arc for example – particularly a parallel line that has to maintain a certain trajectory and distance from another one. I always wonder if other artists ever hold their breath going into a tight spot on their drawing.
More often than not it’s an unbroken flowering of ink that spreads out across the page, screw-ups and speed-bumps notwithstanding, just a rhythmic progression from start to finish. Think of the analogy of Tarzan swinging along, reaching out for each new vine before taking a flying leap.

Tangentially related is the shift in focus to a constant monitoring of the entire process: what is normally relegated to an unconscious series of choices and assumptions made while actually doing a drawing. To me it’s somewhat of a novel challenge to stop and say “well wait – now why did I do that?” … pausing to review what things either went wrong, or worked out, and why. 99% of the time there is no indulgent self-reflection until after the event is complete, kinda like sitting down to eat the meal after it’s been cooked. And the best chefs rarely keep referring to a recipe: that’s the part of the art that comes with experience. It’s also one of the reasons I suspect teaching by doing a demonstration is so much easier, and also how easier it is for many who are interested in learning how to do it by observing it firsthand, instead of reading about it or hearing a description. Plus there are the comparatively rare examples of artists who, aside from getting over the fear of working in front of an audience, can in fact provide a narrative during the act, and better yet not wind up sounding like they are talking while eating.

Back to inking: along with the above-mentioned order of things, I also tend to knock in the heavier, bolder lines first, and leave for later any details or textures. This is comparable to sketching out the underlying basic forms in a figure drawing before tackling the eyelashes or fingers, so there’s a place for the face or to hang on the hands. Usually that’s done after a short break to allow for drying, at least long enough to go back over the entire page and not risk smearage, and also if needs be, dry enough to lightly erase a problem area and re-pencil in a different sketch.
The value of having a responsive and flexible nib is in being able to change line weight through pressure alone, and achieve fluid, organic variation (incidentally why for many using a brush is perhaps the ultimate one-tool-in-hand-does-it-all). Towards the end of the drawing I’ll swap out the Hunt 512 nib for the 513EF, or alternately either a Prismacolor, Micron or Pitt to fill in the fine stuff. There’s also an incremental step in letting the ink dry (often unholstering the hair-dryer from the table leg) before using a marker, so as to avoid gunking up the tips with India ink, which they don’t appreciate. Most often I’ve already inked in the verbage: text gets markered with an 08, and any caption boxes or balloons with an 01. Finally the panel border is ruled in – usually the only straight lines in the entire drawing, and at last, a signature and date caps the session off.

"Look deep into my eyes and repeat after me: Nest time scan at a higher resolution..."

Now on to the computer: I tend to scan in batches of several panels at once, and work in waves: alternating back and forth between works-in-progress at different stages – like maybe the ink is dry enough to erase on some, or there’s room on the board to pencil out a couple fresh ones etc. Also in the background there are usually a few panels to hit up with wash, as that process also takes some pacing. Also this is the time to do a coffee break, or (closely related) an outhouse run, answer email, check some blogs, surf, eat, stretch, nap, repeat. To say nothing of getting a little writing done…

The line art is cleaned up and minor tweaking done if needed: in this specific instance only the right-hand side panel border still needed a shift over just an eighth of an inch or so to give just a wee bit more visual breathing room and not cramp up against the edge.  A touchup here and there of “white out” takes care of random noise and any stray marks.
I've been getting steadily closer to achieving the long-term goal of finished originals being in an “as is” state of completion, as I’m making fewer mistakes. Paying closer attention during the drawing stage hinges on not relying so overly-much with “oh whatever – I’ll fix it with the computer.” 
Barring any tragedy like blobbing up or random kitty-prints, lettering is probably the last area I still screw up on and need the occasional digital band-aide. That’s the price for insisting on maintaining a certain degree of manual crafting, and besides, I like lettering, both doing it and seeing it as a personal, intimate touch on other people’s work. Lots of other artists aren’t enthused at lettering, but I love it: it's an extension of drawing, essentially making marks on a piece of paper that stand for something, symbols representing information for the observer to interpret meaning from. Many folks take the opportunity to convert their handwriting to a customized font: I see that as being just a matter of degrees from sparing yourself the pain in the ass drudgery of drawing, period.

And would you believe there’s some pole-vaulting over moose turds at the meta-level with just four stupid words and how they are arranged within the space of the balloon? Is there a fractional difference in reading “oh knock/it off” versus “oh/knock it/off” ...and does it affect how a viewer cognitively processes the perceived timing of such a statement? Without resorting to bolding for emphasis, does a 
itself translate into a slight beat in delivery/reading?

Finally there’s the addition of the "Nuggets" logo, and the accompanying fine print: copyright + blog address info, and if need be, a signature. Still have hypocritical qualms about using the standardized cut & paste one from my template, even if it falls under the same excuse of branding consistency, same as when using a computer font for “Nuggets."

Lastly there’s the two-pronged approach to coloring: one grayscale worked up on the computer for a print version, while the original drawing goes under the brush. Sometimes it serves as a “warm-up” where I can feel a bit freer to experiment, knowing it’s okay to make mistakes, other times it’s a great dry run on achieving a certain effect or particular look - which may or might not successfully translate into wash or color. Many a time I’ve been grateful to have a backup TIF file tucked away after botching up a wash. Even in black & white, the grayscale “study” of a digital version can inform my approach on the colored one, and vice versa, depending on the order. Either way I’ll hopefully have two pieces by the time I’m done, or at least one I can use. Case in point: when finishing this particular wash-pencil, I discovered that the tape used to seal around the border was both the wrong type (not low-tack enough - started peeling up the paper in some places) and too old (in other places completely separating to leave behind a strip of raw adhesive). Oops.

In the end there's always something learned, usually something of value taken out of each successive stage. At times I feel like I’m back in grade-school trying to stay inside the damn lines again... exactly why this was important never got clearly explained to me. Other times I feel like a kid jumpin’ in puddles of watercolor while dawdling on the way home, making a mess all over everything. So what: to quote Maude, one of my favorite actresses: “Harold, everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much"... plus you’re never too old to pick up something new to play with.

And so ends another serious round of navel-gazing. If there's any other questions feel free to shoot an email and I'll be sure and address it in a future post, or leave a comment. This kinda behind-the-scenes micro-analysis is the sort of stuff I love to look in on with other people's work, pick apart the process. No doubt might bore the shit out of the casual or indifferent observer, especially taking into consideration the on-average scant few seconds of attention any cartoon is given. Most amusing of all would be the irony that one of the distinguishing, functional definitions of what makes a cartoon is the relative speed and simplicity it is created. Now that’s funny.

No comments:

Post a Comment