Saturday, October 19, 2013

Process: "Caribou Cards"

Here's another focus on a process piece, annotated by a running background narration on the various stages of development.

Doodle: arguably more of a “cartoon” in the classic sense: sometimes simpler is better. The end product here is more of a “drawing,” though it’s all along the same continuum. A side-note here that this one piece is an outtake from the cascading workflow: ideally it’s great to have a penciled piece or two taped up on the board, move onto another couple inked panels, some others set to scan or still to clean up, a batch waiting to finish shading on the computer, and a few left yet to wash with watercolor. So at peak production there’s a lot of balls being juggled, some up in the air, and many rolling about underfoot. Then it’s time to “take a break,” get outta the studio and – you guessed it – camp out somewhere with the sketchbook and incubate even more ideas for later. I’ve always thought of cartoonists as grazing over great areas of creative turf: maybe a little slow moving but capable of these tremendous and sudden spurts of energy when it counts (like a well-placed kick), and employing a sort of mental multi-chambered stomach that continually barfs up a cud of concepts to keep chewing over until ready to digest. Just don’t ask me about the manure.

Pencil: lots of time spent plotting, sketching and mapping out the composition; layering in the foreground/midground and background elements, using foreshortening and linear perspective to increase the illusion of depth. Ideally most of the logistics has been figured out during the original thumbnail stage that was doodled in the sketchbook, but more often than not the preliminary rough is where the design gets edited and refined.

New T-square is used to tape up (using the new roll of low-tack stuff I finally remembered to pick up at the hardware store) the blank paper (Strathmore 300 Bristol: the 400 and 500 series is being shipped up along with some restock for my inks + a couple different new flavors to try).

Even dropping in some general, temporary lines for the panel border – approximated for either a horizontal or vertical composition, and totally unmeasured – I’m reminded of just how fortunate I’ve been as a cartoonist over all these past years (25 now!) to not be constrained by some predetermined dimensions dictated by a syndicate. As with the subject matter, each cartoon is a random, unique work that will follow its own rules. On the other hand, there is a school of though that creativity happens when it comes up against the constraints of a set of limitations (an example being the challenge lies with coming up with how to make it work within, say, a 2’ square as seen in the newspaper).

Ink 1: A thin pen for just the cards. As it turns out during the course of this initial round, the line quality is too heavy (should have been with an 03, or even an 01 instead of an 05). This means everything after this point has to be beefed up accordingly to compensate. These detailed forms now take on a bolder weight and as a consequence assume too much of a visual presence and detract from the initial impression of the viewer, whose attention is only engaged for a few seconds while assimilating the image. So in the meantime start thinking ahead about ways of “saving it” through use of value much later on.

Ink 2: dip-pen (Hunt nib) for the shelving – a little bit beefier of a line weight than the cards, but hopefully not enough to upset the overall balance where the remaining key element(s) are outlined with the heaviest contour. A faint pencil line was ruled in as a guide, but I like to unify the piece by carrying the hand-drawn aesthetic look of the linework throughout – unless there’s a specific reason to do otherwise, which we’ll get to later on.

Ink 3: Fat brushwork for the foreground figure for a heavy, organic line to offset the busyness of the background. For fun, try out a PITT Artist Pen (Xmas gift), and as with others in that brand, the black is just not rich or opaque enough (as can be plainly seen in the posted grayscale scan), as opposed to my trusty Microns, or to a lesser extent Prismacolors, so have to go over the lines again, which in turn helps thicken ‘em up good. Use the dip-pen again with extra pressure on the antlers to embolden the line-weight. Sign + date.

Finish: knock in the border (the only place a ruler is used – everything else was inked freehand) + a quick once-over to catch any glitches and connect open areas etc. Also the text, though to make it pop I’ve decided to use a computer font so as to call more attention to them because they’re a contrasting mechanical aesthetic, ie will look “out of place” and thus catch the eye. Plus the fact that some of the labels aren’t center-justified, which drives me nuts, so along with a few other touch-ups I’ll save it for the computer. How much of life is like inking in a drawing: lost in the continually evolving and unfolding moment, the unraveling line across the changing paper, the rhythm of dipping pen into the inkwell interrupted by another unexpected damn cat hair appearing on the nib…

Lastly, let dry (preferably overnight) and erase.

Digital: Scan the line art, @ 300dpi resolution (@100%), convert the bitmap to grayscale, threshold, rotate + straighten image, then start cleaning up. Drop in masthead + bug for copyright/blog. Add value, using cuts of contrast and judicious gradients to highlight certain areas. Resize JPEG for emailing to paper + low-res web version for posting. Archive TIF + backup files.

It occurs to me how comparatively easier it is to rely on color to call attention to focal points in a relatively complex composition as opposed to using more subtle design elements when it’s black & white. Also, it’s good to challenge oneself with visual problems that arise from not taking shortcuts or deliberately trying to tackle a harder image than what could be avoided with a more simple drawing. Case in point is comparing the initial doodle with the end result: I’m glad I opted instead to try another version, and persevere through the inner critic who whispers “it’s not working out right,” “you suck” (or the inner slacker who mumbles “this is a pain in the ass”) etc. during the process.

Warsh: This is a quick & dirty chance to loosen up, switch mediums (that makes five throughout the whole session: ballpoint pen, graphite, pen & ink, digital and watercolor). Overall time is anywhere from one to two hours per panel for all versions to get completed, not including the forty-odd (and I do mean odd) years that went into the initial idea.

Bristol board with a smooth (or “plate”) finish is not designed for use with water-based media (the rough or “vellum” surface is geared towards dry media like graphite and pastel) but I use Derwent wash pencils (like the “Inktense” line) and keep the brush moving fast so as to not waterlog the paper and make it buckle – though usually the specifically delineated areas are so small this isn’t much of a worry. Even if I have to scrub the spot to break up any residual marks from the original pencil shading so as to achieve a smoother area of tone and the paper fiber starts to come up it results in a neat look, plus if it clumps most of the time it will just brush off when dry. Most of the time I’ll come back one last time to the piece and knock in a handful of areas with a darker value to push the sense of volume, and/or layer in another pass of purer, less diluted color. Someday I swear I’ll remember to spend a little more time on this stage, do it the “right way” and use masking fluid, stay in the lines, even draw on actual watercolor paper and what the hell, use a better brush. Someday maybe.

When thoroughly dry a final dusting with a fixative and we’re done – with this one. Sometimes I screw it up so badly that it’s a relief to move on to a new panel, file away the mistakes and remember not to do whatever I did again, but that’s the cost of experimenting. And besides there’s always the digital version to play with an attempt a resurrection, or failing that… start over again. If it’s really ever done: art is a verb, a process. Even the “finished” wash version can be played with and the image recycled onto tshirts, mugs, appear in print, in person on the wall of a gallery or uploaded on-line and spread around the internet.

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