Saturday, March 12, 2016

Arctic Science Summit 2016 + Arctic Perspectives Exhibit

   Super excited and very pleased to be one of the selected artists to have work in a show during the upcoming Arctic Science Summit: I collaborated with an oceanographer in the UAF School of Fisheries & Ocean Sciences (Research Assistant Professor Seth Danielson, whose name ought to be familiar to regular readers as the talent behind the recent "Noosance Moosance" piece) for a three-page comic on how research plays such an important role in understanding our corner of the northern hemisphere.

   The exhibit "Arctic Perspectives" which showcases the end results of over a dozen other teams' efforts will be shown in the UAF Art Department gallery from March 12-18, and the opening reception will be Monday, March 14th from 5-7pm. For those of our viewers not able to attend here's a process post that documents the overall evolution of the triptych piece "The Big Picture/It's the Little Things."

   It all started a couple months back with the idea of challenging myself to basically illustrate a technical science paper and somehow make it more easily understood by a general layperson, if not aesthetically interesting to look at and therefore more attractive to read. Choosing Seth as the scientist with whom to collaborate with seemed a natural fit: he's someone as passionate about his work - and with as much of a sense of humor + teacher’s sense of patience - as I have about what I love doing.

   That said, bridging the seemingly dissimilar modes of thought between conventional academia and comics (see here on Arthur Koestler's "bisociation" theory) ran up on the mental rocks. Reading over impenetrable (from my non-trained perspective) abstracts I quickly came to the conclusion that my initial idea of adapting pure text from a formal paper was somewhat of a Sisyphean task.

   But during the early stage of the process while interviewing my scientist, touring the labs and facilities and shooting some reference pictures, one element in our conversation kept returning to me again and again. Seth had mentioned as an aside one of the educational aspects of his field work was to conduct classroom exercises with kids out on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs, where they would use plankton nets to gather seawater and examine it under microscopes. I thought to myself what a mind-blowing experience that must be to have grown up all of one's life around the water and have a deep, intimate understanding about what it is and what's in it but suddenly get exposure to what it's actually made of on the microscopic level, plus an awareness of the larger systems on a planetary scale. Whoah...

   And so began the distillation of random notes into a coherent narrative, which entailed a back-and-forth between Seth and myself over the gradual development of the script. It's not all that different than the kernel of a concept which germinates into the idea behind a single-panel gag cartoon versus a multi-page comic, just a matter of scale and maintaining the overall message. The unfolding story began to emerge and with it the visual component also started to come into focus, and between the resources of Seth's catalog of photographs and my own reference shots some of the missing blanks started to get filled in with transitional and/or expositional imagery.

   As an aside, it was funny (and not a little humbling to confront ones own ignorance and scientific illiteracy) to have something I wrote get redefined with more appropriate and exacting language which often I would in turn attempt to (re)translate the terminology into more palatable language that would work in tandem with the imagery. And so one of the challenges was to still retain as much factual basis for the information being transmitted while not going over the heads of the average reader, but to balance that out with not dumbing it down either. A great example of this would be having a concept encapsulated by a mysterious phrase, which I'd ask for clarification about, but get an answer with a set of equally indecipherable jargon. My inner geek, which normally gets to have nerdgasms while only talking with other comic arts aficionados, was sufficiently placated over the course of writing the script.

   As mentioned earlier, as the text became more and more specific, it gave rise to tangent imagery, and a sort of imaginary tightrope act took place with each informing the other. As in you have an idea which needs a picture which in turn changes the original concept which again will influence the depiction - within the overall context of the meta-narrative of the piece as a whole. Constant and subtle revisions by tweaking individual words or key phrases would consequently effect the accompanying drawings.

   Compared/contrasted with some other recent works ("Turdwatching" et al) multipage efforts like this really gives me an opportunity to experiment with complex panel arrangements, and to play around with the layout and arrangement of panels within a page. Dropping borders to expand a drawing across an entire background, floating caption boxes and areas of color all ultimately become tools by which to enhance the storytelling in functional if not hopefully entertaining ways.

   At this point it became advantageous to set about making roughs for the pages, and to see how the particular panels would play off with each other - so composition not only of individual frames but how they relate with the layout of the whole page, and in turn how each of those would look viewed together as a triptych. Alternating between sketching fast and also letting the project incubate so as to ascertain the effectiveness of choices made from a design standpoint is another reason why relatively large-scale pieces like this take time. But eventually one has to actually sit down at the drafting table and start coalescing everything down onto actual paper.

   This stage is the capstone to the entire process, but till not without last-minute changes made on the fly. That's when it was great to have my scientist on speed-dial so he could answer random trivia questions while he was attending conferences in New Orleans or China. And yeah, this was now crunch-time as the deadline loomed... many weeks of preparatory research and behind-the-scenes work would be called upon to serve as raw material to literally draw from.

   As for my travels, just gotta love this job what with all my adventuring without never leaving the cabin. Went from outer space to the bottom of the ocean, swimming in a phytoplankton soup, visited UAF campus, the Bering + Chukchi Seas, the Pribalof Islands, St. Paul, the whole state of Alaska, went on the Sikuliaq and saw orcas, seals, walrus, polar bears, puffins, schools of cod, shrimp, crab, starfish and a halibut. Waded into a cyclone, explored the Atlantic and the entire state of Alaska not to mention the galaxy, and I never even had to put on my pants. Livin' the dream I tell ya...

   Here's one sample page where I needed to temporarily detour off onto another pad of sketch paper to flesh out specific details of the artwork. Assimilating all of the reference pics + sketches and remixing certain aspects of them into a finished scenarios utilized the same set of skills I drill my drawing students on with exercises in illustration. Assembling multiple elements from disparate sources and basing the finished drawing on experience with basic composition (emphasizing and delineating foreground/midground/background planes, enhancing pictoral depth via overlapping + foreshortening etc.), in conjunction with drawing from reality equals a blend that is believable even if it is a completely imaginary scenario. An example would be the blending together of the office setting with the lab, or the ship in a different background with added animals, or the on-deck scene comprised of various ingredients culled from other sources (buoy, ductwork, railing, rope tie-off thingy, in conjunction with Seth in totally made-up garb with a ridiculously out-of-place maritime device).

   As evidenced from early thumbnails posted above, I already plotted out how the exact chosen text would read and the placement of captions. This was also done early on in order to ensure everything would logistically fit within the real estate of any given panel/page, as again, it's hand-in-glove with how much room there is for the accompanying image.

   I'm a notorious stickler when it comes to the authenticity of manual lettering as a critical, aesthetic component of the whole - I think using a computer font is akin to buying a crappy pre-made pie shell for one of my gourmet cheesecakes. Again there's such a crucial, functional distinction between the physical mechanics of writing versus legible lettering: the clear communication of the words is essential, including the spacing of each individual character, plus it's spatial relationship within each word, and the flow of each sentence and paragraph all within the confines of a set area (boxed in so as to effectively isolate them from the background imagery). Incidentally it proves the worth of doing the New York Times crosswords puzzle if only for the virtue of excellent prep exercises in lettering really, really small, as was a background of extensive experience in filling out all those mixtapes back in the day. Oh, and caught a couple typos too.

   How long did it take you? This is answered in part by the updates issued on social media - in this instance I uploaded pretty much all of these images on Facebook, along with some commentary which is integrated here for this post. It's virtually impossible in retrospect to breakdown all stages into discrete blocks of time allotted to specific tasks - notwithstanding the overarching deadline - especially with respect to the conceptual phase. Doodling ideas out, thumbnailing pages + panels, roughing out compositions etc. is all ying-yanged up with the writing, revision and editing that takes place quite often simultaneously. That being said, when it all comes down to the end and one is watching the clock tick away while sitting in the studio, an approximate timeframe can be duly logged down as applied to the menial labor ie the actual rendering of the final pages.

   So minus the scripting and such, each of the three pages took about eight hours of labor: generally speaking around one hour of lettering, two for penciling, two for inking, one for scanning + cleanup, and two hours coloring. That's about twenty-four hours spread out over two days in one weekend, with hourly breaks (stretching, coffee, eating, outhouse and intermittent naps). Oh, and this post took me a few hours total to pull together and reformat the various elements while expanding upon each aspect.

   A few other things that kept continually resurfacing during this odyssey for which I’m grateful for: 24 Comics Day for the annual boot-camp training in crunch-time comics; the insightful support of The Significant Otter: and Kaladi Brothers coffee… back to the grind. 

   And no elaborate process post would be complete without the companion soundtrack: quite oftentimes the resultant aesthetic of a piece can be played out with an accessory score, usually by film composers, or otherwise orchestral/symphonic arrangements, and always instrumental. Here's the background on what was playing in the background over my headphones:

Page 1: Beethoven “Symphony No. 6/Pastoral”

Page 2: various Terrance Malick soundtracks:

Page 3: Brian Eno “Apollo/Atmospheres + Soundtracks”

    And you know what else also works? Nothing. The sound of total silence will start to eclipse my usual sonic supplements in direct proportion to the need for concentration. In a large part due to I can never, ever ignore music even if it's relegated to the background - it always insinuates itself.

   A brief note about the materials employed in this piece: a veritable grab-bag of tools were used in accordance with the diverse needs of the story.
   Paper used was Strathmore Bristol board (400 Series). For penciling: Blackfeet Indian #2 for initial sketches, then a finishing pass with a Ticonderoga Black HB, and unusual for me, as I tend to loath them, a mechanical pencil for just the lettering, given the need for precision. Lettering was inked with a Micron 03, individual letters gone back over for bolded words with an 02. Inking for the art was done with a Hunt 102 nib in an antique Kor-i-noor No. 127 cork-headed holder, some ratty brushes for trees + spot blacks, and Microns for detailed linework and textures like hatching + stippling. Inks used were Winsor & Newton black India and Dr. Phil Martin's Bombay black.

   Moreso than usual I took meticulous measurements of the panel and page borders, which were ruled first in pencil with a tsquare. A cork-backed straight-edge was also using for the final inking - it's the absolute last thing done in the drawing - on the outer edges with a Micron 08 (inset panels were freehand with a dip-pen). I only taped out (with low-tack masking tape) the pages for the initial ruling - thereafter it's easier to have the option to spin the pages as need requires while inking, as working from right to left/top to bottom is advisable (for the right-handed) to avoid smearing. Without the option to wait for overnight drying, I used a heatgun to accelerate the process before my favorite part is done with a polymer eraser.

   White-trash special 3-pack of cheapo frames from the local craft store - which I had to return after discovering one had broken glass. Of course it was the last of the three, found only after framing up the first two pages, and since I had to return the entire set for an exchange, it meant undoing it all then redoing it again - so a little speed-bump that I trapped myself into stressing about by backing right up to the deadline. Special shout-out to the lush color prints made by the fine folks down at DateLine Digital: 11 x 14" on glossy cardstock looked absolutely wonderful as usual.

   This is a screen-grab from midpoint in the digital stage, after minor cleaning up of the scans and slight editing, where the core color flats are knocked in… still a couplefew more hours remaining of cutting in some contrast + details etc. Photoshop CS4 on the Mac OSX, and I habitually reopen a handful of particularly successful Nuggets panels so as to select from a proven palette.

   Pretty satisfied with the end result, even if there's so much more that was left out in the final rush or that in retrospect could have been done better - such is our lot as an artist, since this inevitable, inherent critique just gets rolled over into even bigger, better pieces in the future. Still, everything’s here in a grand tour de force demonstration of all that I try and impart in the comics class and here on Ink & Snow: the process in its entirety with all facets of production and all phases of execution. This is the artist statement written for the official show catalog, where an excerpted sample was published (the third page):
Sequential art – image and text - is the perfect medium by which to juxtapose intimate experiences with a global perspective. Our piece illustrates the interconnectedness of place, people and culture that is behind both science and art. Creating works in either discipline requires passion, education and a sense of wonder (a little humor also helps). The evolution from initial concept and the interviews, tours of the facilities, script revisions and reference sketching, to the actual of drawing the comic was an insightful process. Teaming up with a professional from another academic arena made for a unique piece that synthesized the best of both worlds, and resulted in a commentary on collaboration that encapsulates how the humanities and science can inform each other.
And lastly, to close out this epic post, here's larger images of each separate page: enjoy and thanks for reading. Which, as a note of interest, the comparative amount of time a reader has to invest in three pages with lots of words has been interesting to see... probably the equivalent of a "long read" for a blog post.

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