Saturday, December 20, 2014

"The Plea Bargain"

Here's another protracted post on process, mostly on account of the reading I've been doing on American illustrator Howard Pyle. It's always such a humbling pleasure to discover amazing artists and their incredible work at any stage in life, even if in retrospect it's like overlooking such a huge figure of such comparative prominence in the field like say Winsor McCay, George Herriman or "Ding" Darling would be for a cartoonist. I've found you can learn just as much about cartooning from exposure to artists working in other mediums, from painting to pottery, as you can from studying the works of the great cartoonists. After all, it's what a lot of them did too, and look where it got them.

A while back I caught a random, stray reference to an insane exercise with which to hammer home the importance of composition in an art class. Pyle is said to have made his students complete fifty different roughs on index cards as a preliminary step before tackling the final version. While I didn't do this on my own students (yet), I did demo the process here with this particular panel for them, and we experimented with at least a few variations each on their own pieces for one critique. This panel underwent five different remixes before inking, and then there's the two end results of both a digital, print version + a watercolored original.

Final penciled panel

Composition is what I take as an instinctual, reflexive solution that is inherent in the concept, as in I don't really have to pay much conscious attention to doodling out a cartoon, especially if it's a relatively simple panel. But that's the reason for sketching it out in the first place (besides insurance in case I forget the idea), and the underlying principle for submitting drafts before any critique assignment: it's better to mess up on a preliminary thumbnail before the final piece is tacked up on the review wall in the studio and you belatedly realize there is an issue.

Schematic breakdown of final composition

Sometimes one of the nicest things about the physical act of drawing is how often that I haven't the faintest idea whatsoever on how everything will look. Sure most of the time I might have a mental image, but many times it's almost like I'm just along for the ride, and whatever spills out the other end of the inkpen is a complete surprise. That goes either way: disappointment over a screwup, or the finished piece doesn't look right all the way to the other extreme of satisfaction and pride over a well-done drawing. That's a major stumbling block for many an aspiring talent, and reworking sketches or redoing pieces can be a frustrating part of the process.

Draft #4

What to leave in, what to take out, editing decisions made on the fly, temporary abandonment of the piece (maybe sleeping on it as opposed to knocking it out in one sitting) and switching to any number of projects in the meantime... these are some of the steps taken when trying to realize a concept. Ignoring a problem child of a bad idea when it won't behave works pretty well: it's the creative equivalent of making it sit in a mental corner, where after some time out spent playing with the more appreciative and engaging pieces you can sit down and look at it again and ask "now what did we learn from this?"

Draft #3

One of the crucial tools is roughing out basic compositional arrangements of the visual elements beforehand, because a drawing is a graphic answer to a problem that needs to be worked on, like scratch paper for a math test - "show your work" is what it'll be graded on. Successfully depicting a scenario so as to clearly, simply and effectively communicate a concept hinges on compositional choices.

Draft #2

A note that ideas can and do occasionally spring forth fully realized in an Athenian fashion: just nowhere near enough for it to be counted on, as it usually happen in the middle of the workflow process of producing other pieces. There's a real joy in juggling a dozen panels all in various stages of completion: some of the balls are dropped and roll under a couch, some shatter completely and the pieces picked up later to maybe get recycled.

Draft #1

On the other hand, one of the inherent aspects of cartooning as an artform is its spontaneous immediacy, and many of the seasoned professionals in the industry have stylistically evolved to illustrate this principle. For me that's part of the pleasure in the process when doodling, the distillation of a drawing down to its essential elements. It could be argued that everything after that is rote work: analogous to assembling all the ingredients for cooking something in your kitchen, or rounding up all the crucial components and parts for a repair job out in the garage.

Preliminary stage on the flat color

Ideas are everywhere if you remember to look. The inspiration for this one came from a field trip for reference sketching, done for an advanced level Life Drawing course this past semester. We went to a local Federal courthouse ostensibly to hone our observational skills and record some visual notes for an critique assignment, and I'll have an upcoming post in a couplefew weeks recapping that experience Update: here's linkage to the report.

Just add water... any creative juice actually.

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