Saturday, March 25, 2017

"The Many-Storied Cabin"

Concept rough + finished pencil

Been a while since my last protracted process post - so here's another installment on the behind-the-scenes details for this latest piece, "The Many Storied Cabin."

Librarian Greg Hill is putting out a third volume of his collected weekly newspaper essays, and tapped me to do another cover for it. His "Book Range" series, of which this is the third volume, is a fundraiser to benefit the Fairbanks Library Foundation. This being one of my main personal advocacy issues, I'm always humbled + grateful for any opportunity to illustrate and promote the importance of literacy. Greg was one of the presenters in last year's Cartoon North II exhibit, and we share a lot of history with the Guys Read Program, David Petersen appearances, and other community events over the years. It's always a pleasure and an honor to join forces on projects like this.

Stages of inking

Again and again I am reminded of the maxim by Shel Silverstein: "Put something silly in the world, That ain't been there before." It's what I love most about drawing - thinking of an idea and creating it. At any rate the world is probably a much safer place without me being an architect, even though I usually have enough books on hand to construct such an abode. At the very least the volumes lining the walls presumably add some insulative properties - in fact one of the ideas we brainstormed for the subtitle was "Reading: The R-Factor."

Only after the penciling was all done did I have the foresight to double-check the actual size of the book cover by scanning an earlier volume and using it as a template of sorts. Turned out my off-the cuff approximation was short by a couple inches, which meant a big ol' blank space would be left across the top + bottom. Whoops.  Compounding the problem was a real-estate issue with there being no more room left on the original page (14x17" Strathmore Bristol, smooth 400 series) to accommodate any expansion. Photoshop to the rescue! An extra hour of judicious sampling the preexisting trunks provided enough raw material to vertically extend the forest.

Every so often an idea spins outta control and begins to assume logistical issues, usually along the lines of "well THAT escalated quickly." As in, it starts to get technically hard, at least in comparison to to the relatively easier compositions of usual cartoon panels. That's when the work ethic of voluntarily pushing oneself comes into play. Literally, since losing that sense of play can be a real killer, and might just be the defining line between Fine Art versus Commercial Art. In my experience the two share a considerable overlap, and definitely influence the other, if not share the same motivations and disciplinary process. That's anathema to many free-spirited artist types - treating their work like it's a job, but as I frequently remind students, there's a reason it's called artWORK.

Except for the spot-black brushwork on the spruce trees, inking was all done with dip-pens only (three different sizes + two kinds of India ink). Note the random blots in the lower right-hand corner, which were a result of the kitten attempting editorial input via dip-pen rolling across the drawing table. In a reverse way I actually appreciate having a disaster happen right at the outset of any protracted undertaking, as it alleviates the stress of screwing up anything later on by getting it out of the way.

Looking back a decade ago to when I did the first volume, and then the second, I was - to be completely honest - more than a little abashed at the result. This is not an uncommon reaction in retrospect, and to be fair, at least means you're getting better. That said, the vulture perched on your shoulder in the studio seems to always be muttering on about "room for improvement," and it always ensures humility knowing today's masterpiece will eventually decay into tomorrow's embarrassment. Being harshly critical of one's own work is an occupational hazard, and muting the inner critic is as crucial a part of the creative process as any aspect of craftsmanship.

The key assumption here is that there will always be plenty of second, third… even fiftieth chances to redeem oneself. At the same time there is a cautionary lesson here in that just knocking out stuff in a rush might come back to haunt you later on down the road (the same could be said for blogging and/or posting on social media).

The initial concept sketch showed some random snowflakes wafting down around the piece, but in the end the overall composition was just too busy of a visual cacophony. But wait - there's always the background! Starting with samples from NASA deep field images, I selected all of the white spots, changed them to black, then cut + pasted them onto a new white background panel, color-coding each successively smaller-diametered section of stars, which were then each layered into the final piece. All of this ostensibly to provide window-dressing for the constellation of Ursa Major and the North Star.

Appropriately enough I did this portion wearing headphones and looping Brian Eno’s “Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks” in the background. After suffering massive eye-fatigue at the end
of pulling a round-the-clock stint, it was somewhat therapeutic to jump back into the piece at 5am the next morning and tackle the universe. And painstaking attention to such ridiculously meticulous detail is an homage to Schultz's Schroeder plinking out actual Beethoven pieces - one of many ways the master set the bar for cartoonists everywhere for all time.

Other points of trivia in this piece include the inclusion of my beaver chop logo on a book cover in lieu of any signature. There was simply no way I was gonna letter in individual titles on all of the covers and spines - thought the though kept reoccurring. Also discerning viewers will note a private joke with a pile of nuggets added in at the last minute. And a hat-tip to Greg for coming up with OED (instead of the initially sketched "ink") as a subtle poke at the ubiquitous Greer tanks that accompany pretty much every cabin in Interior Alaska.

One last step involved excerpting selected elements from the initial scan of the line art and recreating stand-alone illustrations to be sprinkled throughout the book as little black & white spot pieces. Then it's off to the print shop to proof some poster prints (a previous one benefiting the Literacy Council of Alaska went over really well), which will hopefully be offered at some signing gigs that I'll keep everyone updated on as they get scheduled.

What makes this special to me personally is illustrating the concept that books provide a shelter: growing up an only child with a reference librarian mother and a regional bookstore managing father I guess books were a constant source of everything for me - knowledge, wonder, entertainment and inspiration. On this cabin even the windows are books, as is the door.
Like our minds, all we have to do is open them. 

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