Monday, June 15, 2009

Lessons of an Amateur Cartoonist

Now that I've finished my first comic, I wanted to reflect a little on the experience. Here are some of the more interesting thoughts and lessons that occurred to me along the way, culled from my notebooks over the last year, and presented in no particular order:
  1. Comics are incredibly labor-intensive. I already knew this to an extent, but I now understand it on a whole new level. Chris Ware's infamous description of comics as "life-eating exercise" resonates with me in a whole new way.
  2. Knowing that most readers will only spend a few seconds per panel, despite the hours devoted to perfecting each image, can be demoralizing, but I suspect that most comic artists are, to some degree, perfectionists and just can't help themselves.
  3. Every single line on the page represents a conscious decision by the artist. Every single one! No reader (or critic), no matter how diligent, can ever appreciate the thought that goes into each panel.
  4. Many of the lines that are NOT drawn are also conscious decisions.
  5. It's sometimes hard to know when you're finished with a particular image.
  6. How and when to vary the weight of each line (i.e. the pressure applied with the pen to alter line thickness) is also a conscious decision, and this has a tremendous impact on how the finished product looks. I know this is common knowledge, but actually applying it myself gave me a whole new appreciation for the importance and difficulty of this subtle artistic technique.
  7. Maintaining perspective (keeping all of the objects and figures in the panel in proportionate size to each other) is much harder than it looks.
  8. Hatching evenly and consistently is also much harder and more time-consuming than it looks. I love hatching, but I have a whole new appreciation for artists like Frank Miller (go back and look at Ronin!), Karl Stevens, John Hankiewicz, etc.
  9. Contrary to my preconception, inking is much harder than penciling. However, inking is also far more rewarding than penciling. The permanence of ink is unforgiving (though Photoshop allows some flexibility) and merely tracing over pencil lines doesn't cut it. Inking is fleshing out shapes and shadows and adding texture and tone. I know I have a lot still to learn about inking, but doing this comic gave me a whole new appreciation for the critical role inkers play in the creative process.
  10. The great artists make it look easy, but that doesn't mean it is. As Jaime Hernandez once said, “There’s a lot of work and thought and all this agony and pain that turns into that one perfect little line.”
  11. Drawing comics is hard on the body. It strains the eyes, hunches the back, and cramps the hand.
  12. There are literally hundreds of different types of inking pens and brushes available, and the choices that artists make greatly impact the look and feel of the finished panel. Not only does the weight and fluidity of the line itself depend on this choice, but also the combination of pens used in tandem with each other, to emphasize certain details, relegate others, snap objects to the fore, etc. - all of these are subtle effects that play into the readers’ experience of the image, but that most, if not all critics, myself included, are largely ignorant of. And, of course, the discussion of tools only grows more complex when considering colors and shading. Many people have written extensively about these types of decisions, but all of this is to say that, in creating my own comic, I became acutely aware of the way choosing the right pens can have a dramatic impact on the finished product.
  13. Proper tools also make life much easier. I really could have used a drawing table (I drew Stiletto seated on a pillow hunched over a coffee table), a desk lamp, a French curve, a clear ruler, oversized Bristol paper (Stiletto was penciled and inked on regular laser paper), more varied types of pencils and pens, brushes, etc.
  14. Hand lettering is a good way to avoid typos (in the end, I opted against hand lettering for fear that it was too messy and hard to read, but I did attempt it).
  15. Asking your wife to pose for 200+ reference photos can be hazardous to your marriage.
  16. Despite what I've read online in a few places, I think using reference photos is perfectly acceptable (Norman Rockwell did it; Crumb too). It's just one of many artistic choices and can add to the realism of the scene. Tracing photos, as I did for several of the panels in Stiletto is, admittedly, a crutch, but can still be a valid tool to tell stories visually. However, in my case, I think I over-relied on the photos to the detriment of the images. In a few places, the art feels flat and lifeless to me.
  17. There is a huge difference between drawing with the wrist and drawing from the shoulder. I have no idea how to do the latter.
  18. The difference in the creative pace of writing vs. drawing is staggering. Writing is a quick and prolonged rush of creative energy, where illustrating is a slow, tedious grind. In fact, I think it’s difficult for writers to grasp just how slow a process it is, and how much attention and focus is required. In making The Red Stiletto, it was not unusual to spend anywhere from 1-3 hours penciling and another 1-3 hours inking a single panel. Reconciling the two disciplines was perhaps the greatest struggle I had with Stiletto. Forcing myself to slow down and take my time on each image was indescribably difficult, though I did manage to get into a rhythm toward the end. Generally, the slower I draw, the more precise and controlled my line is, yet the writer in me gets impatient and is always whispering somewhere in the back of mind to move quickly.
  19. Music is essential to the artistic process. Creating comics in silence, for me, is nearly impossible, and TV is far too distracting (though baseball games were good). Music focuses my attention, relaxes me mentally, and carries me through long stretches of work. Much of Stiletto was drawn listening to Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Patty Griffin.

Throughout the creation of The Red Stiletto, I constantly reminded myself that regardless of what anybody thought of the final product, there was value in the journey itself because it would give me an inside appreciation for the cartoonist's craft. By creating my own comic, I hoped, if nothing else, I would become a better writer about comics. A lot of these “lessons” may be laughable to established professionals, but to me, these were valuable things I needed to learn.

In that sense, I’m happy with the end result.


rachel said...

That was really interesting. I didn't think your appreciation of comics could get deeper, but it did. Writing may be an energetic rush for you, but for me, it is tedious and painful. :)

Kevin Mutch said...

Marc - it was good to see you at MoCCA - and thanks for the kind comments about Fantastic Life. I was just enjoying your thoughts about the creative process - I agree with all of them!

PS: one good way to make yourself "draw from the shoulder" is to hold the pencil in the palm of your hand, same way you'd hold a paintbrush to paint a wall. Works for me!


Ed Choy Moorman said...

One way to draw from the arm is to not allow yourself to move your wrist.

- Ed