Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Now I understand

I was always taken a bit aback when studying artists who were misunderstood or not appreciated in their own times.  How could someone with that much obvious talent not be covered in laurels during their working period.  It was a sin that Van Gogh was ignored until he died.  In a way, it was the cold shoulder he received at the hands of the public that contributed to his greatness and to his eventual downfall. 
He was both inspired by the snubs he perceived to become better and demoralized by this same ambivalence to his work.  While he kept getting better, the public seemed intent on upping the ante on ignoring him.  The better his work became, the more vocal the silence that greeted him became.

I see this mirrored in my own work, from the lack of any kind of public discussion.  I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh here, merely seeing the parallel between the public and their nonchalance.  It was the fact that he kept at it that inspires me.  Regardless of the snubbing he accepted at the hands of the public, he maintained his path and created his best works...right up to the time he took his own life in a corn field.  It's unfair to say that it was the reason for his suicide, this lack of attention.  Van Gogh was a troubled man.  Like Jackson Pollok after him, the attention of an adoring public was something he craved, but unlike Pollok, that adoration was something he never got.  Had the masses accepted his work and pronounced him a genius, it would hardly have silenced the voices in his head that disagreed.  When the public embraced Pollok, it embraced a tortured soul and that pain eventually is what steered his Oldsmobile off the road that August evening. 

The public is like a woman, an old friend once told me.  He was an artist who showed work regularly in galleries in Deep Ellum.  He sold a few paintings, but never enough to keep himself gainfully employed.  He turned to bartending to keep the rent paid and eventually drifted away from Art alltogether.  He was a talented artist and his abandonment of the craft means that the world is a poorer place because of it.  "The Masses are as fickle as a pretty girl, Roger."  he told me.  "It goes after the fun, wherever that is.  Today, it's Seattle Grunge.  Tomorrow, it will be New Orleans Jazz.  Next week?  Who knows.  All you can do is keep your focus and do what YOU see in your head." 
He told me that to get caught up in the trappings of fame and success was to dilute yourself.  Every time you veer off the path of what drives you as an artist, you lose a bit of the spark that drove you to get there, eventually dulling that spark and losing it entirely.  That was sage advice and I heed it to this day, but I still can't help but wonder why I do this.  I know MY reason for being an artist.  I have to be one.  I am compelled to create.  I have always been a builder of some form or another.  But there is always the rent every month.  No matter what you build, it has to be sustainable or you will starve.  The question I pose myself is will I know when to get out while I still can?  Or will I just wake up one afternoon and find I'm in a cornfield?

On Evolution in Comics

(I'm speaking strictly from the development of a particular comic from its creation to its final incarnation in this piece, but that does touch on the internal groth of the artist as well.)

I have often noticed this particular quirk among comics that one becomes accustomed to reading, be they newspaper strips or comic books, that the art and the writing tend to improve with each 'episode'.  This improvement is such a gradual one that the reader rarely notices this.  All he knows is that the comic is good and stays that way. He often can sense when any particular episode is mailed in, but for the most part, if the strip is successful, it follows this pattern.

The part where this gets interesting is when the reader goes back and re-reads the first incarnation of the strip.

That is when the reader notices something he never saw before.  The beginning was crude and rashly put together.  It looks not a thing like the present incarnation.  Often, the reader gets confused at this point and thinks that there was a swap in the artist's chair at some point.  This switch is imaginary.  What the reader just stumbled upon was the evolution.  This comes in many forms.  The artist, having drawn the same thing repeatedly, gets better at it with each attempt.  The artist has some sort of epiphany mid-way through the process and improves his technique.  The artist just plain gets better. 

This happens with writers as well, but that's for another blog.  If you have spent any amount of time studying comics you have no doubt come across a favorite by now.  Be that favorite a weekly/daily newspaper strip or a monthly comic, if you follow the natural progression of things, you picked it up somewhere along the line and traced that line back to it's beginning.  When you got to that start point, you may have been shocked by what you found there. 

I went through some of my favorites a while ago.  Doonsbury, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes...even Wil Eisner's seminal classic, The Spirit.  In each of these, I went back to the beginning and was surprised to find how crudely they were put together.  The flash of genius was there, true...but the art was not what I was accustomed to.  As I read on, through the continuity of the piece, I began to see start points.  That is where this character got his signature look...that is where he started using that plot line.  These beginnings all pointed to one inescapable conclusion.  I was watching an artist evolve before my very eyes.  I began intentionally seeking out first published works of my current favorite artists.  Craftsman with talent and style I aspire to all had to start somewhere.  What I found amazed me.  Even these great masters began the same.  Their initial experiments while acceptable enough for professional work were Light Years away from their current talents.  This discovery both inspired and intimidated me.  If THESE guys, whose very names shake the graphic medium like earthquakes had that crudeness in them, surely mine could be overlooked.  By that same token, if I failed to grow at this level, my dreams of being the best there is would be crashed on the rocks of reality.

I began looking closely at my older works with this in mind and saw that, just as with the masters, my older work showed a crudity and roughness that matched theirs.  There were also flashes.  A panel here, a pose there...hell, even a car in the background all held within them the hint of something more to come.  I was watching myself evolve before my own eyes.  Trial and experimentation begat my particular outlook.  I saw my proclivity to draw 3/4 downward facial poses.  I saw the birth of my love of a sillouetted figure in a long, tall panel.  This trip was as ecucational as it was fun.  I was visiting old playgrounds with a new perspective. 

Where it got strange was with my current project, The Portland Express.  I have been working on this for almost a year now.  I started this project as a learning place.  My goal was to practice the craft as best as I was able and grow my skills.  My intention was never to publish the work, though that has since become the point.

What I saw in the beginnings of this project were the same crudities my 'evolution' had eliminated.  I regressed back to First Stage with the first page.  I showed growth from that point on.  I could see the beginnings of the characters styles and my layout tendencies, but I could also see my lame attempts at exceeding my current abilities.   I learned new techniques almost weekly, from scanning image quality to lettering with a computer to eventually coloring the entire project with photoshop. This seemed the best I could do at the time, and I remember thinking to myself "This is my best work so far" with each 4-page chapter I produced.  What I realize now is that that self acknowledgement was the outward sign of my inner evolution.  I was changing subtly but surely and what's more...I was noticing it.

This left me with the following dilemma.  I am better than I was a year ago.  If I want to make the project worthwhile to someone, don't I owe them my very best?  By that token, do I go back into the older issues and redo them to bring them up to speed with my current abilities?  I run a danger in that of creating an endless loop of improvement.  I get better with every page.   Does this mean that I redo every single page from here to eternity until I am satisfied? 

Left with the choice of giving the public their money's worth and creating an endless circle of work, I took the coward's way out in this decision and choose to do nothing.  I will allow my evolution to dangle in the wind for all to see, set in the hopes that the public will bear with me long enough to see the growth themselves.
At any rate, if years from now, my name is spoken in the revered tones as the masters and some aspiring artist is studying my work with the same eye towards growth, he too will spot evolution and be inspired.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fist

by: Roger A Wilbanks

Stop the camera here for just one second and allow me to explain what it is you see happening now.

This is me, the guy looking at the smiling guy next to me with the quixotic expression. That is the guy, frozen in time, his bare knuckles flying hard at my unsuspecting jaw. Those are the onlookers, all gasping at what was just said and practically wetting their pants in anticipation of flesh and bone to connect.

These are the details, but that's not what you want to know. Am I right? You want to know what was said. You want to know what made that guy so angry that he felt the need to plow my face like a cornfield. The easy answer is fate. I walked into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Fifteen minutes ago, if I pieced this together correctly, this guy was standing at the bar with his friends working on their fifteenth round. Judging from their uniform sportswear, you would probably be correct in assuming they play some kind of team sport. It is also safe to assume they were victorious in tonight's contest based on their celebratory manner.

Then I walked in.

I'm not an asshole on a regular basis. I pull that particular ripcord only when I feel like I'm trapped in a plummeting airplane. For the most part, I am a kind, congenial chap with a sharp wit and a keen sense of humor. All modesty aside, if you take the time to get to know me, odds are you will like me. But sometimes I have a habit of opening my mouth when it's best to just shut the fuck up.

Twenty minutes ago, I pull into the parking lot of this bar. I have had one of those nights where nothing seemed to go right for me. On my way to this bar, I got a speeding ticket. Before that, I broke up with a girl I had been seeing for a few days. That in itself is not a mope-worthy event, but if added to with other influences, it acts as a multiplyer. Earlier today, I had the day at work that leads office workers to have such a high occurance of alcoholism. As I fit my Jeep into one of the available parking spaces, I lit a cigarette. You aren't allowed to smoke inside the bars these days, so I wanted to get this out of the way. Five minutes and 3 inches of niccotine nail later, I walk into the bar.

Immediately, my attention is drawn to the group of fellows celebrating. Their cheering and laughter is impossible to ignore. I am in no mood to join in on this revelry so I walk to the other side of the bar. I have never been to this particular establishment before so I don't know anyone. But the bartender is a cute college girl and this sets my mind at ease. I approach her and order a beer, which she delivers promptly and with a wry smile that makes me instantly want her phone number. She's good. I'll give her that.

Ten minutes ago I finished that beer and ordered another one, but my bartender was busy dealing with a trio of the fellows at the other end of the bar. I managed to get her attention long enough to flex the universal "One More" sign and receive the even more universal "I Understand" nod and settled back into my casual lean against the wooden bar.

I look down and see the debris on the floor....cigarette butts, broken glass and wet. The floor is covered in wet. I have no way of knowing if it's water, beer or booze, but find myself curiously asking it's origin nontheless. The guy leaning next to me tells me that it's beer from a round of bottles dropped by one of the 'fellows' about an hour ago. This makes me laugh for reasons which I have no inkling. The guy looks at me with a curious gaze and turns away. This is my first mistake.

Eight minutes ago, I haven't gotten my beer yet. The 'Fellows' have migrated around to my side of the bar, as it is closer to the beer tub the bartender serves from. They are waiting for their order, the same as me. I feel this makes us brothers in waiting. I feel connected to them by this, and this is my second mistake.

Six minutes ago, the bartender gives the "fellows" their beers. They are no longer laughing from being forced to wait. One of them who knows the bartender is taking her to task for being too slow. This happens a lot here, I gather from the poorly concealed laughter at the bartender's expense. When she finally handed me my beer Three minutes ago, I was just happy to have one.

The "fellows" were still standing next to me giving the bartender a hard time when one of them fumbled his beer, causing it to fall helpless to the floor. I look to the guy leaning beside me and say "I bet that happens all the time, here." in an attempt to get a laugh out of him. He takes this entirely the wrong way.

Two minutes ago the guy says "Hey Wally! This asshole's saying you drop your beer a lot. Guess he thinks you're a retard or something." I look stunned. In no way, shape or form did what I just said imply this. Wally pokes me in the shoulder and asks me if I do indeed think he is retarded.

I'll be completely honest in the few seconds I have left of clear consciousness. I DID think Wally was a retard. You are trained from your first entrance into the world of public houses of drinking that dropping a beer is tantamount to Original Sin. To do so brands you as clumsy at best and irresponsible at worst. So yes. I thought Wally was a clumsy retard that should by all rights not be allowed back in the place until his head was firmly fitted with a bright yellow helmet made of the softest rubber available. That's what I am thinking. But this isn't what I say. The words that manage to come out of my lips are actually pretty stupid in retrospect. I kind of feel silly even making them part of the public record, but what the hell. "Huh? Wha? I didn't....who?"

That's it. That is what I say just over one minute ago in my own defense. "Retard this!" says Wally. I am still looking at the guy that just sold me out as I hear these words.

OK. We're all caught up to speed. You all now know just as much as I do in the milliseconds I have left awake. Wally's fist smashes into the side of my jaw and a bright white light erupts on the opposite side of my face.

I wake later with many people standing over me. My bartender is waving the throngs back and holding smething that smells like shit under my nose. Wally and his friends are still in the bar laughing hysterically. A small bar fight erupted around this event but that settled down before I regained consciousness. Jenny, that's the bartender's name, suggests I get out of there while I still can and asks if I need a cab. I am a little rubber legged but still within my faculties enough to manage the drive home.

The entire drive home, I ask myself what I did in a previous life to deserve such shitty Karma. I'm not bleeding from the sucker punch, but it will take a lot of ice to keep the swelling down. My face is going to look like shit tomorrow. I clean out my pockets onto my dresser with my free hand and stop when I come across a neatly folded bar tab with these words clearly and very neatly written upon them. "Sorry for Wally. Call me sometime, Jenny." Her number was written below.

Just goes to show you that sometimes you have to get your face busted to have something good fall into your lap, I suppose.

I had an idea the other day...

There was nothing odd about that. It happens so often to me as a writer that I don't tend to get too excited about it. But this was a really good idea. Earthshaking. That got me to thinking. How, as a writer, do I tell these Earthquake Ideas from the little tremor ones? And make no mistake. For every skyscraper that comes across my keyboard's horizon, I see a few dozen ramshackle, tin-roofed huts. And...more to the point, how do I convey this process to someone else?

I don't have a definitive answer to this, and if you come across these words looking for me to show you the way like some Verbal Sherpa, I am sorry I disappointed you. What I do have is my own little point of view which I will happily share with the person rare enough to read this.

It's all in the tingle.

You know that tingle. I know you've felt it before. You have felt it driving late at night to your girlfriend's house, on the way to a movie you have waited years to see, or even to the store to pick up that one tomato that will set your dinner off just right. It's the anticipatory tingle that accompanies desire. I get such a tingle when that idea jumps off the paper. Sometimes I get it before I even have a chance to commit the idea to paper or print. Other times, I get it from an old sketch or notebook where I just jotted down something that made absolutely no sense to me at the time. The thing is, I never know when the tingle is going to come. I just welcome it when it does. That tingle tells me that I am on to something. It is foolish to ignore it.

How do you know when the idea is right? How do you know what the next step is? Easy. You don't. You, as a writer (assuming you want to be called that. If you don't, you can feel free to stop reading now.) are honor bound to follow your gut. You are required to take that tingley little idea and breathe fire into it as Prometheus did when he gave man his first torch. The only thing that will hold you back here is your own fear. If you spend more than one second asking yourself what other people will think of this idea, the honest truth is you don't deserve it. Better to let that idea slip back through the etherous crack and into some other poor soul's cabesa than to run it through the meat grinder of what you THINK the public wants. The idea deserves better treatment, and until you are prepared to pay it the respect it has coming to it, the best thing you can do is walk away from the notebook and resume whatever you were doing before it came to you. When you are focused on the idea, you will begin to see it take shape in your mind. Depending how you visualize things, you will see it play out mentally. Personally, I tend to see things on a movie screen. I like to think of my mental workspace as an old time theater and I'm sitting in a big comfy chair watching it play out on the screen. These images freeze for me at times, and other times they progress like a scene in a film. Either way, the ideas tend to come to me in the form of "Coming Attractions". I like thinking of them as seeds that grow as I water them with attention. (perhaps a subject for a different essay) But however I form this abstract process into an understandable conveyance, the point is the initial ideas generally start small and grow into something else. The key to this is a clear mind with a vast and enormous encyclopedia of information for you to build on.

Let's say you see a WWI Soldier's helmet and get an idea for a story revolving around it. If you don't have the background, that idea dies on the vine. Thus it is always in your best interest to make sure you know a little bit about everything. This is the thing that curses all writers as know-it-all's, but it is also what enables us to take those ideas and run with them.

You never know what will spark this idea. You can only train yourself to recognize it and act upon it when you do so. The key is to keep your mind open and clear. Let your MIND do all the hard work. use your BRAIN when it comes to making it all fit together.

Esoteric concepts like this always frustrated me when I was younger. I was the type who wanted the answer to the question given him on a plate with garnish and a napkin. I hated doing the thought-work necessary to work these concepts out for myself. It wasn't until I came to the realization that, while we can all get the same education, some people just do more with it than others, that I saw the necessity for contemplation. I'm no enlightened Bhudda, sitting under the Bhodi Tree with Lotus flower petals falling around me. I'm just a guy that sees the cup half full and spends more time thinking about the missing half than the half in front of him.

This thing that sets me apart from everyone else is very small. It's so small in fact, that it can't even be seen. But just as electricity cannot be seen before you get shocked...just as heat can't be seen until you grab a hot class...just as momentum cannot be seen until that fist smashes into your face, the smallest things make all the difference. It doesn't make me a better writer than the next guy, but it is in accepting that I AM am writer, and that I am willing to work these ideas from unseen tingle to fully realized concepts that I truly feel worthy of even calling myself a writer.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Who Taught You How To Draw?

I get asked this question a lot. The answer is so simple that people think I am fucking with them.

No one did. Everyone did.

Every line I draw today comes from something I have seen before. Be it another artist’s drawing that I traced when I was 14, a great master’s painting I saw when I was 17, or a building in shadow I saw when I was 23, I have seen it somewhere before. This leads some people to accuse me of being derivative, and I couldn’t disagree more with that.

To say that because I used a facial shadow like one I saw in a Frank Miller drawing 20 years ago, or because I drew that building based on a layout I saw on a postcard in Brooklyn back in 1980 or even because I have used a similar panel layout on a page I did personally 10 years ago that my art has been done before is to shortchange the drawing I just made.

Every time I put pencil to paper these days, it is with a blank page in my head. On that blank page, my mind literally throws image after image onto the paper like a deck of cards until I see one I like. When I get that image in mind, I hold it onto my mind’s paper and begin drawing it on the real paper. This process can last anywhere from 2 seconds to days, and I have learned by now never to rush it. It is from this storehouse of every piece of art I have seen over my life, every shadow, every person walking down Main Street in Deep Ellum on a Friday night, every image I have seen in movies and television that I draw these images I fly through on my mind’s canvas. I mold these images to fit what I need, like morphing them ala Terminator 2. If I get half a pose from this one and the rest from that, and the shading from another, the three merge and shift until I get the one I am happy with. Sometimes I have to sketch these out to lock them in place and then resift them until it’s just right, but for the most part, they all come from that same mental canvas.

It is precisely this mental manipulation that I think makes all the difference between being unique and being derivative. The amount of artists these days that exist solely because they can copy another artist’s style never ceases to amaze me. I remember back in the day when Todd McFarlane left Spiderman and Marvel brought in artist after artist that drew like him that this notion cemented itself in my head. I would never be that type of artist. I would never copy another. My art would come completely from my own mind. But it doesn’t really, does it? If, as I just wrote, I pull from an enormous mental library of art, video and real life…I’m really just copying, aren’t I? This is the part of the method that I try to explain in my answer to the question “Who taught you how to draw?”

No one did. Everyone did.

We all have this mental image Rolodex in us. This is what enables us to navigate rooms, recognize faces and generally interact in a visual world. The fact that some use this to create something out of an amalgam of all they have seen, while others simply redraw another artist’s work is immaterial. We’re both getting our inspiration from an external source. Where my method differs is in its approach.

When I was in Jr High, my art teachers recognized my ability before I even realized I had it. I just knew from an early age that I could draw well, and never really concerned myself with the fact that others couldn’t. I never realized that made me different.

In High School, my art teachers tried to get me to conform to a copying mentality. Their opinion was that If I could draw the garbage can just like the artist in the School Book did, that made me good. I rejected this. I refused to comply with this idea and my High School art career was cut short. This was not a bad thing though. I disappeared into the library where I discovered other artists like Michelangelo and Picasso. My school didn’t have a lot in the way of art books but I absorbed every page from them nonetheless. I saw in Michelangelo’s painting the subtleties between the color of a fabric in bright light vs. the same fabric nestled under an arm’s cast shadow. Till then I used a single color for a garment. This taught me that there were different ways to signify shade. This was a very valuable lesson for me. Looking at Picasso was more of a challenge for me however. His early work was recognizable. That was a clown, while that was a man. His cubist growth, though well documented in print, was confusing to me. I remember asking myself “Why did he switch gears like that? He was good?” I was unable to answer this question right away but eventually I learned that this was growth. Just as I am not drawing the same things I did at Age ten as I am now, Pablo simply began seeing a better way to do things. Armed with this understanding I began seeing differences in everything I looked at that I never saw before. I began to see growth. This was the most important lesson I learned in High School.

In College, I was an arrogant ass. At least for one semester, I was. I was set in my way, in that I was a comic book artist, and nothing would deter me from learning everything about that skill as humanly possible. Again, my first assault came by way of the school library. Immensely more diverse than the one I was used to, I became exposed to Thomas Nast, Alex Raymond, Burne Hogarth and the like. These artists became my surrogate teachers. It was this point where I began mimicking what I saw; trying hard to do it JUST like Alex did in that third panel of Flash Gordon. I took this mentality to my Art class and while I did passable work, there was just something missing. It was here that I received the absolute best teaching that I have ever gotten, when my professor, Larry Felty asked me quite simply, “Do you have to outline everything?” This was near the end of that first semester, and he had said hardly a word to me the entire class till that point, but this question shook me to my core. In those six words put a mirror to my face and I began to see that I was becoming a mimic. I was trying to draw like someone rather than become a good artist. There IS a distinction between these two, and I will attempt to explain it.

I spent the next semester in college working this out for myself and finally got a grasp on it. I was trying to draw LIKE someone rather than to learn what they knew. I came across a book with a quote “Do not seek to duplicate the efforts of Great People. Rather seek to learn what motivated them to MAKE their decisions.”

In other words, don’t draw like Frank Miller. Learn why Frank drew like he did.

This was a watershed moment for me as an artist. I began to look at chiaroscuro art from the 13th century, and in Japanese woodcuts. I actively studied Rembrandt, who till then I had dismissed entirely. I went over every Leonardo sketch I could get my hands on, and upon learning he did drawings from life, including dissected animals, signed up for a biology class for the SOLE purpose of drawing the dissected animal I would have to produce. I taught myself anatomy from Grey’s Anatomy (Not the television show, Dammit) and studied architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright and then Louis Sullivan, HIS teacher. It was THIS stage when my mental Rolodex began to fly images past me. Prior to this discovery, I would cement an image and doggedly stick to it, come Hell or High Water. I began to see the world in line, shape and shade.

I began keeping a sketchbook and drawing from life whenever I could. I drew the students in the halls, in class and on the bus. I went downtown and sat on the roof of the Starlight Diner in Deep Ellum and drew every building in the Dallas skyline until I could do it from memory. But I had completely chucked my earlier drawing method, and this new one was not as smooth a transition as I make it out to be.

One of the greatest art books I have ever read is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. One of the tenants of this work is that it is in our nature to draw in ‘code’. When we learn how to draw a nose, we will perfect that drawing and use it as a representative for every nose we ever draw. This is a shortcut, and it was one of the habits I had to break. Granted I still kept that perfected nose in my mind, along with all the noses every other artist ever drew (Good or bad) I also kept a wireframe image in my head of the structure of the nose. The line, the shape, the shade. This way I would be able to manipulate it any way I saw fit until it was the right one to use. This was the method I had to teach myself to use for everything, and it is still the one I use to this day. I never was one for drawing from models. All those figures you see in my comics come from my understanding of the line, shape and shade of the human body. I still use reference photos for things like buildings, cars and guns, but every time I draw one of these, I keep that wireframe image in my head alongside that picture.

I have always thought in pictures so this was pretty easy for me to do. It is this reason that keeps me maintaining to this day that I do not have a ‘style’ in which I draw. You look at comics today and, for the most part, it is pretty easy to tell the artist on any book assuming you have seen their work before by their style. Romita has a very unique style. Miller does too. Simonson also. These artists are masters of their craft, but I do not want to fall into that trap of trying to duplicate them.

Musashi, the great Japanese Samurai wrote that ‘No-Style’ is the best style to have. Limit yourself in one way, and you limit yourself in all ways. Therefore, remove the style, and you remove the limits. (he also said “Distinguish between Gain and Loss in worldly matters.” And “Become acquainted in all arts.” But that’s for another day.”) This means to the learning artist, Draw that line, but never copy it. Know what the line MEANS. Learn what the line IS. These are pretty esoteric terms for a young artist to absorb, but this is the most important lesson of them all.

When an artist learns THIS one single lesson, he or she will understand exactly what I mean when I answer “No one did. Everyone did.”