Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stacy Wanted To Cry

Of my cartoons, this is one of my all-time favorites.

I’m glad modern scanners work so well because this is a low contrast image. I had to make the llama low contrast so that it wouldn’t interfere with the caption, and then I had to make the girl reasonably low contrast to harmonize with the llama.

This is also one of my oldest cartoons. It’s more than two years old. I know that because Stacy is a real person and I haven’t seen her since forever. (The llama is an imaginary llama.)

Although I drew this a long time ago, the caption and image always stayed in my mind—for some reason. The year before last, toward the end of October, I was sitting at a computer and feeling energetic but with nothing particular on my mind to blog about. So, I decided to spend the next five days improvising a single story. And to make things fun, I rummaged through my mind and picked this cartoon as the starting point of the story, even though there was no ‘story’ at all behind the cartoon. Each day I wrote four stanzas, making up stuff to move the story forward a little and hopefully work to something like a conclusion. I don’t remember why I changed the name from Stacy to Jill. It came out to be one of my favorite five day blog themes. [Jill, At Halloween Time, Pt. 1,   Pt. 2,   Pt. 3,   Pt. 4 and Pt. 5]

It feels very good to have the original cartoon here on the blog, too, along with the story it inspired.

My main reaction, however, to looking at the cartoon is to be disconcerted at how much better my drawings were a few years back. Why were my drawings better years ago than they are now? What the heck happened to me?

I’m going to try to answer that question for the rest of today’s post. (I mean, I’m going to answer why my old drawings are better than my new drawings. I have no idea what the heck happened to me.)

I believe these old cartoons look so much better than my new cartoons because I think forethought and pre-planning, slow work and constant thought can make a phenomenal difference in entertainment and art.

When I draw a cartoon now I make it a point to finish (mostly!) on the same day I started. I try to get from conception to final (except sometimes the lettering) in three to four hours. (This is because there are, again, only a certain number of hours in a day and I want to keep the bulk of my time available for writing.)

A couple of years ago when I did a drawing I would devote four or five days to the image.

I would work in two or three hour sessions in the morning.

I would always start with a specific idea, and then I would devote the entire first morning session to designing the image. I would work with little thumbnails drawn four to a sheet where I’d try out various arrangements of lights and darks set against mid tones. I wouldn’t even attempt a full size image. When I had some arrangement that looked okay from a simple visual point of view I would put the work aside until the next day. But I would have the whole rest of the first day to think about, to mull over, what I’d done in the morning. Sometimes I would do little tweaks and changes in passing during the rest of the first day.

The second day I would work on converting the design scheme to a specific, full-size layout. I’d ignore the actual lights and darks and draw shapes, areas with hard and soft edges, making sure I got the shapes in correct proportion and in the correct placement. This would require a heck of a lot of erasing—this is when I learned that soft pencils, B-grade pencils, are not just darker than hard pencils; they’re good to use early because they erase very easily. Sometimes, too, I would get things so wildly wrong for one reason or another that I’d crumple up the sheet and start over. (I work on plain typing paper, so it’s not too expensive to start over.) At the end of the session I’d put the work aside and, again, I’d have the rest of the second day to mull over what I’d done and maybe make little corrections and revisions before starting the third session.

The third day I would work on actually rendering the image, adding the tones and textures. I would begin on scratch paper, practicing light values and dark values, smooth areas and textured areas. Then I’d go to work on the actual image, developing each value range, lights, mediums and darks across the sheet. At the end of this session everything would be more or less finished except for little bright highlights I’d be erasing out and intense dark accents I’d be pressing in. I’d spend the rest of the third day considering where I’d put those little touches.

The fourth day I would devote to little tweaks and changes, the highlights and accents and whatever little changes occurred to me. If I finished early I’d do the lettering on the fourth day, but I often put everything aside, again, and did the lettering on the fifth day. That would also give me another day to think about how everything looked and what other little tweaks and changes I could perform.

Now, all this slow working and all this thinking made for images that I’m still very proud of. But even back then I kept asking myself how realistic my work routine was in a commercial world. It took me more than a month [!] to create a batch of five cartoons to send off to a magazine. Even if a magazine had purchased one or two cartoons (no one ever did) the money wouldn’t have offset the time I’d spent.

So, as my skills developed, I was constantly asking myself how I could speed up the process, how I could sort out the good work that takes forever from the good enough work that can be done in a reasonable amount of time.

Part of the issue, too, is that I can only work on one ‘creative’ thing at a time. One manuscript at a time or one drawing at a time. Some people can have a kind of assembly line going, with different projects at different stages of completion and then move from one project to the next. Some people just can’t work that way. I’m a one-project-at-a-time kind of guy.

I’ve always been trying to bring my skills up to the highest level I can so that I can work through a project as fast as possible while maintaining the highest quality that is reasonable.

With writing I’m very comfortable recognizing when I might be starting to go too fast and I have no trouble catching myself and slowing down. Looking at my new cartoons compared to my old cartoons, I think I might have let my quality standards slide a little bit too much. Whether I work with pencils or pens, I think I’m going to slow down a little.

Wednesday and Thursday will be another new cartoon and old cartoon pair of posts. It helps me to actually see these cartoons reduced and displayed in the blog format. I’m a little nervous putting up another new/old pair because, again, I like the old one so much better. But, what the hell, blogs are about being more-or-less honest, even if it’s a little embarrassing.

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