Friday, June 29, 2012

Comics and Language: or Why Comics are Completely and Totally Awesome

Generally, people don't tend to fully understand the medium and how it works even when they've read a bunch of comics over their lifetime. People often are looking for the quality of the draftsmanship and general story as a judge of the quality of the strip, without understanding what comics do best and how they do it. I've seen a lot of well drawn comics that work lousy as comics, and some comics that are well drawn, but not in the sense of traditional draftsmanship.

For example: Peanuts is well drawn, in that Schulz uses his cartoon language in a very deliberate and meaningful way. It didn't just come out that way because he couldn't draw a guy with a normal-sized head. He's able to communicate on an emotional level with the simplest of symbols, and make every dot and squiggle count. This is why looking at the individual drawings doesn't give you a sense of what he's achieved. If you've never seen Charlie Brown before, a single drawing of Charlie Brown doesn't have much emotional content. But over the course of the strip, Charlie Brown becomes undeniably Charlie Brown. There's no separating the drawing from his personality in your mind, and the transmission of the information is instant.

Superman is less effective, because of all the various interpretations of the character, but still, that distinctive costume and it's associations also have some instant emotional content, but it's less specific than Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is like a letter in an very specific alphabet. Even more so than a written word. As you read the strip, you learn the language of Charlie Brown, and the more you read the strip the more that language is enriched for you. The drawing itself begins to carry more meaning as you read the story over time. Not just the characters, but the sofas, and footballs and birdhouses. While traditional language can become enriched by your understanding of it over time, no symbol or character outside of cartooning can contain that kind of history and richness on its own. Pictographic language like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics can, but that, in its way, is comics! Really, any book that can't be read and understood without the pictures is essentially comics, which includes many kinds of picture books. Even drawn instructions in instruction manuals use the same principal.

So that's one of the reasons that comics are completely and totally awesome! Comics as a language has enriched my understanding of language in general. And the universality of the language is also pretty fascinating. Someone from an Asian country can make a wordless comic that, aside from very specific cultural references, I can essentially understand There's no other language like that in the world. But pictures in general are still cultural and have different cultural significance in themselves, and aboriginal cultures not exposed to these kind of pictures might not be able to interpret them.

Also different cultures have different pictorial histories, so just the shape of a Schulz football and how the marks are made, aside from its footballness, are a reference to our culture because of the way we make marks, and the history behind how we make those marks. Take another culture's specific pictorial vocabulary and its origins, say, Japanese woodblock printing and Kanji, that give Japanese comics their own vocabulary that is uniquely understood in a different way by Japanese than by us because of the style of mark making itself and how Japanese people are immersed in their own culture from birth. But you still have some universal symbols, like the way babies can understand a smiley face, that I imagine even aboriginal cultures would get.

This is why I'm completely and totally fascinated by the medium and find it hard to understand why everyone isn't! It's why I'm attracted to even the crappiest comics (aside from the fact that I just like superheroes and rocket ships), because there's always something to discover in how the artist uses symbols, because an artist can't help but draw in their own unique symbol vocabulary. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle on Red Fox!

I'm very excited to be introducing my new Early reader book, Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle for the first time on the Red Fox Literary site. As per my agent Abigail Samoun’s wishes while she's away, I posted my first blog post today about my new work in progress, “Ladybug and Gentleman Beetle” on the Red Fox Literary blog. Abigail and I worked together extensively on the manuscript and she helped me polish up the blog post so it was just perfect, so I hope you all enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please tweet and repost to help me get the word out! the link is of course the Red Fox Literary site, And congratulations of Abigail’s new baby!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dancing Queen

Another series of images inspired by my new model, Ella. Ella was kind enough to dance for me, and I got some great photos that captured her in action.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Another Ballerina

Another dancer sketch for a work in progress, another great Ella pose!

Friday, June 15, 2012


Here's a sketch for another sequential action piece in progress, using my favorite model, Ella! Even though she was a little out of practice, Ella put on tutu and danced for me, and I took some really great photos to work from.

The next day her mother e-mailed me to tell me that Ella had a play date with two little boys, and so I gave them a foam rubber sword and axe I got at the dollar bin at Target, and the three of them became pirates! So lots more to come.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

New Wednesday Figure

Here's a new figure study done last night. I added some tones and rendered it up a little more this morning, since the original study was just a little less than an hour. I tried to get as much info as I could to elaborate. There's only so much you can get in an hour, and I'm not typically a fast worker, but I'm pretty happy with this one.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Red Fox Literary's First Year Anniversary!

So this week my agent Abigail Samoun and her partner Karen Grencik celebrate the first year of their agency, Red Fox Literary! This week's Red Fox blog features birthday themed art by many of the talented folks they represent to celebrate the occasion! Here's my own contribution:

 and you can see the rest here

It was a big honor to be chosen to be represented by Abigail last year, and so far  it's been a very productive and enlightening relationship. Not only do I have the gift of a great agent, but a great editor, and she's been instrumental in my recent improvement as an illustrator and writer for young readers. I can't thank Abi enough. She'll also be celebrating another birthday soon--that of her her new baby! So congratulations Abi on both birthdays!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Girl Playing with Blue Ball

So here's the finish. Some of the poses are based on photos of my neighbor, Ella, and some are from my imagination, and just from getting a feel of how she moved and played from watching her. 

With this one, I kept the color simple, reminiscent of the limited color and action in my inspiration for this one, Hilary Knight's work on Eloise. I love doing sequential action, and I really had a great time with this one.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Masked figure

Here was a figure that I still want to redraw. It's not bad, but not quite what I was after. 

I wanted to do a companion piece to the first Easter image with two girls, one with a mask. I always admired Renee French's masked figures, and I wanted to try the motif myself. Time allowing, I'll return to the subject. Images of children with masks on has both a sense of play, and an eerie sense of anonymity and mystery. I used to love masks and costumes as a kid, and the idea of becoming someone else. In a way, masks do transform you, since your facial expression, or a part of it is concealed, and this is how people recognize your identity and what you're feeling. This is why even whimsical or silly masks can be a little scary, an are a motif so often used in horror movies. But then, this figure isn't very scary, is it? Not that that's my intention, but it doesn't quite contain the sense of mystery that I was going for. Instead it's just kind of cute.

Figure Drawing Etiquette

So maybe you've never drawn from the nude model before. Or maybe you've done it a hundred times. It's an unusual situation that doesn't have precedent or parallel for most of us outside the life drawing group. How are we supposed to act? I've been going to life drawing sessions for years and no one has really ever addressed this to me. The assumption is that you should know already, but why would you?

The model is presenting themselves as a subject of study. We're there to draw the model and to learn from the process. But the model is also, nude, and being nude can be a vulnerable position. Maybe the model is very comfortable with their body. Maybe they're not so confident. Maybe they're sensitive about their appearance. These are things we can't really know.

It's good to make the model feel welcome. It's good to be gracious. It's good to talk to them like a person, just as you would anyone else. It's good to give them some space during the break, especially when they're in the process of covering themselves. But it's not a good idea to talk about their bodies. Even with the best intentions, this is a very iffy area. I've done it myself. I've made, what I thought, were innocent comments about the models appearance, but you can't know how those comments are going to be interpreted. No matter how the comment is intended, if it's about the models body, even if it's complimentary, even if it's innocent, even if it doesn't seem to be inappropriate, it's better to err on the side of just not going there. For example: “you have pretty hair.” or “You have beautiful eyes.” No matter how innocently intended, this is the kind of comment best to be avoided.

Even if you're not talking directly to the model, even if the model isn't in the room, it's best not to talk about how attractive they are. They're not there for your gaze, but for your study. This is a very important distinction. We've all seen beautiful pictures of beautiful people, and there's nothing wrong with seeing them as beautiful, but in the life drawing session, respecting the model and what they're there to do means leaving these kinds of judgements and evaluations behind.

But if you have made comments like these, its not necessarily a tragedy or disaster, but as a rule of thumb, it's best to try to avoid making them in the future. We want everyone's experience, including the model's, to be a positive one, and it's up to all of us to do what we can to to make this a reality. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

June Figure Study in Dry Brush

This is a 2 hour dry brush study from life:

The pose was based a classic Michelangelo sculpture entitled, "Night."

It was a difficult pose to hold, but the model did an admirable job. having modeled myself, I have a real appreciation for the skill. Staying still for long periods of time and resuming a difficult pose like this after a break is no easy task. Afterwards it feels like you've been through a  hard workout.

This is the first time I've used my dry brush technique to draw from life, and it was a very satisfying experience. I love drawing the figure, and dry brush is my current favorite medium, so it was a rare pleasure. I penciled the drawing out first with a 2B pencil, and then started in with my usual mixture of acrylic and india ink. There are a few things I might have done differently--dry brush is a pretty unforgiving medium.  Accidents and all, you have to go with what you got. But there were some happy accidents too, and I'm generally pleased with the results. I think it's the first figure I've done that I feel like I could hang on the wall, so it represents a bit of a benchmark for me.

 About three and a half years ago I started drawing from life seriously for the first time since college, and I feel like I'm finally starting to hit stride. It's one of  the most challenging subjects you can draw, and it's long been a goal of mine to develop my life drawing skills to a point of real confidence and I feel like I'm starting to head in that direction. That doesn't mean I don't have a lot more to learn--I hope to continue learning and improving for the rest of my life--but I do feel like I'm starting to achieve a level of proficiency that I didn't have in the past. 

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Another Girl With Ball

Another pencil image of my girl playing with a ball sequence:

Sequential action is so much how I would like to approach children's books in general. My two greatest influences in this area are Raymond Briggs who did the Snowman, and Hilary Knight who illustrated the Eloise. I can't get me enough of that Eloise. She's all over the pages, riding elevators and dancing and causing all kinds of mischief. The recently collected the whole series of four books. The other three have been out of print forever, so I recommend snatching it up!

Friday, June 01, 2012

What's The Citizen Kane of Comics?

Citizen Kane has long been used as a gold standard for film, and has since become a generic analogy for greatness that is often applied to other media. It's been a favorite of Neil Gaiman, when in the 80s he declared comics to be an exciting new medium because it hadn't discovered its Citizen Kane yet. Later he decided that Will Eisner's Spirit was "the Citizen Kane of comics," even though The Spirit saw print about 40 years prior to his first statement, but he's perfectly entitled to change his mind. But apparently he didn't change his mind about Citizen Kane.

But I'm not fully on board with the assumption. I think it's a landmark film, and formally inventive in a way that no film had been prior, but calling it the greatest film in history discounts some of the great films made abroad in that same era, and of course, since. Welles' acting is, as usual, hammy, even by the standards of the time, as is the acting of much of the Mercury Theater cast, most of whom were new to film acting, and the writing--well it aint Tennessee Williams. And no matter what my personal opinion is of the film, giving it this status assumes the primacy of US cinema in a way that has been typical of American film criticism of the past. And I suppose I'm just tired of the Citizen Kane reference because it's so often repeated and so often repeated reflexively, as though Citizen Kane was the unquestioned high mark of cinema just because we're told it is.

So as much as I understand that it's useful to communicate the value of comics to the uninitiated by comparing it to other media, the Citizen Kane reference is a tired one, and comics aren't aren't like other media. For one, the greater part of comics history is dominated by comics targeted at children. It was, and sometimes continues to be considered a children's medium, and it took considerable bull-headedness in the face of indifference for those early cartoonists to make great art in that environment. 

Comics truly targeted at adults only started to happen in the mid sixties, and comics that attempted to be literary, Art with a capital "A", only happened in the last couple of decades. I know there were early exceptions, but this has been the general trend. So there's this uncomfortable relationship that cartoonists have had with comics history that is difficult to reconcile considering audience. Maybe Krazy Kat is Citizen Kane, or Eisner's Spirit, if we were to go with the assumption behind this analogy, but it still doesn't make sense. Only a minority of people understand comics historically, formally and as literature, and literary and film critics who are responsible for more mainstream comics criticism don't have that background. So dropping the analogy to film is useful. Comics need to be taught just as film and literature is taught, and when something like Persepolis is reviewed by the New York Times, it's important that the author of that review has real context for the work, that they're not thinking of it as formally comparable to film or prose. Or Citizen Kane. 

Girl with Ball

I'm working on a series of images based on some pictures I took of my six year old neighbor playing with an exercise ball. Here's a pencil drawing for one of them: