Friday, May 27, 2011

Theo a la Theo

Here's a picture I did of Theo and the other characters from Savage Nobles in the Land of Enchantment in the style of local cartoonist Theo Ellsworth. Consider it my modest tribute to this awesome artist.

I actually got to chat with Theo Ellsworth over burritos last weekend when we were both in Washington for the Olympia Comics Festival. Even though I was bumping elbows with much more famous comics artists during the festival, none of them intimidated me so much as Theo. I feel as though in this candid photograph of the two of us you can actually see the nervousness in my facial expression and posture.

Why would this be? Festival guests Larry Gonick and Paul Chadwick are both excellent artists, but I basically understand how they got that way. They practiced a lot, studied the works of artists they admire, probably read a few instructional books on art or storytelling, or got pointers from fellow cartoonists. By contrast, Theo's artistic process is completely opaque to me. If his comics are to be believed, he basically gets inspiration by delving into some weird interior mental zone and meeting a bunch of thoughts incarnated as fantastical creatures.

This might be why meeting him in person was so intimidating - anyone else who's met him can tell you that Theo has about the gentlest, least intimidating personality you could imagine. The cognitive dissonance comes from knowing that his mind is nevertheless capable of concocting bizarre mystical visions, and may be doing so at any moment. As he was talking to me, was he imagining tassled antlers springing from my head or little monster-men driving on my shoulders in tiny cars?

Even though I've spent the past year honing my "craft" by studying the Masters, and even though I have a long-standing aversion to the "Vesuvius" school of creativity - i.e. the muse strikes you and you simply spew out its inspiration on the page, there's something I still seriously admire about this kind of self-taught, highly personal/intuitive creativity.

When I was a younger and less technically schooled artist, I loved putting little weird things in my drawings, cramming every inch of a picture with whatever quirky idea struck me at the time - sometimes without even knowing what to expect would come out of my pencil. I sort of miss that now!

(By the way, don't take any of this to mean that I don't think Theo's work is also technically very good - it is! Nor is all of it psychologically ponderous - it can be very lighthearted as well.)

(Also, just so you don't think I'm an obsessive fan-boy, I named the character Theo long before I had ever heard of Theo the artist. It's a coincidence, I swear!)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Olympia Comics Fest 2011

I had a great time this weekend (my birthday weekend!) visiting Olympia, WA for the comics fest. It's organized by Chelsea Baker who also let me stay at her house and sleep on her futon, and who also draws a terrific daily auto-bio comic that you should check out - it's totally addictive.

The guests of honor at this year's Fest were Paul Chadwick, Megan Kelso, and Larry Gonick! Paul Chadwick is extremely charming in real life, a very soft-spoken fella who put up with our sycophantic fawning with dignity and generosity. Megan Kelso is really funny and smart and I'm mad that I missed her panel on feminism in contemporary comics. But the reason I missed it was so that I could attend the hour-long panel with LARRY GONICK!

I sketched Larry while he was giving his slideshow. Until yesterday, it was literally impossible for me to picture the man as looking like anything other than his authorial proxy, the Einstein-haired professor who narrates most of his non-fiction books. The actual Larry Gonick is tall and lanky.

During Q&A, I asked him what he thought was the proper role for a modern Marxist in the world of comics. Larry, who used to be a card-carrying socialist, gave the laudable and succinct answer "to sit back and reconsider," before launching into a pretty weird biology lecture about kin selection. From what I gathered then and later at the book-signing, he thinks Marxism's exclusive focus on the economic aspects of life overlooks the importance of genetics and evolution in shaping history. If this is really his view, then I think he's skewering a straw-man Marx, perhaps his parents' Marx or the Marx of 1970s San Francisco. And why the evolutionary-biologist perspective? Perhaps this is the logical worldview of someone whose "history of the universe" begins with the Big Bang and the Primordial Soup. I worry that a biologically-based view of class struggle can end up being even more mechanistic-deterministic than allegedly "purely economic" orthodox Marxism.

Anyway, that's a minor quip. I'm not even sure I understood him properly. And I still agree with Gonick's politics 1,000x more than last year's guest, the insufferable libertarian Peter Bagge!

Spent Sunday exploring the sweet town of Olympia. Hey, do y'all remember the comic I did about a time-travelling Olympian back in May of 2010?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Katy Ellis O'Brien Coloring Book

My friend and housemate Katy Ellis O'Brien is having a coloring contest to promote the upcoming release of her coloring book. I encourage all of you to enter it. Digitally coloring Katy's images is particularly fun, since all of her linework is closed, animation-style, meaning you can select areas using Photoshop's magic wand tool instead of the tedious lasso.

Katy originally drew most of these drawings for her after-school-care kids at the YMCA. Often the kids themselves will request the subject matter, resulting in some really quirky images like a dog riding a motorscooter.

Since I'm pretty certain that, as her housemate, I'm ineligible for the contest, I decided to color this image deliberately in a way that would annoy Katy. She has often expressed her distaste for the current trend in computer animation to apply photo-realistic textures to cartoony, malproportioned characters. I guess she thinks that cartoony characters should be rendered in a smoother, more graphical way. I definitely see her point. When this is done badly, it's one of the worst looking things you could imagine.

But there are also times when I think it works, and I don't know exactly what to peg this on. There's something about that Joe-Sacco-type big-picture-little-picture imbalance that I kinda like, where each little piece of stubble is delicately rendered on a figure who is basically a few squares and circles.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Praise Song for Every Hand-Painted Sign

Today I painted a sign for my friend Rand's new farm, One Leaf Farm up in Carnation, WA. I can't take credit for the design though - somebody else created that logo. I think it's pretty good. Logos for "organic" products are usually characterized by earthen tones and tedious images of red barns nestled in quiet valleys. (Yes, nestled. Always nestled.) This black and white logo will stand out from the colors of the surrounding booths and from the vegetables themselves.

Interesting fact about my friend Rand: the Black Flag t-shirt she used to wear around the farm inspired the one Tonya wears in Savage Nobles in the Land of Enchatment!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A few NYC sketches

I visited New York City last weekend and was kept so busy with friends that I barely got to draw at all. But on my last day there I did manage to sketch a bunch of people having lunch in Union Square. I like the quizzical woman in the center - she really did look like that.

And this dog with a tennis ball, and this other guy.

Drawing from life is really fun, and I wish I'd gotten to do more of it while I was in New York. The city is full of such interesting-looking people, even if most of them won't stand still. These picture all had to be scribbled in under a minute.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Cast Shadows

"Too late I loved thee, beauty both so ancient and so new!" - St. Augustine

Okay, that's a little hyperbolic, but it still aptly describes my newfound appreciation for cast shadows. I frickin' love these guys.

Just so we're clear on the terms, a cast shadow is dark patch formed by something coming between an object and the light source illuminating it. This is distinct from part of an object being IN SHADOW because part of it faces away from the light source. For instance, if I am performing on a spotlighted stage, the back of my head and clothes will be IN SHADOW, but I will CAST A SHADOW on the wall behind me, and perhaps my microphone will cast a shadow on my own chest.

In real life, cast shadows are everywhere, but in comics, artists often need to reduce their number to keep a composition from becoming an unintelligible mess. Many cast shadows are also distracting and unflattering: the shadow the nose casts on the upper lip at noonday, when drawn in stark black and white, has a tendency to look like Hitler's mustache.

Isn't the image at left so much better?

However, cast shadows in comics can also be used to tremendous effect in any of several different ways.

1.) They indicate a light source. This is pretty obvious, but cast shadows can do wonders to establish the time of day or the location of a lamp, candelabra, etc.

2.) They define the object they fall on. Nothing makes a cylindrical object look more cylindrical than the big ol' black semicircle of a cast shadow. We wouldn’t necessarily know that a speeding motorcycle has both wheels off the ground unless we saw that black oval on the ground beneath it. Shadows can also describe texture - the shadow I cast on a stucko wall will have ragged edges compared to one I cast on a linoleum floor.

3.) They assist in storytelling. A shadow can function like a big black arrow pointing to the intended center of attention, leading the reader’s eye. A shadow can let us know an enemy is approaching around the corner, and that he’s got a gun.

4.) Perhaps most subtly, they can suggest moods or even themes. When a father’s cast shadow falls across the face of his son, we begin to suspect that his domineering attitude is always with the boy, as if looming over him. A tiny businessman might cast an enormous shadow, suggesting his disproportionate financial power.

As an overall example, check out this panel from an amazing "Mandy Riley" 1983 comic drawn by Ernesto Garcia Seijas:

That cast shadow 1.) establishes the light source as being somewhere outside the hut, to the right, 2.) further defines the location of the wall behind the hero, AND describes its texture as a rough, stone surface. 3.) The shadow helps clarify a rather tricky bit of stage-blocking, reemphasizing that the snake has actually wound partly around Mandy and is now facing his left shoulder. 4.) Notice that, while the actual snake’s head is facing Mandy, its shadow is facing the girl on the left. Thematically, this suggests that, while self-preservation is Mandy’s immediate goal, his ultimate purpose is to protect his benippled friend, menaced by the snake’s shadow. This type of suggestion may only work subconsciously, or it may only work for overanalytical nerds like me.

(By the way, I recommend that you check out the full Mandy story, El Torrente. Every single page is a total work of art. But bear in mind that it is in Spanish. Also, even with my limited Spanish skills, I can tell that it is DEFINITELY sexist and also quite racist. But I am getting desensitized to this kinda crap as I study Caniff, Toth and all these other dead comics geniuses. Unfortunately the best artists also drew some of the stupidest, most bigoted stories.)

Hooray for cast shadows! How many more can you spot in recent pages of Savage Nobles in the Land of Enchantment?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...