Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Curse of Maleficent


Ladies and Gentlereaders!

This is the very week that Maleficent comes out in theaters and I reckon there has never been a better time to sit back and type out the big ol' process post that has been a'brewin for the last few weeks since the book's come out.

For those of you who are completely lost- I recently illustrated The Curse of Maleficent- a YA chapter book tie-in for the upcoming Maleficent movie. It's on shelves now, and can be procured on Amazon if you're so inclined! So far the feedback has been extremely positive, and I am blessed and honored to feel so supported by you guys- best corner of the internet ever!

SO! All that said, it seems as good a time as any to talk candidly about the process of putting a project like this together
This is likely to wax a little more technical than my usual sentimental/philosophical- so if you came for the arts, welcome! For the feels, see my last entry :)
Other warnings: I will be pretty chatty- hopefully that is of interest to some of you, and if not there are plenty of pretty pictures to scroll to! Also: Spoilers! If you want to see the movie/book without foreknowledge of the events to come, don't read this yet. Okay? OKAY!

A little background might be helpful, no?
I connected with Disney Publishing many moons ago at my first ever comic-con in New York City...
(chime noises, flashback begins)
I was just a youngling, shopping my student portfolio around from table to table- and I noticed a fellow standing alone by the Disney booth. I wandered up and asked is he was looking at portfolios (he wasn't really, but "you know...why not? hand it over") He would eventually become my friend and editor, but it started with a happenstance encounter and a little bravery (perhaps more than a little naivete).
My takeaway? Always try.
You never know when someone is going to take an interest in your art, and you'll find yourself moving in a lot of surprising directions if you keep trying, asking, seeking. You miss every shot you don't take.
We stayed in touch, and a couple of years later the right mix of my availability and their need came together- book time! More or less- actually, the first thing I was asked to do was a few test illustrations based on some early movie stills, to see what my style/interpretation would look like for the project. So we'll start there!



I've gotten a lot of questions about my process over the years, and while I've done a livestream or two showing how my work comes together on the page- the actual drawing part is only a piece of the puzzle. Illustration of any kind starts with the idea, and the idea starts properly in...the thumbnails.
My favorite professor often quoted a mentor of his: "The final work is the [excrement] of your thumbnails"


Words to live by, as far as I'm concerned. It's been my experience that almost all the hardest, most important work is done in the thumbnails and the color study- everything after that is icing. The composition, storytelling and basic design are all in the sketches & thumbs- and (again, just my approach) they are best when detail is left entirely to the side. I actually blunt my pencils on purpose, and draw only half-an-inch high to start- it helps me to forget all the unnecessary detail and focus on the whole: What is the bigger composition communicating? How can I tell the story just through light, dark, shape and pose?

The first thing I tried to pitch was a bold, graphic collage-style piece where Aurora wandering through the forest would be framed in the folds of Maleficent's cloak. Not a bad idea, but they were looking for more literal scenes- we took this direction up to color study and then switched tacks







Of course, the next phase started with more thumbnails- you can see also some of my first sketches trying to nail down Maleficent's look- some of them are a bit embarrassing to me now; it takes some searching sometimes to get where you want to go.
For this project in both representation of the character and the scenes I was trying to find some way to marry the feeling of an animated feature with the look of the live-action movie. I didn't want to literally draw Angelina herself- but try to get at the look & feel of her version of the character in a stylized way that still recalled the classic animated villain. We went back and forth on a few iterations, but eventually found a version everyone, including the lady herself, was happy with o_o

 We honed in on 3 pieces we wanted to try in order to get the portray the range of the character for the test- The strong, more innocent side that was new for this film, the villainous and the tragic.  



The first tester, and still one of my favorites from the whole project, is a rare portrayal of Maleficent- framed against the rolling fields of the world beyond her home, something about this look & moment really spoke to me. I really wanted to capture the breathless sense of hopefulness and adventure, as well as the strength that Angelina brings to the character.

This first piece was also the first experiment in style- I really wanted to bring some of my watercolor experiments to bear, but couldn't find a way to efficiently marry actual paint and my digital process for the book. So I started to use my first ever customized brushes in photoshop (I know! It's taken me a while) to try and reproduce the gesture and spontaneity of watercolor and sketch.
Lineart on the characters with lineless, painted backgrounds was something I wanted to try in order to recall the look and feel of an animated film. It's definitely a style I want to explore more and take further in future work, lots of fun to do!
I discovered that backgrounds are less intimidating and frustrating when I get to paint them! Win-win! It also has the virtues of being faster and leaving some of the world open to the imagination of the reader (WIN-WIN-WIN-W-). Working in line on scenery and architecture has always felt very confining and stressful to me- but wandering around in the summer with my watercolors taught me that I don't hate landscapes at all- I actually love them, but I was approaching it the wrong way to unlock that. Painting more loosely feels like I've unshackled myself and I can just run at it- waaay more fun for me.

But striking the right balance between line and "paint" was a hard fight initially- sometimes it clicks better than others...


This one I haven't posted before- because I just don't feel it worked out as well. The work is all tighter, but it lacks some of that gestural, dreamy quality that the first illustration had- everything's a little too clean and for whatever reason the moment doesn't quite connect. It's not quite the right expression and pose for the character- there are a lot of things I would do differently, but it was full of good lessons.




Correcting my course slightly, I started in on the 3rd test piece- which wound up being a great favorite with the folks at the Mouse House since it married the look of the first tester with a fully-realized Maleficent in a more iconic stand-there-and-feel-feelings kind of mood.
I tried to bring my own interpretation to how I wanted to draw the forest- taking inspiration from Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle's amazing (inimitable) work on the original animated film.
I think this one sold the team on the look- shortly thereafter we were off to make a book! (such a great day!)

The first round of thumbnails and my commentary for my editor. Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND!


Which began with- you guessed it- THUMBNAILS! Hooray!
I spent a good chunk of time working out thumbnails- I happily recall the angst (oh, golden hindsight), sitting in coffee shops with a nub of a pencil, pacing around trying to figure out how to squeeze everything in. Figuring out thumbnails is like fitting too many dishes in the dishwasher...they never quite fit and it's always kind of a panic until it suddenly all does and you wonder why you were ever worried in the first place. This is especially true of comics, but was also super true in this case as well. 

By this point I had been given very guarded access to the film's script, and received a whole bunch of preliminary screen-shots and concept art to base my work on- at the time of writing this, I still haven't seen the final film- so I'll be just as surprised as anyone to see how it all turned out! 

It was also at this point that I started to do my own research for the project- knowing the general direction I wanted to take it, I still had never done a book like this before. My good friends Adam and Courtney let me raid their prodigious children's book collection for inspiration and I went out and bought myself a book of N.C. Wyeth's illustrations because GUYS THAT DUDE KNOWS WHAT'S UP. When it comes to high-adventure and storytelling-through-strong-composition, accept no substitutes. Looking at Wyeth's work reassured me that there was merit in letting extraneous details fall away and focusing on the emotion, color and composition in broader terms. Not familiar? Stop reading this and go GET YE SOME WYETH



Shortly after locking in the main thumbnails (which was after some back-and-forth with the editors- always way better to do that early on, rather than later down the line when the pieces are all painted and shiny) I did something I'm very glad I did- I threw together a "color script": just a collection of color studies for the whole book's worth of illustrations so I (and, importantly, my editors) could see the whole thing layed-out at once. This gave me a strong base to work from- no matter how large the project was, I knew where I was going and what I still had to do.



Before we were quite off to the races, the studio wanted to see some final-ish iterations of the two main characters (Maleficent and Aurora) in my style, based on the film designs before they could sign off. Looking back at these drawings now, they're a little funny. I almost didn't want to post them, because they're far from my favorite drawings of the characters- but figuring out these two was part of the process- and I think I got better at it as I went along. Gotta start somewhere!
 Luckily, this was close enough to move forward with (though I'm glad I got more confident in drawing them as I went on)

A note here, I think, about drawing female characters; It's not traditionally been a strong suit for me, at least growing up. As a young human male, I grew up drawing other human males of the grimdark superhero variety and only much later down the line became comfortable with drawing 1) women 2) children 3) smiles. You see those? Hard. Journey.
It may be hard for some of you to believe, but the House at Happy Rock was once located on Dudebro Grimdark Island where there were no cooties allowed. Ugh.
 If dudebro hangups are hard for you to get your head around, you can't even imagine- I had a hard time using the color pink. Because that was a lady color. It was a few years of art school and some soul searching to realize: you know what? I love pink, Disney, and musicals. I want to know how to draw things that are cute, characters that smile and People Who Are Female. It was actually hard for me to reconcile that with some serious straight white dudebro baggage, but I'm so glad I did. It's been years since emerging from the grimdark, but I feel a profound sense of victory- being asked to illustrate a book whose principle character is one of the coolest Disney women of all time? In a Wicked-The-Musical-esque story of adventure and angst?? It's a hard-fought dream come true.
And here's the other thing (sorry, this is a long aside)- coming out of the world of dudebro comics, and recently out of the video-games industry, I was so excited about the opportunity to tell a story in which women are actual characters- not just objects or set dressing; where they have complex emotions and motivations, are both good and flawed, and are treated with the dignity we afford most male characters all the time. That is a solution I want to be part of, I don't even want to give blogspace to describing the problem. I was raised by and around women with incredible strength of character, and many of the artists I look up to are talented, driven women; I see no reason not to celebrate that whole half of the human population, and have been embarrassed and dismayed by the portrait recent events have painted of men and our outlook. Anyways- the way that has to do with art and specifically this book?
I just wanted to design and portray the characters as people in the best way I know how- not saying I'm perfect at it. My biggest hope was not anything more than to depict the women of Maleficent as people experiencing a range of emotions and living fully through their stories. It's a shame that's even remotely rare.

Alright, I think I've made my point. Where were we? Ah yes- thumbs!
By this point, between color study and thumbnail, with sketches, source material, and research to hand, all the hardest work was been done. All the biggest thinking and decisions were made and all there was to do was draw and paint. I find that if I can set myself up to get to that place, I am much happier and less panicked (and more efficient!) than when I am throwing sketches and thumbnails down on the fly.

I holed up for a few months and worked steadily through the book's worth of illustrations- with varying degrees of success and satisfaction- the illustration at the top of this entry is, I think, my favorite of the whole set- but since I've been given permission I figured I'd show you guys a few more :D

In no particular order, some of my favorites from the project:





The rightmost illustration was originally intended to be the cover of the book- which is why you won't find it in among the pages. I'm still pleased with it, but I'm glad we decided on another direction. While it may not see print, at least it can have a life here on the internet :)



An in-progress shot of the piece that would eventually become the cover- it wasn't designed as such! But it turned out well enough that my editors decided it would make a better cover than the cover we had drawn up! I think they made the right call :)


The final image had to be extended several inches to fit the cover dimensions- of course it would be the crowd scene :p It turned out for the best, though


Next time I do a project like this, I'll pay more attention to when the focal point lands DEAD-IN-THE-GUTTER. Rookie mistake- the print of this in the book makes it look like Maleficent is suspiciously eyeing a mysterious horse that has shown up in her wooded glen >_<

 

On the left- still one of my favorite drawings of Maleficent from the whole thing- once I had this version of her down, I tried to apply this attitude and feel to the rest of the project.

This is another favorite that never made it to the final book for story and film related reasons. Alas!







The spinning wheel itself! One of the classic moments, it occasionally felt surreal to be illustrating


Since this is my already a pretty indulgent blog post, I may as well go all the way. Above is a little collage I made for myself once the whole thing was wrapped up- a collection of my favorite bits, color and drawing moments from the whole set. Everybody has their down days when you look back on your work and you can't find anything to like. I photoshoppped this together to remind myself of what I did like, and to remember what I'd like to try again in the future!

A mysterious fairy who never made it in to the final product! A fellow named Marcus, I was invited to design- more about him I cannot say


So, to wrap it all up I'll close with this last image. Another cover I mocked up, that was never used- but still lives here on the internet for all to see! Yay internet! One of my favorite depictions of Maleficent herself from the set.
Overall this project was an enormous blessing and a great learning experience- I hope some look into my thought process has been helpful for the sort of person who's been curious!

If you're like what you see and would like to order the book for yourself, have at it here: 

If you'd like to see what I've been up to since (I have no doubt I shall blog about it imminently), I am currently the lead illustrator on The Dawngate Chronicles- a fantasy webcomic telling the story of Waystone's new MOBA game. And I have been loving it! Comiiiiics! :D

If you'd like to track me down elsewhere, I am active on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Devianart
Much love and God bless you guys- more art soon! Thanks so much for reading

-n



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Everything Matters



The Spring breeze is in the air, the night is just warm enough to walk through without a jacket, and life is teetering at the edge of one of those great precipices. I feel a blog entry coming on.

I've been waiting to write this one for a while, on a couple levels. This month is a huge month in the life of little Nicholas Kole. This week I was allowed to officially reveal the book project I recently finished up for Disney Publishing, along with it's cover. Tomorrow PAX East begins, and I'll be in there to reveal to the world the webcomic I am currently lead artist on. In a week or two after that, the Maleficent book will release and the comic will be rolling full-steam ahead, 3-pages-a-week. I am excited out of my MIND.
It's like Christmas, but you know...warmer.
Spring is here, literally and figuratively.
(And I do realize how seamlessly this segues from my previous entry. Not even planned. NAILED IT :p)

I'm getting a little ahead of myself, but in summary: this is basically one of the best weeks ever.
These are the good times.

Wait...you don't know about the book? The webcomic? OKAY I'LL TELL YOU IN DETAIL, TWIST MY ARM.


I drew this!

THARR SHE BLOWS! All titled and stamped with the Disney logo right at the top. O_O
Still pretty surreal.
The book is a YA novelization related to the upcoming Maleficent film (the one with Angelina Jolie!)- and I just got my first copy in the mail! I painted the cover and 25 full-color interior illustrations. It's available for pre-order on amazon and will be out in stores at the end of the month! It's a very lovely hardcover printing that looks like this:



Which makes me feel like this:

:D

I'm really excited to show you guys some of the interior work and even walk through some of the process of illustrating it! In the coming weeks I'll do just that!
It came together almost out of nowhere, and over the course of 3 months and,  from my erstwhile bedroom in Mom & Dad's house, I ran through the entire series of Buffy on Netflix and cranked this baby out
Looking at it now, some of the illustrations still savor strongly of Buffy to me :)

Such a blessing- by taking on this job, I was able to finally pay off my student loans and move out of my bedroom and into a new studio space.
It's hard to contextualize how neat it's been- the book itself is cool, but what it represents in the course of the past two years is better. More on that later!

A webcomic, you ask? OHOHO YES. VERILY, SUCH A COMIC IS IMMINENT. LO, IT IS UNDERWAY!

The Dawngate Chronicles kicks off THIS FRIDAY

I can't even. I just. Guys. Comics. COMICS!

www.dawngatechronicles.com

On Tuesday we announced: I'm leading up the art on the upcoming Dawngate Chronicles, an ongoing (interactive! eventually!) webcomic that tells the story of the world and characters of Dawngate- the MOBA game I'd been working on with Waystone/EA Games.
There's even a neat press release here!

Alongside me is good buddy, strong right hand, Magic The Gathering otaku, and serial collaborator John Loren. He's working with me on color and backgrounds, and his help has been a huge boost for the project. He's awesome- you should totally click his name and check out his stuff!

To kick it all off, I'll be at PAX this weekend, and will actually be livestreaming- drawing and talking about the comic from 4pm-6pm EST at the Waystone Twitch channel.

I know there's nothing but a teaser image to show right now- but if you like my work and my comics...well...just keep an eye out!
I think we're making something pretty special.

But I didn't come to post here just to rub my recent successes in your face.
Well, maybe I just did that a little.
I'm sorry. I'm just excited.

In the middle of all this, I have this moment to pause and reflect. And if this blog isn't for moments of navel-gazing reflection, I don't know what it is for.
But there's something else going on here, and it's more important than my relatively small art-projects becoming unsecret- I think it's about story, and it's definitely about God.

An anon on tumblr recently asked me for tips on how to smile "like a bowl of sunshine in your book selfie".
I thought about it for a second, and then I laughed a little...

Step 1: Have your life fall apart.

Step 2: By the grace of God alone through the good will of your family and dear friends, get back on your feet over the course of two years. Pick yourself back up. Be picked back up. Realize that God loves you and isn't going to give up on you even when you're tempted to give up on yourself. Don't give up on yourself, let prayer and scripture and friendship hold you together and stand you back up on your feet. Learn to work hard again.

Step 3: 2 years later, hold something that reminds you that things can and do get better.

Smile.

Honestly, the experience of holding the book for the first time was kind of disappointing (in the way that only an artist can be disappointed in something they've made). There are a handful of focal points that landed dead in the gutter between pages, and one of my favorite illos was cut for narrative reasons.
As in most cases, actually holding the book itself, you realize that it's not that big a deal. It's just a book.
If I'm honest with myself, I thought it was going to be so much more.

But then I thought about what's happened in between April of 2012 and now. (If you're curious, just scroll on down this blog or skip to this entry. I don't keep too many secrets.)
And I am so, so grateful. Suddenly, this book and this comic mean a lot more in light of the story they're a part of.
One moment it was just a book. The next it was another ebenezer- a reminder along the way of what God has done- a victory. And all I needed was a change in perspective.

After 38 Studios collapsed, I think a lot of us quickly grew a very thick skin of "It's Whatever". And you do that because that stuff hurts, and you don't want to get hurt again- so you stop caring too deeply about any given project. Everything becomes "just work" and you can shield yourself the next time it all comes crashing down.

But screw that.

It's not whatever, and it never has been.
In school, one of the greatest gifts one of my professors ever gave me was the permission, as an adult, to believe that this could all be more. I was allowed to care, to believe, and to aspire.
I have deep, real feelings about Lord of The Rings, the Lion King, Kiki's Delivery Service and Wreck-It Ralph. That stuff matters to me.
But I learned to think of it as "whatever" because it hurt when people made fun of me.
Like anything- it is simultaneously "just a cartoon show" and "a morality play about life, death, good, evil and love on a grand mythological scale". These are the stories we are telling ourselves, over and over again. These are the building blocks of our cultural values. These are also all available on Netflix for the low low price of $7.99 a month.
It matters when we make bad movies, comics, art, and games. We give life to ourselves and to others when we do it well.

As Christians we should be aware of this always- acknowledging that there is a deep spiritual truth to everything that is happening that seems mundane. That's what it is, I think, to live in the Spirit- it's to see things as more than they appear- to change your perspective and learn to read the story God is writing underneath the surface.

Theory: When we nerd out, I think we are closer to the Spirit of God- we are open to things being more, mattering more. When we pretend things don't matter, we are further away. Don't hide behind irony. Nerd hard.

And this isn't about art, either- that's just where I live. But it's coffee, haircuts, a well cooked meal, a brilliant thesis, a well made pair of shoes, a friendship, good conversation, a timely gift.
It can all matter, if you let it- it just might mean you get your feelings hurt. It might also mean that everything is more amazing.

It's not a new thought, but it might be a thought someone other than me needs to hear. So if you need it, you have my permission to care. To dig deeper than the surface and find the good stuff.

Today, I want to celebrate the story that God is telling under the surface of my life. The stuff of it is cool: comics and books! But the truth behind the stuff is cooler, and it's for everyone and not just me. The Lord is good and he gives good gifts, even though he takes away. He is for us, and deserves praise and more than praise.
When things are hard and when things are good, to God be the glory.
In Winter and in Spring.

~

You know who made a better book than me? Fabiola Garza. She wrote and just published a serious labor of love, which you can check out an pre-order here. Go do it, you won't regret it...it's beautiful and well worth your time.


You know who cuts better hair than me? Maddie Harkins. She writes a blog about Hair and Jesus when she's not cutting my hair and making me look rull pretty. You should give her a read if you like either of those things- and especially if you like both. Check her blog out here.


This is not my hair.

Thanks for sticking around and reading- I am super thankful to have amazing readers and the support from all around the internet this week has been humbling- I hope you like what's coming up and will stick around to see whatever's next. You guys make me want to art.

Enough talking from me. Back to work- stuff ain't gonna draw itself.
More art soon
Much love,

-n

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Spring Under Snow


Studio

Winter is here.

New England does mid-winter thoroughly, with all it's natural bleakness in force.

But today is one of those sunny days- where the air is crisp and you can feel the promise of spring hidden somewhere away in the barren branches of the trees. It's easy to feel a little brighter, a little more hopeful, as the snow runs wetly down the streets and into drains. But February isn't even here yet, and I'd be a fool to think we aren't still in the thick of it.

The snow will be back- but Lord, I am ready to see spring soon.
It's been a long while since I've posted around here-  though I do like that about having this blog- there's no rush.
It's been a pretty busy season of life, and there just haven't been that many guiltless, quiet moments to sit and write- I've regrettably gotten out of the discipline of reflecting.

I am sitting in my new studio, there is a little lull in the workflow as Big New Things begin to spool up, and I think I'll take this moment to do a little bloggy processing.

I think, sometimes, of these posts as a way of setting down an Ebenezer- a "stone of help"- referring, biblically to a monument or marker set down to commemorate a work of God; "Thus far the Lord has helped us".
Being honest- "Internet Presence" can be a pretty negative thing at times- at it's worst self-indulgent, egocentric, petty- a place to build up a false self-image and a breeding ground for envying others (sins to which I am prone). But I really think it can also be a beautiful and life-affirming thing- and I hope this blog can be more the latter than the former.

Since winter is here, I think it is a good time to remember what has been beautiful, and what might be again.

Thus far the Lord has helped me.


I have been able, in the past few months, to move out of my parents' home and back into the city.
I've even found an affordable studio space, and moved my base-of-operations out of my bedroom and into a cozy office on the west end of Providence. It comes with it's own challenges- (I can no longer simple roll-leftwards out of bed to arrive at work) but I am blessed to feel like that much more of a grown-up, working towards discipline.



School of Art & Design, NYC

I've  recently been privileged to speak to a few different groups of students about my fledgling career in concept art & illustration. (To the students of the School of Art & Design in NYC, Blackstone Valley VoTech and Ringling's DIPSY club: thanks so much for the honor of getting to hang out with you guys- you're amazing!) Few things have been more encouraging and humbling.



Vague Maleficenty Clouds

I've just finished illustrating a book called The Curse of Maleficent for Disney as a tie-in for the upcoming Maleficent movie. It will be available for pre-order here.
I'll post more about that as more information becomes available, but it was a lovely project to be a part of, and a dream come true to get to work with people at the Mouse House.

In the course of doing that project, I paid off my student loans, which is a huge relief and a blessing! RISD loans are no joke. I even got a free cheesecake out of the deal. A career highlight so far:


Mmf.


In one of my favorite photos of the year, my proud Grandma poses next to one of the movie posters:

Bwaaa...Gwamma.

Dawngate, the project I have been working on with EA, is in Beta, if you'd like to give it a spin! Most of what I've designed for it are character skins that won't be out for a while (except for Zeri, who is my design).
Despite EA's rough rep, the Waystone Games team have been stalwart humans. They have displayed a rare (in my experience of the gaming industry) interest in interacting closely with their community, challenging the destructive stereotypes that are native to the MOBA genre, and taking feedback in stride as they work. It's a thing worth mentioning- sometimes the people are overlooked in the work-based value system we have in the arts- but a good team can be hard to find. I am blessed to work with them.

Jellybots is actually underway.
Watching friends take the leap towards their dream-projects, I felt enabled to move forward myself and begin, however slowly, to actually make finished pages for the comic project that has been sitting around my back-burners for a long time now. I am terrified and humbled to actually start trying- but as I was reminded by a kind friend from church: we can only truly fail if we don't even make the attempt, right?

I hope, by God's grace, to 'dare greatly' this year.
It is easy to fear the consequences of trying. As I discussed with students (and have written about before) it is so easy to fear the first step. Having felt failure, and known how heartbreak, embarassment, and vulnerability can feel- when you try, you expose yourself to ridicule, to being wrong, to doing poorly, to rejection and hurt. On reflection, I think it is the only way worth living.
2013 (and the start of 2014) have been as full of heartbreak and disappointment as they have been full of opportunity, victory and joy. But they have been full of joy.


In the last few months, Christmas caroling with friends, a whirlwind visit from Lizzie, and some restorative time at the Lefferts family home have all made the season brighter- standing underneath sunsets, shouting songs at passersby, huddled in living rooms under blankets in front of "just one more" episode of Doctor Who, up at all hours of the evening getting sillier as everyone's repertoire of strange voices comes out. There have been fiddles, fires, impossibly tall  Christmas trees, dances, singalongs, and the occasion to drive much too fast to try-and-catch-the-show.
Dear friends have drawn near, and those moments spent together are like a foretaste of what I imagine heaven could possibly be like.

Once moments are committed to beautiful memory, it is easy to entomb them there. To look back and, in time of trial, imagine that it can never be again. Winter comes and the nights get shorter, and we forget what spring feels like; can't conceive that it could return.
But it is as ridiculous as believing that the sun will never rise again every time night falls.
So out of winter, heartache, and a hard season- have faith and have hope with me.

Spring will come again.



Much love, and may God bless you,

-n



PS- I've started a livestream account, and have been able to connect with a number of internet persons while drawing and singing- you guys are awesome, and I love getting to interact with everyone.
I announce when I stream via twitter and tumblr, if you'd like to tune in sometime :)


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Worth.

Friends.

As artists, we give things worth.

And as doctors, writers, musicians, cashiers, and barristas. Humans all.
But I can't speak for barristas- so we're going with artists for now.

There's my neat little hypothesis, all layed out at the start so I can write you all the way back to it like a good little high-school english student :)

Every now and then, I feel a blog post coming on- and more often than not, they are a long time in the making...usually it takes a good few broods to come to the point where I feel the need to write.

That's today- summer is coming to a close, the wind is crisp and the omnipresent New-England smell of something-burning-in-a-good-way is starting to waft in from everywhere. But rather than talk about pumpkin-spice-everything, I want to talk about something else that's been on my mind (as ever, it's something I need to sort out for my self much more than something I have any authority on- but that is what the self-indulgent blogosphere is for right? and hopefully someone else out there will get something out of it all) I want to talk about worth.

(And, as usual, it'll probably involve me talking about art and God and stuff. So if you're hear just to see some Pokemon, better skip it- more pokemon are on the way eventually :p)

When I don't think too closely, I seem to fall back on the strange idea that worth is objective- that we determine worth according to a system. You know- like money and stuff?
But I think we all know, on further reflection, that it isn't quite right. I'm not an econmonist, and can barely handle simple math (which is why I never worked at Coldstone creamery, tootally different story...) but it seems like that's too simplistic.

When the glove of a beloved baseball player can be sold for thousands of dollars on ebay- ordinary objects sold for FAR above their basic material value, in general- you have to acknowledge that some alchemy is transpiring that isn't purely scientific.
Somebody's screwing with my simple concept of what something is worth. It's got some of that icky subjectivity all up on it. And I'm not fond of subjectivity- it makes all my boxes leak into one another and it's really hard to tidy up my world-view that way.

It seems, to me, that we ascribe worth to things when they are loved. So it follows that we give worth to things when we love them.
Put cynically: The more people love something, the more it can be sold for; the more worth we communally agree it has.

A simple and slightly embarrassing example- but who else hasn't suddenly noticed someone, simply because they were loved or desired by someone else? Suddenly you sit up and take notice, because there must be something you weren't seeing before. Nothing about that actual person is changed, but now the fact that somebody else is interested in them makes you interested.
Bluntly: Ladies in relationships are highly desirable to single dudes (I'm lookin at you, beardo). It seems like people or things who are desirable are, if you follow, desirable because they are desired- it snowballs until nobody knows how on earth someone like Kim Kardashian got her own reality show. Alright, bad example, but-

What does this have to do with art?

I think that when we make art- the best of our art- we love.
We pick out something, and we notice it.
An artist pours all their attention into the things that people otherwise might pass over- the curve of a neck, the crook of a tree trunk, the wrinkling of the nose, the way someone's hand falls just-so on the table, the rough hew of a wooden door, the little bit of green in the blue of the sky as the sun starts to lower itself, the way the moon hangs faintly behind the clouds in the afternoon. I think it's why a lot of us have weird fixations- hairless cats, old worn and ripped things, snakes, strange color combinations, ogres- because we're paying closer attention to overlooked things and finding the beauty.

We notice, and we point people's attention to the details we love most.

That's what makes stylization so alluring- we are simplifying the visual statement to direct your attention to this-kind-of-arm or that-kind-of-smile. We create patterns from our love and attention.
You adore something by focusing all your attention on it. Art is a dimension of love. And from love we begin to derive worth. If we're being not-so-cynical.

So when we make art- we are making value. We are adding value to the things we draw. We are noticing the beauty in something, and showing others who might otherwise never look- and they are looking with fresh eyes at the world around them. They start to notice, too.

A spot becomes worth something because someone painted it. "This is the exact field he painted, and he stood right here!" (for the MA locals, see: Walden Pond)
Somebody noticed this place. There must be something you weren't seeing before. 

Something is worthwhile because it is loved.

Someone is worthwhile because they are loved.

And here's maybe where God steps from behind the curtain (he was there all along, sneaky guy). And it's also where this becomes personal.

I spend so much of my life scrabbling for worth- trying to place myself on an objective ladder- a scale of worth, deciding where I fit and why I matter. I think we all do this to one extent or another, and when you really pull it out and look at it, it's pretty ugly: I'm more-handsome-than-so-and-so but less attractive than what's-his-face. I'm more talented than those people, but far less accomplished than she is.
We let these things determine our worth for us, but are baffled when someone comes along and tells us "you are beautiful." or that very perturbing "I love you".
Is anyone else tempted to pull out the lists and show them how wrong they are? "Well, you see- you're clearly mistaken because you haven't seen what's-his-face. You'd know I can't possibly compete. You're wrong."

I've been struggling with this whole concept lately- because I spend a lot of my life moving between wildly different contexts. I recently went to San Diego for Comic Con, and it was an incredible experience (as it often is) to be a nerd among nerds. It is beautiful and heartening to find others who care and value the things you care about and value. Especially when those things are Pokemon. And in that context, I found that I (absurdly) felt important.
(I often feel the same way on the internet- hits and likes and comments make me feel worthwhile and important. A lack thereof is a hit to my self esteem. I'm sure nobody can relate to that :p)
I felt that I had something to contribute- my art, my interests- I fit somewhere on the worth-ladder, and it made me feel good. I make a kind of sense in nerd-world. I fit.
But returning home is a different story.

The world away from nerddom can be jarring for a variety of reasons, but I'll pick a simple example: I came home to that most dreadful of summer passtimes; a day at the beach. I've always been self-conscious about the way I look. Freelance illustration hasn't done me any favors :p I've spent my whole life chasing a kind of professional worth, and as a result, at the beach, I feel like I don't have anything to contribute. There's a paradigm at work, and fuzzy art-hobbits don't measure up particularly well against bro-guy and his dudebuddies. And being a Brony isn't the same thing.
There are all kinds of beautiful people on display, and if my personal worth is determined by how much I am worth according to the beach paradigm, then I am pretty much a non-entity. I feel pretty worthless at the beach, when just days before I felt on top of the world at a convention of nerds. Weird.
By the time we move on to mini-golf, and I begin to regain some sense of personal worth based on how well I angled that tiny orange golfball under that comically proportioned wind-mill, I begin to think something might be seriously effed up about the way I'm choosing to determine my own value.

But then I think about love. And when I think about love, I think about my parents. I have never had a child- but I can imagine some part of what it must be like to hold a squalling little baby in your hands. And it doesn't matter whether it's handsome or whether it's got great plans for a new graphic novel- it's amazing because it's alive. And you love it because you love it. It's impressive enough to them, even now, that I live and think and breathe and try and struggle and hope. I don't need to accomplish anything to earn that love.

I am not worthwhile because of what comic-con tells me I'm worth. I am not worth what the beach-paradigm of beautiful summer people imply- because I have other kinds of worth, and because you could look rad at the beach and be a pretty crappy dude, and my talent could wax or wane or I could lose my right hand in a car accident and then where would I be in nerd-world? Also, art is neat but it's a shallow place to fix your hope of 'mattering' to the world.

I think this is an important point- both paradigms are broken. The art/work-as-worth paradigm as much as any other. I've seen online and in the art community (and coming out of art-school) a tremendous push towards the mentality of you-are-your-work. The idea that your work, your art, what you bring to the table, determines what you amount to.
I can't stand it. It blows my mind, in particular, when I've found people are jealous of where I'm at while I, all the while, am jealous of the next guy. Working in the video-game industry, illustrating a book, having achieved some measure of 'success' at a young age isn't enough- if you are fixing your hope that attaining those things will make you feel more worthwhile, please stop. It won't. You will always be hungry for more, and we just perpetuate the cycle by telling that lie over and over again.
I think sometimes we feel the need to work ourselves up into this frenzy about the all-importance of our work because otherwise it costs us too much to do it at all. It's the culture in game-development (and film, and illustration, and...) that keeps people away from their families and crunching at their desks until the wee hours. But it's not all-important. It's beautiful and good and edifying and fun. But it's not all important. You are not worthwhile because of what you produce.

You are worthwhile because you are loved.

And not just loved by the people in your life that you care about. Because people's love is fleeting, and even a parent's love is subject to change. Art-worth and body-worth and intellectual-worth all have merit, but ultimately fall short- I will spend all my life chasing after those things, and never ever feeling full. Never feeling worthwhile enough. There will always be someone more beautiful, more intelligent, more talented, more popular, more accomplished, better dressed, and more motivated.

You are worthwhile because you are loved by God.

That's a hard one to get my head around. And to be perfectly honest- I'm still trying to get my head around it.

But my friend (and pastor) Andrew is fond of bringing this thought back again and again; what would the world look like if everyone walked around knowing they were truly, unconditionally loved at the depth of their being? What would people be free to do? What would we stop chasing? How much more could we in turn go and love others. It would be incredible.

And I think he's right. That's what's on offer in Christ. That is close to he heart of what this whole Christian-faith things is about.
It is not a political agenda, or a set of commandments constituting a checklist for worthiness; it is first and foremost a belief that we are loved. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" John 3:16
That is a dream worth striving towards and a hope worth hoping. How could it not profoundly effect my entire outlook on life?

Out of that place, (which is a place I can rarely stay for long before my attention and energy gets sucked away by short-sighted desires to prove my importance) I get so excited about art-making.
Because we can participate in loving, through what we do.

And when our worth comes from somewhere else, we are not earning worth for ourselves when we make art- we are giving it away to others. 

That is one of the ways that making art can be like praying a prayer.
Like thankfulness made manifest.
We can love and show others the worth in things they might have overlooked when we set pen to paper.
And so we can be about our Father's business.

That is incredible.

And if that keeps me at my desk till the wee-hours, then so be it. But I don't want to be driven to make art because I have some sense that it is going to justify my continued existence as a human being...because I've been made to feel that it is me. My work is not my worth (neither is yours)

That is something I need to remember on dark days. And something I often feel like I have little-to-no grasp on. Some days it's really hard to love or care or hope or anything- it's really easy to give up. I'm never sure about anything, and it's just as easy to give up on art as it is to give up on faith. Despair is the easiest thing in the world- I think it's easy to despair when I am convinced that my worth depends on how well the next piece turns out. How impressed people are by me, and realizing that I fall very short by those standards.

And yet, I am blessed beyond what I can hold- I haven't earned a bit of it. I don't deserve the family or friends I have, but all I can do is offer thanks for the love that has been poured out for me. Thank you all, and more than that thank God for the love I don't deserve. "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance." Psalm 16: 6
I didn't earn any of that.

Maybe we don't earn worth. Maybe we're given it for free.
Maybe we can give it as freely as we receive it.
Praise God.

I hope you are blessed and feel loved today- truly truly. Wherever this finds you.
Let's draw?

-n