Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Hollow Men: Black and White

This is something I've been wanting to do for a while, and now that a good amount of time has passed, I figure: why not now?
Above are the first seven pages of The Hollow Men (my story for Flight volume 8) in their black-and-white state. This was a new process for me, and it was extremely educational. Normally, I work in ink and lineart first, pure black and white with no greytones, and then go in afterwards and color it all at once.
I knew in general I really wanted to hone in on my storytelling, which is all about composition, which is all about value and emphasis. Anyways- I don't want to be redundant so if you're interested in how it came together, I went over some parts of my process for the Hollow Men in a few previous posts here, here and here.

When the comic was all finished in black and white, I had a really hard time moving forward. Looking back now, I'm glad I finished it in color and I'm happy with the result...but at the time I really felt that, once it had been drawn in greyscale it was finished. Every time I went to color it, I felt I was weakening and ruining the work I had done by inches.

The vision I had in my head for how it would turn out was definitely in color, but I felt that my ability wasn't equal to my vision in this case- and black-and-white allowed me to imagine the color and how it would work without having to actually deal with actually coloring it.

It was like there was unlimited possibility, and it was so exhilarating because it left color up to the imagination...but once you start making decisions, you start hacking into that possibility and it can run the risk of feeling overworked...squeezing out space for the reader's imagination to participate in creating the world and envisioning the story.

It's still something I'm thinking about...and it's hard because I love color SO MUCH. But I figure, since this is my blog and nobody can tell me not to, I'd post some more of the black-and-white work for everyone to see and I'll continue to think about the correct application of color in my work :) Sometimes less is more?

I think when you do less, when you start to stylize and pull back in different ways, you leave more and more up to the reader. I don't think I'm ever likely to let go of color outright, but limiting it and putting a value on simplicity has it's attraction (hence, Jellybots). Everyone's gaga over hyper-real art, even in comics, and it just leaves me high and dry.
I may be making a controversial statement here, but I personally am much more exhilarated and inspired to read this than this. I'm not saying the latter is bad, but I do think it pushes me out of the world much more than inviting me in. Perhaps it would be better to compare the former with this. :)
Anyways, I'm not comparing my chicken scratch to these much better artists' work- and maybe I'm just off on a tangent here and nobody's following, but I think a lot about the magic in simplicity.
It can be very impressive to render the hell out of every panel, but I am trying to learn how to hold back on trying to impress people with polished art, and start trying to actually tell a story. And in some ways I regret getting as rendered as I did with this piece in the very end.

Anyways, I hope you enjoy these pages! Maybe sometime I'll even post the rest of them :)

Much love,


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On God, Art, and Dragons.

I praise God that it is in the moments when we are the weakest, most broken and helpless that God is most glorified. I hope that, as I write about my life and my work, this comes across loud and clear- I am a small man sustained by the grace of God alone. I hope that, when I talk about spiritual things- about God, and about my faith (which is so important to me) that you don't hear me preaching downwards from some height.
I could just talk shop in whatever way feels safest: keep to the art-speak and pithy anecdotes from my life. But I find that if I am going to be truly honest, I cannot avoid talking about God.

To my mind, when I talk about faith, I am talking about art. There is no clear separation. If my work and what I believe fit neatly into their own separate categories, then neither would be much of anything. If my belief in God was all well and good but had nothing to do with why I make art, I would be in a sad state indeed- given that so much of my time and energy is devoted to making art. As I've been feeling the desire to wax a little introspective and I hope, as you all have in the past, that you'll indulge me again :)
I feel that God uses my work and my experiences with art to teach me lessons that suddenly become all the more vivid and true to me because they relate to things in my life that matter deeply to me. Or to put it another way: I speak "art", so God speaks "art" to me so that I'll understand. And because art matters deeply to me, it matters deeply to me when I find God stooping to my level just to really get to me.

So love: right? God is loving, we've all heard it.
It's so possible to just hear something again and again and again to the point where it means nothing anymore. You becomes desensitized, and you tune out because in the end it's just words. What are they talking about, anyways?
It's pretty impossible for me to get/relate to the love of an all-powerful deity. But I understand the love of my family. And God goes to great lengths in the Bible to communicate his love is like that of a 'father'. He's saying "I know you don't understand, so here's a you get it now?"
It's all well and good to say that God is beautiful and he is a loving creator, but it is so much more vivid when you can understand that his love is like the love of your family. Your actual ridiculous, boisterous, frustrating, wonderful, stupid family. You follow me? How does this relate to art? Stick with me.

I mentioned that God's use of the word "Father" is like a picture. I mean that literally. It's like an image: an abstraction, a representation meant to pluck at your heart and your associations and communicate something deeper than just the word itself. I'll come back to this.
So: beauty. It was never quite enough to me to say that God was beautiful, because that was just a word. And that word, in the context of church, in the mouth of a well-meaning pastor on Sunday morning meant to me that he was beautiful like worship-service stock photos of sunsets and pastel-colored naked babies with wings. Not terribly interested.

As an artistic soul caught up in the mainstream church-culture of America, I've sometimes felt ostracized. If you're like me, you don't really like the things it seems that everyone else likes- and you feel that your definition of 'beauty' clashes wildly with the church's. Which means yours is clearly a wrong one that you need to repent of. -_-
Really, the opposite is true. If you have a love of art and all things visual, you are closer to understanding what God means when he says beautiful. And if you follow that through to its conclusion, you may find yourself nearer to the beating heart of God than you'd have imagined possible.

It was a new and really profound thought to me: God's understanding of beauty encompasses my entire understanding of beauty. Hold on that for a second.

This means everything you've ever loved, admired, found striking, stood in awe of. Everything that moves you to tears. And if that's not pastel-colored paintings of angels: THAT'S OK.

For me that includes things like Miyazaki Films and good acapella. It includes comic books and mid-afternoon light. It includes good, heartfelt folk rock and ridiculous, candy-coated dance music. Chocolate chip cookies, musicals, rainy days, and well-chosen fonts.
I have spent much of my life feeling like I need to be making the 'right' kind of art...that It was all well and good for me to love fantasy novels and Disney movies, but the real ministry and work of God was done in tracts and comic-books-about-angels. Not that it can't include those things, it's just SO MUCH BIGGER, and if we miss that then we miss the point. And that's the very simple thing I'm trying to get at.
If we believe what we say we believe, then we believe that God made EVERYTHING. And before we get ahead of ourselves and decide we can judge what parts of creation are 'good' and 'evil' we have to remember that he declared everything to be 'good' first and foremost. All creation is still his. In the story of Genesis, the first act of God was to make art. "Let there be light" laid the foundations for every form of visual expression ever conceived.
When we paint, we paint with colors God conceived of. Every act of art is at least an accidental act of praise.
When I make art, I am playing Legos. God made the Legos, and I'm just...rearranging. That in- and-of-itself shows that, like a child made in the likeness of his father, I love to create because he loves to create. And that's enough to justify the action of creating. Praise God for Legos!
As a character designer, this has become clearer and clearer to me as I work. I design dragons for a living. And people love dragons.
(Aside: Not all people love dragons. In fact, generally the church-ladies of the world would have me feel guilty and heavy-laden for digging on dragons. They're 'evil', 'demonic' beasts, right? DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY DRAGONS YOU WOULD HAVE TO DESIGN IF YOU WERE GONNA ILLUSTRATE THE BIBLE? A butt-ton, is the answer to that question. Not to mention the Leviathan, a monster which God describes as one of his favorite and mightiest creations. BUT ANYWAY.)
Something about dragons occurred to me when I went to the zoo.
There's a thing about the zoo- it's pretty amazing when you're a very little kid...animals are cool! Everything is new and astounding, bizarre and exciting. Then most kids (at least, I did) go through this phase where it's all just 'boring'. I mean- horses? seen em. A fish is a fish, you know what I mean? But dragons? Hell yeah. SUPAH COOL.
But I took a few character design courses, trying to come up with super-cool new designs and things that nobody's ever seen...I started to sense something was holding my work back. Everything felt derivative of things I had seen drawn before- I was regurgitating work other people had already done. I needed to strip my process back down to basics.
So I hit up the zoo. And HOLY CRAP. Suddenly all that jaded little-kid-stuff fell off in a heap. I was suddenly back at the visual source- the origins of all creature design. Maybe this doesn't happen for everyone, but it happened this way for me. I was suddenly enraptured like the littlest kid by watching manta-rays float and snakes coil. It rocked my world and I realized that dragons aren't cool for their own sake at all- Lizards are cool. Bats are cool. Dragons are cool because of that little spark of creativity that it took for someone to put bat wings on a lizard. See what I mean by Legos? The spirit of creativity?

G.K. Chesterton (who is a GENIUS like WHOAH) puts it better than I ever could:
"Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water."
I realized that I do nothing that God hasn't already done. And in that moment I realized that God loves character design more than anyone who'd ever designed a character. He was a better, more wondrous designer than I would ever be, and he wasn't looking down impatiently for me to put down my pencil and start praising him. He was waiting for me to realize that by picking up my pencil, I was praising him all along.
And it's so beautiful, because there's this other side to it, too. Why would God make art? That doesn't make sense; to just do something for no reason at all. But then I think about why I make art...
I'm an illustrator, so this aspect of it is very specific to my discipline: I make art to communicate. I make art to say things to people that don't make sense to say in words. I write, and I use words when it seems right to do so, but sometimes what is in me to express is emotional and wordless.
And then suddenly lizards and bats and sunsets all make a kind of sense to me. When we see something beautiful, we see the beating heart of God. And God gets this idea, because God communicates his love in the person of Jesus, most completely and for this reason Jesus is called the "word made flesh".
Is it so hard to believe, therefore, that every coiling snake and every color on the color wheel; every Lego in the whole set is stamped to it's very core with the message "I love you"? "I love you in this wordless, beautiful way and there's just no way to express it other than >beluga whale<" :)
Such that there is no combination you can make, no work of art you can conceive of that isn't covered all over in God's love, whether you intend it or not.
In that light, it is a delight...a wonder to study and to learn to love some small part of what God must have loved when he made a lizard. To delight with him in its scales, color, spines and forms. And to me, God is saying "you like that? me too!"
And moreover: "you know that green? I love you" "I love you enough to make you this green I knew you'd love."
They are little gifts, love notes all throughout creation and all we see, stuck everywhere. Here and there: whispering in every small way "I love you. You specifically. Here's how."

And we can get it wrong- I get it so wrong so often, and I put the gift before the giver. I open the present and become obsessed with its qualities and functions and forget to notice the loving parent who is watching me play and just waiting, aching for a "thank you".

That's as honest and open a window into my thoughts as any. And just as messy and stream-of-consciousness, too :p Call it a first draft.
Thanks for reading (if you have). If not, I understand :) I'm...wordy.
Short version: Thank God for Dragons, Color and Miyazaki Movies.

I am so grateful for your support and comments. I hope this finds you well :)

God bless and love you,