Writer and comic artist Pat Grant shows us how it happens…
Inspired by and Anton and Kazu I’m going to have a go at taking you through the process of making an editorial illustration. This was a job I did for Tracks which is one the more notorious Australian surfing magazines. The brief was to illustrate 24 installments of this outrageous space opera called “Cosmic Surf Wars” by the gonzo surf journalist DC green. I had to do one of these a month for two years.
DC sends me the copy and I read through looking for two things. The first is a general tone or impression for the piece, which becomes the starting point for the illustration. This was the last installment of the story, something like coda, in which DC positions the hero, Zak Carver, on an alien planet with amazing waves to live out his life in soul surfer’s solitude. This is a recurring utopia in surf lore and it is good copy for me because I prefer to draw landscapes rather than character drama. I have this strange obsession with what I call the line-up shot in surf photography. The line up shot is a photo that shows how life on land connects with the experience if life in the water, out the back. It’s a sort of a quiet, still moment that replicates the feeling when you’re in the car park and you get that first glance of the waves and get this excited hope that today might be one of the good days. When I read this piece I knew that I was going to be drawing a line-up shot, with some alien flora in the foreground, an old shack and some grinding barrels out in the water. Nothing really groundbreaking in terms of contemporary illustration but it’s important to remember the context for the image. This isn’t Juxtapoz, it’s a surfing mag and pictures of grinding barrels are the reason people pick up surfing magazines in the first place. Here’s a lineup shot of Bells. Grinding.
I read through the copy again and on the second time I’m looking for details. In this case I had, floating jelly fish, red ocean, right hand point break, bulbous fruit, naked midgets with red skin, skulls by the water, an and old shack with a thatched roof. I’m actually terrible with details and I’ve had a few experiences in the past when I’ve sent the finished art to DC only to find that the my character designs don’t match his descriptions or some important details has been missed, like, for example a character has lost and arm in episode 8 but I’ve forgotten about that and I’ve drawn him with two arms in episode 15. So, the professional thing to do is to scour the copy with a pen underlining all the details that may affect the illustration, and even then I try to send a photo of the pencils to get the OK from DC before I start inking.
The older I get and the more time I spend doing comics and illustration the more I recognise that time spent in preparation is time well spent. A couple of years ago I used to dive straight in, scribbling like a mad bastard on the illustration board before I had even had a think about what I wanted to do. Working like this I tended to make poor decisions early on in the process and a lot of time an energy was then spent working around those bad decisions. Now I try to thumbnail out at least 6 to 8 draft compositions, really quickly on the back of the board. I just splurge them out without too much thought, testing out different camera angles, figure postures, perspectives etcetera. Then I go off and do something else for a while and come back to my thumbnails with fresh eyes at which point it’s usually really easy to pick the best one.
The one I picked was a composition that I copied from an old photo of some guys loading cans of milk onto a boat. I found the photo in the Women’s Weekly book of the Australian Bush: Then and Now, which beats Google images as a source for reference any day of the week. I particularly like how there is an old shack in the corner where I imagined my surf shack to be.
Other reference material came into the illustration, namely a panel from Asterix and the Great Divide, which has some awesome otherworldly thatched-roof buildings and a panel of a hand that I found in some god-awful shoju manga. Shoju manga is excellent source of reference for feminine hand drawings because they use close-ups of hands a lot to demonstrate those intimate romantic dramas. Even the male characters have feminine-looking hands and they always seem to be impeccably drafted.
The last reference that I used was a page of comics that I found in an Indie Spinner Rack anthology by a guy called Jamie Burton. I feel like our art is a little bit similar although he is infinitely more innovative and confident. Anyway. I liked the way he draws plants rocks and dirt so I shamelessly aped it.
At first I was reluctant to show you the references I’d used because it seems like cheating or something. Maybe it would make me look better if people believed that I just pulled all of this stuff out of my arse, but… you know… I didn’t. I understand that a lot of illustrators and image-makers would frown upon this sort of thing and I’m fine with that. My rationale is that I don’t really see myself as an illustrator, nor am I particularly interested in illustration. I’m a cartoonist and therefore, the “art” that I make is the story that I tell. Making images is not something that I consider to be at the core of my “art”, more, it’s just some annoying and tedious stuff I have to do in order to have my story told. When you think like I do then it makes perfect sense to ape, steal and copy any thing you see if you think it’s going to help get those stories told. I look at illustration jobs like these as opportunities to extend my repertoire of image making techniques, a means to a completely separate end, not as an artistic project in and of itself. A lot of illustration is fine art, I really believe that, but mine certainly isn’t. Ultimately this project involved drawing sexy female ‘primitives’ with coloured skin and flying jellyfish and seeing as though I’m aware that James Cameron already did it, badly, then getting all prickly about artistic integrity just feels a bit silly.
When my composition is decided upon I flip the board over and rule up the page with a light blue Primsa-color pencil. As a rule with my process the original should be no less than double the size of the printed picture, and often I draw at considerably bigger sizes. So this drawing was ruled-up at A3 size for an A4 magazine page. From there I make my first marks on the page which are always these sweeping strokes of the pencil, preferably done at the standing desk, which delineate the major elements of the composition in an ultra-minimal, blocky 3d form. If it looks wrong I tweak it until I like the composition. This is the best point to make changes because the decisions that I make from here on in have other elements built on top of them. Things become very difficult if those decisions are the wrong ones.
Then it’s time to sit down and start drawing. As have I said in earlier posts drawing is really, really hard, and for my part it isn’t much fun. I get a lot of pleasure when I have done a good drawing but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed drawing it. In the early stages there is a lot of scribbling going on. I figure that I have to draw a line about 12 times before I draw one that I like. There is a lot of repetitive movement of my hand and then some light erasing, a redraw, then some more erasing and another redraw, until I’m happy with the line. Almost every great draftsperson that I know uses a similar technique. I have watched animators draw with a light blue, then with a red, then finally with a lead pencil, other cartoonists like Charles Burns draw several versions of a drawing on different layers of tracing paper, refining and perfecting the drawing with each visit to the light-box. I guess that the most important lesson that I have learned as a draftsman is to interrogate every mark that is made with your pencil. The first line that you draw is such a tyrannical character. Each mark has its own survival mechanisms and will constantly appeal to your inherent laziness. It says “why don’t you leave me as I am”, or, “go on, save yourself the effort”, or the old “you’ll never got a line as good as me no matter how long you work on it.” But of course each line is a conniving and manipulative bastard and if you don’t fight it you end up with a gammon drawing. My way of fighting this tyranny is to draw several lines, then rub them all out, then to draw several more a little harder this time, then rub them out, and do it again. Eventually, elimination allows the best line to survive. It’s just as tyrannical as the first line, but at least you know that it’s the best of a dubious bunch.
Drawing an illustration like this usually takes me about 10 hours of work. I can do it all in one go if there is a deadline looming, but I prefer to do it in smaller burst over a week. This allows for what I think is the most important part of my process, which is cooling off and refreshing my gaze by looking at other things for a while. Maybe some people have instant good taste but for my part I am never able to tell whether a drawing is any good while I’m working on it. I need distance, and I get that by doing other things. So, my number one rule of cartooning is to never ever ink a drawing on the same day that I pencilled it. It works well and forces me to get onto beginning a job well before it’s due. In this case I started the picture on Thursday and added to it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before finishing off and inking on Monday (wild weekend huh?). In the in-between periods I put the drawing on the wall, look at it from far away and look at it in the mirror, look at it through the iphone camera, during which time all of the gammon bits will hopefully present themselves to be corrected.
One of the major corrections that I made here was to alter the position of the girl in the foreground on the left. The reason that I made the change was a political one. I wanted to talk about this in this process post because the politics of image making is something that not enough illustrators actively engage.
Depictions of women and women’s bodies is a contested issue within my drawing practice. I’m constantly feeling the obligation to draw hot chicks, especially when I’m working for surfing magazines. While it’s something that I’m not particularly good at I’m acutely aware that it’s something that appeals to the editorial staff and the readers, and often the copy that I have to work with calls for some buxom pin-up with balloon boobs and an airhead expression on my face. I loathe drawing hot chicks. Not because it’s really difficult (which it is), but because it’s clichéd and boring and tends to be offensive to anyone with half decent politics. One of the things I appreciate most about a lot of visual communicators if their ability to show nuanced beauty in a place that I have never thought to look for it before, and one of the things I find most pedestrian about a lot of modern illustration is the idea that the best place to look for beauty is in between the boobs of some pin-up girl.
People get obsessed with certain images and can get an extreme amount of pleasure from creating and recreating their particular form of fetish. This is rampant in the illustration scene. Some people like drawing heroic dudes with dynamic anatomy, some like drawing Cadillacs, or guitars, or skulls and there seems to be an ever hungry audience for the images. My fetish forms are breaking waves and Victorian terrace houses. I could draw them all day. Hot chicks are obviously the worlds number one fetish form. I know of artists whose pleasure in art comes from churning out hot naked chick after hot naked chick, and by god there are a lot of them. That’s fine. It doesn’t worry me too much, but for my part I don’t think my dwindling energy is best spent putting more images of hot naked chicks into the world. I’ve always leaned toward ugliness in my art. I like ugly people, ruddy complexions, fat arses and awkward teeth. Give me Basil’s ladies over Boris’ any day of the week.
So the copy that I had to work with was this “The local women are petite and gorgeous. There is no marriage on New Dense. Men and Women enjoy non-jealous friendships and sexual relationships with whomever they please. It took me many weeks before I became so horny, I finally yielded to the firm yet gentle persuasions of three lithe sisters” and DC had requested that the sexy naked midgets be in the illustration. So at first I did the whole body of a sexy naked midget in the bottom corner and to be honest I was very happy with the drawing, but for the next 24 hours the image of that faceless female body made me feel uncomfortable. The drawing was fine but the image was wrong. In the end what made me change it was the amazing illustration Sammy Harkham did on the cover of Kramers Ergot 7 which I have sitting by my drawing table. Now, here’s the sort of images of women that I want to put out into the world. Sweet post-apocalyptic women with grubby bare feet and dumpy arses. These women are my kind of sexy. Two seconds looking at this made the dumb drawing I did seem obnoxious and predictable. Time to get out the old eraser, rub that shit out and redraw the sexy midgets as something a little more real.
I’m happy with the changes that I made too. The women are naked but not overly sexualised and they look as if they are just as capable of cutting of Zack Carvers doodle as they are of stroking it. I often imagine what the growing population of female surfers think about the way women are represented in the surfing media. Things are improving in great leaps and bounds but there is still an uncomfortable gulf between the images of women that are presented as objects of grommet’s desire and the women that are presented as objects of a grommet’s sporting admiration. Women that surf have the gravel in their guts to compete for waves with the hyper-masculine knob heads that you meet out in the water. These women have freckles and reef scars and salty hair and this awesome steely gaze. They don’t give a fuck if anyone thinks they look sexy because on that last wave they got shacked like a motherfucker. I guess I was trying to draw them.
I included all this stuff because it’s as important as any other part of the process. Making an image takes time and energy and if we aren’t really reflexive about what it is we are actually doing then what’s the point? Putting the same old images into the already image saturated world then we are just wasting our time and our precious creative energy.
I slowly make three or four passes over the drawing, tightening things up, fixing wonky bits and figuring out exactly what is going to be black and what is going to be white. The girl on the right’s hair was pretty annoying. It’s important for the reader to be able to regognise the various forms in the drawing so a lot of time is spent simplifying things. If you are using a cleanline technique it’s easier at the drawing stage because you know that the colours will help differentiate forms but if you are working in black and white or in a more underground comix style then you spend a lot of energy managing clutter on the page by shifting areas of light and dark around. Because I’m unsure of myself as a draftsman I usually try to replicate things exactly as they’ll appear when the inks are down, which usually means a final pass over the drawing blacking in the blacks with graphite. This is time consuming and probably detrimental to the drawing because I’m pretty sure that it robs the whole thing of this mystical spontaneous energy that you see in the work of cartoonists like Paul Pope or Mandy Ord, but I’m an insecure idiot and I can’t bear the though of having to make a decision with the brush in my hands so I do all this tedious planning beforehand.
When the brush comes out it’s a relief. I put a good podcast on and just enjoy the sensation of working with ink. There’s more on the inking process in a post I made previously.
I read in an old Comics Journal that Dan Clowes describes the final stage of inking as a battle between black and white. I like that. It’s a good feeling to get out the white stuff and correct things because it makes you feel like a small god, completely in control of pattern of light and dark. I usually use gouache for corrections but for this illustration I used some white inks I bought. Generally white inks suck because they aren’t opaque on the first coat and you have to go over them, which was the case here. Gouache is opaque and it dries fast but it sucks because it’s chunky and terrible to draw over, especially with a nib. I’m still looking for the ultimate correction fluid. I’ve heard the seppos talk about something called Process White but I‘ve never seen it in Australia.
After all of the corrections and a thorough attack with the eraser to get rid of all the pencil lines I scan that sucker. My drawings are always too big for my scabby $100 scanner so I scan them in six to eight pieces then use the photomerge tool on Photoshop to assemble them. I scan as greyscale at 300 dpi which is usually fine because the drawings are way bigger than the print size. So when they get resized they end up being at something more like 600dpi, which is more than any printer’s resolution. I bump all of the greys out using the threshold tool, which converts all of the pixels to either solid black or solid white and then immediately use the magic want tool with the tolerance set to 0 to select all of the black and cut and paste it to a new layer. Some people think this process is crazy and prefer to use levels to bump out all of the greys and then use multiply on the line-work layer, but I never figured out how to get this to work properly for me. Well, this is among the most boring paragraphs I’ve ever written. Maybe the cavalier thing to do would be to follow it up with a photo of some stationery.
Colouring illustrations if the most agonising and intimidating parts of the whole process for me. Making an image is a tactical assault on the senses of your audience, and colour is the vanguard of your assault. It compels an immediate emotional reaction from the viewer and if you get it wrong you will discourage them from engaging with the other elements of your image like the form, the composition and the content. If there is some dodgy drawing or a bit of unbalance in the composition then often it takes a good long look for anyone to spot it. Fuck up the colours, however, and everyone will know it the instant they see it, and not only that, you might as well have scrawled “you are a useless knob-head” on the illustration because every time you look at the drawing you will be instantly reminded of your failure.
How hard can it be though right? All you have to do to get the colours right is just pick some colours that you like and start smearing them around, right? I think that a colour is like a strong smell. When you first encounter a strong smell you feel completely overwhelmed but it’s only a few minutes before you become distracted and the smell fades into the sensory ambience. Half an hour later you couldn’t consciously isolate the smell it if you tried to. You’ve been sitting in your bedroom playing Left for Dead 2 in you filthy socks and your yellow y-fronts, farting and burping and pickling in your own stench, you leave the room for ten minutes to go make a pot of tea, then when you go back into your room after acclimatising to the outside air and you can’t believe your own putrescence. Colour is like that. You can only truly know whether your pallete is a winner when you approach it with fresh eyes, and on deadline day, when you’ve been staring at the bastard of a thing for 6 hours, you probably won’t have a clue what you are doing.
I’ve always preferred working on paper rather than working in a digital environment but seeing as I never went to art school and didn’t really study art in high-school I find more tangible colouring tools like watercolours, pastels, and paints foreign and terrifying. It’d be fine if I did the colour work at the start of the process but because it comes at the end I invariably find myself colouring on deadline day. I had a few goes at working with watercolour under this sort of pressure and it always ends in tears. I don’t know how to mix paints properly and my colour theory is non-existent. So, in situations like this I fall back to good old Photoshop because it’s the creative space most forgiving for bumbling fools who don’t know what they are doing. Apple-Z is my salvation.
Again. I shamelessly take reference for my colour palette. I don’t feel the need to justify myself in this regards because the reality is that every palette possible has been used by someone at some point. All artists borrow palletes. When you spy a combination that appeals to you then you should get out your camera and take it for your own. I often take colours directly from spray paint colour charts because the limitations appeal to me, but in this case I took direction from Carol Tyler’s incredible cover to Best American Comics 2008 and the packaging from a box of digestive biscuits that I had on my desk. Packaging of cleaning products are really great examples of really refined colour palettes. These designers know their shit and the marketing people seem to really understand the emotive signifiers of colour. So when I see a packet of dishwashing liquid that gives me a wistful feeling from childhood then I get out my camera and steal that shit.
Once I’ve picked a few colours I spend a little bit of time doing what an oil painter or a watercolour painter would call a colour study. Photoshop allows me to do it under the actual linework. It’s just a quick mock up of the colour composition. I try to make all of my decisions here, in this frantic few minutes at the beginning, because as soon as I become acclimatised to the pallete then the decisions I make are ill informed. If I keep changing my mind as I work then invariably I end up de-saturating and simplifying the colour until all I have is grey brown mud. Case in point, here’s one of many pictures I destroyed with the desaturate slider:
From here the process is pretty simple. I don’t like my stuff to be heavily produced. I kind of prefer to leave things flat and simple and let the old fashioned linework do the heavy lifting. Also, by this stage I’m probably sick of noodling on a computer and keen to finish the fucken thing so I can get on to my own comics. It’s pretty simple from here on. I just schlepp the colours around with the Wacom stylus. It’s no different to colouring-in at primary school. I put that gradient on the sky (doing skies is the only time I’ll ever use a gradient ) and I put a few semi opaque transparencies over the top of the colour to make it all the tones sit more comfortably together, but the general philosophy with Photoshop is one of restraint. I‘m very suspicious of filters, crazy brushes and anything that feels like a trick. As a general rule, if it’s something that doesn’t feel like a digital version of a more traditional non-digital process then I avoid it. Photoshop us like a pit bull puppy, it will twist your arm off and eat you alive if you don’t make a point of setting boundaries very early on.
That’s it. At this point, I’m exhausted and the work is done. I save a flattened version and send it off to the editor of Tracks. It’s always anti climactic to send work away via email. Usually editorial staff don’t have the time to get much feedback to freelancers and readers don’t seem to make much noise. Kind of feels like throwing a paper plane off the top of a skyscraper. The deadline anxiety slowly seeps out of me over several hours in the afternoon, I stuff the original art into a dog eared pile of thick paper and go for a walk.
Two months later the magazine arrives in the mail wrapped in transparent plastic and addressed to me. I tear it open and furiously flick through the glossy pages. I find it and inhale deeply as I look at it for the first time with truly fresh eyes in the context of a magazine chock full of competitive imagery. I look at it for ages. I think about how I would have done it differently given the time again. I take careful note of every single one of the awful mistakes.
First posted @ Pat Grant Art