SPREY Log #02 – Observations

It’s time to share some observations I have made on the journey recently.

1) Reading…helps.

First of all, having taken up reading as a daily task pays off and keeps paying off every day. You may wonder whether it is worth it sometimes. After all you might have to read a (nonfiction) book for four hours to get to what feels like ten minutes or less of bits that are relevant and actually have the power to change your way of thinking. But sometimes it’s more parts of the book that are like this and you never know beforehand.

2) Accepting Intuition

At the moment, I feel especially inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. I’m far from finished having read the book, but even the first part had a huge impact on me already. Haidt claims – based on his own research – that we are actually rather driven by our intuitions and feelings in the first place and tend to rationalize afterwards why it was the right thing that we did or chose to feel and think.

In Haidt’s example, imagine yourself as a rider on an elephant. The elephant is subconscious and doesn’t give a damn about your rational opinions. The rider has some ideas where the elephant should go and what is right, but ultimately it’s up to the elephant what happens in actuality. And changing the elephant’s way or the elephant’s environment is hard. The rider can’t ride without the elephant, but without a rider the elephant has no direction, so there is power and merit in the rational rider as well.

Now there are people like me who tend to completely live in their head and constantly train their rational rider, believing he has somehow more impact on the elephant that way. He doesn’t. Example – I will still choose my colors intuitively and afterwards fabricate a lie why this color was the best choice by color psychology or for compositorial reasons. With more training my lies and justifications will get much better and my color choices possibly a much smaller bit, too.

I bet some people like me would absolutely rail against the idea that they are analytical as whatnot but still controlled by intuitions. I don’t. I don’t even view this as battle because I know what involuntary mood swings are, pain and desperation, envy, serenity and so many more emotions we humans tend to feel. No rational thinking can do away with that and that you will lose control sometimes. That is life. The elephant tends to win, and yet you can serve him and yourself well if you are a good rider that suggests him a great course throughout many small decisions, every day.

3) Immediate Reflections

But this also opens up a new questions and perspectives immediately. Are we artists secretly absolutely dominated by our own tastes outside of the realm of what we can rationally explain? There are still visual problems to solve that require knowledge of art fundamentals and that can be very technical and rational. But there will always be several ways to solve a problem and we will choose what our elephant likes most, whether we like our personal elephant or not.

I was complaining I had no identity from time to time. Nah, I’m fine. I’m quite average actually. I was just oblivious about the huge elephant I’m sitting on. It happens. Just turns out neither me nor the world are as complicated as I thought, they’re objectively complex still, but manageable.

My blog so far was oftentimes a rider wondering why some detail things aren’t working or wondering why they do work. I was missing the bigger picture.

4) Conclusions for Comic Work

And what does this all have to do with SPREY? Everything. If you change the person creating it, the comic will change. My prediction is that the story will not change much and also not in parts that you would know already, but the art style will either go through another shaky period or we will find ourselves in another Back to Black phase where heavy black ink will dominate the panels. I feel this is some part of the later Styx cycle where I always always return to that.

I had an interesting idea while browsing through a book on character design yesterday night. Instead of adding even more influences to my art I should reduce the influences I go by, at least for my current workflow. At no time in history could people access all the world’s styles, art instructions and process demonstrations as easily as it is today. Back then they had like…one teacher and were stuck with them and everything they were lucky enough to find on their journeys throughout their lives. Today’s situation on the other hand creates the opportunity for fantastic and bizarre mixtures of influences, but it can also lead to an information overload. How should you know what works best for you? How should you know you aren’t missing out on the best thing for you if you don’t keep digging? When is it time to settle and is settling bad? I’m happy and sad that I’m quite versatile. I can make a lot of things work pretty quickly. But the cost is I’m not particularly good at anything, not in a specialized manner. I have the suspicion that a 2D outline heavy comic and animation workflow could be my thing as I have trained that intensively since a while. Designing in that style is no problem either. But I would have to put more emotions into my lines and risk messing them up here and there for the sake of the raw emotion that must be slumbering somewhere in me.

The best thing is, I don’t have to change much about what I’m doing with SPREY already.

Let’s see where this is going!

May 2021 Animal Studies

This month I took some time out to explore aesthetics of various vermin-looking beautiful and fascinating animals and how to draw them. I focussed on practising a simple digital art workflow to use and replicate for my future day to day work, but I also got curious and learned some more about the respective animals. A lot of great conversations with great people were had, too, and I want to thank everyone who I met on the journey, who enjoyed the art with me and all suggestions that you made and new ideas you gave me.

Sketching Comics – My lessons

Currently, more things are happening at a faster pace than I can document them.

I’m in the second week of working on chapter 3 of my Street Prey (SPREY) comic – so how did it go?

I am grateful every moment that it worked. It is as if I never had left, my brain and body have accepted the daily comic panel back without much resistance. Some of the pages do put a good fight up, but I have worked my way through all of them so far, no matter what storytelling or art problems to solve they have thrown at me. A lot of woes I had in the previous chapter did not cross over to this one. I know at least a bit what I’m doing when it comes to backgrounds and environments now, a multi panel layout doesn’t overwhelm me anymore and my linework is worlds better (but still there’s room upwards).

The retro frame was a victim of circumstances. It had to go to make experimenting with several panels on a daily square possible. Also, to Styx from now the frames around the panels might have been a bit garish and distracting from the comic itself. JUST A BIT. But I’m sure the wildness isn’t gone, it’s now in the story itself and will resurface in time.

And now for the main lessons of the chapter so far.

My work on a page starts with loose sketches.

  1. I do not have to invent pages from nothing. My story dictates what must happen next.
  2. A great question to determine whether a panel is any good: Does it advance the story? If not, does it at least tell me something about the characters or their relationship? When in doubt, go for the thing that drives the story forward.

    And specific questions for my way of doing things with a daily deadline: Have I given my reader something worth coming back for today? A new development, an interesting detail, a sort of mini cliffhanger where it is uncertain what direction the situation will take from here, and I’m not done exploring all possibilities yet.
  3. Feeling confident when making page layouts comes from practical experience, it builds by sketching and drawing pages. Learn making comics by making comics.
  4. Always sketch and write your ideas down, don’t just think them.
  • Reason 1: Otherwise you will not know whether the idea actually holds up. Sometimes a page layout that looked brilliant in my head just doesn’t look any good on my actual canvas. Sometimes things just do not translate well out of your head. You either let go or find ways to adapt the idea and make it work.
  • Reason 2: Fail and succeed faster. If it doesn’t hold up as a sketch already, guess what, putting hours in to render it out will not make it better. So solve the biggest problems a panel, piece of artwork or anything you can pack into thumbnail has in small, simple and easy to iterate on sketch drawings. Go through everything that doesn’t work and you’re arriving at something that does work faster.
  • Reason 3: Helps you to actually create. Now hear me out. In our head things often appear flawless, beautiful, unachievable, but oftentimes quite vague at the same time.

    Think of one of the great ideas for an art piece that has been haunting you for a while and still rests in your head. Would you know what you want to draw in every detail, how it should look and feel like and how to draw it from start to finish? And if so, why haven’t you drawn it yet? Usually, you will not have all the answers already when you sit down to work on a piece.

It is okay when you cannot envision something 100% before you draw or write or say it.

You do not have to. Most often getting active and at least thumbnailing will help you understand more about what an idea you have and how it looks in detail. And what doesn’t work about it and what to change. Creating an art piece IS figuring it out. You are luring a nebulous vision out of your head and making it concrete. Remember my “perfect” page layout that I can only test if I actually sketch it down and see how it would look in reality. Drawing it, giving it a form, will entail loss, as when you draw something a certain way, you decide against many other options you would have had of drawing it. But what is your idea worth when it lingers in your head as that great, flawless something that is awesome to dream about, all it’s potential untouched and available… but it has no visible form at all that you could enjoy yourself or show anybody? How do you know it’s good when it isn’t there and you never actually made it?

So: make your sketches.

I hope this helps!
See you next blog entry!

Learning with onions

This is in some way a continuation of yesterday’s blog entry, but you don’t have to go back to understand this one.

I finished another piece of homework that was due last week, but I had to move to this one because of work. My task was to create a page of visual communication study about a plant topic. Still following “less is more” I chose one of the least exotic plants there is. The common onion. And while I am curious and have many things I would like to know and explore about onions, I indeed only had time for one page. And then I decided to give my everything into it, everything my tired evening self after a day of concept art with daily deadlines (at least at the moment) could muster.

This page might not even look like it, but I learned so so much. Let me share my thoughts. Maybe you can use a thing or two for your own design work, too.

  1. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing – wild ambition is no exception to that. I made a series of entomology pages about wasps last week, pouring all my passion and curiosity into them. And I expected no less than roughly eight pages about onions from me this week. But my ambition and reality just didn’t…meet. I love my work, but I am very tired in the evenings. Eight pages will not happen this week, maybe if I ignore all other homework, but that is just not an option. So I let go and told myself – do one page today, do what you can and let go, move on. Focus on one task at a time, one iteration of an exercise at a time.
  2. Trust the process. I cannot tell where this impulse came from, but I thought to myself if it is going to be one page, I will train graphic design. I chose a simple topic that was still interesting to myself and created a page like from a gardening book. I ran the full circle, research, notes and scribbles, arrangement of the elements on the page, changing from Krita to Affinity Publisher mid process for the layout and lettering/font matters, then changing back to the final polish. I am glad I followed my intuition. This is not the greatest page humanity has ever seen, but I’m glad I finished it. It was a great exercise. And it is also more than I would have expected of myself.
  3. Small things add up. In the past, and this is not even long ago, I found myself having an all-or-nothing mindset. I can either do the full thing today and have my result and reward or do not even start doing it, because what’s the point? SPREY has been a valuable factor to break that up. There is no chance SPREY can be done in a day, even the most stubborn version of me will accept that. And with many other things it’s like that as well. You can’t master a skill in a day, build a career in a day, unlearn bad habits in a day and so on. And it does not have to happen in a day. Relax. Look for the small bits of work you can do right now that do not overwhelm you. Maybe reading 10 pages of a book that will help you learn something a day, working 20 minutes on a personal project every day. And it does not have to yield a result immediately. You’ll get your results over time when the small bits of work compound, the solutions you found for very small problems compound and you suddenly deal with bigger problems to solve and it’s absolutely manageable, as the smaller ones are out of the way now. Small things do add up!

And with that, see you all next blog entry!

Design

You know there is some rapid development going on when you did this last week and it’s old news already – but for surprising reasons.

So I’m finally taking a design course. For this and other constructive reasons such as my gig I am very tired in the evenings lately. Let me tell you a bit about beginner problems that could unknowingly affect you, too, with a couple of pieces I did.

First of all, you are looking at sketches I did on the topic “design sketching”. My first mistake was that I only this week learned what design actually is – and what design principles are. Last week I did not even know I did not know this, so I actually had no chance to do my homework as it was intended to.

What am I talking about? In the following you will find pages of gorgeous nature studies. The problem is, it is not and should never have been about the rendering or art skill itself.

Designing is uncovering the internal patterns and functionings of the world and conveying them to the viewers or users in an understandable and appealing way. You have to dive deep into how the world works or fictional world would work you are working with to be believable and you also have to know a lot about the human psyche to know how to win your audience over. It is human viewers after all that you are designing for and you yourself are one, too.

Here my study group intervened. They sensed I was putting my focus into the painting and not exploring design principles, but couldn’t articulate what exactly was off. So a classical misunderstanding happened. I got the feedback I should scale back and just do linework because this exercise is about lines. No, it is not. It is just another way to create art. Design doesn’t care whether you employ lines or not as long as you are minding the design principles and your set design goals. I had none of this. Plus, I was more insecure then and that was to the detriment of the quality of my work for the rest of the week.

I had incredible luck with the carriers, though. This page itself is not so remarkable except for that is the first time I ever explored the topic. I was lucky as this sheet cought the eye of a more experienced concept artist. He seemed to know without words in what deep trouble I was and recommended me the Visual Design Basics course by Alex Senechal. My natural curiosity kicked in and I indeed bought the course and started listening on Monday. I feel unstoppable since. I’m climbing quite the steep and lonely mountain now though. Actually developing your own design sense is quite the undertaking.

If I had the time, I would redo this whole exercise with a few simple but very impactful changes. Instead of recreating the given references from the course I would first sit down and make sure I know what I’m doing and why. Design does not start with action, design starts with planning and planning starts with an intent. One possibility that I can see would be a topic such as exploring the 70:30 distribution rule and evenness of proportions or exploring patterns of nature with a very narrow range of subjects such as plants of the same type, but with small variations – so that these count. These must count.

Funny enough my insect and bird eggs go into this direction already. That was the sheet that was not commanded as official homework of my study group. I came up with that myself after watching Feng Zhu talking about less is more for design beginners. I thought to myself drawing eggs instead of full creatures must fall under this. I almost got it right.

Me and my group will continue to make mistakes. That is part of the human nature. I beg of myself to be more confident and listen to my intuition, but also keep listening to critique and giving it to others. We are all in this together.