SPREY Log #18 – Anatomy of a Failure

My friends! It’s rare that something happens, that is so big, that it changes the course of your life or at least strongly affects your future decionmaking. Today I’m sharing with you, how a humble anatomy study taught me who I am and how I work and gave me a clearer perspective on what to do with my webcomic. Especially ambitious and impatient artists and storytellers, listen up, this one is for you. Hopefully sharing this experience saves you some time on your own journey or makes you want to pick it up again.

Failing at an anatomy study…

Yesterday, after a long time of abstinence, I sat down to do a study of the skeleton and muscles of the upper body and then do a painted study of the reference on top. I haven’t done such a study ever before. I was aware you can dissect a reference image like that, but I haven’t ever done it. I managed to study easier things around that but never go in that deep. And I’m not experienced at painting at all. I always liked anatomy though. It’s that good, quiet friend who’s always looking out for you, but never saying anything when you neglect them. So with a good dose of confidence and an ‘if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting’ mindset I started translating my reference image into skeleton. So far so good, with the help of a lot of references I understood things enough to make it work. I congratulated myself that I didn’t try to do a full body and only stayed with this scope. But I had a sophisticated hand pose in stock for myself, I don’t want to study anything, I want to study the best and most aesthetic things. My luck ended with the muscle layer though. If you have several layers of them, don’t have rock solid knowledge of their functions, looks and origins and the anatomy references do not differentiate what is an “important” muscle and what is not …this gets overwhelming. I somehow made it through the chest and rectus abdominus, I surely left a whole group of muscles out on the side, but I couldn’t imagine them in 3D and on my model. But with the arms, it absolutely ended for me. Too much information, too confusing, muscles look absolutely different bent and from an angle than on the flat diagrams of the anatomy book. And not only that, the overload was so real I stopped drawing for the day and just went away to do some chores. I wasn’t in pain or anything, I just was exhausted mentally and did something else for the rest of the evening. Later I sat down to sort my thoughts through writing. Then it struck me that I know this feeling of overwhelm and this specific pattern of struggling.

…and finding the experience mirrored in the SPREY experience

Wasn’t SPREY the same experience on a larger scale?
I haven’t done a comic of this kind ever before, actually, there are so so many firsts in there for me, like sci-fi cars and various kinds of combat, even combat on motorcycles. When I started out I didn’t even have the capacity to draw a whole page with several panels. Also something like a character turnaround was three chapters away. And of course, I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t and can’t even write long scripts. I was lacking more on the color and light front than today, making any rendering a game of luck. From today’s perspective, my style was never the problem, my lack of knowledge and inexperience was.
I always liked the subject matters I wanted to tackle in SPREY though. Who doesn’t like cool action scenes? Which synthwave fan wouldn’t enjoy an 80ies inspired, retrofuturistic and extremely eyepleasing slasher romance?
So with a good dose of I need to draw this or my life makes no sense and an “if it gets tough I’ll just keep fighting” mindset I started making SPREY, one panel a day. That worked for two chapters. And with a ton of sweat, research and effort I made it through two chapters. I congratulated myself that SPREY is not a twelve volume tale, but only a one-shot. But of course, SPREY is an extremely ambitious project with new and ever more complex things waiting around the corner for me to draw. I don’t want to spend my time with creating anything, I want to create the things that are important to me and that look most aesthetic pleasing and stunning to me. My luck ended with the third chapter though, when things became more real and panels became pages. I got good enough to tackle more difficult environments, I started to design and draw vehicles, perspective and light got more complex. But I still had no clue about so many things, I was constantly overwhelmed. Other than with the anatomy study I didn’t have one day where I just exhausted myself, it happened a lot of times. I had an art block and life crisis after every chapter, later in chapter three I wanted to escape my torment after quite some of the complex pages. But I kept fighting until even I ran out of energy and sent SPREY into hiatus. Then I wasn’t in pain at all, I could just go about my day and do anything else. And then indeed I started looking for what was wrong. First I looked into books like Invisible Ink to find out about invisible armatures behind things, then my search for answers lead me far away from SPREY…and it lead me here, where the circle closes.

Conclusions

What I learn from it, I’m a stubborn and hard worker and I must have an incredible pain tolerance. This can absolutely play out against me when I keep going too deep into something. On the other hand I can cultivate this like a superpower when catching up again. And it did pay off to keep fighting, I did improve over time and gained some experience with SPREY, that no one can take away from me again. But a very real crisis after every chapter or now in the middle of a chapter? That is just not a way to live. And it is unnecessary. Why? I think I can deduce what to do with SPREY from the smaller scale anatomy study. The failed anatomy study didn’t worry me at all. If it doesn’t work today, you come back tomorrow, do a series of smaller anatomy studies to build up the knowledge and competence to tackle the more complex one. Don’t get yourself into a loop where you are just training, just preparing all the time but never advancing with the stuff you actually want to do. And that’s it. Also, what if I choose to make a smaller anatomy study but it’s still too big for me? Well, I’ll know when I’ll fail. Then I’ll make the scope even smaller and work my way up from there. There is no ambiguity or guesswork. So that would mean for SPREY – whatever I wanted to do right now will not work like this and I can’t save it. For now. I can now break it down and tell a smaller slice of the story or even the backstory, or whatnot. Really a small story unit. Or I can do a different story. And I will know whether it is still too much for me when it doesn’t work out. So there is a potential for a cascade of failing until I get to the point where I’m really at and can work up from there as efficiently and without crisis as possible, cleaning up all the mess I caused on the way there. I don’t know about you, but that sounds great to me. And SPREY is absolutely getting done, but apparently that takes a bit longer than I anticipated. But I’m as eager to get there as always.

Turning Pro

Also- this can be applied to many other things too. Want to make a portfolio but are paralyzed on the spot? How about starting with something smaller than a whole portfolio. Want to design the coolest character of all time but having trouble drawing clothes or figures in perspective at all? Well guess what you will do first before tackling that big character design. Enjoy your cascade of failing, the rise out of it makes it even sweeter. And actually, this realization ends the original ark of this blog. I am a pro now because I have realized how to bring together my ambitions and my actual limitations. I have to respect my limitations while trying to push them. This is what I was looking for. I have turned pro in my mindset, now my skills have to follow.

How to run a business as an artist

I have looked for this information for a long while. I had a hard time understanding how all and any of this works as it doesn’t seem to come naturally to me at all. But there it is, freshly picked up from game developer Alexis Kennedy’s GDC talk on growing an indie studio on Youtube. A very simple formula how to know whether you are running a business or not:

  1. You know how much money it costs you to make what you are making.
  2. You know how much you will make from it.
  3. You know when it will be done.

Of course there is a lot more to it to run a successful business, but a lot of things seem to fit beautifully into these three questions.

I can imagine why artists notoriously have a hard time with this. When our skills aren’t fully developed yet, we have a hard time finishing a project or even just a piece at all. And even if we stick to it, we often can’t tell you when it’s done or how the quality will be. But then the art market isn’t exactly stable and predictable either. Sometimes you have a surprise success, sometimes you are surprisingly out of fashion and not in demand and it’s not entirely your own fault. Sometimes trends shift spontaneously and harshly. Sometimes you have no idea where from and when your next gig will be coming in. I’ve heard more established artists can predict an at least stable looking monthly income, so for us newbies it’s about working up to that point first.

That’s one of the pitfalls of art. You will have a long period upfront where you have to build your skills until you even are in a position to conduct business. Getting to a stage where you can confidently say how long it takes you to draw one of your typical illustrations or whatever your product is, is a huge win. And you have to be able to actually execute that no matter how you feel each day or what else comes your way. How long it takes to get there depends on the person. If it takes years, that is okay, that is just the nature of doing art.

You can have luck on the path and skip some things, but you can’t skip it all. You can also have success in art without bothering with the business side of it ever, too, but I think it would be better to at least roughly know what’s going on. You cannot rely on future luck alone.

And then you also have to establish ways on how you make money from your art. Yes, there are ample opportunities for artists, but not all of them are open to everyone and sadly there are always less open positions than artists eager to apply for the spot. If you’re doing your own thing, you’re competing with a lot of other works, too, both from living and dead colleagues.

And then you have to build it up to a state where the money is coming regularly enough and in amounts high enough to sustain yourself.

And during all of this your art may not cost you your physical or mental health or be so expensive to make that your chances of recouping the costs are too low, even if you sell.

But this for once is a clear marching path from start to finish. How exactly you get there is an individual process. Different artists value different things, have different things to offer to the world and just plainly have different life experiences that shape them and what they decide to make of it.

By these metrics I’m still a beginner and there is no shame to that. But at least I know where things are going for me now and roughly what to work on to get there. Maybe I’ll write a plan of action out loud in one of the upcoming blog posts, keep us updated on it and see what worked and what didn’t, having these business goals in mind.

Where are you going?

See you next blog post!

On Color

I thought it was time to talk about something that is so important to me that I even carry it in my name. Let’s talk about colors today and my difficult relationship with them.

What happened?

When you have a drive to draw as a beginner, you don’t question it. You just follow your intuition. That’s what I did as a child and throughout my teens. Sometimes I achieved astounding results this way. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I had done or to replicate it but some of my early pieces had no business of being as good as they were for the circumstances. I had no control though, so sometimes, on days where my intuition just didn’t work, I couldn’t achieve anything. But looking at my good pieces I had an expectation to be at least that good all the time. I was mercifully unaware what the Dunning Kruger effect is and that it all probably wasn’t that good in the first place because I didn’t know enough to properly judge it. But it was nothing short of perfect in my own head. I was very surprised when other people didn’t see it that way and so I desperately tried to get better so that I would get the recognition I deserved. I iterate – I was a teen thinking and behaving like a teen. And what always came back, again and again, was people complimenting me for my colors, so I thought that was the thing I was best at.

My earlier art training

From what I know about art and training art today I then took a very very difficult path from there and throughout my twens. And I’m not talking about something like training in an inefficient way or not working through the best courses. It is true that I never had or could find a mentor when it probably would have mattered. Time could have been saved, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. One way or the other you get to a point where you know enough to be your own mentor.

My big problem was that I destroyed myself with the rebuilding taking over a decade. I’m talking about a metaphorical destruction. If you take a “talented” young person and teach them how wrong they are and how art actually works, you have a good chance of “destroying” their old confident art self. It is a necessary destruction as alas, the art fundamentals do not care, they just are and they are not tolerant of quirks that hinder their execution. On an ideal learning path the person then struggles for 2-3 maybe 4 years to get all the fundies in and then is free to return to their own self in the process maybe even throwing some of the fundamentals out of the window again. I needed roughly a decade, maybe more, because I couldn’t just train 4 years in peace, didn’t immediately know how to train and why and wasn’t exactly uninterrupted. And now imagine the agony of that time. You are robbed of your confidence. Now that you don’t trust your intuition anymore, nothing works when you draw for yourself, the amount of things you don’t know to use but have to train is overwhelming and the practise pieces do not look good either. You work hard and have nothing to show for it. If you expected results fast, you are very disappointed. And then of course, you will have other things in life that require that you tend to them, too. A day job. There are far too many opportunities for distraction. It is understandable that many quit, try to be sensible or just don’t want to suffer so much. Can an art school bring you through that time better? Maybe. It depends on what your art goals are and what courses and teachers you get. Nothing is ever guaranteed. I can’t complain about the self-teaching experience once I learned how to learn and train and that execution and practise will trump pure theory anytime.

So now I am competent enough, have enough control that I can predict what I will do and how to get to a certain outcome in art or how to research and practise to do that. The learning and developing will never stop, but I’m good enough to solve most problems thrown at me to take money for it, which my clients agree on. Now it is time for me to return to my natural state, too. I have avoided dealing with colors on a deeper level so far for the fear of pain, even more pain than with all the other things. Color is emotion and strong emotions still scare me. I already told you how I had to sometimes turn emotion completely off to get through university and lawyer training. No wonder I couldn’t just go home and create awesome emotional and colorful art in the evenings. I could have done a lot of things better back then, even law could have been easier, but that is just the wisdom of hindsight. I’m glad I came through and didn’t give up on art or myself. It is almost a miracle, but I never questioned that I should do art, that I should tell stories and that that’s what I’m here for. I sometimes just would have wished it was something more respectable or a less adventurous and insecure thing and I’m not sure whether these are my own doubts or just doubts instilled by society and education.

How I will train color now

I have watched color theory videos before. Apparently you can learn anything there is to know about the theoretical use of color in under an hour. Then you know how to construct your color schemes. Add some knowledge about how light behaves and the psychological color meaning chart of your choice and you should be good. Well, then you ought to experiment for years until you actually can make use of all of this intuitively. That’s a grim prospect. It rings true though. You don’t fall from the sky with intuition AND control AND a personal style that you cultivated over years. 2021 is a year in which I look into things I have avoided for a long time and finally bring them to an end. Usually, even if I encounter strong pain or shame, it is never as bad or lethal as my brain imagined it to be. My pride has received a couple of lethal wounds already, but even my pride and ego didn’t die from it. I am surprised how I suddenly can admit to myself how I feel and how I felt. It is ironic that I called myself Styxcolor when color is the one problematic fundie that I needlessly feared most for a long time. Maybe I also thought going back to color was the big treat at the end of the road, finally allowed to be myself again, without even understanding the implications of this.

So this time around when dealing with color I have a chance to do everything better. Let’s see how it goes. I’ll keep you updated on things once a first ruleset has crystalized out of unrelated ideas and requirements and problems found while doing work. I will deliberately not create a training regiment, as I actually do not have time for extra training right now that does not serve projects, but I can train while problemsolving within projects. That’s a big change and I wonder whether it will help me. I kind of “graduated” from just drawing practise pieces without a context. You never graduate from training itself, but I guess you don’t train to high jump if you actually compete in sprint next week.

New arc – Refined

Hello, everyone!

I have a truly gourmet blog entry for you today.

So my blog documents my journey towards “making it” as a professional artist for other upcoming artists. I am self taught and without luck or a network helping me to skip steps. So it doesn’t get more real than this. Self taught artists tend to take longer to make it, as a lack of professional training opens you up to making a lot of avoidable mistakes. On the other hand, if you travel lone paths you might discover rare things that make you stand out later. Maybe you might even be open to have a more intense relationship with yourself, yourself as a creator and with your work, but you can have that on any life path if you seek for it.

I have made a ton of mistakes. I decided to devote my life to art in 2018. The first years of an art career tend to be hard, especially if you bring nothing to the table outside of an unquenchable desire to draw and to tell a set of specific own stories. I was very lucky to have saved up money from my previous job. That kept me afloat while I stumbled from failure to failure. And here comes one of the most important lessons I learned for this blog: I struggle with interior and exterior problems that are unique to me. Everyone struggles. We just don’t struggle with exactly the same things in the same environment, coming from the same circumstances. A universal formula to “make it” therefore isn’t possible, something that works for everyone.

I wondered whether this would mean my blog is pointless, but no, instead it probably can really help you now. What I can do is encourage you to work on yourself and what you struggle with. Get personal. Do the thing you procrastinated on. Do the thing you deep in your heart know you should be doing to achieve your true goals. I can also keep documenting how I overcome the challenges on my path. It could become quite humorous at times, as I have a tendency to be unworldly with some things. But who knows. What if by getting personal with my stuff I can help you feel more comfortable to get personal with yours?

Also, to seal the deal for the future, let me share a terrific truth. You don’t make it by being good at art alone. I am good at art, I know my stuff to slay most creative problems that come my way, but there people out there who are even better than me and still get zero hold of a career. Funny thing – as I’m writing this I’m realizing an information like this has the potential to bring people’s spirits down – oh look, this artist is better than me and even they can’t make it! But I never came to this conclusion. Instead my line of thinking goes: ah look, someone whose training and art game is further advanced than mine. What are we both doing or not doing that keeps us from “success”? But then I’m bad at observing or simply get distracted or forget things, but at least I’m not resentful. And I think, blogging and establishing another system of sensible note taking could combat these problems. I’m not far off with what I’m doing, I’m just not entirely there yet.

And I’ll work on bridging the gap. Be my guest, take a seat and look over my shoulder while we’re looking for ways to cross over.

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!