SPREY Log #23 – New Horizons

I’m treating this day as a harbinger of things to come.

Yesterday I took the time to thin out some of my social media. I left Twitter and Mastodon outright, Instagram got on the chopping block for a massive content reduction and almost got deleted, too. I swear, there must have been two or more occassions where I thought about deleting Insta before and I honestly can’t tell you why I didn’t. It’s probably the network effect in action. It feels like a far bigger loss than it actually would be. I will keep my Twitch to watch and comment on other people’s streams, but I do not plan on streaming myself anytime soon.

Why am I doing this?

I want to reduce the background noise in my mind. Every platform I’m on requires care and content updates from time to time, actually. In a true Pressfield sense I will not tolerate the urge to update my social media as overshadowing my urge to sit down and actually create things. That is…distraction. Also I noticed a mismatch between my mental image of my social media usage and reality.

Social media is not evil and not a bad idea. It’s actually a great idea to have tools and platforms where you can promote your independent creations outside of the classical gatekeepers of your respective industry. It’s also a fantastic idea to have open places on the web where you can converse with people and learn about more perspectives and ideas and keep up with people you otherwise would lose touch with like relatives that live far far away. But as usual the execution is the part that pulls the experience down.

I feel, in order for anything to make sense, I must also touch on something else that is uncomfortable to think about. Humans are hackable. People can manipulate your mood and behavior, people can manipulate your tastes, people can and will manipulate how and what you think. Movies and advertisement are pretty good at it. Any junkfood that is bad for you but tastes better than it has any business to taste does it. Casinos do it. And social media do it, too. You will be influenced by something, anything, almost all the time, while you think you are the ruler over your own mind.

Now bringing it together: so you have these idealistic ideas about social media and join a platform. It is free to use but must make money to sustain itself. If it cannot make money from subscription fees or other direct payments by it’s users, what to do? Well, then it must take something from people that even someone with zero money can give. Time. Attention. Making people watch advertisement that someone else paid for. If a social media platform would openly advertise itself to waste your time, nobody would use it. Nobody sets out to waste hours of their day to scroll random information. Instead you hear about empowerment, networks and networking and how you MUST use it so that other people can discover you and your art.

So there’s pressure to join and use, the fear of missing out. But what happens then, is even more unsettling. You are in a system of loops. The users, as inmates of the prison that don’t know they are in a prison, happily engage with each other, feed the platform with content to discover for others and reward each other by liking, commenting or otherwise approving of what they are offered. This is another case where technology has far outpaced human evolution. You are wired to seek social approval. That was the only way to survive in the past. And your brain cannot distinguish the quality of that approval. You get a dopamine kick whether a random stranger on the net agrees with you or your spouse sitting on the other end of the breakfast table. This is another fascinating as well as terrifying case where your brain cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. It just fires the chemical reaction. The social media company doesn’t have to do anything, people entertain themselves, hunting for more dopamine, both by being validated or just being thrilled by random new and interesting information and pictures they can find. And the platforms do want to make it easy for you to spend a lot of time doing that. In come the algorithms, machine code to ensure content that is interacted with a lot is seen by even more people. It must be either especially good or more often especially outrageous. The algorithm doesn’t judge. It just promotes what seems to be popular to more people. Also, in the case of platforms like Instagram, algorithms also ensure you toe the line as a „creator“ and don’t let your audience down. If you dare to post without buying ads to promote your works, then post daily or perish, be not shown to anyone. Nothing is left to chance in this system of loops. Also don’t think if you give in and do buy an ad you’ll have an easier time. You have fed the beast and now you’re marked. It knows it can extract money from you so you’ll get hit with invisibility double as hard once your ad runs out so that you buy more. And by that point you are probably so far in that the dopamine kicks you don’t get feel like actual punishment and pain to the brain.

And now for me, my situation.

I’m making art and at least for some time, I have been creating things to share almost religiously. But I do not make outrageously good or outrageous art and do not have outrageous takes, so of course it doesn’t stick. I burned out several times, but always stood up and came back, trying again. I just didn’t know any better. While I’m doing everything to improve the quality of my art, I finally realized I cannot „beat“ the algorithm. Not by definition and also not by trying to morph myself into something it might like more. I would betray myself and drift even further away from SPREY or anything else waiting in my drawer. No one is asking for SPREY or any original creation actually, but still, I have to do it. I also cannot create „more“ for the sake of pleasing the algorithm. It is not sustainable.

I even wisened up and understood, while you show up for work every time, you are not entitled to have something finished or ‚shareable’ every day. Especially for long term projects it will be natural and to be expected to have streaks where you create and scrap multiple days or weeks of work because it just doesn‘t come together immediately. It is normal. Sometimes you even have to make several drafts. That’s when things take years to make, but they still get done in the end. I have tricked myself into thinking that this should be otherwise though, that it’s bad to let people down and make them not hear from you at least once a week, even if you have nothing to say and nothing to show. Documenting the journey excessively gives the illusion of actually travelling even if you actually didn’t move. I was actually stressed out by failing to feed the platforms repeatedly. With the context of the things I talked about earlier it was a lot of fuzz about nothing though. Other people who aren’t artists seem to be able to look through this easier, how they don’t care whether you create daily, they can lose interest in you anytime.

As my knowledge about creating art expands, I’m seeing that there are parts to the process that are ‚invisible‘ such as studies, research, writing scripts and drawing thumbnails and storyboards (not the braggard ones, the actual chicken scratch ones) and therefore not that great for sharing online. You don’t see them much and people don’t understand them. Beginners who don’t necessarily know about them are incentivised to skip them entirely in favor of better shareable pieces of work. I realized, the types of content that I want to make, aren’t very daily share friendly and long term.

That is not things that are encouraged or very visible.

I was worried I’d be wasting my time writing all of this instead of just drawing or doing anything for SPREY. I’m actually pretty scared of the pain of returning to it. But after thinking through all of this what I have written down…I’m even more adamant that a social media break is good for me. I don’t have to worry about it right now. I should first focus on creating something that is actually worthwhile, then I can worry about making people aware of it. Trying to document it in a way pleasing to algorithms does not work. I finally have accepted that. And I finally have accepted how my reality as the creator of my works looks like. I must live with long periods of no validation, but compared to never finishing anything that is a price I am willing to pay.

See you next blogpost!

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.

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!