Thursday, August 11, 2011

Get Uncomfortable, Damnit!

The schooling that never ends.

The ever-hungry artist is constantly searching, never fully satiated.

In the beginning we struggle to grow. We are infants trying to walk. Trying to speak. But our minds are wide and feasting minute-by-minute on the constant input from those around us. It is why psychologists say ages 2 to 7 are the optimum years to learn a second language or even a third. They call it the “critical period hypothesis.”

Then something happens within the brain that closes down these base receptors, focuses our learning on other, more advanced, skills. It is why adults who have never known more than one language have the most difficulty learning a second, while those who’ve grown up with more than one language easily adapt to a third or more. It is why this new generation, having grown up with computers, seems to adapt more readily to the ever-changing techno-environment than, say, us old fogies who grew up with high-tech gadgets like the butter churn. We turn pale at the thought of a smart phone smarter than ourselves.

I believe this is the way with Art as well. I believe a young person who focuses on a particular artistic skill, to the exclusion of all others, inhibits his ability to learn multiple skills later in life—or at least makes the process of acquiring new skills a more difficult task for him/herself.

Again, I blame my mother. I believe I was a fortunate child. She held that, now famous, pencil in my hand. She bought the Learn to Draw set. I watched her paint. She gave me books she knew I would enjoy reading. I was exposed to comic books. Art books. She took me to “grown-up” movies at a very early age, and yes, animated films, then bought those movie soundtrack albums festooned with the great movie poster art of the day. This was my earliest schooling. Everything.

It is why I searched for the perfect clover in the lawn. Why I wasted so many hours creating stories for the creatures I created out of clouds. Why I became fascinated with, and tried so hard to draw/paint, the beauty in animals before I knew how paint actually worked. And so maybe I grew up a bit more versatile in my artistic desires.

Don’t read me wrong here. I didn’t say that I grew up better, or became a better artist than anyone else. I believe having too many directions in life may have actually held me back in any single area of learning. An artist who only sculpts will learn to sculpt much faster. A painter will learn to paint much faster. A comic book illustrator will learn to draw comics much faster…if that is all they do. But eventually, that moment in life comes along when the artist says, “I wish I could (sculpt, paint, draw comics, whatever that skill was they never focused on)…” and acquiring that next skill is now more of a struggle.

I’ve seen extremely talented artists go white when forced to try something new. It’s the animal that has been caged all its life and finally finds the door open, then stands there unable to move, keeps returning to lie down in front of that same cage door.

And this is why, when I teach to the younger artists, I insist that they look beyond their present medium of choice. Get uncomfortable, damnit!

If all you want to do is draw comic books—this is your goal in life and if you can make a living drawing comics for the rest of your life you will die happy in your senility—then study the masters, the great painters, study black & white photography, study animation, sculpture! All these things will make you a better comic book illustrator. I insist.

I use myself and my experience not in a boastful or self-aggrandizing way, but as an acute lesson to make as strong a point as I can for versatility of training.

When I first started out in my chosen profession—comic books—I was struggling terribly. Yeah, I had worked at it all my young life. I grew up in love with comics and now here I was “living the dream.” But I was far from where I needed to be, I am sure to other accomplished professionals, but also to myself. I could see my faults, and Lo! They were innumerable. I had difficulty getting my assignments out the door because I would erase whole pages of art in my insecurity…but…

…I could see my faults.

I could see them because with all I had studied and continued to study throughout my young life, I knew, or at least I had an inkling of what real greatness could look like.

Like so many other fledgling comic book illustrators, I had my comic book influences. Starting with the king, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko…then Big John Buscema came along and changed everything for me. But I had also been impressed by Stan Lynde, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster—from the Sunday papers. Then there were Gene Colan, John Romita, Neal Adams, and about twenty or fifty others. I began pinball-bouncing from one to the other, trying to copy, trying to understand what they were doing that made them each one unique and yet each one great.

Then I watched as the next generation of comic artists came into my radar just as I was discovering painters like Frank Frazetta, Howard Terpning, John Berkey.

As I was “playing” at being a painter, looking over my shoulder, I noticed a peculiarity in comics. Many of the new professional illustrators were not only mimicking their teachers (as I—the not-yet-professional—was doing), some were copying one favored style. While all those greats I mentioned earlier had been so varied in their abilities, neither of those names can be confused with the others; they were individuals—stylistically, ARTISTICALLY. This new batch was beginning to resemble each other.

And there was something else. While no artist is perfect—paraphrasing Rockwell: style is merely an accumulation of our imperfections—while I could see much of the good stuff these young illustrators brought forward from their predecessors, I began recognizing drawing problems that separated these young bucks from their idols. Then one day, I saw an even younger artist who had idolized one of these imitators and my own young light bulb clicked on. Drawing problems, it seemed, were inherited and compounded by the newcomer.

The narrower the scope of the artist, unless each artist is willing to reach beyond the bounds, limitations, set by his predecessors,  the art form deteriorates. Each new generation becomes less than what had come before.

And the comic book companies themselves seemed to foster this break-down. I learned that the editors and art directors were trying to get these new young bucks to emulate those illustrators who had drawn the more successful books. They were in effect creating “house styles,” based on a few popular illustrators’ styles, regardless of the new one’s ability to draw or tell a story, or…become an individual who might even surpass his forerunners. If the style was close enough, who cares if he can only draw hands balled into fists, or he hides the subject’s feet in tall grass…? Few people cared if each minor flaw merely added to the collection of flaws from the others. Few noticed, as most of those in position to make the critical decisions were not artists.

But then, if great artists had been making the hiring decisions, I might not have landed my first jobs in the comics field. When I started calling myself a “professional,” my work sucked too. Big time. But I was trying my ass off…and erasing a lot.

And then I remember being astounded when I first connected with others in the comic art community, I met some artists in the office or at conventions and, while a number of them were actually deserving of pride in their work, some of them trumpeted their skills like bull elephants in a large herd. (These were invariably not the most talented of the clique.) Some would bash another’s reputation or demean another’s ability, and I would quietly think, does this person know where he stands in the universe? Had he never seen Michelangelo’s sketchbooks? Rockwell’s magazine covers? Bob Peak, J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth, and on and on….? Comics is a very small pond, there are extremely talented, good, hard working comic book illustrators, but the largest fish is still just a carp.

Then I would go home to my drawing board and draw-erase, draw-erase. But I continued to study. Everything. I was teaching myself to paint, photographing models, and learning a whole new set of frustrations, but found myself using a few things I had learned there, like light and form, to improve my comic book illustrations. And it took forever to improve. I thought I never would. Then a year would lapse, and I was forced to look at work I had done the year before and, Lo again! I thanked the art gods I had gotten a little better.

And then, years later, when the comic book gods began turning off the spigot of work for yours truly, I was painting almost full time. For myself, for publishers.

Then I moved to Los Angeles to get into the film industry and though I had never drawn a story board, I took the job anyway, sat in Barnes & Noble for a weekend to read and learn just what a story board artist did, so that come monday, I was working on Ang Lee's, The Hulk. I designed for Wes Craven.

An lovely acting teacher had once told me, if a director asks if you can ride a horse, say yes, then go out and learn how to ride a horse.

Then when I learned that Walt Disney Imagineering needed an artist to design a ride for their new theme park, I had no idea how to design a ride, but went in and took over the art chores. Then, overhearing from the next cubicle how the producers had no idea what the other attractions should look like, I went home, and over a weekend, painted an acrylic painting (which I had never done before) of an alien invasion and that next monday was asked to become their art director of attractions. I found myself designing 28 different attractions simultaneously, directing a handful of artists to fill in where I needed and...

...two years later, when the head of development asked me if I could read blue prints (because they had three floors of the facility being designed by world-class designers, but they had no one to design the fourth) on my way home, I stopped at the drafting store, bought a drafting ruler, went to work early the next day and asked one of the architects to show me how to read a friggin' blueprint. I spent the subsequent year designing that floor, from carpet patterns to portals to slides, sculptures, bumper cars, and wall murals.

And it’s been that way for thirty-plus professional years. And I am still hungry, thanks to mom. And I am still learning, because that’s the best my art has given me, the drive to learn. And I fight to improve. Fight to be great. Know that I never will be great, not in my eyes. I believe it is the true artist’s blessing and curse. The struggle for perfection, yet the knowledge that you will never achieve it.

At this point, with this sad spear of knowledge poking me every step of my journey, the best I can hope for is to leave some sort of lasting mark. For someone to say, “Hey, this guy was pretty good,” and to understand the thought process behind the artist’s decision-making at the time; for them to understand the struggle that brought me here and appreciate all the hard work….

That would be pretty cool.



  1. Impressive ..
    What do you think of the current (like last 10 years) computer drawing - photo tracing techniques which seems to be the main trend nowdays in comics and appeals to readers for the real life feeling they convey ....??
    Unrelated question : there is a feeling an artist should never stop drawing otherwise he might loose his initial impetus-knack and never recover it fully again, like for instance Neal Adams... On the contrary of Kirby who never stopped and thus remained powerful and creative until the end ... What do you think ..??

  2. Patriva,
    I was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age. I was a production illustrator and the world had reached a point when directors no longer wanted to see an artist walk through the doors carrying a bucket and paints and boards and a tarp to throw over a drafting table (drafting tables were near non-existent anyway). Besides they had learned that rather than hiring an artist to paint (analogue-style), a digi-artist could create and then the (non-artistic) producer could walk up behind him and say, "Too red. Make green," and a push of a couple buttons later, green happens. So I found myself out of work for nearly a year, thinking my career had ended, unable to work on a Wacom tablet, when someone told me about this expensive thing called the Cintiq (a monitor I could actually draw and paint on. I felt I had no other option. I spent the next half-year learning the Painter program, then reentered the Hollywood work force. Now (aside from my personal projects) nearly all of my work is drawn or painted on the "machine." My output has nearly tripled and I work. —Regarding the tracing thing, I warn students against using copyrighted material of any kind. And I warn them that total reliance, without freehand drawing makes you a craftsman, but not an artist. The computer is a tool, like anything else, but if the tool becomes the master, you are just a button-pusher.

    An artist can put down the tools and pick them up again and it's like getting back onto the bike, they'll get back into the swing before too long. You don't really "unlearn" anything, it just takes a bit to catch up to one's old self. I don't know Neal personally so I don't know that he ever gave up drawing. He might have just gone off in other directions (much like myself). That "initial impetus" always evolves. Everyone should mature, learn new skills, have adventures. As one ages other drives are forced upon us. Sometimes as simple as a wife and kids, a mortgage, forces the artist to move on to other pursuits. The thought of making the same page rate at 45 that one made at 25 is frightening, so perhaps the artist eliminates details, or develops a faster style that allows him/her to make a decent wage. Even Kirby's work evolved, if you examine the breadth of his career. So, I don't have many negatives about an artist who gave us so much wonderful work throughout his career.