But I’ve just gone through two seemingly unrelated but telling episodes, that have made me revisit this existential question (I apologize for this narcissistic post, but hey, what are blogs for?)
First of all, this summer, I came to the aid of someone who is near and dear to me, who urgently needed a design for a website she was having developed.
While I’m not a real website designer, I believe I do have my moments. I first told her I couldn’t do it, but then came up with a basic idea, that I fleshed out, and that satisfied me on so many levels that I feel embarrassed by just how proud I was of the result. I thought it was a near-total success, both graphically, ergonomically, in terms of usability and clarity and fitness to the purpose and to the target demographics.
The developer, on the other hand, begged to differ. He was appalled, even horrified, and said that it was his duty as a professional to warn against using such a non-standard, off-putting, design.
The parallel with typical reactions to my music is obvious to me now. The design was, in my view, only slightly non standard, which was what gave it personality, among other ingredients. But the placement and usability of every element on every page was carefully thought out, and weighed in light of impatient and inexperienced end-users. There was virtually no doubt in my mind that the slightly non-standard aspects would improve usability, not worsen it.
In a different context, I had also previously done a quick photoshop collage for the near and dear person I was trying to help, in which I had stuck a crude banner+logo on a screen-shot of an existing, competing (and very bland) site.
She was stuck between a rock and a hard place (me and the developer), so I suggested she send this crude collage, and my new, snazzy, perfect design ;) to people familiar with the project to get their feedback. The result wasn’t even close. The crappy fake was preferred 10 to 1 over my sublime, haute-couture design ;) .
Now for the second recent revealing incident. Last weeks’ Geeks In Love episode was really a political cartoon in disguise, about the financial collapse and the MacPain campaign. As a lark, and given what I thought was a broader appeal than usual, I submitted the strip to Reddit’s “comics” feed. People then started to look at it and to “upvote” the strip. I got over 200 visits in a few hours, with the strip holding steady in the top 10 cartoons of the moment, but by the end of the day, at least as many people had “downvoted” (you can’t get negative points on Reddit). So once again, enough people disliked it enough to vote it down. They could ignore it and do nothing. But no. They had to express their displeasure in no uncertain terms (the political bias on Reddit is very much to the left, so I’m dismissing the possibility that I was voted down by outraged creationists or Palin supporters).
Once again, I was witnessing the same pattern. I thought I was proposing something of quality, with a wider appeal than usual, and was proven wrong.
So there you have it.
It doesn’t matter what I create: music, web designs, cartoons.
It doesn’t matter who I create for: myself or others.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s highbrow, lowbrow or commercial art or entertainment.
It doesn’t matter weather it is formally slightly unusual or completely familiar and standard.
The result is always the same. A few individuals rave about it, and large numbers of people are put off.
I’m amused and even a little proud, but also humbled to see that I seem to have an artistic sensibility that transcends the particular boundaries of different “art forms”.
It’s also obvious to me that there is nothing I can do about it.
Which in the end is a liberating feeling, even though it means that what I do, despite an audience beyond my wildest dreams, will never emerge from obscurity.Tweet
Why do I draw the Geeks? Why do I (still occasionally) make music?
I’m not going to philosophise on the intrinsic merits of art (hi or lo-brow) or anything like that. Not today. I’m going to stay much closer to the ground.
It ain’t easy to think up and draw one episode a week. If I did this for a living, and had to publish on a daily basis for instance, I would have to considerably widen the scope and especially the cast of the Geeks.
As it stands, the Geeks sometimes
- help me document events in my life
- recount an amusing real-life anecdote
- make fun of some geeky proclivity
I’m glad when on occasion, I get any of the above across in a way that satisfies me.
And that satisfaction usually happens, in my own eyes, when I’m pleased with the formal aspect of an episode: the narrative structure of a strip, the invisible stuff that is implied between two drawings, settling on some visual code (like the computers merging with the boxes), or the occasional quality of a drawing itself.
Like the last drawing in today’s episode.
The three dimensionality suggested by the perspective of the arms of the glasses, the prominence of the nose, overhanging the iPhone, and the very slight curvature of the eye on the left, that suggests the three-dimensionality of the eyeball. Some of it is intended, some of it is sheer luck (hopefully guided by instinct).
That’s what keeps me going.Tweet
And of course, I drew a Geeks In Love episode about being mentioned in Le Monde.
Then, Claire called me last week to say Le Monde 2 wanted to publish that Geeks In Love episode. So I emailed a high-res version to a nice lady at Le Monde, and sure enough, they published it, as a “letter to the editor” about the original article (so of course, this week’s Geeks In Love episode is about that).
Pretty damn cool!
My mother has been waiting 44 years for this moment to arrive.
But this is different. This is Le fucking Monde! Major bragging material!
She made me promise to say that she’s very proud. That’s the understatement of the year. As I write these lines, she’s contacting every person she knows on the planet to let them know, and when she runs out, she’ll probably start hitting the white pages, or the Who’s Who.
So I’m really happy for her. This one’s for you, Mom.Tweet
While I decided to draw Geeks in Love in the analog realm, on paper, with a brush and ink, it wasn’t out of some purist attitude. It just feels better than to draw with a graphics tablet, and the result is “warmer” for lack of a better expression.
Still, I wasn’t going to deprive myself of a little technological help.
Tag cloud is an obvious example.
So is On the clock. I drew just one image…
…without hands on the clock, copy and pasted it without shame or mercy, drew in the clock hands in a vector program (Fireworks), and then erased the characters in the noon image, which I reused in the 3pm image. The perfect copies reinforced the “gag”, so why not? I might have done the same thing with a photocopier if computers weren’t an option.
But let me give you a less obvious example.
When I started, I didn’t know whether I wanted to hand paint the boxes or draw them with a ruler. I didn’t know what tool I would use to do the bubbles and lettering either. So on episode 1, I didn’t ink the boxes or bubbles or text, and scanned the image without them.
Using a makeshift light table, I then hand painted the boxes and bubbles and text on a separate sheet, and scanned it in. I then composited the strip image and the box & bubble image in Photoshop and decided that was the look I wanted.
Notice that I made a typo in the first bubble, which I fixed in Photoshop using the H that was already there.
So for subsequent episodes, I just hand painted the boxes and bubbles and text directly on the strip.
I’ve done “worse” though. I drew two versions of episode 1. Both versions were quite different except for the third image, which was nearly identical. I preferred the second version of the strip by far, except that I messed up the third image a bit. So there again, I composited the best parts of both versions of that third image in Photoshop.
version 1 / version 2 / version 1+2
Why not? I had all I needed to get the result I wanted, and the techy solution was faster than to draw a third version.
Here’s a final example. This is what I originally drew in Tag Cloud.
While I like the eye, the style strays too far from the general look of the strip. So I redid it in Photoshop, by copying a hand-painted eye from another drawing, flipping it, stretching it, etc. until I had a satisfactory result (and while I was at it, I made the hairline recede a little more).
All in all, it’s very liberating to know that small mistakes can be fixed and small adjustments made in the digital realm, especially since real-life brushes can have a mind of their own, which introduces a certain amount of randomness and unpredictability at the inking stage, for better or worse.
The technology helps me get closer to my goal, with less hassle. Who could ask for anything more?Tweet
The US, comic-strip, funnies, format or the more familiar and flexible European bandes dessinées (BD) format that I grew up with? I settled on the US comic strip style for several reasons. I had never worked in that format, and as a staunch believer that constraints are the mother of invention, I figured that working in this rigid and limited format would force me to get rid of any excess “fat” and focus on the essential.
Vous dessinez à la plume ou au pinceau ?
This is the cliched question, immortalized by Gotlib in the Rubrique-à-Brac, that all BD authors supposedly get asked. Do you draw with a pen or a brush? I had my pencil sketches. Now how would I ink them?
I don’t like using the plume (fountain pen?) and that scratchy feeling of the pen scraping the paper. I drew my last comics, 82 centuries ago, with a japanese brush and ink. I love the feeling of the brush on paper. It barely registers in the hand, and the result has a lively look. But brushes are also messy, they lose their bristles, they have to be cleaned, ink splashes around, ink bottles topple over…
Enter my 10-year-old daughter. Like me at her age, she spends most of her free time drawing, in her case amazing manga-style art. One day, she brought home a strange implement I had never seen before. A “brush pen”. Basically, it’s a felt pen, but the nib is shaped like a brush and is somewhat flexible. I tried it and instantly fell in love! It felt good on the page, and gave me a graphical look that delighted me, thanks to its ability to vary the thickness of the lines. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Unfortunately, the next day, using that same pen, which I had barely used the day before, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get those thickness variations. The pen was shot, despite my light touch. The result looked like it had been done with any old felt pen.
I didn’t want to be dependant on such an unreliable tool, so I reluctantly gave up on the Pitt, and figured I’d have to resort to a real brush.
Bristles, Buns and Ponytails
I went to the art supply store, and while I stood there, staring despairingly at the 457 different brushes on display, Pamela strolled through the store and stumbled on another brush pen, the Pentel brush pen. But this one was different. It was a cross between a real brush and a fountain pen. The tip is made of real bristles, and the barrel houses ink cartridges. A real brush, with none of the drawbacks of a real brush!
So I bought it, rushed home, and tried it, and instantly knew I had found the perfect drawing tool for Geeks In Love. If you want to know more about this marvelous invention, read this Ode to a Pentel brush pen.
For example, by then, the Geekette had lost her initial bun, and I was struggling with the way to render her ponytail. The Pentel put that problem to rest in an instant:
Next: The Making of Geeks In Love Part III: A Little Help from Technology.Tweet
Once I started drawing the first sketches of Geeks In Love, I pretty much nailed the Geekette right away.
I knew I wanted simple lines. In other words, I wanted boil down the characters as much as possible, to their essential characteristics. If a line or a detail could be left out, it was.
So I set out to draw a Geek that would match the style of the Geekette. This proved to be much more difficult than I had envisioned…
The Geek, Phase 1: Stumbling in the dark
I sketched and sketched and sketched, and while I got a few OK Geeks, I couldn’t reproduce them at will. Worse, I had no idea what made the ones I liked work.
The Geek, Phase 2: A more structured approach
In desperation, I tried to work from a photograph. I came up with a nice, clean character, in a style reminiscent of the traditional Belgian ligne claire.
But I had to face the fact that this Geek was much more detailed than the Geekette, required a beard to be recognizable (I wanted the character to be consistent regardless of the length of his beard or his hair, etc.). This phase did help me get a real feel for the lower part of the face. I finally had a clue what made that work or not. Still, I just couldn’t simplify him any further. I had hit another dead end.
The Geek, Phase 3: Back to the drawing board
I took a bunch of images with the built-in webcam of my MacBook, put one up on the screen, and went to work. I came up with this drawing:
It helped me nail down a vital characteristic I was missing: the overall shape of the head. I wanted the Geek’s silhouette to be instantly recognizable, just as the Geekette’s silhouette was. With new hope, I blackened dozens and dozens of pages.
Strangely enough, I knew I had the Geek when I drew the following picture:
Even though I knew this wasn’t the character, I recognized in that drawing that I finally had all of the ingredients I needed to draw the Geek: the nose, the simplified mouth and chin, the shape of the head. Like so:
I had the rounded counterpart to the angular Geekette.
In retrospect, I realize that during my years of cartooning a lifetime ago, I never went through such a meticulous process. I was too impatient and spontaneous. Paradoxically, this time, it is precisely because I wanted to be able to draw my characters spontaneously, en trois coups de crayon (in just a few strokes), that I pushed myself and found the strength to endure this painstaking ordeal.
Next: The Making of Geeks In Love Part II: The Look and Feel.Tweet