I've been having a lot of fun doing urban sketches lately. Here are two of my most recent sketches. The first is from the Vios Cafe at the back of Third Place Books in Ravenna. I love the ambiance of this bookstore and the restaurant has great food. Last time I was there I took the time to draw the restaurant. The second is of two mural artists that I saw while walking in the University district. I loved the colors of the mural and the huge face. Pretty fun stuff!
To prove a point that probably doesn’t need to be made, I have put up two watercolor sketches painted in similar color palettes. The first one, “Sitting Gorilla,” was created with only three colors Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Sienna, and French Ultramarine (all Daniel Smith watercolors). The mixing of these three colors created some very lively mixtures that mimicked many more colors.
The one below, “Jane,” (mentioned in yesterday’s post) was done in student quality Sakura Koi watercolors in a similar (but not exactly the same) color palette. I used more colors in the second example trying to replicate what I could do with only three in the first.
I’m aware that to most painters this will not come as a surprise. But to me, as something of a newbie, I found it absolutely fascinating.
I'm really excited to continue painting with limited color palettes for a time to better understand the quality and nature of watercolors.
Years and years ago I stopped painting in watercolors. When I stopped I had a watercolor palette that I was using at the time filled with Sakura Koi watercolors. At the time I remember being delighted with them. Apparently, I hadn’t yet experienced the quality of professional watercolors. Anyway, they were in a large covered plastic palette and went into storage.
Flash forward to 2010. As I have just returned to watercolor painting I was interested to discover that this old palette was still in good shape, the paints unmoldy and apparently ready to use. The problem was that I could make only educated guesses as to what the colors were as I had not made any notes at the time. Researching on the web as to what the colors might have been, I have put together a color map of what I think is in there.
Sakura Koi palette map
I was interested to try them again and see what I thought about them now, after having spent several weeks color testing and using professional grade colors. That process was both interesting and helpful.
Here’s what I found:
The colors are nowhere near as rich and don’t mix nearly as well as the (mainly) Daniel Smith colors that I’ve been using recently. While using them I felt like I was fighting the colors. They were also much more prone to giving me mud then the DS paints. (Of course, this could also have something to do with my ham-handed lack of skill and I’m not denying that).
I hated having Chinese White available to me again. I WILL abuse Chinese White if it comes near me. Learning to preserve the paper is much more important to me right now.
On the plus side though, because the wells were so deep I experimented with putting A LOT of water in each well. I found that this created pools of color much more suited to rich, color-filled washes. Apparently, I have been quite stingy with both my paints and my water in each well of my new palettes and I realized that I needed more of both. (Who am I saving my paints for anyway?)
Finally, I realized how important creating colorful neutrals has become to me. I am not interested in depending so heavily on the Siennas, Ultramarine, and heaven forbid, Black, right now. (In fact, I’m not even using pre-mixed Black at all right now.)
Perhaps all that time off was good for me. Right now I feel like I’m not painting with any delicacy but that's changing everyday. I look forward to the process that leads me from here to there.
Here’s today’s watercolor sketch. It’s a portrait of an old horse friend of mine named “Jane.” This piece was painted with those old Sakura watercolors.
Today in his blog James Gurney asked, “What’s the oldest studio item that you keep on using? Do you use something that you inherited from a mentor or ancestor?” It made me think about my mentor and favorite teacher, Donald Sayner. He was the head of the Scientific Illustration Department at the University of Arizona for more than 30 years. I knew him at the end of his teaching career, studying with him from 1987 – 1990. He was such an inspiration to me that besides dedicating my first children’s book to him, he was very nearly the local stand-in for my Dad at my wedding. A truly inspirational teacher and human being, I will never forget him.
When his Scientific Illustration department closed for good 20 years ago, he gave me several things that I still cherish and use. Among them are a reducing glass (the opposite of a magnifying glass – a wonderful tool for assessing artwork that will later be reduced for print) and a sign penned at some point by Don himself proclaiming, “Photography, c. 1906. Scientific Illustration, Department of General Biology.” It always hung in his classroom, now it hangs in my studio.
Today I went walking in the Redmond watershed and visited a beaver pond. Here are some excerpts from my sketch journal. It was a beautiful day for walking and painting. I was joined by my friend Jill and we had a lovely afternoon.
I am in the process of adjusting my travel kit and figuring out the best things to carry as I sketch and paint. Today I tried out the Niji waterbrush for the first time. It does a really great job for on-the-go painting. (Now I just need to buy a smaller size for detailing. :-)) I also tried out a new lightweight palette with a thumbhole. I really liked the palette a lot. Finally, I experimented with some sharpened Daniel Smith watercolor sticks for spot color. I'm not yet sure what I think of those. I'll need to work with them some more before I make any final decisions about keeping them in my travel kit.
So here I am back in the pursuit of watercolor after too many years away. I am rusty! *shuddering in embarrassment* As I was trained in Scientific Illustration, most of my early watercolor paintings were focused on detailed renderings of discrete objects or animals, much more so than fine art subjects. I spent some time studying textures but mainly using pen & ink as a base to create the textures and then laying down watercolor washes over the top.
Bone Button, pen & ink with watercolor
& gouache highlights, circa 1997
At this point I am ready to change the focus of my painting to seek a greater understanding of the fine art side of this rich and beautiful technique. I have put together a series of painting challenges for myself to study some of the various ways the medium can be used. I have decided that studying textures WITHOUT the base of pen & ink (a crutch to me) would be a great place to start.
I have really enjoyed Cathy Johnson’s book “Creating Textures in Watercolor.” Her style is easy-going and encouraging and I really like her approach to painting. I have begun working through the book with brush in hand in order to experiment with different sorts of textures.
Here are two of my first textural watercolor sketches.
A study of a wonderful mossy tree in my backyard.
A study of a banana. I didn’t like how I handled the ends
Watercolor has always been an important medium for me. I love the way the colors feel as you lay down your washes. I also love to watch the colors interact as they dry.
I have been away from this medium for many years, working instead with colored pencil, graphite, and pen & ink. I have missed it dearly and now that I am back painting again, I am determined to improve my skills with some disciplined study and daily practice. I have just started a new nature/urban sketch journal and have begun to fill its pages with notes, color tests, and sketches. I am still working out the best travel sketch kit for myself, but have put together some early contenders.
Here’s what’s in my kit today:
Daniel Smith Watercolor Sticks cut up into pans
Old toothbrush for splatter
Ink and brush pens
Howda Bag (the best for carrying lots of stuff)
Plastic brush case
So getting back to my current artistic life...I am working on another dog portrait right now. This one is of two dogs laying out on their deck. They are very cute. Although the composition of the photo is rather uninteresting, I am trying to use light and color to improve the composition and draw the eye around the piece correctly.
I have been reading several books on composition lately and have especially enjoyed Ian Roberts' Mastering Composition. Although Roberts is an oil painter, his easy to understand text and visual examples have made me want to work to improve my compositions. One of the exercises he suggests is called "A Composition a Day." Each day you create a small 4" x 5" composition in pencil on paper. The objects you choose can be simple and easy to find around you. The point is to do it every day not as busywork but as a stretching exercise for the mind. I'm excited to try this when I get a free moment. In fact, as I'm also trying to improve my watercolor skills, I may just combine the two exercises into one. I'll let you know and post some of my compositional sketches here.
I am a storyteller by nature and whether that means words or pictures, I love telling stories. As a writer and illustrator, using the comic/graphic novel/webcomic medium feels like a natural fit for me. So why did I get involved in a collaborative effort in the creation of Privateer Princess? The easy answer is…it was really fun! Our point was never to have the most famous of webcomics but instead to create something that we really enjoyed doing. Although the collaboration proved difficult, Matt and I are both proud of the accomplishment. So would I do it differently if I had it to do over again? Probably. Well...almost certainly, in some ways. In others I’d do it just the same.
Each time you create a piece of art you learn something from the process. If you stick with one technique long enough, you improve and begin to experiment. We worked on our webcomic long enough that I felt confident experimenting with the art, layout, and design. What I learned from that left a deep impression on me. Ultimately, it as a worthwhile, if incomplete project. But maybe I should reframe that last statement. Incomplete…? I don’t think so. It was a chapter completed. If we ever begin it again it will be the start of a new chapter in its life, and ours. In my experience, that will probably bring forth both new energy and a new direction. That’s how life works, after all. New energy in the Spring for renewal and the growth of new things. Whether in art or in life, that sense of renewal is what keeps us moving forward.
So what about the return of Privateer Princess? Maybe someday…but in the meantime it's onwards and upwards to new things!
There are many styles of comics on which to model your comic/webcomic. Often comic creators have favorite comics or comic book artists/manga-kas they wish to emulate. I know I do. If given my choice I would like to be an artistic combination of Yuu Watase, Chie Shinohara, Shoko Conami, Kaori Ozaki, with a dash of You Higuri thrown in. Impossible, but a dream nonetheless. In my case, all of the artists I have just mentioned are very famous shojo manga artists from Japan. They generally create black and white comics published in serialized chapters for Japanese Tankōbon, phone-book-sized weekly or monthly anthology manga magazines. But that’s only one style. There are many other styles of comics. I was actually raised on Western comics like the “X-Men” and “The Sandman” and had never even read a manga until a few years ago.
There are many models out there for newbie comic artists to emulate and that is a great way to learn. Study your favorites and imagine how you might do the same (but better, of course). There is nothing wrong with learning from masters of your craft, even though in this country, oddly, there is a certain prejudice against it.
What about color? Many people think a comic must be in color in order to interest people. I don’t believe that. I am an old school illustrator. For many years most newspaper comics and comic strips were published mainly (or totally) in black and white. Good art is good art in my book. It’s actually quite an accomplishment to create really great illustrations in black and white and there have been many suburb illustrators in the past who have done it. From Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” and “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend,” to Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant,” magazines and newspapers in the early and mid 20th century were packed full of wonderful black and white comic art.
Today, many people make the mistake of thinking that color can and will make up for weak art. This is not the case. Strong drawings will always shine, not matter whether they are in color or not. Ultimately, though, no matter what you put down on paper take the time to make it the best you possibly can. That way you will always have something to be proud of.
Once you’ve created a place to put them, your story will need characters! How do you decide what they’ll look like? How many do you need? Sound overwhelming? It needn’t be.
The very simplest way to design characters is by making them similar to people you already know. Characters frequently bear some sort of resemblance to their creators and people their creator knows well. As artists we sometimes can’t help it, we need models and friends and family (not to mention ourselves) work cheap!
Some people really love designing characters and can quickly create a whole lot of them. But can you use all of them in your comic? Another caution here. Too many characters in a story can cause a lot of confusion for your readers, especially if they have foreign or strange-sounding names. Of course YOU know who they are but try and have mercy upon your poor readers. Beyond the main character(s) and a few best friends and/or helpers, try and keep the rest of the cast down to a reasonable number. That way each important character gets more “screen time” and you can tell a better story.
Take some time developing your characters. Think of them as the actors in your own TV series. Just like in a TV series, characters change and develop throughout the season(s). The same will be true for your comic characters. Expect them to grow and change too.
Sometimes certain characters will get their own ideas about how much screen time they would like to have in your comic. Be careful with these attention hogs. They may even start upstaging your hero/heroine. That’s not good! It’s not their comic after all. We had one of these characters in Privateer Princess. His name was Big Atom and for some reason this minor character started appearing more and more often and even began to look like a rival for heroine’s affections as time went on.
This took us completely by surprise but we quickly realized that sometimes it’s ok to allow certain characters grow and change in service of the story. Even if you didn’t plan it initially. Remember that a story is an organic thing that sometimes takes turns you don’t expect.
Part 5: Finding the right visual balance while telling your story
Matt (the writer) and I (the artist) learned the hard way that it’s not always easy to agree on how much dialog and descriptive writing to use in a comic. When all else fails it helps to remember a simple rule for graphic-based stories – show, don’t tell. (This is also true for writing, by the way.)
However, depending on the sort of graphic story you’re planning to tell this can mean very different things. In shojo manga the emotion of the story is very important. Each page frequently has less words with more (and larger) images to better capture the emotionality of the moment.
Other styles of comics, like most superhero comics, have much more exposition and dialog per page. They will also have more panels per page with art that is relatively small.
In our web story, we used a hybrid form of shojo story-telling. This was a compromise that Matt and I made when we couldn’t agree on what style of story to tell. Shojo – with its larger images and more leisurely storytelling style? Or more western superhero – smaller panels/artwork, more exposition/dialog, and a faster storyline? It was a tough call that eventually led to our compromise, which, unfortunately, neither of us could ever completely get behind. So when working in collaboration, even with someone you work with very well, remember that compromises will sometimes need to be made.
Despite our disagreement over style, Matt and I did have an important storytelling rule that I'd like to share. One of the ways we checked how well our story was progressing was by making sure to change the scene or introduce a new element every sixth page. That way readers wouldn’t feel like they were stuck in the same room with the same people for too long and get bored. This rule wasn’t always easy to follow but we felt it was really important.
I’m taking a short pause from the webcomic information to take a brief look at some current artwork. After a long time I’ve started back into watercolor sketching today. It felt fabulous! To start out my new notebook I had do a page of my horse Percy. Here he is in several poses.
Many webcomics are not based around story so much as episodes or single page incidents. On the web these “ultra-short” stories or incidents work really well because they make it easy for you to read quickly and not invest too much time.
If you want to tell a longer story you really need to think about it carefully before you start drawing. Why? Because, and trust me on this, it’s really easy for a comic story to get out of hand. A written story is very different from a heavily illustrated one. A graphic novel or webcomic takes longer to tell. It must because it’s telling a story with many, many pictures. As a webcomic artist (and previously a children’s book illustrator) I love telling stories with lots of pictures. But, if you write a novel and then want to turn it into a graphic story or comic, things are going to get ugly really fast. Where do you put all of those words, eh? If you have a long story it’s going to take a really long time to tell when you add all those really great pictures. In fact, it might take several issues (or volumes in manga) to tell it. Do you have the patience and fortitude for that? Think about it carefully before getting in too deep. A shorter, simpler story WILL be easier to tell in a comic format, especially for a novice. I know what I’m talking about here folks.