Sketch and repeat

Before they were published, they were just scribbles in a sketchbook.

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Then I decided to see what they would look like all drawn up

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and given a proper caption.

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And the good ones, like this one, get published.

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My original idea on this was a skeleton sitting at a desk. Funnier or just more macabre?

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Improv Illustration

I consider myself fortunate to be able to do what I love in order to pay the bills. So when I have the opportunity to work with talented and creative people, it’s a bonus. And a very enjoyable one.

Last year my friend Mark Peters asked me to illustrate his book Bullshit: A Lexicon, which was a blast to do. Soon after, Cathy Salit asked me if I wanted to draw cartoons for  a book she was writing about how learning the principles of improv can boost your job performance. I was happy to say yes.book cover

Cathy is the CEO of Performance of  Lifetime, a group of individuals grounded in improvisational theatre who help companies to take their work to the next level through an understanding of performance. A few of us cartoonists had performed at a POAL event, so I knew her already. She told me that the book was based on the Becoming Principle, the paradoxical idea that we don’t discover who our authentic selves are until we are allowed to play and improvise, trying on different roles in life.

I’ve never taken an improv class, but I knew that one of the core ideas is that, by saying “yes, and…” to your teammates (and by them saying it to you) you can safely venture past your self-imposed limits and into unexplored territory. I told Cathy that, although she might have initially hired me to read the chapters and then draw cartoons reflecting the concepts within them, I thought it would be fun to try something which honored the spirit of the book – something improvisational. Maybe something I, or we, had never done before, kind of figuring it out as we go. Maybe create a new form of illustration!

I met with Cathy and her team and we came up with a bunch of interesting ideas click here to read the rest of this post

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SXSWrap

I just returned from the SXSW music festival in Austin once again. It’s still a ridonkulous clusteryouknowwhat of humanity, but the conference has appeared to cool off just a bit in terms of spectacle (even if the actual attendance numbers are still ballooning), and that’s great news for music fans, at least in my opinion. I couldn’t care less about John Legend or Guns N’ Roses opportunistically helicoptering in at the last minute to play a “secret show.” The event originated as a showcase for unsigned and unknown bands to get attention and, although the music business doesn’t work that way anymore, this year seemed to be more about those hard-working under-the-radar acts playing their asses off to make a breakthrough, and not wondering if Lady Gaga was going to appear inside of a giant Doritos machine. And, even if they’re not really that far under the radar, it’s still a great opportunity for discovery.

The band Hinds alone played 17 shows in 5 days. Seventeen. You could have just called it SXSHinds. A lot of bands I saw played 10, 11, 12 shows over the course of those days. You get a sense for what a band is really like when you see them multiple times. Car Seat Headrest‘s shows were completely unpredictable: not just the song choices, but the very tone of the set. The day I saw them they were punchy and aggressive, but my friends reported that at other shows they were the exact opposite. I chose to see TEEN, a Brooklyn band whose new album I love, at the Flood magazine party which Sir the Baptist basically turned into a raucous St. Patrick’s Day karaokefest – in other words, not the ideal setting for a band with thoughtful lyrics and Krautrocky grooves – but then was able to see them later in a more suitable venue. And I was happy to go back and see Beach Slang twice – they already are like The Replacements on Red Bull, but at their last-slot-of-the-night show at Sidewinder they basically tore the venue a new one, in the best way possible.

Small is spectacular. Here’s hoping that the festival will continue to grow that way. Here are some clips from last week.

 

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Mighty Fine

LA artist Jenny Fine was kind enough to swap drawings with me when I was in California recently. I definitely got the better end of the deal. She can draw her ass off. Look at this sketch:

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It’s pretty close to perfect, especially the legs. The bold strokes, the varying line thicknesses, the bit of texture where the ink gets dry – it’s all so nice to look at. She nailed the weight shift in this woman’s stance. And this:

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It’s a little more exaggerated, but she’s captured exactly what’s going on with this dude’s (Left Brain from Odd Future, I think?) swagger. This is how you draw! If you want to see more work like this, check out the Kid Ink video below, for which she did all the sketches, or sift through her Instagram.

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Three, Two, One…Three!

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My children’s book finally hit the shelves after several years filled with a lot of work and a lot more waiting – picture books take a looooong time to print! It’s the story of the Number Three having a bit of an identity crisis, and to see the published version is satisfying. It’s my first book, and it’s the first time I’ve worked in color on any substantial project. And I love how it came out.

The main hurdle in getting the book was to get the permission of Number Three himself. He knows that he’s kind of a big deal, and he put us through the ringer during contract talks (as you can see, we had to hire John Kerry himself, just to negotiate the foreign rights). Once that was over, though, I was able to start roughing out the book, which I wrote about previously on this site.

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The book was actually adapted from an unpublished graphic novel that I wrote: similar concept, and Number Three was still the main character, but this thing spiraled out in all kinds of directions, both philosophical and humorous. For the kids’ book I had to scrap 99% of the story, pretty much, and write it from scratch. As is often the case, less was definitely more. This was the proposed cover for the scrapped version:

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We had to change the title to It’s Not Easy Being Three, so that it didn’t look like we (we, meaning me) were copying The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, which, contrary to this theory posed by a GoodReads reviewer, I had not even known about by the time I had already written this story. And then we had to add the word Number Three in the title so that three-year olds – those pompous threenagers! – wouldn’t think the book was only about them.

The process of doing finished art for the book was pretty new to me, but it still was based on the same way I do drawings now: carved ink on scratchboard. I refined my rough sketches until they were ready for ink, and then I did my black & white drawings. In some cases, several of them were layered on top of each other and color added to the layers. So this sketch from my proposal:

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eventually became this spread from the book:

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And this:

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eventually became this:

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And so on.

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More about this book in a day or two.

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Jedi design tricks

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As I was waiting for my friends to arrive at the theatre the other night, I was standing right in front of the poster for The Force Awakens. I observed how, from a design perspective, it’s essentially Composition 101.

One characteristic of good art is the right mix of dynamism and order. Think of Jackson Pollock: the individual gesture of splattering paint is chaotic and turbulent, but hundreds of gestures next to and on top of each other becomes a pattern. In a sci-fi movie poster, you need lasers and spaceships and explosions, but there has to be an underlying logic to how it is presented so that it becomes inviting to the eye, not threatening. Sometimes this order is subtle, working on a subconscious level. In this poster it is Tarantino-like in it’s obviousness, which makes it fun to dissect.

Images need a focal point. In this poster it is Rey’s eyes. The designer (apparently Bryan Morton, who is credited as the art director) has made sure that you won’t miss it by placing her eyes at the center of a giant X, right about at the point at which the red and blue light sabers would intersect if you traced their paths across the page.

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An X is a solid compositional structure. It shows dynamic movement – a line moving diagonally upwards crossed with a line moving diagonally downwards (and this is true whether you read left to right or right to left) – and also perfect symmetry, which is a stabilizing element. It’s like Econ 101!

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So – you’ve got your dynamism and your order. There is actually another line you can trace, click here to read the rest of this post

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My 10 favorite arty & cultural things from 2015

In no particular order:

1. After whiffing on this for many years, I finally got to see publictheatre.org’s Shakespeare in the Park  not once, but twice this summer. The production of Cymbeline was better than The Tempest, but there’s probably no better way to spend a summer night in Central Park – after waiting for nearly 5 hours in line the same morning to get tickets, of course.

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2. After whiffing on this for many, many years, I finally got to see U2 play live for the first time, at Madison Square Garden. Once they became megastars (after The Joshua Tree, a zillion years ago) I basically gave up on seeing them, because I don’t really enjoy paying $200 to see musicians at a football stadium. But this year I was feeling like “mmmm… I just have to, just this once.” I still wasn’t happy about the money, but it was definitely worth it. I got goosebumps during the intro to Where the Streets Have No Name, and this surprise Springsteen appearance was perfect.

3. Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy-completing novel Lila (even though it technically came out in late 2014). Also, after whiffing on this for many years, I finally discovered David Foster Wallace. I stopped whiffing on a lot of things this year, is the point.

4. Jamie xx’s sparkling electronic album In Colour, featuring the sublime single Loud Places. As my friend said, the first album I’ve heard that actually makes steel drums sound tolerable.

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5. Courtney Barnett’s brilliant debut-ish album and massive live performances.

6. In September I got to see the first large-scale exhibition of the work of Corita Kent at the Pasadena Museum of Art. It was a revelation. Corita was a socially-engaged nun, working outside of the mainstream art world, who deconstructed print advertising and the stylistic possibilities of letters themselves to create Pop Art that was powerful, poetic, ecumenical, and which feels utterly fresh: a pre-Photoshop graphic design hipster. The middle period of her work, roughly 1964-68, is especially compelling, and culminates in her two printed alphabets – the circus alphabet and the signal alphabet – which are inventive, witty, and layered with meaning. It’s hard to believe that her work has stayed under the radar for so long (or, because of her humble circumstances, it’s probably not). Expect a MoMA show soon?

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7. The Juan Maclean‘s sold-out six-night residency at Cameo Gallery and Union Pool.

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8. Puros Cubanos, this exhibit of poster art from six Cuban graphic designers which proved that there may be a lack of resources in that country, but no lack of creativity.

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9. John Singer Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, at the Met.

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10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, duh.

And I didn’t “officially” put this on the list, just because I’m in it ever-so-briefly, but Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious about the cartoonists of The New Yorker is a crisp, funny and occasionally poignant film, and skillfully made. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is now available on HBO, and is well worth watching.

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