This is the first post in a series about how I make comics. Inspired by the recent completion of my latest comic, Concrete. You can read Concrete here.
Part one (This part) | Part two
Making comics is different from any other craft that I practice. With illustration, singing, writing, knitting, all your energy and creativity is funnelled into a very specific shape. Even tasks that require several disciplines (illustration using colour + line, singing for me usually involves a guitar or ukulele), the disciplines compliment each other. They happen at the same speed and can easily be absorbed together as a whole. They naturally fit together.
With comics I feel like there’s a weird dischord that happens with the elements you try to combine. Words travel at a different speed to images but they have to work together to tell a story. Words want you to rush, and pictures chuck the breaks on. Even wordless comics have to somehow graciously portray time in a medium that is (usually) completely static. It’s like combining oil and water. Comics are story alchemy.
I consider myself a comic artist at the core. This might seem a bit weird to people because I only have three comics up online at the moment. They’re all really short and there’s two years between the release of each one. One reason is a lot of life happened in between each comic. Another is that comics are really hard, and I don’t want to release anything I’m not proud of.
I’ve had pretty severe art block for a couple of years now. Even while I was making Sunshine, I felt like I was battling uphill. It was hard work to make, and so after I finished it I spent time and energy on other projects I found easier (usually knitting). 2012 was a very quiet year illustration-wise, and 2013 wasn’t a heap better. I’ve had a couple of comic projects on my perpetual ‘to do’ pile because I couldn’t easily achieve the storytelling and illustration style I wanted. They have been left there as complex puzzles I haven’t quite worked out how to solve.
I have been busy with other things too. I have learnt to knit, which is one of the most rewarding skills outside of drawing that I have ever come across (I should really write a thing about how great knitting is – it’s so great). I have made huge steps in my non-art career, which I care about as much as I care about illustration and comics. And I have done a lot of thinking and learning about a lot of things. Including what I want to do with my drawing, whether comics really are where I want to put my energy, or whether there’s something else I need to be making (I’d really absolutely love to make games as well).
During the art block time (Which I think I can finally say I’ve cracked now, I hope), every drawing and line was an effort. Even thinking about drawing was an expense of energy I didn’t have. It sucked to not be drawing, but it also sucked to feel like every time I picked up a pencil I was pushing against a strong force, and I just couldn’t get past that feeling. My skills went rusty, my ideas went bland and every drawing I did had a lot of pressure placed on it because it was ‘the only thing I’d drawn in ages’. So it was also inevitably going to be crap.
I still drew commissions and some personal stuff during this time. If you look over the work you probably can’t see the ‘crap’ that I can see. It probably looks like perfectly acceptable illustration work, and probably seems to fit in fine with the rest of what I’ve made. The difference is that there is significantly less of it during this phase. I think I didn’t produce a single new print-quality illustration during 2012 that wasn’t Sunshine.
A bunch of things have changed now. I’ve been working hard to overcome art block. It’s like physical fitness – there’s a blend of active training and a need for rest. I began making sure that I drew every day (or every other day), but more than that, I made sure I had a plan. I outlined the things in my art that I wanted to improve, and I made sure I put some time into practicing those. Key things for me lately have been feet, full-body poses and getting a bit more detail and expression into my hands. I’ve also been working on diversifying the cast of miscellaneous people I draw.
I’ve also tried to minimise the feeling of ART GUILT that I get. ART GUILT (yes, it is in allcaps, ask any artist ever) is the crushing sense of guilt you feel whenever you do anything that isn’t your art. This includes working, cooking, eating, and especially sleeping. ART GUILT happens mostly with entertainment – so for me TV shows, games and knitting get major ART GUILT points, but it also affects me whenever I decide to go socialise, even if I had no real plans to do any real drawing that night. That time COULD have been drawing time and now it definitely ISN’T. It made it hard to enjoy things.
I’m not sure quite how I managed to shut my ART GUILT voice up, it hasn’t been a super conscious process. I think it’s mainly quietened down for me because I am always looking to live a more balanced life. When you are able to eat well and sleep well, when you manage your time well, this angst just sort of slips away. Games, socialising, TV, and general living are all important to me. They help me to relax and to feel like a whole person. They also fuel my art. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the two most recent comic ideas I have had were both because I went out to visit friends.
Now after some time building up my drawing fitness I am able to produce a lot more work a lot faster. My sketch folder for 2014 has 365 items in it already (Compare this to 2013’s 249 or 2012’s 36 items). Even though a lot of this is noise fluff, there’s a lot of value in how much drawing I’ve gotten done. Improving my drawing fitness has meant that I’m now making work that doesn’t feel like a battle. Most of Concrete has happened pretty smoothly. The story showed up in my brain whole, and all I had to do was draw it down. And I was able to do so! That’s some magic right there.
I’m planning to write another piece about the technical aspects of how Concrete came together, but I thought it was important to document my emotional process too. This is just as crucial for making a comic as any amount of technical knowledge can be. To make comics, to make art, you need to work just as much at being a person as you do at being an artist. They’re the same thing, anyway.