So… I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Generally that means either nothing really new is going that’s worth blogging about, or else I’m working on something that requires all my attention. Well, the past couple of weeks I’ve focused my attention on attending the Illustration Master Class that ran the week of June 10th. It was an overwhelmingly amazing experience!
(Video courtesy of James Gurney – look for me watching the painting demo!)
While I’ve attended comic conventions for nearly 15 years now, it’s been a long time since I was about to sit down and just talk PURE ART with like-minded people. Being surrounded by other people who think like I do was immensely gratifying. Not only that, the instructors were the likes of Mike Mignola (creator of HELLBOY), Boris Vallejo (legendary fantasy painter), Julie Bell (master painter of Conan), Iain McCaig (top ILM concept artist and story boarder), Scott Allie (editor-in-chief of Dark Horse Comics), Donato Giancola (master painter of Lord of Rings, as well as book covers, magic cards, and more), Greg Manchess (master oil painter for National Geographic), Scott Fischer (children’s book illustrator, Magic, et al), Rebecca Guay (Vertigo comics, Magic, fine art painting), Irene Gallo (art director for TOR books), Dan Dos Santos (yet another masterful oil painter of book covers, comics, Magic, etc.) and even a guest appearance by James Gurney (creator of Dinotopia).
This wasn’t a convention. This was the art school experience I wish I’d had in the first place. We gathered together for a week of early mornings and late nights, devouring 2-3 lectures a day, working on our assignments in the studio, walking around and talking with other artists about the work, drawing on each others sketches, painting on each others paintings, getting one-on-one advice from the instructors, and just living and breathing the art for an entire week. It was simply amazing for me. I cannot express the feelings I had there in these few short words, and I have to say it was life-changing. It’s honestly made me want to go back to learning so more art and to push back into my illustration career a bit more.
The project I chose to work on was a three page sample from the Abe Sapien issue #3. It was the only “official” comic project out of a list of mostly book cover illustration assignments. I was originally torn between working on comic pages or an digital painting, in part because I really want to work on my overall finishing and painting skills, but also the prospect of working on a “Game of Thrones” piece was sorely tempting, I must say. Ultimately I decided on the Abe Sapien script because I wanted to get the most benefit out of picking both Mike Mignola and Scott Allie’s brains.
This decision turned out to be a real challenge for a number of reasons:
1.) Since I write my own comic series, I’m not used to working from other people’s scripts.
2.) I take most of my storytelling cues from manga, TV, and movies, which is often known as “uncompressed storytelling”, as opposed to the traditional American comic style of “compressed” storytelling that squeezes a lot more information into individual panels to fit broader arcs into the standard 22-page issue format.
3.) Likewise, I was determined to use a more “realistic” art style and take cues from Mike Mignola’s artwork to work entirely with black and white forms, instead of being able to rely on my usual screentoned look. This meant a significant departure from my manga-inspired look, and meant I couldn’t fall back on much of the shorthand I use in PS.
4.) On top of all that, the script in question was a real bear! It involved not only a crowd scene, but an angry mob, a priest being hung from a tree, multiple actions happening within single panels, and a transforming monster with very little description to work from.
The assignment was to come to the class with three rough pages ready to be critiqued on the first day. Then finish three pencilled pages by the end of the week. So, a few days before the class, I did a bit of research, digging out my copy of Hellboy, and visiting the comic shop for some Abe comics. I quickly realized just how much design work I was going to need to work out before I got to the finals, so I pulled out my sketchbook to work out some of the designs required for the story:
Then I dived into roughing the pages as written in the original script, starting with thumbnails:
Which yielded these rough pages:
As I said later in the critique, this was more or less “idea vomit”, trying to juggle all of the elements from the script onto the page. However, after completing them, I was unsatisfied. I knew to expect that whatever I put down at this stage was most likely going to get completely revised come crit day, so I left it. However, after mulling it over for the next couple of days, I realized that as a writer, I didn’t like how the original panel breakdowns told the story. So, I took the liberty of roughing out a version of new layouts as if I was the one writing the script, breaking out awkward panels containing too much action into multiple panels. I also realized the script was lacking an emotional focus. Yes, the townspeople were witnessing their world being torn apart and people they know turning into monsters, but the script’s pulled-back camera limited the ability to show the emotional content for this. At best we just see Abe reacting with horror and confusion.
My solution was to push the camera back in on the characters being most affected, namely the woman in love with the priest, Jessica, who is in hysterics as the parishioners hang him, and the side character Christine (unnamed in the final comic pages), who is the young woman who is turning into a monster herself. Abe simply becomes a bystander before the point of view switches over to him on the third page, once Jessica is killed by the monster that Henry the Priest becomes. Here’s the re-version of the layouts based on this thought process:
What floored me was what happened next. On Monday morning at my crit session, I walked the instructors in my group (Scott Allie, Scott Fischer, and Iain McCaig) through my thought process. They offering up some suggestions on how to handle some camera angles, including this cool blackboard doodle by Iain (left). He preferred an overhead view looking down at the hanged Priest, instead of bouncing the camera back and forth between upward and downward angles. This made perfect sense to me from the standpoint of shooting a movie and doing storyboards, but ultimately Scott Allie and I agreed that the switching camera angles worked better for creating a dynamic eyeflow on the page for comics. My re-done layouts won the day. I had expected them to be completely re-done, but that was not the case. They came through with only minor suggestions and tweaks. Later that night, I showed Iain my work on PS, and he told me, “I thought you knew what you were talking about.” Immensely gratifying, let me tell you.
The next day, after watching a lecture on shooting good reference to use for illustrations the night before, I organized a photo shoot to act out the entire scene using my fellow IMC students as the actors. We gathered up in the common outside of the studio building and proceeded to re-enact the scene shot by shot, with me playing director. It was great fun! We ended up shooting a few videos as well, the most useful of which was the one of everyone scattering as the monster begins to transform.
I worked from the rest of the photos to help inform the poses of the people in the crowd, and used my fellow students as models for several of the characters. Burgeoning graphic novelist Alicia Vogel was kind enough to be my model for the character Jessica.
The rest of the week, I worked on and off while attending some amazing lectures that covered ideas ranging from dealing with crowd scenes and multiple figure compositions, using abstraction, working with light & shadow, using color, overall process of creating scenes that don’t exist in reality, use reference material, visual storytelling, creating creatures, and more than I can possibly go into in that already long post. Some of the most inspiring talks were actually encapsulations of the instructor’s careers, telling about many of the ups and downs they went through before getting to where they are today. It provided me with some much-needed context for the arc of my own career, and gave me a much-needed emotional boost.
By the end of the week, I was able to complete the assignment. Along the way, several of the instructors came by and gave pointers and suggestions on the final drawings for the pages. Donato Giancola suggested the Dante-esque composition of the final panel on Page 01. Dan Dos Santos punched up the hanged man on Page 02. And Iain McCaig gave a number of suggestions ranging for the camera angles, dynamic poses, and even monster designs, leaving a number of wonderful drawings in my sketchbook!
Here’s how they turned out in the end:
Compositionally, they’re damned close to the original layouts, though the details were definitely informed by what I learned. However, I know that in the big picture, I’ve taken away a huge amount inspiration and information that will be influencing my work to come. I suspect the real dividends will be paid as I go on from here. I definitely plan to go back next year. I’ll glad do this instead of San Diego Comic-Con in the near term. I got a hell of a lot more out of it.
When I came home, I decided to ink the pages before I called them done. I studied some Mignola to help with the stark black treatments. I think they turned out pretty well. Definitely a big departure from PS:
Going forward, I’m looking forward to getting back working on PS, but I know I want to spend more time working on my overall illustration skills, starting with learning how to paint. The thing that I took away most from the experience was that I’m first and foremost a storyteller. If I don’t have a story to tell, I don’t know what to draw. Secondly, I think more like a illustrator when it approach to comics. This is why I tend to be so slow. I like to plan everything out instead of leaving things to chance (unlike many cartoonists and comic book pencillers, who just wing it.) And lastly, no matter how good my work is right now, there are many, many illustrators out there that can draw circles around me, and I’d like to work on getting better. However, because I’m also a writer, that is my secret weapon. That said, I think I may be taking more classes again in the future to help expand and improve my skillset. Time to to go back to school, metaphorically, at least.
Now that I’ve completed this, I’ll be getting back to my regular work. I still have a backlog of projects in addition to PS right now, including some commissions left over from last year’s convention season, as well as STRANGER and a couple of other pending illustration projects. So, it’s going to be a little while yet before the next scene is finished. Also, while things are looking up, I’m still having to manage my drawing time to keep from hurting myself. As you can see, even though I was at a class for this Abe Sapien project, it still took me 2 and a half weeks to do those three pages, because I can still only draw a few hours out of the day. Progress may be slow, but it is still progress.
In any case. Hope you enjoy this little snapshot of this amazing class. If you’re looking to pump up your own work, I highly recommend attending it sometime!