Copying the masters! It’s what we Arr-teests are supposed to do, especially as students. I really failed to appreciate this exercise literally at all for the duration of my formal education, despite going to school down the street from a major art museum.
This year I’m trying to practice everything more, especially drawing. I’m trying to be a student again. My goal for this year was to do 50 copies of basically any piece of art I find compelling, and try to learn something from it. I’ve done 12 so far. Maybe I’ll start tracking them as a list, that could be interesting. I try not to work on them for more than 30 or 40 minutes total. This helps me stay loose and not get too obsessed with perfection.
This week I copied Witches’ Sabbath (1797-1798) by Francisco Goya:
And the original:
I’m really working on depicting shapes using light instead of heavy lines and environmental. Looking at both paintings side-by-side I mostly see mistakes, but when I look at just my copy I see the areas where I’m improving, or doing something new.
Goya painted this during the later part of the Spanish Inquisition. According to wikipedia, Goya’s paintings of witches covens were an act of protest against the way the Spanish Inquisition used a culture of fear to control people. “Goya’s depictions of such scenes mocked what he saw as medieval fears exploited by the established order for political and capital gain.” Illustration is a powerful tool for protest, and those who hold that pen have the responsibility to wield it well.
Last week my most recent nonfiction comic was published on the Nib (read Americans Are Drowning in Debt here if you haven’t gotten a chance yet). I thought I would write a little about my process making a non-fiction comics.
My friends and I are in a lot debt. I’m an X-er (and I’ve got the haircut to prove it), so most of our debt is not “good” debt like a mortgage. We joke about it sometimes, but honestly debt is a very shameful topic in the US so we mostly pretend our lives are really carefree and that we can afford to buy expensive green fruit that is often already rotten when you open it.
I was really interested in:
- learning more about debt in the United States and how we got here
- opening a public dialogue about debt so we can all feel a little less ashamed about it
I don’t actually write non-fiction, so all I really had were suspicions about American debt. Luckily I happen to know a writer* and activist who used to be a bankruptcy lawyer. I asked Kevin Moore if he’d be interested in doing a comic together about debt based on his “standard American Debt Rant” and he said yes.
This was Kevin’s first comic, so we worked together on an outline for a 30 panel comic, which translates to about 7-8 pages of material (and is a fairly standard size for feature-length comics journalism). We decided to cover US debt history, give an overview of the most common kinds of debt, and talk about little about debt futurism.
We pitched this story to my favorite comics outlet and they accepted it! Then I sat back while Kevin did the reporting. Although we had seen the effects of the debt industry first hand, the history was almost worse than I was expecting.
It was actually really hard to keep the script short and to the point because there have been so many specific injustices at play here for generations. We worked with seasoned comics journalism editor Andy Warner, and he and Kevin took the script through a few drafts. Once the script was finalized, it was turned over to me for drawing.
When I get a finalized script, whether I’ve worked on it at all or not, the first thing I do is sit down and try to find the over-arching visual narrative. I usually do this by doodling on a clean sketchbook page as I read the script over several times. When the page is full, I look for the common threads, and find the ideas that hit me hardest. In this case, what really struck me was how pervasive debt was, and how it sticks to people and things and stops them from moving forward. That’s how I came up with Debt Slime.
Then I go through and cut together a very, very loose version of the comic that shows the basic composition of the page and each panel. I submitted this to my editor, and he gave me some feedback and the go ahead to final art.
Then I drew for nine million years. After my concepts are approved, there are three basic stages:
Ultimately each panel takes about an hour, give or take. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision here, so I got feedback from Kevin and Andy after each stage. That feedback helps push me to my best compositions and visual metaphors. I especially struggled with the color palette on this one, but I’m really proud of how it came out!
Kevin and I got some green fruits to celebrate, and all over they were only about 30% rotten. I’m still in a lot of debt, but I do feel slightly less bad about it now.
A non-exhaustive and highly disorganized list of unique digital storytelling largely accomplished through comics.
- Florence (Annapurna Interactive, 2018)
- A story about love and life
- Modern Polaxis (Sutu, 2016)
- Augmented reality comic about a time traveler.
- The Lais of Marie de France (Joyce Rice, 2016)
- Generate your own comics about medival romantic love.
- Heavy Lights of January (Boulet, 2015)
- Back to the First Date (2013)
- Using time travel to get the first date just right.
- Touch Sensitive (Chris Ware, 2011)
- One of the first interactive tablet comics, originally released for iPad in the McSweeney’s app.
Highly focused on user participation, but still containing comics as a kernel
- Reigns: Her Majesty (Devolver Digital, 2017)
- Greed and jealousy still conspire against the benevolent queen. Outwit and outlast those that would seek to depose you and your husband by swiping left or right, making just (or unjust) decisions on all manner of royal matters.
- Framed 2 (Loveshack Entertainment, 2017)
- Rearranging the panels of an animated comic book to alter the order of events and change the outcome from disaster to success.
- The Empty Kingdom (Merlin Goodbrey, 2014)
- Your kingdom lies empty before you; all your subjects fled; all their stories told. And yet you take up your sword. And yet you don your crown.
- The Wolf Among Us (Telltale Games, 2013)
- Digital comic thriller based on the award-winning Fables comic books (DC Comics/Vertigo).
- New York Stories (2017)
- The Nib (2013-Present)
- Emily Carroll (2010-Present)
- xkcd (Randall Munroe, 2006-Present)
Perhaps you would like to read more about digital comics or digital narrative in general
- Coming soon!
- Florence (Annapurna Interactive, 2018)
Here are some books I’m reading in 2019, loosely organized. Ideally I have only one from each category going at any given time, but I don’t really follow that rule.
I’ll be updating this over the course of the year, so check back if you’d like to follow along! Italicized books are completed, bolded are in progress.
- Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
- CSS the Missing Manual by David Sawyer McFarland
Art & Design
- The Laws Guide to Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws
- Steering the Craft by Ursula K LeGuin
- Just My Type by Simon Garfield
- Amusing ourselves to death by Neil Postman
- Bullshit jobs by David Graeber
- So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- The moon is a harsh mistress by Robert A. Heinlein: Really great revolutionary story, though I thought the libertarianism got a little heavy handed
- Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen: Fictionalized account of a string of murders in post-colonial Florida, historically very interesting
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Space opera from the point-of-view of a ship, what more could you want!!
- The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
- Black Hammer
Sometimes books don’t make it.
- Hello My Name is Awesome by Alexandra Watkins: I decided against rebranding ¯_(ツ)_/¯
As a child I was fascinated by the card catalog at the library. This unassuming brick of drawers, dense with arcanely marked cards, held reference to every! single! book! I’ve never been great at recall—I didn’t, for example, know how many or which books I’d already read, or even how to conceive of the data set. The card catalog introduced me to my first information system, a hint that maybe a photographic memory wasn’t so important, if you knew where to look. Catalogs can be vehicles to make sense of the world around us.
Of course it’s not enough just to catalog. Taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classification: good systems reflect how groups of things interconnect and interdepend, how they’re simliar and how they’re special, and how they work as a whole. These relationships are how we advance our understanding of the world, and make sense of the way it falls around us.
Often it seems my work as an artist is really to be an archivist, a cataloger. It’s those interconnections that advance my work, and my primary professional task is to find the right one for each problem. How does this relate to the things around it? How is that meaningful? Over the years, I have used lots of different platforms and digital gadgetry to build catalogs, but they have always fallen short. There’s never enough cross-pollination between my Goodreads library and my GitHub repos. My best catalogs have lived in paper sketchbooks and college ruled spiral-bounds: unreferencable, unsearchable, uncategorized. A professional practices log interred in densely packed boxes, the opposite of a card catalog.
So, I’ve been on the prowl for a professional practices log that works. I’ve found great inspiration in other creative catalogs, like Austin Kleon’s studio practice log, or Brain Pickings cross-disciplinary design inventory. Catalogs like these are living organisms we can learn from, and with, over time. For a long time, my own blog was a sketchbook, a place to catalog one kind of information. This was okay, but it never felt like a great place to explore ideas from multiple angles. Actually drawing represents only the very tip of the creative iceberg—to make great art, we must observe the world outside the studio. We have to study.
The web is a natural place to document creative practices. When blogs began, they were the only form of simple digital publication available, and so they became the new, experimental, digital zines of the noughties. From the beginning blogs were interconnected—Andrew Loomis and NASA are equally referencable. The web connects my catalog to yours and millions of others all over the world, a meeting of minds inconceivable just 100 years ago.
Since then countless new platforms have emerged to facilitate our cataloging and our communicating. In some ways, this is exciting—the gang’s all here, clapping and hearting and thumbs-upping. But the ways these platforms control our speech—format, distribution, outright censorship—have become intolerable. None of them are great places to store ideas anymore.
This is the place where I’ll be storing my own personal catalog of research on art and design in a digital age—a place to talk about the rest of the iceberg, how observation informs practice. I hope that by building my teeny catalog in public, you’ll be able to add some new entries to yours.
subscribe via RSS