The soullessness of modern comic art…

I’ve been at the art game long enough to remember what being an artist entailed before the internet existed.

For one thing, artists used to clip pictures from magazines, books, pamphlets, and other sorts of ephemera and save them in what was usually known as a swipe file. If you needed to draw a lion running and wanted some reference, you went to your swipe file and hopefully you had clipped something from a National Geographic that provided enough reference for you to do a believable drawing.

Artists also often accumulated libraries of books and magazines on art, photography, and general reference on animals, anatomy, costumes, architecture, and so on — you get the picture.

And then there were times you couldn’t find what you needed so you loaded up a roll of film in your camera and went out and shot your own reference. That could cost you some money, depending on how much film you bought, not to mention the cost of developing, and then you hoped your pictures came out right.

Finally, when you just couldn’t find what you needed, an artist just relied on his imagination to best approximate what he wanted to convey (hoping that the viewer was unfamiliar enough with the subject matter to not notice any errors).

My studio and library full of reference.

I relied on all of the aforementioned sources for reference as well… until the world wide web arrived. The internet made reference ubiquitous and rendered swipe files and library sources obsolete (in all honesty, I was grateful I could throw away file-drawers full of clippings, though I continue to expand my book reference). The problem with internet reference (as I’ve written in a previous post) is that everyone is often using the same reference, so that there’s a sort of creative inbreeding occurring.

And digital photography has made the taking of reference photos cheap. No more cost of buying and developing film, so one could keep on clicking away until he gets the right shot, even if that means taking a bazillion photos.

So what’s my problem with this and why do I think this can be a problem in comics (and other art)? Well, comics in the late 80’s and 90’s seemed like they were going through a drought of talent where, in my opinion, there were few artists that I thought were really impressive. On the flip side, digital coloring and fancy printing was raising the bar on comic quality and was a far cry from the cheap newsprint comics I grew up enjoying. What this meant is that some artists who I will not name got a lot of attention and were hailed as great artists when, in my opinion, it was the novelty of digital coloring and fancy printing that made their art stand out as something special. And I’m not suggesting that digital coloring or slick paper is a bad thing, but only that it shouldn’t be a crutch when other aspects of good art are lacking.

Today, however, I’ve noticed the quality of draftsmanship in a lot of comics is over the top. By that, I mean it looks too real, like it’s heavily based on photo reference (and to elaborate further, I’m suggesting that some renderings look like they’ve practically been traced from photos), so much so that the characters lack style and the overall look seems to lack imagination. And it’s that style and imagination that I miss. No one will mistake Will Eisner’s Spirit for a photo-realistic drawing, but it’s filled with style. No one will accuse the team of John Buscema and Alfredo Alacala of using a photo when rendering a Conan page, but their efforts exuded talent and imagination. Certainly Jack Kirby’s figures provoked some debate as to the quality of his figure-drawing, but few artists have his imagination or are able to lay out an action scene with the same dynamics. Now I’m not suggesting that the artists mentioned would never have relied on a photo for reference if necessary; but if they used reference, it was only to spark their imagination and point them in the right direction.

Another problem with relying too heavily on photo-reference is that not every panel in a comic may do so. Consequently, you have a real change in feel when the artist is not using photo reference and now has to draw a character as well as the “photo” drawing from his imagination, which rarely works. Most of the time one can browse through such a comic and point out where the photo reference was used and where it wasn’t. Moreover, having to match the style of the photo-referenced-drawn panel restricts the artist from employing his own style (because photo reference has no unifying style, which is another problem in itself).

Does this mean I hate realistically-drawn comic art? No, it’s impressive on a certain level. But I noticed that what made a lot of past artists great is their talent for cartooning and unifying style. Cartoons may seem silly or childish to some, but they’re filled with animation and life that portrays an ideal. Renaissance artists were great precisely because they sought to capture this ideal and not simply recreate reality.

So why do I think much of modern comic art is soulless? A well-posed wax statue might initially seem alive, until you realize it’s stiff, making the lack of animation all the more conspicuous. And a photo-realistically drawn comic may initially impress, until you notice the same dead stiffness. I personally prefer a cartoony comic full of life, than a comic filled with a realism that lacks animation or style.

The best example I can give to sum up what I’m trying to say (and this is really aimed at those who are familiar with the artists I’m going to mention, even though the example is not from comics) is to compare Frazetta and Boris (here’s a good article discussing their differences in depth). The former painted mostly from imagination (yes, he used reference on rare occasions, but it was strictly as a springboard and nothing more), while the latter’s figures were almost entirely based on photos. After a long examination, it’s clear which artist’s work is brimming with life and energy and which represents “nice” paintings (no disrespect to Boris, whose work I still admire greatly).

In the same way, I think realistic comics are “nice,” but I’d rather take the comic art of a Will Eisner or even an Eric Powell (a contemporary comic artist oozing with style and talent…and weirdness), or any number of other artists any day over a lot of the realistic comic art of today.

Did I also mention how I miss those Sea-Monkey ads? … And don’t get me started on the perversion, profanity, and propaganda in modern comics. I’ll save that rant for another day.

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London Lizard

A bit of nonsense I illustrated for no good reason…

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Palomino Blackwing – A Pencil By Any Other Name…

I do most of my professional work on a Cintiq these days. Even when I was still on a drawing board, I stuck with technical pencils to avoid all of the sharpening required with wood-cased pencils. Still, there’s a certain charm about using wood-cased pencils, so that’s what I often use when doodling chicken-scratches.

Now, a pencil is a pencil is a pencil, and at the end of the day the quality of your drawing is going to come more from your mind and hands than from the pencil. Nevertheless, your frame of mind can be affected by the satisfaction of using a particular tool that inspires you or makes your job easier. One pencil that has been given lots of attention because of its widespread use (especially by animators, writers, and composers) is the original Blackwing 602.

Given the big hoopla about the “new” Palomino Blackwing which are made in Japan (and I realize that “new” is a relative term, since I’m late to this party), I thought I’d try them out, so I bought a box at the Stuart NG booth while at the Comic Con last month. (these Blackwings are really more like reproductions and not from the original production 602s which were discontinued in the late 90’s. You can check out more about the original Blackwing HERE.)

Off hand, It’s a beautiful design if tool aesthetics is your thing, what with its unique ferrule design and replaceable eraser. I also picked up a two-step, long-point sharpener, since an electric sharpener eats up pencils and wastes too much lead. Lots of these type of hand-held sharpeners have cheap blades that break your lead or don’t really sharpen well, but the German-made blades on this work quite well, though I’m not sure where to purchase new replacement blades.

These pencils come in a nicely designed box of twelve. I no longer go through pencils like I used to, so I gave one to each of my kids to try out as well since they do a lot of drawing.

I didn’t have time to do a nice drawing with this pencil for the purpose of this post, but I wanted to show a comparison between a couple other good drawing pencils: the Schwan Stabilo 8008 and an old Faber Castell 9000 4B pencil made in Germay.

All three of the following pencils are really smooth. The Stabilo 8008 is probably the smoothest, but it’s the lightest in tone as well, so if you want a darker lead, the other two are better.

The nice thing about the Blackwing is that it’s both firm and dark (though this one is softer than the “new” 602). Usually, I find dark leads are too soft or grainy.

Surprisingly, I found the Faber Castell 9000 which I had fumbling around my tool drawer to perform as well or better than the Blackwing. In fact, I liked it so much that I went online to try to find more of these older versions, but I could only find two, each for slightly more than what the new Blackwing costs. They’re still manufactured, but I never know whether to trust newer models because it seems everyone’s manufacturing is done so cheaply now in order to cut costs. I’m not suggesting the new Faber Castell 9000s under production are not good. I just don’t feel like spending the money to find out. In any case, if I ever come across more of these older 4B 9000s, I’m grabbing them as fast as I can. In the meantime, the Blackwing works quite well and offers lots of drawing satisfaction.

I scrawled out a few swatches of each for comparison.

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Comic Con 2017 – THE LOOT

I acquire a lot of art books. I mean, a LOT. Most of them serve as inspiration when I just feel like getting into a certain mood before tackling a project. Others provide ideas for color palettes, lighting, or anatomy reference for animals and people, and still others help with period costuming (unfortunately, I have no access to a theatre company’s costume or prop department, so I make due with period films or period artwork for reference).

So my trek to the Comic Con is really to see what’s new in pop art and to hunt for new and inspiring art books (as I’ve stated elsewhere, Comic Con these days is less about comics and more about pop art, gaming, films, toys, with some comic stuff thrown in there to appease the die-hard comic fans).

In the past I made a beeline to Bud Plant‘s booth, which was a great booth for art books. Unfortunately, Amazon has killed small book dealers and Bud Plant, after surviving going completely out of business, has been reduced to a small table in the back, near the food area. It’s really sad, because I’ve purchased some hard-to-find art books from them in the past.

The other book-seller I make sure to peruse is Stuart NG, who seems to have a healthy business due to his plentiful offering of imported books (usually from France) which aren’t something you usually find on Amazon or in your average bookstore.

And then I may purchase a sketchbook or something from the many artists who are there to show their stuff.

So here are some very poor iPad pics of the stuff I hauled back home…

The two books on top are children’s picture books in that unspeakable language, French. I’m a sucker for a charming children’s picture book. It doesn’t matter that I can’t read them, because I really only enjoy them for the art. The Dean Cornwell book is something I’ve wanted for years because I really admire his art. He’s simply a fantastic Golden Age illustrator.

The books in this unforgivably blurry photo were all free. The top two are James Bama books which were given away by Flesk publications. I suspect they had quite an inventory they couldn’t move and it would be cheaper to get a tax write-off by giving them away than to let them collect dust in a warehouse. I already own a Bama book with his DocSavage illustrations. These two are more personal western art, art which is well done, but not really of much interest to me. Still, who am I to turn down free art books, right? The bottom left item is a Heritage Auction House catalog featuring a lot of Disney and other animation art for sale.

Oh, and I didn’t shoot a pic of it, but in case you were wondering, I got DC’s The Flash pin with the Con bag (for those of you who know to what I refer).

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Procreate Quick-Sketch

I had a chance to try the Procreate on the iPad Pro 12″ all week during a business work-trip (the iPad isn’t mine, but my client provided it for my use on the road). I didn’t know Procreate exported videos, but when I was told about that feature, I just had to share this quick doodle I did on the airplane flight. Had I known that I was going to share it, I would have done a better job. In any case, here’s my first test with the iPad Pro and Procreate… I want one of my own!!!

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Wacom/Cintiq 24 HD Stylus Woes

So last night, the nib on my Cintiq 24 HD stylus seemed to submerge into the pen so that the tip was barely visible. I tried to pull it out a bit when suddenly the barrel of the pen separated a bit. I then grabbed the rubber grip and tried to push it back together and the rubber slid up the barrel, after which the lever button on the side of the pen popped out and onto the desk. When I tried sliding the rubber grip back into place, the entire pen came apart and tiny metal bits fell off that printed-circut board that you can barely see in this cruddy photo. So basically, my pen exploded all in the course of about a minute and there’s no way on earth I can get it back together. It’s toast.

Well, this happened around ten o’clock last night, so it was too late to call any stores. Early this morning, I found that no store on this planet sells these, or at least don’t keep them stocked in the store. Finally, I just ordered another online and it should be here when I return from my business trip. But this is just another reason technology can stink. We grow dependent on these fragile toys and are crippled without them. It’s a good thing I didn’t have any projects immediately due.

The lesson here is: Always use a timer when boiling an egg… or something like that.

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A quick doodle…

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Ruined Art

Frames cost a lot of money, especially when you have to have a custom sized frame made for an odd-shaped painting. This is why most of my paintings remain unframed. Consequently, I’ve stored a lot of them by simply stacking them against one another.

This raises a problem with oil paintings, because for some reason they seem to retain a certain tackiness — at least mine seem to have done so. Consequently, the oil paintings I did on canvas paper, which is essentially a coated paper with a canvas texture, haven’t fared so well. One of them in particular (which I painted for our kitchen but never got around to framing) I found to be completely ruined when pulling it out recently. Parts of the painting’s surface had stuck to the boards against which it rested and pulled away from the paper stock, which ripped large chunks from the painting. So now, maybe, some day, I’ll get around to recreating this painting… But I doubt it.

Before and after images. Thankfully I took a photo of the oil painting before it was ruined.

The lesson to be learned is, carefully store your art so that this doesn’t happen to you.

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Happy Easter Weekend

Here’s wishing you all a very happy resurrection Sunday with a little sketch to celebrate the empty tomb.

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Mood Sketches

I did this sketch as a sort of study in mood for a character idea I had some time ago. Doing these little tonal/colored sketches often proves to be more fun than a finished, polished illustration. There’s something that gets lost whenever I do a clean illustration verses the rough that inspired it.

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