2005-11-20 The way that I am

And the way that I am not

It's Sunday morning and I'm sitting here with my giant mug o' coffee feeling all cozy and pleased with myself. Why so chuffed, you ask. Why so tickled and merry and round with mirth? Maybe you're thinking that I'm finally feeling a residual sense of accomplishment for having finally finished the book (which is called Jungleville Tails: New Equipment ... JVT2 for short as it is the second in the series... and which I will flog relentlessly once it is actually out in print). And you'd be half right, but three quarters wrong.

The reason I'm a shining happy people (er... person) is 'cuz I've finally made good on one of the many promises I made myself whilst (whilst!) pushing to finish JVT2, a promise I've been making myself for eons. I finally spent some time painting (on canvas! with brushes! And globby blobs of paint, real, real paint!) and broke in the beautiful easel the Handsome Guy gave me for Christmas last year. A painting I have every intention of keeping. For myself. And framing. And hanging on my walls. My empty, empty walls.

Maybe that part surprises you... that I have almost none of my own art hanging on my walls. It's true. I have one painting (not entirely finished) that I have hanging over my desk here, and about six canvases stacked in the basement which I will eventually paint over, but nothing else. (there's tons of samples and old illos and stuff stashed in closets and portfolio cases all over the house, of course, but very little of it out in plain sight)

Partly, this is an intentional act. I have created only a tiny handful of pieces that I'm 100 percent happy with and hanging a less than perfect piece on my walls and staring at it for all eternity is sheer stupidity. It fills me with a kind of self-loathing and despair that over time, would surely lead to complete and utter madness. The frothing, straight-jacket worthy kind. The kind you would be wise to avoid if at all possible.

And most of the other paintings I've done, the ones i'm at least marginally pleased with? Have been done for or given to other people, mainly my parents and my brother.

But this one? The one I worked on all day yesterday and will continue dabbing at today and tommorrow and maybe even on Tuesday? This one is for me. Just me. (although I'll show it to you when it is completely finished. Which it isn't. yet.)

But that's only part of what pleases me about it. The other part is that that I actually, for once, made good on a promise I made to my inner artist/critic/demon/self. To just do my own thing. To do what pleases me and not worry about whether anyone else likes it or not. To just let 'er rip and see what happens.

Not that this particular painting is all that astounding or ground-breaking. I mean how astounding and ground-breaking can a painting of birch trees be? But it's not strictly representational and it's not done with any intention other that to please myself and enjoy the feel of paint (and canvas! and brushes! and easel!) and that feels really, really good. That's a bit of a break through for me.

It's a step in the right direction. And I'm hoping it will lead to more, bigger steps.

See, the thing is... the books I've illustrated up til now? I've enjoyed working on them, I'm pleased with them, i work really stinking hard at making them the best I can make them.... but in the end, the thing is they are not really ME and they are not really about ME. O, sure... it's me in as much as it's my work, there's a certain way I draw and interpret that is clearly evident and the digital painting technique I use is all my own, sure. All of that is absolutely true. But these illustrations are all poured thru a kind of filter, dilluted and distilled to create works that fits the client's needs rather than my own whims. It's kind of like design in that respect.

When the incredibly charming Heather Stewart of Lilyfield and Company first approached me about illustrating the Jungleville Books, I had just happened on a way of painting in Photoshop that had a sort of soft, glowy feel about it, a method that was the result of experiments like here and here. I was rather enraptured of it at the time, as was she and she asked specifically that the story be illustrated in that manner. I totally jumped at the opportunity, and even in retrospect, it was the right approach to take with this series (although I should note that the illustration for the Jungleville Tails is more densely layered and detailed than the initial experiments. Again, I will post more samples when the book goes up for sale). It works.

But what I didn't realize at the time is that this technique also plays right into my main weakness... my tendancy to complete overwork things and obsess about the minutest details. When you are working with traditional painting media (acrylic, oil, watercolour, what have you), you eventually reach a point where you've pushed the medium as far as it can go and you can't push it any further. You either have to scrap it and start over or quit and let it go. The colours start to get muddy, the texture starts to degrade, the illustration board starts to buckle and bend... you've taken it to the brink and there's no going back.

But when you're working digitally? You can push those pixels forever and ever. you can go back and forth twenty, thirty, fifty times, and it doesn't matter. You can zoom in on an area seven pixels wide and spend the entire afternoon finessing a corner that in reality doesn't even measure 1/16th of an inch. Believe me. I've done it.

And then you zoom out and realize that that perfect pack of pixels doesn't match the rest of the image and you have just wasted twelve hours fine-tuning a kneecap but the rest of the creature looks entirely wonky. And worse... all that fine detail is totally blown out when you print it to scale. It doesn't even register.

I became aware of this pretty quickly into the illustration of the first book, but it didn't stop me from falling into this same pattern over and over again. Mostly, it is unconscious. I enter the 'zone' and it's a free fall from there... I'm not really aware of anything but those pixels.

I really have to battle mightily to steer myself out of that sort of numbing tunnel vision and it's so hard for me. I tried doing things like giving myself time limits, actually setting an egg timer to ensure that I didn't spend too long obsessing on different areas, but it didn't help that much. I'm not really big on the whole self-restraint thing. The timer backfired in that it only increased my anxiety and made me twitchy and nervous and impaired my ability to get into the flow of an illustration, to get into "The Zone". And I need to be in The Zone to do good work. It's where all my creativity resides.

With this particular series, I thought that if I stretched the boundaries of the illustration style too much, it might alienate some of the potential audience and that I needed to take a sort of traditional, gentle approach to the look of the individual characters, to make them as friendly and approachable (and um... cute) as possible. Jungleville Tails is the story of a tiger born without any feet. The first book deals with the animal kingdom's initial reaction to his disability, the second book (the one I just finished) is about the little tiger (Bennett) getting prosthetic limbs. Given the challenge of dealing with a topic like disabilty in a way that kids (disabled and not) and their parents could easily relate to and accept, I had to tread carefully and the pressure of that, of wanting so badly to capture the right tone, to portray the characters sensitively, gently, but in a manner that had some energy and entertainment to it weighed on me.

In short... when illustrating a story like this, I have to battle to keep the central ideas focused and digestible and ultimately, welcoming. I have to keep my desire to push the boundaries and experiment in check because it's inappropriate to the project at hand and could hinder it. It's not a hardship, exactly, but it can be a bit challenging at times. I get distracted by other ideas, other visual cues and directions and I want to play and deviate from the prescribed pattern, the "look", I want to move on to personal projects, to other stuff... but I have to keep focused. And that takes energy. It takes discipline and I'm not a naturally disciplined person. (My peculiar brand of perfectionism is sometimes the only thing that saves me from being a complete flake.) And It's particularly hard when I know that this "style" is not completely me, not the way I would express myself if I had no other limitations or goals to consider.

I emerge at the end of these illustrations feeling cramped and pinched from sitting in that one particular head space for so long, eager to do something entirely different and flex my skill in an entirely other direction.

This sounds like so much complaining, but please understand it is absolutely not. I learn so much from these experiences... not only about what I can do and what I can push my software to do, but about what it is I want to say in my "own voice", with my personal illustration.

In the end, I am grateful for the experience and the exposure and challenge and exercise. And I am proud of the work I did on JVT2. I'm proud of myself for letting myself feel good about the work and not beating myself up over the fact that it's not all revolutionary, it's not all killer kewl, that it won't make the boys on the drawing forums wolf-whistle and pant. It's not going to establish a whole new standard for children's illustration or astound anyone with its breath-taking style... but that's entirely okay. I did the best that I could and I think that it works and that it is appealing, expressive and fun. It does all that it should.

And I'm proud of myself for recognizing this, for once (i'm not always really good at giving myself that kind of credit) for recognizing that this approach works for this application and that it was the right way to go. I'm proud of myself for being able to synthesize the lessons I'm learning (not just 'intellectual' ones, but practical lessons in methods and materials too), to have the discipline to see it all the way through, even when parts of me were screaming to start over, do something different, anything else!

But damn! It sure feels good to break out and do something just for myself.


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