Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Copying Someone Else’s Drawing Style is a 2-Edged Sword

Many of the art samples I received when I was a comic book editor had the same problem. The would-be comics artists had learned to draw by looking at other comic book artists. There are certainly a lot of things you can learn by looking at the work of others, and even emulating another artist’s approach to drawing.

However, very often, when you copy the work of another artist, you are aping their surface rendering “style”. That surface rendering style is, to some degree, composed of the drawing tricks, shortcuts or techniques an artist uses to cover up weaknesses in their drawing knowledge. (Is all that decorative line work really defining how the drapery works or is it a surface stylistic flair that helps disguise the fact that the artist doesn’t really know where the tension points are on the drapery or how the anatomy under the drapery affects the folds?)

As a general rule, the best you can be when copying another artist is a second-rate version of the artist being copied. How many Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Mike Mignola or Jim Lee clones have matched the quality of work produced by their idols? An artist who abandons copying the surface style of another artist in order to forge their own creative path has a chance of equaling or surpassing their idols.

For example, when Bill Sienkiewicz started his comics career, to a large extent he was a Neal Adams emulator. When Bill began stretching himself creatively, he forged a great new and exciting style that was unique. Bill’s new stylistic approach was based on his expanding drawing knowledge.

To get would-be comics artists to expand their drawing knowledge and stop copying the surface styles of other artists, I recommended some drawing exercises, starting with those in Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Edwards’ exercises are designed to expand the way artists observe and draw, opening up their creativity. (See the link on the right for more info on this book.)

There were a number of additional drawing exercises I used to recommend for artists trying to get into comics. Here’s one of the best:
At least a few times a week (daily is better), pick a different subject (person, landscape, household object – whatever) and draw that subject in at least five totally different styles and/or media. The styles might include—
-Dry brush
-Blind contour drawing (aka leading edge contour drawing)
-Charcoal or conté
-Paint (water color, acrylic, oil)
-Pen and ink.
-High contrast
-Sculpture (clay or similar malleable medium)

Sculpting is a key part of this exercise. Artists sometimes get comfortable drawing a subject from a certain angle and under specific lighting conditions. By sculpting a human figure, artists can learn—
-Where their drawing knowledge is weak and needs beefing up. (Artists can’t cover up their drawing knowledge as easily on a 3D sculpture as they can with rendering styles on a drawing.

-How the figure looks from all angles, including those angles the artist consciously or unconsciously avoids when drawing. This expands the number of angles the artist will feel comfortable drawing the figure from in the future.

-Upgrade the ciphers for “objective reality” that artists program their brains with so they can draw “out of their heads” (without reference) more convincingly.

-How the subject looks under a variety of lighting conditions.

As always, comments are welcome!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fostering Creativity

Creativity has long fascinated me.

What exactly is it? Are there different types? Can it be taught or fostered?

Finding a definition of creativity that everyone agrees on seems impossible. It is generally agreed that creativity often involves the combining of new and/or established ideas in new, innovative ways.

Whether or not a creative innovation is good or bad depends on whether the new idea is effective in some way—does it make something easier, safer, faster or more aesthetically compelling?

Many people associate creativity almost exclusively with the arts. However, creativity is not restricted to any subject, discipline or activity. It is very possible to be quite creative and innovative while doing things that many of us view as mundane – cleaning house, mowing the lawn and so on. Creativity is a way of operating.

Some years back, I had the pleasure of attending John Cleese’s lecture, “Creativity in Management”. This sparked my interest in how creativity might be taught or fostered. I looked for ways to advance my own creative development and for techniques to aid in the training of the comic book artists I was working with.

Cleese’s lecture was incorporated into a series of videos that his business training company, Video Arts, produced. There are three Cleese videos specifically related to creativity:
  • Creativity in Management
  • The Importance of Mistakes
  • The Hidden Mind

You have to pay to see the first two tiles but The Hidden Mind can be viewed online.

In recent years, I’ve gotten involved with public education. This has renewed my interested in finding ways to foster creativity, especially in the classroom environment.

Creative thinking is vital to student success in all subject areas. To prepare students for future success in and beyond the classroom, they need to have techniques that foster creative innovation.

As educator, author and creativity expert Ken Robinson points out, we don’t even know what the world will be like in 5 years yet our schools are now teaching kids who will be expected to work productively for forty or more years from now. The education we give kids today can’t possibly anticipate the information and skills they will need years down the road. However, if they have the tools to be creative and to innovate, they will have a much better chance of succeeding no matter how the world changes.

Here is a link to a great video presentation, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” that Robinson gave at a recent TED conference.

Other Robinson videos can be seen on YouTube. I also recommend his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.

Based on the research I’ve done so far, here are some things that can be said about the slippery subject of creativity:

  • Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating and it can be taught.
  • It is not related to IQ (providing you have a minimum level of IQ).
  • To get into a creative mood, creative people often get into a “playful mood” to explore ideas for enjoyment.
  • The best combination of environment and attitude that is needed to foster creative thinking involves having a quiet space and enough time to get into the proper frame of mind. However, these conditions are not practical to use in a classroom environment.
  • There are a variety of brainstorming techniques for individuals and for groups that are useful in the classroom.
  • For creative thinking/brainstorming, it’s vital to create a climate where people are not identified with/tied to/judged by the ideas they throw out off the top of their heads. They have to feel free to contribute without fear of being judged negatively. You never know what may turn out to be a constructive contribution. Seemingly ridiculous thoughts may spark a chain reaction that leads to a creative solution.
  • Creativity and humor are linked. The way seemingly dissimilar ideas come together when brainstorming is similar to the way a punch line works in a joke. The humor in a punch line is often derived by shifting to a different frame of reference when coming to the end of a train of connected thoughts or events in a joke. You laugh at the movement of contact/juxtaposition between two frames of reference.
  • Mistakes are a vital part of the learning process. There is a British proverb: The man who does not make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.

Ideally, I’d like to discover a group of tools/techniques that enable students in an often boisterous classroom environment to be more creative and innovate across a wide range of subjects and endeavors. I’d also like to be able to measure the effects of adding creativity fostering techniques to various subjects. (That will be no easy feat!)

As I get a chance to do more research on creativity, I‘ll post what I learn here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Comics by Fans for Fans

The recent entries on the recruitment and development of comic book editors and creators generated a fair amount of interest.

So, for now, I’ll table the blog entry on the merits of breeding African egg-laying tooth carps in large outdoor tubs in favor of another entry on comics editors and creators. (For those who think I’m kidding about an entry on breeding tropical fish in tubs, just wait until warmer weather returns!)

Since the late ‘60s, many of the writers and editors, and virtually all of the artists, entering the comics field grew up as comics fans.

By the late ‘70s it was unusual for people who had not grown up as comics fans to enter the editorial or creative ranks of the comics business.

Fans entering the business already had a great appreciation for the power of the comics format to tell compelling and exciting stories. These fans usually had at least a basic knowledge of the creative, editorial, production and manufacturing, marketing and distribution processes involved in publishing comics.

However, some of these fans-turned-pros (FTPs) had attitudes that needed modifying before they could become consistently successful contributors to the field and to their company’s corporate culture.

Ha! You Didn’t Know Wolverine is also Logan, Weapon X, James Howlett and…
Some FTPs assumed that their readers were as steeped as they were in years of character/story/universe continuity.

For years, many comics were crafted so that the issue-relevant portions of a title’s long and short-term status quo was re-capped—integrated into the story of each issue. This information included character motivation, abilities/weaknesses and goals. (A very short blurb at the top of the splash page was often used to re-cap the character’s origin.) There were a couple of excellent reasons for this recapping.

For younger readers, the time between monthly issues seemed like an eternity.* Many readers also read a variety of comics titles. So, giving readers a bit of a re-cap “on the run” (within the course of the story) was standard operating procedure.

Perhaps an even bigger reason to give readers an “on the run” snapshot of the status quo was to attract and retain new readers. An ongoing comic title is engaged in a battle of attrition for readers. For various reasons, individual readers will stop buying a title, or stop buying comics altogether.** Unless an equal or greater numbers of new readers replace those who drift away from a comics title, that title will eventually end in cancellation.

When new readers try to latch onto an established series, it is up to the creators and editor to hook them. Every issue of a comic series is going to be someone’s first issue of that title. If a reader who is new to an established series is confused due to a lack of status quo information, that reader will probably not buy that series again. Some FTPs assumed that new readers would be intrigued by the mystery of what the heck was going on in a established title and would therefore keep coming back to learn more. For every masochistic reader that this approach worked on, there were probably dozens who gave up and tried something else—or gave up on comics.

Balancing the need to attract and hook new readers while not overloading regular readers with redundant information is a difficult craft to master. If done properly, within the flow of the story, establishing basic status quo info feels effortless and natural to the reader.***

Today, some comics don’t bother to establish the names of the characters early on in each issue—if at all. The creators and/or editor seem to assume that all of the readers should know the names before they pick up the book.

These days, the craft of re-establishing long and short-term status quo info “on the run” within each issue of a series seems to have fallen out of favor.

Part of the reason may be that many writers and editors were not trained in the craft of “on the run” re-capping. If there is going to be a re-cap at all, it’s much easier to use a text blurb re-cap at the start of the book than to try and slip in into the flow of the story. Also, since many comics today are meant to be collected into trade paperbacks, some creators and editors feel re-capping “on the run” every 22 pages will seem redundant to the collection’s readers. It’s easier to edit out the prose status quo re-caps for the collection than to alter “on the run” re-caps. Ideally, since only the info that is needed for a particular issue needs to be re-established, the “on the run” re-caps should be done in a way that work for both individual issues and as part of a collection.

Posting print comics online also throws a new wrinkle into this matter, especially if a 22 page issue is broken up into smaller chapters online.

Are You Your Audience?
Some FTPs assumed that they were creating comics for themselves and their friends – that they were their target audience. Due to the magic of self-fulfilling prophesies, this is truer today than it was through most of the ‘80s.

Until the late ‘80s, more comics were sold on the newsstand to “casual readers”. The dedicated fans who bought their comics in specialty stores took over after that.**** Sales in general were considerably higher then and the comics audience had a lot of casual readers who occasionally missed an issue of a title they liked.

The readership covered a wider range of age groups than today. The tastes of those readers who did become pros naturally changed as they aged. Some of the aesthetics and editorial approach of the comics they grew up became un-cool for them to use when producing their own comics. So they produced comics aimed at their own ever-advancing age group of fellow fans while increasingly ignoring the younger and more casual audience. This, along with distribution changes and competition for the audience from other media, lowered the number of younger and casual readers getting into comics.

Frustrated Creators Turned Editors
Some people who came on board the editorial department were frustrated comics creators. They could not get hired as writers but they were determined to get into comics. Being an editor was the next best thing for them. Some became very good editors.

Unfortunately, in some cases, instead of helping hone the work of their writers, an editor would exercise their frustrated creative muscles by force-feeding plots, dialogue or detrimental changes to their creative team.

The Hollywood Syndrome
As the direct market grew and the ability of star talent to sell books increased, some FTP editors became “star f@%&!#s.” Early on in his career, I published a book by Michael Allred at Marvel’s Epic imprint. About the time I started working with Allred, I was attending a convention in Dallas with a number of Marvel staffers and creators. The Marvel-associated creators in attendance ranged from star vets to newbies. Allred was in attendance and so the Marvel crew asked him along when we’d go to dinner after the convention closed. A FTP editor from another publisher asked us why we were wasting our time feeding and entertaining such a “non-A-list” talent as Allred. That comment confirmed my less than stellar opinion of this particular editor’s priorities and sensibilities. It’s also no surprise that this editor was not known for finding and developing new talent.

Writer/Artist Editors
As Bill Rienhold pointed out in his comments on the last entry, a number of writer/artists did well as editors at Marvel. These included Archie Goodwin, Al Milgrom, Mark Gruenwald, Bob Budiansky, Larry Hama. There were others who were known more as writer/editors but who had drawing skills they didn’t demonstrate to the public very often (Mike Carlin, Joey Cavalieri...)

There were also great Writer/Editors including Denny O’Neil and Ralph Macchio.

However, one of the best editors at Marvel was Louise “Weezie” Simonson (known as Weezie Jones before she married Walter Simonson). She established herself as a great writer long after she’d established herself as a top editor at Warren and then Marvel. A fair amount of the credit for the rise of the X-Men franchise can be given to Weezie for her calm guiding hand and ability to—
-Recognize quality talent
-Get the best work out of her teams
-Nix bad ideas or work without killing the enthusiasm of her creators. (“The Weezie Effect” as Ralph Macchio referred to it.)
-Get contesting creators to play nice with each other.

That’s it for this outing. As always, comments are very welcome!

*I’ve always wondered what was behind the seemingly-universal feeling that the sense of time speeds up as we age. A history professor I know suggested that since 5 years to a 10-year-old is 50% of the child’s lifetime, those 5 years seem much longer than they do to a 50-year-old because 5 years is only 10% of the 50-year-old’s lifetime.

** Competition for comics readers’ attention was always an issue but is even more intense today due to the universal popularity of electronic gaming. Comics readers sometimes lose interest in a title or in comics in general as they get involved with other media (especially electronic) or get involved with new social, academic or athletic activities.

*** Shortly after Tom DeFalco took over as Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, he attended a convention where the writer and penciller of a Marvel title complained to him that their editor required that, each issue, they re-establish annoying information like names, powers, motivations and story status quo. When Tom returned to the Marvel offices, he took that editor aside and said, “I didn’t realize how good of an editor you were until these guys complained about you.”

**** This was due to the explosion in the comic book specialty store “direct market” and the decline of the newsstand market. Many newsstand retailers decided that they didn’t want to be bothered racking and returning relatively low-cost and low profit margin comics. Comics became too labor and time intensive to make it worthwhile for the newsstands to rack them.