Tuesday, 21 December 2010

My Life as a Crap Artist

I've spent far too much of the little seasonal time I have trying to draw one single, simple drawing of a swift. It's for our next book, Birdbook I: Towns, Parks, Gardens & Woodland, an anthology (full-size this time) of poems and illustrations about ... well, birds, obviously. Way before we started looking for other poets and artists to involve in the project, I said to K: "I'm doing the swift. Art and poem. No question. Don't even put it up on the list. It's mine."

Swifts have been my favourite birds, see, ever since I was a cub scout and I collaged one for some project or another. They are, to this beholder's eye, incredibly beautiful, both close up and in flight. I also think they're just plain cool. I had a character in a novel who had the special ability to fire swift-shaped semi-corporeal shadows that flew around screaming. I try to conceive of games with swifts as protagonists. I designed a Beast Wars-era Transformer that transformed into swifts. I will happily read almost any recently published article or paper on swifts, even if it's regurgitating what I already know about them, even if it's really about the type of parasites that live on them.

So it gets to early December. I have the poem more or less done and am promising K - who has spent what feels like most of this year rounding up and chasing down artists and poets for this book - that the picture can be thrown together and dropped in, oh, any time. There's just one thing I've forgotten - I'm a crap artist.

I wasn't always a crap artist. When I was in school, I would draw things and teachers would coo about my artistic talent, while other kids would ask me to sign sketches in the expectation that they would be worth something 'when you're famous'. When I look back at the picture books I made in those early school days, I was probably a better artist than prose writer ("'Yeah well I smell bad magic' Said Jon" was about the standard). Then I did an art GCSE (A*!) and for A Level (B, just shy of an A). But if I'm honest, I don't think I improved much over that period.  A Level art in particular was a doss. We horsed around. We drew or painted the odd picture. I discovered the teachers liked my chalk drawings, so I concentrated on that. We spent a whole lesson taking items off one teacher's desk and masking taping them to the front of it while he sat there. We did some life drawing, which I was also pretty good at. The instructor only had two ways of responding to your work: he either took your pencil, rubbed out what you'd done and redrew it while explaining that things in the distance looked smaller ("This is called 'perspective'") or he glanced at it and did nothing. I always got the nothing. I would do one two minute sketch in pencil and then two or three more in chalks on sugar paper in different styles.

At university, I concentrated more on writing, but had grand ambitions of writing a novel in words and pictures. This was an early attempt at a cover for it, still in a phase where I thought chalk was my forte:

(For some reason, it's been mirrored). In any case, I soon began to realise, as I persevered with images for the novel, that I was nowhere close to mastering any kind of style and wasn't even a competent draughtsman. I could copy, mildly caricature and change the colours, and err... that was about it. I didn't even know where to begin when it came to backgrounds, which is why in the above image, for example, the images are laid on top of three panoramic photographs of the now demolished Waveney Terrace at UEA.

I also now had come across deviantart.com, and the seeming millions of artists across the Western world - many of them teenagers - who are actually quite good. Or really good. Or amazing. I knew then that I'd gone from being 'famous one day' to being an absolute no-hoper.

I tried, somewhat desperately, to find a style I felt comfortable with, one which I hoped would save me the trouble of going back to the years of studious figure sketching I'd obviously missed out on. Here's me trying to ape Yoshitaka Amano, the artist behind the Final Fantasy series of games. I admired his technique and foolishly thought that it would be easy to replicate, since it was often little but watercolour washes over sketchy, swaying pencil lines depicting semi-floating figures. Unfortunately, I also knew bugger all about using watercolours properly, despite a few earlier (mostly disastrous) experiments.

I also knew nothing about oil painting. My first attempt was the final project for my art A level, and its obvious rubbishness was the main reason I got knocked down from my A. My second (and only other) attempt was a very brief blast on A5 during my third year of uni, inspired by that painting of a miserable guitarist by Picasso:

You can see I more or less gave up. But hey! Just because everything I've relied on so far is actually quite difficult, requiring years of practice, doesn't mean the next thing I try won't turn out to be a doddle. Such is the optimism that has informed my approach to visual art for near enough the past decade. Here's me thinking the future is in digital manipulation of better artists (pre-Banksy):

Note the swift! All these pictures so far, by the way, were intended as components in my extravagant semi-visual novel. I still want to write something like it, but the project has ended up permanently on the back burner, waiting for me to somehow conjure up the requisite artistic and storytelling skills.

Swift imagery again in this attempt to follow Max Ernst into surreal collage:

And more Max Ernst influence still. I decided that I wanted to work with 'material' and persuaded people to give me their old clothes to cut up so that I might produce abstruse silliness like this:

That white thing is derived from a swift again, by the way.

Unable to commit to any style, let alone get a proper grip on one, I decided at some point that I could make a good fist of writing comics. Or rather, some sort of comic/poetry hybrid. Only I'd forgotten - I don't know how to draw backgrounds! So naturally, I decided the easiest thing to do was photograph every area where my comic should take place and drop the characters into them. Problem being that rather restricted my locations:

This is a superhero comic and their secret base is ... my bedroom. Also note that I was too lazy to ink. These are just pencil sketches, scanned in, with the contrast ramped up to maximum.

Things improved slightly when I got back into Transformers. Everything is more angular in Transformers, and I found I could produce a one page comic in, oh, a month. Wonderful for a property you don't own and which most of your friends think is a bit childish:

We're getting to the stage now, though, where I'm starting to feel maybe a little confident again. That last strip isn't too bad, and I found, probably some time around three years ago, that I was quite comfortable using a brush and ink pot:

Since then I've started to feel, every now and then, like I'm getting close to being something you might call an 'artist', rather than just someone who occasionally goes back to art to see if it's magically got any easier since the last time. It's still embarrassing how hard I have to work to manage even simple cartoons - most of the images on the Dr Fulminare site, for instance, took many attempts. Any art I do for Fuselit is a major task and something I'll contemplate giving up on at various points in its creation. A particular frustration of late is that even if something looks good in pencil, inking can ruin it. Heck, even scanning can take all the shine off. The idea of being able to quickly knock out a decent little sketch is still a bit of a daydream. So is the notion that if I spent a long time on something it will end up intricate and complex and glorious. It will be a long time before I feel I can call myself either an artist, illustrator or cartoonist in the same way I'm fairly comfortable thinking of myself as a poet.

But I do want to persevere, even amongst all my other commitments, and so I've persevered with the swift drawing, albeit that I've gone through many poor attempts before arriving on an extremely simple one I'm happy with:
My 'vision' was mixing images with cut up words from an out-of-print book on swifts I have. I also wanted to do a really clean simple version of the bird. This guy looked great in one of my miniature sketches - like a villain drawing his cloak around him - but when I blew him up and dropped the context in, he just ended up looking fat. Swifts are not fat.
So I replaced him with this pair. But they're too simple. It looks like I knocked them up in half a minute (it was more like twenty minutes) and neither of them suggest much of the swift's relative power, or marvellously severe expression, or their perfectly evolved arrangement of flight feathers, which are studied for the purposes of military science (ie. making tiny, highly efficient spy planes).

I was really attached to this chap for a few days. I thought maybe I should play the 'cartoonist' rather than the 'artist' and give him some items which suggested personality. So here he is with what are meant to be a map, goggles and pilot scarf, stopping off on a cliff to check his migration route. But I had a lot of trouble working out how he could possibly end up in this position. Swifts have backward-facing claws and can't grip 'around' objects - they can only cling vertically. I know - I'm overthinking it. But it still bugged me and the wings still aren't right.

This is the pencil sketch of the drawing I finally went with. The scan has bleached out the lighter shading. I'll leave the final version for a debut in the printed book but in the mean time, I hope a progression of improvement can be followed through the last four images. I mean, I hope I'm not fooling myself. I am getting a little better, aren't I?

1 comment:

Tubal Ligation Reversal said...

You have a wonderful life dear...i am very impressed to see your art...Thanks for sharing...