What is drawing? How does one come to it? It is working through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How is one to get through that wall - since pounding at it is of no use? In my opinion one has to undermine that wall, filing through it steadily and patiently.
- Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, 22 October 1882
My dad brought the book over from the States when he and Mum came over to visit in 2007. The copy is a brown-paged paperback, now with a torn cover and shot binding, the pages no longer hanging together.
It’s one of the best books to and for artists I’ve read. For example:
“If you have the idea that an artist is not a decidedly practical person, get over it.”
Robert Henri (pronounced HEN-RYE) was a prominent voice in New York’s “Ashcan” School of realist painting in the 1920’s and a teacher at the legendary Art Students League of New York. He died in 1929, leaving a legacy of dedication to craft and honesty that saturated American painting in the 20th century. You can view the complete collection of his paintings here.
The Art Spirit addresses itself primarily to painters. Painters have much to teach writers. Just as writers have much to teach dancers. And dancers much to teach cartoonists. And cartoonists gardeners. And gardeners mathematicians, etc.
Henri’s “Betalo, The Dancer”, 1910
Artists, no matter what their gang affiliation, are all in the same classroom. The separation of disciplines is just window dressing. The essentials of making art – the underlying spiritual principles – whether in a bonsai or a ballet, are universal and mature artists borrow methods from other disciplines as easily as enlightened masters borrow from each other’s spiritual practices. It’s only fundamentalists who see a division between music and filmmaking, writing and painting, fencing and calligraphy. I’m not against fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are great for copywriting and branding – and some fundamentalists get rich, you know. But the artist is the one who, when he hears Robert Feynman talk about physics, suddenly understands how to solve that problem with his protagonist in the second act.
I’ve tended to be a screenwriter. I’m stained to the bone in movie-thinking. When Henri talks about “pictures”, I think “moving pictures” and I find his words apply effortlessly well to movies as to canvas. But they are also pointers toward the artistic life, an artist-way of thinking and working with the world. The canvas becomes the world, the world becomes the canvas.
If you’re a painter, illustrator, draftsman, sculptress, The Art Spirit will be of obvious help.
But if you’re an actor, a singer, an editor, a therapist, a matador, it may speak to your process just as directly. If it does, then maybe you and I are friends.
If you’re the Amazon type, you can buy the book here.
Robert Henri, 1897
“When a drawing is tiresome. It may be that the motive is not worth the effort.”
“Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money. There are ever so many other better ways.”
“It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.”
“Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”
“Technique must be solid, positive, but elastic, must not fall into formula, must adapt itself to the idea. And for each new idea there must be new invention special to the expression of that idea and no other.”
“You can’t know too much about composition. That is; the areas you have to fill, their possibilities. But you must, above all, preserve your intense interest in life.”
“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
My notes on a John Singer Sargent painting at the National Portrait Gallery, “General Officers Of the Great War”:
These men are sated,
satisfied, tried and true,
censured and cinched,
catalogued and decorated,
and are those spurs
on their jackboots too?
Botha proud like a superman,
Allenby an Arabian beauty, half-horse,
Smuts white as a ghost,
and Field Marshall Haig right at the front,
front and centaah, SAH!!
Sargent made them round about life size –
22 men, hard, stiff,
behind them a gloomy looming tomb vault
or some edifice of state.
Top brass done up in the colors of sand,
of peaches, and leather buffed bright –
the hues of WWI –
and cadmium red kept well out of sight.
General Officers Of The Great War by John Singer Sargent
A couple months ago, I took my first trip to Brussels. I went there to ride in a helicopter and to write a piece on Wim Robberechts & Co., one of the preeminent aerial cinematography outfits this side of the Azores.
I’d never been to Brussels before. It struck me as a sensible, serious city. The home of NATO and the European Union and quality chocolate. The city’s slogan ought to be: “Brussels: We do things properly.”
But did you know – and if you’re an American, you probably didn’t know – Brussels is one of the world’s great capitals for illustration and comics?
Actually, if you’re an American, you probably didn’t know that NATO and the EU are headquartered in Brussels either, did you? In fact, you probably don’t even know what NATO is. And you’re understanding of the EU is that there are French people somehow involved and it’s where they have Euros. You know, it’s true. Of course you do. You wouldn’t be so mad at me if you didn’t think it was true.
What was I on about?
Right. Brussels – one of the world’s great centers of illustration and comic art. The other centers would be, I suppose, Tokyo and New York. Los Angeles too, possibly, but I think there are actually fewer comic stores per capita in L.A. than people suppose.
Brussels not only has murals of Tin Tin on the side of every building – or so it seemed to me – but in some areas there are comic stores on every block. They carry the usual American fare – high concept stories about physically powerful beings and character stories about physically powerless beings. And Asian comics too. But the third part of the inventory – the one rarely seen, or heard of, in most North American stores – is the Franco-Belgian comics, traditionally dubbed bande dessinée (“drawn strip”). In general, these comics feature high-quality illustration and more … subtle? … meaty? … rich? … stories.
As I browsed the comic shops of Brussels I found myself again and again picking up comics that could very well be adaptations of high-end movies – usually of the kind I write myself. Medieval adventures. Strange and hallucinatory stories of suspense. Sexy science fiction dramas emphasizing emotion over explosions.
Franco-Belgian comics world are rooted in a French illustration tradition, but also feature a strong Dutch bloodline. Brussels is the geographical and cultural meeting point of Dutch and French culture, and the comics landscape of the city is enriched exponentially by this intersection.
The main reason English speaking readers know little of the Franco-Belgian comics / graphic novels / sequential art world is that relatively few of the titles are ever translated into English. The profit margin on the most successful American comics can be relatively small, for European comics, the profit margin may be nonexistent. Unless some enterprising publisher makes it a priority to translate and distribute American versions of Franco-Belgian comics en masse, it’s likely the U.S. will continue to miss out on a whole universe of dynamite storytellers, illustrators, colorists, printers.
I only had a morning to tour around the comic stores of Brussels. But the highlights were:
Emeric Pressburger wrote a letter to persuade Deborah Kerr to appear in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943). Thank God, he succeeded. In the letter he laid out a “manifesto” for The Archers, the name he and Michael Powell gave to their long collaboration.
“The Archers Manifesto”
– One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
– Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
– Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
– Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
– Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers.
We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.
Check out the Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger fan and scholarship site Powell-Pressburger.org, which features this manifesto as well as a wealth of info and links re The Archers and their films.
Almost famous I felt, seeing so many people I knew at last weekend’s Comic-Con panels. I went straight from the sneak preview of Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects”, which stars my friend Bill, to a panel next door featuring Ralph Bakshi–my old “Cool World” boss (I was one of the movie’s many assistant editors).
Ralph had come to promote the August 30 DVD release of his fantasy adventure collaboration with Frank Frazetta, “Fire and Ice”. The film had been in need of restoration and Bill Lustig of Blue Underground approached Bakshi with the idea of a rehaul and release. “Fire and Ice” has been digitally restored, removing imperfections which were in the original cels when the film was shot. A sample of the film, showing the original vs. restored footage, was presented. Truthfully, I found it difficult to see any difference between the two, in the example screen, and I have a pretty finicky eye for that kind of thing.
I have never seen “Fire and Ice”, but I’m anticipating its release. Since I was a wee barbarian man-child, I have loved both Bakshi’s and Frank Frazetta’s work, so how could I not be blown away by the collaboration Ralph described as being like an animated “Frank Frazetta comic”? But truth to tell, I am a little afraid. What if the film is terrible? I will be crushed. I just don’t know if I have the strength to stand up to that kind of discouragement. I’ll let you know. Based on the clip shown, it really does look right up my alley–sword fighting aplenty and brutish creatures carrying off haughty princesses.
The high point of the panel was Ralph’s sneak preview of his current feature project. He had brought a DVD of some animation tests which, he said, he hadn’t planned to show. It was hard to know if he was genuinely reluctant to show the work-in-progress, or if he was exercising some first-rate showmanship. After ten minutes of his hemming and hawing, we in the audience were literally begging to see it. The new project is called “The Last Days of Coney Island” and is a return to Ralph’s “mean streets” style of animation, (“Coonskin”, “Heavy Traffic”). Use of computers will allow Ralph to substantially lower his budgets for compositing and coloring, enabling him to spend more money on the the animation itself.
Though digital animation allows Ralph, essentially a low-budget filmmaker, to do work that twenty years ago would have been out of reach, he has a healthy fear of the luxuries computers afford. “Don’t love the computer too much,” he cautioned us, “You need the X Factor.” When an artist creates with his own hands accidents happen–or perhaps it’s the unconscious going to work–and things come about that could never be planned, never executed intentionally. He also pointed out that studio executives like being able to eliminate expensive artists. If a computer can approximate what 30 humans can do, the suited gang that worships the Bottom Line will always choose the computer. Ultimately, Ralph suggested, “They want to get rid of all of us and have the computer do everything.”
“The Last Days Of Coney Island” looks to be a complex story, for adults, that depicts emotions adults understand–disenchantment, longing, nostalgia, regret. The film will be animated in L.A., so all of you Cal Arts students, get your portfolios ready.
Alas, I didn’t get to say my “hello” to Ralph, though it seems unlikely he would have remembered me after a decade-plus. He was accosted by a guy from the Neighborhood (Brooklyn, that would be), someone he apparently hadn’t seen in decades and off they went together to discuss..what?…Their days at Coney Island perhaps.
…Thus read the Comic-Con events calendar listing for a panel I attended on Sunday, July 17. Before this panel I would have told you, if asked to define it, that merchandising is…it’s…well…I just don’t know what. Now I can say confidentally that merchandising is turning what you DO into something you can SELL.
A late addition to the panel was a representative of the business side of Penny Arcade Comics, Robert Khoo. Not an artist, he was invaluable in grounding the discussion in the realities of the businessworld. Even with some experience under my belt, I still want to make money from my creative work without having to observe the laws of economics. It’s like wanting people to love you but not wanting to talk to them, or even be nice to them–also an affliction I have not fully shaken. Of course, “make money” does not equal “get rich”. If you want to get rich, you’re an idiot for becoming an artist (my own belief and not presented in the panel). Anyway, I have the distilled the panel discussion into its bare bones below.
In launching your merchandising empire, start first with paper products. They’re the cheapest to make, and people always want hard copies of your work. Even though they might be able to access your Web work day or night, fans still like something they can take home to have and to hold and to smell. Scott Kurtz told how he had printed small copies of his work on high-quality card stock, then signed and numbered them and sold them at conventions individually, or offered them as free bonuses if readers also bought a comic. “Readers love deals,” he said. He also urged, “Save everything you draw. Everything. Everything you draw can be repurposed for merchandise.” The large number of artists’ sketchbooks for sale at Comic-Con attests to the soundness of the advice.
Some great general advice for any artist, but certainly a fine base to build on from a merchandising perspective, was to be dependable. The proverbial flakey artist is an unknown and unsuccessful artist. Keep a schedule and stick to it. If you’re releasing your material every Monday at 9am, make sure you stick to that deadline, come hell or high water. In doing so, you will begin to earn the trust of your fans. Without an audience, the artist is only half-complete. You owe your fans everything.
Simplicity seems to again and again rise to the top as the best policy. “Charge one dollar, not 75 cents,” it was said. People can easily pull a dollar out of their pocket, can less easily pull out two quarters, two dimes, and a nickel. Present yourself professionally. If you operate like a professional, people will treat you–and pay you, one hopes– like a professional. Ask for help. Call and email other artists to pick their brains and learn from their successes and failures.
T-SHIRTS & PRINTING
There was discussion about whether it was a better bet to create merchandise using print-on-demand services like CafePress.com or by printing in bulk. One panelist gave an example of being able to print a run of 600 t-shirts for $4 each at a local printer, then he sold the shirts for around $10 each. Another simple way to keep your costs down is to limit the number of colors you print. Stick to 4 colors or less.
A downside to printing in bulk is manhandling inventory. Several panelists shared tales of woe about homes full of boxes of unsold inventory and having to transport these boxes to and from shows and conventions. Some of the panelists had sworn off CafePress because they felt there was too little profit for the artist, while others were very happy with CafePress as a means to evade this problem of inventory buildup, since CafePress prints material only when it is ordered, then ships it directly to the customer.
Print your merchandise locally, it was urged. You can meet face-to-face the person who will be printing it, and can personally oversee the process yourself and be available to address problems or questions. Andy Bell sited his experience putting his stuff in local mom & pop stores. Local specialty shops are a great means to get your shirts, dolls, etc. out into the marketplace and is surprisingly easy to manage with a little bit of footwork.
In printing shirts, one of the unexpectedly difficult, but essential, questions is how many to print of each size. These off-the-cuff calculations–based, I believe, on Penny Arcade sales made at Comic-Con–were presented as a starting point:
5% – Baby Doll 10% – Small 25% – Medium 30% – Large 20% – XLarge 5% – XXLarge 2.5% – XXXLarge
ADVERTISING & BUSINESS
Nearly everybody on the panel emphasized an education in business as essential. Learn about taxes. Over and over panel members emphasized the necessity of keeping track of your tax situation, paying taxes in a timely manner, keeping good records. Taking a business class also seems essential. Again, it is foolishness to expect to be paid for you work without knowing how and why it happens.
One panel member originally opted for sponsorship on his site. He charged a flat rate for one month, with a new sponsor each month. He then moved to CPM (cost per 1000) based advertising, where advertisers pay in proportion to the traffic on your site. This can be $2 – $10 “per click” depending on the volume of the traffic. On a cautionary not however, advertisers were described as “lazy” and can regard advertising on a site that has less than 100,000 page views per month as a waste of their time.
Finally, make sure you charge enough for postage, and unless you want a lousy table at the back, apply for booth space at Comic-Con 2006 now!
1.) “Artesia #1” (Mark Smylie) 2.) “Autobiography of an Artist” (Charles R. Knight, w/intro by William Stout, foreward by Ray Bradbury & Ray Harryhausen) 3.) “Bear #5” (Jamie Smart) 4.) “Bug Girl #1” (George M. Dondero & Ruben Deluna) 5.) “Cenozoic #1” (Mark Fearing) 6.) Gandhi “Peace” T-shirt (by Damion Scott) 7.) “Johnny, The Homicidal Maniac #2” (Jhonen Vasquez) 8.) “Lenore #6” (Roman Dirge) 9.) “The Red Star: The Battle Of Kar Dathra’s Gate” (Christian Gossett, et al.) 10.) “Squee #4” (Jhonen Vasquez, et al.)
Nor am I likely to relate the highlights of the Kevin Smith Q & A or of the “King Kong” panel–after which Tenacious D played a show to an audience of several thousand fans (Rob AttackCat is the music expert. Check him out for the dirt on The D). Why? Because I wasn’t there. And why not? Was I insane? Where the hell I was and wherefore–that I will tell you all about. So stay tuned. Lots of good info to come.
Today, I’ll keep it simple. There are scores of excellent artists at Comic-Con. And hundreds of good ones. And thousands of mediocre ones. And it’s one thing to see the art in a book, another thing to get to see originals up close. To make a definitive list of “Best Artists” would be an exercise in eel-slippery subjectivity, also an exercise without much merit. It’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? And feeling too. And other senses. Definitely not brainwork though. And never beyond questioning.
Here are 10 artists whose work knocked me out this weekend: