Carousel 028: Timing Your Efforts

Toucan reading a comic

I once read a book on drawing in which the author described, in detail, how to draw highly realistic figures. I followed along, applying his lessons to my own figure drawings, but was frustrated to see that his drawings were far more refined than my own, and I couldn’t discern the reason why. Finally, while poring over a certain section of his book, an offhand remark of his jumped out at me. “Of course,” he said, “each of my figure drawings takes around thirty hours to complete.” Mystery solved! I myself had rarely devoted more than a single hour to any of my figure drawings; no wonder his looked more finished and precise.

Still, I was puzzled by how little space he devoted to describing how much time his drawings required. It occurred to me that the element of time is seldom discussed in any of the books I’ve read about drawing. Techniques may be given ample description, but we’re rarely told how much time is involved. It’s as though artists live in a timeless eternity where we can wrestle each problem as long as we like, never to run low on funds or energy, never faced with competing tasks in our schedule. Sadly, this timeless ideal is not one we occupy in reality. There are trade-offs.

Here in the real world, there are several problems posed by completing a drawing too soon, or too late. I’ve already alluded to the problem of completing a drawing too soon: the results will look less refined than if you had devoted more time to it. The author of the book mentioned above typically spent nearly a week of full-time work drawing a single figure, resulting in drawings of sufficient beauty and precision to command prices high enough to justify the time he spent. Similarly, Norman Rockwell used to spend a month painting a single magazine cover. He needed that time in order to seek out and hire models, find costumes and props, photograph his models, draw charcoal studies, paint numerous color studies, and execute the final, highly detailed painting. It’s clear that allotting more time allows for more planning, more corrections, and fewer mistakes.  

The comics industry doesn’t afford artists as much time as Rockwell enjoyed, but there’s still room for many comic artists to devote more time to their pages. I’ve seen young artists produce three or four times as many pages per month as the industry standard of twenty, but they do so at a cost. They think they are proving to clients that they can deliver quickly, but in the process they often prove that their art is sloppy, rushed, and unimpressive. Devoting more time to their work could make it more attractive and salable.

On the other hand, there are also problems with completing drawings too slowly. The obvious concern is that deadlines must be met, but another concern is the artist’s household budget. I’ve met many young artists who committed to a lengthy project only to discover (too late) that the money they are earning won’t pay their bills for the duration of the project. Three months’ wages up front may sound great … but not if the work takes four months to complete!

An even less obvious concern is that of enthusiasm. Artists may enjoy drawing, but there are limits to the enthusiasm we have for each drawing we do. The longer the drawing takes, the more our enthusiasm wanes. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Jules Feiffer once said that in order to complete his first graphic novel, he had to forgo the pencilling and jump straight to the inks. “I knew it was going to be long, and I knew it was going to involve backgrounds … and I knew that if I had to pencil and ink it, I would never do it. It would never get done. It would just be torture for me.” In order to motivate himself to complete the book, he had to find an hours-per-page ratio that would not exhaust his enthusiasm for the work.

So we’re faced with a dilemma. Draw too quickly, and the work will suffer. Draw too slowly, and we’ll run out of money, blow deadlines, or simply lose enthusiasm. How do we strike a balance?

First, discover your “sweet spot”: the amount of time you must spend on each page in order to feel satisfied with both your worklife and your resulting art. Each artist has his or her own sweet spot. Some, like Feiffer, are happiest with work they scribbled out quickly. Others, like Rockwell, are not content unless they’ve crossed every and dotted every i. Find the process and the results that suit you best.

One way to do this is to time out your art with notations in the margins. When you begin a page, write the precise time of day in the margin. When you break for lunch or for some other reason, write the time you stopped, and then the time you resumed work. (Round to the nearest 5-minute mark, for easier math.) Work the page to completion at your normal pace. When you finish, your margin may look like this:

  • 8:15 — 9:20
  • 9:30 — 11:05
  • 12:00 — 12:50
  • 1:00 — 2:15
  • 2:30 — 4:05
  • 4:15 — 5:30

After completing the page, add up the notations (in this case: 7 hours, 35 minutes). Do this with several pages for a rough average of how long it takes you to draw a page. 

Then, draw a couple of pages at different paces: one at breakneck speed, as fast as you can, and one in which you spend as much time as you can stand perfecting every last thing. This will give you a spectrum of the speed and quality you are capable of. Compare these results with your other pages. Which pages best exemplify your vision? Which pace are you most comfortable working at? Do you need to cut some corners and pick up your pace? Or do you need to add an hour or two to your average, to do more impressive work?

Be honest with yourself. You need to be proud of the work you do, but you also need to choose a pace you are comfortable with, because you will (hopefully) spend years at this. Find your own sweet spot between fast and thorough.

After finding the pace you prefer, aim for jobs that suit your productivity. If you like to spend a week or two on a single page, you may not be cut out for comics interiors; covers may be more your speed. If you like to work fast and cartoony, you may need to rule out comics that require thoroughly researched backgrounds and realistic detail. The key is to pace yourself smartly and aim for the appropriate venue, rather than scrambling to draw faster than you’re comfortable with, or laboring forever on details you don’t care about. Even if you make art solely for yourself, as a hobby, this process will help you set goals that fit your time and talents and satisfy you, without stressing you out.

The subjects, tools, and methods you choose aren’t the only choices you make as an artist: how much time you choose to spend is a creative choice, as well. 

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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