Dilettante 017: Mistakes Were Made

Toucan reading a comic

I try to approach my career as a work in progress. I know I’m going to make any number of bad choices as I go along on a panel, a page, a project. The trick is to eventually recognize them so I don’t make them again. That’s how I’ve handled things for more than twenty years now. Still, it’s hard to look at old work and see choices I would never make today. Every artist wishes that they could go back in time, deliver a swat to the back of their own head, and say, “Don’t do that!”

So I asked some experienced artists, “If you could go back and tell your rookie self something about their work—some mistake to avoid, some important thing to emphasize—what would you say?” (I also told them I’d keep their responses anonymous, because no one wants to give their readers a map to look for problems in their published work.)

1. As far as your readers are concerned, comics are drawn with a printing press or a monitor. Don’t fetishize the original art or the tools you make it with. Anything that gets the story told the way it needs to be told is the right tool for the job.

2. Don’t use one job to audition for another. There are lots of choices that need to be made on every page, all sorts of factors to be weighed. But if you’re taking the job of storytelling seriously, one factor that should never enter your decision is “how can I use this page to land my next job?” The only answer to that should be “by telling the story as clearly and effectively as possible.” Don’t get flashy or sexy or explosive if the moment in the story doesn’t call for it. It’s unfair to your collaborators and a betrayal of the reader.

3. Experience has taught me that almost all of the important storytelling choices on a page can be worked out in the thumbnail stage. (For me that’s a sketch 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall.) Gesture, camera angle, framing, broad arrangement of tones—get this stuff right before you worry about anatomy, lighting, drapery, or facial expressions.

4. Get the underdrawing right before you put a finish on a figure. If a figure doesn’t work as a mannequin of tubes and boxes built over an action line, your clever ink techniques aren’t going to make it work as a finished drawing. Yes, there are some artists who can put down a final inkline without any underdrawing, but that’s because they’re skilled and experienced enough to do all that underdrawing in their head. You probably aren’t. Save the masterstrokes for the masters.

5. What you’re feeling while you’re doing your work doesn’t really matter. What the audience feels when they read it does. Forget any romantic notions. You can be perfectly happy and still do a great drawing of someone in agony or rage. It’s important to understand what you’re depicting. It’s not necessary to experience it in real time at the drawing board.

6. Don’t let your worries about getting things precisely right keep you from getting things done. It’s easy to get bogged down in research or preparatory sketches. It can also be poisonous. If you make a schedule at the start of a project, you’ll know how much time you have for each aspect of it. Do the best you can with the time allotted, then move on. BUT …

7. If the time allotted is insufficient to do the work, turn the job down. Your name is going on the work. Your audience doesn’t know or care about the circumstances under which the work was produced. They just know if the results were any good. You don’t want them to associate your name with something crappy and unsatisfying.

8. Writers: If you’re including a scene in the script, know what it’s there to accomplish, and make sure your artist knows too. Artists: if you’re drawing a scene and you don’t know what it’s there for, ask. If you can’t get an answer, make that decision for yourself and make your storytelling decisions with that reason in mind. Don’t just draw stuff because it’s in the script.

9. It can be helpful to set up rules for yourself, but don’t let those rules hurt your final result. I once set up a rule that I’d only use outlines and solid black to draw a story. No greys achieved by brush rendering or cross-hatching or wash or any other technique. Then I hit a moment in the story that I couldn’t make clear without a bit of rendering. So I did it. I don’t think anyone noticed. They would’ve noticed if they couldn’t tell what was going on.

10. Keep your eyes on your own work. The people who draw (or write, etc) “better” than you do aren’t a threat. Your talent is your own. The worst thing you can do is obsess over somebody else; it will stifle your own best instincts and result in crappy, compromised work driven by fear.

Keep doing what you do, try new things as often as you get the chance, and ruthlessly dump whatever you’ve grown out of. You will never be 100% in love with your own work, and other artists will still occasionally set off your insecurities, but eventually you WILL develop a confidence that what you do is unique and authentic, and that will get you through creative rough patches.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month on Toucan!

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