Here’s a summary of my working process. It’s a bit long, but definitely true to the way I work. I wrote it for a graduate seminar and felt nice about its clarity and thought I’d share it. The image above is a recent illustration I made for Dana and our new baby due in April. Enjoy!
From Get to Go.
I used to believe ideas represented the key achievement of the artist, but I’ve grown to understand that ideas merely inspired me to become an artist. From there, I have had to learn how to realize them and follow through. Nevertheless, it is important to continue to nurture the soil in which ideas take root, and make notes of them when they do.
Ideas originate from every aspect of my life and so I try to remain alert. Very often ideas begin to form, but other things distract me and I don’t take the time to allow them to really blossom. I’ve had to change my lifestyle in order to more easily accommodate ideas. This means I try to choose occupations that allow me to take a break whenever necessary to jot something down or get outside and take a walk when I feel something brewing. I keep a notebook in my pocket and then later I try to transfer ideas to my sketchbook. After I finish a sketchbook, I go through it and transfer any unfinished ideas into a word document where I can reference the list at random when I want to start a project. I also keep a notebook next to my bed to record my dreams. I’ve begun to pay closer attention to my diet, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and trying to exercise more because this leads to deeper sleep and more dreams. I have filled many notebooks with dreams now; I will never be able to turn them all into art projects. But I know, whenever I need it, inspiration is waiting for me there. Besides, this practice of noticing dreams helps me build the subconscious muscles that recognize ideas when they occur in the middle of my day.
There are two ways I approach art making. Sometimes, I approach it simply as a practice where I begin making something without much of a plan. It is important that I sit and draw for a few hours here and there in order to keep my eyes able to see things clearly and accurately. This helps me be able to remember how to draw something even when I’m not looking. While making comics, this is especially important since certain characters and scenes need to be seen from many different angles and perspectives. If I’m not drawing often, it is a certain kind of torture to try to compose many frames on a page; I must sketch twice as many options for myself before I can settle on something. Even then, it often looks and feels stiffer than if I can picture it while I’m putting it down. This place where I picture an image is also like the dreaming mind, so I am very conscious of the need to nurture it as well.
The second way I approach art making is to begin with a very specific idea from my sketchbooks and journals and build a plan. The plan requires inquiry, research, and goal setting before I am able to complete it.
Inquiry involves asking myself some very practical questions. These are the kind of questions that are intended to prevent me from starting in on a project that I’m not in a good position to complete. With that said, I am a risk taker and tend to bite off more than I can chew. I believe it’s important not to be too practical at the outset, so I usually don’t ask these questions too militantly when I’m just starting out, but they do occur to me as I move along. I ask myself about the internal truth of the project, the economics of the project, and my intended audience.
The most important factor of beginning a project is whether I feel the truth in it. This is how I am able to decide whether to take financial and emotional risks when going forward. This decision involves playing around with the idea in the form of sketches and imaginings. Often while a project is tumbling around in my head, I will notice whether I’m drawn to ideas similar to it at bookstores, on television, in movies, or in galleries or stores. If I am, I can tell I’m hooked. Still going forward with my project doesn’t always lead to a great final result, but I can tell it was important for me to understand something about what I was working on. Sometimes, I have ideas that I can tell are great, but are not appropriate for the time in my life. These ideas include studying magic so I can learn to make myself disappear; studying realist painting in Florence so I can apply it to illustrations a la John Currin; becoming a Buddhist seminary student so I can teach art and meditation; and building a boat. During graduate school these ideas aren’t practical, but they do make it onto the list. Right now, however making a comic book is extraordinarily exciting, because I can travel in its stories and include my dreams and artistic ideas in its plot points. The format of it bridges the art world and the world of products in a satisfying way, and therefore helps me feel like I’m participating in many of my favorite sources for inspiration at once.
For the sake of my own ability to make a living as an artist—which I’ve decided over many years of working in different areas is important to me, and might be contrary to how the artist in general is perceived—I have to ask myself whether the project I’m making is going to make me any money. Note, this does not always prevent me from starting something, but I’ve found it often prevents me from easily being able to finish it! It’s not a rule I plan to create for myself either, as I’m always interested in what possibilities might exist in going ahead and pursuing an artistic idea despite its impracticalities. In fact, I think being impractical is part of the job of an artist, due to the potential wellspring of inspiration that exists off the beaten path. So, the economics of a project is something of a paradox. For me to know how to weigh the financial risks of a project, I have to ask myself whether I could truly devote myself to it as I described above. If I can, I will do what it takes to find the money to make it, and hopefully make some money from it (either directly or by building my name). In the past, I’ve gotten into a great deal of debt trying this. Lately, I’m trying to see if there are other ways to make art then going deep into debt while waiting for some kind of abstract payback in my future. What I enjoy is a blend of applied artwork—along the lines of illustration or retail products such as pottery provided—with gallery or installation work. Generally I find that the sales of smaller items now will inspire me later to plan and execute larger pieces. The products act as a kind of sketchbook I can sell, and so the financial strain doesn’t undercut my artistic process.
Finally, I begin to ask myself about the audience for my intended result. Ultimately, I make work with the overly presumptuous goal of helping humanity evolve. Obviously, I imagine my contribution to be of appropriate scale, but evolution is my starting point. In that sense, making art is not unlike marketing. Part of my interest in making a book is its enormous outreach were it to become a best-seller. The paradox here is that I also have to create the work with a personal intention to grow as a citizen myself, and learn to build the kind of generosity of spirit that I hope to inspire in others. Luckily, the act of making art inevitably shows me this. Finishing a project is rarely as wonderful as imagining the initial idea. By the time a piece is realized, it is essentially given away. This does not mean it will be uninspiring to others, but my own finished work is not ultimately where I find my inspiration. Instead, it is how I pass inspiration along. Passing it along can be somewhat saddening, but it is the part of the process that teaches me the most about myself. Even if it gets great recognition, and I am well received for it, nothing beats the feeling of starting on a new idea.
Finishing a piece is a relatively straightforward process. I begin by experimenting at making small things I can finish within a reasonable timeframe. In comics, this has meant making a ten-page piece that allows me to build a system that combines my knowledge of wet media with digital media so that my result is a reasonable and efficient balance between my handwork and technology. In the case of making a graphic novel, the final product must negotiate mass production without losing its initial status as the work of an individual artist. I must research printing, publishing, and publicizing in order to know what will be worth my time and effort. In the meantime, I am also researching the critical field in order to feel like I understand what has come before me and I am able to learn to clarify my ideas if the work succeeds and I am asked to speak about it. I ask for help at this point in the process. I look for mentors in academics and the art community in order to build a sense of what I’m up against and how I’m going to attempt to be unique while I navigate my project. This is one of the most important aspects of making work, and I have not done enough of it in the past. Today I’m finding that when I reach out with a strong intention of passing my inspiration onward, I find an enormous amount of generosity in my mentors.
Finally, once I’ve spotlighted as many potential obstacles as I can foresee, I create a timeline for myself and set some goals to complete the project at large. I will set a future date usually by choosing a show or exhibition I would like to submit to, then make more general goals along the way. At the beginning of every week, I will make a micro calendar so that I can reasonably hope to fit real creative time into days that are inevitably filled with other obligations. I find I work best creatively in the morning, and build my calendar accordingly if I can. I also find that unless I work at least an hour and a half, I rarely find my groove.
During this highly scheduled time, it is very important I leave room for exercise, meditation, rest, socializing, and planning a good menu for the week. I have often been surprised by how time spent exercising and sleeping is often not a compromise of my time spent working, but it prevents anxiety and self-doubt from being such large factors of my studio time. I have a certain bodily wisdom that buffers these emotional obstacles when I am feeling healthy.
As my deadline nears, I usually have to edit my original goals since it is rare that I’ve allowed enough time to complete everything I’d planned. Instead of this being a letdown, I’ve begun to see it as a necessary and exhilarating chance to focus the work since I understand it better than at the beginning. The last weeks and days of meeting a deadline are the most difficult, but I try to keep the format of my weekly planning and will often work a few nights longer than usual, but an appropriate amount of adrenaline helps me with this. I might exercise less, and sleep less, but not by too many hours, so I don’t feel exhausted. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine is recently proving to be especially important at these times, but I need to have a good support system in friends and family to make it through.