Teaching Comics not Code

The Cartoon Art Museum asked me to teach a class in comics for adults. Seeing a student’s brain light up as they grasp knowledge they never thought they could master, is rewarding. So of course I said yes.

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I had fifty years of obsessing about comics to compress into five weeks. I was going to stuff it all into their heads. I broke the classes down into Structure, Plot ,Pattern Languages, Light and Time and Color.

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Patterns in Kirby’s Work

Being able to pull skills from other artists work is hard, it involves analyzing their work. Summarizing it for yourself, then using it in a way that isn’t totally derivative. The goal is to not swipe or just steal others work.

Here are four two panels sequences from Jack Kirby’s Forever People #8 that I’ve redrawn. One part of my daily practice is just to draw Kirby every day to add the work into my hand.

three_head_01

three_head_02a

three_head_03a

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In 3 Kirby adroitly pairs closeups with three quarter sequence.
By placing a large shape next to smaller shapes the impact of each is stronger.
Shapes of all the same size create a monotone pace, something that Kirby wasn’t interested in.

In the fourth two panels, he jumps from extreme close up to full figures.
A modification and one that is a great lead into an action sequence.

We could focus on the figures gestures and use this for the stick figure stage of drawing.
Or look at the structure of his forms,how he handles light or the rendering, but lets just focus on the one part of the drawing right now.
By writing up a pattern I can have an easy way to remember this for myself.

Name: Close Up to Three Quarter heads
Description: In a two panel sequence make one head large filling most of the panel. The second make the head three quarter and include others in the composition so that we have a sense of where we are.
Usage: Within conversations when a point needs to be emphasized by a close up. Check a sequence within the 100s drawing to use it at least once to add punch to it.

Next: Using a pattern to edit my work

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The Six Steps to Getting Good at Art

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It’s all just Practice

Life and the Internet had destroyed my focus and ability to concentrate. To improve this. I started meditating.Then I studied some Buddhism. It’s not a very fancy religion. It’s just breath and do your shit. You practice paying attention to your breath so you can pay attention to everything else. It starts just sitting quietly.

Supposedly it can lead to amazingly fancy places if your not careful. It’s just a practice. But I now kinda want my whole life to be like that. Every artist should do good comics, with their own content and style. That’s easier said then done.

In my wandering path, my content and style, drove me out of mainstream comics. I ended up teaching creativity and programming. In teaching I had to learn a new craft.

Good teacher’s deconstruct their topic into parts. They break the topic into learnable chunks. They give the students a target or objective. They provide assignments that hopefully build back up into the full overview. Good teachers create a practice plan for their students.

The challenge for me now is a practice plan for doing comics. A system for learning and developing skills. So this series of posts is putting thirteen years of teaching experience into developing a plan for my own comics. For those who want more info tips and ideas from three books, Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi, The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle have been really helpful in my teaching and thought.

Six Steps to Build a Practice Plan

  1. Analyze the game
  2. Isolate the skill
  3. Name the Skill
  4. Measurable Objective
  5. Make a plan
  6. Assessment

1. Analyzing the Game

There’s a couple of basics to thinking about a subject. First, ask who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Professional sports is amazing human feats right. A group of genetic supermen who do acts no normal man could. Often records of games makes you feel like everything is just life the way it works out by who’s stronger. Good writers, like Bill Simmons, http://grantland.com/features/god-loves-cleveland/ , shows you the game beyond the genetics. He shows you the skills that make the players great.

In looking at art, stare. Define what makes the work exceptional. That is something that you can steal. In looking at others work you lay the foundation to grow.

2. Isolate the Skill

It’s easy to think of visual art as objects, not skills. See, if in describing a work, you can turn the description into an action the artist does. Then how do you too can do the action.

In sports it’s all action, the performance is all there is. Visual art is the result of a performance. There are hard and soft skills. Hard skills are easily measurable. Working for a long period of time is a hard skill. Set a timer for 55 minutes, when it dings, it’s a failure or a success , depending on where you are.

Soft skills are patterns in the work. The relationship between negative and positive space in a composition. If it’s a skill, you can use the same relationships between bottles that Morandi created, to do your work with monsters. It’s seeing these things as skills that can be played with and practiced that can lead to freedom.

Your looking for chunks of skills, that you can turn into games. Things that you can repeat as an exercise to develop a skill.

3. Measurable Objective

How do you know where you are going? Because you set a destination for where you are going.

Set a goal for the skill. A goal like, use negative space to increase focus on a character? How will you know if you succeed?

Don’t work to make your old teacher happy. Don’t work for the audience. just work. That’s how you become yourself.

4. Name it

We all have ghosts in our heads chattering away about what we do. Give them a vocabulary so they can all talk about the same thing. That way maybe all the hungry ghosts can work together and calm down.

5. Make a plan

The basketball coach John Wooden spent an hour and a half planning his practices. The practices were 2 and a half hours long.

Create games that you can try and win. You have a goal to reach. Make them little games you can play in five minutes. Make it fun. Make it short and sweet, so it fits your work. See if you can make a different game from the first one. Play!

6. Assessment

Did you win the game you made? Did you win by one or a hundred? How do you know? What are you trying to create?

Adding ideas doesn’t make it anything other then you.

Can you evaluate what you have done to make it all a success? Can you see the write out the difference between good and bad work? It’s all about waking up and beginning to apply yourself to exactly what you want to do.

Assignments for 1 week

1.
Analyze your day. Pick three hard skills you would like to improve from daily life, things like brushing teeth, yoga, drinking less coffee. Isolate what skill you need to improve. Define your objective. Play the game and track your score. See how many times you win.
If you want to make the game a habit you have to play it thirty times in a row
2.
Pick three artists. Write 300 words about their work each.

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“How to get to Carnegie Hall?”

It may be the oldest artist joke in the book, it’s the answer we all hate, “ practice, practice, practice!”

Visually, the usual trick is to steal another artist’s style, or render more, or draw more photographically. You can even try and draw in the current “house style” whatever your market is. Just doing a lot of work helps, if you try and draw what you see in your head.

sketch_1_14_52

I’ve been drawing a Kirby page, sort of daily for the last two years. My visual vocabulary has changed. Figures now have larger black shapes running across them. I try not to worry about correct form as much as energy. Large figures and closeup have appeared in my work. I have panels occasionally, where I swipe Kirby directly. Rome has become some sort of Kirby mix with traditional drawing in it.

sketch_1_14_51

Yet Kirby’s vocabulary doesn’t work well with Shakespeare. With every day drawing, comes the every day questions of, “why are you doing it this way?” Shakespeare didn’t think in sequence of images, or even make pictures. The whole story was done in speeches. To handle the language I need to add something else to my mix. I’ve been unable to integrate Kirby and doing Shakespeare in a way I am happy with. Studying Jack’s amazing work, hasn’t provided me with a form to deal with Shakespeare’s rhetoric.

et tu

I need to add something else to the mix.

Some peanuts to go with my Whisky

Some of Charles Schultz impeccably timed comic strips to fold into the skillset. But how do I teach myself to add new things into the fold when I don’t know what I’m doing. Study, yes, but there has to be something more.

When teaching student’s you have to break a skillset down into small teachable tasks. Then provide a way for them to practice those tasks to develop actual skills. Eventually you want students to be able to analyze a problem and create a new solution using their skillset. Teaching isn’t just giving students the fundamentals. Bad teachers just provide code to copy, here’s a database , here’s how you fill it in, here’s how you make a menu for a store. Then when the student has to solve another problem their lost.

That is what I have been doing blindly copying Jack. Expecting the daily exercise of lifting weights to provide me a new skill set.

Buddha’s Carnegie Hall

Buddhists talk about meditation as practice. Sit, paying attention to what comes up, is practice for when my printer farts out as the deadline arrives. Then my mind is trained to focus, and not react to momentary events like a broken printer. The printer is just one more event to work with.

But it takes a lot of practice with the breath before I stop throwing printers out the window.

As an old artist working to draw better, I need to develop a set of practices that treat comics as a practice. So I can work on the foul shot, the defense the passing, so when the game happens I can just draw. I need things to breathe and pay attention to in my drawing.

Boom that’s enlightenment.

Build a study practice with Peanuts.

peanuts

Art isn’t a game, it’s just expression of an idea. Except it’s probably more of a game given the renumeration. It’s interesting to read about LeBron James’s return to Cleveland. They picked out how he was not a complete player when he left Cleveland, it wasn’t just the teammates when he left. He focused on parts of the game he wasn’t as good at and slowly added the new skillset to his toolbox.

He had to keep practicing. You hear about sports stars playing their games and so much of it is built on their practice to get good they can respond in the immediate moment.

What’s practice for comics people? We never do anything that is just fooling around with an idea to master the idea as one thing to add. Every story is supposed to be a masterpiece. So what I really need to do is make a practice of practice for myself. Sometimes people look at other work. Sometimes people go to life drawing. Sometimes people talk about ideas that are in the air. So I copied Peanuts by Charles Schulz, because he has mastered dialog and timing.

practice

And I even started doing tiny little practice pages before I thumbnailed out my actual pages to see if I could learn something. But it wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure what I was doing. I need to look closer at what practice is.

That’s the next post.

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