So, how is it done? How does one balance the heat of art-making, the heady personality of the artist, the neurosis inherent in the heart of the artist… and yet behave like a cool calm professional?
OK… here’s the rub… I have no fucking idea. I’ve been at this for the majority of my adult life, and I still have no idea how to be the dedicated true believer I am as an artist, and yet how to balance that with being a pro at meetings, coping with senseless intrusions from clients, and then ultimately dealing with disappointment when the final results are damaged by incompetency at the printers, or whoever.
Being an artist can be soul crushing every step of the way, from the struggle to learn and ultimately master your craft, to the uncertainties involved in “making it,” to dealing with the bullshit of having “made it.” Worse yet, however much I have “made it” in the eyes of others… the sad truth is (psst… don’t tell my students) most of us never make it, certainly nearly all of us feel like that whole “I’ve finally made it” stage is still eluding us. Shit happens, your favorite art director gets laid off, entire industries can go under, books and magazines can be cancelled mid-project. It’s a bitch.
No, really, it’s a bitch!
And what is “making it” anyway? I mean, lots of shitty artists make it. It didn’t matter how many BIG companies I worked for, for me “making it” often depended even more on more personal criteria. How in the hell could I ever consider myself as having “made it” with artists like Hal Foster, Jeff Jones and Wally Wood having set the bar so high? There is “making it” in the business and publishing sense, then there’s “making it” in your own eyes, which also includes the whole concept of “making it” in comparison to the Masters. This whole “making it” bit is elusive to say the least.
So, take all that, all that uncertainty, all that self doubt, and add the simple truth that more often than not, the sorts of minds that make art and make good artists also make neurotics. For me, the real catch is that the very forces, emotional and psychological, that pushed me on and kept me striving to greater heights are the very emotions and passions that often seem to undo me as a professional. I could never have learned to draw the way I do if I wasn’t so obsessive, so in need of approbation. I often think I create work to boost my self-esteem, to prove to a world that has bullied me and banged the hell out of my self worth, that I am worthwhile, that I can contribute something, that I am exceptional. Sometimes I think I make work to ease the loneliness, I create work to be loved. Pathetic? Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s all that unusual. Honestly, I think I’m still in the “look what I can do” phase as an artist.
This is all far more complicated by a number of factors, for one, we live in a culture that demands that people who give more, do more, and excel, also learn to smile good naturedly and accept that incompetent boobs and morons will screw up their work at some point, either through heavy handed editing and art directing of incompetent printing. As Jeffrey Catherine Jones once told me, when she and Wrightson and Kaluta and the rest of them got together they would joke that their work always came back from the printer smeared with bananas. If you don’t get that, let me explain… basically artists learn quickly that once our work is out of our hands it goes into the hands of the baboons at the printers. This, group, is why it is so important to leave borders around your work so the artwork (image area) is not manhandled. This is why I get so exasperated when my students draw all the way to the edge of their papers. Here’s what I’m telling you, that art teacher in school you loved so much, you know, the one that told you to draw all the way to the edge of the paper… didn’t know his (or her) ass from a hole in the ground. That border around your work is where the coffee spills, fingerprints and abuse goes.
Let’s just lay out my latest mistake… or perfectly justifiable frustration… depending on whose side your on here. It’s just about April now, and before Christmas I started working on a major project, taking about 80% of the project on myself (regarding the illustration chores only). This project was 4 full pages of comic strips, each one drawn in the style of a classic Master of the form. I had to learn to draw like Bill Watterson in one strip, then Hal Foster in another; Charles Schulz in one strip and Windsor McKay in another. This work was created with dedication, delight, and the utmost precision. When copying the style of a master the difference between success and failure can be measured in millimeters. You know what I’m talking about, we all know when a drawing of Charlie Brown was done by Schulz, and when it was done by a lesser artist. And let me tell you, sometimes the differences are so subtle as to be maddening… millimeters. Bend a shape by a couple millimeters… and suddenly it looks like the same boob who drew those pissing Calvins we all see on the back of Ford and Chevy trucks drew that Charlie Brown as well. Copying the style of a master requires not only an understanding of their style, but undoubtedly years of mastering drawing yourself, years of observation, years of noticing the minutia, years of discerning patterns and proportions that are invisible to the eye of the average viewer, or indeed most artists. What I really was not ready for was realizing that in order to finish this latest project I had to entirely relearn whole languages of line with each artist. The lines that Chester Gould used might look a little like the lines that Walt Kelly used… but they arent’ not at all. In other words, being a good inker isn’t good enough, you have to be a discerning inker that deals with lines that are perfect down to millimeters. I likened it to code breaking. Each artist had a code of line rather than language. This project I have worked on has been a delight, a torture, rewarding, maddening, embarrassing and worthy of great pride. In other words, a world of conflict.
I am a conflicted person, a complicated person, a person with high emotions and higher standards. The problem is, I hold the world to my standards, and while once upon a time we expected people to master things, to reach higher and set higher standards, we now, instead, expect the person with high standards to just relax and let the baboons drag their work down… and we’re supposed to smile about it, too.
So, I did my job, I did all I could and gave all I had… and in the end, what did I get… my work came back with bananas (and I swear I smelled a little fesces) smeared all over it. Someone at the printer decided that the margins were too wide (or something), so naturally, the solution someone at the printer came up with was to set down the banana, stop scratching himself, and stretch my work out to better fill out the page.
Remember what I said about millimeters? Blown, blown to hell. The worst part was having to listen to everyone tell me “it’s alright… no one will notice… it was only stretched a little.”
“Only stretched a little.” There’s no such thing as “only stretched a little,” it’s either stretched or it ain’t. This is one of those black and white right or wrong things. Not only did I have to witness the distortion of my work (to the tune of 34,000 printed copies), but I had to listen to person after person tell me that the work looked fine distorted… in other words, that I was wrong and my emotions invalid. It seems that everyone is an expert, everyone but me knew how my art should look. I, evidently, am the one person who is not qualified to decide whether or not my work looks good stretched and distorted. I guess everyone else knows a lot more about how my work should be presented than I do. In other words, not only did I have to look at my work horribly disfigured, I had to listen to everyone tell me there was nothing wrong with it that way, and that I was just being silly for being upset about it.
Here’s where we really get pushed and pulled. Clients expect us to be passionate and innovative, meticulous and wholly engaged in the work, in other words they expect us to be artists through and through… until we have to sit down in the board room. Admittedly, I challenge this, I go to all my meeting barefoot, and usually in short shorts, not to make a point, but because I am not playing their game. If I had wanted to play their game and wear business casual clothes, I would have played their game. I chose to be an artist because I have no interest in wearing a ladies pants suit. Now, here’s where we really get put to the test, the client will change this, change that, demand perfection, then drop illos, make senseless changes, and be OK with it when the printer fucks it all up. Then, they expect us, the artists, to be OK with that, to be cool, calm and professional. In other words, that passionate engaged and innovative person that drew the work and conceived of the project, the very artist they relied on to be creative and “artistic,” they now expect to behave like a banker. It’s an impossible situation to be in. And why is it that everything has to be “professional” anyway? Why are we so afraid of emotions? Why can’t honesty and emotions play a part in these business transactions? They certainly liked it when honesty and emotions played a part in the art making! We, as artists, are expected to balance ourselves on a scale that is impossibly tipped out of our favor.
So here’s where it all comes together, remember what I said about artits being passionate, neurotic, emotional, obsessive… well, when I knew my work had come back from the printers stretched, that didn’t sit well with me. When I heard about it I began to vibrate, to fucking vibrate with emotion. It was uncontrollable. Imagine shaking a bottle of Pepsi (or Coke… I don’t care which you prefer, but no Shasta), then expecting that emotional soda wouldn’t blow out and spray everywhere. The point is, I’m full of fizziness, that’s what makes me go… that’s what makes me so much fun to drink… but shake me up and what do you think is going to happen? All that fizziness and emotion we all admire and enjoy is suddenly spraying out all over someone’s face.
Unfortunately, sometimes it sprays all over the client’s face.
That’s the unprofessional part, so I’m told. Personally, I think it’s unprofessional that clients don’t treat artists like artists and don’t let artist be artists.
If I’ve learned anything from my life as an illustrator, right up to this particular project, the take home lesson would be: expect more from yourself and less from the culture. In other words, an artist needs to strive to master the difficult stuff, they need to do their homework even though the culture doesn’t know the difference between Hal Foster and Lynda Barry. And even if you can draw like Foster (and no one does), the printers and publishers will screw it up anyway. No, there isn’t much reward for expecting more from yourself… but you should do it anyway, at least that’s what I tell my students.
Sometimes I hope most of my students ignore me, it will certainly make their lives a lot easier, ’cause no one out there can see the difference. After all, everything’s beautiful no matter how half-assed or poorly conceived or poorly printed it is… right?