Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Failed Tales of Romance: Step-By-Step

A little less than a year ago, I did a "Step-By-Step" entry here, where I walked you all through my process as I created a vector illustration of a dancing woman (read it here). Because I thought that was an interesting exercise, and because I recently did an illustration for a Bureau of Drawers' Valentine's show that had a little less-than-conventional creation process, I thought I'd do another post here today. While my first Step-By-Step was more technical in nature. This one ended up being more of a conceptual exercise. If nothing else, it will help show how each drawing is different, and how drastically process can change from illustration to illustration.

For the the Bureau's "Lovesick" show, which will be showing at Fantagraphics Books through early March, each artist was challenged to create a piece that dealt loosely with the idea of unrequited love. So, with that in mind, I set to work...

Idea #1: St. Valentine
Right out of the chute, I became fixated on the idea of doing some sort of religious icon, that reinterpreted St. Valentine. So, looking at Wikipedia's entry on the saint, I noticed this list of his "attributes":

birds; roses; bishop with a crippled or a child with epilepsy at his feet; bishop with a rooster nearby; bishop refusing to adore an idol; bishop being beheaded; priest bearing a sword; priest holding a sun; priest giving sight to a blind girl[1]

Seeing that, my idea was to create an illustration that incorporated as many of those concepts as I could easily include, but which otherwise ignored a lot of the traditional trappings of Catholic images. Sort of a alternate universe take on St. Valentine. This was the sketch that came out of it:

Now, technically, there was a lot that I liked about this image, but -in a moment of clarity- I realized that A) it was getting too esoteric and B) it really didn't have anything to do with unrequited love. So, back to the drawing board...

Idea #2: I Heart... Ew.
While inking the illustration above, I began to realize that it wasn't working, so in the back of my mind another concept started to roll around. I became more and more obsessed with the idea of taking a traditional Valentine's phrase, and -at the risk of falling into a black hole of puns- give it a twist.

First, I considered the idea "Bee Mind" and was going to draw a picture of a lobotomized bee. But, again, probably too esoteric. Then I started to consider a play on the old "I Heart You." Ewe? Maybe I could do sheep? Or, maybe, ew.

This led to this picture of a little girl (based roughly on my daughter) being grossed out by a floating eye and heart.

Again, there were things I liked about it. But, at the end of the day, while I did like the opportunity to figure out how to draw realistic hearts, I felt like the overall layout wasn't quite working and the idea wasn't quite coming together. Plus, again, not really dealing with unrequited love.

Idea #3: Modern Love
So, this was the next thought process I went through:

Why is love so often unrequited these days? Is it because people are hardened to each other? Is it because today's dating scene is considered so difficult to navigate without being trampled on emotionally? If so, would a traditional cupid have any sort of chance? Or, would cupid need an upgrade? What would a modern day cupid look like?

Perhaps that sounds a little too much like a Sex in the City voice-over, but still thus was born this picture:

Gone is the nearly naked baby, now suited up in military camouflage, a utility vest and foam-dome hat. His dainty bow replaced by a state-of-the-art compound bow. If love is a battlefield, at least he's now equipped for it.

OK, this idea I felt had some wings (sic). But, after thinking about it some more, and a little side-long advice from a fellow Bureaucrat, I began to feel it was to... to... well, obvious. I wanted my piece to be something I felt no one else could create, and there was something a little too close to Hallmark card material for me here.

Idea #4: A Robot Raised My Baby
My next idea was to take the idea of unrequited love, and sort of try to turn it and look at it in a different direction.

What is one of the most pure forms of love? Well, arguably, its the love felt between a parent and newborn child. I suppose one could argue that newborns don't truly know how to love since they are still developing, but anyone who's been a new parent and held their new child knows what I'm talking about. (OK, just work with me here, I'm a father of a 2-year-old with a new baby on the way... so this is just the universe my mind lives in these days. Allow me that conceit.)

If that is the symbol for pure low, what symbolizes the inability to love? Well, if you turn to science fiction, you find an easy answer: Robots. How many science fiction fables hing on robots inability to feel emotions? Lots.

So, if babies represent pure, unconditional love and robots represent the inability to love, then it stood to reason that pairing the two was a good representation of unrequited love. The baby folded into the robot, obviously in love with its robot parent. The robot, meanwhile, is ably nurturing the baby, but -in the end- cannot love it. Which resulted in this drawing:

Again, I liked this drawing and idea. But, I was concerned that it would seem to sentimental. Or, without me there to defend it, would a lot of my thoughts not really be readily apparent or just seem flimsy? Again, it just didn't seem to hold up on its own.

So, with four failed concepts, and only a couple days left to the show, what should I do? Well, in the end, I decided to follow a potentially disastrous plan and...

Idea #5: Combine Them!
What I had in my hands were four flawed concepts for illustrations about love. For failed tales I'd attempted to tell. But, maybe, together they began to tell a bigger and more complete story. Maybe, like an anthology, when put together the sum becomes greater than its parts. The tales cover for each others weaknesses and allow the strengths to shine. That was my concept at least. I'll leave it to you to be the judge because...

I had a cover to draw!

Taking the idea of old school anthology comics, like the ones below, I decided to create a "vintage" comic cover in which each of these four stories would get a small place to live.

Using covers like these as my inspiration. I scanned my four original illustrations, brought them into Illustrator, and assembled them all into one rough piece along with some basic comic cover elements (like the Comic Code stamp) and title text. I deliberately kept this rough, because I knew I'd want to heavily redraw it, but at the same time, wanted a loose guideline to follow. Here's what it looked like up to that point:

Printing this out, I fired up my light table, and began to redraw it. Some portions remained pretty true to the original version (like the robot, baby and St. Valentines), but others changed fairly significantly. The "Ew" got dropped, and the little girl got aged a bit to avoid too many babies on the cover. Meanwhile, cupid got stuck into the middle of an aerial battle scene, poor kid. I also added some background elements, redrew some of the type in more stylized letters (like the inexplicable, yet oddly appropriate "Chinese restaurant"-style type for St. Valentines title).

With it redrawn and inked, I then set out coloring it. Early on, I'd decided that I wanted to use a limited color pallet. Though old comics were my stylistic starting point here, I wanted this to also be its own thing, and not just a homage. So, limiting myself to black, gray, pink and red ink, I eventually ended up here:

And that, framed, is what is now hanging on the wall at Fantagraphics. If you enjoyed reading this, I recommend you stop by there and check it out in person. I generally try to not make excuses for my art, but I do want to qualify the above image by saying that my scanner is dying a long slow death, and I don't think the above scan really does it justice. So, see it in person, if you can. Plus, there's a lot of other great art up by my fellow Bureaucrats.

Anyhow, I hope you did enjoy reading this. I'm not saying this is my most favorite drawing ever, but I do think it will always hold a special place in my heart, since I spent so much time living with it and working through it.

Happy Belated Valentine's Day.

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