A Breath of Fresh Colbert

Posted by Mark in Mark's Sketchbook

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in extremely weird times. There have always been people who take pride in stubborn ignorance, emit lies and spurious arguments to justify bigotry, and are fundamentally disposed toward seeing the world in terms of “us vs. them.” But, for the first time, we’re seeing these qualities in the supposed leader of our country.

As a person who’s rational yet anxiety-prone, it’s meant a year of lost sleep and gnashing teeth. So it’s hard to overstate the value of a late-night host who can make me unhinge my jaw laughing, while reminding me that there are plenty of people out there who are seeing clear through the BS and are not afraid to call it out.

School’s Out

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Last week I had the opportunity to spend three days in a caricature drawing class led by Mad Magazine artist Tom Richmond. Basically everything that’s covered in the course can be found in the book that I bought way back in 2011, so if you’re a self-starter, that may be all you need to step up your game. As for me, I tend to require someone standing over me and telling me what the heck I’m doing wrong, which is almost always obvious in retrospect. Actually, I don’t think I drew anything during the class that would qualify as a successful caricature, but after the concepts marinated in my brain for a few days I was able to crank out a few I was reasonably happy with.

The first two are courtesy “Reddit Gets Drawn,” and the last one, of course, is my Tata.

I’ll keep practicing! Nothing about this class made me want to become a guy who draws 5-minute caricatures for ungrateful tourists, but it made me realize that regular practice will help me improve my goofy cartoon faces the way figure drawing has improved my goofy cartoon bodies.

Speaking of which, last Saturday also marked the end of an era at the National Academy, where for the last 6 years I periodically took weekly figure drawing classes with Lisa Dinhofer. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 25-plus years she spent teaching the course, or the 192 years the Academy managed to stay afloat before being run aground by new management. Jerks.

Opportunities for figure drawing abound in New York, but it’s rare to find a small, relaxed class with a teacher who is always 100% right about what you’re doing wrong. Over the years my observational skills have slowly but surely improved, and I couldn’t have done it without Lisa. If I put my mind to it, I can probably summon her critical voice while drawing from life on my own. But it’ll take decades more practice before I’m able to see past my blind spots the way she does.

I’m surprised I didn’t post this cartoon I drew for class a few months ago:

I should point out that these characters are merely based on Lisa and I. And I’m not just saying that because she was slightly offended by my portrayal!

Somehow the stars aligned, and there was yet a third class that ended this past week; my SVA course with illustrator Steve Brodner. This class was unique for me in that, instead of teaching the mechanics of drawing, it was all about what it takes to become an illustrator. Steve’s philosophy is that all good illustration tells a story, and that the point of your illustration should be crystal clear to any stranger flipping through a magazine and seeing it for the first time. Often times, us amateur artists have a tendency to rush to creating finished art, but that doesn’t give us the opportunity to come up with a really strong composition, which can be done much more effectively at the scribbly thumbnail stage. If you solve all your storytelling problems beforehand, creating the finished piece is much more straightforward and enjoyable.

Many of my regular readers (i.e. friends and family), though they tend to be overly positive about my work in general, have noticed that I seem to have upped my game in the last few posts. That’s not because I improved my drawing skills, but because I spent days and sometimes weeks, with the help of Steve and the rest of the class, refining the ideas and making sure I didn’t cut any corners.

The class in Steve’s studio; that’s him bottom right.

So, back to the self-starter thing. Steve’s class has taught me some good habits, in theory, but in order to really ingrain them I know I’ll need a re-up of the assignments and accountability that a structured class can provide. So for that reason—and also because it feels weird not to be enrolled in a class of some sort—I’ll be back with Steve in the fall, chipping away at a portfolio and summoning the chutzpah to actually sell myself as an illustrator at the tender age of 40!

One Wong Makes a Kite

Posted by Mark in Mark's Sketchbook

Like me, Tyrus Wong grew up in Sacramento, scribbling drawings on recycled paper.

Okay, that sort of diminishes everything he went through. An illegal (trigger warning, Republicans!) immigrant to post-earthquake San Francisco, he powered through discrimination and prejudice to quickly rise through the ranks at Disney, almost single-handedly defining the look of 1942’s Bambi.

A Disney strike and World War II killed the momentum of the Asian-American artists group he helped to found. In spite of that, he earned U.S. citizenship, continued to contribute to animation and fine arts, and spent his later years designing and flying beautiful kites in the sunny skies near his California home.

His New York Times obituary from 2016, when he died at 106, tells it better. Having a soft spot for joyful centenarians, I decided to portray him in his later years, bringing an ephemeral splash of color to the skies over San Francisco Bay, glass half-full, all smiles, satisfied with his contribution to the world. Few of us will have such hard-earned luck, but Tyrus’ smile gives us something to aim for.

Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind That Selfie

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Another class assignment! Here’s an illustration inspired by a New York Times essay by a woman whose online persona became a real-life façade.

If you spend eight years building a house (no matter how uncomfortable or ugly it may be, no matter how impractical or poorly lit), it becomes nearly impossible to knock it down. That is about how long I put into building my social media presence, into becoming the cool girl I showcase on Instagram and Facebook.

This was a lot of fun, because it was another chance to put planning and problem-solving into action. I had something a little surreal in my head, but no idea how the heck to draw it. I probably did 20 or so little thumbnail sketches trying to figure out angles and shapes that might work. Deciding on colors, which I find harder than drawing, took way more time than I’d like to admit. And, after some feedback in class tonight, I added a few more visual cues to hopefully make anyone familiar with Instagram know that we’re seeing the behind-the-scene angst of a larger-than-life online personality.

Whatever Gets You Through the Day

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This week’s assignment: read this New York Times article from 1987 and come up with an illustration. It starts with jotting down your own short summary to wrap your mind around what the article is fundamentally about. My take on this article:

Walter Mitty is real–a small but significant portion of the population are happily spending more than half their lives in a fantasy world.

The next step is to fill a page or three with quick idea sketches. The idea is not to create a great drawing, but to come up with a concept or composition that tells a story.

After deciding on this one, I did another series of small sketches to come up with a composition I liked. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, solving problems at the thumbnail stage saves a lot of frustration in the drawing stage. I think I still have a lot to learn about color and contrast, but this approach has really taken most of the pain out of the drawing process.

By the way, I have no idea why my first two illustrations for this class involved the subway. It wasn’t intentional–I’d rather walk any day of the week!

If You See Something, Draw Something

Posted by Mark in Mark's Sketchbook

I’m really enjoying the illustration class that I signed up for on a whim. The instructor is Steve Brodner, a very accomplished illustrator and caricaturist.

That first assignment morphed into a few more pages of thumbnail-sized doodles. Brodner really emphasizes the importance of figuring out all the potential problems of your drawing BEFORE you start working full-size, or with any sort of detail. Figure out which character is most important, and either through size, or contrast, or both, ensure that the viewer’s eye is drawn toward them. And most importantly, ensure that your drawing tells a story. The job of an illustrator is often to literally sum up a magazine or newspaper article in some way.

So my story here is, if you’re someone who likes to draw people, it’s hard to beat the tableau provided by the NYC subway.

Of course, unlike my acrobatic alter ego here, I’m often too self-concious to start sketching people in public. One interesting thing not depicted here is that, as much as people in NY exist in their own bubbles, there’s always that guy that will cross over into yours and ask you a million questions about drawing. I guess that’s another story for another illustration.

Home Sweet Homework

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This may look like a rough comic strip, but it’s actually the first homework for my latest “continuing education” (i.e. old person) class at the School of Visual arts, which starts tomorrow. Here’s the prompt:

  • Think about the moment something you saw, heard, experienced in some way changed your life. Write a paragraph telling that story. How you were before, how you were afterward, the moment of inflection.
  • Fold a page into 1/8s.
  • Fill all 8 compartments with sketches that express what is important about that story.

Here’s my paragraph, with a disclaimer:

Cheating a bit. My first thought was the first time I visited NYC, flying in from L.A. in 1999. Even though it would take another seven years, I knew I would move here. I went back and looked at a journal entry from the time, and found a paragraph that sums it up perfectly.

I felt a strange sensation as we pulled into Grand Central Station. It persisted as we walked up to the exit on 42nd Street. And suddenly I was outside. I looked around. It was as if I had gone through the looking glass. I had seen New York countless times before, but never in three dimensions. Sure, Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign, but you can’t reach out and touch it. New York has New York—no matter what street I ended up on, I was surrounded by icons of American culture: cabs, subway stations, hot dog and peanut vendors. Starting with Sesame Street, I was brought up accustomed to these things, even though I never actually saw them in real life. In a sense, I was instantly comfortable.

(Oh, and to explain one of the panels: There’s a New York diner mainstay called an “egg cream,” which is just chocolate syrup, soda, and milk. No eggs, no cream.)

Pollen Hate

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Did Spring come late, or does it just take a while for my histamines to catch up? At any rate, g’bless me.

As is usually the case when I draw my stupid mug, this rare non-digital watercolor was homework for my never-ending Saturday art class. Oh wait, did I say never-ending? Apparently the school is closing in the Fall after a mere 192 years! Word on the street is that funds were colossally mismanaged by new management.

What is it with 2017 and amateurs running great institutions into the ground?

 

Better Call Ripley

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These three kids are the best of friends, but one of them was born 104 years, 10 months, and 11 days before the other two. Believe it or not!

Giving Thanks

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It’s hard for me to think of my Uncle Mike without picturing a pool cue in his hand. Sure, he had a lot more going on, but rarely did I see him light up as when he would explain to his nieces and nephews the physics behind his favorite trick shots. He was a billiards nerd the way I’m a…nerd, except for him it was actually lucrative, keeping his young kids fed and in diapers when money was tight.

Everyone gets older, people pass on, and yearly traditions once taken for granted run their natural course. In my mind, Thanksgiving at Uncle Mike and Aunt Anita’s, in the hills above Napa Valley, has coalesced into a single, timeless memory, like a movie I’ve watched again and again.

The sound of gravel being kicked up as we pull into the long driveway. The boisterous hellos and the giddy anticipation as we hover around the busy kitchen. Plates piled high, the popping of corks, and unrestrained laughter. The beckoning dessert table, and the strategies concocted for trying every type of pie without literally exploding.

And then, finally, people falling into their post-feast rhythm. On the main floor, the true adults settle in for stimulating conversation, while those of us craving more of a show head downstairs to watch Uncle Raymond razz Uncle Mike, as Uncle Mike effortlessly runs the table and looks for his next victim.

No takers? Then it’s time to learn from the master, as he shows us how to win money placing pool hall bets using a knowledge of angles and english, and clever uses of spit.

We try to take it all in. For a moment, becoming a pool shark seems like a real possibility, and we try to think of ways to fit it into our schedule.

And then we snap back to reality, realizing that it’s easier just to live vicariously through the tall, lanky, seemingly unflappable hustler turned entrepreneur turned cool friendly uncle.

And finally, the long goodbyes, the yawns, the hugs among a soundtrack of crickets under a starry country sky, and the sound of gravel under rubber once again. We look back and wave, never thinking it’ll be the last time.

Inevitably, one time, it is. But that’s okay–I know it all by heart.