March 20, 2019

SFTBW Alumni Album Covers

Back in 2014 I produced a rock opera reinterpretation of my graphic novel Basewood, called Songs From the Basewood.  My amazingly talented friend Andy Hentz did 99% of the work, including singing the part of the main character, Ben. I co-wrote some of the songs and got to sing the part of the wolf-dragon, which was a ton of fun. For the other three parts, we contacted some of our very talented musician friends who we met in college. My friend Lindsay Sharp sang the parts of Violet and Caren, Ben Montgomery sang the part of Argus and played all of the trumpet parts, and Sudara Williams sang the part of the dog, contributed some beautiful guitar parts and also mixed and mastered the entire album.

Making Songs From the Basewood was one of the most incredible creative experiences of my life, and I'm so proud of what our team created.  Sometimes I feel like I actually like the album more than the book! Anyways, this is all to say that I've stayed in touch with all these incredibly talented musicians and have recently had the opportunity to create some cover art for their recent albums!

Wurlibird Special by Sudara Williams

Sudara performed this entire instrumental album on a Wurlitzer organ and he had a really clear vision of what he wanted for this cover image.  It was just a matter of trying to deliver what he was envisioning in his mind.  A couple of sketches, a few value tweaks and we let this cover take flight!

Free As a Hotel by Ben Montgomery

The story of this album is a long one, so without going into its whole history, I'll just say that I got very slightly involved with it in a motivational capacity in the 11th hour.  I think because of my minuscule role in bringing about its completion, Ben and Sudara (who mixed and mastered the album) asked me to make the cover art. All of the songs were written in Ben's apartment, at his piano, and luckily for me, he lives just down the road here in Santa Fe. I swung by and took some photos and then worked up some sketches to send to Sudara who art directed this piece.

Originally he asked for a "messy" treatment (maybe with charcoal?) and even as the idea developed further, that sort of got stuck it my head.  I took a first crack at the approved sketch using cold press watercolor paper, ink wash and a soft blackwing pencil. 

This image felt too dark for these tunes, so before abandoning it completely, I messed around with the grayscale image in Photoshop, using the "duotone" process, which essentially replaces the white and black ends of a grayscale spectrum with two other colors. It was really fun to experiment with different color combinations. This lightened up the image, but it still didn't feel quite right.  I may come back to this technique again for some future project!

In the end, Sudara asked for a more "Alec" style of rendering, in full color, for the finished piece :)

As you can see, I implemented some of the textured photoshop brushes that I learned how to use on Be Prepared.

Both of these albums are really great, so I hope you'll follow the links above to stream them for free, or consider buying them on the platform of your choice!

March 4, 2019

Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation Logo

This summer I will be teaching the Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation workshop at The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.  The class runs July 8-12 and is open to students 16 years and older.

I recently animated a new logo for the class, which seemed like a simple way to showcase some of the techniques and principles covered in the curriculum.  My hope is that potential students will watch this animated logo and go "That's what I want to be able to do!" and then come study with me in Vermont!  :)

Here is the finished logo, which loops every 24 seconds, and below you can see some steps of my process for putting this together:

The very first step was hand lettering all of the typography:

I then cleaned these up in the computer, and combined them with the CCS logo and the bouncing ball path, which I had on hand from a previous logo design.  I printed this out and then three-hole punched it on the top and bottom edges, to keep all of my animations registered to this design.

I decided to animate each section as its own "scene," starting with the little CCS person walking in and getting bonked on the head by the ball, which turns into the iconic speech balloon shape and makes them spill some ink.  I set up a 16-frame walk cycle that would loop three times to get the character across the screen.  Here's my thumbnail document to figure all of that out:

I animated this all on paper. Last year my old pal Nate Beaty gave me the idea of using stop motion animation software to create quick and easy pencil tests.  I downloaded Stop Motion Studio on my iPad and set it up on a tripod over a pegbar, like this:

I shot a couple of tests, made some corrections and then scanned in all my pencils for the little CCS person.  I then "inked" it in Photoshop, drawing on a wacom tablet, on a new layer directly over the pencils.  This worked well, because it allowed me to easily tweak small things, like the swaying brush end.  Here is an early pass (I later thickened up the ball path outlines):

Next up I did the "Animation" lettering, following the same process.  Here is a pencil test, before I inked it in Photoshop:
The last three "scenes" were all animated directly in the computer.  For the cursive "Introduction to" I simply saved a selection of the text and then filled in a bit more of the selection for each frame.  I decided to animate this on 1s (24 drawings per second) so that it would be really slow and smooth - it's how I write cursive, which takes a lot of concentration for me, and also kind of reflects the idea of an "introduction" to something - slow and steady.  It ended up being 287 frames, or a little under 12 seconds:

For "HAND-DRAWN" I wanted something really messy and organic to help emphasize that it was done by hand.  I followed a similar process of selecting the finished letterforms, and then I just did a series of straight ahead passes, improvising each frame with a series of squiggly lines that build and overlap and eventually fill in.  I wasn't 100% happy with how it turned out -- it would have been fun to also do this on 1s, where each squiggle actually moved along perfectly -- but by the end of 57 frames of this, I didn't have the energy left to take another crack at it!

I went through a lot of different ideas about how to loop the animation back to the beginning, but finally decided on a "circle wipe" using the center dividing line.  I did this all in Photoshop, just using Edit > Free Transform and then putting in a series of degree measurements that added up to 360 (making sure to ease in and out) for rotation.  I then painted white pixels very carefully into the scene while preserving transparency, to reveal or cover up parts of the scene as needed.  If you understand transparency in Photoshop, this will give you an idea of how that worked:

Once I had all these elements prepared as Photoshop documents with one frame on each layer, I brought them into Moho Pro and set everything up as its own individual switch layer. This allowed me to toggle on one layer at a time, which was essential because I was mixing animations that were both on 1s and 2s.  It also made it easy to position everything on the screen and on the timeline, to make sure things began and ended when I wanted them to.  Also with one click I could easily export .mov and .gif files. Here's what that looked like:

Anyway, I was pleased with the end result.  It didn't end up perfect (of course), but it was a lot of fun to put together, and I learned a couple of things along the way.  If this process looks fun to you, consider signing up for my Introduction to Hand-Drawn Animation class at CCS this summer!  It is going to be a ton of fun, and you can see some past student work on the workshop page.

February 13, 2019

Night is Nigh by Galen Longstreth

In my last post I talked about how I first learned to use textured photoshop brushes while coloring Vera Brosgol's Be Prepared.  After finishing that project, I was very excited to try out these new techniques on my next full color project, Night is Nigh, a picture book written by my sister Galen which I illustrated.

The main thing I used the textured brushes for was highlights on various surfaces (for instance the face of the boy holding the flashlight shown below).  To help highlight this technique, I also decided to use the same textured brush to create a rough edge around each illustration in the book:

Since the entire book takes place at night, I also experimented with putting a multiplied layer of blue over the entire image and then using different values in the layer mask to show or hide the blue to varying degrees. Wherever these "lighting" highlights/shadows appeared, I also used the textured brush which gave a nice soft edge to these effects.  Here you can see an illustration next to its layer mask information (on the characters only - backgrounds were on their own layer). The darker the gray, the less blue is applied, the lighter the gray, the more blue is applied: 

One last area of experimentation for me on this book was setting up my print files using a higher resolution Black plate (in this case 600 dpi) with lower resolution Cyan, Magenta and Yellow plates (300 dpi), and then combining them in InDesign.  The final printed book had really nice, crisp lineart!  This was all a good test run for the first Isle of Elsi book which I will be laying out soon.

As you can tell, I learned a lot by coloring this book!  Below are some of my favorite spreads:
You can find ordering information for Night is Nigh on this page, including a link to a free eBook version!  It's a fun bedtime story about camp.

February 6, 2019

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Vera colored the cover, not me!
Amazingly, Walker Bean 2 was not the only graphic novel released in 2018 that I colored. The other was Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol!

Now, I turn down a lot of coloring work. When you color someone's book you spend hundreds of hours looking at every line of their cartooning under a microscope. The only way I can enjoy that process is if the cartoonist in question is a lot better than me, and if it's a story I'm really excited about.

Also digital coloring is work-for-hire (paid once, no royalties on translations/reprints), a type of work I do as little of as I can afford to these days. James Sturm had a great piece of advice for my professional practices students at CCS: "Define 'reward' broadly" which definitely applies to my approach for coloring projects.  I work a day job to provide a consistent income for my family, and also so that I have the freedom to take on freelance projects that I really believe in, instead of doing them just for the money.

When Vera asked me to color her book I leapt at the chance, for three non-monetary reasons:
1) I have long-admired Vera's cartooning, especially her first book Anya's Ghost.  I read her pencil draft of Be Prepared and was floored by the story, the characters and the drawings. I instantly wanted to be a part of the project.
2) The book was going to be colored with just three colors (black, a light green, and a dark green made by mixing the light green and black). I had never used such a limited palette before, and it seemed like an interesting challenge.
3) In the samples Vera sent me she was using textured photoshop brushes to apply the color, which is something I had wanted to experiment with, but had never found an opportunity to do so.

Getting to work with a cartoonist I admire, trying a new style of coloring and learning some new skills all made this a project that I was very excited to take on.  It was a tight deadline - I colored 3-4 pages a day, seven days a week, for a little over three months, but we got it in on time.

It was super fun working with Vera - she comes from a background in the highly-collaborative field of animation, so we often passed the files back and forth to try out different iterations, especially in the beginning when I was trying to lock in the style she was looking for.  Even when I got the final printed book, there were many small tweaks where Vera had put some extra polish on certain panels, which all looked great.

Anyway, below are some of my favorite spreads from this project (note that the files I colored never had any text in them!).  If you haven't already, buy a copy, or request it at your local library! It's such a great book and it was an honor to be involved with its creation!

I'm happy to say that I'm currently signed up to color Vera's next book, Plain Jane, which is going to be in full color!

January 30, 2019

Blog Archive Posts 2013-2018

Three years ago, just before my daughter Suzanne was born, I built a new illustration portfolio website because I wasn't sure when I would have a chance to update things again for a few years.  Initially, I shuttered this illustration blog, because I knew I wouldn't have time to write new posts, but last year I brought it back so that I can talk about projects I have been working on that might not necessarily make it into my portfolio.

I thought an appropriate series of illustrations to kick off this process of looking through old work would be the backlog of blog archive images from my personal website because these also show what has been going on in my life.  I do one of these a year, and it looks like the last one I posted in here was from 2012.  So now let's roll back through the sands of time to see what happened from 2013-2018.

In 2013 my girlfriend Claire was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer.  This was (obviously) a really big deal, so it seemed like the right choice for this image.  The good news is that Claire's treatment went very well, and it gave us an excuse to finally get married!

To pay for Claire's medical bills, I took on my biggest illustration project ever, Middle School: Ultimate Showdown by James Patterson. This meant putting all my personal comics projects on hold, however, including Basewood which I had just finished.  When Claire's treatment was done and all the bills were paid, I finally set up a Kickstarter which helped me self-publish my book. In the small press world, you only have one year while your book is "new" so I spent most of 2014 on the road, exhibiting at 14 comic shows all around the country and abroad, which was exhausting.

I was so burned out by the end of 2014, I decided to take a year off from exhibiting at any comic conventions.  We also found out in 2015 that Claire was pregnant, so it was a year of really buckling down and trying to work ahead on projects. One of my main goals was to build up a buffer of pages for my webcomic Isle of Elsi, which launched at the end of that year.  We also moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, so that is subtly reflected in the stucco walls and tile floors shown here.

My daughter Suzanne was born in January of 2016.  The rest of the year was sort of a blur, so I just drew us on the night we brought her home and everything changed.

I remember having a lot of difficulty coming up with an image for 2017.  Suzanne grew so much that year, it was hard to decide on just one image that communicated that whole experience.  In the end, I decided to build the image around the chickens we got that year (which had been a dream of mine for many years). Suzanne and I spent a lot of time that year sitting on buckets and looking at them and talking about them, so it seemed like a fitting image.

And then in 2018 my second daughter, Wendy, was born.  I decided to draw an image similar to the one from the year Suzanne was born.  Here we are as a whole family -- Suzanne a little wary, and Claire and I both very, very tired -- which is how 2018 felt.

It is worth noting that in the blog archives you can see that I was writing fewer and fewer blog posts as all these big life changes were happening.  These were often drawn on December 30th or 31st, right at the buzzer for each year, when it's possible to look back over everything that happened.  Maybe this year "the moment" will be clearer and I'll get this done before the very end of the year!