Thursday, March 31, 2011

Resentment, Shame, and the Sleeping Bear

Confession time.

There are moments when I'm really consumed by what I'm doing.  I'm painting along in my own little world, closing in on a breakthrough or about to finish some crucial part of a piece, and then it happens: I get called away.  I have to go somewhere, or do something.  I have to stop for dinner or spend time with Amy.  In that moment, when I am torn from my focus and prodded like some sleeping bear, two feelings strike almost simultaneously.

The first feeling is sheer resentment.  I resent the real world, the other obligations, the trash that I need to take out, the snow that needs shoveling, the food that needs eating and the family and friends who want to take an ounce of my time.  How dare they!  There's genius at work here.  So help me, when I become high and mighty I will smite them.  Smite them all, I say!  Then I will be left alone to do as I please and they will rue ever trying to take me away from my precious painting!

Even stopping to take care of the mechanics of nature cause me more than a little irritation.  When I make it big, I'll hire someone to pee for me!


I wouldn't admit to it if it didn't happen, and it's certainly not something I'm proud of.  In fact, that is where the second feeling comes in.  The resentment and irritation are quickly followed by the sheer horror and shame that any of those thoughts or feelings passed through my head to begin with.  What a jerk!  How can you think these things?  There's a lot more to life than your silly painting full of goblins and fairy dust. You are, without a doubt a horrible person and if there wasn't snow to shovel right now, it'd probably be best if you just walked into the woods and disappeared for a while.  That'd do the world some good!  You don't belong among the regular humans.

'Course this doesn't happen every time — just when I've gotten so deep into a piece that tunnel vision has started to occur.  When pretty much everything but me and the piece I'm working on falls away into a haze of nothingness, the hours ticking away like minutes with each minute lasting hours.  I lose reality in those moments.  I become singularly obsessed with completing some aspect of the piece I'm working on using a timeline that only I know about and wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to anyone else anyway.

It's horrible to feel resentment towards things that are important to you, even if the feeling is a quick flash.  In reality, I don't actually resent any of my other obligations or loved ones.  Then why do those feelings pop up in the first place?  Again, I liken it to waking a sleeping bear.  Allow me to explain what I mean in another flashback.

I've mentioned before that my father was a hard worker.  He was an equally hard sleeper.  I remember after a long week of toiling at the steel mill, he'd often be napping come dinner time on the weekend.  When dinner was ready, my mother would task either my sisters or myself to wake Pop up.  Once, when I was very young, while attempting to do this I prodded the old man trying to bring him around.  I must have startled him in the middle of a dream because his response to my prod was a blind flailing swing that I barely dodged.  Pop wasn't swinging because he was angry at me for waking him or anything.  He took a swing because there was a lot more going on than just a man sleeping peacefully on the living room floor.  Just as he had toiled all week, his unconscious mind was toiling away as he slept.

And so it is with me.  Often the waking part of my brain shuts itself off as I work.  Things that human beings usually do or care about fall by the wayside.  I become something less than human.  There is no Dana, only Zuul.  The resentment is a fire sparked by the friction from the tectonic plates of the waking and sleeping minds snapping into realignment.  It is a blind swing attempting to hit reality in the face before it can hit me.  Reality always wins.

That my work is done primarily in the absence of others is probably for the best.  I can go to town on a piece, lose myself, then pick up the pieces and reassemble them before anyone's the wiser.  It is one of the reasons I've never really been attracted to a shared studio environment.  I'd likely only shut everyone else out, anyway, and there'd be too many witnesses to the crazy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Badass Book Signing

Last night I had the pleasure of joining Ben Thompson, the author of the Badass books that I contributed work to, at his book signing in Boston.  It was the first time in my adult life that I'd ever gotten to do any kind of official book signing (having done so once in my adolescence for a project that I will eventually admit to at some point on this blog when things get slow).  It's also likely to be quite a while before the opportunity should present itself again.

©Amy Belledin

Fact is, by most rights I shouldn't have even been there in any capacity beyond spectator.  Even artists more famous than myself who've worked on books or their covers are rarely seen signing next to the books' authors at events such as this — unless, of course, the book in question happens to be a comic book.  So I consider it a real honor that the offer was made, and I didn't hesitate to say yes.

©Amy Belledin

I'd met Ben for the first time in person last year while I was spending some quality time in Seattle.  He and his wife, Andrea, were nice enough to take me out to dinner and I took the opportunity to show him the cover of his most recent book in progress.  I'd had lots of contact with him through email and such to that point, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to get to know him on some level.  He could not be a nicer, more affable, more humble human being — the kind of person that you want to see gain some measure of success (no matter how great or small).

Ben is one of those rare folks who stumbled into the success he's had and has been gracious enough to use that success to toss work to the likes of me and the other artists who have contributed to his books.  That's a rare thing, indeed, and despite his insistence that he owes me, I feel that the situation is quite the opposite.

©Amy Belledin

And so, at 7:00 pm last night, at the University of Boston Barnes and Noble, Ben gave a quick presentation to the score or so fans in the room.  This was followed by a Q&A that was more open and forthright than one typically hears, after which Ben and I sat and signed for a while.  Once every question was answered and every copy signed, we all (fans included), went out for a beer.  It is my belief that more book readings should end this way.

©Amy Belledin

Once again, I'd like to thank Ben for everything.  I wish him all the best, both in general and in his travels, and I raise a glass to the next book.

If you'd like to find out if he's coming to your area and when, you can find that information here.  If you'd like to know more about the art I contributed, everything I've written about it can be found here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cheese Platter 4

•If there's a profession out there that could really benefit from being exposed to more art, it's plastic surgery.  And I'm talking about everyone from the surgeons themselves, to the designers of the various implants used.  I question, quite frankly, whether or not some of these folks really know what a human being is supposed to actually look like.  After all, their patients often end up looking like hand puppets made from fat trimmings stuffed into a nylon stocking with lipstick smeared where the mouth is supposed to be.  I've seen potatoes that didn't tread so deeply into the uncanny valley.  Perhaps all involved should be forced to prove that they are able to successfully sculpt a face before altering a real one.

•Why can't we have one universal cord that plugs into everything instead of a specific one for each and every electronic device?  For a world that's increasingly cordless, I feel like I've got more cords than ever.  Here's an idea, stop making new cords, throw some money and bodies at the problem.  Preferably bodies with intelligent heads attached to them.  Then come back to me when you've come up with the perfect cord.  At least if you go that route, I'm covered with the cords I've already got until that perfect cord finally comes along to replace them.

•I remember mail often being the highlight of my day in college.  This was before email was so common, mind you.  It was really nice to receive a letter or postcard every now and again.  Every once in a while, there would be something unexpected waiting for me.  More often than not, however, I found my mailbox empty.  Or containing only a bill or two.  As the years have gone by, a disproportionate amount of the mail has become bills.  Gone are the days of letter and postcard writing, and many of those I used to keep in touch with in this way have passed.  Still, at least there are those wonderful days when I receive Netflix in the mail, and no bills.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Encounter With the Headmaster

And so I found myself in the headmaster's office.  Gesturing to a chair opposite his desk, he stared at me silently for several minutes.  My mind raced as I recounted the sequence of events that lead me there.  Never could I have imagined that trying to donate a painting to my high school would have resulted in enough controversy to land me here.

The piece in question was not one painting but three.  A triptych inspired by one of my favorite books, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness — a book about the European colonization of Africa and the terror and cruelty inherent in man and nature alike.  Dark themes to be sure, but I was proud of the work and it had earned prizes and accolades.  The piece depicted Marlow (the book's protagonist) coming upon Kurtz (the book's antagonist) who has collapsed in the forest along the Congo.  It's a night scene lit largely by the moon and fire light, and is among the more painterly things I've ever done (though mostly due to my inability to do much else as I was a mere 17 years old at the time).  Admittedly the work is not among the most uplifting paintings you will ever see, but it's not violent or sexually explicit in any way.  It's a piece about two men, one of whom has given up.

I could see in my headmaster's expression a certain level of detachment as he tried to find an entry way into the conversation.  His pale blue eyes scanning the air for some unseen thread that might be lazily wafting before him.  As I waited for him to speak, I looked about the largely unadorned office with it's white walls and low pile gray carpet.  I looked at his standard, nondescript desk and the photos of people that I would never meet that sat neatly upon it. After running out of things to look at, my eyes eventually fell upon the man himself, dressed in a crisp white shirt, black tie, and neatly creased gray slacks, black socks and brightly shined black shoes upon his feet.  A gray suit coat hung casually over the back of his cordovan leather chair.  His tightly kempt beard had mostly turned to gray, as well, and it puckered as he bit his lower lip seemingly having found the in he was searching for.  I snapped to attention as he began to speak.

"If I could describe mt time in Vietnam," he began, "I would say that ninety percent of my days there were spent in pure boredom, while ten percent were spent in sheer terror.  And I was lucky, because for many it was ninety percent terror.  Even now, it is a subject that is raw for many people and I'm curious to know what you feel about this piece is appropriate for a school?"

For those of you don't know, Conrad's book was adapted to film by John Milius for Francis Ford Coppola in 1979 where Congo was substituted for Vietnam and was retitled, Apocalypse Now.

It took my mind a minute to catch up.  Wait.  What?  "Are you referring to Apocalypse Now?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"You know that that was an adaptation, right?" I asked.


I was perplexed.  "With all due respect, I fail to see what that has to do with the painting.  You're imposing your own prejudices on a piece that is about a completely different subject.  This is not a piece about the Vietnam War.  Have you ever read the book?"

"Yes, I have," he replied simply.

"Then you know it's about the European Colonization of Africa, the ivory trade, the mistreatment of the African peoples, etc., right?"


"Good, then I think we can agree that the piece should be dealt with on the basis that it is a depiction from that story, not a movie made 75 years after the fact."

Pause.  He seemed to ponder this a while, rolling the idea around like a mouthful of wine.  "I guess we can agree on that, yes.  I still wonder whether it's an appropriate piece for a high school."

At the time there was very little art in the halls of my high school.  There were a few paintings scattered about the campus' buildings of former headmasters, founders, the like.  I remember there being some random posters, one of John Singer Sargent's "Madam X," if I recall.  Nothing done by students or former students, at least nothing that was on display on any kind of permanent basis.  Little that wasn't stodgy or uninspiring (save "Madam X," of course).  I pointed this fact out to him.  I pointed out that while not uplifting, it was hardly an offensive piece.  No blood or gore.  No nudity.  I pointed out, too, that the piece had gained the school some notoriety, as well.  Finally, I pointed out that the book that inspired it is widely considered an important work of fiction.  "We have books for the sake of books, but what," I said, "about art for the sake of art?  Why do we need a reason?  Sure, the subject matter is depressing, but so too, are the books we're reading in class.  Plus, it's not like I'm asking for a check.  I want to donate the piece to the school so that others may be inspired after I've gone off to college."

He considered these things for a few moments.  The air buzzing with the sound of the fluorescent lights in the dropped ceiling above as I began to plan my next series of arguments.  After a long pause, there was a slow and subtle nod.  "Where would you suggest we hang the paintings?"

It took another second for me to realize that the man needed no further convincing.  I stumbled a bit and said finally, "In the hallway by the English classrooms, I guess."

"Very good."  He looked at the clock, realizing there was still time on his schedule.  Rather than dismiss me, he looked at me and asked, "have you seen Apocalypse Now?"  I nodded.  "Did you know that there was an alternate ending?"

Our conversation turned to the film, then films in general.  What controversy there was, seemed to have been minor and was now settled.  And the paintings were hung in the English hall as I'd suggested. Years later they would be moved to the library building.  Then, once construction was complete, they found their way into the new arts building, where I believe they remain to this day.

Whether or not the work inspired I cannot say.  Likely subsequent students found it unnerving if they even noticed it at all (though given that altogether it was six feet across, I cannot see how).  The biggest victory is that it is no longer the only piece of student artwork hanging outside of the usual display cases typical of schools.  Other work has joined it.  In fact, there is even a gallery there now.  Art for the sake of art.  And that is at least something.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

That First Step

I want to take a moment and go back to Christopher Burdett's questionnaire that I talked about and linked to on Monday.   I want to point out one person's answers to the questions in particular.  Brom's answers.

In response to question number 2 (What do you like LEAST about being an artist?), Brom replied, "Having to get up and paint."

In response to question number 3 (What do you like MOST about being an artist?), Brom replied, "Getting to get up and paint."

These answers are something I think a lot of illustrators completely understand.  After all, on some level, painting is work.  And work is hard.  For many of us, I suspect, it is getting started that is most difficult.  At least it is for me.

A car requires more horsepower to accelerate to speed than it requires to stay at speed.  So, too, does it take more motivation for me to get started on a day of painting.  Once painting, I'm pretty much good to go, lest someone should come along and distract me with a particularly elaborate shiny object — which, thankfully, doesn't happen very often.  But actually gathering up the will to sit down in my chair and begin painting in the first place...well, that's a completely different story.  More motivation is needed, and there is a fair bit of resistance to overcome.

I still have performance anxiety when it comes to painting.  Sure, I've been painting since I was in the fourth grade, and I have many hundreds of paintings under my belt (some more successful than others).  While the most successful pieces I've ever painted are certainly great inspiration, the copious numbers of lesser pieces keep a constant fear lurking in the back of my head. 

What if I just screw everything up today?  What if I end up creating even more work for myself later on?  What if I end up effectively getting nothing done at all?

Yes, these nagging doubts and many more like them flit through the static background of my head every time I begin to think about sitting down and beginning a day of painting.  Don't get me wrong, they're not crippling, by any means.  I finish my work and turn it in on time for the most part.  I make a living doing this, after all.  I'm not sure if the doubts are leftovers from childhood or adolescence, nor am I sure of how healthy their presence really is.  Nevertheless, there they are, hanging out like so many greaser hoodlums from some bad `50s biker movie.

At best, these ne'er-do-wells can only manage to delay the beginning of my day.  In fact, they are merely postponing the inevitable — and even then only slightly.  The thing that gets me to finally saddle up and take on a day or painting is something that I suspect is somewhat akin to drug addiction.  I am, in a sense, chasing the dragon.

At worst, painting can be a drudgery.  Like all work, it can be a loathsome task, indeed.  More often than not, however, it's more akin to running errands to me.  There's a checklist of things that need doing, and I slowly cross out each item over the course of the day, eventually finishing the list with some sense of satisfaction.  Sometimes this is a grind, other times less so.  At the very least, it is always interesting.

But, on the best days painting is so much more.  It is not a task.  It is not a means to an end.  It is something more closely related to play.  It is action and reaction.  It is give and take.  It is push and pull.  It is pure joy.

I have a difficult time getting into such a state.  I have a difficult time remembering the sequence of events that lead me there and the dance of the brush that took place while in the state itself.  I walk away each time simply knowing that it was wonderful and fascinating, and somewhat frustrated in knowing how unlikely it will be that I will find that place again tomorrow.

Yesterday, I found myself in that zone.  The first time in a long while.  And, for the first time, I recognized it as it happened.  I took note of how my demeanor changed.  I watched the brush move effortlessly across the surface.  I saw myself having fun.  I cannot say that it necessarily made for better quality work, but I can say that it made for an awesome day. 

That feeling.  That state.  That is the dragon I chase.

And so today, I will try and recreate the circumstances that led me down that path yesterday.  I will pursue that feeling.  I will attempt, like I do every day, to have fun while painting.  That is where the motivation comes from.  That is what gets me to take the first step each day.  I am searching, ever searching, for the fun that hides amidst the work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions 8

Do you hand in one sketch or multiple sketches?

The simple answer is that it depends.  Sometimes I hand in one, sometimes more than one.  "What does it depend on?" you ask.

"Why is there always a follow-up question?" I ask, in turn.

Concerned stare as I talk to myself... Fine.  I'll elaborate.

First off, it depends on the actual art order itself.  As I've mentioned before, sometimes art orders are extremely specific.  When this is the case, for me the specificity of the description tends to suggest a single image.  I draw that image on a piece of paper, scan it, and turn it in.  Sometimes things aren't quite that simple, though.  As an art description becomes more vague, there may be several options that come to mind.  In cases such as this, I draw several images, scan them, and turn them in.

The second factor is the art director.  Thus far in my career, I've never met an art director who would cry themselves to sleep over getting more than one option.  In all reality, who among us doesn't like having options?  I know I do.  Art directors — being a lot like regular humans — like options too.  What needs discovering is how important having more than one option is to any given AD.  Now, I've had art directors who really liked to see more than one sketch every time.  And, I've had art directors who didn't care one way or the other.  Sometimes you get art directors who have a preconceived notion of what they want to see, and sometimes you have art directors who have no idea what they want to see and will let you know when you've come close.  Getting a feel for an art director's personality isn't always easy, but it comes in time if you're lucky enough to work with them more than once.  While sometimes the job itself dictates whether or not there's more than one sketch, sometimes it's the art director that requires it.

Even so, a normally decisive art director may still have no idea about a specific job and need to see more than one option.  And this can happen even in the instance where the art order is rather clear and detailed.

The third factor that comes into play is deadline.  Admittedly this is something that has only been a factor a few times in my short career, but it can be a factor.  Sometimes a job is a rush job.  And rush jobs need a quick turn around.  In the editorial illustration world, the time between a piece's commissioning and when it's due can be mere hours.  For me, the fastest I've had to turn something around has been a few days.  When this has happened, everything has been quick and dirty.  Ugly sketch that gets put together, nailed down, and approved as hastily as possible in order to set aside more time to paint.  In these rush jobs, it's been pretty clear what was required of me.  In fact, there has always been a verbal exchange between the art director and myself where we agree on a concept and visual direction before I even touch pencil to paper.  The sketch is more or less the proof that I understood what we were talking about in the first place.  So, it was more of a formality than anything.

Mind you, this does not exclude the possibility that you will have a rush job that requires more than one sketch.  You might find yourself with some heady concept that's due tomorrow with an art director who has no advice on how to address the problem, or has no time to dedicate to the matter.  You never really know what the circumstances may be.  So, it's always possible that you'll find yourself putting together multiple sketches.

As I said above, sometimes I offer more than one sketch, sometimes I don't.  With the clients I've worked with before, I know what is expected and they've grown to understand what I'm going to deliver.  If it's a new client, I always offer more than one option out of the gate.  It's a good rule of thumb.  In fact, I'd say it's a good rule of thumb to offer up more than one sketch in general.  You can never really go wrong by doing so.  Above all, whether you've turned in one sketch or many, be prepared to do more sketches.

Throughout all this, keep in mind a universal truth of offering multiple sketches.  More often than not, the sketch you're least interested in bringing to a finish will be chosen as the direction to go.  My professors in college always spoke of this and I only half believed it as some hardened illustrator grumbling.  Sure enough, however, it has proven true time and time again.  The best defense against this is to not offer anything you wouldn't want to actually paint.  Easy to say, more difficult to accomplish.  Still, it's a goal to shoot for, and I'll be sure to let you know when I've achieved that goal, myself.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sick Day Links

So, I've been dealing with what is either a really bad cold or a mild case of the flu.  Usually, I can handle these things and still get a fair amount of work done.  Sure, I'll be really exhausted at the end of each day, but at least I have something to show for myself.  This time is a little different.  While I'm attempting to get some painting done, I've found it rather difficult to paint with any kind of precision due to constant coughing fits.  I'm also finding it difficult to keep a train of thought long enough to put together any post that has any depth.  Things just aren't coming together for me today.  As a result, I'm throwing out a few links to tide us all over.

Fellow artist Christopher Burdett sent out a simple questionnaire to as many other illustrators as he could think of.  He asked three simple questions:

1) What was the first thing in your life that made you think, "I want to be an artist"?

2) What do you like LEAST about being an artist?

3) What do you like MOST about being an artist?

Here are links to the responses he got: Part 1, part 2, part 3. Worth checking out, I assure you.  Of course, given the cross section of folks who read this blog, chances are you have either already read it or contributed to it, yourself.

Anyway, I'm going to try and get a bit more large shape painting blocked in.  Maybe a spot of laundry.  Maybe a nap.  Who knows?!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cheese Platter 3: New York Edition

•I have lost the ability to walk through crowds efficiently.  At the peak of my powers, I could read a crowd and wind my way through it quickly.  I'm not sure how to explain the path that I saw, but I saw it and charged ahead.  Once I was like Morpheus and now I am like so much Neo.

•I used to have good subway timing.  I was one of those people who constantly walked onto the platform just as the train arrived.  Either my timing has changed, or the MTA's has.  Either way, the effect is the same.  I now actually have time to plink away on my phone, letting time slip by while I await the coming of the next train.

•I'd like to give a shout out to someone who lives in my old building.  It's unsolicited, but I know a fair number of folks who like plants and such, so I thought this might be a good time to toss something out there.  Stephen Orr is the editorial director for gardening at "Martha Stewart Living," and has written a book called Tomorrow's Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening, which can be bought here.  He also has an excellent blog that includes a clip of his recent appearance on Martha Stewart's show.  He's a super good guy and I urge any of you into plants, flowers, and horticulture to check it out.  That blog can be found here.

•In my old neighborhood, there are fourteen pharmacies within a fifteen minute walking distance.  At least one more is planned.  There are almost as many banks.  What's crazy is that you can stand in front of one Rite Aid and see another one from where you're standing, all without having to strain your eyes.  Aside from pointing to the profitability of pharmacies, I think this fact also says quite a bit about the mean age of Jackson Heights' population, as well as it's overall level of health.

•It's strange to visit a city you once lived in for sixteen years.  Especially when you're staying at a hotel in Times Square.  I think before this past week, I'd only actually stayed overnight in Manhattan a handful of times, and only once before in a hotel.  Given the location, I expected the large numbers of tourists and in the area to be an issue.  It turned out not to be as soon as I realized I was one of them.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of Plasterers and Flashlights

So as mentioned before, I spent the better part of last week working on my old apartment in New York.  Primarily what I set out to do was repair some water damage that had occurred in three different parts of the apartment from three totally separate incidents.  The damage, however, was all the same.  The water had caused the paint to separate from the plaster and it fell away in great sheets.  I needed to patch spots in the walls as small as six inches square and as large as twelve square feet.

Now, I'm not the handiest person in the world.  Strike that.  I actually can be pretty handy when necessary.  Most of my lack of handiness can be directly traced back to my not being able to hold a flashlight steady.  I'll explain.

My father is a and always has been a really handy guy.  He knows how to do a wide variety of things.  He knows how to do these things pretty well.  Given enough time, he could build you a house from scratch.  A well built house you could depend on, not some rickety affair.  Back in the day before cars went all electronic, he could probably fix pretty much anything on one of them, too.  In our basement, at any given time, there were at least two lawnmowers.  One was functional, the other was either being pilfered for parts to keep the first one functional, or was being rebuilt to become functional in turn.  In fact, I think he used one lawnmower for almost the entirety of my existence.  I remember it being more rust than red, but it worked and it mowed well — especially because he kept the blade sharp (yet another thing he did himself).  Point is, Pop fixed what needed fixing.

As a kid, if I was going to help, I had one job.  That job was to hold the flashlight.  A simple job, really.  Anyone can hold a flashlight, right?  A menial task to be sure, and one I relished because it meant spending time with the old man.  Trouble was, it was an activity I wasn't particularly good at.  You see, I got distracted easily.  I was trying to watch all of the action not just the repair, so often the flashlight wandered around and resulted in Pop not getting light where he needed it most.  Consequently, it wouldn't be long before Pop would lose patience and invite to go play somewhere else.

What I failed to understand is that while I viewed the holding of the flashlight for Pop as he fixed stuff as spending time together, Pop's view was a little different.  I think he viewed the task at hand as an actual obstacle to spending time together.  His intent was to get it done, get it done right, and get it done quickly.  My inability to give him steady light and help achieve that goal complicated the matter and prolonged said task.  But understand, it wasn't malicious.  Pop worked long hours — often eighty or more a week — and the last thing he wanted to do was work some more at home.  He wanted to get things done and enjoy his family.

The upside to this is that he tended to get his repairs done relatively quickly when I wasn't in his hair.  The downside is that I ended up not learning how to do a bunch of stuff.  Granted, when it comes to certain things Pop is good at, I'm sure I'd fall short.  I'm not mechanically inclined.  If I had a busted lawnmower, I wouldn't know how to fix it, and any attempt I made at trying to take it apart would surely lead to the inevitable purchase of a new lawnmower.  Certain other things, however, I could have benefited a bit from.  And so now I am forced to call him on the phone when things need repair and describe the given situation as best I can.  He'll, in turn, try and talk me through what I need to do, step by step.  It's not a perfect system but it's better than nothing.

Cut to last week.  There I stood in our old apartment with large patches of wall and ceiling where 75 years of paint had broken away revealing bare plaster beneath.  Me on the phone, as I slathered joint compound onto these large spaces and trying to fill what amounted to a 3/8 of an inch difference in depth.  Pop talking me through how to smooth things out.  Giving me instructions on what I should do the next day and the day after that.  Always the guy in a control tower telling some random passenger how to safely land a 747 like in so many Hollywood movies.

And so I worked away the hours alone in my old place.  Pop on the phone periodically, telling my to check my altimeter and watch my airspeed.  I'm not sure that I did a good job in the end.  I do know that the results were vastly superior to the damage itself, but I don't think I'll be getting any "Plasterer of the Year" award.

Still, I walked away thinking several things.  The first is that I am in awe of plasterers.  Their abilities are far beyond my present understanding, and I have a feeling that I'll be calling on their skills before all is said and done.  The second is that I am even more in awe of fresco painters.  They are, after all, responsible for the application of the plaster as well as the painting of it.  I would not be fit to shine their shoes let alone those of their apprentices.  Third, and finally, I'm in awe of my Pop.  As the years have gone by, his patience has increased and he is not so quick to send me off to play.  And as the years go by, more and more it is he who holds the flashlight.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Badass Release!!!

So, I'm a day late with this one, as it actually happened yesterday, but Badass:The Birth of a Legend was released yesterday, and you can buy it wherever books are sold.  Like bookstores and such.  In celebration of the fact, I'm posting a few interiors I did for the book.  All black and white, all oil, all about 8"x10" on 10"x12" illustration board.  Pretty simple stuff.  Without further ado, the pieces:


White Tights

Red Dwarf

While I could explain what each of those is about, that would defeat the purpose of buying the book, now wouldn't it?  There are other pieces by other talented folks so it's worth picking up even for the art, but the writing isn't too bad, either.

There is a book tour that goes along with this book.  Ben Thompson, the author is busily shuffling about the U.S. reading, signing, and answering questions.  Allegedly, I'll be present at the book signing in Boston on March 29th.  Supposedly I'll be signing, too.  I haven't received any kind of confirmation to corroborate this, but I will be at the signing either way — even if it makes me look like a stalker or a groupie.  Further details regarding the tour can be found here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


There's a bunch I have to talk about regarding my last few lost days, but I feel the need to address something more pressing than any of that.  That thing is Japan.

Admittedly I'm late to the party on this one, and I completely cop to not being any good at talking about monumental and earth-shattering events.  Indeed, I usually find myself without the words and I firmly believe that words, for the most part, are inadequate to begin with.  Suffice it to say that what has happened in Japan — or I should say "is happening" — has been devastating to that country and has implications that will be felt globally for some time to come.  My heart goes out to Japan and its people, and I wish there was something I could do.

A month or so ago, I was offered the opportunity to go to Japan for a Magic Pro-Tour event this June.  The event, to be held in Nagoya, seemed like a lot of fun and a chance to see a country I know little to nothing about.  I accepted the offer without hesitation.  I was looking forward to the trip quite a bit.  Obviously, with the quake and subsequent worries, there was some doubt as to whether or not the event would even take place.

Last night, I got an update from the event's organizers.  While the Pro-Tour event that was to happen in Kobe this weekend was understandably postponed, the event in June is currently a go.  Still, I was given an out should I have concerns about traveling to Japan.  At present I have none, though I completely understand that events are still unfolding and that the situation could change enough to cause plans to be altered substantially.  There is no telling if, when or where the other shoe will drop... or even if there's another shoe to begin with.

Some might wonder what the point of something as trivial as a Magic tournament is in all this madness — a reaction I completely understand.  It's hard to see what place a game has in this world when the earth is tearing itself apart.  Heck — why did David Letterman begin broadcasting again within a week after 9/11?  What place does comedy have amidst so much tragedy?  Simple.  Sometimes you need the distraction.  You need some sense of normalcy, something to hold onto.  Sometimes when the world is falling apart, the familiar is the only thing that helps you get through it.  For some, it's a comedy show.  For others it's a game.  Like it or not, life continues to move on, and often it's those little things that help us get back into our groove.

No matter what, I will ride this one out.  If the event in Japan should remain tenable, than I will be there.  It seems to me that the best thing I can do is to go to Japan, sign as many Magic cards as the fans put in front of me, and spend a few bucks while I'm there.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writus Interruptus

I'll be taking a last minute break on this blog starting tomorrow.  I need to go down to New York and do some work on my old apartment.  Not sure if I'll have internet access and such, and I'm not sure how much time I'll actually have to put towards this old blog.  If circumstances allow, I'll try and polish up something that's already written.  We'll see.

Anyway, the work I'll be doing will include but is not limited to: re-grouting the shower, filling nail and screw holes, and fixing water damage.

I'm also going to take the opportunity to see my accountant and deal with this year's taxes.

Hopefully I'll be able to pry some time in there to see some friends and hang out.  After all, my building won't let me make loud noises past 6:00pm, which means I'll have to stop working by then.  Sure, many of the activities I have to do are relatively silent ones, but they're the type of things that are sure to solicit loud swearing on my part.  While the swearing itself might not cause problems, the volume will.

With any luck, there'll be at least one more post this week.  If not, I'll be back next week with more stuff for you fine folks to read.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Steve Vs. Skiing

Before this past weekend, I had never gone skiing.  While I have had the opportunity to in the past, I haven't followed through because of a fundamental lack of interest.  I was (and continue to be) about as interested in skiing as I am in contracting the ebola virus.

Okay, that's a bit hyperbolic, but there's an element of truth to it.  There is certainly a school of thought that states that I should try it to find out if I like it or not.  While I understand where the students of this school are coming from, it still doesn't address that underlying disinterest.  I'm not interested in skiing, in the same way that I'm not interested in sky diving, spelunking, or reading Ayn Rand.  I understand basic elements of all of these things and much of what they entail, and that is precisely what makes me want to turn the page.

However, there is one small, nagging thing that kept me from completely turning the page on skiing.  And that small, nagging thing was my wife.  I know, I know, it's horrible to say such things.  But, she is small and she has been nagging me about skiing for over a decade.  You see, she likes skiing.  She's been doing it since she was a child.  She hasn't gone much in the years we've shared together because we didn't have the time, the money or, on certain occasions, I was holding her back.  And during our conversations on the subject, I would profess my lack of interest quite firmly.  Yet, years ago in a moment of weakness, instead of reinforcing my feelings, I made the mistake of promising to try it once.  Just once.  Thus the nagging began, and rightfully so.  I left the door the slightest bit ajar, and Amy kept trying to kick it wide open at every chance she got.

You see, we keep our promises.  With one glaring exception we hold each other to our word.  This glaring exception involves the purchase of a wedding dress long after a more casual affair had been agreed upon.  The compromise in that case was that she got to have the wedding dress, and I got to complain about it for the rest of our natural lives together.  I think we'd agree that this compromise worked out well for both of us.  Aside from this one instance, though, we do actually follow through.  And so I finally did this past weekend with my promise to ski.

This is how I found myself at Mt. Ellen, Vermont this past weekend, taking my first skiing lesson.  A lesson given by one of the strangest teachers I've ever met.  I want to take a moment and discuss how important it is to have a teacher that's a good fit.  While there are some excellent teachers out there in their respective fields, not all good teachers are right for you.  Teaching styles and personalities don't always jive.  I found this out the hard way in college, and I urge you to always keep in mind that it's okay to find a new teacher if the one you've got just isn't working for you...provided another teacher in available.  Which there wasn't in my case.  I was given a pretty lousy hand, in fact.

While I will not post his name or go into any physical description, I will tell you that my skiing instructor was just not a good fit for me.  He was really into Eastern philosophy, had his own vocabulary for things that were a complete mystery to me (and the seasoned skiers I quoted them to), and was just not someone who I could really meet on any level.  There was a lot of discussion about "going with the flow" and how snow was just another form of water.  There was not a lot of discussion on more academic things like how to slow yourself down or even how to walk uphill while wearing skis.  These things I learned more from watching and overhearing other instructors teach five-year-olds about ten minutes before my own lesson was over.  I heard them talking about "making a pizza" and seeing the kids' skis turn toward one another, making a wedge that resembled a slice of pizza.  I mimicked these lessons fairly successfully and was pretty happy with the progress I made in that least ten minutes.  Turns out I understand "making a pizza" but don't understand "going with the flow."

The other thing that I really felt held me back was that I was not issued ski poles.  I was told that I didn't get them due to my neophyte status.  Apparently folks are apt to use the poles as a crutch and develop bad habits if given them straight away.  While I understand this, there is one academic thing that poles assist in where I really could have used their help: getting up after falling.  Suffice it to say that I fell a lot, and the poles certainly would have been a useful tool in leveraging my increasingly heavy body into an upright position from relatively flat ground.  It turns out that repeatedly pulling yourself up from a prone position with skis attached to your feet can be quite taxing.  Though amusing at first, it got old fast and I can't help but think that having the poles could have prevented some of the falls in the first place, and made recovering from them a little easier.

These two factors and a couple of others that I won't get into made the two hour lesson among the longest two hours of my life.  Time has flown by faster while watching a Terrence Malick flick (I don't care which one — any of them).  The difference is that watching a Terrence Malick flick is more mentally exhausting, and repeatedly picking yourself up from a ski slope for two hours is more physically exhausting.  It took just two hours to completely use up the vast majority of energy I had that day, and I came out smiling not because I'd successfully learned to ski, but because it was over.  In fact, I think it's fair to say that I did not actually learn to ski at all.  I never made it onto the lifts, because I was unable to stay upright for any real period of time.

I've heard it said that in order for an activity to become truly enjoyable, you have to attain a certain level of proficiency at it first.  Gaining that level of proficiency at skiing is not really how I see myself spending my time, though.  Still, I feel like whether or not I attempt to ski again is up in the air.  Personally, I preferred how I spent the hour and a half after my lesson was over: eating lunch then spending some quality time drinking good beer and drawing on cocktail napkins at the lodge bar.   It was easier, more fun, and frankly far cheaper.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cheese Platter 2

• I have seen the "Top Gun" more than any other movie.  As a kid, I dubbed a copy of it and would watch it constantly.  By my estimation, I have seen it well over a hundred times.  I'm not bragging.  I'm pointing out how wasted my youth clearly was.  Just think of all those hours I could have been watching something good, or running around outside getting exercise.

• My Grandmother had an antique, cast iron clothes iron she used to keep her back door open during the summer.  Well, it's inner parts were iron, but there was a steel case that enveloped it with a latch and a turned wooden handle.  The idea, apparently, was that you would have more than one of the cast iron cores.  One you'd have heating by the fire while the other was in use.  When the one in use became too cool, you could flip the latch and swap cores thereby always having a hot iron.  That this somehow reminded me of a swapping clips in a gun is kind of interesting.  Of all the things I could have likened it to, strange that it always went immediately to a firearm analogy.

• I don't like ice skating.  Sure, I've only been twice, and I fell an awful lot.  Falling, however, is not my biggest fear.  Having someone skate over my hand is.  As improbable as this sounds, I have met four people in my life who have either themselves had a finger severed while ice skating, or had a family member who has.  Statistically speaking, I'm pretty sure it's abnormally high to have run into so many.  Each story I've heard has reinforced my fear.  So, I don't skate.  In fact, I don't think I'd even skate if I were the only one on the ice.  I'm pretty sure that if there's a way to cut your own finger off while ice skating that I would find it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

10,000 Strong... And Growing

When I started this blog in August of last year, I didn't think it would be much more than a blip on anyone's radar.  It turns out I was wrong.  Well, sorta.

In the grand scheme of things, this blog doesn't really receive a whole lot of traffic.  Still, yesterday I passed 10,000 hits and this will be my 84th post.  For me, that's a lot of hits.  Considering that I'm a middling artist who is late to the blog party, and considering also just how many art blogs there are I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out.  Fact is, I didn't expect to reach this point within my first full year.  I was just hoping to get to the point where I might reach 1,000 hits per month by then.

In all reality, I have three other sites to thank for much of my blog's traffic, and I'll take this opportunity to plug them.

First is Matt Stewart's blog (link).  While I'm unsure whether or not he's ever specifically mentioned me in a post (I've been following and I really can't remember), I cannot imagine what I did to get listed among his friends.  The fact that I'm on that list has funneled quite a few folks in my direction, and I thank him.

Second is Star City Games website (link) where my FAQ entry about card alterations was mentioned in an article about collecting all things Magic.  According to said article, "Steven Belledin is strongly anti-alteration," which I guess if fair, though I would qualify that with my being against doing alterations rather than being strictly anti-alteration as a while.  Still, the article sent a lot of folks my way, and is actually a nice article in general for the collectors and the collected.  It's always good to see how folks on the other side of the table see things.  So, thanks to John Dale Beety and Start City Games for the shout out and the link.

Third is The Starkington Post (link), a website about the trading card game industry.  I assume it was Bill Stark who wrote up the article featuring links to my series on reference, as well as giving my blog and website plugs.  I really appreciate the the mention and the kind words.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading this blog, regularly, irregularly, or what have you.  The next few months will be trying at times as I'll be jostled around quite a bit by work, taxes, and some minor fixes in my old apartment.  Despite all this, I have pretty big plans as far as content.  I have a few interviews I want to conduct, and I'll be putting up process shots of a personal piece or two as they happen.  Hopefully that'll be worth everyone's time.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kingkillers and Strange Packages

Back in 2008, I received a mysterious package in the mail.  It was one of those bubble envelopes containing what I thought at the time was product from Magic.  I was living in our place in Jackson Heights and the package took up the majority of our tiny mailbox. As I often did, I took the mail and laid it on the kitchen table to be picked through later.

At lunchtime, I went ahead and started perusing the mail.  After looking the bills over, I finally got to the package and quickly realized that my assumption that it was from Wizards of the Coast was wrong.  There was no Magic product contained therein.  In fact, I didn't recognize the address at all, nor the name of the sender.  I shrugged, tore open the package and pondered its contents.  This is what was inside:

This was a first for me.  No one had ever sent me a book before.  Well, no one had ever sent me a book that I had nothing to with, anyway.  It was weird.  But pretty cool all the same.  However, there were many unanswered questions.  First of all, who had sent this book to me?  I looked at the return address.  It said "Patrick Rothfuss."  I looked at the book.  It, too, said "Patrick Rothfuss."  Weird coincidence, that.

Then I wondered, why had Patrick sent this book to me?  There was nothing in the package that I could find aside from the book.  So, no apparent explanation.  I flipped through the book's pages to find that it was signed by the author.  Curious.  Then, I flipped through the pages again, only this time a business card fell out.  It was Patrick's business card.  I turned the card over, and found the beginning of the answer I'd been looking for:

So, Patrick is the author, the author had sent me the book, and the author is a fan.  Of me.  But how?  Why?  Whu?

I had to know.  So I emailed him.  He gave me his business card, after all.  After a few emails back and forth it became clear to me that we'd talked for a while at Gen Con.  I had no idea who he was, and I'm not sure whether he knew who I was before then, either.  But we'd talked.  After finally seeing a picture of him, I was able to conjure the memory of having the conversation, though I cannot even begin to tell you what we spoke about.  I like to think that it was a lofty conversation about artistic ideals and the danger of cliche, but since I was involved in said conversation it likely centered around something far more crude and bass.  Either way, I somehow made an impression on him.  Or at least my work did.

I realize, in retrospect, that this was among the cooler things that have happened to me over the years.  At the time, however, I was too dumbfounded to understand how cool it actually all was.  No one had ever gifted me with something like this before, and it's only happened once since (on a book I'd worked on).  And as the confusion started to ease over the day, I actually did become pretty elated.  There was just one hitch: I never learned to read.

Okay, so I can read. 

There really was an issue, though.  I don't generally read fantasy books.  This might be a weird statement considering the genre I work in, but it's completely true.  I avoid immersing myself in the genre on all fronts.  I already work primarily in fantasy, a lot of the games I play are science fiction or fantasy games.  I tend to watch a lot of movies in the genre, as well.  Books, on the other hand, are something else entirely.  The time investment means that I choose my books carefully, and most of my selections are a vacation from what I do day in and day out.

Still, someone had sent me this book.  The author had sent me this book.  It seemed that the least I could do was actually read it.  Right?


And so I did.  And I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  It is one of the few books in the genre that I have recommended to anyone who will listen to me.  I have shouted its merits at conventions, at bars with friends, and on planes with strangers.  I liked it enough to run out and try and procure a 1st edition, 1st printing of the hardback edition, but have found much to my horror and disappointment that it's more than I can afford.  So, I settled instead for a 5th printing, which sits proudly on my bookshelf among the various other tomes that I have collected over the years.  It stands as one of the few books that I have reread multiple times, and something from which I have drawn inspiration.  It's also the only book I have even threatened to do any kind of fan art for and still may.

So why do I bring this up?  What gives?  I'll tell you.  This has all been a shameless plug for something that I had nothing to do with.  You see, yesterday the book's sequel came out.  The Wise Man's Fear.  I have not gotten my copy yet, but I wait with much anticipation.  In just a few days, I will have it and will tear through it just as I did The Name of the Wind.  Judging from it's Amazon sales ranking (I think it at least go up to number 8), it would appear that many people will be doing the same.  Given that many reading this are likely to be reading that, the shameless plug may be unnecessary.  But if I bring one new reader to the series (there are a planned 3 total), then I think it's been worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions 7

Can I get a high-res version of this piece?

If you're not my client waiting to get my high-res file, the answer is no.  No.  No.  No. While I really don't have to give you a reason for this, I'm going to anyway.  Because I'm cool like that.

Because I'm Not Allowed To
The first potential reason that I may not be willing to give you a high-res version of a piece is that I legally don't have the right to.  You see, many companies I work for buy up all usage rights of the images they commission save those allowing for me to use said images for self-promotion or to make prints.  What this means is that I can use the image in my portfolio (printed or digital), on the various websites I've uploaded my work to, in mailings to art directors, and so forth.  Basically, if I'm using the image to fish for work, I am using it for self-promotion. 

Giving you a high-res version of the piece does not fall into this category, and so I am obliged to decline.  You see, spreading around high-res versions of work when I don't have the right to endangers my livelihood.  I'm not interested in living on the street, so I play by the rules of my contracts.  If you still want a high-res file, I will direct you to the company that owns the image and you can take it up with them directly.  Good luck with that.

Because It Might Hurt Me
The second reason I may not want to give you a high-res version of my work is that I may want to make prints.  As mentioned before, even the clients who buy up most of the rights to an image typically grant me the right to manufacture prints.  I don't know about anyone else, but I charge for my prints.  Not a lot, mind you — I'm not making limited edition giclees or anything.  But, prints are part of my income.  And being an artist, I need all the income I can get.

Were I to give you high-res scans of my work, what's to prevent you from making prints of your own?  How do I know that you're not going to turn around and start selling prints, yourself?  How do I know that you're not just going to keep passing along the files to other people?  Quite frankly, I don't.  There's no assurance that I won't be hurt by it.

Just Because
Look, I've got decent sized images of my work available for all to see on various sites throughout the interwebs.  My work has appeared in print and can be attained quite easily at game stores, online, and wherever books are sold.  I've also been in shows all over the country where you could even see my work in person.  You want to get up close and personal to it?  There are plenty of opportunities.

I really don't care to speculate on your motivations for wanting the high-res file.  Be it that you wish to design a desktop wallpaper, intend to undercut me on prints, want to claim it as your own work, or want to put it in your own project, it really doesn't concern me.  Even if your intentions were pure, there's no telling what someone else's might be should you get hacked or have your files stolen.

I also don't care what the laws of your land happen to be, or what common practice might dictate in your culture (something that has come up in one or two of these requests).  And you're right, I don't trust you.  I don't even know you!  Of course I'm not going to trust you.  That this is a surprise or is met with any kind of indignation is a little odd to me.  Nevertheless, the answer is still no.

Lastly, I don't care that you think me a jerk for refusing your simple request.  I'm also not going to respond well to your pestering me for two weeks on the subject.  Accept that it's just not going to happen.  Please, just enjoy the images in the forms that are offered to you and stop asking for more.  It doesn't become you.  You're a better person than that.

At the end of the day, these images are a commodity.  They're my commodity.  And I'm not going to treat them lightly.