Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Glyph...Sigil...Signature.......Thing.

Tom P. strikes again with the following:

I'd love to hear about personal glyph design! I know it's a pretty basic assignment in most art schools, but I've never come up with a good sigil design for my name that I thought worked. Any thoughts on that topic?

Wait.  Glyph design is a basic assignment in most art schools?  Really?  Huh.  Not at mine.  The subject of glyph design or signatures is a tough one for someone who regularly leaves his work unsigned, nevertheless I shall give my thoughts on the matter.  I shall endeavor to grope forth and accidentally fondle some truths.  I shall... You know, I should just get on with it.

First off, I can't really speak for others' glyph design.  I can really only speak of my own struggles with it and how I came to the conclusion that it simply wasn't right for me.  I have the letters "S" and "B" to deal with which, quite frankly, is not a good start.  On their own, they work splendidly.  In combination with other letters they can live happily.  Together, they just don't play well.  I have spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to cram them together in a way that was pleasing, alternating between upper and lower-case, mixing it up with different sizes, getting fancy and laying one letter or the other on its side.  Nothing seemed to work to my satisfaction, and because of this conclusion I am very happy that it was not a hoop I had to jump through in college as my grade would likely have been rather low.

Mind you, after spending much time on the matter by myself, I even dragged my wife into the mix.  She was a graphic designer, then became and art director, and is now the kind of person who hires those people and tells them what to do.  She's pretty good at manipulating typography and she found it as impossible as I had.  We then turned to our rather large collection of design books and annuals looking for inspiration and found nothing that even came close to being helpful.  What we did end up with was pages of S's and B's arranged this way and that, which somehow reminded me of some cliched schoolgirl's notebook that is covered in various arrangements of the name she would bear after marrying her sweetheart.

Mrs. Reginald Trustworthy
Mrs. R. Trustworthy
Mrs. Reginald K. Trustworthy
Mrs. R. K. Trustworthy
Evelyn Trustworthy
Evelyn M. Trustworthy
Mrs. Evelyn M. Trustworthy
And so forth.

The difference between the schoolgirl's fantasy and my own attempts at creating a glyph that felt right was that the schoolgirl's fantasy could actually come true.  In fact, I feel that I failed, and to be honest, this is the closest I ever got to a glyph I was happy with:

You can kind of see my train of thought from top to bottom.

What's wrong with this you ask?  Well, nothing really.  It's just that it doesn't feel like me.  It feels too contrived, somehow.  I'm not taking a jab at others' glyphs, mind you — as far as I'm concerned, there are some excellent signature glyphs out there that are far more contrived and work far better.  It's just that the contrivance doesn't feel right for me.  As a result, I turned to many of my illustration heroes ( Pyle, Rockwell, Wyeth, Dunn, Schoonover, Cornwell), and at the bottom of their paintings was just a simple name.  Sometimes very tightly done, but still just a name.  That felt far more comfortable, and when I do sign my work I just sign it with a simple "Belledin."

I realize that I may not have answered your question.  So I'll stick my neck out a little further.

Overall, I don't think sigils are a bad thing.  There are some excellent artists who've designed some really great signatures for themselves.  When dealing with the matter, yourself, I think it all boils down to making it good, making it fairly simple, and making it feel like it fits your work.  I'm a pretty traditional guy who went a very traditional route.  But maybe you're not.  Maybe your work is far edgier than mine.  If you go the glyph route, then maybe you pursue a similarly edgy design.  Pretty straightforward, right?

Where I feel folks tend to get into trouble is not in the design of the sigil or the signature itself, but rather the application there of.  What I see time and again is where the glyph becomes distracting within a piece's composition.  A quick story for you:

I know an illustrator who, in attempt to maintain the legibility of his signatures after reduction, used to sign his work really large.  What ended up happening was that his signature was so large, that it became a part of the composition, and a dysfunctional part at that.  Were his signature more complicated than it was, it would be that much worse.  Still, he had paintings that he'd labored over that looked pretty awful in real life and some of the work felt like he'd done elaborate background paintings for his signature.  Not many people want that on their wall.

At it's best, a signature should sit nicely in the piece and be something that you have to look for.  Unless intentional, it shouldn't really play as a compositional element, and if it is intentional, make sure it works well.  As far as design goes, I really think simpler is always better.  Simpler things tend not to call nearly as much attention to themselves.  On the other hand, J. C. Leyendecker did some really decorative stuff with his name that is definitely more elaborate than I would recommend anyone ever do and got away with it, so it's clear how little I know.

I'll sum up my thoughts on signatures and glyphs, names and sigils thusly: make it you, but say it, don't shout it.  Another way to put it perhaps is a now outdated philosophy on children: they should be seen and not heard.  Hope that helps.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Link Dump!!!

A link dump?  Really?  Total cop-out, I know.  But here's the deal, I'm up to my eyeballs in trying to get work done before this weekend (where I'll be appearing at the Magic Grand Prix in Providence, RI).  I'm really close to getting my assignment done (which is due on Friday), and I'm making the final push to hammer it home today.  As such, I'm going to give a couple nice little links from other blogs to check out.

First and foremost, here's a link to an entertaining article about the laws of freelancing from my cousin Chuck Wendig's blog.  It's full of perversity, sprinkled with profanity, and chock-full of truth.  I highly recommend it:

This Is Freelancer Law, Or: "How To Not Suck As a Freelancer"

Also, as an aside, Chuck and his wife just welcomed into the world a brand new (as opposed to used) baby boy.  You can read all about it (if you're so inclined) here: link.

Second, I'm going to link to a nice little blurb that Chris Moeller did for the Muddy Colors blog.  It's a good one for folks who have recently matriculated from college and are trying their hand at illustration.  As it's from the Muddy Colors blog, most of you reading this will already have seen it, but if you haven't, it's definitely worth a look-see as it, too, is full of truth and some good advice.  If you're wondering where I stand on the matter, just read what Chris has to say because my feelings are right in line with his.

Life After Art School: Five Years to an Illustration Career

Finally, here's a nice article by Donato about the ongoing debate as to whether or not art school and all of its expense is necessary nowadays with so many less traditional (and cheaper) options are available.  I have my own feelings about this subject which I'll likely put down at some point, but for now this is a pretty good start.  Donato makes some really excellent points, and he's made an excellent summation of how his own choices affected his path.

Career Choices

Well, that's it for me today.  Back to painting and making prints.  I'll hopefully be back with something a little more substantial tomorrow.  Well, substantial on my part.  There's definitely a lot of meat to savor in the above links.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Drawing Exercises I Have Known 2

Opposite hand drawing.

This is an old staple of drawing teachers the world over and requires only that you have two hands.  If you only have one hand, I guess you get to skip this exercise, or maybe you'll be made to draw with your feet instead.  However, if you happen to have two fully functioning hands, then it's a simple formula:

If you are right-handed, put the drawing utensil of your choice in your left hand and commence drawing.  If you are left-handed, put that drawing utensil in your right.

As I mentioned, opposite hand drawing is a pretty common exercise and is definitely a classic.  While it might be a mystery to some as to why anyone might bother, there are several good reasons to take on the task every now and again.

First off, let's suppose that you, as the owner of two fully-functional limbs, one day find yourself to be the owner of only one.  This could be for any variety of reasons including amputation (intentional or otherwise), mangling due to attempted garbage disposal maintenance, or good old fashioned stroke.  And let's also suppose that the limb you've managed to lose proper use of is the one you also happen to use to draw and paint.  Given that drawing and painting is your livelihood (if it isn't you likely wouldn't have ever done this exercise, anyway), it looks like you'll have no choice but to employ the use of your other hand.  If you've done some opposite hand drawing, then you've already laid the groundwork for overcoming this little obstacle.

Don't think it could happen?  Well, I've got two words for you: Frank Frazetta.  In the early 2000's, Frank Frazetta suffered a series of strokes which left his right hand useless.  Not being the type to give up, he simply started drawing with his left hand instead.  I doubt, somehow, that it was the first time he'd ever done so (though I could be horribly wrong and if you know different, please refrain from blabbing about it out as I'm trying to make a point here).  If it could happen to Mr. Frazetta, if could happen to you.  It's worth being prepared.

Doing any activity repeatedly builds pathways in the brain that, over time, improve one's ability to do said activity.  Drawing with your opposite hand is no different.  While I'm not saying that it's important that you become equally proficient with both hands, it doesn't hurt to have laid down a bit of a foundation to allow for a little insurance should something evil befall you.

Secondly, as with any other drawing exercise, opposite hand drawing can improve how you interpret what you see.  It can help you more effectively translate the things before your eyes and push them out your pencil.  Drawing exercises are practice and practice not only sharpens skills but helps keep them sharp.  Last time I checked, that was a good idea.  I know it's trite and obvious but it still bears repeating, because drawing, in my experience, isn't exactly like riding a bicycle.  Such a skill can deteriorate.  While I can't say as to whether the ability to draw can ever completely go away, I'm sure like me, you don't want to find out.

A third reason for such an exercise is that it's a change-up to your routine.  As I mentioned before, change-ups are an important part of a complete breakfast.  It keeps your practice from getting boring, and adds a new element to the mix.  As tempting as eating cornflakes every day might be, it can be helpful to one's spirit to try something new.  Eggs and sausage perhaps?  Oatmeal?  Leftover pizza?  If nothing else, it'll make you realize just how easy you have it with your dominant hand, and the relief at getting back to your normal m.o. will be like a mental vacation.

Whatever you do, should you be tasked to draw with your opposite hand, don't avoid doing the exercise.  I could have gotten away with it, personally, as I'm left-handed.  When my professors in school told us to switch, I could have kept on going as I was only one of two lefties in my class and my professors didn't exactly keep track of who was a southpaw and who wasn't.  While every once in a while, I would test their memory, I also found myself switching even when there was no mandate.  The thing that was so appealing is that there was no pressure to do great drawings.  It was pretty liberating to just sit back and make marks with but a meager hope that they land where you intend them to.  That kind of liberation is pretty fun for me, and I can't say that I always have as much freedom in my day to day work.  So, I enjoy it when I can.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cheese Platter 7

•My parents always spoke of a barber from their youth whose quality of haircut depended on the amount of alcohol he'd consumed.  Contrary to what you might think, the more inebriated the barber was, the better the haircut.  I'm sure, however, that there was a point that the scale started tipping in the other direction.  I'm sure beyond a certain level of drunkenness the quality of haircuts had to start deteriorating.  Unless, of course, the barber in question was able to maintain a buzz all day long, which I guess he managed to do considering that he stayed in business.  My own barber, so far as I can tell, is more a talker.  If you can get him to talk about marathons, the sport of running in general, the Red Sox or politics that lean towards the right, you're guaranteed a good cut.  I have to fake it with all four of those topics as none of them really interest me.  However, there is a delicate balance to shoot for, as I learned about yesterday.  You don't want to get too deep into a conversation with the man because he just keeps cutting and cutting and cutting until the conversation ends.  My hair is the shortest it's been since my Mom gave me a buzz cut in elementary school.  It's a good cut, just really, really short.

•I have an irrational fear of my garbage disposal.  This is the first time I've ever lived in a place that has one and there's a part of my brain that is positive that I am going to cause myself grievous manual harm.  This wouldn't be much of a worry if the switch for the disposal wasn't where the over-sink light switch has been in every other place I've ever lived.  There is no over-sink light switch in our current place, so the way I see it my eventual hand mangling will go down like this: something will need to be retrieved from the disposal unit and I will stick my hand down there.  In an attempt to shine more light on the situation, I will flip the switch unconsciously thinking it is for the light, and voila: nubs for fingers.  Of course, I know it prudent to unplug the unit before sticking my hand in it, but I still can't shake the fear.  Surprisingly, however, the fear has not featured in any of my recent nightmares.  So, I guess that's a good thing.  I'll be well rested when it all goes down.

•In my backyard, there was once a shed.  During what was an unusually snowy winter, the shed's roof caved in due to the accumulated weight of the snow.  I expected the contents of the shed to be tools and lawn equipment, but it turned out to be mostly furniture which was unfortunately ruined.  Last week, my landlord showed up with his daughter and dismantled the shed.  He waved me over after finishing one day and proceeded to ask me what I'd like him to do with the additional yard that had been created by the now-absent shed.  I had expected him to just buy a new shed and put it there, but clearly he wasn't going to bother.  Instead, he wanted to know whether he should put a garden in, a patio in, or just seed the bald patch of earth and make the yard that much bigger.  I was a little befuddled.  It's not my land, you see.  It's his.  I bounced the question back to him reminding him that it was his land to do with what he wanted.  I'm not really sure we'd need a patio as we have nice a covered porch.  A garden would be great in theory but neither my wife nor I have been gifted with green thumbs.  More back yard would be easiest for him, I explained, and would likely be the most versatile option as well.  He thought about it and seemed satisfied with my conclusion.  So now, we have 33% more backyard.  And also the nicest landlord I've ever had.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Jeffrey Catherine Jones passed away today.

I never know what to say when it comes to these things.  I fumble and grope at words, but everything always sounds so trite.

What I can say is this: I never knew him — hell, I never even met him — but he was like a looming force, ever present and elusive.  He was an inspiration above all...  I guess he shall remain so, but it still hurts to know that one of your heroes is no longer out there somewhere fighting the good fight.

If you follow a lot of blogs, you'll be seeing a lot of entries about Jeff today.  They'll all likely have the above link.  I encourage you to click that link and take some time to look at the work, maybe read some snippets from the autobiography, check out the works in progress.

Me, I'm going to get some painting done while I reconsider some things.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Drawing Exercises I Have Known 1

Confession: drawing isn't something I do enough of.  However, I'm not sure I could ever feel that I draw enough.  I think, though, that it's fair to say I could do more of it than I do.  This fact got me thinking about all the weird exercises I've been exposed to.  I thought it might be interesting to share a few of these with you all.  Most will be familiar with you, some may not be.  Either way, they're fun to talk about.

The first one I am going to speak of is not necessarily one I'd recommend to anyone, oddly.  It involves the following items:

1 cup of bleach
several cotton swabs (commonly known as Q-Tips)
black railroad board

Simply put, you have a cup of bleach, dip the swabs into said bleach, then use the swabs to draw on the railroad board, creating white orange lines.  The concept is not much different from using white charcoal on black paper in an attempt to capture the light rather than the dark, except that the swab is not as precise a weapon, you don't get varied values from the bleach, and you can't smudge or erase bleached paper.

This exercise was introduced to me during my freshman year at Pratt, by my Drawing 101 instructor, Prof. Sanfilippo.  It was a total non-sequitur from the usual charcoal on newsprint exercises we'd grown accustomed to and really shook things up.  We were instructed to bring in the materials as listed above (with several sheets of the board necessary), and sat through a quick demo that lasted all of two minutes.  We had a model in the class and started out with relatively quick poses (probably a minute or so a piece), followed by some 5 minute poses and then a few 20 minute poses.

What made this exercise so interesting was that it really called into question one's decision making.  One had to be sure that the mark they were about to make was where it needed to be.  Lacking any form of undo button caused a strain on one's ability to see.  Each decision became all the more important, and one misstep could spell doom for your efforts.  A casual flick could see bleach spots all over your drawing.  An adjustment in posture could spill your cup and coat the board.  It was an exercise in carefulness.  But it also was the exact opposite.

Just as we were being forced to really consider our marks, we were also being forced to let go.  If we spattered, so be it; if we absentmindedly touched the board someplace we did not intend, such was life.  There grew, over time, an adjustment to things not quite going according to plan.  A tool as useless as a Q-Tip will can do that.  It's blunt inexactness laughed in the face of our carefulness.  The bleach that eventually got on our fingertips marred the pristineness of our efforts.  Before long we had little choice to just draw.

Now, the big problem with doing this exercise is pretty obvious: it requires the use of bleach.  Imagine, if you will, 25 cups of bleach open in a single studio.  It was fairly late in the semester so it was cool outside, and the windows were cracked open in an attempt to balance personal comfort with the ventilation of the fumes.  I'm fairly certain that OSHA would have had something to say about the matter, but they weren't there.  I, on the other hand, was there.  And I'm not exactly sure I walked away entirely unscathed.  For this reason, I don't really recommend this exercise.  At least not in the manor I was taught.  Perhaps instead of bleach, you might use white ink or white paint.  I don't see why the railroad board need be replaced, and I certainly would recommend keeping the cotton swabs.

The point is that the exercise was an interesting change-up to the type of drawing we'd become accustomed to.  And change-ups are usually good things.  Unless they involve lots of bleach in a poorly ventilated, enclosed space.  Then it's just interesting to ponder doing the exercise, and leave the doing of it to far crazier people.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Follow Up To The Pseudonym

Here's a query I got from Tom P. on my post about the Pseudonym (it started out as a reply comment, but before I knew it it was almost as long as my posts usually get, so I just went with it):

Hey Steve, if you feel so inclined, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on different names for different styles of work from the same artist. While at Illuxcon in November, as artist I was chatting with mentioned this and felt that it was pretty important in his opinion. For instance, you're Steve Belledin known for your work on Magic cards, but let's say you took an unrelated graphic design job doing a few logos or maybe wanted to pursue fine art painting bowls of fruit and such. This gentleman felt that it was important to have alternate names because clients tend to know you for a style and will be turned off if they see something seemingly unrelated on your website. What have your experiences been in this regard?


This is exactly what I was referring to when I spoke of keeping your fine art or day job separate.  I think back before the internet, it was easier to keep your name, but have a more compartmentalized career.  Nowadays, it's so easy to hunt down everything about everyone, that it can be very useful if the name is compartmentalized, as well.

I think how compartmentalized you go depends on how different the jobs involved are.  I'm not sure I would go under a different name if I were going to do some graphic design work (something that no one would ever pay me to do, by the way).  The way I see it (though others will surely disagree), there's nothing in my illustration work that would necessarily conflict with logo design or some such.  At least not under most circumstances.  However, one circumstance that might be an issue is if I'm doing logos for some religious institution.  Like it or not, there are folks in some of these institutions who might see my Magic work as demonic or satanic in some way (there are still folks who feel this way about Dungeons and Dragons), and my Magic work may result in my not getting said graphic design gig.  Now, I'm not trying to make a commentary about anyone's beliefs, as everyone is entitled to theirs, I'm just saying that I'm aware these beliefs exist, and could potentially have an impact on trying to get work.

Here's another example.  Let's say instead of being a Magic artist, I am a children's book artist.  Let's also say that on the side I like to do pin-up or erotic art.  This is certainly a case where having multiple identities would be helpful.  While I kind of doubt that knowledge of a children's book career would harm my pin-up career, knowledge of my pin-up career could most certainly have an effect on the children's book work.  While I can't really speak to how folks in the publishing business would personally feel about such a case, they would certainly be concerned about customers finding out and having their book protested, banned, etc.  After all, children's books have been banned for far lesser reasons.

Going back the whole fine art/ illustration example, simply put, an illustration career on the side, in the fine art world, can be very harmful.  Illustration is widely considered a lesser art form — with some feeling that it does not even qualify as art to begin with (which I'm not even going to get into right now).  Consequently, there are fine artists who utilize an alternate identity for their illustration work in order to protect their fine art work.  On the other hand, there are a lot of illustrators who have gotten into gallery work over the course of their career and have kept their identities intact throughout the transition.  Not having done this, myself, I cannot comment on any trials or tribulations they may have suffered, but the ones I know who've done this don't really seem the worse for wear.  If you want to know more, I'd suggest trying to track some of these folks down.  I'm sure they'll have some thoughts on the matter.

As far as different styles or aesthetics go, that's a whole other ball of wax.  Working under different styles is difficult at best and is not something I generally recommend.  Art schools tend to encourage a great deal of experimentation, which I think is essential, but once you get into the real world, I strongly feel that young illustrators should pick a direction and go with it.  I'm not saying you have to be married to one aesthetic for the rest of your life — you can always pull in new influences and evolve your work — I'm just saying that it's hard enough out there as it is and it's best to have a consistent portfolio of work using a single aesthetic so that you can attack the field in a more focused fashion.  Now, if you happen to be some sort of savant and have managed to put together two (or more) consistent portfolios of work in two (or more) very different styles, I will tell you that, yes, you should segregate them.  Does it require a totally different name?  Perhaps.  Many have done just that and I think it's worth looking into.  Just be sure that your heart is in all of your various aesthetics, because with life working the way it tends to, the style you're least into will be the one that takes off.

At the end of the day, I think it helps if you segregate things a bit, but to reiterate, I feel that the degree of difference should be taken into consideration.  For example, I get the odd historical work now and again, but I don't go by another name for that kind of thing.  I've also done some advertising art that could not be more different from my Magic work and still went with my real name.  Though I haven't done much political/editorial illustration, I don't know that I would keep two completely different identities if I did so while also doing Magic cards.  Sure, I'd have two different portfolios, and possibly two different web addresses, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as having two different names.  And if, in the future, I suddenly become inspired to start doing anime work, you can bet it'll be under some name you've never heard before.  But, again, that's just me, personally.  I suspect that if you asked twenty different illustrators about this, you would get additional points of view.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Pseudonym

A few weeks back, in a FAQ, I addressed my name (link).  The only comment made on the article was from the artist known as Daarken.  While his comment made in interesting inquiry which I shall now ignore, it did get me thinking about something else entirely.  In an article entirely about names,  an option I failed to address was the possibility of having a pseudonym. know...Daarken.  See how I got there?

Moving on....

So what of pseudonyms?

Personally, I don't have anything against them.  I didn't want to use one, myself, because I like my name and am proud of the work I do while using it.  If you're of a similar frame of mind, you should at least consider going down the same route.  Two advantages are that there are simply fewer identities to keep track of, and that folks will know how to address you and you'll always know that it's you they're addressing.  On the other hand, you may feel differently.

Now, there are many reasons you may want to use a pseudonym.  You may be unhappy with your real name, you may do illustration on the side and not want it interfering with your "regular" job, your real name might be something you find embarrassing, you may do fine art under your real name and want to keep the illustration work on the down low so as to not affect your fine art's value, you may be hiding from the mob or in the witness protection program, or it could just be that you're called "John Smith" and want to go by something a little more unique and exciting.

So what, then, do you call yourself?  How do you choose a name?  Well, I'd suggest that I'm the wrong person to ask this as I've never done it.  However, I will endeavor to try and help you, anyway.

I've known folks who've used childhood nicknames, folks who've used old pet names, folks who've made up words, and folks who've even used their old character names from their days of role playing.  A name can come from anywhere, really, and as I'm not the kind of guy who was ever good at naming things, I can only give you some guidelines that might narrow things down for you.

First off, coming up with a pseudonym is like trying to name a band.  It has to tonally fit the genre — even it fits ironically.  Personally, however, I'd steer away from irony, as irony seems to go in and out of fashion so regularly that an ironic name may seem out of place in a matter of years if not months.  'Course that's just my opinion.  The point I'm driving at here is that you don't go after children's book work with a name like "Baby Slayer."  It's not going to go well for you.  So, choose wisely.

The second rule I'm stealing from fellow artist Peter Morbacher.  If you're going to go by a different name, it should not be more difficult to spell than your real name.  I'd extend this further to say that you should make it easier to pronounce, as well.  I'm not sure if it's ever happened before, but you don't want to be the first person to lose a job because the art director decided not to call you out of fear of mispronouncing your fake name.  Not knowing how to say "Belledin" is one thing, not knowing how to say "Pjumdiharzdt" is another (I made that one up... I told you I was bad at this).

Third, I think it's important to be flexible with the name.  Like it or not, people will want to know your real name.  Accept that the illusion will eventually be broken.  Mystique is cool, but there's always a few out there who wants to know how the magic trick works, and among those few is the jerk who wants to spoil it for everyone else.  So, eventually you may end up becoming known as "Joe 'Pjumdiharzdt' Bloggs."  A benefit to this flexibility is that should your name become less valuable to you over time, you'll have a head start on transitioning to a new identity.  It's entirely possible that your career may change, and eventually you may just want to own up to being plain old Joe.  Perhaps the above middle ground will help.

Anyway, should you choose to go the pseudonym route, be aware that there will be certain people who dislike you off the bat.  A lot of folks find the very idea pretentious and off-putting.  Others feel it to be amateurish, somehow.  I'm personally not in either of these camps as I feel that quality of work trumps all, but clearly not everyone sees things that way.  Understand that there may be people who either publicly or privately roll their eyes at you for your decision.  The weirder the name, the more eye rolls you're likely to get.  I'd be willing to bet, however, that the vast majority of folks will shrug, chalk it up to you being a "weird artist-type" and go about their business.  Or, better yet, some may even use it as a device to engage you.  What's with the name?  Why don't you use your real name?  Etc.

While some may show you prejudice for arbitrary reasons, there are others who will be wary for reasons potentially more legitimate.  I've heard several folks complain about fake names because they are sometimes employed to represent artist sweatshops as a single individual.  Seriously.  Somewhere in this world there is a room full of guys making pennies on the dollar putting out work in a more or less unified "style" all under the guise of being someone who goes by the name "Pork Fat" (again, not a real name as far as I'm aware).  As a result, there are art directors out there who may, in an attempt to not deal with such folks, steer clear of pseudonyms (at least until they can confirm that there's a real person behind the name).  I have no idea how often this tends to be the case, as I don't have the resources to poll enough art directors on the subject, but even if it's just one person, it's worth noting, as fate would dictate it's the person you most want to get a job from.

To be perfectly frank, I'm not entirely sure how important a name really is.  I can't say as to how much of a make/break impact it may have.  Suffice it to say that in this day and age, as a commercial artist, you are a brand.  While it would be nice to say that we are above such things, it just isn't the case.  Being brands, there is an element of perception that we have to deal with.  While I still feel it most important that the work is good (after all, Coke would be long forgotten if it tasted like window cleaner — which I assume tastes lousy having never tried it), this business is full of people and people bring with them consciously or subconsciously all kinds of prejudices regardless of your name.

At this point, it's beginning to sound as though the supposed lack of prejudice on my part isn't entirely genuine.  I assure you it is.  My first art teacher worked under a pseudonym.  Sure, it was an abbreviation of his last name, but it wasn't his full, legal name, either.  By his own standard, I think he'd say that he was pretty successful, and I don't think his situation is at all that unique.  In fact, I'll give you a (very incomplete) list of other folks who use some degree of pseudonym:

Android Jones
Dr. Seuss
Eddie Guy
jD (admittedly just his initials, but he's really good so shut up)
Red Nose Studio
Rockin Jelly Bean

Like I said, really incomplete.  However, a quick glance through, and you'll find plenty of pseudonyms.  It's surprisingly common.  At the end of the day, whatever you go by — real name or fake — you can rest assured that you'll be in very good company.

Note: This article was up for less than a day when Blogger went down.  Despite Blogger asserting that they got everything back up and running, this article never returned.  So, I've had to recreate things as best I could using a very old draft.  Hopefully this one won't get lost in the ether.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions 10

Do you trade paintings?

Okay, before I answer, I have to cop to the fact that this one is going to exclude a lot of the general audience.  I apologize.  While this is a frequently asked question, it's one that is asked solely by other artists, so I guess this one is pretty much just for them.

Alright, my answer: Yes, I do trade paintings.  But the conditions have to be right.

I'll tell you a story.  The second Gen Con I ever attended (and the first one I ever showed at), I saw a couple of artists agree to a trade.  This is how it went down: Artist A came over to Artist B's table, selected a piece from his wall, and they both walked back to Artist A's table to complete the trade.  I didn't get to see the other half of the trade, but I did get to see Artist B walking back to his table staring down at the piece he'd gotten in return.  His expression was one of deep regret and disappointment.  It was clear what had happened.  It was a bad trade.

I've heard it said that you should never accept a gift that eats.  A bad trade is like this.  Only it does not raid your refrigerator.  It nibbles at your happiness.  I have been in Artist B's shoes.  I have felt the sting of a trade I was unhappy with.  I followed through out of politeness, and I would take the whole thing back in a heartbeat.  But I can't.

As a result, I have developed simple guidelines when it comes to trading paintings.  Should you ever want to swap a painting or two, maybe they'll be helpful.  Maybe not.  Either way, here they are:

1.  Be honest with yourself.  This is the toughest one of the lot and it's first because it directly affects whether a trade is proposed to begin with.  Unfortunately, it's also very hard to describe.  Let me put it this way: I have a pretty good idea of who would be willing to trade paintings with me.  It's kind of obvious.  At the same time, I know that I'm not going to be able to walk up to Michael Whelan or Donato and get either of them to swap anything with me.  I'm just not there yet.  I may never be there.  And that's cool.  Like it or not, there are artists who may be out of your reach when it comes to trading.  I can only urge you to accept it and move on.  I assure you it's not the end of the world.  If nothing else, use this knowlege as motivation to become good enough that they someday come to you.

2.  The trade does not happen if either party is unhappy.  The ideal result of a trade is that both parties are as happy or happier with the paintings they've traded as they would have been had the trade not occurred at all.  Some are of the opinion that the goal is to feel as good about the piece you've gotten in the trade as you would have felt had you sold the piece you traded.  However you measure it, both parties need to walk away satisfied.  Anything less is a bad trade.

3.  Check your ego at the door.  In the event that you don't have anything that the other party is willing to trade for, be okay with that.  It's not personal, and it's not a commentary on how good you are.  It simply may be a matter of personal taste — after all, you don't know what color the furniture is in the room where they intend to hang the piece.  Your work might clash with the drapes — who knows?  It could also be about the subject matter.  For example, I know a guy who will only trade for paintings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  He's willing to trade with me, I just don't happen to have any paintings of Leonardo hanging around.  It may even be about extenuating circumstances beyond both your control, like your work not passing the "Spouse Test."  I've lost several trades where the artist liked my work but their spouse didn't.  It stinks, but that's just how some people roll.  The take away is that you just have to accept that the trade isn't going to happen, and trust that it's not a slight... Unless it's explicitly stated otherwise, in which case you should probably get started on that blood feud.

4.  Be honest, but don't be a jerk.  Just as you should be cool with someone not wanting anything of yours, you should also be up front with them if the shoe is on the other foot.  Sometimes you just don't see anything that floats your boat, and that's okay.  The important thing is to just be honest and let them know that you don't want to follow through.  Make up some excuse if you have to: someone offered to buy the piece they want to trade for, your spouse asked you to keep it, whatever — just don't follow through out of obligation.  And whatever you do, don't put the reason for not wanting to trade on the other artist's shoulders.  This is not the time to be critical of their work or to let them know that you really don't like them as a person.  You'd think I wouldn't need to write that, but I've seen it happen.

As far as when to trade, I recommend doing so at shows or cons when both parties are present.  In such cases, I usually make an overt offer to trade early in the show.  It allows me to see if the other party is interested.  If they are, I tend to make a mental note of three or four pieces I wouldn't mind having.  In general, folks I know tend to wait until the show is almost over before actually making the trade, so as to give both parties a fair shake at selling their various wares.  Then, it's all about hammering out a deal.

Some may be wondering why we wait.  If both parties want to trade, isn't it best to go after the pieces they most want?  Well, I suppose in certain cases this might be the route you go.  For the most part, however, the business side of things tends to win out.  We try and sell what we can so as to pay for the con, show, etc.  There's always an economic aspect that must be met.  That's why I always make a mental note of three or four pieces.  Should one or two sell, I've still got work I'm interested in.

Rarer for me have been trades that have occurred via phone or email.  These usually started out as casual comments that became trades unexpectedly.  I've even had artists I admired and never before spoken to contact me for the express purpose of swapping paintings.  These tend to be specific trades, or were situations where only four or five pieces were offered up in either direction.  The only thing that can be worrisome in these cases is that you don't get a chance to look at the paintings themselves, but rather scans or photographs.  You just have to trust that the work looks as good as the digital file being presented.  So far, I have yet to be disappointed.  No matter what, it's important to keep in mind that despite the circumstances being a little different, the guidelines still apply.  No smiles, no swapping.

Now, I have one final note about the whole trading thing.  It is a warning.  Among the various folks willing to trade, there are a group out there that many artists would refer to as "Cherry Pickers."  These are folks who will want to get their hands on the very best work you've ever done and only be willing to trade their lesser work in exchange.  In the story I wrote above, Artist A was a Cherry Picker, and the whole scenario caused Artist B to swear off trades ever again.  While I can't tell you what to do when dealing with these folks, I personally tend to shut down any proposed trade with them.  Believe it or not, it's actually not personal.  I understand the impulse to do that kind of thing — it's not too different from trying to buy something for the cheapest price possible, or attempting to have cake and eat it, too.  It's a fundamental of human nature.  My reason for not trading with Cherry Pickers is simply that I know that I won't be happy with the end result.  I've already got three or four pieces sitting in my flat files that I wish I could take back and I think that's just about my limit.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Man Called Bags, Part 2

If I were to look back and try and pinpoint exactly when it was that I finally put away childish things and became a man (whatever that means), it would be the Summer through Fall of 1996.  I won't get into details, but during this stretch of 6 months, I learned an awful lot about life and myself — some of which I liked and some of which I didn't.  It was a painful transition and one which was exacerbated by repeated toe stubbing on life's various snarls.

I recognized that I could use some guidance, and an objective opinion.  In a desperate attempt to steady myself, I decided to reach out to an old friend.  In August of 1996, a full decade after I'd last seen him, I found myself knocking on Bags' door.

I want to break in here quickly to point something out: for some reason, I never questioned Bags' name.  I just accepted the fact that Bags was Bags in the same way that Madonna was Madonna and Prince was Prince.  It seemed perfectly normal that this might be the case — I'd lived through the '80s, after all.  When I finally reached out to him, however, this gap in my knowledge was pretty embarrassing.  How could I not know such a thing?  Where did the name "Bags" even come from?

In my defense, as I've already said, everyone just called him "Bags."  My parents did, the neighbors did.  It's just what was done.  Turns out, however, that the mystery of his name was pretty simple.  His full name was William Bagley.  Obviously, "Bags" just came from his last name and was something that could be seen on just about every painting he ever did.  To my knowledge, there were some who called him "Bill."  In fact, I think if you didn't call him "Bags," that was his preference.  Certainly not William.

So there I stood on Bags' doorstep.  He answered, and despite the years that had passed, he recognized me instantly.  He was frailer than I remembered.  The lines on his face had deepened and there was clearly some pain in his movements.  Mind you, he didn't look bad.  It was just the normal age that piles upon you whether you try and fight it or not.  Bags wore it with relative ease, or at least gave you that impression.  Still, his keen eye was there and sparkled with delight.

He had reached his seventies and had been retired for quite some time.  Judging from the walls of his apartment, it had been a busy retirement.  Some of the walls were lined floor to ceiling with watercolor paintings.  Everything from paintings of children playing, to friends gardening, to weeds overgrowing fences.  It was a wall of the mundane things in each of our lives we see in passing.  The fleeting things that rarely register as being noteworthy.  In some there was joy, in others melancholy.  In all, there was a peace that I have always associated with him.  And in that peace was a certain satisfaction.  His retired years displayed upon his walls for all visitors to see and appreciate.  It was like the pictures some carry in their wallets of their children, only instead of children a parade of moments.

Bags took me through his place and showed me everything.  It was a museum of his life and was full of things I'd never before seen.  I remember one painting in particular that struck me.  It was an oil portrait of a firefighter — one of the men who'd fought the blaze that had left him homeless.  What amazed me is that I'd so closely associated him with watercolor and this piece flew in the face of that.  Even it's subject matter was unique when compared to the body of work he showed me.  What fascinated me above all else, however, was that it was an incredible painting — certainly far better than I was capable of at the time and if memory serves, better than I am capable of today.  This is not to say that the rest of Bags' work was rubbish.  No, it's just that this one piece was the closest to what I was attempting to do in my own work.  Once again, Bags had taken me to school.

After my tour, he delved into the work I brought to show him.  He gave me an honest critique of each piece, and was probably more complimentary than I deserved.  Still, he saw the potential and nudged me towards things I was getting right.  Once we'd run out of work to look at, we chatted a long time about school and life, and caught up with our respective worlds.  And much too soon, I had to go.

Over the coming months Bags and I began to exchange letters.  We sent them to each other about once a month or so.  Mine were full of the angst I was dealing with, his with comforting words and humor.  We wrote about all manor of things and I can still imagine him at his desk replying to my silliness in tidy sentences with neat handwriting.  Sometimes they even came with a Bags original to decorate the envelope.  The days those letters arrived were always among the best of that given month.  I cherished each, and saved them all.

©1996 William Bagley

I went to visit him again at Christmas, when he gifted me his copy of Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life by Richard Meryman (a book I highly recommend if you're so inclined).  He was a big fan of Wyeth's work and I am humbled and honored that he passed this book to me.  It's a book I have to this day, and one that I shall likely have until I die.

As 1996 passed and 1997 rolled in, our letters eventually became postcards.  Then the postcards began to come only on holidays.  And then, eventually, they stopped coming at all.  Also during this time, I met and started dating Amy.  I became a lot more serious about my work, and I began to find some peace of my own.  I still thought of the old man, my friend.  But I had things to do

I didn't go home the summer of 1997.  I stayed and worked two jobs so that I could have the summer in New York with Amy.  And so I never got to visit Bags.  I like to think that he would have understood and had a snappy comment about this new force in my life and the impact it had made.  But the truth is, he didn't even know.  I never wrote to tell him.  I kept telling myself that I'd do it later.  There'd be time.  I'd go out and visit him the next time I was in Pennsylvania.  This turned out to be a mistake.

I heard about Bags' death from my parents.  Amy and I were visiting their house when I mentioned that I'd like to drive out and see him.  They assumed that I had heard the news, and of course I hadn't.  The indirectness and matter-of-fact nature of the news stung.  Indeed, it still bothers me today.  I missed many chances and assumed many things.  The "could haves" and "should haves" lined up to take turns slapping me in the face.  But what hurts even more is this passage from the first letter he wrote me after my visit:
After you drove away I picked up little pieces you left behind and rather wished you had surfaced earlier in the summer — that we might have gone painting...
I cannot explain how much I regret waiting in the first place.  I cannot tell you how much I wish I could have gone out with the man on some beautiful summer day.  What we might have talked about, what I might have learned...

I miss my friend, Bags.  Still, the beauty of what we do as artists is that when we are gone, there is something of us that is left behind.  There on the walls of my parents' home, a little piece of Bags remains.  A piece I revisit every time I see them, and a piece that still has a lot to teach.  And I find that marvelous.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Man Called Bags, Part 1

There are several words in the English language that I associate completely with specific individuals I have known.  Words that have become synonymous with those who often said them.  But these words were not merely said.  No, there was something about the way these words were spoken that indicated their respective speakers did not just know the words, but owned them, bending them to their will like no other could.

The word in this case is “marvelous.”  The friend was a man called Bags.  He said the word without irony, without jest.  He wielded it with precision and sincerity, and it came with the full weight of his heart.  Delivered in such a fashion from a man who was so full of eye rolls and cutting wit, the sentiment was palpable.  It validated and nourished, and burned away any doubt.

“Marvelous” was not good — such a thought is an insult.  It was not merely great, either.  It transcended these things.  It was simply… marvelous.

I knew Bags all my life and our paths often wandered away from each other’s only to take quick, sharp turns to intersect before drifting outward yet again.  He was a friend.  He was a guide.  He was my first art teacher.

As the story goes, when I was very young Bags' home and all his worldly possessions were destroyed in a fire.  My neighbor, who worked with him, invited Bags to move into his family’s home until Bags could get himself back on his feet.  In fact, to aid in this effort, my entire neighborhood chipped in to resupply Bags with all the creature comforts he had lost.  My father, as I understand it, even emptied his closet to provide Bags with a new wardrobe (though I suspect that there was actually a trip to the store involved as their statures were too dissimilar).  And so, in short order, Bags was brought into the neighborhood fold and became a fixture there.

That he was my first art teacher is only appropriate as that’s exactly what Bags did for a living — he taught art at a high school a couple towns over.  He was a thin man, and from what I can tell never actually sported a full head of hair.  I don’t even recall so much as a photograph proving otherwise.  What little hair he did have was white as far back as I can remember — as was his moustache.  He spoke slowly and softly, and clearly took a lot more in than anyone might have guessed.  While I would never go so far as to say that he was a snoop, he was certainly aware of the goings on around him.  He was an artist after all, a consummate observer of man and nature, and the owner of a trained eye for detail.

Unlike many art teachers I have known, Bags practiced the very things he taught — not the craft-based lessons that dominate so many art programs today, but traditional fundamentals like drawing and painting.  Though skilled in many mediums, his weapon of choice was watercolor — a medium as unforgiving as he, himself, could be.

My earliest memories of Bags involve Betty Boop cartoons.  He was fond of them and I remember watching them with him in his makeshift apartment that was really just my neighbor’s finished basement.  It wasn’t long before I gave drawing Betty Boop a go in a childish attempt to impress, but the results were sub-par.  He gave my efforts an honest critique, pointed out where I was going wrong, and encouraged me to try again.  As kind as his words were, the critique soured me on drawing old cartoons, but somehow failed to sour me on drawing in general.  And just as I never stopped drawing, Bags never stopped critiquing.

Bags was used to dealing with older kids and I was still shopping at the little tikes section of the department store.  But, how he critiqued my work changed over time as he learned to deal with the raw emotions of grade schooler, just as my responses to his critiques began to mellow in turn.  It wasn’t a regular thing, mind you, but it was one of those situations where he’d always ask what I’d been up to every time we saw each other.  He was genuinely interested and saw in me enough potential to encourage.

The lessons Bags reinforced in me were the most fundamental anyone can learn when it comes to their profession — though these lessons also tend to bleed into life as a whole.  I say “reinforced” because they were lessons that my parents were busy trying to instill in me, as well.  What made it different was that I was hearing the same things from someone who essentially had no vested interest in my upbringing, and the lessons were being directly applied to art.  Among the most important of these were to take my time and not give up.

Though unintended, Bags taught me even more through the artwork he did — some of which came to hang on the walls of my childhood home.  As one paints, one is constantly making decisions and breaking things down into their component parts.  Among the pieces that hung on the walls of our house were four paintings of my Grandmother’s farm.  Being familiar with the place in real life, it fascinated me to see the more abstract version that he had created.  I’ve spent more time staring at those four paintings over the course of my life than I have any other images, and I remember as a kid walking around my Grandmother’s farm trying to find the vantage points of the paintings, studying the details I saw before me, then revisiting the pieces when I got home in an attempt to understand his process.

That watercolor was among the first mediums I tackled should be no surprise.  I likely wouldn’t have ever touched the stuff if it weren’t for Bags.  Truth be told, most of what I know of watercolor was from studying his work.  And Andrew Wyeth.  But then, Bags did a little of that, too.

As I mentioned before, Bags’ path eventually wandered away from my own.  He moved away, along with my neighbors who’d given him shelter.  They all ended up in the same place, my neighbor occupying an old house about an hour away from our home, and Bags occupying the apartment over the carriage house.  It would be a long time before I saw him again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Tale of Childhood Rivalry

His name was Michael Gable.  He was my childhood artistic rival.  And he was better than me.

I remember being friends with Michael in my early elementary years — after all, we had a lot in common.  We both liked Star Wars and each had a fair collection of action figures.  We both liked the same cartoons on television.  We shared a circle of friends.  And we both had an interest in drawing and used it as best we could in an attempt to impress those friends.  I remember visiting his house and hanging out with him on the playground at school.  It seemed like any other childhood friendship.  But it didn't last.

At some point things changed between us, and by the end of the third grade he seemed to have more interest in ending me than anything else.  I don't know if it was jealousy or something I said, but I eventually found myself on the wrong side of some imaginary line, and over the years that followed never seemed to manage to cross back over.  With our falling out, a rivalry quickly established itself.  We both drew, and so naturally we each had to try and prove he was the better man boy. 

It was during this rivalry that I came to see a major difference between us.  While I drew incessantly, he was more of a casual artist.  My efforts felt more like a grinding assault on a beachhead, his efforts seemed more akin to a precision bombing campaign.  Just when you least expected it, he came swooping in to drop an art bomb in everyone's lap.  What made it worse is that I never saw him drawing just to draw, as I often did.  While I would practice drawing ninjas with dozens of false starts before committing to a more refined drawing on "good" paper, he would just belt out full scenes of ninjas clashing, fighting and diving with an eery ease and confidence that was extremely frustrating to me.

As far as natural talent went, Michael had it in spades.  Though gifted with a decent helping myself, truthfully we were in entirely different leagues.  He was the kind of kid who could see things in his head and just bring them to the page.  There were no fits and starts.  No warmups.  No sketchy marks.  He simply put his pencil down and made it happen.  This was something I simply was not capable of, and to be perfectly blunt, I kind of hated Michael for it.  I hated his abilities, I hated how difficult things were for me in comparison, and the frustration that built in me brought on the first doubt I ever recall feeling regarding art.

At this point my Mom, in an attempt to slam home some perspective, said among the more sage things she ever did during my childhood:

"No matter how good you are," she said, "there's always someone out there who's better than you."

This is kind of an Earth-shattering concept to a seven year old.  At least it was to me.  The frankness was the mental equivalent of ripping a band-aid off.  Seriously, these words blew open my perspective on my own skills and life in general.  In fact, I can still remember where I was when she said those words to me, and I remember walking next to her in silence as I pondered all that I knew in its new context.  I remember it was Spring, and I can still see the way the morning light touched upon the grass and the yellow-green of each blade's translucency.  I even remember the pollen-heavy smell.  It was a strange and wonderful moment in my early life.  And while I can't say I know whether or not the sentiment was age appropriate (I can't say as my Mom has ever been age appropriate), it was a lesson I was bound to learn at some point.

Now, there are two ways I could have reacted to my Mom's words, as I see it.  I could have been happy that there was someone better than Michael at drawing, confident that one day Michael would would meet this person and feel as I did.  Or, I could have just come to terms with the fact that some folks are better at things, some are worse, and such is life.  Looking back, I reacted both ways.  While the idea of Michael getting his comeuppance was certainly where my brain went first, it eventually settled upon the fact that life just works that way and that worrying too much about it wasn't going to change things.

Starting with the fourth grade, I was transferred to a different school and didn't see Michael for three whole years.  During this time, I managed to gain a bit of notoriety for my artistic pursuits and even began taking art classes after school.  But, when I ran into him again in seventh grade, I was reminded again of just how much raw talent he had.

Sure, I'd gotten better, but he still had insane skills that eclipsed my own in many ways.  Curiously, I found that it didn't bother me so much, anymore.  By then, I wasn't just drawing ninjas.  I was drawig from life.  I was also painting and sculpting.  I was trying all kinds of different things and pushing the boundaries of what talent I had.  I didn't have time to worry about Michael, nor did I have the inclination to.  We were different people on different paths.  I needed only to worry about my own.

Nowadays, I know a lot of folks who are better than me, some of whom I'd even call friends.  The jealousy I used to feel for such things has been replaced by awe.  The frustration has been replaced by excitement.  Rather than be irritated, I take what knowledge I can from these folks their work and apply it to my own.  At least I try to, anyway.  Turns out there are people out there better at doing that than I am, as well.

So, whatever happened to Michael?  That's a really good question.  When I reached the ninth grade, I started going to a different school in a completely different state and I don't recall seeing him much after that.  I don't know if he ever pursued the arts.  Heck — I don't even know whether it even interested him.  His part in our rivalry may have been more out of spite than interest.  Still, herever he is, I hope he still doodles from time to time.  I hope he's out there secretly creating masterpieces that make what I've been doing look like amateur hour.  I hate to think that such talent is never used, and that so much potential has been scuttled.