Monday, November 11, 2013

Digital and Handmade

I am currently about ninety percent (I hope) of the way through what is, depending on exactly which books you count as having been fully illustrated by me, my twentieth illustrated book. I have used a computer in some fashion for seventeen of those books. For this book I've hardly been near real paper at all. And now I feel pretty funny.

(A crop from some work in progress from my twentieth illustrated book. Apart from some watercolour textures and some paper textures built into custom photoshop brushes the pictures are being done entirely on a computer.)

I'd like to try to order some of my thoughts about working with computers. 

At the end of his first Reith lecture, Democracy Has Bad Taste, (about 38mins in) Grayson Perry responded to a statement (cunningly disguised as a question) from Will Self, regarding the "haptic quality",  the handmadedness of Grayson Perry's work, with a dismissal of the fetishising of the handmade. It was a slippery statement of his own, but there is so much going on in these statements and questions. Things I don't have any answers to (but probably a deal of statements).

I'm fond of pulling people up when they refer only to the non-digital as being hand-made, as though those of us working with Wacom tablets or Cintiq screens* made the computers do all the work with our hands tied behind our backs. You know, the way that CGI just comes out of the back of a computer when you post a movie budget in the slot on the front, and those CG designers and animators don't do a thing, all night, snatching sleep under their desks to bring scenes in on time. 

(*I left out iPads, since it seems that David Hockney might be the only person on earth to conjure a worthwhile image from what ought to be the most handy of the anti-handmade devices. I've also heard iPads referred to as truly handmade objects. Handmade by workers in purportedly appalling conditions. How do I know? Those workers might be no worse off than those animators, sleeping under their desks.)

But, to attempt stay just about on track, there is a gut feeling in most statements about the hand-made. Making something without a computer does feel different to the maker. And the thing about drawings and pictures is that they are very good at conveying feelings. Also the term "in meat-space" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

(The cover of one of my first books. Painted on paper with acrylic and watercolours. Published in 2002)

The fact that the first three books I ever illustrated were painted "by hand" had more to do with publishers not being used to illustrators using computers than with my desire to work solely on paper. At that point the received wisdom seemed to be that computers were only for designers, and who was I to argue? Although my preferred technique at the time was to collage watercoloured drawings together with paper textures on the computer, I decided to use acrylic paint so that I could correct and make changes as far as possible without starting each image from scratch. Still, I remember painting the cover of my first book a full five or even six times over. The colours came out well, (in fact I'm not convinced I've got near them since) but I felt that the technique knocked whatever scant fluidity there was right out of my drawings. That fluidity is important to my feeling good about drawings, though it often seems as though people respond more to colour.

(Illustration from the Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. I used Ink, watercolour, and digital collage. Fluid? Well, almost, but it was an absolute joy and a relief to put this together after the laboured paintings I had been doing "by hand". Published in 2003)

All this took such a long while that in the mean time other illustrators had been hassling publishers to let them use computers, and at last I was allowed to use the technique I'd intended from the start. I immediately discovered that most of the fluidity I imagined I had dissipated completely under the pressure of making a whole book, whether I had access to a computer or not. So I set about finding all sorts of weird ways to trick myself into not worrying so much about making drawings. 

(Illustration for The Little Mermaid by Hans Andersen. Drawn using typewriter carbon and watercolour, with other elements collaged digitally from chalk pastel drawings on coloured paper. Published in 2004)

One method that stuck for several books was that of tracing my rough drawings onto watercolour paper with typewriter carbon (already rare enough a substance that it had to be ordered using a computer). Because I couldn't see the final drawing while I was drawing (it was underneath the carbon paper), I felt better about the mark making. The drawings came out with a sort of rigid roughness that kind of worked. They were awkward, but in a way that I felt was mine. This technique hurt my hand though, so it couldn't last. 

(An illustration from Moon Zoo, written by Carol Ann Duffy. The drawing was done with typewriter carbon and watercolour, and all else was collaged together from "hand-made" pieces. Published in 2004)

Towards the end of making the final book done using this carbon paper technique I was asked to colour a lot of images that I had done in black and white and for the first time I used brushes in photoshop. I was not too impressed with the result, but was sure that was my fault and not just the limitations of the software. 

(Illustration from The Wild Swans by Hans Andersen. Coloured with digital brushes.
That awkwardness I mentioned! Probably made even stronger by the fact that the characters in the picture were originally drawn naked, before I was asked to draw them again with clothes. This was one of the first images I ever tried to colour with photoshop brushes. Published in 2004)

While colouring a book for someone else's B&W drawings I worked out a digital colouring technique that used textures from an analogue photocopier (modern photocopiers scatter dots everywhere and don't give the same textures at all) screened over digital colour, giving a result that wasn't quite watercolour or old four-colour process or aquatint, but had something of the feel of all those. A bit washed out colour-wise, but as a technique it gave so much freedom to separate the drawing from the colour! At the same time I picked up the idea of soaking drawing paper in linseed oil from a friend who drew pencil drawings that way. I tried ink and found that the way it bled and misbehaved once again stopped me worrying about mark-making and got me through the pressures of drawing to order. As I recall it took about a twelve inch thick pile of "meat-space" sketchbooks to work that technique out!

(Illustration from When a Zeeder met a Xyder, by Malachy Doyle. Drawn in ink on oiled paper. Textured and coloured on the computer using texture from an analogue photocopier. Published in 2006)

It was becoming clear to me, however, that the reason I needed to trick myself so often, or to find ways of making awkwardness work for me was really all to do with my drawing. The only solution was to draw more and get better at it. To this day my ability to draw a really nice drawing followed quickly by an utterly appalling one where I appear to have forgotten everything I ever learned astounds me.

(Illustration for The Silver Sovereign by Eoin Colfer. Drawn quickly on layout paper, printed onto watercolour paper with a computer, then painted. Published in The Birthday Book in 2008)

(Two utterly appalling drawings where I appear to have forgotten everything I ever learned. Believe me there are many worse ones, but these were the worst I could bring myself to post.)

It's taken me more paragraphs than I'd meant to get me up even to work published five years ago, and all this doesn't really cover my experience of making things completely digitally. Perhaps I can continue in another post, (anyone read this far? Let me know!). I really need to get on with turning ninety percent of a book into a hundred percent of a book. If experience has taught me anything, it'll take more than another ten percent's worth of effort with or without a computer.

Meanwhile here are some thoughts on similar from some fellow illustrators:
Points 9 and 10 regarding digital colouring in Sarah McIntyre's blog post here resonate with me very much. As do Alex T Smith's points about hurting eyes.