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.


Dave Shelton said...

The tricks to fool oneself and the continuing ability, after many years of what mostly seems to have been genuine improvement, to make truly bad drawings ring very true with me. And, oh, that last 10%... (Personally I'm not yet near the last 10% on the thing I'm doing at the moment, sadly).

Donna said...

Awesome article. I love it when artists explain their technique, especially one that is essentially foreign to

Joel Stewart said...

Aha, but are you writing again too? That's REALLY the hard, soul-searching part in my experience. I've been secretly considering writing some longer stuff again, but I'm mainly not sure that I can cope. I found it the hardest thing ever. Writing in a group and editing tv episodes in dark rooms for hours on end was easy in comparison. Although the second longer book I wrote, did get a bit easier.

Joel Stewart said...

Oh, thanks Donna, your comment appeared while I was writing that one to Dave :)

Dave Shelton said...

Today I am mostly working out a short comic strip but, yes, mostly I am writing at present (or failing to write, on the bad days). I do find it hard - more so, I think, this time round than the first time, but I really don't understand why (or rather, I only understand tiny parts of why). I am, very gradually, progressing, though, and some of what's already done is pretty strong. So I'm hopeful for a good end result, I just wish I could see an end to it sooner than I currently do.

Tor Freeman said...

I enjoyed this Joel - I still get a little protective/defensive in my own head over being primarily a digital artist, something which I think is really my issue rather than a response to actual or implied criticism! It's really an argument I have with myself, with the critical part of my brain which taunts me for not painting more.

For me it's the same reasons that you mention - protecting the line and somehow keeping it jolly when it comes time for colour. I feel lucky to be working at this time, when digital techniques can look so analogue - I'm not sure I would ever have worked out the kinks otherwise! And sometimes I get nervous about computers going away, but then I think in that case there'd be rather bigger issues going on than illustrating!

The other thing I find is that, usually, I actively prefer staring at a screen than at paper. Perhaps it's the negatives that Sarah McIntyre's interesting post mentions too, that my attention span is shot... but I find the glowing screen holds my attention so much better than the unglowing paper. A pity perhaps, but for now the case!

Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking post.


Tor Freeman said...

ps the solution I'm looking towards for my brain fight is to screen print - hoping that will appease it sufficiently so I can sit in front of the computer in peace the rest of the time!

Joel said...

Ha! Thanks Tor. I too have that dark little circular thought process. 'What if they take the computers away? Oh yeah, then very likely food, money, and shelter will also be an issue." I guess we're the first generation of digital professionals. It will be interesting to see what the first generation of actual fully emersed digital children do. Blimey, but the world's so gloomy at the mo that I always think such statements need a proviso about "if we make it that far!"

Anyway, you make lots of interesting points. I'm thinking up a further post on the subject so I'll try not to blow my own points here. Also, I'm in a noisy cafe and posting comments from an iphone turns out to be really challenging.

David Jennings said...

Hi Joel, I got drawn in and read to the end, though without following all the details since I'm not an artist myself. Still fascinating, though.

My comment, though, is an aside to your aside about the iPad as tool. I wonder if you know Tom Phillips' 37-years-and-counting Humument work. It's rooted firmly in the world of the physical artefact, as it originated as a remaking and redrawing of a Victorian novel. This process always pointed beyond the confines of the original artefact and text. In recent years it's found a new life as an iPad app, cut loose from the moorings of the book, and I've heard Phillips refer to his iPad as the most beautiful thing he's ever owned (which I took as high praise from him).

This is very much a tangent to your point because it concerns iPad as display rather than tool (as far as I know, though Phillips has used digital tools, he still makes new Humument pages by drawing directly on pages of the original rather than any digital facsimile).

My question is whether the 'destination' medium has a bearing on the tool and process, for example, in relation to how colours are experienced differently when seen on a light-emitting surface? If the destination is digital, does it help to work in digital from the beginning? Does the shift of work between digital and physical realisations introduce disruptions, and, if so, can those sometimes be 'productive' disruptions?

(sorry for the rambling length)

Joel said...

Hi David, that project sounds interesting. I do find iPads beautiful (though I don't own one at the moment there is one in the house), this is why I find it frustrating that the interface is so limited for making pictures (pressure sensitivity is a big problem. There are ways around it but they are not very elegant).

One of the reasons I, like Tor above, have a fight with myself about these things is that I am a luddite about many things (I play medieval musical instruments for fun, just as an example, though I've little to no interest in medieval music). So I haven't created much specifically for the screen, with the exception of my sketches which go on the blog here and on tumblr. Interestingly, there I am always interested in real-world mark making. Often blowing up small drawings so you can see the subtleties of the marks, things that are still a real headache to create in the computer (perhaps because replication is what you get involved in, rather than making.

I did approach the television programme I made quite differently for screen, but in that case probably using more real world elements than in my illustrations, and the things that frustrated me the most were often to do with the shortcomings of computer manipulated or generated parts.

Essentially, so far for me the computer has been a tool to overcome the difficulties I face doing illustration for a living, and a lot of the things I actually find beautiful are not made with computers (although I often have only ever seen them on a screen!). Again I have some more points about this that I hope to put in another post.

Joel said...

Have discovered I am behind the times, as Wacom do now make an apparently useable pressure sensitive stylus for iPad. There have been others but it's possible that this one works. I do like the idea of drawing on a screen that is print res. The Cintiq resolution confuses me a lot as to the level of detail I'm working at.