Monday, June 27, 2011

"To Whom it May Concern": Who's my audience and why should I care?

"Know your audience." This seems to be the mantra of many agents and publishers. I've been taking workshops here and there in my arduous quest to become a published writer and illustrator, and the phrase just keeps coming up. And it's a perfectly acceptable concern, really. The publisher is responsible for making the money come in after being handed your little gem of prose, and the first thing they have to know is where to put it on the shelves. Is it fantasy, or merely fiction? Are we expecting this to be read by third graders or could parents read it to preschoolers? Are you talking to teens or tweens? And aren't those both considered young adults? Sheesh! I like to be as organized and efficient as the next guy, but I always balk at the idea of putting things into categories in the face of the creative process. How can I think about my characters if I'm thinking about someone else, or how that someone else is going to judge them? It's like high school all over again: if you go through your whole day worried about what others think of you, you will spend your whole life hiding in your locker wracked by crippling self doubt and angst.
  Writers on the other hand, seem to be more of the school of "Write something you want to read." What a novel idea! I mean, it only takes a few days or maybe weeks to read a book, do you know how long it takes to make one?! Months and years! At the end of the day (months, years...) I'm the one who has to spend more time with these characters, this story, than anyone else. Of course I should write what I want to read. I've had a lot of trouble reconciling this with the idea of writing to targeted age groups, because growing up, I feel like I never quite fit in them myself. My reading level was generally several grades ahead of that of my peers. And with the downward spiral that today's school system seems to be in, I don't even know what "sixth grade reading level" means. Is it the same as when I went to school?
     In addition to vocabulary and understanding plot structure, there's the matter of subject. What subject would intrigue an eighth grader? A high schooler? The thing that publishers forget is, there are a million different kinds of kids out there! They are all individuals! Some like cheezy romance, some like sci-fi, some like comedy, or suspense, or (cough* cough* dry heave) vampires. Some like all of those or combinations of them. And this just in, you grown up types, kid's HATE being put in boxes like this. I always hated when teachers would talk to me about reading level because I felt like they were being patronizing and talking down to me. As if there were lofty concepts in those golden tomes that I was too immature to understand. Granted, they may have been trying to protect me from "Mature Subject Matter" ie: sex. And maybe some violence, but I think nobody's really as concerned with kids reading about violence as they are them seeing it in film, but that's a topic for another day. No, what this issue comes down to, as most other do, is sex. The "Young Adult" label generally at one point or another comes with some sort of sexual encounter...or two...or three. Are they doing it because that's what teens want? Is that what girls want? I have to say, I always resented that as a teen, every time I wandered over to the shelves supposedly intended just for me, the books and graphic novels were filled with angsty girls and guys that were, in there own way, every bit as impotent as the Disney characters I'd grown up watching only at least Disney princesses had the decency/sexual repression to keep their clothes on and, I dunno, not get knocked up. I would be a fool if I didn't admit that teen pregnancy and all the emotions and confusion leading up to it weren't part of the teen/young adult experience. And I understand that teens need to relate to characters. But if you have to deal with that stuff all day, why would you read about it in your spare time? I have to say that I always took it a little personally to think that that's how publishers and writers perceived me as an audience member. So I wandered away into the Fantasy section and waited for Harry Potter to come out.
   Speaking of The Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter is an excellent example of my last point: mass appeal. I love Harry Potter. So does the third grader my mother tutors. So do boys and girls, men and women, of all ages. You have a generation now who grew up reading it, and still more join the throng every day. Copies of The Half Blood Prince sold over 9 million copies in the first 24 hours of its release. The big question: HOW DID JK ROWLING DO IT?!!! How do you create characters and a story line that has this much appeal? I think it comes right down to what makes us all human. Rowling imbued her characters with humor, frailty, courage, and selflessness. She didn't make any of them perfect, and in doing so, crafted them perfectly. She didn't make them children, or teens, or adults. She made them people. She gave them qualities that no matter who you are or what your situation in life, you could relate to them. She also didn't add anything that didn't need to be there. Sex wasn't important to the story, so there was never a scene like that, although as the children became teens she could have orchestrated it that way. In terms of violence, the books take our heroes through a war, and violence happens in war. In addition, there was always the stark contrast of how the good guys and the bad guys used violence. The baddies are always needlessly violent, cruel because they can be. The hero rises out of need to defend those he loves. Those are ideas that we can relate to, idealize, and hold dear whether we are 9 or 90. That's why you have folks in their 50s who still love Star Wars. Why young professionals still collect comics. No matter what the window dressing, the magic, super-powers, jet-setting lifestyle, whatever, it all comes down to a human soul. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summer sketchy-doodles

Hey, sportsfans! Or beachfans rather. I'm in full summer mode, and in honor of the first day of the season, thought I'd toss up some beachy sketches. These were heavily inspired by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Vera Brosgol. Check out her site at . Also give her brand new graphic novel a look: Anya's Ghost, available on Amazon for those of us not lucky enough to be able to attend Stumpfest or any of her other cons. Speaking of Comic conventions, are there listings of those somewhere? Are there any on the east coast that lean more the indie way? I've only ever been to the HerosCon in Charlotte, which is great and all, but seemed rather traditional for my tastes. Anyhoo, splashy splashy!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Elephants of Design

I’ve decided I’m going to make a more conscious effort to apply the elements of design to every aspect of my life, not just my artwork. The elements of design have a lot in common with zen philosophy, I think, and moving into a new apartment has presented me with an opportunity to make a number of positive changes in my life. So here goes:
            The first thing we have to do is remember exactly what the elements of design are. In art school we are told we must learn them so we can forget them. (Talk about zen, huh?) With a little memory jog from Google, the elements of design are as follows….ok, well seeing how there are often multiple words for the same principle, and internet sources don’t always agree here is what I have come up with:

Principles of Design


First of all, economy was the principle that made me no longer have the school books that have economy’s definition in them. I gave/threw them away because they took up too much room on my shelves and I hardly ever used them. That’s economy. Both in art and in life, if you don’t need it, get rid of it. It’s hard sometimes; take it from a recovering hoarder. The excuses of “Oh I’ll need it one day,” “I spent money and resources on that!” or “I worked really hard on that one little piece of that project but it doesn’t match now!” often prove too persuasive. But just let it go. Your life, your space, your work will thank you.

Rhythm and repetition are often used interchangeably in the design world, but I think there are subtle, even opposing nuances to their definitions. To me rhythm in a piece of art gives it energy. Like the visual translation of a piece of music, it makes your eyes want to samba across the artwork and enjoy looking at it and how it makes you feel. Repetition on the other hand, seems like it creates stability. Your eye doesn’t panic or get jerked around because there is more of the same shape or color coming up, letting your eyes just glide around and hang out. It’s more restful, I feel. Both use a pattern of colors or shapes, but to slightly different ends. Your life needs degrees of both rhythm and repetition. In today’s world where so many people are unhappy with jobs where they do the same thing day after day might think this sounds horrible. The same thing every day might be a good example of too much repetition. But I have found that have something to look forward to every week or a small moment every day gives us a sense of stability in our fast-paced lives, something we can trust and rely on as an anchor in our week. Going to church, having a meal with friends, stopping at a local pub for a beer on Fridays, or taking 15 minutes to unclutter your desk on Monday morning lets your brain relax and create order. In addition, sometimes doing boring mundane like filing or stocking shelves gives your brain a chance to let your body do the work and take a moment to look at a view or a problem it had never noticed before.

Movement seems to be a term not consistently classified as a principle, but I’m including it because it’s useful. In artwork, having shapes that direct your eye to or away from the main subject lets you have a visual journey. It lets you discover details of the surroundings and other shapes, lines and textures rather than slamming you to one bright red spot in the middle and being done with it. Movement and journeys are what make life interesting, not to mention healthy. SO MOVE! Having just hauled all my possessions into a new apartment I can say, yes it can be rather stressful, and I won’t do it on that scale for quite some time, but I can still summon the energy to go for a walk! Also having one less car has me and my husband doing a great deal more walking, and even though we’ve moved back to the area I grew up in, I confess I’m seeing it in a whole new way! New buildings, new spaces, things you don’t notice when wizzing by at 60 mph. Not only do new environments stimulate your brain, but so do the chemicals and endorphins from moving your body in a brisk and calorie-burning fashion. Ok, you got me, I need to do more of that. But whether it’s hiking the Appalachian trail, or taking that pilates class that your sister was so stoked about dragging you to, getting off the couch is the first step.

Gradation is kind of an odd one to apply to life. In art gradation of color or value makes objects appear to have volume and weight. It can also be used in adjusting the size of objects to create a sense of space. Big to little, light to dark, etc. Philosophically, I’m going to take it to mean that you don’t have to do or have everything all at once. Have patience with yourself. When making changes or starting something new, take baby steps, it’s ok. Steps added together equals progress.

Scale is something I think America has a rather warped perspective on. We are such a vast country, over half of our landmass is open space, it’s a perfect breeding ground for the philosophy of “bigger is better!” But in our new smaller apartment, I’ve had to confront the notion of downsizing, and have come to see it not as a punishment of privation, but a simplifying of the space I use daily. In a small space, clutter happens easily, and I have to actively combat my tendency to just let junk lay around wherever I put it. Smaller cabinets, smaller refrigerator make me realize just how much food I realistically eat in a week, I don’t need to stock up to feed an army. I appreciate the intimacy of a smaller space and can appreciate it for how it shapes the life of me and my husband. I guess the lesson is, space is something that we are in this country blessed with a lot of, and spaces come in all sizes and shapes. Find one that is just right for you.

Contrast is fun in design because it creates surprises. Contrasting colors or values are what give objects in art that “pop”, thrusting things into prominence and making us confront either the objects themselves or the relationship between the objects. My favorite use of contrast is often used in character design and story telling: the young cowboy in the white hat going up against the big ugly black-hatted outlaw and his dastardly dark band of banditos! Or for even more interest and perhaps even humor, the big bad outlaw turns out to have the personality of a push-over cry-baby, characteristics in direct contrast to his outer appearance. You are surprised, or find yourself engaged and rooting for someone; you become invested because you find you have something in common with the objects or characters you’re looking at. So for more contrast in your life, do something outside your comfort zone. You may discover you like Thai food, or at least learn to laugh at yourself as your first attempts at throwing pottery look like they would be more comfortable in a nuclear hellscape. Even saying hello to a stranger in the grocery line might be the beginning of a fascinating and fulfilling relationship.

I’m going to tackle dominance and balance together because they seem at odds in real life. Dominance is pretty self-explanatory. It is the thing that defines. The piece, the picture, your work, your life. It’s the thing that you focus on. It’s rather hard, because often the thing that dominates our lives isn’t the thing that we wish it was. Work, neuroses, a bad relationship, addiction, a new baby, anything really. We feel that these things define us and they can be very difficult to change because often we don’t have as much control over them as we think we do. That’s where balance comes in to mitigate the power of dominance. By asking for help, letting go of some things, re-prioritizing the things that a truly important to us, we can introduce new elements into our lives that bring balance.  Nobody can “have it all”. And really, it’s a pretty silly thing to wish for when you think about it. I think if I had everything, each thing would get approximately 20 minutes of focus, and what real enjoyment can that bring? Our culture is ADD enough as it is, not to mention sleep deprived. But I think there is a certain peace, a balance, that comes with letting go of everything and settling for what is important. Chances are we’ll all have to work for a living, maybe not at a job we love. We may wish we had more money, less taxes, more time, more vacation, shorter commutes, more hair, less weight, more shoes, blah blah blah. Focus on the picture in front of you, the life in front of you, and arrange the pieces as they come, and let them go as they depart. This is balance.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Post Numba 1

I never know how to begin...
   Why is a blank page so much more intimidating than a blank canvas? You would think they'd be the same, but no. Maybe it's because, for me, words come before pictures. That seems evolutionarily backwards. Maybe because I rely largely on inspiration when I draw. Draw a blank, or from a blank. I mean with no direction. A blank canvas is a thrill to me: a vast empty playground of potential waiting for my paint, my mistakes, my experiments. If it doesn't work, slop some gesso over it and start blank again. You use what you learned and erase what didn't work to make something new and better.
    But words? Ah, words are a whole new world. Words take discipline. Forethought. Planning. You have to order complex sequences of thoughts, not to mention order the letters to express them. And they seem so permanant! I was always taught "think before you speake, because once you say something, you can't take it back." My mother was trying to get me to be nice, but it taught me the earth-moving power of words. Once they are on the page, you can't un-make them. Pencils have erasers, sure. Pencils to this day are my best friends. Ink terrifies me. It has such permenance! If you mess up, you scratch it out, but it just stays there. Under the scratches, forgiven but not forgotten. You just do your best to move on.
   Typing is a little more friendly, in that it is itself inconsequential. I can go fast, letting my fingers fly, my thoughts folw, no editing. Then I can stop, breathe, read, spell check. If it's all total rubbish I can highlight the whole thing and summarily execute it by hitting Delete, Deus Ex Machina style. Or treat it to a slow, dramatic, agonizing demise one character at a time by holding my finger on the backspace key. Because it's not real untill you hit print. Even "send" or "post" don't have the impact for me that "PRINT" does. "Is that your final answer?" it asks. "The answer should nearly always be "no". I will have to become more friendly with the notion of the rough draft if I am to consider myself a writter.  Anyway, only printing makes it real. Words that I can hold in my hand. Words that might even outlast me. Words on the computer, those aren't real. Anybody can put any words on the Internet that they want. And yes, I am aware of the irony of you being able to read this in a blog. What does that make me now? That's probably the reason it took me years to succumb to the notion of a blog in the first place. I feared not only my words coming back to haunt me, but somehow despite their power, words seem more vulnerable than pictures. I mean look at them: just a bunch of squiggly lines strung together. Extra slanty and squibbly in my case. How can they withstand the world? How will they not crumble undercriticism? Pictures are subjective. It takes a certain degreee of education on the subject of art to properly criticize a picture. Yet to the public at large, personal taste is often the directing factor. As such, whenever I hear things like "I don't like it," "That painting looks like a four-year old did it!" and "It doesn't have enough cats in it, you should draw more cats!", I can just roll my eyes and huff a deep breath, and let it go.
   But there are no two ways about words. Not to most people anyway. People get so swept up and moved by words. Words can make a person want to attack another person. My words can make someone want to attack me! It seems like it takes so much more courage to share my words with someone than say "Hey, look what I drew," When you give words, people nearly always want to give some back. That's a magic that binds us together as human beings. And I want more of that in my life. And so I started this blog to make myself share more, work more, listen more, read more, write more, and be more. And in exchange, I beseech you, dear reader, a bit of patience, perspective, and humor. If you lack those things, I'm very sorry. But at the end of the day these are just words. And pictures. Enjoy!