The Incrementals

So, here’s a page from the latest book. It marks what I feel is a certain newfound comfort with Clip Studio Paint, having made the switch away from Gimp earlier this year:

There’s a lot going on there production-wise. I’ve been an open source advocate for a long time, and I have not disposed of Gimp in the workflow entirely. I still use it for various tasks – particularly anything that requires a higher bit depth since Clip Studio is still only and 8-bit application.

Changes in my workflow have been both by leaps and increments, but Gimp’s 2.0 launch left me wanting better hardware. On my current Surface Pro 4, with only the standard RAM and processor, Gimp 2.0 runs too slowly to be usable. I love all the new features, but I exceeded the maximum resolution at which my hardware and Gimp were able to handle very quickly.

Speaking of switching applications, Siggraph was this week – snooze. Just kidding. Plenty of software news floated around but nothing really ground breaking, just tons more VR related buzzwords and usability tweaks from – well – everyone. I’m playing this off as usual, because for the most part the real nuts and bolts of the artistry of everything at Siggraph is mostly old hat by now.  I think most people in CGI feel that most of the big problems of image creation have been solved and everything is just focused on “make it faster and easier” as well as more affordable.

In the meantime I’m having fun with my favorite app – Zbrush – which has been updated to include my favorite formerly free sculpting app – Sculptris. Sculptris was never really taken very seriously – but its ability to add resolution while sculpting made it a terrific solution for picky sculptors like me with slower hardware. Thanks, Pixologic.

Bit by bit, I am changing nearly every aspect of my workflow as a digital artist. The opportunity presented by different tools always leaves me asking “why not try it.” Whether it’s speed, experimentation, user experience, or old fashioned problem solving – I have tried different tools as the default asking the questions – does this help, hurt? Is this better or just different? Is this adding or subtracting from my process and results?

Incrementally.

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Revisions and Tempo

Finding a pace to finish everything on Encoding Bushido has been kind of mixed bag. I set up a decent schedule to work daily for at least 1-2 hours per night, nearly a full 8 on weekends and made one of those internet-guru sounding life-hack discoveries.

Some background work to fill out page 2.

I had optimized my work habits within that time frame so well, it was mentally difficult to work at any other time of day. Call it the power of habit, wait – that’s taken. Crap. Just kidding.

But it was a problem like any other in trying to finish a project while also working a full time job. Interesting first world problem to have, eh? Call it the Angelino Crisis – everyone here has a side hustle, as a matter of fact, maybe I should have called this blog the same but it sounds too much like a dance move.

When it comes to being prolific, I don’t make any hard claims. I don’t feel particularly prolific but I know I have produced more pages this year than at any other year before of comics work. So when added to the work I’ve been doing in visual effects it REALLY starts to sound like a lot. The producer on the last few shows I worked on said that the company finalled over 500 shots between the three shows we had been working on in the same time period. I touched probably a good third of those shots myself.

The numbers sound like ego puffery, but to be honest I just wanted them to get some perspective on the real goal – to finish Encoding Bushido before a certain deadline. Seven issues doesn’t sound as daunting when I’ve already started issue 3, mostly because the last few years have been single issue years for me. From 2014-17, I had only been able to final one full color issue of anything.

I wanted to change that having been seriously disappointed with the performance of Pages of Eight the last two shows I worked. I put an enormous amount of work into those issues, which really ended up as expensive practice for the latest book.

So, before the end of summer there are details to wrap up but issue 2 should be well into colors and issue 3 should have complete layouts.

Thanks for watching!

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Reduction

In the most literal sense, that title is about gear reduction. I had to design a tightly packed and working but also aesthetically pleasing gear reduction set for a model I am going to 3d print.

It’s the simplest possible gear reduction scenario – it doesn’t require a calculation of torque, even though I could probabaly come up with one easily enough. But the aesthetic part is a funny way to engineer parts.

I have resurrected a long dormant project – the steampunk Xwing fighter I designed ages ago as an experiment in genre mixing. It became the most popular post I have ever made on DeviantArt. After getting a 3d printer, and being a 3d modeler, it didn’t take long for me to build a version in 3d with the goal of 3d printing it.

Unfortunately, it also became one of those projects that took a backseat for a very long time. And that brings me to the “meta” part of the the title of this post.

One of my overall rules for deciding how to spend my time is the aspect of ownership. Way too often I see artists making decisions based on authorship instead of ownership – it’s the chief problem I have with spending too much time on fan art, into which this Xwing project would fall. I authored this version of the XWing , I do NOT own the Xwing as a concept. Therefore, I will give preference in time expenditure to projects which I BOTH author and OWN.

I spent far more of my limited free time working on my comics projects – wholly owned and authored by myself. I spend an occasional day on a weekend on fan projects when I see an opportunity or merely want to experiment.

Luckily, the hardest part of the Xwing project is done – and for cgi enthusiasts or professionals, I used Lightwave and Sketchup – Lightwave for the aesthetics and main shapes, but Sketchup for the CAD portion and gearing work.

The two programs appeal to different sorts – Lightwave can be extremely forgiving of the user being – well – messy. Sketchup will eventually punish you for being less than tidy. And while it is true there are CAD plugins for Lightwave, I prefer using Sketchup for anything engineering related – just being in another application helps to put me into a different mode.

Or gear.

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Issue #2 inking and Issue #3 progress

So far this year, still working full time, I have finished more comics pages than any other time in my life. I also feel I have kind of reached a new level with all this comics business both artistically and professionally.

I have to credit my professional work as a visual effects artist for this – quite the opposite frame of mind I hear so many other independent comics professionals talk about their jobs.

The problem is not just the mindset but the structure and culture of work as we know it in comics. The conventional thinking is that if you have made the transition to full time comics professional and have left your other less glamorous career behind you – THAT makes you a success.

I think too many people have this backwards. But I am lucky enough to have a professional daytime job that SOME people think is kind of glamourous. Working in visual effects, right outside the Warner Bros. and Universal Studio gates (literally – I can see both from my office window) is a bit reality altering. In Los Angeles, people I know in the indie comics scene also work in pretty “glamorous”industries – at least to other nerd culture pop culture fans.

Two of my friends work closely with toy companies, others work for other pre/post/and daytime television and film production, still others work as PA’s/accountants/runners and other support for productions around the city. But every last one of them has made the confession that they want to make that WHOLE living with comics.

Plenty of people write about this, but I found a rhythm that works for me and seems to be sustaining me for the moment and AT the moment when I have become the most productive. But most of this newly found productivity doesn’t just come from some rah-rah Gary Vaynerchuk, no complaining Jocko Willink pep talk.

Working all day on one thing compresses the time I have to work at home every night on my own projects. I have restructured how I eat dinner – a veggie smoothie and some lean protein, usually chicken breast – just to maximize the amount of time I spend eating before getting to work on my book. I try to select any media before I start working so I don’t waste time browsing for something to watch while I work.

Even the usually 1-2 hour drive home is spent preparing mentally for working on pages – I run through the page I am working on mentally, “priming” as some call it before I get home and start.

And I honestly have to credit some of the work I do during the day with helping organize my work at home – it comes in a familiar 3 part process much like comics. Visual effects can often be compressed into three overall stages – Animation, Rendering, and Compositing (plenty of people will argue about this being TOO simple, but on most shows I work on these are the easiest broad strokes in the process  to write about).

Comics feels almost as compartmentalized – Writing, Art, and Production. I found a relationship in process between the two that makes them feel more seemless in my head – so it doesn’t feel like the hard snap of jumping into cold water when I do one or the other.

Some productivity experts claim that multi tasking degrades work quality because the work and time lost switching between processes takes time and energy. I think that’s partially true, and the best way to not let that happen is to organize things in more similar ways.

Well, that’s the most long winded way to explain why I haven’t been blogging and tweeting – things which I consider work “related” and not really my true work. So thanks for sticking around out there if you have read all this. I promise I always do my best work when things kind of go silent for long periods!

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Parachuting into the project

Fans of Tim Ferris tout many of his learning methods and concepts. One of the more popular methods is low stakes practice. If you can take the pressure out of the learning process and spend enough time practicing, you can learn something quite easily.

But that isn’t always as easy when you realize that you are under a deadline, a real pressure to deliver and are faced with the cold fact that only a particular new skill will solve the present issues and reach the goal.

That happened to me this past week.

It shakes down like this. A new project had arrived and had been greenlit in a very short period of time – a new show, going in a new direction, made the decision to hire the studio where I work. It was completely out of the blue, as this client hadn’t been active in a few years.  But, at the speed of television, they made the decision to move ahead.

This coupled with a software pipeline upgrade that – as is fashion these days – was a ground up rebuild of the previous version. Many of the most important and esoteric features have been rewritten, moved or removed in some cases. Add this to the already busy docket of shots from other shows and here we have the perfect pressure cooker of time, schedule and structure.

This was the perfect OPPOSITE of low stakes practice. Like the now famous quote, I was learning to make a parachute AFTER jumping from the plane. So it became a compression of priorities, starting from the first principle of intensely discussing what is required. Part of me knows that the final product I WANT to see and what the client wants to see can be very different things.

And therein lay the advantage – in a nutshell, the client actually has no idea what they are going to see until I actually show them. Sure there were storyboards, sure there have been shots like this in other movies and shows, but until they get footage of some kind – previz – into their cut of the show it’s really experimental.

When there are no real expectations, the stakes are still rather high, but they transform in a weird way into something more familiar. Every previz artist knows how what they are doing could turn into a much larger or smaller expenditure with just a few keyframes. They also understand that until someone sees some footage, no decisions can be made responsibly.

Other than storyboards, it’s be best form of low stakes practice available to an otherwise expensive business of crews, cameras, trucks and shutdown city blocks. SO. About that software upgrade …

Maybe next time.

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Switch hitters of software

I’ve been open source for a really long time while producing my comics. Nearly 10 years. And I just bought Clip Studio Paint – the artist tool formerly known and Manga Studio Pro.

Page one of issue 2 of Encoding Bushido, now inking. Didn’t take more than 10 minutes after downloading it before jumping right in and inking.

There’s a Prince joke in there, but no typeface that supports it on WordPress in my current theme.

I had been using a batch of open source applications to make and publish my comics and they have been doing the job happily for free for the whole time. But I needed a change of scenery. I also needed to speed things up a bit as I want to finish the latest graphic novel in less than a year if possible.

So the first casualty of that lineup was Gimp. In it’s current release, 2.10, Gimp has finally added higher bit depth workflows and some other common features found in paid apps. But like many releases of this magnitude, the kinks have yet to be worked out – I started to run into performance issues that even in paid apps were going to take too much time to address.

The second app to take a dive was Inkscape – the vector illustration app I use for lettering, various graphics and any vector needs. I love inkscape.  Ever since the death of Macromedia’s Freehand, I have been at odds with Adobe Illustrator. I even used CorelDraw in impotent protest JUST to NOT have to use Illustrator.

The next app on the list is more problematic and not completely cut. I have so far only purchased the Pro version of Clip Studio –  the version which doesn’t included the project management features of the software meant for comics production. That addition and upgrade may finally put the nail in the Scribus coffin – as I had been both a Pagemaker and Quark Xpress user for decades. But as It stands, Scribus is hanging on, waiting for the inevitable.

SO the first comparison is in speed – specifically the speed Clip demonstrates at the exact same resolution and page dimensions I had been working in while in Gimp. Gimp 2.10 exhibits extremely long load times on multiple layer pages while Clip breezes through the same layouts. This alone shaves days from the total time of production and did more to save my nerves than anything.

Lastly the issue of price is beyond consideration – Gimp might be have been free and perfectly usable before, but Clip Studio Pro is priced so affordably it makes no sense to NOT buy it even if just to play around. It’s full EX price during their seasonal discount is less than what I spend on COFFEE in a year. Makes no sense not to do it eventually, but I am happy with the Pro version – until I want to start animating some of the content in my comics – which was always a wishlist thing.

So eventually Clip Studio will overtake my entire Open Source approach as ONE application – impressive stuff.

Thanks for hanging around, please share or shop!!

 

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Chasing the tail and making graphic novels

In the course of making the latest book, graphic novel, whatever you want to call it – I have been working in a leapfrog sort of fashion to get ahead of the rest of the issues.

All 24 pages are layed out, and often I find a cover image in this part of the process.

When I started writing the whole thing, I wanted to leave some wiggle room for things in the later chapters in terms of character beats and dialogue. TO that I end I have only been fully scripting dialogue in parallel with the layouts.

The goal was to give writing and art equal time and importance – which is something I have watched writer artists around me struggle with. The visuals become too important and the “adults” in the piece suffer from it at times.

I know at least one creator with whom the opposite issue occurs – his writing and dialogue are where his work truly shines and it’s the art he tends to struggle with in the end. At least that’s how it appears as I watch his work evolve.

I had been giving the art in my books much more weight to carry the books, the earlier books especially. I like atmosphere, environment and composition sometimes to the detriment of readability but to the benefit of beauty in some cases.

And there’s the rub – and I think any artist fan of Blade Runner might run into this when creating their own work with this influence in mind. The films are truly bleak but also beautiful because of it. That’s a dichotomy which a storyteller has to deal with because darkness in cinematic form is extremely seductive.

A viewer can get overpowered by the detail and atmosphere – sort of like actually walking through smog. It’s the kind of thing that would choke you in real life. But in film, or in this case – comics, it can be alluring.

I worked in a really strong atmospheric nod to Blade Runner in my work – but it’s especially isolating in the way I used it in the latest book. I wanted to use it to quiet things down – very little is said in the pages where I amp up the atmosphere. The dialogue is mostly internal. There are no sound effects, the stillness and therefore the loneliness are center stage.

And now I am actually blogging about something it takes a ready to gloss over in a few seconds. But hopefully the impression is left correctly.  And all the blogging I do about it just makes me feel better about spending an inordinate amount of time on making these things.

If you’re interested in my other work, below is the last full color book I finished. Thanks for your support.

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Wondercon wrap up

So this Wondercon, I sold out of my newest book – Encoding Bushido.

That has never happened with any of my books. I also sold out of one of my prints, and sold some of each print I took to the show. That never happens to me either.

Apparently I managed to get into the flow of the moment and was mostly prepared for the wave of people who flocked to the show this year.

I think many artists who do shows like these manage to ride the wave of periodic regularity – one year, you do great, the next, not so much.

I never had a wave, as a matter of fact most shows seem to deliver the same flat results for me no matter what. Breaking even seemed to be a long running theme and this year the ONLY thing I changed was a more vertical display of my products.

One thing I am definitely going to look into is a hotel room – even though I don’t live too far from Wondercon, beating traffic on those first days is just too brutal for me now.

So thanks to everyone who showed up, bought a book or print – there were so many familiar faces this year it was kind of comforting.

This year was the first time I set up before the show started – I usually just register, show up on the day of and set up in a few minutes. My setup is incredibly simple so I didn’t see any benefit to spending more money on another day of parking. It was more for experience points, I guess. But in the future, should I ever expand to a booth, I know a little more what to expect.

Some customers surprised me – there are always new artists earnestly searching for advice or wisdom – which I can provide in the form of stories and warnings from the front lines. I guess you could call that wisdom – but I spoke to a newly minted editor with impostor syndrome, a cartoonist looking for new creator friends, and an aspiring comic artist soon to graduate and possibly making a pivot into concept art. Lots of stories.

My favorite stories I told in a set of tweets:
 
Started the cons with this:

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Spread out, and do math

It’s not rocket science, plenty of people use spreadhseets BECAUSE they hate the math of figuring out and tracking data. You simply can’t do all of this mentally or you’d be buggered.

I use  a simple spreadsheet to keep track of printing costs, pricing, impact on sales and aspects of planning for shows.

And all of it comes from the MOST basic equations in ANY spreadsheet. Some people a re better at this than I am but nearly every analysis I make starts with this:

Sum(RowA x RowB).

Everything about that “x” or “/” or “-” makes the difference between total cost, cost per unit, and profit margin. Ooooh, really artsy terms eh?

It’s not sexy at all, it’s especially dirty to some artists who are just starting out and perfectly happy making a few bucks pressing the flesh at a con an not worrying about the fact they only made enough money for the Uber to get back home. To be honest, I’ve been there (I have my own car, but I’ve been busted at a few cons).

So open a google spreadhseet (my preferred cloud solution for business – there’s an advertisement in there somewhere – pay me Google) and give it a try if you haven’t already.

One of my favorite things to do is simulate the sales figures before a show by altering a few numbers here and there to see manage my expectations before a show – changing figures and seeing totals update in real time really helps planning what to buy for the next show, what to dump, and seeing what small changes can do to the whole picture.

So have fun with your numbers, they’re not so scary when you can see them all at once in a way where they’ll behave.

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Prints, profits and preparation

So when it comes to conventions I seriously over-prepare. I always want to have a new book out every year, maybe some new prints. Compared to other artists who do the convention circuit full time, this is a drop in the art bin.

Even with Wondercon looming I want to create something – I finished editing both my sketchbook and new comic so I guess I just needed to do something different.

But the truth is I still work full time when possible and don’t have that imperative to create for a marketplace. But every day and night before a con I am doing something related to creating, preparing, practicing or testing ideas before the show. And as they say, it’s all fun and games until the show starts.

Watching some of those artists hustle through the con scene sort of reminds me of old lectures on ecosystems – top down predatory hierarchies, etc. The people who are really making the big money don’t follow the con scene, they MAKE the cons. Cons being kind of the operative word.

I could never do a con scene unless I had a larger and more profitable business to tour with. I appreciate some artists are able to make that work, travelling and selling at every stop. But that just doesn’t make sense to me as a business. Cons are what I would do in support of a business, not as core to business itself.

It’s like a new band that goes on tour without an album, it just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t make big money at conventions, but I have been able to make a consistent amount of money. That amount of money needs to adjust with the costs of doing the conventions and it’s become clear that it isn’t enough. I’m having to raise prices, cut costs, just like any businessperson should do when confronted with a lot of these “environmental” conditions.

So yeah, “it’s hard out there for a pimp” is the operative phrase. Same as it ever was is probably a lyric closer to my wheelhouse.

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