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Is this another one of those self indulgent, introspective pieces about creating art and one’s personal struggle with doing it? Probably. Or maybe it’s something about tools. As in tools of the trade. And this bit may, or may not, tie into an impending review of one of two books that I picked up…
As I have poorly attempted to document (despite the best of intentions), I have spent much of the past year and a bit trying to get back in the groove of drawing and the like for my various project undertakings. Struggle is probably a soft word for what it’s been, more like an excruciating journey of frustration and turbo charged frustration. That’s not to say it has not been worth while, it has, but it has not, by any stretch of the imagination, been easy or even fun for a lot of the time.
Part of this comes down to not having drawn anything even remotely seriously for a very long time and, like riding a bicycle, without practice you become very, very rusty; you don’t forget but the second nature of it all has left the building. Part of it also is tied to Instagram. I wrote a post about this some time back and most of what I said there still sticks. Finally, there’s what I call the struggle of tools, in other words having a hard time with the tools of drawing you are using.
See, this IS a post about tools.
Things change over time, that is just one of those things in life and even something as rooted as drawing changes too. Styles, techniques, tools, they all change. So when I was starting out again, setting up, seeing who was doing what and how, it was all different. Tablets, pens, papers, everything was one or two degrees worth of different from what I knew, which of course was reflected in the work I was referencing in one way or another.
I gave it a good bloody go though. I set up digitally, learnt a whole bunch of new stuff, tried to replicate what I was seeing and while I did manage to develop a style of digital illustration that I really liked (enough to keep pursuing), both in terms of execution and end result, for the most part things were just not gelling and for the umpteenth time, I was close to giving up on it – there’s little point in doing something if you’re not enjoying it.
What happened next though was what I can only term as a ‘series of very strange events’…
One evening, on the back of a recent post, I started doodling. No real purpose, just mindless shapes on the page. From the shapes though came forms and from the forms a design language that resonated deeply with me, especially after writing said post. And I kept going. After a few hours, I had 10 full A4 pages of doodles that finally defined a stylistic language I’d struggled to find for over a year. Strange how things like that happen.
But it was the next series of events that have been the major turning point.
As I started back illustrating MAG-100 stories with my new found design language and digital style, I also started spending A LOT of time on Pinterest, not sure why but there I was. If you don’t do Pinterest, it can be likened to a rabbit hole and when you dive in, you end up going down very deep tunnels indeed. Keeping a long journey somewhat shorter, it was on one of these dives that I (re)discovered Maschinen Krieger, a rather extensive, yet odd series from back in the 80’s; I remember seeing the model kits when I was a kid and am pretty sure I even had one. It had sort of vanished, except it seems in the strange world of diehard fans… which is probably why I found it on Pinterest! In my looking, looking, looking, I discovered the art of the creator, Kow Yokoyama, and then others like Matoko Kobayashi, Naoyuki Katoh and to a lesser degree Kazutaka Miyatak (most of whom had major parts in creating many anime series I incidentally grew up watching).
I had literally entered a parallel universe that spoke to me like nothing had in a long time.
What I was digging up was deliciously retro by today’s styles and in many ways, so far removed from most of the art you see on Instagram and the likes it might as well be from another planet. And so it should be, a lot of it is a few decades old now. That said, it was emotive, fantastic, and perhaps most interestingly of all, I soon found it’s artwork referenced by many as being influential. Looking through the images, studying the styles, the techniques, trying to work out the tools they were using to achieve what I was seeing, something occurred to me that saw me digging around my drawer for a collection of pens that I have carried around since I was… 12?!
A collection of Rotring fountain pens.
I gave them a once over and started doodling, it was like coming home. The fountain pens not only delivered a quality of line that I have been struggling to find and achieve, but also matched my way of working perfectly, which is, and always had been, scratchy – similar to some of the work I was looking at. The liquid ink on paper (as opposed to ‘dry’ ink delivered in felt tipped pens) gave a style and feeling no other pen did, or could, and the more I used them, the more I came to realise that these were the pens I had been looking for; and they’ve been under my nose for… decades! At the same time I also started using the mechanical pencil that is part of the set; I’d not touched it for ages. Sure, there is nothing retro going on there, mechanical pencils are everywhere, but switching back to it, when combined with the fountain pens has been a perfect match. I had finally it seems, found my voice on paper.
And that got me thinking. The tools we use for creating images are very much part of the process and as such, we should have, must have, an affinity with them. I had bought pens everyone was raving about. They weren’t cheap. I hated them. I didn’t like they way they felt to hold, or they way they felt on paper. This line quality was second rate next to my Rotring Isographs. But as everyone was using them, the issue must have been me, not the pens. The same for papers, notebooks, digital tools. The list goes on. Drawing is language, you are speaking in lines and colours but you can’t do it if your mouth is already full!
And that’s the problem I see today. ‘Follow’ people who’s work you admire and you naturally want to try and do what they do – I see it all the time in questions and comments – it’s so easy when the person is a tap tap tap away in a comment or messenger. People want to try to learn an artist’s technique, use the same tools they do; after all, their results are so good, they have it all worked out, right? It’s not that simple though. These artists use what they use because that’s what they like, what they are comfortable with and where their journey has brought them right now. That though does not mean it’s right for you… or me. I found I was trying to shoehorn my style into someone else’s tools and the results were, well, shit.
I had read somewhere that art is not a destination but a journey and a truer statement could not be said. Journeys though are about exploration, side trips into the unknown, planned with the help of a travel guide. A travel guide though is exactly that, a guide; the real journey begins when you go where the guide suggests, but then put it away and make your own way.
And I finally feel like I can start my own way.