Of Style and Substance

Most artists, especially younger ones, are most concerned with style. This makes sense, because it’s your artistic voice. Which colors do I use? Which colors won’t I use? Is there line work? How thick? Will this look good over your grandma’s couch, or on the wall of an art gallery where the proprietor will give you a condescending look when you walk in? Stuff like that. Unfortunately, I think that we usually give less thought to substance. What is my artwork saying, and what is it saying about? I think that clients, buyers, and your grandma have a better handle on those questions. For the most part, they’re not going to an art fair thinking, “I’m going to get something in a post-impressionist style that has a great handle on vermillion,” but rather, “It’d be great if I can find a cute painting of a rooster for the kitchen” (which by the way, would look great in a vermillion-heavy, post impressionist style). And then they buy the rooster painting that speaks to them the loudest. Basically, what I’m saying is that style should follow the substance of your work (or not follow it, if you’re going for ironic detachment) in the same way that form should follow function.

How we handle style and substance is what defines us as artists, and to better understand that, I’ve put together this incredibly scientific chart:

Not only scientific, but aesthetically perfect too. So, we’ve got two variables, Subjects (synonymous with Substances from here out) and Styles, and you can have either one or multiple of each. Under “One Style, One Subject” we have what are essentially the artist versions of YouTubers or influencers. Artists like Loish. She works exclusively in a painterly, digital art style (has her own marketed digital brush packs) and, by and large, she only draws young women (which a lot of the time look like vaguely anime versions of herself). If we go back before the internet, Bob Ross would be this same type of artist. He only painted wet-on-wet oil and exclusively stuck to landscapes. These are the comfort foods of artists; you know what you’re getting, and it’s gonna taste good every time. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love Bob Ross, watched him every chance I could as a kid, and have watched through his collections with my children multiple times on Netflix. And I follow Loish on Instagram, wish that I could paint in Photoshop with the ease and skill that she does, and I think she has incredible drawing skills (like way more skills than she actively uses). The thing is, I can’t understand how you can only do one thing. That would drive me insane, repeating myself over and over again. That’s like asking the Beatles to write and record 100 “I Want to Hold Your Hands.” However, that’s what the internet loves, and the “One Style, One Subject” artists have by far the most followers on social media (we’re talking into the millions).

Next are the “One Style, Multiple Subjects” artists. The first of these that comes to mind is Jake Parker. He works in a pen and ink style somewhere between graphic novel and Watterson, usually only changing the amount of detail (to fit the target market) or rendering style (digital, markers, watercolor, etc.), but it’s always very clearly the same hand behind the work. However, he changes up the subjects that he slides into that style. He jumps around between his original sci-fi and fantasy properties, children’s book and cartoon characters, Star Wars and superhero fan art, robots and machinery, and dinosaurs. If you look through his sketchbooks, you see that he’s pretty much up for drawing anything. And that’s key to this kind of artist; you have to be a master of your style to do it. Because he’s got so much pencil mileage, he doesn’t have to worry about how he’ll draw a thing; he can just sit down and draw. Which has to be extremely chill.

Side note here: Jake Parker is the closest thing I have to a mentor. I watch his YouTube videos and listen to his podcasts for career advice, and take his online courses to brush up. He basically has the career that I want: entrepreneurial, freelance artist with a steady family life, who gets to jump back and forth between graphic novels and children’s books, and when he wants to do something new, he’ll Kickstart it and get to work. One day…

At the top of the chart are the “Multiple Styles, Multiple Subjects” artists. These are the people that will change up the medium, the focus of the art, and even the drawing style of the artwork. They tend to do this by focusing on series, catching a muse and riding it until they’re ready to try something else for awhile. My favorite example of this is Mike Mitchell. Off the top of my head, I can think of these different styles/series from him: Fat Birds, Skullies, Food Dudes, pop art cartoon characters, and realistically rendered portraits in profile. And all of them are really well made (I have a bunch of his work on my wall). I love these kinds of artists, because you can see curiousity continue throughout their careers.

But what about the “Multiple Styles, One Subject” people? Who are they? Nobody, I hope, because they would be psychopaths. Who would want to do that, anyway? “Oh yes, I paint in oil, acrylic, watercolor, and sculpt out of woven cat hair, but I only make X-Wings.” The closest I’ve seen to this are the students in high school art that don’t want to be there (or are high), and no matter what the medium or lesson is, found a way of making it a portrait of Bob Marley.

So what kind of artist am I? I’m glad to say that I’m a “Multiple Styles, Multiple Subjects” kinda guy. Here are the styles that I’ve worked in recently:

Inked Illustration

This one is my natural drawing and rendering style, and what most of my sketchbook work looks like. It’s the combination of everything that I absorbed as a kid, from Jan Brett books to X-Men comics, as I was self-teaching. It always starts as ink lines (predominantly brushpen now, because I like how the line weight varies), then I render it out in watercolor, prismacolors, or digital painting. If I lean the drawing more cartoony, it’s children’s book ready; if I lean it more realistic, it’s graphic design work. The subject can be anything, but lately I’ve been tackling anthropomorphic animals and creatures.

Bad Apples

This style was developed to fit the time restrictions of Art Conspiracy’s paint days. You have to come to a warehouse, pick up an 18×18″ piece of wood, and turn in a finished piece of artwork the same day. So I planned out a way to do that without wanting to die (like I did the first year I did an impressionistic style portrait of my son). Bad Apples start out as rough pencil sketches that are then scanned into the computer, outlined in vector (for a smooth, fluid look), printed out to size, before being transferred to the painting surface. That’s a lot of prep work, but it allows the drybrush style of acrylic painting that they’re finally rendered in to be knocked out in several hours. It’s all finished off with black paint pen (another time restriction choice, allowing me not to worry about edges at all during the painting process). The subjects vary, but they’re always cute representation of something off-center or macabre. As my work has gotten more family friendly than I’d ever guessed for myself when I was in film school studying Fincher and Tarantino, I see my Bad Apples as an outlet for darker feelings and gallows humor. They’re also almost all about eating, and there’s no way that’s not Freudian in some way…

Flat Pop

I stumbled on this style several years ago doing graphic design, when flat design for advertising illustration and icons were all the rage. I did a couple simple portraits then thought, “Hold up… what would happen if I really pushed this thing with some more complexity?” I tend to focus on pop culture entities that I love, but this style could be used to make portraits of anyone. They’re always made in Illustrator, clicking around with the mouse, tracing over a pencil sketch (that I only have draw half of, since they’re always mirrored). Flat Pops are an artistic outlet for my perfectionism and desire to control my work (since they’re symmetrical). This goes all the way to the Illustrator work file. All Flat Pops are made on one artboard, in one PDF (called the Workbench), using the same color pallette. Basically, these are the closest to meditation that my brain will allow me to get.

Detailed Vector

I clearly need a better name for this style. This grew out of the fact that, since I’ve done graphic design professionally for 12 years now (which I literally can’t believe as I type it), I’m way more comfortable with Illustrator than Photoshop (which I’ve learned is weird for illustrators). The style is meant to echo retro travel posters and advertising artwork from the 50s-60s, so I try to think of these as traditionally screenprinted, down to how each piece is made of only the combination of 7 colors (like there’s no green in Fantasyland or Frontierland; I’m creating those through layered transparencies of blues and yellows). The only use of Photoshop is at the very end, when I use a texture spray brush to add shading and hightlights to mimic half tones in screenprinting. These pieces are kinda a message to myself that in pushing Illustrator as far as I can, I’m now using it in ways that it’s really not meant for, so it’s about time I transition to Photoshop as my workhorse. But until then, I’ll keep making these overly detailed throwbacks.

Fast and Loose

This one’s a new style I’m playing with (starting in November) where I’m learning to let go of control and let watercolor and ink (my favorite way to paint) just hangout and do what they want to do. Simply designed, throwing perspective out the window, using only a handful of pigments, with washes and line bleeds all over the place, these guys are fun, relaxing, and meant to be knocked out in an afternoon.

Cartoon

Designed specifically to be animated, I like to think of these as “Muppets meets Loony Tunes.” Completely vector, they’re shaded using either smooth transparent chapes or gradients. No texture allowed. The characters are friendly, and the youngest artwork that I make.

Wrap Up

So there it is – six styles that I’m working in now. And I’ve actually been paid or made sales off of five of those (Fast and Loose is still just in the home at this point). The unifying thing to all of them is that every piece starts out as pencil on paper, sketched with an HB pencil, before splintering off into each style’s particular process. And that’s what makes them all uniquely mine. Has this variety hurt my social media following? Maybe? I’ve only just recently started posting regularly, so we’ll see. What’s more important is that it’s artistically fulfilling, and if I stick to that, then opportunities will continue to fall in line.

Project Updates

  • I’ve completed my first four Adventure Time Flat Pops! I’m waiting to promote them until I’ve got one more completed for a set of five, but these ones are already available on shirts and all sorts of other swag (I’m thinking of getting pillow sets for my kids) over at TeePublic.
  • It’s Spring Break and I’m taking some time off to do artwork. I’m going to be making a Redrawn painting, the first in a new series of mini-sculptures, at least one Inktober 52 drawing (and compiling the first 9 into a coloring booklet), reworking this website, and rescanning some of my paintings with the thought of selling prints in the future.
  • For a deeper dive into my styles, you can check out my portfolio on this site, which I’ve just rebuilt to not focus on all the things I can do, but only on the things I want to do.

Work/Life Balance

Need to start this post off with a huge disclaimer: I haven’t been the best at work/life balance in the past. Actually, there have been seasons in my life (as I expect with most artists) where I have been terrible. There have been times where I have taken on too much work in order to provide for my family and move my career forward. But it was never worth it, because it just took me away from my family, and I apologize for that. Even now, when I have a much better handle on schedule, my kids tell me from time to time that they don’t think it’s fair to me that I “have” to work late at night, instead of watching TV or going to bed. They are great kids, but more about that below.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about work/life balance. I’ve read up on it, and listened to some good podcasts about it (3 Point Perspectives, in particular, did a great episode on it). When I was younger, it didn’t really matter. At that point, you’re barely even responsible for yourself, let alone any other relationship, so it’s no big deal to spend all day on artwork and projects in class (high school to college to film school), then go home and just spend the rest of the night drawing or painting or watching Fraiser reruns or whatever. However, now that I’m 35 and have hit my 1/3 life crisis, I’ve discovered that work/life balance is the biggest issue facing adult artists, hobbiests, crafters, writers, and anyone with creative interests. How are we supposed to focus on getting all the great stuff out of our heads and into the world and, you know, have a life?

I’m a single dad (and I’ll be approaching this subject from that point of view), so maintaining a healthy work/life balance is especially important for me. That’s because, right now (since my kids are 7 and 5), the “life” part of the balance is making sure everyone is fed, clean, clothed, rested, not fighting over whose R2D2 that is, and where they need to be at all times… me included. So let’s look at what a normal day of the week looks like for me.

Weekdays

Weekdays start when my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. This is all dependent on if I haven’t been kicked awake by a groggy kid sneaking into my bed before the alarm. Once I’ve fought myself awake, I do some light exercise (pushups, curls, crunches, etc.), make coffee, read a chapter in the Bible, and get myself ready for the day. I don’t want to gloss over two of those points (and no, one of them is not “make coffee” to all you people reading this blog while wearing some kitchy meme-worthy shirt about the importance of coffee in your life). For artists, maybe more so than for everyone else, exercise is crazy important, because our jobs and interests generally call for us to sit, hunch, and/or do repetitive motions all day. So, do not skip moving your muscles around and stretching. This seems really obvious, but I can think of two times in the last five years where I have thrown my lower back out just because I’ve been sitting at a computer working for too long, and I’m relatively young and healthy, so you’re definitely going to get screwed up too. Also, the Bible reading. Whether you’re religious or not, study, prayer, and meditation are incredibly useful tools for aligning your heart, soul, and mine. I strongly recommend.

Alright, it’s 6:30 a.m., and hopefully I have both my hair combed and my pants on, because it’s time to wake up the kids. Neither are what I would call morning people (especially my son), so I carry each to their respective bathrooms where their clothes are waiting for them, kiss them on the heads, tell them something intentionally annoyingly chipper/motivational, and go make breakfast. At this point in the morning, we enter the “herding cats phase” as my kids tend to constantly forget what to do to get ready for school unless they are constantly reminded. By 7:20 a.m., we’re all ready to go (give or take my son’s hair being combed, as he is a little boy, and has not fully bought in that this is something that should actually happen every day), and we leave the apartment, get in the car, and do school drop off.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, “This is supposed to be about work/life balance, and all this guy is talking about is Life.” You are correct, but not how you think you are. I intentionally start the day off only with the Life part of the divide, to serve as a reminder that that’s the part that is infinitely more important. Family is more important, relationships are more important, so if I have some work to do in the morning, then I wake up between 5 and 5:30 to get it out of the way before it can impact Life.

Okay, the kids are safely in the hands of the Texas public school system, so now Work begins, and I’m usually in the office between 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. I play the part of Lead Graphic Designer for my day job, an actual creatively rewarding job that allows me to mix in illustration, video, motion, and animation throughout the many projects I touch on a daily basis. But the best perk during this season is that I work with people and in culture that respects the need for a healthy life, and I have great flexibility in schedule to be there for my kids. Sick kid and I need to work remote? Done. Emergency or meeting at the school and I need to cut out quick to attend? It ain’t no thing. Easier said than done, but I suggest every artist, until you have the ideal, dream job, when all you do is draw monsters or sculpt miniture cacti all day (or whatever you’re thing is), to get a job like this, because flexibility with kids is best thing you could ask for.

Dad Stuff

Case in point, last week I was able to chaperone Teddy’s field trip and do Reading Buddies with Omi (which is an every Thursday thing). Thing is, these Life vacations are only possible when you have Work locked down, and you have the faith of your co-workers that you’re gonna get everything done. Most artists suck at deadlines (I won’t use “creatives” because I find that term is always used when explaining why an adult can’t get things done in time, balance a checkbook, or tie their shoes). Sometimes, I suck at deadlines, and I always suck at routine. So I’ve learned in the last year that I need to schedule my day out into chunks, sometimes down to 30 minute blocks, to assure that I get all my priorities done. I use the app Todoist because it’s synced between my phone and work and home computers, and I plan out my projects, chores, and family time each day. It’s kinda my robot secretary. Okay, I’m just going to call it that from now on.

Okay, back to Work. When I’m at work, I’m at work. I stick to my list as best as I can, prepare for and attend my meetings, and knock out all my planned projects. I’ve found that, in conjunction with Todoist, that timing my work is super helpful. I use the app Be Focused for that, and I have it set to work intensely for 50 minutes, then take a 10 minute break to get up, move around (again EXERCISE, kids), and check emails and texts. Rinse and repeat. Before I know it, it’s about 5 p.m., I’ve been machine-level productive, and it’s time to pick up the kids from after school care.

We’re back squarely into Life now, from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. In the past, I’ve let Work bleed into this time, and it’s always been a disaster. What happens every time is that the kids and I lose patience with each other, stuff around the home doesn’t get done, and the work ends up sucking anyway. No – just focus on Life now. During this time (which I’ve already sketched out in Todoist as soon as I got to work in the morning), I make dinner, maintenance clean the kitchen and living areas (while the kids are supposed to pick up their rooms – hahaha), do bathtime, make lunches and pick out clothes for the next day, and watch TV or do an activity, and read together. The only Work that I allow to exist in this space is Inktober drawing, because Teddy and Omi do that with me.

By 8:30 p.m. the kids are in bed and totally, not faking-it asleep. Now the final block of Work for the day can start, and it’s the stuff I’ve been dying to do all day. This isn’t day job stuff, but freelance graphic art or logo work, or personal projects, designed to push my illustration career forward, or just for fun (in a perfect world, it’s both). I’ve found that doing digital artwork on week nights is better than traditional media, since there’s no clean up involved. I’ll listen to music or an audio book while working until about 10:30 p.m. (unless I’m on an deadline or get sucked into something, then all bets are off and 1 a.m. is on the table). At that point Work can stop, and I focus on some Life just for me, usually a little TV or reading, before knocking out so everything can start again at 6 a.m.

Weekends

Weekends are totally different, and by design. On the weekends that the kids are with me, Saturdays are for weekly chores and family time (parks, swimming, etc.), with only a some project work mixed in. Sundays are completely set aside for Life, with church in the morning and time with the kids to play and relax the rest of the day. My brother’s family also lives in town, so we hang out with them on the weekends sometimes too. On weekends that the kids are staying with their mom, I have Friday night blocked off for personal time (dating, movies, dinner out, etc.), and Saturday/Sundays for big traditional artwork projects. That’s when I’ll get complicated stuff drawn and inked, and if I want to do a painting or sculpture, I’ll do it during this time, because I can focus for long periods of time without having stuffed animals thrown at my head.

Wrapping Up

So, that was way longer than I planned. You might be asking, why so much detail? Well, for some of you, you’re generally interested in what my days look like, but mostly it’s because I can answer in that much detail. And that’s only because I made figuring out my work/life balance problems a priority. Because I know how everything breaks down in so much detail, I’m able to volunteer regularly at my kids’ school, mentor a 7th grader on Fridays, take my kids to ballet practice every week, be there for the people who I care the most about at the drop of a hat, and still get a ton of work done in the office and at home. Basically, what I’ve figured out after a lot of trial and error, is that by focusing on God, my family, and my health first, the artwork takes care of itself, and I’m way more productive in quantity and quality.

Project Updates

  • Still waiting on a client to release the products associated with two huge poster/t-shirt designs I’ve finished. I’m extremely proud of them, and can’t wait to share them here and on social. Once released I’ll do a deep dive into the full project, and share the design process.
  • Just found out yesterday that official fan art can be sold on Teepublic for Adventure Time and Venture Brothers, two of my favorite animated shows of all time! This is great, because I was planning on doing big illustration projects for each property already, and now I’ll also be making Flat Pop collections for each over the next month to sell.
  • In December, my kids and I discovered “Gravity Falls,” and it quickly became our favorite shared TV show. So, I’ve decided to create a multimedia collection of fan art pieces around the show, including small sculptures, Flat Pops, a poster design, and entries in my new Redrawn series. So look out for those projects to start popping up in the coming weeks and months.
Little White Lie, 11×14″ Ink and Watercolor
  • What is Redrawn, you ask? It’s a brand new series of paintings that I’ve wanted to start for a long time, in which I invision classic characters from animation in my traditional illustration style. The first was “Little White Lie” which was recently shown at the “For the Love of Artists” exhibition at the Kettle Art Gallery.

Inktober for the Year

For those who don’t know, Inktober is an annual online art challenge where, for each day of October, artists create an ink drawing. I was able to do it in 2018 and managed to do it every day… which looking back, I can’t believe actually happened. I was too busy to get to it in 2019, so I was happy to see that for 2020 there was going to be a version of Inktober that lasted all year, and there would be one prompt per week to draw towards. I started with no real plan, but by the second week, I realized that, organically, I was illustrating animals using technology to solve problems common to their species. My goal for this project is to color and collect the drawings after the year has ended into an art book.

Below are my illustrations for January:

Week 1: FlightWeek 01

Week 2: ShadowWeek 02

Week 3: BrickWeek 03

Week 4: SnakeWeek 04

‘Bout Time I Started Using This Blog

So, I just wrapped up a major illustration project a couple days ago (and should be able to share the final artwork soon, once my awesome clients launch the products), so it’s about time I start research for my next…

research

This one’s just for fun, so I’ll be able to share process shots and updates throughout the year, so stay tuned to join in the journey! I’ll be posting to this blog at least once a week, not just with project updates, but also breaking down some of my work processes, style choices, and work/life balance ideas