God created the world so he could discover himself. At least in most ways and on some days that’s how I see us as creatives making things, (however pretentious that might be as a statement). There’s an illusion that we charge into our work with an idea, that whole romantic notion that we see the sculpture in the block of the marble and carve away everything that isn’t it. I call bullshit on that philosophy myself. The sculpture in the marble isn’t static, it’s dancing and it’s in the dialogue of that carving we have with the intent that we find the sculpture. It’s not sitting there as if it already exists and we are mere detectives seeking it out. I think the creation of our work, whether it’s in the writing, or the painting or both, is an act of change and shifting maps and landscapes all the way up to the end most days. We have an idea at the beginning and at the end of that notion’s execution, the thing we end up with is often very different. We can forget how much changes as we change throughout the course of the making, but the differences are there. It’s easy to see that as a negative, as something lost. There’s no shortage of admiration for the purity of the initial thought. We’re dragging angels down from heaven and finding them lacking in the muck of the world we live in… art then is often the excruciating effort to elevate the sublime as we reach back up towards where these inspirations came from. But this is mistaking the exercise of making art for the spark that causes it. Learning to hug the chaos of it, the changeability and the transformative nature of making work- particularly when it involves others is difficult. The seed is not the tree, but the promise of one. Embrace the suck and start it again and again is really at the heart of a career in this crazy mess. So let’s get to it shall we?
As is likely clear by now if you’ve read my other posts or heard me speak from my mouth hole in public, I don’t ascribe to the mythic idea of the artist alone on the hilltop inventing new worlds all from his own personal dance with his or her muse. I find that attitude to be more about non artists in how they see us and for us a silly and potentially toxic way to mistake what we do in the process of creating work. So let’s just flush the toilet on that idea and move on. Art always begins with an idea. Sometimes it’s just a feeling or a sense of the thing, other times it’s a hi Rez perfect snapshot we chase to execute in that selfsame exactitude. But always for me, it’s a process of change and flexibility. When it isn’t or I fight that, the work comes off as stiff or dull or technically engineered rather than artistically created. When I get the chance to run amok in my own world from a client, or am doing a personal piece as I do ongoing for my self assigned homework, The 52 Weeks Project, change and transmutations still occur. And they should I think.
To me working on a piece or a script or a book or whatever is always a collaboration. Whether its with an Art Director, Editor, Writer, Creative Partner or alone with the work itself, I find I am never truly alone with anything I create. I do infect do all of it for a living and as a means to support myself and my family so more often than not there’s actual human collaborators to contend with alongside the personal relationship with the project. In any case the one rule I’ve more often found to be true than not is this: prepare to be surprised. Think of it like having kids- for those who do you’ll know what I mean- for those not or not yet, bear with me. We have in idea about kids we’re going to have even as far back as when we a=ourselves were kids. This is no less true even after we discover we have begun the actual event of creating a child. We have notions and fears and joyous expectations that color our idea of what the kid may be… boy, girl, other, religious type, taciturn, happy-go-lucky, villainous, virtuous… whatever. For the sake of this particular argument, it doesn’t matter. When the baby comes, those ideas of what to expect get tossed, and damn well should be. Being now presented with the reality of the thing before you, even if it contradicts your expectations, you’d better get reoriented with the new real and flush your presumptions. This is now officially not about you, its;s about this thing and you’re relationship to it. And this isn’t going to get sorted out in week one or year 60. Your notion of who this child is is going to grow and change as they grow and change. Yes you will be a part of effecting those changes good or bad, and there is indeed some agency in that to be sure, but you’re also at the mercy of forces you can’t know and see and are not ever going to be in control of. The end goal is to love the child you have and forget the one you wanted. The same is true of art in whatever form it comes to be. Anything less than this is bad for you and worse for the art.
A piece of art, when done right is a living thing. It will as it grows, start talking to you about what it is and wants to be. Listen to this, and be prepared to decide otherwise or join its efforts, situation depending. You’ll need to embrace the cognitive dissonance of both being determined to keep to the course you set while also being able to deviate from the course should the work start making a better argument against your plans. This is not an easy thing, but you must do this. This dialogue is one of my favorite things about making art, if not the most favorite thing. All the work, the drawing or painting or sketching are just tools to get to this dance. TO me there is no greater affirmation that you done right than when the piece starts arguing with you. It’s one of the things I love most about comics and other long-form work. There’s time to wrestle, fight, love, learn and grow together. When I was writing and creating THER LOST BOY I became comfortable almost entirely acting as a scribe for the voice of the characters and the story. Sometimes overmuch to its detriment, but mostly mores to its success. With INDEH, less so but also more in certain areas given the racial realities of what we were doing and also the nature of the story and its characters as real people who did real things. With MEADOWLARK, my second graphic novel with Ethan Hawke as co creator, we are building whole worlds and people off of our mutual experiences and now more than midway through the principle drawing of the art finding those characters have a lot to say and we find ourselves listening. With the Twin Peaks work, a total immersion in David Lynch’s dreamworld and hearing different voices and lyrics of that same tune was the experience: the piece may not have been exactly right but they were always true. If the piece is alive enough to start talking to you, you created life… listen to what it has to say. Like a child telling you it doesn’t want to play baseball or it’s a girl not a boy or wants to east cupcakes instead of cookies, perk up your ears and listen to that. You’ll both be happier later. With art there’s less equivocating because you will ALWAYS be God to that voice and have the final say. But don’t get arrogant and forget to listen.
I myself am always highly skeptical of the quick ones. You know, the ones that from the manuscript or brief bring the image in crystal clear flash and then you make it and it looks just like you thought it would and then it gets approved and you’re off to press and everyone’s happy? Those always make me the most suspicious. Suspicious of my own judgement of theirs… even when a piece, like my cover for The Criterion Collections reissue of Borzage’s MOONRISE. It came in a sketch the final drawing looks just like the sketch and the approvals came fast and without any notes and it won awards and I felt unsure more and more as each stage grew. How could this be right? There was no change zero growth. I gave birth to a full grown man in a tailored suit and there was nothing wrong with him at all. It’s weird and should feel weird, but it does happen. I think it’s not common… happened to me maybe a dozen times in my 20+ years of this business. I’ve learned to shrug and be happy with the weirdo full grown man baby I created and move on. But I never expect its repeat if I can, and the next project is always burdened by it as a result. Those tend not to be the rules and to be honest as much as I love them like I love all my work, (beyond my usual self loathing and doubt that colors everything I make), but I confess I always love them a little less for being too easy. The work that tops my love letter pile, whatever they ended up doing after they were published are always the graphic novel work because they take SO LONG TO DO. And in that relationship, like a decades old friendship, there’s a lot of crying hugging dancing and adventures that are shared together. The growth as it turns out is mutual. I am always a better parent to the next project because of these changeable relationships to the previous one, and hope that never ends.
Depending on the project you may find yourself free to run and have that personal dialogue with the piece as I have with a lot of My Tor.com work, or Mondo or more recently the big PARASITE art campaign, and that’s my favorite dynamic and I think I can attest with evidence, it’s where the best work comes from. But more often there’s a brief, and a subservience to content or a client you need to be prepared for- especially more and more in the early days of your career. You may come into that assignment to do a cover for some STRANGER THINGS novelization, and find in the end what you ended up with looks quite a bit different. I’ve had a cover job get reverse canned at its final approval stage and fall apart even under this kind of cohabitation with others. Sometimes I find the piece is better than the idea of the piece was going in. Other times it’s compromised to death and as a result is a kind of mismatched version of The Patchwork Girl from Oz, but never wake sup and comes to life. Regardless of where the change comes from, it will come. Be ready for it, brace yourself and hug it as much as you can. The surprise truth is you might find you on your own are not always responsible for the best ideas. And that doesn’t have to detract from your sense of ownership of the work in its final form. Unless you simply refuse to get over your personal garbage, in which case there’s nothing to be done.
There are times where the change is a bad one. You are being constantly thwarted away from better avenues by an approval source that simply wants what you don’t want. You can fling your arms up like a reprobate at a tea party and storm out of course, but I encourage just riding along. Like a wild out of control stage coach… just do everything you can to steer the mad horses racing towards the cliff’s edge as best you can. You may still tumble over and you all smash at the bottom of the ravine, you may just lose a wheel… or you may succeed and save the thing from doom. Either way My advice is to again embrace both minds: be immersed and in love and also distant above it. Be Dorothy AND The Wizard. If it crashes no one really dies- this is art not war. Let it go, occupy the Wizard part of you and put your positive energies towards the next thing. You don’t want to ever want to go into a new work from this perspective as the primary source, but it’s a safe harbor at the project’s end. I’ve made a lot of things. thousands of drawings, hundreds of book covers and dozens of books and film projects and they don’t always stick their landing. They fail for as many different reasons as others succeed, and I can’t say with any honesty that I had any idea of the outcome when I started them. I loved and was obsessed with each one going in, and even when they fail I still love them through the entangled disappointment. Sometimes things fail for no reason or fault of you, sometimes it’s all your fault. The Wizard’s perspective allows you to see the truth of which is which later… you just don’t want top psychoanalyze your work while you’re doing the work. It gets easier to let go the more you do this, trust me and take some comfort in that truth. There’s always wisdom in perspective, but there’s always guaranteed failure in being too myopic and selfish about your idea of the work you thought you were making. Sometimes Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t open its eyes and toss little girls into the lake no matter how much lightening you put through it. It’s just the way of things. And sometimes you make terrific work that no one cares about or fails in the public for whatever reason. Those are the hardest to get over and will always pain you, but at least in them you can feel pride int heir being exactly what you both decided to make of them. There’s solace in that.
So in brief, go make the omelets of your art, crack some eggs, be ready for the double yokes… embrace the surprises and the voices in your head that speaks in your character’s voice, take it to completion, have your going away party and do it again so you can do it again, again. The nation you people with your life’s work is where your heart will live, not the individual piece. You can have favorite children, everyone does… but love them all equally regardless. Learn from them equally and be ready to be surprised by them both now then and years after you thought you were done with them. We are on borrowed time playing with stolen magic… the real crime is not letting the energy go where it wants to make of itself something new and inspiring.
SO get out there and break some eggs why dontcha. You’re the God of your particular universe… so have fun with it and brace for the surprises.
Hallelujah! *high fives the invisible people in my studio* 😀
Greg, man, you are speaking gospel with these posts lately. Always leaves me super fired up for the art I have in front of me. Thanks for sharing the wisdom.