I’m a fairly impatient artist, and don’t usually go for the classical series of studies and repeated drawing color tests before working not he final piece that then looks like the best of all the identical practice work that led up to it. It’s not a judgement on those who do this, but just to say… I don’t. Whether it’s comics to blame or my deadline crunch skillset, whatever the chicken and egg dynamic that led me here… I’m here. Intellectually I understand their value entirely and ironically adore seeing them in other artists. But the way I tend to operate when making work is in developing the path through the drawing by executing it. It’s insane and certainly not for everyone. Unless the piece is truly new territory as it was with my recent cover for Tor, THE HIDDEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL where I had a notion in my head, and tried rather failingly, to warn my AD Christine Foltzer of what I was attempting. As you can tell by the one and only sketch for this that this approved more on faith than based on evidence.
But lately as I continue with my latest experiment in setting up a queue of private original commissions that extends through the end of the year and beyond, I found that I’ve eschewed a little my tendency to race in and race out, and have been spending a little more time fiddling with various studies, sketches and character portraits. Some of these here as you see with the final central piece commissioned and executed. Even though they don’t necessarily bring me towards the compositional solves most prep studies are supposed to be there to do, I’ve found they put my head in a space that allows for that burst of creation to come forth more directly. Like a kind of mantra that settles the mind into a particular headspace, except here the issue is benefitted by the limits of the theme, of finding the hidden ideas behind the subject. I also have found it scratches a lit of itches compositionally that can be distracting- those “what if I did this… or did that?” kind of dynamic that can end up being the studio version of a dog chasing after it’s own tail endlessly… and achieving nothing.
The first obvious thing of note is that NONE of these look at all like the final piece, and I guess in some ways aren’t really studies in the classical sense. They harken more to the kind of prep work I used to do for my comics work: where I’d basically take a couple of characters I had been writing, and more or less put them in a room together so I could play with how they might interact, sit, fight, banter… For SUDDEN GRAVITY I must have done at least fifty pages of unpublished studies in comics as I recombined characters, places story plots… really anything I wasn’t sure about as a means to swim first in the kiddie pool before doing a triple Lindy off the diving board into the deep end. To hear the voices of your subject, to see them in different modes and glean more from what they have to offer rather than simply duplicating an existing image or approach has been a terrific boon to the process.
These are more like those. A kind of exploration of certain approaches or ideas before really deciding what the final piece might be. I don;t typically take on a commission, or a job really, that I don’t have some sort of series of mental flashes and imagery that come in as a kind of approval system for it being suited to my way of working. The commissions do have a thematic request… Quentin Tarantino, Joker, Double Indemnity… but nothing more than that by design. It’s simply a better thing to leave me to do my weirdo thing than it ever is to follow a detailed brief. I don’t love doing this in my commercial cover work, but sometimes one must. For these private commissions, essentially being paid to play in a sandbox, I’ve come to turn away commissioners seeking a really specific or detailed piece. The joy sort of dies on that vine, and nothing beats letting the subject inspire the piece. Zero.
So these while not being precursors to any specific piece have become essential to the process of making the final piece, and oftentimes, coming up with it. For my recent commissioned piece for Ridley Scott’s ALIEN film, a movie that has at least to my mind been absolutely drained of all its new territory in the many many MANY fantastic alt movie posters and personal work I’ve seen over the years. I myself have stayed away because it seemed like a party that had its DJ already but in taking this on anyway, I found I was utterly, hilariously wrong about that. The studies, while only extremely tangental to the final piece was really important to sketching my way through some possible subject directions. It wasn’t until I had actually done this piece below that I had the always welcomed revelation of the final attack, and immediately set to it once I had that eponymous picture form in my head.
When you’re doing this kind of thing, subject and composition need to dance together in a kind of unified field theory. The composition doesn’t necessarily have to invoke meaning, and can reside in purely formalistic visual delights and leave room for the ideas to sneak in. For example int he below final, the ability at the very last moment to bring in Jonesy, became the compositional lynchpin for the piece visually, but more importantly became the axis around which this ballistic relationship between Ripley and the Xenomorph could revolve. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was there on the page- which personally is a true delight of creation. You don’t always know what you’re doing but the piece you’re making can… a bit like how the original King King is really a slave narrative: It may not be the film they thought they were making, or even intended to make, but that’s the film they made. Proven by recent remakes that remove this key axis leaving us with an empty spectacle of a big ass monkey getting into trouble.
A lot of this came together thematically with the drawing, but from the story and character. Ripley being the only member of the Nostromo who was trying to keep the crew safe while everyone else did all the wrong things they could to put them in the worst, and eventually most fatal circumstances. Only ole Jonesy had the right idea from the start: Run and hide. But the relationship between a defender and a mortal threat, especially when their battling is ongoing is like a dance, or a weird and terrible intimacy that they share. There’s an understanding of the swapping roles of predator and prey here, and that seemed to me at least, new ground to play with in the context of the first film.
I’d have not found my way to these final images were it not for the studies, even though the studies became a path to them regardless of their differences. There’s some real challenging ones and some for films I have not yet seen, but I’ve found and true and lasting value in the kiddie pool end as part of the process, both for these pieces and the professionally hired work I’m also working on simultaneously. The more work actually made less work in the end, in a strange and surprising way and after doing this thing fora so long now, I always marvel at the new fold and wrinkles this work can bring. There’s a well and true treasure chest hidden and it’s also a damned nice way to stay focused on something controllable while all this madness swirls around us these days. Coming off the insane adrenal high of 260 pages of graphite drawings to complete my new forthcoming book with Ethan Hawke, MEADOWLARK, this has allowed me to slow the machine down that my denied vacation’s effort at a full stop was unable to achieve.
You can view the new archive of these piece HERE in full. They will be updated as we proceed down the line with a weird and wide range of subject rolling down the pike.