Now firmly part of the yearly turn, we return with ASK A GREG, wherein I solicit any and all questions that I can fit into a not-overlong post here. And to be perfectly honest as much as I love talking about art I get antsy giving a lot of advice, because what do I know, really? I’m just making all this up as I go along too. The rules are simple, any question that comes to mind concerning art, process, business, or really whatever. Here’s this year’s submissions in bold and my answers beneath them. Ready set, GREG:
Do you do anything to keep on track? Something that helps to keep the ball moving? I feel like I get stuck sometimes and then don’t know where to go. (from Astrid H via Twitter)
Working backwards up here, YES, all the time. We all get our foot stuck in some creative crack in the road, or just have off days or full on week-long blocks. I’ve been doing this long enough to at least say I have yet to be immune from this myself, and I suspect this is true for us all at any age. I myself do have a morning thing that I do every day that I work for sure. Helps me to get in gear- whether it’s a big long graphic novel that I’ve built a playlist of music to as a means to push me into the zone of the thing, or even just the two cups of coffee, email check in, jacket off shoes kicked near the studio couch and sit down to work Mr Rogers style. Rituals help us get to there for sure, they help set a course and can provide a framework to keep you on point if you wander off. I always start a day of drawing off bu first putting an LP not he turntable, and get my bumblebee brain occupied with music while the rest of it can then just focus on the piece I need to execute. If it’s a writing day, then the same, but the music has to be without voice or words for me to concentrate properly.
Also be keen on putting down the social media, email, even the phone and be unavailable to others on the regular. SO helpful, just to be able to truly feel alone with the thing you’re doing. I didn’t;t move out of Brooklyn to the vast woods of the hills around the Pioneer Valley by accident. I don’t work in the attic of an old outbuilding as a matter of circumstance either. I am easily distracted and the less outside noise the more I can sort and managed my inside noise to better effect.
I work like a normal person goes to work whenever possible: Monday thru Friday, 8-5pm, try to be free for weekends. Now this Dagwood Bumstead lifestyle falls apart weekly to be sure, but the tempo of it remains. No matter how far off the mark I get due to some emergency, creative block, crazy deadline, crazier editorial notes to wrestle with, a sale on the online shop… whatever… I still try to get out on time, and get back in the next day and try to be loyal to the schedule then. It’s the fences makes freedoms idea- a structure that forgives its breaching but remains is I think essential to any creative life. It helps compartmentalize, keep appropriate areas of your daily life int heir respective corners and allows for air to come in to let you break away from the obsessions work can become. And like any fence, it invites play right up to its edges. Contained chaos.
The other benefit of a set schedule is the often touted arrival of the Muse, whatever the hell that’s supposed to be. All I do know is that while inspiration can find you anywhere, it can find you faster if it knows where you’ll be.
With all the social media platforms, do I still need a website? Does having an Etsy shop, or Big Cartel work just as well? – (Suzy S via Twitter)
Short answer is YES. Absolutely. Etsy and Big Cartel are sales platforms, not websites. Social media venues are marketing things rather than portfolio things. Think of your website as the hub and all these other aspects, spokes the stem out from it. If you’re looking for professional work, a website, clean simple and easy to navigate is essential to let Art Directors and Editors find you and follow what you’re doing. It’s a thing that can be shown to other clients or easily shared throughout. It’s a portfolio, a biography resource, a place to play and do anything really related to your work. It can. be a place to house all the things you do where as much of these other media platforms can really only do one or two aspects of what you need where the website can fill in those gaps. It also shows to potential clients and ADs that you’re serious and invested in your self and your work. It’s like having a decent portfolio at a review, versus a hand full of drawings sandwiched in cardboard. It declares that you are building something practically and tangibly. Having a strong following on Instagram is great, but it’s just not the same as a website for a number of reasons. And as an additional sidebar, also please use email and make that a primary source of professional communication. Yes younger people today chat over everything else and e-mail is considered old hat. but you know the ones you’re seeking to get work from or interact with use email. We all do and it’s not a fashion thing, it’s just a basic tool we all use to share files securely, to easily apply edits or list tweaks to the work… and as a resource to return to for that information. There’s always going to be some sexy new app or social media network or whatever, and that’s all fine and good, but remember please you are on borrowed land on any social media platform, and are subject to their rules guidelines and whims. Your website is your area, your world and for a lot of professionals their first look at what you do. Dress the part.
Was there a point when you were younger that you knew you were “good enough” to try and pursue art as a career? Or did you just keep at it? (From Paul H via Facebook)
I’ll let you know when I get there.
There’s a imposter syndrome that comes into our thing, crawls inside the head and nestles there, that is fueled by the utter face palming disbelief that we’ve managed to pull it off enough to get this far. It could not POSSIBLY go on, right? I’ll never be good enough to deserve being able to do this for a living, but hopefully good enough to fool the right people that I am, and then do it again and again. And hopefully get out of dodge before anyone realize they’ve been bamboozled. The victory at the end is always a surprise. When I was in Junior Highschool I was a pretty formidable long distance swimmer. I couldn’t;t necessarily beat everyone in a balls out short run, but over 600- 1000 meters, I nearly always won. Sometimes it was just out of sheer pig headed persistence- well let’s be honest all of those won races were. But sometimes it wasn’t just that the others lost, it’s that they lost faster than I did. Many miscounted and thought the race was over and stopped and blew the race. I never could keep track of the laps, which were often as many as dozen or more. I just kept swimming until I could tell everyone was yelling at me to stop. It taught me a lot about the art life, what it takes to keep to it and to win at it. Sometimes you win simply by being the last one standing.
But the good news is, ANYONE can be good enough. It’s a skillset and as with any technical mastery, it’s an acquired thing through practice. Talent, whatever the hell that really is, can get you down the field sooner than the others next to you, but it will never win the race. Talent can be a curse and can get in the way of your growth, by feeding your ego, by interfering with your own need to work and push through the craft of art making to be better. No one I know who made a life and career in art did so on talent alone- all who did and do get there with hard work, talent or not. Every single one. It takes time, and it takes donkey-level persistence and stubbornness. I’d recommend not bothering to wonder if you’re good enough right now- let someone else tell you this, and if the answer is anything but a yes, then take it as a shot in the arm to go back, do better and try again until you are.
What’s the worst advice you ever received, and did you take it? What was the best? (from Jenny S via Twitter)
The worst and the best advice… has to be being told to focus on a real career, like architecture rather than art. And I did take it for a while. I took an architecture class in Highschool with a teacher who felt like her best way to get a bunch of art-slags to show up was to reframe the discipline as sculpture for the human form. No drafting tools, just shapes and light and space and how a person moves through and occupies a space as a leading edge. It was awesome, and I had a great time that senior year. We created a project that won me a full scholarship to Pratt and I even spent the first year of my life there assuming this was to be my future. It was not. Architecture in fact is just another thing altogether- more a business than an art thing, more and engineer thing than a design thing. I don;t like to say I wasted that year in architecture. It made me declare myself for art rather than just drift ass-backwards into it. I had to risk losing the scholarship altogether in the transfer, and was willing to anyway. It caused a terrific rift between me and my father who I think even today, at least to some degree, is still waiting for me to get a real grown-ass man’s job. But it made me have to take a stand and fight for the art life. It also swiped away from me any naiveté about how hard it would be to pursue a life in art, in whatever form it took. It made choosing a life of art a true choice and one with consequences I would have to bear. So it made going into it as an act of clarity and will. It was the only bridge for me across the chasm, so it also then gifted younger Greg with the need to get it right or fall to doom. There was no backup plan, and even when these consequential decisions were being made… I was in no way as yet qualified to make of it a guarantee for success. If I look back on the work I did at the time, I would see as mentioned above, a young punk not there yet, but maybe could get to there with time and practice. I had day jobs all through that time right up until I had seen my first kid born and cut bait to make my entire income source drawing and co-creating FREAKS OF THE HEARTLAND with Steve Niles at Dark Horse Comics. I had gigs prior to that, here and there… was haunting the offices at Vertigo, and had even published a creator owned series with Caliber Comics called Sudden Gravity- for free of course. But I was a sheet rocker, a cabinet guy, and tile man, janitor, caretaker, artist assistant and an intern all the way up until about 2002. If Freaks hadn’t landed well and led to other things and opportunities…. it may have meant I needed to give up on the idea of this as a career for the time being because I now had a child to support, but luckily I’ve managed to keep up the grift this along to see that same child now about to head out into the world and start his own life. If I had listened to the encouragements to get a real job back in high school and then even in early college… I don’t know where I’d be. Probably not overly happy, but who knows? In some parallel universe I did just that, and maybe had a more financially stable life? I couldn’t;t say. I’m glad I’m in this one though, and glad I chose what I chose…. and dirndl;t mistake the choosing of this life as the end of the hard work to make it happen, but it’s beginning.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in looking to build a career in comics or books? (from Leslie M via Instagram)
Seriously. I mean it. Comics is not just one medium but three in practice= writing, drawing & storytelling. It takes time not just to muster enough competency in all three, but then to orchestrate them to sing together in tune and on tempo. You’re going to get it wrong a LOT, and you don’t want to be embroiled in a huge multi volume epic like I intended with Sudden Gravity, as your playground to grow in. There’s a lot of place to start and learn, and no you don’t HAVE to go to art school to learn them- my four years at Pratt did not for one moment ever teach me about this medium of comics. In fact I had wait until the drawing class had disbanded to work with and show my fledgling comics work to my drawing professor- the only one who’d bother with this mess.
Simply put, read them vociferously and learn from what you read, and then put that into practice. Comics while being immensely complex and tricky is also something ANYONE can learn to craft simply by trying and learning from the books they love to read. That’s entirely how I did. Scot McLoud’s books are great and they do authoritatively tick through a lot of the mechanics in a great and academically deft way. But again, it’s like love- you can talk about it all you like, but being IN it, there is no substitute for it. Start off with a short three page thing elucidating an action. Take a paragraph out of a book you love and translate it, do the same with a poem. No one runs a marathon to learn how to run a marathon. Except me- I did that and I am telling you NOT to do this. Start small build not he principle that every single panel should inform the reader of something new and repeat. When you start putting the panels together and you see the thing spark to life… well then you get hooked. Try to get your work speed up to the point where you can complete a full page of comics at least once in a day. more is better, less is not.
Comics is a slow arduous and unrewarding medium to work in to be perfectly honest, but it really feeds your god complex in ways little else does. In working with film people and seeing the frustration of compromise and politics, or the manic overreach of an author trying to micromanage the artist drawing their book… you are free of all that nonsense. It’s literally your universe, peopled by your creations told how you tell it soup to nuts. Once you get a taste of being the Master of your own Universe, there’s little going back.
What’s your most favorite project you’ve ever done and why? (from Jacob T via Twitter)
I never know the answer to this one… glibly, it’s the next project I have coming up. But really there’s a lot of them. I mean a LOT. Whether it was being able to play in the sandbox with a personally important film like Notorious for Criterion, a poster for Ari Aster’s films or gadzooks, all those Twin Peaks drawings with Mondo, a music video with Prince, executing and creating my own world with The Lost Boy, The 52 Weeks Project or illustrating President Obama’s inaugural address for kids to read… it is nearly impossible to choose. I think for all the grand honors I got in working with some brilliant folk in comics though, working with Ethan Hawke on INDEH and our forthcoming second book, MEADOWLARK may rank highest. These are both rare pieces of work where I am proud of the work, learned more than I could have imagined from it, had more fun than seemed appropriate creating it, and challenged me more than this creative partnership that now has spanned more than a decade. It’s a lonely business this business, and having a creative partner with whom we share such a perpetually synchronized simpatico is not something I ever imagined experiencing, nor guessed could be so fun, intimate and fulfilling.
As much as I might treasure the past jobs, I confess that the first sentence remains true- even if I do so by force. Looking to what’s next has always been what’s led me to what I did so that affirmation and the excitement of each previous project being a learning crucible to make the next one better until eventually time takes it’s payment from me is the only way for me personally. Even as I promised myself MEADOWLARK would be the last graphic novel I’d do, I can already tell that was likely a lie.
I get so screwed up sometimes trying to sell my work, or build an audience. I feel like I think about it all the time, when I should be thinking more about my art. But it seems these days I need to do both? – (Kim T via Twitter)
It can be a real storm to weather when you put your work and yourself out there. It gobbles a lot of time and energy and let’s face it, we’re not the most inherently hyper social slice of society. It can feel forced or really outside off our comfort zones to do it. I myself am in no way natural to it, and have had to train and make myself do it, to stand in front of a large audience and talk about the work, whatever. None of it is something I would ever seek out. for its own sake. I do find it helps to make sure to keep it about the work rather than you or your ego. But it can get back into your head too. Not just monetizing your art, but also how you feel valued, and how you assign value your work too. For example- You make two pieces, one you don’t like so much, the other you adore and treasure. The one you don’t love sells for more than the one you do, gets tons more hits and likes too. You still love the one you love, but you start wondering why now. It can get in your head, start to take the place of what you value, take the place of your own inherent judgement. It’s natural to want to liked and to see you work appreciated, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But over time, it’s all too easy to begin to chase the cheers rather than the value of the work. Or worse yet start to get in your own head while making it, and shaping it towards the likes and money rewards. This is nothing new really- and has been a thing creative people wrestle with since forever. And to be honest, the ways of navigating the monetizing thing hasn’t changed much, just the level and frequency of it. Talk to friends and peers in your field teachers, anyone who can help you navigate. There’s tons of terrific articles here on MC that talk about this too, and elsewhere.
As much as it all can take, it can give too. You can expand your audience without the need for a broker, dealer or gallery now, which was difficult and near impossible before. Artists have so much more agency these days, more control over their own voice, more freedom to go where they like and make the work they want to. It’s a truly marvelous time in many ways, and on top of it all to build a peer group that can span continents. I suggest posting your work regularly, follow artists you love, interact share and make more work. These days you kind of do need to do both, if you want both to work. As much as we have a lot of power over our own choices now, it carries a lot of responsibility with it too.