I’m an assignment guy. It’s a common misconception that the speed bumps, restrictions or challenges in our art thing are inherent negatives. The one most common pole in art is that if just left alone the artist will do their best work when freed of outside influences, requirements etc… And for some this may be true, and provably has been throughout art history here and there. But it’s the exception to the rule not the common trait. Whether it comes from the myth of the lone artist on the hill making magnificent work without the pressures of money influence or outside culture, I guess I don’t particularly care- at least not today. The myth is there and is passed on to us in academic and social media environments as some kind of goal or basic core ethic.
But as I said, at my very core, I’m an assignment guy. That’s a broader declaration than you might think at first. I consider MEADOWLARK, THE LOST BOY and everything in the wide panoply of THE 52 WEEKS PROJECT series as assignments and they were all essentially self assigned. But this also includes gigs that come in- the ones where they need this for that. I love them when they are the right fit. Truly. To be given a task outside of my own complete invention, to have to wrestle with the requirements, limitations and desires of the progenitor of the assignment become values not suppressive. Here are some below that when first met can seem at first as negatives but I have found to be deeply essential in both forcing my growth, pushing me out of comfort zones and birthing new ways of working I don’t think I’d have ever otherwise managed on my own- or might have taken years longer to get to without the prompts. More often than not, the restrictions birth work that is definably superior to the one that would have been without the prompting strictures. And this is why I love assignments.
1. THE “NO LIKENESS” FENCE
This is one I encounter a LOT in my illustration work for film, tv and soundtrack work for the like. Sometimes you get the full catalogue and other times a total restriction of no likeness approvals at all. Some can be mixed, partial or singular for one character but not for the others. For me I find an all or nothing approach works best- it helps to know your boundaries and the principles behind intermixing a particular likeness but lacking the others in a project can be the same brand of weird as say not inviting your Uncle Donald to your wedding, but sending one to your Aunt Betty anyway. Everyone comes to play or none should. Sometimes this is impossible of course- there are certain things that require the ability to use a likeness, where it’s so much about those exact characters, those exact faces, that it’s not reasonable to make something that is truly of it than not. But those are much rarer moments than you think.
I’ve been working on a big multi part LP set containing all four seasons of HBO’s 4 season series, WESTWORLD… without likenesses. At first I began the project assuming I had them, but HBo came back and immediately pulled that rug out and I was faced with a choice: shrug and move on because doing a vast series of portraits and designs for a story that is essentially all about the notions of self, identity and agency is impossible without being able to bear witness to these central characters…. OR think of how to express these themes without them. After my first panic of the former I realized the challenge of the latter. So the first thing I did was try and see in coordination with my AD and co-designer, Spencer Hickman, how far could the notion of a likeness be pushed? Turns out right up to the territory of the actors’ faces. Everything else is fair game. Okay great- that’s a bigger ballfields than one would think. What came next was diving in deep into each season as a theme or conversation about slavery, humanity, memory, self, emotional connection, control, freedom, etc… all the basic core tentpoles of the story. Then work out from them within the context of each season and utilize it’s distinctive qualities… S.1 was the classic cOld West and the rise of self awareness, s. is freedom and slavery in rebellion, and the nature of memory as it sculpts the idea of the self and responsibility to others, etc and so on… One gift the show gives me in this circumstance is the vast array of distinctive visual cues and symbols. The maze, the gun, Dolores’ dress, and where I took off to replace my original design with, the four different animals at the heart of the opening credits of each season: Horse, Buffalo, Eagle, and Fly. Without going to far into this, the point of all this here is that NONE of this would have been explored if I got to chase actor likenesses alone- or rather might be muffled sort of like lacking the hunger to search for food in more inventive ways. Dolores becomes the Horse, portraits from behind that more thematically engage with the themes than just beautiful reinterpretations of the landscapes, etc.. In the end more than 25 different pieces and designs were created focusing in on all the main characters including Dolores, Christina, Maeve, William, Bernard, etc… without a single likeness. And in a way that is more evocative than if we had otherwise not been so restricted.
Another recent example is my dual LP package for Severance. This time the restrictions were self imposed to abide by the narrative we constructed for the set- one Innie and one Outie. The Outie was the first one I did, a fairly straight forward affair along the lines of my usual way of approaching these. The image of Mark walking in a pattern that resembled Helly asleep on the table, the first image we see of the series, was always my first and primary notion, the rest followed as per the show’s dictates. BUT, the Innie… that was a different animal altogether, and the first time I had ever been tasked with eschewing my usual illustration approach and design a set of pieces practically also true to the narrative. It had to be as if it were something you would find in their office, at Lumon. This meant concocting a file folder approach from scratch, working with production to find the sweet spot between what is ideal and what is fiscally practical. (we didn’t;t want it costing $300 bucks because it was too bespoke, so this became an exercise of extreme dreaming tempered by cost and more practical matters. This alone was the most comprehensively challenging project I have worked since MEADOWLARK by miles. cards for the individual workers, the label for the LP, Petey’s map hidden away inside by a gluey goo that was made to look like chewing gum…. every detail every graphic element, every cartoon, and instructional had to be drawn, but not the way I typically draw things with this flaring temperament and flourish… simple 1970’s office graphic clique. Symbolic designs, rudimentary instructional styles, and the scribble hand of the Eagan Bingo card and scratchy map of a lunatic. If you had shown me what we ended up doing to for this a month before I even knew I had the job to do it, I would have turned it down for lack of confidence. But the learning process in being so challenged, happened in real time as we went. I happily promised I could do things I was at the time unable to do, and repeated the exercise over and over until we were done. It was immensely tricky to put it altogether and I felt bigger for doing it, able to think with a greater toolkit when other projects would come along…. Servant’s full series soundtrack collection, PREY, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and the super bananas INFINITY POOL soundtrack that’s coming soon. While unrelated to each other in theme and style, they all share the same benefit of stretching out and becoming bigger from the effort. Of being forced by the practicalities and imagination we were wrestling with at once, and finding a reconcile between them. A true gift of an assignment, self made or otherwise.
2. THE DEADLINE FENCE
This is one that has too edges of course- too short a deadline prevents the sometimes needed time to process and navigate a piece to bring it to full… too long and there’s either too much time to overthink the project, or to waste time delay and create a dynamic that essentially is the first problem… not enough time. I say this a lot when people ask about why I tend to work so quickly and my persistent explanation and blame of this lands on COMICS. And it’s true. Not just due to the ridiculous amount of work needed to go into making comics and graphic novels, but outside of the book publishing end of it, its the periodical format and those quick turnarounds that do it. Even though I’ve never, on purpose, taken on the monthly hell race of say, drawing and writing Spiderman comics and turning them in on time, the medium always demands its quick turnaround. But really all that’s taught is a mechanism for dispensing with overlong pondering on concepts or ideas. This can create some self inflicted fencing because it means having to, on the fly, commit to a way forward now when tomorrow might bring about a better way. But happily for us here, more often than not, the principle of your gut instinct/first idea is your best, holds. And if I come up with another idea I think is better tomorrow, that’s soon enough to be able to amend if it truly is better. Sometimes it’s not… and the new idea only serves to underscore the value of the first thought. Without the goad of a deadline none of this dynamic would be in play. It truly does focus the mind and attention, having a due date. It has also taught me to respect those deadlines and plan for them as hard walls to be ready for… and that means being done earlier to allow for the option of enhancements, edits or course corrections that don’t violate the deadline. Because let me tell you there is nothing worse than overusing through a piece that goes to press because they MUST GO TO PRESS… you may in fact satisfy their needs and as everyone moves on to the next deadline leave behind your regrets or shortcuts made… but then it comes out on the shelves and is forever imprinted on the internet forever and ever. A living statement of your misfire to mock you until your skeleton days. I can count at least ten pieces that do this for me and I regret not being able to use Mr Peabody’s Wayback Machine to go and fix that mess. But again… they learn me to avoid this and as a result most of those regrets are years int he past and rarer these days.
3. THE NON-VISUAL GIFTED GATEKEEPER FENCE
There is a secret truth in our thing and that is that a lot of people int he process of your book cover, product illustration or children’s picture book, don’t actually posses a visual ability to see what your thumbnails promise, or disregard what it is your’e doing in favor of wanting to see something that matches existing market analytics, or whatever. I’ve found this is true in film,, tv book publishing and periodicals… and a lot of the impact of the non-vis folk really depends on dynamics of power and agency in any given house, and that changes culture to culture… so being aware of the culture you work for and knowing those dynamics best as you can going in can help a lot. Because this means having to explain more accurately and fulsomely in words what you aim o do in pictures- or even sometimes merely being able to describe what you did and why to help them understand the choices you made in the piece you present them. Having to pitch a story to a room of people who don’t understand story isn’t always a travesty. Sometimes it’s a fence that forces you to see what you want to do in clearer terms that helps you better see what you’re doing or why what you might think makes sense somehow does not. There are some cultures where these gatekeepers have ultimate power and your AD/editor is not able to bark it down, others where the gatekeepers trust their field sergeants and let you run more freely in a safe space established by the AD/editor, leaving them to handle the combat with the bosses. They all of them have to reconcile with marketing departments which are rarely ever able to muster or be excited by imaginative or novel ways of showing a book, selling it or featuring how it presents itself. Bigger companies tend to have more dominant marketing groups with more conservative market driven attitudes, smaller ones tend to be free to take more risks. This might simply be the function that money buys things, and the more you get paid the more hand the buyer gets to fiddled with your work. Sometimes you get the best of both worlds and that is a rare magical treat, but all of them have a lot to teach you and like any outside opposing force that doesn’t kill you- Carlos Castaneda’s “Petty Tyrant” dynamic- meaning a foe that CAN be overcome- makes you better for being required to do it. It’s the scars make you stronger scenario. Art Kintsugi.
4. THE LIFE-GETS-IN-THE-WAY FENCE
We all of us everywhere throughout time experience this one hugely and perpetually. Balancing art with your real life is never easy, always fraught and ever changing. I have been lucky enough to work as a full time artist for my job for a couple of decades now and it’s still terrifying to me on an almost daily basis, (so take some comfort or depression from that fact as you will). I remember once when a buddy of mine was playing stay at home Dad while mom worked all day, and he was making graphic novels at the same time. How in God’s Name could Nick do this? I asked him too many times… (and this was before I myself had invited the kids-eat-your-life distraction into my house). He had his solve in place: “When she goes down for asap I rush to the table and work on as many pages as I can with the hard anvil of her awakening hanging over every moment that passes. I work at night when my wife can handle her, and sometimes I have her here in one arm while I write/draw with the other. ” It absolutely evaporated the time wasting we all participate in the studio or at the table, The fence of having no time to fuck around, fiddle, get a snack or check your social media rabbit hole taught him to work when it was time to work save the goofing around for when he had time for it. Like me his kids are all big now and heading out into the world and this habit persists still. Perhaps not nearly as effectively as it did back then, but the lesson remains, the muscle to shake off the BS and get to it never really goes away and it comes when summoned, even if a little atrophied from use. I think my mother’s sudden passing right as I had created that first piece for THE LAST OF US, absolutely helped create the series and the following 20 pieces that followed. It fueled it. At a time I felt scooped out and emotionally ambered, it became a place to express and voice the loss and the conflicted feelings about it all. It became the fuel to push this one off into a huge series I could never have imagined or planned for and to this day that project is inexorably connected to that outside personal event in my life and stands as a statement of healing, and the therapeutic expression of art in that process. Each project in my career holds that time stamp- FREAKS OF THE HEARTLAND will forever be the book that pushed me into doing this full time after I got fired, evicted and had my health insurance stripped away just as my first son was born, 9/11 will always be connected to me with PRINCE working on that music video, The crushing last minute Hail Mary deadline that brought me into The Matrix comics and all that followed, Conan, INDEH on and on… The outside forces of our lives that can be so frustratingly in conflict with our work can fuel that work too, and at the very least will steer influence and navigate it. We have only to look to Matisse or Firda Khalo to see one’s infirmities pushing them into new directions thematically and craft wise in how the work is made. Water Lilies Matisse and Chapelle du Rosarie Matisse are miles from each other, but both absolute gifts to the eye and spirit and both impossible without the life experiences and fences they bring as values rather than as curses.
5. THE JOYLESS BADGER FENCE
I think we can all agree we can have ideas or pieces we want to make that exceed our ability to make them. I can draw fairly competently, and I suffer this almost always in all things. I wish I could work more graphically or simply at time, I wish I could paint better, or capture a dynamic design more fulsomely. I wish after all the things on the other side of the fence, like a kid snatching after a neighbor’s flowers growing just out of reach of the chain link that keeps me from them. This dissatisfaction is I have grown to embrace, essential and a gift. I had a professor at Pratt once tell me at just the right time during a critique that I was “relentlessly dissatisfied with myself”, and winked at the follow up warning that “this will make your internal life a hell, but can be the greatest gift to your work you could hope for”. I have come to call this part of myself THE JOYLESS BADGER, and I hate that little bastard as much as I respect his purpose. Desiring for more can be a true gift, striving to be better to improve, to make each piece a rung towards the next is a basic principle to support a life long career and experience on this earth in art. It bites in the wrong place sometimes and absolutely more than it should, prevents me from enjoying my own work… but it has made me a better artist as a result. It keeps from lingering overlong on a particular trick, like drawing smoke or capturing a likeness in exacting ways, it helps me avoid getting stuck in a particular style or approach, it ferociously pushes me out of comfortable mediums once they become too comfortable, and that little anger SOB has been behind a persistent push into different modes, periodic political illustrations, comics, book covers, children’s picture books, package design, public speaking, movie posters, LPs, apparel onward and onward. I live a varied career because of the Badger, and I love to hate him every single day. Lucky for me he’s a terrible person and loves to be hated so the relationship works. If you have one of these in your head, tame them as best you can, keep them where they belong as much as you are able because their cruelty, like the Petty Tyrant can be deeply important to your growth, but not if they become to large, too cruel and too occupying. Think nasty little Pomeranian, or dare I say, Badger sized versus Tiger or Terror-Bird sized. Small enough to put in box and throw it into the volcano when needed, but big enough to execute its purpose.
6. THE MEDIUM FENCE
Paintings do not sing, Comics cannot be conformed top obey time, Music cannot show you a picture and movies can’t do what novels can do in exercising your mind. All the mediums have qualities of strength and failure in them. When I’m writing I can’t help but paint pictures, and when I’m making comics I can’t help but wish I could couple them with music. When you’re on set of a film having to let your baby go and trust the interpretation of it is no mean feat. I think it’s a great gift that not a single medium in art possess all the qualities of the others. There is no Superman that makes the rest of the Justice League seem redundant. It’s a room full of Wonder Women, and thank christ for that. I think for me personally it’s the limiting factor in why I shy away from oil painting and instead focus on drawing- the immediacy of drawing the direct and simple, paired down qualities inherent to the medium syndrome most with my own personal proclivities, good or ill. Even the sums work I consider drawing and not painting, as well I should. I have come to embrace it as an ethic, but it still doesn’t;t under the grasp after doing more, of finding more, and chasing more beyond it. The danger I think I being too stuck in any particular medium is in fact getting stuck at all, and I think it’s important to use those limits and their frustrations I escaping the golden handcuffs any medium can give. It’s fine to have a favorite of course as there are really no clear and fixed rules for any of this. Whatever I say here is only my own such babbling, and can be tossed aside easily. So grains of salt notwithstanding, I want to be an 80 year old codger in my studio getting excited by crayons I found make an excellent new series of art pieces I’d have never imagined possible. It’s taught me to be more embracing of the terror of moving beyond my comfort sones, because we all know going onto the scary place and making it your own is a victory unmatched by any winnable fight you may ever experience. Ethan leaping into comics to work with me in telling INDEH was such a leap, we then eschewing the sequel to make MEADOWLARK was another. Each adventure fosters a thirst for another and strengthens the art muscles always, even in defeat. Which believe me I have suffered all too many of them myself to be sure. We grow only from error, so letting the medium force your own personal fuckups can be one of the greatest gifts possible. And like the Likeness Fence, force you with its limits, to think beyond what you might have walked into the room with.
SO I suppose all o this blather is to suggest that the challenges and restrictions or perceived catastrophes you face are always easily seen in the negative, but with a shift in perspective, can be actually quite the opposite. We as a species, just aren’t wired to learn without failure. The candle isn’t going to burn you until you know it for having out your hand on the flame. For good or ill, that’s the way of things and in art it’s the most important process.