If you caught the reference in the title graphic, well, you’re probably a product of an art school yourself or just love indie-films about art school. We’re a different breed, we definitely didn’t have the usual college experience… no frats or sororities, lots of “free-thinking” and unstructured projects, probably twice the drugs, and a whole lotta pretentiousness to go around. The least “art school” of the majors is probably Graphic Design/Illustration, because of its commercial nature. I’ve always said I’m the most left-brained artist you’ll find, so naturally I knew I’d be a Design/Illustration major from the start. Just as I was the weirdo in High School, I was also the weirdo (for being more “normal”) in art school/college. (my love for sports didn’t help that notion either)
While the genre of cartooning and comics (erm, “manga” in a lot of cases today) is starting to flourish… moreso than it was in the late 90’s when I was in college… it still seems comics are an “outside” genre. Looked upon by most professors as the cute hobby a “real” artist will toss aside to start working on a REAL project. Rarely do you find “sequential art” classes (if you do, TAKE them!), but those are the closest to true training in the comic arts. Me, I didn’t have that opportunity- the closest class to that was the Children’s Book Illustration class I took twice. While I did have a wonderful Illustration Professor who would give me pointers on my comic after class, his classes were more based in molding a “style” for freelance illustrators-to-be. Needless to say, I trained myself to apply what I learned in design or illustration classes to my comics…. the results being pretty good in the end anyway!
We’ll start with some simple pointers…
- Don’t expect your comics to be a “Wow Factor” when applying to art schools, throughout art school, or in the design/art “real world”. There’s still a stigma about comics, particularly comic STRIPS, that says “low-art form”. I had a local art school reject me solely, as they put it themselves, “because comics are not a high enough art form to be accepted into this institution”.. even though I had a well-balanced portfolio with other mediums and styles. Just the fact that I included some sample comics in my portfolio nixed that application on the spot. Unless you are applying to a rare Cartooning School or work amongst other cartoonists, you will be fighting an up-hill battle with most of the art world. Case in point: I get far more appreciation by people who aren’t in the comic world, for the kids books I illustrate. THOSE make sense. THOSE belong in a bookstore. A comic strip is cute but ultimately a waste of time. Am I being harsh? Maybe, this is just the feeling I’ve gotten over the years. It’s hard to believe that cartoonists were practically celebrities of media/ newspapers back in the day.
- Painting and other similar fine arts professors are going to be the death of you. And you, to them. Unless of course you have another whole side to you besides the commercial-esque quality us cartoonists have. We draw for other’s enjoyment, for mass-consumption (generally speaking). Our concepts are quickly & easily comprehended, they don’t need to be decoded or digested or pondered over in a museum for hours. In fact, the QUALITY of a comic strip is based on how widely well-received it is.. if the masses like it, it’s GOOD. One painting class jolted me to this realization, after seeing a blank canvas with a single yellow stroke receive top-honors, while a tediously rendered landscape was scoffed at. After literally tearing up one of my paintings during the semester, at my final review my painting professor turned to me and said only these words: “You’re a designer, ain’t ya? You get a B” You have to live and let live with these types and hope they return the favor. And if you can play that game as well, more power to ya.
- Typography is boring. But necessary. Yes, even in comics. You tell a story with pictures AND words. Even if you are hand-writing your copy, you need to know the basics on how to convey what you intend with words. Kerning, leading, tracking… serif, sans-serif… and a long list of fonts to avoid like the plague… Typography is far more useful than you think it will be at the time. Those words taking up space in your comic are trickier than you think.
- Your webcomic’s site is like a packaging project. You need a hero, you need associated colors and a simple way to move the eye around in the correct order of hierarchy. If you’re looking for a box of cheese crackers, and you have to stare at an over-loaded design with call-outs and bursts screaming at you all over it, that’s poor design. Your comic’s packaging should be the perfect display for it to shine (ie: the HERO).
- Making computers work for YOU and not the other way around. Many of my design professors were proponents of sketching out concepts before even touching a mouse. Even for a typography project! Don’t be lazy… block out some time for laying the groundwork. Foundations are what makes buildings stand tall, so goes with your logo, sculpture, or comic.
- Learn to GIVE and RECEIVE criticism. It’s the only way to grow and get better at what you do. It took all four years of art school to fully adjust to having my work shred to pieces (sometimes literally)…. but when I’d see how far a project came by LISTENING to others’ suggestions, 9 times out of 10 I was happy I listened. This goes for my current profession as well as a real designer, dealing with marketing reps and my own art director. So, if you’re in a rut with your comic, ask for help and be ready to take it. If you’re rolling along happily and someone interjects their advice…. listen, as hard as it may be. And in return, try to offer fellow cartoonists the gift of constructive criticism.
- Do not get comfortable. I always quote my favorite Illustration Professor Dave Noyes on this one, and I STILL have my issues listening to his wise advice. When I finally, after years of classes with him, managed to bring in a piece that he loved stylistically, and had nothing bad to say about it, I rejoiced (in my head of course) for all of 2 minutes. Mr. Noyes said, “Congrats, Dawn, you managed to impress me, you nailed this one!” He then came up to me at my desk, leaned on the front of my desk, looked me right in the eye and said, “Now don’t get comfortable.” Here, I thought I could coast… I know what he likes now, this will be CAKE. But his words made me realize what an artist is. An artist NEVER coasts, an artist pushes him/herself to go beyond the boundaries and try new things. Now that I had conquered one style, one project, it was time to shake things up and push to the next level. This is hard to translate to comics as a lot of what we do is to retain a style, the way we draw our characters… so I see this as a more gradual occurrence in cartoonists. We do need to keep a structure to better tell a story… but the NEXT story– you better push something- the character’s depth, the writing, the detail in the color, the control in the lineart. And after a year, look back at what you were drawing before… you will see that growth.
Now, lets Critique!
I’ll be the daring one and pin up a Pre-Art-School Comic of mine to the front board. Please keep chuckling, pointing, and mocking to a minimum.
Now, lets see this “masterpiece” after an Illustration/Design Professor has had at it…
Fast forward to post-grad Dawn, and amazingly, she is STILL making comics! Lets see how she has improved.
Fast forward again, after about 7 years of “real-world” Graphic Design experience. Has she applied what she learned in those 7 years of employment to her comic?
Isn’t that nice. I improved.
But I sure ain’t comfortable.
Just for fun, lets take a look at a “Art School Confidential” critique…which seems so very, very familiar….
Dawn Griffin is a self-described “crazy chick”. She likes steak, Cleveland sports, video games and oh yeah, comics. She spent her high school years either playing street ball, pitching, or drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates. Once she –accidentally– discovered the world of webcomics, the sydication route became a pointless hurdle. After all, “Crazy Chicks” do things their *&%$ selves. Dawn is the mastermind behind Zorphbert and Fred, and the illustrator of the Abby’s Adventures kids book series. She can be easily bribed with ice cream.