Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christmas in June

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I'm working on a Christmas catalog cover in June! I'm accustomed to working well ahead of holidays, but this particular client has a new printer who wants more lead time. So, to get myself psyched in 90-degree weather, I did this little warm-up sketch of Santa. It's absolutely nothing like the style or subject the cover will convey, but serves as a simple artistic calisthenic. I think I may also have to play some Bing Crosby and Mannheim Steamroller to get fully into the festive spirit. My cover is going to be influenced by the movie "A Christmas Story." So I have a few stills from the film I plan to use for inspiration. Now I'm in the mood for French toast. We always have French toast for Christmas breakfast. My puppy Artoo is barking. I think he heard my stomach growling...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Emulating traditional media on the Cintiq

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I've used my Cintiq for about two and a half years now, and a few observations are in order. It's a big relief that I don't have to do oversized illustrations on 30x40 illustration board any more. Digitally, you can just start drawing on the screen and keep adding to your "canvas" as needed. The fact that the Cintiq tilts like a drawing table and swivels like an animation board makes for the nearest thing to drawing on a sheet of paper and rotating the sheet as you draw to take advantage of your optimal swing of the wrist. The pen comes with three different nibs-- hard nylon, soft felt, and spring-loaded nylon. My personal preference is the felt nib as it adds a little drag to the surface, feeling more like pencil on a vellum-surfaced paper. The only problem with the felt nib is it wears out much faster than the nylon. I'm starting to horde felt replacement nibs like I used to horde Gillott nibs, in case they decide to stop making them one day.

I use Photoshop and Painter interchangeably with the Cintiq. Painter is much nicer emulating natural media. But I'm so accustomed to years of Photoshop, some things are just easier to accomplish with it. I've created a custom "crowquill" pen brush in Photoshop that works very similarly to a traditional steel nib pen. (see sample above which emulates pen & ink with watercolor)

Mostly I use Painter to emulate what I used to do traditionally with ink, watercolor, and colored pencil. I prefer the older digital watercolor over Painter's newer watercolor layer technique as I find I have more control with the digital watercolor brushes. One thing on my wish list for Painter would be some way to tilt-control the spread of the wash. Traditionally, I would put clear water on my sheet of watercolor paper in whatever portion of the illustration I wanted to work on. Then, just as the sheen was drying on the paper, I'd touch a loaded brush to it for that feathery-edged bleed effect I wanted. Then, for added control, I'd just lift the edge of my watercolor paper and control the bleed in whatever direction I tilted the paper. With Painter, you get a nice watercolor bleed in the line, but there are no controls yet to "tilt" your paper and let it run in one direction or another. The regular watercolor layers seem to have runny wash settings in some of the brushes, but I haven't figured out how to control their run. Another thing I liked about my traditional watercolor technique was in adding more dilute paint to an already wet darker area. It would yield some nice hard-edged wash passages when it dried as the dilute medium would send the darker pigment to the edges of the wash. Painter and Photoshop both have a hard-edged brush, but they seem to make each stroke hard-edged in whatever width brush you select, rather than making an entire passage into a pool with hard-edged borders. I feel like Painter must have a workaround to accomplish this as I remember reading about controlling the "wetness" of the paper somewhere, but I haven't discovered it yet.
I recently did some traditional watercolor illustrations just to reassure myself I hadn't atrophied from working mostly digital now. I was pleasantly surprised that I'm actually better with traditional media after experimenting digitally. It kind of impacts you in a way that you can visualize what you want to accomplish better, I think, and work more freely with the medium. I also find that my digital work will be better as well, when I switch back and forth, as the traditional work inspires me to emulate the effects digitally. I will say, traditional media is more fun, and there's just something in its directness that is very satisfying. But, no doubt about it, the digital work is way easier to modify and experiment with various color schemes while you work. I'm still much faster in traditional media than with digital, as I find I do more tweaking and retouching digitally where I know the exact effect I'll get traditionally before I touch brush to paper. In that sense, I think traditional media has a spontaneity about it that makes digital media look a bit overworked. The challenge is to capture that spontaneity, and as the digital brushes and effects improve, I think the differences between the two approaches will narrow.

How does one make a dime from internet exposure?

In the analogy to the music industry, you give away CD's or free downloads of your music. Kids play them, they share with their friends, and then you develop a huge following. So when you have a concert, it's a sellout. Music is made in the concerts and tours now-- not via record sales like in the old days. And strangely enough, when you have the concert, the kids who downloaded your free music still buy your CD at the concert as an impulse buy because they want to hang onto the moment or get an autographed copy.

For illustration, in the old days you beat the path to the art directors, making regular rounds to show your portfolio. If your work was good, they'd spend some time with you, maybe not giving you an assignment right away. But you had established a link with them face-to-face, and the next time you wanted to show your portfolio it would be easier. So you did this over time, and each time you'd get to know them more personally, perhaps sharing a few anecdotes and/or taking them out for coffee or lunch.

After some consistency in this, you might even have done a personal favor for the art director, doing a caricature for a friend of his or for his office at a small fee. What really got you your first job with him was the fact that you'd made a personal bond. Not that your work wasn't good, but more commerce happens between businesses because of friendships than talent or a great product, even though those things are important, too. All you needed was the opportunity to prove yourself, that you could produce on time and on budget, and execute well. But that opportunity only came because, 1) the art director felt like he would enjoy working with you, 2) you gave him something that showed you genuinely cared about him, and 3) you did actually have a good style that was suited for his needs.

Today, with a talented wrist being a dime a dozen, and the demise of far more print outlets to buy your work, the competition is even more fierce and time is precious with the few markets having to compete ever harder to stay alive. And the print markets themselves are gravitating to the internet in droves where the audience is greater, because they know if they don't retain a large audience, advertisers will take their dollars elsewhere, where they know they'll be seen. So the old-fashioned, concrete path to the art director's door is now a virtual electronic highway. How do you, then, establish the rapport in a less-personal era? You do it by making an online portfolio, and by blogging, where you can communicate a little of the personal side of your approach to your work, your philosophy, and maybe even a few personal anecdotes. How, in all of the sea of creative talent, do you get noticed or attract a following? It's basically old-fashioned word-of-mouth, giving people a few things for free that they can download and enjoy, and share with others who say, "How cool! Where did you get that? It was FREE?" You may even offer some free tutorials on how you put together a project, showing the art director your artistic approach, building their confidence in you. You write on a well-known blog where people are accustomed to going, and tie it in to your website with links, offer ways for those who are interested to subscribe to daily or weekly feeds, letting them know when your blog has a new entry. What you also accomplish is displaying a portfolio of your creative thought processes, which is not so much an over-saturated commodity as a talented wrist. So your base of subscribers consists of people who have found something they enjoy in your work and personality, and have taken the time to subscribe with their email address, so they can continue getting free offers and tips from you that might make their work easier. And even for those out there who do not know who you are yet, they may do a Google search with terms related to a project they are developing. And if it's a topic you have blogged about, your entry comes up in their search! What if an art director wants to put together a project with that good old-fashioned Gillott pen look, and you have written a blog entry about your passion for Gillott nibs? Voila! There's a connection!

Sure people can lift your work from your online portfolio for free like PerezHilton did with my illustration yesterday, unless you watermark it or keep the resolution so poor they would have limited use of it. But the kids who do that would not be your clients anyway. They might want to put your art on a t-shirt, or a notebook cover, or on their dorm wall. But you have established a link with future prospective clients in the same way McDonald's does by putting playgrounds in their restaurants. What is vastly more important is having your work seen and stand out in an ocean of talent.

In my particular field of advertising clients, ad agencies are more likely to think of me if I'm a household name over whether I'm talented or not. So the more people who are aware of me the better. Also, the reputable companies who visit my online portfolio are aware my work is copyrighted and are generally honest in asking how much a reprint use of a hi-rez file would be. We also have stock art competing with our wares today. So, it's good to have your portfolio do double-duty as a stock art market. If you sell a widget to one million people for $10 each, you do much better than selling to 100 people at $1000 each.

I have tried to tailor a lot of my high-end illustration today to markets where stock art is not an option, due to the specific needs of the client. Consequently, the better paying assignments I get come from those clients. At the same time, it's nice to have re-use fees from the other assignments where the subject matter is more generic and which might find a place with a client who couldn't afford my services. That doesn't take anything away from my high-end assignments, because the lower budget clients are not competing in the same market. It's simply expanded my outlets.