Charlie’s golden beetle cafe and other sketches

After supper, kidlingers helped with laundry. And kitchen dishes. Provided a few minutes for me to organize and store some of my art work.
 
Some ink on paper drawings fell to the floor. Collected at the back of an art portfolio presentation book, they escaped when I opened it. Not sure why they were loose. Too small? Or, I was in a hurry and stuffed them there years ago. Now scattered on the floor, I considered their future.
 
I picked up a mocked up advertisement for Charlie’s Golden Beetle Café. It was part art deco and part art nouveau. And had a dash of Alphonse Mucha-inspired design with a Patrick Nagel homage. Inked with crow quill and brush, the shellac of the pigment still shined. I placed it on my desk and picked up another page. A character model sheet for a comic book proposal displayed across several pages. Half pages and scrap illustration board. Some in black ink. Some had splashes of red to highlight an aspect of the character’s costume. I gathered up a couple pages of ink brush sketches. Practice sheets. Or illustration exercises.
 
What to do with this stuff?
 
Someone called from the other room. It sounded urgent. And yet not desperate. But still. Family duties called. 
 
I picked up the presentation book. It collected a comic book art pages I drew many years ago. A sixteen-page indie comic book story and two other short comic stories. There were no empty clear pockets to place the loose art.
 
I grabbed the ink drawing pages from the desk and began placing them. The presentation book featured 24 clear pockets. Each pocket sandwiched two comic book art pages and a black paper divider. I slide one of the ink drawings between the black paper divider and a finished comic art page. I continued hiding drawings in that manner until all the desk was clean.
 
And someone called again.
 
I closed the presentation book. And placed it in The New Yorker magazine tote bag along with another art portfolio. I paused. Looked at the pencils, pens, and brushes on the desk. Then answered the call.

Practice art work

From the archives. This goes back quite a few years. Before social media. And iPhones. How did I manage to create a regular comic strip with a full-time day job?

In truth it took a few years. Little by little. The style developed from pen and brush inking techniques — more realistic illustrations — to Sharpie® marker and Sakura Micron pen illustrations — more graphic and cartoonish. The intent was to streamline the process and art style in order to work quicker. However, the reality is that the graphic, cartoonish style takes just as much time as pen and brush. Just in different applications.

The character remains unnamed — loosely referred to as a young artist. Dressed with black turtleneck and unkept hair. The comic strip ran for maybe a year before the newspaper ended publication. A lot of newspapers and magazines shuddered that year.

I return to the “young artist.” To practice art work. A creative workout. Similar to physical fitness routines. An effort to keep the motor skills of drawing and illustration in shape.

Recent practice comic strips created remain unpublished. Private exercises. Not published in an independent newspaper. Not for public show on Instagram. Or Facebook. I do not have accounts on those social media platforms.

I may share them here. This has become a digital repository of material I find in old art portfolios and sketch books.

“Art is work”

A drawing of my desk with books read, unread, or partially read.

It is a challenge for me. When I am introduced as an artist and/or poet. Still not comfortable with either of those nouns. The next question is inevitable. It usually goes something like this:

My wife turns and introduces me to her friend and adds, “He’s also an artist and poet, too.”

“Wow, can I see your art work on Facebook?”

“No. I am not on Facebook.”

“Oh. Instagram?”

“No. Not on Instagram, either.”

“Well. Um. What do you do? Oil paintings? Do you have a gallery somewhere?”

“He posts some of his work on his blog,” my wife offers.

About that time the bread crumb trail ends and the conversation shifts to something else.

The trouble is that some of the work I create I cannot contractually share. Technically, I do not own the copyrights to the final art. And so, I cannot distribute or display it on this or other online platforms. Frustrating. Yes. Bad. No. It is the cost of commercial arts.

For example, a couple weeks ago I drew a portrait. A line art drawing. The portrait will be featured as an etching in either crystal or acrylic as part of a lifetime award. Sometime in March. You may have seen such awards in business offices. A crystal award on black base sitting on someone’s desk or shelf or trophy case.

I am reminded of one of Milton Glaser’s mottos: “Art is work.”

Milton Glaser, celebrated graphic designer, may not be a household name. Not even in my home. But most Americans will recognize the I [heart] NY logo. It is highly unlikely that school children will study designers as part of their art curriculum. (My children are presently studying the American painter Andrew Wyeth.)

Too often I lament, or rather, complain that I spend too much time creating work in front of a screen. It was so nice to ditch the screen and work in ink on vellum and illustration paper. Took nearly four hours to draw the portrait. And that is with the interruptions of replying to emails and designing elements for a multi-page editorial piece. It would take four weeks if I tried to craft the portrait as an oil painting.

In order to answer a request (Where may I find your art work?), I drew the above page last weekend. Inspired by Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf, I managed to draw the stacks of books on my desk by the bedroom window. At least fifty books. So many books. So little time. I enjoyed the exercise. It felt good to pencil a sketch, flesh out the details, and ink the page.

“Wait. You write poetry, too?”

“Um…” I start.

“Have you been published?”

“Yes,” I say.

And this time the bread crumb trail ends quickly. Because most people do not know where to begin to look for published poetry.

“He posts some of his published poems on his blog,” my wife adds.

Comic book pages found

“What’s that?”
 
I turned to give the kidlinger a better view. 
 
“Did you draw all that?”
 
I nodded. 
 
Three years ago I rediscovered these 11 inch by 17 inch pages. Illustrated comic book pages hidden in a storage container. A gray Rubbermaid® Roughneck® storage tote of the 18 gallon variety. I stored art supplies, books, family keepsakes, manuscripts, and tools in dozens of similar totes. Living in a humid subtropic climate at the time, I did this to avoid water damage and mold ruining art and other supplies. Additionally, heavy duty polypropylene bags also prevent mold and water damage. To offer an added level of protection I used the technique of poly bagging art pages and then placing them within totes. When I moved across the country this also acted as a good way to pack.
 
However, that was not the case with these pages of art I discovered three years ago. Like an archeologist, I excavated those pages from a gray Rubbermaid®  tote. They were loose in the tote. Not poly bagged. Print samples of graphic design projects filled the tote as well. And also old newspapers and magazines. Either these publications featured something I wrote or something I designed.
 
In an effort to preserve the illustrated comic book pages, I found an old presentation book used for interviews. The Itoya Original Art Portfolio presentation books work the best. Good for professional presentation and storage.
 
During the holiday season I found one of the portfolio books with those illustrated comic book pages. Examined them again. This time one of the kidlingers was spying over my shoulder. 
 
“These are really good,” the kidlinger said. “Better than I can draw.”
 
“These are practice pages.” I said. Paused to let the kidlinger read the panels on the page. For a brief moment a wave of vulnerability washed over me. A child-like anxiety of examinations. The kind of fear I had when a school teacher reviewed my arithmetic work during class. Found an error and announced it so that all the class might hear. Why had I felt that way about my child reading this page? There were no objectionable elements to the story. Nor art. Nothing inappropriate for the kidlinger’s age. The moment passed.
 
“What language is this?” Kidlinger pointed at one of the panels on the page. 
 
“German.” I answered. “Deutsche.” 
 
The kidlinger hesitated. I considered translating the passage: Im Schatten sah ich. . .
 
“Lines from a German poem,” I said. “I added it to the story to help me remember the poem.”
 
Or to add texture to the short slice-of-life comic book story I composed. Sequential art as some have called it. A clever way of renaming comic book art.
 
I did not purchase my own comic book until I was in high school. An art teacher suggested that it may be a good way to study human anatomy. And it was. Exaggerated, dynamic anatomy. Superhero comic books were the only type sold at the local gas station on the way to school. The public library carried collections of Peanuts. But nothing like Superman or Batman. They did, however, carry the Classics Illustrated book series. Excalibur was the name of the comic book I bought at the gas station.
 
Though superhero comic books introduced me to sequential art, it was the slice-of-life stories that intrigued me. At the time, I had not heard of nor read American Splendor, Berlin, Cerebus, or Strangers in Paradise. But that was the direction I was headed creatively.
 
I probably added lines of German poetry to seem more sophisticated. To elevate comic book pages to sequential art.
 
“You wrote each of these stories, too?”
 
“Yes,” I answered the kidlinger. “Every one.”
 
I started to say something. To explain that these were practice stories and drawings. I wrote the script and illustrated the pages a decade ago. No. Maybe two. Each page, each panel pencilled and inked with crow quill and brush. It was practice for greater things.
 
My goal in those days was to publish a comic book or a childrens book. I did not know how. But the owner of a comic book store suggested I visit some comic book conventions. I did. And even booked a table on artists alley for a couple comic cons.
 
Artists alleys are a feature in nearly every comic con. The alleys feature artists and writers showing their work in hopes of securing a job with a major publisher. Or any publisher for that matter. Or trying to sell their own artwork. I met several artist and writers at these comic cons. And learned how hard I needed to work. Over time, I connected with writers and got a few independent projects. Some of them published. Most remained unpublished.
 
The kidlinger flipped through the entire portfolio. Read through several 2-page and 5-page stories.
 
“Nice,” said the kidlinger. An expression newly formed in the teenager’s mind to mean awesome or fantastic or good.
 
“What do you think?” I asked. 
 
“I don’t know,” said the kidlinger and ambled out of the room. 
 
I thought about that for awhile. What had the kidlinger found in looking through these pages? These artifacts? In a way, this portfolio is a childrens book for at least one child — my child — mein Kind. But these pages remain unpublished. Hidden in a black portfolio book. Even a fragment of a German poem remained hidden: Im Schatten sah ich/Ein Blümchen stehn. . .
 
I stumble through a translation:
 
In shadow I saw
a flower stand. . .
 
Or maybe:
 
In shade I saw
a flower grow. . . 
 
What is that? Goethe? Was I reading Goethe back then?
 
I will not deny the desire that someday I would like these early drawings and writings published. But why? Maybe my desire is misplaced. Maybe these pages should remain in the shadow. In the shade. They are practice pages after all.
 
And then I have discovered something else. I was reading Goethe when I illustrated those pages. A fragment from Goethe’s poem “Gefunden.” Or, in English, “Found.”

Three-tone stained pallet wood bookshelf

Summer therapy project, part five

With the scenes from Eastern and Western literature burned into the side boards, I added three shades of of wood stain. Three tones if you will: gray, green, and dark brown. And a little bit of white oil paint for the moon. Maybe the addition of white paint was too much — a flourish, embellishment. No take backs. What is done is done. Only two more steps remain: wood finish and installation. 

I am a little embarrassed by how long it took to build and decorate this no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf. And yet, the process was enjoyable, painful, and therapeutic. 

 

Summer therapy project, part four

In the back of my mind I wanted the artwork on the bookshelf to be imperceptible. To be part of the wood. To appear as if it were coming out from the wood. Something that a casually observer might miss. But an astute observer would cast a second and a third glance and then walk up close to inspect the nearly hidden image.

Instead of painting the scenes on to the bookshelf, I chose woodburning. The results surprised me. And my kidlingers. The long process of transforming the graphite sketches into dramatic burnt dark figures amazed them. And the craft and process of making the art renewed my imagination.

Too often I spend my day in front of a screen reading, researching and replying to emails. It’s knowledge work. It’s spreadsheets, production reports, and project management. These are all important elements in the workflow of art direction and graphic design. But they can become a psychic vampire as one coworker likes to say. And this summer therapy project was part of the remedy.

Literary scenes from the East and the West

 

Summer therapy project, part three

What is a challenge if it is too easily accomplished? Why not decorate the salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf?

Who suggested the idea is forgotten. Whether it was one of the kidlingers, or my wife, or myself is not important. But through the summer week nights and weekends a conversation took place as to decorating the bookshelf.

Since the bookshelf was intended to house schoolbooks, I decided to draw a scene inspired from Eastern literature and a scene inspired from Western literature.

Earlier in the year I had been reading Tu Fu, the autobiography of a Chinese poet, translated by Florence Ayscough. The author records Tu Fu’s reflection of his early years,

“Aged nine, I wrote large characters
There were enough to fill a hard-bottomed bag.”

Tu Fu, from “Years of Strength Travel”

I intended on drawing a scene from that book. But decided upon Li Po instead. One poem captured my imagination.

I raise my cup to invite bright moon, . . .

I sing and the moon dances,
I dance, and my shadow tumbles
Sober, we share the joy we knew…”

from Li Po’s “Drinking Alone under the Moon”

I found a couple paintings of Li Po on the internet. That became the drawing for the Eastern side of the bookshelf.

For the Western side of the bookshelf, I selected the story of Daphne and the laurel tree. Years ago I acquired Myths and Enchantment Tales by Margaret Evens Price. During the first month of the safer-at-home orders from the state I rediscovered the book. The story of Cupid and Apollo caught my eye because of a detail I had overlooked. Peneus, the river god and father of Daphne, turned his daughter in to a tree in the forest to protect her from a love-struck Apollo. Price’s lovely illustration was the source of the inspiration. And gave me an excuse to play the woodgrain of the side boards into the illustration.

 

Raised cup to invite the moon

 

Bookshelf art – before and after

It was cold. A political rally mangled traffic downtown. Everything seemed off schedule. I missed the street car to the train station by minutes and had to walk. The winter weather depleted the battery of my smartphone. Commuters waited at the Intermodal. The last train of the night was late.

There was a special one-hour podcast on obscure tunes from the Real Book loaded on my smartphone. I wanted to listen to jazz music. But I didn’t want to run out of battery. In case the train was delayed. And I had to call my wife to pick me up.

The previous weekend I checked out a book of poetry from the public library. A collection of poems, translated into English, of Li Po. Before I knew it I had found a friend. The translator made it inviting to enter the world and work of Li Po.

Soon the train arrived and I boarded. Found a seat. Plugged my phone into the outlet. Opened the book and continued reading. The train passed over the river and had nearly cleared the Third Ward when I caught a glimpsed of the moon over Lake Michigan.

“I raise my cup to invite the bright moon, . . .” wrote Li Po.

Maybe that endured me to Li Po. Or at least inspired me to feature an illustration of Li Po on a bookshelf I built this summer.

There are a couple Li Po illustrations I made during the last year or so. But the one for the new bookshelf is the most ambitious and detailed. Maybe I will share some posts about the bookshelf project with you later. I had considered writing a series of short posts about how it all came together. Sort of a how-to, or how it was done, type of posts. But the story about why I chose to decorate the sides of the bookshelf seems to interest people more than how I built it.

As the nights grow longer and colder, the illustrated bookshelf is now installed in the living room.

Serious things

“What did you do last night?” she asked as we walked through the neighborhood in the pre-dawn moments of the day.

“I worked ’til six. Clocked out. Made supper. And spent a couple hours drawing.”

She did not say anything for a few dozen steps. She took the kidlingers on an adventure the night before. And she was tired.

I continued. “The challenge is that it takes me nearly an hour to set up. Not just gathering tools like pencil, ink, brush, illustration board, and setting up a space to work. But planning. Composing a page. Thumbnail sketches. Reference materials and such.”

She listened. We walked further. In the hour before sunrise, I looked East. I saw Venus. Or maybe Regulus. Possibly both.

“By the time everyone got home,” I said. “I had finished marking out a page and composing three panels.”

She told me about a conversation with the one of the kidlingers as we walked. We exchanged comments about plans for the day. We continued for a quarter mile or so before returning home.

Thoughts of last night’s drawings were pushed into the shadows of a day filled with choses sérieuses.

Try again another night

How long did I look at this drawing the other night? 15 minutes? 30 minutes?

Calculated the time it would take to complete the drawing. Did I have the time?

Considered if the time spent on this illustration was valuable.

Too late. A kidlinger requested help. Followed by a short list of other household chores.

The illustration was placed back in the portfolio with 60 other drawings in various stages of completion.

Try it again another night.