Blog

Happenings and wonderful things.

You're a Wizard James

When a good friend linked me to a posting for Graphic Designer at Wizards of the Coast earlier this year, I was quick to apply. Magic: the Gathering is a game near and dear to my heart, and the opportunity to lend my creative abilities to the game I literally grew up with is just too good to pass up. I wasn’t seriously considering that I would hear back anything outside of “Thank you for your application, have a nice day, etc.”, but that didn't stop me from trying. 

It’s strange, but the thought of such unlikelihood did anything but discourage me. In fact it emboldened me to try some very different approaches to the ask. I figured I may as well speak from the heart. A short excerpt from my cover letter:

I’m going to play Magic, I’m going to make Magic artwork, and I’m going to love this game, no matter what. This is an application to do what I would have done anyways, just for you. I would be honored to be part of the team that is creating the wonderful moment I experienced so many years ago, but for a whole new generation of players. 

I don’t know what I was thinking; I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. It was pure feeling, ran through the spell checker, and fired off into the aether. I consoled myself that at least the person reading it would have a laugh before we all moved on with our lives. The joke was on me when they said yes.

One evening I received an email from clear blue, saying that I was onto the next stage of the interview, this time a test! I had 5 days to complete a graphic design test where I was asked to come up with the solution to several design challenges. Nervous but excited, I went to bed shortly after reading the email, my brain spinning wildly with the thought that I had made it to stage 2. 

I’m pretty sure that I was dreaming about graphic design that night, because when I woke up the next day I found myself face to face with the solution to the first of the three challenges I had been given. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to believe that it could be so easy. But easy is a funny word. Easy is seen as a bad thing, as though a lack of immediate effort and suffering is inherently wrong. We’re conditioned to think that the creative mind must go through terrible hardships to reach a satisfying conclusion. But what I often forget is how much time I’ve already invested.

I’ve been playing Magic: the Gathering since I can remember; my first purchase was made with my Christmas money at the back of a Waldens mall book store. A fourth edition starter deck, complete with the crazy tome-like box design. I stared at the Hurloon Minotaur on the booster packs, utterly fascinated. I can clearly remember the smell of fresh ink and the feel of the paper as I looked through the deck over and again.

In fact, I cannot look back to any specific point in my life without having some corresponding memory of cards, magic, and monsters as my companion. I’ve been thinking about this game in one capacity or another for the better part of 20 years. As an illustrator and graphic designer it naturally became a fascination of mine when I realized how much work was going into not only the illustrated art, but the presentation of the art. It takes a masterful hand to have everything look and most importantly feel correct. The process is an art unto itself, and the thought of that art being something I could do seemed so far away for so many years; an impossibility. 

And yet, there I was, making it happen. All the years in art school, all the years beyond that school where my real education happened, the articles I wrote, the studies I made, the screw ups (so many screw ups), the sketches in the borders of my notebook pages, the nights where I would wake up with an idea for a new image; it all added up. This was the ongoing result in a massive battle of wills, mine versus that of the ever-busy world that wanted to pull me away from my beloved craft.

So when it came time to show what I could do, yeah it was easy. Just the same way that it’s easy to cross a river where you spent a decade building a bridge. 

Interviews followed. Waiting commenced. Nervousness crept it's way into my system. I did everything I could to distract myself until last Friday when I got an email from my contact at Wizards; THE email. Over the course of ten minutes everything changed, and I became a Graphic Designer for the company who fueled my imagination and inspired me to get to where I am today. 

It intrigues me to think that the work I do will cascade into the lives of so many, a responsibility worth undertaking. In addition, I will be able to do something that I’ve never in my wildest dreams considered; introduce myself as one of the Wizards of the Coast. Elation and terror rest of my shoulders, but I find myself strangely calm between these two chittering voices. I consider this a most honored position to hold, one that has not only been earned, but also must be earned every single day from now on. 

It’s time to start making Magic.

Spaghetti Time

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with my niece who had introduced my to Undertale. She loves video games and drawing, so we always have plenty to talk about. So it was this season of the Great Pumpkin that we set to recreating our favorite scene from the game. For my part, there is no scene quite as insane and downright fun as the optional cooking lesson with Undyne. 

undyne.jpg

It's Almost Time for the Great Pumpkin!

I make a point of creating a themed piece every year in celebration of Linus waiting patiently out in the Pumpkin Patch. It’s funny; I never really cared about Peanuts when I was growing up. I always read Garfield or the Far Side, but I’d skip right over Charlie Brown when I had a moment to look at the comics section of the newspaper. It wasn’t until I was much older that I started appreciating and enjoying what Mr. Schulz was doing.

My Great Pumpkin piece from a couple years ago; still my favorite.

My Great Pumpkin piece from a couple years ago; still my favorite.


I’ve been working at the problem of creating an illustration for a bird. It can be any bird, not even one that actually exists, but I want it to be my bird. This can be very difficult to achieve, because even a cursory search quickly reveals that there are a multitude of birds in the illustrated world, covering the gamut of sizes, colors, and representative forms. There are even more birds that exist in abstract, whether that be high fantasy, science fiction, or even imperceptibly altered forms that you very well may have to take the artists word is that of a bird. 

Against all of these myriad possibilities that already exist, your humble servant enters the arena, impressed and a little intimidated, but not impossibly so. 

The thing that impressed me most about birds, as it does so many, is the way they move. Not just flight, although that is a miracle in and of itself. To the land-bound, the sight of a creature defying gravity and the winds is awe-inspiring. But for me it’s even more impressive to see the variety of movement styles and how they play out. 

Anything from the lumbering turkey to the dart-like swallow, there are an innumerable variety of ways to soar the skies. I watch the little fellows buzz overhead, chasing around their larger, more brutish counterparts. The slow, elegant grace of the heron, the power-filled crash of wings belonging to the birds of prey, there seems to be no limit to personal style. I take this is as a welcome relief. If there is room for so many creatures in such a specific kingdom, surely there must be room for a James in the art world. 

IX 2016 Post Game

It’s so hard to find a way to properly encompass the four days at Illuxcon 2016. 

It’s not that for a lack of content but rather too much in so many ways. Even thinking about it now, with several hours in the car for the ride home and a full night’s sleep, I still have a hard time getting it all straight. 

The show was three full floors in a re-purposed factory building in Reading, Pennsylvania. The space has that wonderful industrial aesthetic of concrete, wood, metal, exposed infrastructure that isn’t afraid to show off it’s beauty of strength. The rafters are suffused with light, dozens and dozens of mini spotlights beaming down on the artworks below. It gives everything this wonderful soft glow. 

The people were brilliant as always, masses of skill that boggles the mind. So many creatives in one place, it’s like being a movie fanatic on a Hollywood film studio set. Everywhere you look there are superstars.

The conversations were amazing, deep, highly personal, and motivating beyond anything I experience on a regular basis. I heard more than one time that this is where all the artists come to recharge their batteries and get into gear for the next year. I am no exception; I have about a dozen ideas for new drawings, and just as many sketches. 

I’m sure in the coming weeks my brain will unpack this experience more and more, but for now it seems the only thing I can do is to hold up this magnificent golden moment and proclaim it to be so, as though it were not self-evident. 

Illuxcon 2016

A very exciting week as I prepare to go to my annual illustrators conference; Illuxcon. 

I’ve been organizing my work, getting things printed out, double checking said prints, and generally having butterflies all up in the stomach. Good butterflies though, the kind you get when you know you’re going to see a dear friend. In my case, it’s not one but dozens of friends that I usually only see once a year. 

 

This will be my third year in a row attending the conference, and like so many other things in life it just gets easier and easier to go with each passing year. I remember the first year I was a nervous ball of energy, not knowing who to talk to or what to do. Thankfully I was in good company, and my natural enthusiasm for the visual arts carried me through the week. I met a lot of amazing artists and had some wonderful conversations. Most importantly, I made some very good friends. 

Illuxcon is unique because it’s half conference, half art gallery. There are classes to attend and talks to hear, but there are also dozens of top-tier artists who have their work on display. The focus of Illuxcon is fine art, so you get to walk around and spend the afternoon looking at all these wonderful paintings and sculptures. To make the deal even sweeter, the artist him or herself is always right there next to their work, so you get a chance to react and have a conversation on the spot with the creator. I know the logistics would be impossible but it would be wonderful to do that at every museum!


Confidence plays a strange role in all of this. 

I remember many years ago, being confronted at various points by other artists and feeling defensive, unnerved on some level. What if they’re better than me? I thought.

Well so what if they are? Better in what way? By whose estimation? Of what consequence is this comparison?

Being a little older and (hopefully) a little wiser, I have the ability to look at other artists work and be filled with appreciation for what I’m seeing. Art, even commercial art, is deeply personal. It is a snapshot of who we are at the time of creation, an inevitable self-portrait. When we create something that lives on, separate from our minds, it does take on an energy of it’s own, but the intimacy of the creative connection remains. 


With this understanding, I’m able to more accurately appreciate what I’m seeing, a life in progress. My stuff will never look like their stuff, and that’s a very good thing. Each of our lives are our own; I would never want to surrender my personal story for that of another. I don’t believe the point is to be more beautiful, more clever, more powerful. I believe the point is to simply be.

I look forward to seeing the next step in everyone's personal stories.

Again.

When I get client feedback, there is an identifiable structure to a request for changes. Sandwiched between a compliment and an apology is the edit; the request to do it again. There are two reasons this nice-guy approach happens with such regularity. The first is that I'm lucky enough to work with nice people. The second is that these people recognize from their own experience (or the past complaints of others artists) the pain of repetition. 

We fear repetition because it is so unpleasant, especially if the last iteration wasn't successful. Many many humans have tried something once, twice, failed, and quit. After all, if you couldn't get it right the first time, what guarantee is there that you'll get it right ever? We are programmed to take each iteration as a self-contained experience, separate from those that preceded and those that may yet proceed. It makes sense to the left-brain way of thinking;

Deep down, we just really want to get it right the first time. We want to be good at things. We need to be good at things. 

Digital trace of the first sketch.

Digital trace of the first sketch.

But if we the creatives are going to persevere, we need to adopt a healthier attitude towards what we do. We can't see changes as a painful flaw, but an opportunity to take a step closer towards the ultimate goal. So what is the ultimate goal?

Whatever you want it to be. 

Some artists just want to get it done, some are looking for the highest level of technical expertise, some want to connect the world through visual beauty and usher in an era of bliss through creative expression. I have been all three at various points in my life and will no doubt return to these ideas many times. But whatever the goal is, I think the one change that can make the biggest difference is to pull back the camera, and take in more of the field at once. Maybe this drawing isn't a lonely image that can be singled out, bullied with critical attack, and dismissed into memory best forgotten. Maybe this one drawing can be more, a single step in an entire dance.

Digital color of second draw-over.

Digital color of second draw-over.

I had been working on this soldier for a couple days when I arrived at the above image. Seeing things clearly and in color for the first time, I was excited. Here in front of me was more or less what I had been working towards. But was it more or was it less? How far along was I? Was I done? I knew that I had become too wrapped-up in the process to be able to judge it objectively. I can feel when a piece crosses that dangerous line and becomes precious to the artist. I needed some distance, some direction, some real feedback. 

Lucky for me, I know a guy. 

Mike Linnemann is a being from another planet, constructed from pure electricity. He assumes human form for the sake of our collective sanity, but any time spent in his company will get you unreasonably hyped up about everything. He has a contagious passion for visual art and an arguably encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. I've had the pleasure of knowing and working alongside him for many years. I sent Mike my soldier, knowing that his eyes would catch all the things mine could not.

He did not disappoint. 

When I got a response, I was surprised at how much he had caught, but pleasantly so. This is where that long-term view comes into play. I was thinking about my image as a step in the process, and it was able to shed it's sacredness. No hurt feelings, no apologies, no drama, just good honest feedback and the path forward laid clear.

Printout with notes from Mike and draw-over.

Printout with notes from Mike and draw-over.

More importantly, Mike made me think about not how I was working but why I was doing it in the first place. I kept drawing, scanning, asking, redrawing, scanning, asking more...

Mid-question.

Mid-question.

Full disclosure: this part was not easy. Going back and forth was frustrating, conflicting with my 'just get it done' mentality. But there was reward in the repetition, watching this figure inch his way closer towards clarity and sense of completion. I stubbornly refused to give in to the temptation of those dreadful words: good enough. 

There you are!

There you are!

It's in this moment of discovering the true image that my mind goes to the story of the lion and the mouse. With the thorn pulled from his mighty paw, the lion spared the kindly mouse who risked everything in the lion's moment of need. It's the very moment when I step back from the monitor, smile, and breathe; I am the lion, and my relief is palpable.

Background skeleton build with test colors and text.

Background skeleton build with test colors and text.

I'm slowly learning to embrace my foundations as a graphic designer. Big chunky geometry and bold colors are the letters of my language. Only when I let go of my need to make work that looks like everyone else's can my work can truly come to life.

Yas.

Yas.

I'm not showing you this image because I think it's perfect. I know there's room for improvement, and I'm excited by the prospect. Just like the individual drawings that paved the way for this image, this project as a whole is but one of many repetitions. 

This image represents a snapshot of who I was at the moment of completion. 

Even a few days later, as I write this article, things have already begun to shift. New projects are in process, new experiences have shaped me in different ways, and the path continues on. For my part, I will do my best to continue with gratitude and joy at the opportunity to do it again. 

The Story of a Boy and his Goose

I worked for Washington College from July 1, 2013 to July 1, 2016. During my three years in Maryland, I met a lot of amazing people, drank an obscene amount of coffee, and got more work done than should be permitted by law. It's a special time that holds a lot of emotional power for me, but there is one figure that, above all others, remains with me to this day. His name is Gus, and he's a 6.5 foot tall goose.

A Goose of many talents. 

A Goose of many talents. 

I had been working at the College for over two years when I was approached by my VP with a special request. As we had put in so much work in the previous years, publications and processes were flowing smoother than they ever had. We had an opportunity to work ahead, something that rarely happens nowadays. He asked me to think about what I would base an advertising campaign on for the college, left to my own devices. At some point I would present my ideas and we would have a chance to enact them. 

Beloved.

Beloved.

 

I wasn't given a specific timeline for this task, just the murky concept of 'later'. With no solid deadline, I did what anyone would have, and let myself get carried off in the tide of other projects that had firm and fast finish times. Life has a way of (over)filling the quiet spaces if you let it, and just like that, I was swept away. The hourly flood of emails was more than enough to keep me occupied well into every night and weekend.  

Until a student and a gun went missing. 

I wasn't in Maryland when Jacob's name started circulating on the news sites. From my native home in New York, I watched helplessly as the College, my College, searched with increasing desperation for any sign of our missing student. I watched until my eyes ached, and my mind throbbed with worry. I was 500 miles away and couldn't do anything to help. 

With the screeching halt of activity at all points within the College, I didn't even have my hustle and bustle to keep me busy. All I could do was watch, and it drove me crazy. So I did the only thing I know how to do: art therapy. 

Happy birthday General Washington!

Happy birthday General Washington!

Gus the Goose, the official mascot of Washington College. I hadn't used Gus in any of my marketing material in the first couple years, as no one really seemed interested in the static image of Gus that came from the company that created him. I had my own ideas about how to advertise the College, and like those came before me I simply tucked the Goose off to the side.

OG (Original Goose)

OG (Original Goose)

Now in the eerie silence of a College in distress and it all came together. As the days stretched into one another with Jacob still missing, I had Gus to keep me company. When the College closed early for Thanksgiving, I took the extra days to try out the goose in various poses. When things finally came to their tragic end, I got through it in my own way; with a sketchbook. 

I had fallen in love with this goofy mascot, this point of light in such a dark time. I needed to share that love. I knew what the next campaign was going to be, I knew how I was going to get people to fall in love with Gus.

I had a chance to dress in the Gus costume for a video shoot many months prior. Maybe that was where the bond was first established. It's hard to trace these things, but I can definitely say that putting on the giant goose costume was one of the highlights of my career. I've never felt so free, so natural, so enabled to be a total screwball than I have when I gained half a foot, a couple hundred pounds, and red feathers. The 25 minutes that I was Gus, I WAS Gus, and that stuck with me. 

 

Everyone loves Pi Day.

Everyone loves Pi Day.

When I was bouncing around in that costume, people responded to me. They had to. I don't care how cool you think you are, you can't help but smile and laugh when there's a giant fat bird waddling around and waving at you. It wasn't that it was Gus, it was Gus + You. There had to be that personal element, that bond of familiarity, that's what made smiles and created memories. 

Gus had to move. 

Not necessarily animation, though that would be a checkmate level move in and of itself, but if people were seriously going to accept Gus as a representative of who they were and what mattered in their lives, Gus had be the ultimate renaissance goose. Academics, sports, holidays, memes; it didn't matter. This was the saturation approach at it's finest. Give everyone everywhere as many opportunities as possible to find the angle that they could experience a personal connection with this big happy fellow. 

Gus crosses the mighty Chester during the annual cardboard boat race.

Gus crosses the mighty Chester during the annual cardboard boat race.

But of course, for this to work, we would need a lot of Guses. Like, a lot a lot. More than that. More. Just a few more... ok, that many.

Thankfully, I came pre-equipped for such circumstances.

Some things in my life have changed dramatically since I was young, but among the core fundamentals, the subtle essence of what defines us, is a crazy-over-the-top love for cartoons. I grew up with Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, my go-to movie on a bad day is My Neighbor Totoro, I have books by Jack Hamm, Preston Blair, and the archivists of Disney. I've read Chuck Jones' biography, twice. I read the books Chuck Jones read as a kid because I want to be more like Chuck Jones. It would have only taken a tiny nudge to knock me into the world of cartooning from that of a graphic designer.

Except that I couldn't stand drawing the same character more than once.

Repetition, to me, is one of the biggest challenges of cartooning. I can draw a dude a couple times in different poses and situations but after 2 or 3 times I am done. This is disastrous from the standpoint of someone who wants to become more skilled. Somehow the ability to focus and apply myself at cartooning was never quite there, always in the background, but never with the proper method to channel it into anything but a deep love of the genre. 

All of that changed with Gus.

Unusually athletic for a big guy.

Unusually athletic for a big guy.

I didn't even realize it as it was happening. In my head I was just doing my job, but as weeks turned into months, the drawings started piling up. I found myself sketching Gus in my free time, discussing his mannerisms over coffee, critiquing the original design, restructuring him according to the rules laid out by the Grand Masters of the craft (Preston Blair). By the time I was ready to present, I had 60 geese complete. The presentation went staggeringly well, and Gus was to be put in the spotlight where he belonged.

Only I wasn't going to be there to see him through. 

It was a strange moment, but just as I found this new world connection to the place I had called home for three years of my life, it was time to go. More bitter than sweet, I returned to Maryland in late June to sign the papers and return the items that would mark my departure from Washington College. It's been 2 months since that day and I still don't know how I feel about it. 

But I didn't say goodbye. I don't believe in such things. And when the email came through, asking for more Gus illustrations, I was only too happy to accept. 

Of course Gus has a bindle.

Of course Gus has a bindle.

It was strangely therapeutic to return to my favorite character. Work is always a mix of pain and pleasure, but with Gus there isn't any drama. Just as easy-going as the big guy himself, drawing Gus is about the most natural thing I can do nowadays. When I read the assignment, my mind effortlessly supplied the visuals to go with each scenario. It was like I'd been doing this my whole life, not just the last 6 months. 

I think this is how Watterson and Schulz must have felt. Davis, Disney, Uderzo; at some point they hit the magical line where it becomes easier to draw a certain character than not. I always wondered how they could have done it for as many years as they did. I should have known the answer, as always, is love. 

Good night for now Gus, I'll see you real soon. 

Good night for now Gus, I'll see you real soon. 

Have a Drink on Me

April 2016 - July 2016
Programs: Hand rendered + Adobe Illustrator

There are some clients who I'm happy to hear from no matter how busy I am. Ant Tessitore is one of those people who seems to constantly be the harbinger of amazing things. He has a natural creative spark that is highly contagious. When his name pops up in my inbox, I know something good is coming. He had written me a couple months ago with an idea for a new project, and he did not disappoint. 

With his wedding on the horizon and several groomsmen to buy a gift for, Ant wanted something special that each man could share, but retain their individuality. He decided that, rather than order a simple name engraving on a keepsake, we would team up to go all-out and create a completely unique piece for each of his friends.

I received matrix of information, covering two important topics to each of the groomsmen, as well as an animal they felt a close connection to. I was to then take each combination of elements and create an original coat of arms, which would then be laser engraved into a steel flask. 

As every good project does, things started off with sketches and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Blocking out the basic ideas for each of the heraldic elements.

Blocking out the basic ideas for each of the heraldic elements.

An important element in my current process is, well, the process. The focus has changed from 'get it done right now' to just 'get it done right.' I've allotted myself the time to go back and  make sure that each illustration has that correct combination of style and accuracy. 

Soft pencil lines overlay the hard linework from the printer.

Soft pencil lines overlay the hard linework from the printer.

Every cycle consisted of scanning the original drawing in, tracing it out in Illustrator, printing it back out, and then doing a fresh draw-over. This combination of techniques allows me to strike a balance between the surgical precision of vector illustration and the warm organic lines of a hand-rendered piece.

Coming into focus, replacing the palette with crossed paintbrushes and a paint spatter in the background. I also started experimenting with line shading and thickness.

Coming into focus, replacing the palette with crossed paintbrushes and a paint spatter in the background. I also started experimenting with line shading and thickness.

Pen and ink layer to complete the first analogue version of the illustration. 

Pen and ink layer to complete the first analogue version of the illustration. 

It was at this stage that I got in touch with my printer. This is an essential step in any large-scale project that has unusual specs. Inevitably, the starry-eyed designer is going to come up with some ideas that just aren't feasible due to the limitations of the printing process. I've been in this profession long enough to know that I fall into this category regularly. Thankfully, I have some impressive people in my corner. 

I got in touch with Tim Doyle at Ironmark, a multilevel marketing company that just happens to have one of the best print teams I've ever encountered in the business. Every designer has a list of printers they trust to do different things, and I know that when I have a special project that needs that extra level of attention to detail, these are the people who can back me up. 

Tim got me connected with exactly the product I was looking for. When I had artwork for review, he steered me in the right direction on a couple critical points so that I didn't end up with an unprintable product. If I had waiting until I had completed all seven designs, it would have been a complete pain to rework everything. As it was my first design, the changes were easy to incorporate and use as a template for the other six. 

Fully digital render with cleanup and simplified linework. Line shading in Adobe Illustrator cuts a lot of the tedium from the manual process, and ensures total accuracy in the image. 

Fully digital render with cleanup and simplified linework. Line shading in Adobe Illustrator cuts a lot of the tedium from the manual process, and ensures total accuracy in the image. 

From here, it was a simple matter of creating the other six illustrations and sending them off to press.

I consider this an example of collaborative work in the highest degree. Ant is a phenomenal person to work with, giving a lot of energy and enthusiasm without being overbearing in the slightest. Tim is one of those quiet heroes that makes everything happen seamlessly behind the scenes. With our collected efforts, this never would have been possible. What an amazing set of gifts.

Here's to another success in the storyline.

Some of the things I’ve learned so far

I was recently talking to a younger (and highly skilled) designer who was looking for some advice on a number of topics. His questions were well thought out, concise, and bought up a lot of points I’ve heard over and again from conversations with other designers and artists. I’m writing this post with the hopes that this serves others as well, as I think there’s a lot of universal concerns here. This is written mainly to graphic design freelancers, but I think/hope there’s something here for everyone.

Please do note that these are only my feelings on the industry/life and may differ/align/directly clash with yours. That’s totally cool, everyone is going to have something different to say and that’s what makes this whole topic interesting.

What Commercial Art Is

First and foremost, I want to introduce you to some of the insights I’ve gleaned over the years in terms of what it is that we’re doing as commercial artists. That is to say, producing or rearranging visual and sometimes aesthetic content for other people for money. I want to be as clear as possible because this will cascade into everything else I say.

Commercial Art is problem solving.

Which of course begs the immediate question: what problem are we trying to solve?

As near as I can put it, the problem is that everyone, and I mean everyone, has an idea. They have this wonderful visual idea inside their skull and unfortunately it seems to be stuck there.

As anyone who has tried knows, visual art is extremely difficult. The process of taking what is essentially just a mess of neurons firing off in your head and turning that into a concrete image that looks and more importantly feels like that thought is insanely complicated. It takes thousands of hours of practice to forge the correct mental pathways that get you consistently from concept to execution. A very slim percentage of the human race is willing and able to make that commitment, which would normally mean that visual idea is now forever locked away in their head.

I would like to point out here that this is a universal problem. When people ask what industry needs graphic designers, the answer is always “Yes”. Here’s where commercial art comes in.

As someone who has or is in the process of putting in the hours, you are essentially offering up your uniquely structured mind for rent to help someone else get that idea out into the world. It’s your experience, your skill, and your personality that are generating value, and it’s important to work on all three. Because in addition to the delivery of visual material, which is hard enough, in the commercial art world we also have to consider the process as well.

Work is stressful. Taking the risk of moving your idea from the safety of your head to the outside world is stressful. Hiring someone and giving up the reins of control is stressful. Having to provide feedback is stressful. Deadlines are stressful. Paying people is stressful. Before the client has sent their first email, they’re already freaking out. I cannot overstate how important it is for a commercial artist to be easy to work with. If you can do your job professionally and with a smile, you win. Faux smiles are acceptable, but genuine ones are always preferred.

I have had several jobs where I initially felt I was being overcompensated for a relatively simple task. Later I realized the value I was generating was not, for example, adding page numbers to a pdf; it was that I did so after hours, quickly, and without complaint. The world is moving at a terrifying speed right now and there are a lot of very tired people who are more than willing to pay the dual relief of one less to-do and the comfort of a friendly face.

Speaking of speed, timing is another huge asset to the commercial artist. More qualified candidates with better portfolios have been passed over many times in favor of someone who could reliably get the job done on or ahead of schedule. We can and should always push for quality, but a half-finished design is only that. As a good friend of mine once said, “almost having dinner doesn't make you any less hungry.”

To sum it up, picture the following scenario:

It’s Thursday evening and Bob has just gotten an email from his boss’ boss that simply reads:

I need a presentation ready to go for a conference this weekend. This is to a group of high-paying investors so it has to look as good as it can.

Bob has 1 day to take a crappy Powerpoint presentation and turn it into gold. Bob is a sales manager who doesn’t know the first thing about powerpoint beyond the 12 templates it ships with. Bob also has a PTA meeting that night and can’t afford to watch tutorials for the next 3 hours trying to figure it out.

Bob is screwed.

In a panic, he sends an email to his design contact begging for help.

Take a minute and really try to put yourself in Bob’s shoes. You’ve got this unreasonable request from this alien entity within the organization, you can’t argue, and you can’t solve it yourself. Life is knocking at the door, you have 45 minutes to figure this out. 20 minutes goes by, and your wife is now calling, asking where you are. You say you’ll meet her at the school. Is your stomach churning yet? It should be. Then your email client pings. There’s a message from your design contact.

Not a problem Bob, I’ll get things moving and have a draft for your tomorrow morning.

And just like that, just one friendly email, a couple hours that night, and sending it in the morning, you’re now a superhero. You do the job, it pays well, but the hidden benefit is you are now Bob’s favorite person. Bob will come to you time and again when goofy stuff happens. And if you’ve worked anywhere near an office, anytime ever, you know goofy stuff will always continue to happen. Bob will mention your name fondly to his friends, and one of his friends has an idea for a logo they’ve been thinking about…

It’s been said many times before but it’s always worth restating: You are your own brand.

Even if you have a salaried job in a mega-size organization, you are still your own person. I’ve picked up many commissions for after-hours work from coworkers who enjoyed working with me when we were on the clock. Promotion considerations are real, intra-office politics are real, and people in your office will only really remember 3 or 4 things about you, make sure those are all good things.

It’s the cycle of good service, a friendly attitude, and successful projects that feeds into the next one. I haven’t asked for work for many years; people come to me with their ideas. They come to me because, I hope, they enjoy working with me and trust me with their baby. I’m honored to work with each and every one of them because I know how much it means to them. If you look at it this way, your days can be filled with gratitude for such a wonderful opportunity.

But where does the cycle start?

With you.

 

Don’t Ask

The biggest mistake I’ve seen people in all walks of life make is waiting. Writers, visual artists, engineers, it doesn’t matter. If you ask someone for the chance to do something, you’re already screwed. Most likely they’ll say no, but even if they say yes you now have your own problem. Chances are if you’re asking for the opportunity to do something it’s because you’ve never or rarely done it before and you’re excited by the prospects. That’s great, being excited rocks.

But the problem comes from that same lack of experience. If this is new territory, you don’t know what the pitfalls are, you don’t know how hard or easy it is, you don’t even know if you actually like it or just the idea of it. If you don’t have the experience under your belt, you are not ready to accept a serious professional opportunity, no less solicit one. It’s the classic Catch-22 that stalls people out like crazy. But there’s a secret way out of this lock.

Just Freaking Do It.

I want to make wine labels. No joke, I do. I think they’re super cool to look at and there’s a lot of potential for the industry that I haven’t seen yet. Does that mean I’m ready to design a wine label for a company? Nope. Which is why I wrote up a fake wine label with a buddy of mine last Sunday over coffee. We discussed the particulars, made some notes, and now I’m sketching for my very own wine labels. I’ve already found 2 major challenges because I didn’t ask the right questions during the brainstorming. I’m sure I’ll hit several walls on the way.

But this project is for me. If I decide half-way through that I hate wine labels, I can scrap the project and not lose a wink of sleep. If they suck, I don’t have to show them to anyone. If I find one of the challenges insurmountable in my current timeline, I just just give myself an extension.

But if it works out, I will have 4 professional-grade labels that I can post in my portfolio. Given time, there will be someone who sees that and realizes that this is the label they’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months. Or maybe I find myself in conversation with a vintner. Compare these two sentences:

 

I’d love to try making a wine label some day.

 

Versus

 

I made some wine labels a couple months ago and I had a blast, you should check them out (hand over business card).

 

Who are you going to hire?

The benefits don’t stop there though. Designing my own wine labels means I now have complete creative satisfaction, that most precious of mind states. I’m calling the shots so I can make the labels look and feel however the muse dictates. I’m the perfect client for myself to work for.

It also keeps my portfolio fresh. People like seeing new stuff and rarely, if ever, care whether the job was for a paying client or not. If they see you doing good work, they form a positive mental association between you and the road to success. And most importantly, you are sending a direct signal to all potential clients about what kind of work you want to be involved in. If you take a web design job to help pay the bills that month, no sweat. Just don’t put it in your portfolio unless you want more web design jobs.

People like seeing people busy.

I worked with the owner of a highly successful restaurant some number of years ago who told me the story of how she got her start. The very first day, without a single order, this little corner bake shop sprung into action. Anyone who walked in that day would see cookies and pastries cooling on the racks, the owner/baker moving quickly between ovens, mixing up a new batch of dough. Again, no orders placed, but stuff was happening. As she tells the story, her friends and family all put on a couple pounds for the first year because of all the fake orders she was fulfilling to ‘clients’, but fast forward to years 2 and 3 and she was sending more orders out to actual customers than not. Keep going and that hustle and bustle became very real. She was experienced, she had a routine in place, and she had the infrastructure to support a brisk business. When business became brisk, she was ready.

 

WORK.

Which brings me to my most important point: WORK. WORK WORK WORK.

This is a weird industry. I don’t mean to be harsh, but if you’re truly looking to have a job where you put in 40 hours and go home, you need to seriously reconsider your industry. Work life balance ceases to have meaning when your work is your life. I do what I do because I would go ballistic if I didn’t. Every day is just as much a giant art-therapy session as it is an actual job. I treat it was the utmost seriousness, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the hell out of it. It’s super important to enjoy this, because it’s going to take as many hours as you can cram into it to get to the level that you want.

And let’s not forget, that goal is a constantly evolving one as well. As a 33 year old I have a completely different idea of what I want to do and why than I did as a 23 year old. It’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different; more focused I would say. I sincerely hope that as a 43 year old I will have yet a different set of goals, and 53, and 63…

My point is that this is a process, it is who were are, it is us. To say that you stop being you when 5pm hits is insanity. Yes, a full day is tiring and life is busy and we have the ten-thousand things of the world to distract us. But if this is your choice then it inevitably will influence the rest of life as well. Remember, the hours are going to pass either way, your only choice is how they are spent. This is in no way saying that choice is easy, but it is yours.

It’s commonly accepted dogma that practice = skill. Malcolm Gladwell can tell you all about that. But the one bonus I can tell you about in putting in those ten-thousand hours is: at some point, you are going to get freaking SICK of doing this.

If I have to draw one more still life I’m going to scream.

Good! This is an absolutely critical point in your development, it is the wall that stops so many would-be masters. But again, this is a stop, not the destination. Because when you’ve filled stacks of sketchbooks, read dozens of articles on typography, and you’ve looked at so many swatches your eyes are bleeding color, you have to ask yourself this one question:

Why the hell am I doing this?

Protip: There is no wrong answer to this question. ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly valid response.

Protip 2: The answer will change as you do. Thus it is important to ask yourself this question constantly.

Whatever the answer is, remember it. Write it down. Put it somewhere you can see it, because that answer, that ever evolving ‘why’ is the root of your personal style. Style can mean many different things, but for me it is the driving force, the personal vector, that brings you to the conversation and steers your creativity.

I design because I want to help people understand.

I think it’s the coolest moment when someone who was previously confused suddenly has an epiphany and can use their newfound information in a meaningful way. The “AHA!” moment.

I’m addicted to making beautiful things, and I’m addicted to making life a little bit easier in whatever form that takes. If I make a logo design that you are able to associate with a product, great. If I make a illustration that reminds you of simpler times and provides comfort, that’s a win. If I can help you navigate the Hot Mess that is out current information overdriven world, good times.

I want you to succeed at everything and I would be honored to be part of that success.

Art and design as a method of pure communication.

Again, I hope this article helped you reach a greater level of understanding, and maybe got you asking some questions about why you’re doing business and how you can do it just a little better.

 

Peace, Love, and Badgers,

ThatGuyJames

 

Happy Trees!

I love landscape paintings.

I've never been particularly good at painting, but I allow myself to play from time to time. I was watching an episode on youtube with landscape painter / Buddha / guru Bill Alexander when I decided I would get over my fear of messing up and just see what happened if I were to take brush to canvas. 

Here's the vid I worked with:

And here's what I wound up with:

Bill definitely did a better job than I did, but I was happy to have gone through the motions. After about a day though, I started feeling that familiar itch. I can do better.

bill-icon-3.png

I started breaking the image down into geometric planes, grabbing details and colors from my painting. I felt like there was something more to this image than the overly-detailed painting held. It's the neat-freak in me; I like to take complicated ideas and boil them down to their core components.

I dialed the image all the way back to it's most basic to see what I was really dealing with. Though it seemed like Bill was improvising, the form of the painting was decidedly a gigantic 'X'. He placed particular emphasis on a strong luminescent source in the upper left corner of the canvas. This sunlight was the most important part of the painting. 

I continued working detail back into the piece, being careful not to get too busy. It's a tough balance to strike in digital space, as Illustrator is more than happy to let you play at 4000% magnification and beyond. Sometimes I wish there was a way to cap the zoom tool at 100%.

Mountains; trees; sunlight. I forced myself to stop shortly after this point, adding texture for effect to wrap it all up. 


Street Fighting Men

Growing up, Street Fighter was my go-to at the arcade.

Having no gaming skill to speak of, getting knocked out in the first fight or two was the story of each quarter. But it wasn't enough to deter my love for the bright colors, the insane characters, and demolishing an entire car with nothing but your bare fists! This is a personal project, sheerly for the wonderful memories and the world warriors who helped create them.

The interesting part of this project was unifying the four designs. I started out with six rough sketches; T. Hawk got cut because he ended up being redundant due to Ryu and Dhalsim, Vega got cut because he's a guy in a nearly blank white mask. Having narrowed the field down to the four, I started developing all the faces simultaneously. I immediately fell into the trap of feeling confused about my goals and unaccomplished as the hours added up.

Ditching the other three, I chose to focus on Akuma one evening. I couldn't have made a better decision to work a single character to completion. I now see that I was struggling to keep my abstractions within a ruleset for the sake of unity, but I had no ruleset to speak of. Akuma became the template by which the other three were built. With a single point of reference to refer back to, I was able to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. 

M. Bison represented the biggest learning curve for me on the project. I had started out with a much more accurate representation for each character, but quickly realized the style did not allow for superfluous information. Some things just don't matter with these characters. With M. Bison, everything from the bridge of the nose up to the beginning of the cap is largely irrelevant information. He has no pupils, sure, but half the characters in this game don't either.  This got me thinking like a caricaturist: pick the most prominent unique features and blow them way out of proportion to make the character 'read' correctly. Giant chin, giant hat, giant teeth; you know who it is. 

M. Bison represented the biggest learning curve for me on the project. I had started out with a much more accurate representation for each character, but quickly realized the style did not allow for superfluous information. Some things just don't matter with these characters. With M. Bison, everything from the bridge of the nose up to the beginning of the cap is largely irrelevant information. He has no pupils, sure, but half the characters in this game don't either. 

This got me thinking like a caricaturist: pick the most prominent unique features and blow them way out of proportion to make the character 'read' correctly. Giant chin, giant hat, giant teeth; you know who it is. 

An exercise in geometric simplicity, Dhalsim came together almost instantly. My only struggle with this character was trying to give him ears for the rings to slot into, until I realized they were not needed. The face paint makes him look like a volleyball, and that makes me happy. 

An exercise in geometric simplicity, Dhalsim came together almost instantly. My only struggle with this character was trying to give him ears for the rings to slot into, until I realized they were not needed. The face paint makes him look like a volleyball, and that makes me happy. 

EYEBROWS. I played with a couple different configurations for Ryu's signature headband, choosing to settle on one that simultaneously featured the cloth and obscured the mouth area, which it turned out was redundant. Ryu's face is pretty much always a scowl; we know he's in a focused/bad mood, the eyebrows say it all.

EYEBROWS. I played with a couple different configurations for Ryu's signature headband, choosing to settle on one that simultaneously featured the cloth and obscured the mouth area, which it turned out was redundant. Ryu's face is pretty much always a scowl; we know he's in a focused/bad mood, the eyebrows say it all.

The idea that started this project, Akuma is the only character I ever played and thus the only character I ever got any good at when Street Fighter 4 dropped. Of all the characters, I feel this one was the most successful. I've had several peple tell me this guy reminds them of Samurai Jack in a good way. I can think of few higher compliments.

The idea that started this project, Akuma is the only character I ever played and thus the only character I ever got any good at when Street Fighter 4 dropped. Of all the characters, I feel this one was the most successful. I've had several peple tell me this guy reminds them of Samurai Jack in a good way. I can think of few higher compliments.