As a creative person, I don’t just doodle, I sketch. These sketches are relaxing for me. I did a quick sketch of Edgar Allan Poe, the master of mood and the macabre.
Though I have had many opportunities in my professional career to flex my creative muscles, such as the work we have done on the NASA Open Government Plan and the Office of the Chief Technologist, I have created very little art for myself. The bits that I have done are limited to the scope of post-it sketches quickly drawn during a few stolen moments at work– a quasi-productive vice to momentarily distract me from work, akin to some people’s smoke breaks.
As a personal challenge and an opportunity to dust off some of my skills, I wanted to see how quickly I can take the sketch to illustration, and to take you along for the ride.
The initial sketches are crucial. Working with a computer can be very tedious, and is never the time to explore. Sometimes magic happens and your first attempt will be sufficient. But don’t count on that happening. Pencil and paper allows you to get an idea down, evaluate, and repeat until something seems right. As a wise, much more talented friend of mine once said, “Success is sometimes the result of having exhausted all other possibilities.” Our mantra at work: “Fail fast!”
I’ve found that working with markers or pens helps me not censor myself. As a perfectionist by nature, I will sometimes get caught up in a mis-drawn line and get bogged down with erasing and revising if I were using a pencil; and before I’d know it, I have blown through two hours with only eraser shavings and exactly one very well drawn line to show for it. My second mantra: “Move on!”
My sketch is quick and crude, but is enough for me to see the shapes and personality that I want to capture: a world weary muppet with a bit of pomp. I’m now confident that I can work on a computer without having to flail around, “exploring”.
Total time spent so far: 2 minutes.
I redraw the image in Adobe Illustrator, to block out some of the shapes. Some may notice that the finished shape of his head is triangular. In retrospect, had I spent more time thinking this through, I would have blocked out a triangle for his head instead of an inverted pear. Some of you may notice that my shapes aren’t all closed loops; they are there as guides to help me keep sight of the final vision. After all, isn’t half of art just translating what you see in your mind into something that everyone else can see. Sketches, concept art, block, pre-viz are just tools to refine that vision. At this stage, it has a semblance of the final product, but few outside of the artist himself may see its potential.
Total time spent so far: about 10 minutes.
Here I refine the major shapes; namely the head. I also select the colors. I avoid doing the fine details and features. If you focus first on the details, you may end up with perfectly rendered eyes, but realize that the shape or composition doesn’t work and needs to be completely changed or worse, scrapped.
Total time spent so far: about 30 minutes.
I continue to block out the other major shapes, and continue to refine. With each refinement, I feel more confident about that the finished product will look closer to the vision I have in mind. You may also notice that I spent a bit of time playing with the gradient on his shirt. That is me getting caught up in the details before I should have. I also got distracted by trying to do the curls in his hair. My most expensive revision was deciding that it reads better if his head was triangular; the silhouette would be more distinct. The revision cost half an hour of time that I could have saved had I thought it through earlier in the sketching phase.
Total time spent so far: about 2 hours.
With the shapes blocked out, I am confident enough to continue and invest the time in working with Illustrator’s gradient mesh to give the shapes volume. It is a laborious, but fun process. I can easily lose hours doing this; but decide to abide by rule number 2: “Don’t talk about fight…” oops, I mean “Move on!”
Total time spent so far: about 4.5 hours.
At this point, I’m ready to do the features. The background is added to give some color context to the image. I also take a short detour from doing the face and add a button. It makes him look more like a muppet, as does the red nose. And I should have done the face before the ascot. Rule number #4: Face first, ascot last.
Total time spent so far: about 5.5 hours.
Creating the eyes is the same as giving volume to the major shapes. But that detail, I saved for last because I knew it may take me the longest amount of time. The gradient mesh topology lines may give some insight into the process.
Total time spent so far: about 7 hours.
It was finished at 3 in the morning.
Probably the most important part of our creative process is collaboration. I sent out the image to Matt and Dennis for feedback. It needs a background: a bookcase, a dresser, a mirror, or a window with a moon outside. All of those ideas would have given the character more context. But at this point I invoked Rule #2 and decided to move on.
Though if the interest was there, I hope this would be the first illustration in a series of others: of artists, musicians, scientists, and others who’ve shaped popular culture.