Words of inspiration

Given that I’m both a designer and a fiction writer, it’s no surprise that I absolutely love book cover design. And given my love of all things modern (yes, I adore that little black dress of fonts, Helvetica), it’s also no surprise that I have something of an obsession with vintage Penguin covers.

If you’ve spent any time in used bookstores, you’ve probably seen them—old paperbacks featuring a simple title upon a clean Marber grid accompanied by a single striking photo or illustration.

Source: Abduzeedo. The green was featured on crime titles throughout the 1960s.

I’m not sure why I love them so much. If could be the simplicity, the boldness, the tease of that single-object cover (which is, incidentally, making a comeback thanks to one particularly popular book), or maybe it’s just that shameless Helvetica all over the place*. Whatever it is, I’m clearly not the only designer who digs it—just check out these gorgeous Harry Potter redesigns done in classic Penguin style. Squee!

Anyway, for a while now, I’ve been meaning to do some designs of my favorite quotes about creativity and writing. Since there were several I wanted to do, I decided to make a quickie project of it—almost like an assignment I might have had in design school. This meant I needed strict parameters, so I decided on these:

  1. The design must take inspiration from classic Penguin book covers, using similar photo or illustration styles and fonts. Each one will be letter-sized.
  2. The design can only use copyright-free/public domain imagery or original art.
  3. Each design must not take more than 1 hour to create.

I kind of need parameters, probably due to the fact that I’m too used to working within brand guidelines. This is true even of my writing, where I often work best under some kind of time limit, word count, or self-imposed deadline. It’s a little disturbing to realize I’m obsessed with rules, but if they help me get the job done and prevent me from procrastinating because I don’t know where to begin, then who friggin’ cares?

So instead of drawing, I have some of my favorite quotes to share. If you have any quotes about creativity you’d like to see turned into a design like these, feel free to post them in the comments. Maybe I’ll even throw in a free Facebook portrait for the one I find most inspiring!

* I’ve thought long and hard about this Helvetica obsession. I’m convinced it relates to my love of patterns, grids, and uniformity, all of which stem back to growing up on U.S. military bases around the world. Helvetica was the primary font for signage on everything from the Commissary to the Shoppette, the bowling alley, the laundromat and just about anything AAFES. Funny to think how all those Cold War-era bases were fighting Communism while at the same time employing a distinctly socialist aesthetic.


This blog is not dead yet!

I own many a pair of blue-stockings.

I don’t know where this image came from*,  but it pretty well sums up what I’ve been doing most of my summer: writing. And frowning! As it’s been two months since my last post, I clearly have not been writing for the blog; I’ve been revising and rewriting my novel. In six weeks, I barreled through 96,000 words. Crazy? Yes. Difficult? Yes? Did I want to vomit words and stab my eyes out? Absolutely.

However, I’m pleased to report that my novel now has a new second half. I lingered a whole month editing the first 200-ish pages before I got to the fresh material. Then I banged out 41,000 in two weeks (about 150 pp).  That’s faster than NANOWRIMO speeds and will probably be a lifelong personal record as I vow never to do it again. I can’t really remember those two weeks except that my hand nearly fell off (I handwrite first drafts), I dreamed in prose, and when I wasn’t writing, eating, or sleeping, I scribbled furious and mostly incoherent notes onto every available surface. I was also a complete basket case, so my husband gets Hubbie of the Year award for not suffocating me in my sleep.

Now the manuscript is off to the agent, the waiting game begins again, and life returns to normal. Well, as normal as things get for me. At any rate, I’ll definitely be back to drawing and will likely post another Facebook portrait contest soon, so stay tuned. . !

*I swiped it from Tamara Linse’s excellent writing blog.

Wonder Woman: Adrienne Rich

An inspiring poet, essayist, and feminist

This Tuesday, Adrienne Rich passed away. I remember first reading her work as an undergraduate and realizing that poetry could be aesthetic and evocative while still being political and transgressive. This seems like such an obvious thing to me now but back then, it felt like a revolutionary concept. I was a fine arts major after all, and while I knew of plenty of visual artists creating this kind of work, my background in contemporary literature was sorely lacking. Rich was my introduction to poetry’s feminist voice.

Others soon followed: Plath, Angelou, Bishop, Stein, Moore—all the usual suspects. But Rich was the first. So when I heard of her death, it affected me with surprising intensity. I think that since I discovered her at such a key time in my development as an artist, she loomed large in my writer heart, right up there with Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, and Marge Piercy—all women I look to as guides in how to produce smart, funny, brilliant, and powerful work.

One of my favorite Adrienne Rich poems is “Planetarium“. You can hear her reading it on YouTube (starts at around the 5:00 mark). I like this poem because it celebrates Caroline Herschel, one of the first women of astronomy. I love space! In my next life, I will be an astrophysicist.

Art is not dessert!

Anyway, I think her death also struck me because lately, it seems as though U.S. politics has been hijacked with some kind of anti-woman agenda. The assaults against Planned Parenthood; the ridiculous personal attacks on Sandra Fluke; the sudden popularity of transvaginal ultrasound laws; Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett’s insultingly absurd comments; and so much more. It feels like another culture war is emerging to pull back on hard-won, basic rights that women have fought decades to achieve. Losing such a powerful crusader who spoke eloquently for the rights of women, gays, and all oppressed groups felt like just another blow.

Anyway, instead of simply ranting, I thought a more positive use of my blog would be to jump-start a project I’ve been thinking about for a while: the Wonder Women Project. What I’d like to do is showcase stories of inspiring and wonderful women and, naturally, draw some portraits! The group will include recognizable names, like Rich, but also some overlooked historical figures and everyday ladies with stories of overcoming adversity, creating great art, showing incredible leadership, and/or just being inspiring role models for everyone.

To start, I have two very excellent candidates to follow Adrienne Rich, but I’ll soon need some help with suggestions. . . I’ll be announcing another contest for ideas soon, and winning commenters will get free portrait. So stay tuned!

Portrait process

Warning: This blog may be hazardous to your health

Many of my favorite illustration blogs do more than show cool pictures—they actually walk through the steps of how a particular image is made. I’ve picked up a ton of great ideas from these posts, so I figured it’s time I made my own.

For this particular task, I recruited a volunteer subject: the intrepid Ms. Trixie Pants, who offered a suggestion on my Famous Faces challenge several weeks ago and, as a result, won a free portrait. Of course, she didn’t realize that in winning this portrait she would be a victim on my blog. But given that Ms. Pants is a fearless investigative reporter and editor of an groundbreaking blog about how all the animals on the planet are planning to annihilate the human species, I figured she’d be up to the challenge. And she was!

Every portrait starts with a photo. I suspect this one was taken when Ms. Pants realized her identity would be revealed to the world.

The famous muckracker, Ms. Trixie Pants!

Generally, I’ll jump right onto the computer and digitally trace the image with brushes and paths. This results in a very smooth, perfect line quality (like the David Foster Wallace portrait in the last post), which is infinitely editable. My control-freak side loves working digitally as I can erase and manipulate my lines to my little heart’s obsessive-compulsive content. However, in this case, I decided I’d go the old-fashioned route and start with pencil and ink, largely to see if my hand skills are still what they used to be.

So I printed out the photo and did a graphite transfer into my sketchbook. With a few pencil touch-ups, I had a simple line drawing.

Any six-year-old can do a graphite transfer

One thing Ms. Pants requested was that the portrait reveal the hazards she encounters during her day-to-day tasks of informing the world about the mortal threat of animals, a danger summed up by her blog pseudonym, a north pacific giant octopus is going to kill me. Given my own fondness for cephalopods, I had no problem incorporating a giant octopus.

Ask for tentacles and you shall receive

Next up is inking. I was surprised to find some old, serviceable brushes, though my India Ink made a weird rattling noise when I shook the bottle. Clearly, I’d been drawing digitally for too long. A splash of water solved the problem so I could give the drawing some substance.

I actually love inking

This reminded me of that scene in Chasing Amy when Banksy makes a compelling case for inking. While pencil lays in the basic form and composition, ink gives a drawing shape and body. Tell ’em, Banksy! Inking is where it’s at.

At this point, I finally scan the image into Photoshop and lay in color.

This is the cartoon stage

This is the most tedious part. I really need to hire a gang of monkeys to handle this stuff. The colors are easy to change, so I just select random hues from the default palette.

Once the flat color is laid in, I start playing around. The composition felt too static, so I rotated everything, which required a little redrawing. Bummer I didn’t think about this during the pencil stage, as I could have made her hair swirl around. Too late now. I convince myself it doesn’t look too bad, then I change the line color and start thinking about the background.

Now it's getting interesting!

At this point, I discover that the North Pacific Giant Octopus is a lovely scarlet color. Its skin also has a beautiful, velvety texture.

That is one badass octopus

Image source: ARKive

Nearly finished! Now it’s just a matter of few more color tweaks, a bit of lighting and shadow, some masking, a few color overlays, custom brushwork, more modeling, more gradients, additional effects, a touch more color mixing, a hint of chiaroscuro, additional line hues, new highlights, masked texture, size adjustments, and layer merging. And boom! Thirty-five layers later, you’re done.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to do a portrait. I can also work from several photos and/or a flesh-and-blood sitting to generate an original composition. But that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish I’ll have to save for another post.

Another project I’ll never finish

For years, I had this obsession with a short story called “Becoming” that I was trying to write but couldn’t. Despite drafting it about 1,000 times, the right ending eluded me, so I thought it might work better as a graphic narrative/comic. I’d had success doing that with another piece I couldn’t end until I drew it and really enjoyed the process, so I thought it might help this time.

I sketched out 24 storyboards and was at the point of making some character portraits when I realized the thing might take years. The panels in my head were such beautifully rendered things—each one in full-color, with ridiculous amounts of detail—that the thought of starting the first one terrified me. Worse yet, this novel clotted up my brain, demanding to be written, so I had to make a choice: spend a few years on one comic that I might or might not finish, or dive into a book that might or might not suck.

I’d never written a novel before but since comics tend to bring out the worst in me (my obsessive perfectionism doubles, given that I’m both writing and drawing), I went with the book. Three years later, I’ve got a solid draft I’m about to revise (since it does kind of suck) when “Becoming,” now renamed “Shark Skin,” has returned to haunt me. So I figured I’d try exorcising it by drawing the first panel. Someday when I’m able to hire a sweatshop of elves who can magically tap into my creative consciousness, I might finish it. For now, I feel better mainly because I simply wanted to design a shark tattoo.

In other news: congrats to trixiepants, who wins a free Facebook portrait! Trixie offered the only comment on my last post, but it was a good one that kicked my brain in the right direction. I’ve now solved my famous faces dilemma and know who I want to draw. Yay! I won’t spill the beans yet, but the results of my scheme will be coming soon.

The famous faces challenge

A belated birthday homage for Mr. Dickens

It’s been a busy few weeks, so I haven’t had time to post though I promise I have been drawing. I completed one more graphite/digital piece to share, but I can’t post it until later this month when it goes live elsewhere on the internet.

In the meantime, I decided to pay a little homage to a great writer. Last Tuesday, February 7, was Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, and since I’ve been known to gift friends with an occasional digital portrait, I made this. Okay it’s belated, but the man has been dead for 142 years, so I figured he wouldn’t mind.

While the image of Dickens that most often comes to mind is that of his later years, with the grizzly beard and wild hair, I rather like this younger shot from 1850. He was already famous by that time, having visited the U.S. and just completed David Copperfield. By many accounts, he was a handsome-looking fellow and a bit of a dandy, so I thought it might be fun to resurrect him like this in full, dashing color.

Here’s the original image I worked from. It’s a public domain image from Wikipedia.

Clearly, I took some liberties at the details not apparent in this black and white photo. I found myself searching all over the web to figure out his eye color (responses ranged from brown to blue), and what fabrics were used in mid-19th century men’s clothing. Whatever I couldn’t figure out, I gave my best guess.

I call this particular digital drawing process my “Facebook portrait” since it’s a style I began using for social media avatars several years ago.

My first Facebook avatar (October 2007)

Back then, I began with a drawing done with good ‘ole brushes and india ink that I scanned in and colored in Photoshop. Today, I simply trace right in the program, using a mix of raster and vector lines. The Dickens portrait inspired me to figure out fabric textures, which was a good challenge and something I’ll probably work into future portraits. I also want to work more on backgrounds. In this one, I found a historic view of Fleet Street and St. Paul’s that made a nice contrast between the bright, contemporary illustration and the faded, historic photo look. I should probably do something original, but this works for now.

Anyway, my goal is to do a series of famous faces with some sort of fun, random connection. I had considered doing just writers, but that’s too straightforward. Then I thought about famous Georges (for a series called By George!) or Scotts (Great Scott!), but I need something that allows me to draw an equal number of women. I’d love a range of people from different ethnicities, races, and historical time periods—a variety of faces and stories I can tie together with a simple, quirky premise. Like a pun! I like puns.

Feel free to help me brainstorm. Anyone with a great concept and a few good names wins their own, free Facebook portrait.