In a strange moment of creative darkness and confusion this past December, I became convinced that I couldn’t continue making comics or illustrations without first developing My Visual Style—that is, the distinctive and unique means of visual communication that I would employ for the rest of my life, thereby ensuring the world could identify and cherish my unparallelled work.
In a curious lapse into childhood problem-solving, I decided that, like a videogame, I would simply grind my way toward a solution. I simply had to figure out the work to be done and then bang it out. A couple of solid workdays seemed like enough time.
Deep down, the grownup part of me was mulling around in the backrooms of my psyche trying to voice his opinion: my style-making plan made no sense. Style isn’t a project you spend a few hours or days on, earn your achievement with, and then move on from. It’s a fluid, ongoing quality of my creative work that depends on a complex arrangement of many factors, including the project at hand, my state of mind at that time, and my current relationship with my creative self. The task of developing one’s style (or series of styles, more like it) is a never-ending process of discovery.
Deep down I knew this. And yet at the time I was convinced that I could crank out a cohesive style once and for all, before the end of the week.
I blame it on the winter and the shadow self it can bring out in each of us. But as unpleasant as our shadow selves often are, they can ultimately serve worthy ends. Fortunately my experience in December was just such a case.
half hour of late-night Googling careful research led me to a process for developing my style that I was deeply confident in. It would require sitting, thinking, flipping through comics, writing, and drawing—in three steps:
- identify my three favorite comics-style works,
- articulate what about those favorites made them so,
- and synthesize all three exemplars in an artwork of my own in order to birth my definitive style, once and for all.
Not surprisingly, things didn’t go as I had intended. Searching, reflecting, and writing went fine. But I could only narrow my list of favorites to four rather than three. And I never made a piece of my own that infused the styles into my unique visual imprint. By the end of step 2 I either recognized the futility of what I was intending to do or got distracted by something else (or a combination of the two).
What I did end up with was a collection of favorite images from some of my most beloved and formative works of visual storytelling, along with notes that showed me, in greater detail than I had previously known, why I loved these works so much. I’ll be sharing images and cleaned-up versions of these notes over the next few posts.
Despite my misstepped intentions at the outset, the process I went through ultimately felt worthwhile. It provided me a valuable reflective opportunity, as well as a reminder of how to relate to my creative self in healthier ways. The more we as artists and creative people can articulate where we come from, the more insight we gain about what makes us tick. As we further understand who we are and where we come from, our work becomes more genuine, and our process for making better reflects our individual needs and quirks. Just like in everyday life, the more balanced and self-aware we become, the more stable and responsible we can be, as individuals and citizens. This is and always will be of primary importance.
Below is the first of four installments on my favorite print-based visual storytelling work, where I provide choice images and cleaned-up notes on why I love these works so much. I encourage you to consider where you come from creatively by revisiting and reflecting on your favorite and most foundational influences.
Note: The rights of these works belong to the creators and their publishers; blemishes in the image quality of the shots below are meant to acknowledge and respect that. If you want a better look at any of these works, go out and buy them! ;-)
Calvin & Hobbes
Overall there’s a very strong drafting and evidence of great observation and intuition. There’s incredible use of line. Thick lines create the outer edges of forms complemented with lovely thin lines of the forms’ inner details. And all of it is so clearly organic and alive — almost careless, but with an underlying care and discipline. Each line goes exactly where it should (or close enough!), even if Watterson didn’t know exactly where before making the mark. The use of value is phenomenal, and the same goes for spotting and use of negative space.
All combined the use of these elements creates intricate compositions of shadow and light that are dazzlingly graphic and almost realer than real. Gesture is perfectly exaggerated, creating vivid amplified reality drawn from close observation.
The story throughout the strip has tremendous purity of spirit — great heart, great writing. The stories and gags can be told well with words, with images, or with silence. It’s simply excellent sequential storytelling.
Stay tuned for the next post in my Influences series.
Calvin & Hobbes books referenced in this post: Attack of the Deranged Mutant Snow Goons (1992), The Days Are Just Packed (1993), The Revenge of the Babysat (1991), and Scientific Progress Goes “Boink” (1991) from Andrews McMeel Publishing.