Wattersmith 3: Comparing Bill Watterson and Jeff Smith

From December 2013 to February 2014, I kept a daily drawing practice focused on environments by some of my favorite comic artists. By now I’ve accumulated sketchbooks of drawings based on the work of Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) and Jeff Smith (Bone), as well as reflections on drawing from Watterson and from Smith. Taking on the tools, working processes, and styles of two other artists has been a challenge, but it’s also taught me some things.


THE EXPERIMENT

To add one more layer of reflections on drawing from Bill Watterson and Jeff Smith, I attempted a Calvin & Hobbes drawing in a Bone-like style and vice versa. This really helped bring to light the physical and psychological differences of drawing from each artist.

DRAWING JEFF SMITH AS WATTERSON

  • After drawing for seven weeks in Jeff Smith’s style, it felt so good to go back to Watterson. So much freer. And so much faster.
  • Since I wasn’t trying to emulate the original drawing’s artist’s style, my work was much more interpretive than literal. It was a lovely feeling after having done so much careful recreation work for the past month and-a-half.
  • I was also able to feel so much more emotion—the isolation of Fone Bone (not included in the Watterson version) sitting alone out on the hill with the woods surrounding. The trees and grass felt more alive since I was just drawing them instead of trying to get them “right” like I did in the original.
  • I’m sure it also helped that I had drawn this panel just a couple of weeks before in a closer and more detail-focused style; the overall composition and elements were likely still in my recent muscle memory, freeing me up even more as I drew it again.

 

DRAWING WATTERSON AS JEFF SMITH

  • This felt much more controlled than drawing in a Watterson style for sure.
  • As an experiment, I intentionally enlarged this drawing compared to the original from The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. I also picked an image with plenty of open space. While I still needed to employ a more disciplined style than with the Watterson-style drawing, the experience here did feel less cramped. What a relief!
  • It was nice to finally attempt “improvisation” in Smith-style, bringing in textures and marks for the tree and ground that felt straight out of Bone. The foreground vegetation of course was added, but this was to keep the composition from feeling perhaps too sparse. (I wonder if there’s a little more I could’ve added to further help with that.)
  • I like how the drawing came out and I find it fun to look at—if for no other reason than its reference to the original Watterson version. But drawing this felt much more like work than Smith’s piece in a Watterson style.

 

FURTHER REFLECTIONS

Overall, drawing from Smith felt much tighter and more controlled than from Watterson. While I tried to make each recreation in both series as accurate to the original as possible, with Watterson it often felt like I had more wiggle room, which kept the drawing experience looser and lighter than with Smith. I mentioned in my Smith reflections the sensation of transcribing quotes; with Watterson it felt more like close paraphrasing.

One thing I wonder is if there’s a greater reduction rate for my copy of Bone versus The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. This would certainly contribute to the feeling of being cramped when drawing from the former versus the latter.

At first I thought drawing from Smith would simply make for a more “advanced” Watterson style—a useful scaffolding for my skill development, the teacher in me thought. In practice I found Smith’s drawings more complex but also in quite a different style than Watterson. Most things in Smith’s world look round and smooth (even, to a degree, the rough textures), while in Watterson’s I get a more tangible sensation of texture and movement.

Smith’s drawings present a greater effort to present a lush and living world than the quick suggestive elegance of Calvin & Hobbes. Amazingly, these two different intentions from the original artists affected my experience of re-drawing their work. Talk about art as experience.

As I mentioned in my Smith reflections, I found it more difficult at times to remove the characters from Bone panels and still have a working composition than drawing from Calvin & Hobbes. I would think most comics’ panel compositions rely heavily on their characters. For whatever reason, Watterson’s compositions even without the eponymous boy and tiger still “work” for me. Maybe the added resonance of having missed Watterson’s strip had something to do with this.

At the end of the day, from which artist do I like drawing more? At this point I’d guess that my artistic “allegiances” are closer to Watterson. But it’s not as simple as that. This experience has helped me begin to discern the areas of my craft where it’s better for me, personally, to work more expressively and loosely, and the times where I should slow down and tighten up. Developing that capacity will open up the range of images I can create and stories I can tell. It will give me a more expressive pallet for creating more compelling images and stories.


It’s been nice to step back from these series to see what I’ve noticed so far. I’m that much more excited to start up again with another of my favorite cartoonists. After I draw as myself for a while.