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Thanks, Mom & Dad


I was probably born with the artistic gene. But if that spark was ignited at conception, was indeed ingrown and imprinted in my DNA, surely it was nurtured and encouraged by the two who brought me into this world in the first place and raised me: Mom & Dad. My siblings and I all benefited from this impulse in them, to instill in us and pass on an appreciation for the arts as well as to create. Music was playing in the house all the time. My mom, Janet, was a fan of a singer of standards, tenor John Gary. She also loved musicals, and we watched plenty growing up. My Dad, Richard, has eclectic tastes. I recall my parents dancing in our conservative household to the soundtrack from Hair! We heard classical (Schubert and more), country (Roger Miller, Marty Robbins and more), jazz (Dave Brubeck and more), and many other artists from many genres: Harry Belafonte, Joe Cocker, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Tina Turner, and the list goes on. Any time any one of us showed an interest in art or music, they not only encouraged us, they went above and beyond the call. All the kids in my family drew or sculpted, played an instrument and/or sang. When I asked them if I could get organ lessons, they decided to buy a piano. My Mom and I would take the train to downtown Chicago for weekly lessons at the American Conservatory of Music, where my sister also later studied. So I began writing songs at age nine or ten, and seriously at seventeen, and still write, play and sing to this day, a valuable creative and emotional outlet. My three siblings attended classes Saturday mornings across the street at The Art Institute of Chicago. Ironically, I was the only who didn't like it there, and lasted only one class, if that. We were all encouraged to participate in citywide art fairs and competitions, leading to the Buckingham Art Fair, again in downtown Chicago every Summer. (Each of my siblings won ribbons and awards for their work. Me? Not so much.) When I became crazy about comic books, my Dad took me on my first trip to a comic book shop (Joe Sarno's Comic Kingdom). And when a simple enthusiasm and hobby evolved quickly into a downright obsession, my folks made sure I was able to visit my first comic book convention, which I attended for years, eventually appearing behind the table as a professional. When I self published my own comic book, I couldn't have had bigger boosters, my Mom while at work proudly displaying her Trollords button on her lapel. Because of their tremendous support, especially during the crucial early and formative years of childhood, I was able to develop skills that paved the way for my creative life and career. We try to do the same for our kids, not only with art and music, but for whatever in which they show an interest or passion. If we do half as good a job as my folks, we'll be all right. Thanks, Mom and Dad.


Pentel Pocket Brush drawing

I finally picked up the Pentel Pocket Brush so many have recommended. I just tried it out for the first time with this drawing, a preliminary study for a graphic novel, "Spirits and A Higher Power." Poor Willie Morgan looks like he's having a bad night.


The brush isn't as juicy as I'd like, but maybe it isn't flowing properly yet. So I ended up using more of a dry brush effect than I'd intended, but that worked to my advantage, I think, serving the material better. This kind of quick exercise helps form the look and tone of a larger work, sometimes  leading places not exactly expected. For the next sketch, I think I'll simplify even more and go darker, working more shadows on his face and clothing. Next time.


Great Romances: Frank'n'Cyd

In writing yesterday's post about It's Always Fair Weather and Cyd Charisse, I stumbled upon this funny and improbable image:


Like Fred & Ginger! It's one of a bunch of disconcerting and/or humorous digital mash-ups. View more unlikely and strange couplings at this page.


It's Always Fair Weather

Being a long-time Gene Kelly fan, I was pleased to discover recently one of his movies I'd not seen before. Belying it's title, the last collaboration for Kelly and his co-director, Stanley Donen (the team that gave us the greatest movie musical of all-time, Singin' in the Rain) and the end of an era for MGM musicals, this 1955 production doesn't completely gel, but is still well worth a viewing. There are a number of clever and entertaining sequences, including one featuring a drunken trio at 4 AM clanging through the streets with garbage lids on their feet. I'd previously seen brief clips of this sequence and another, but it's another thing to see them in their entirety.


That isn't the only alcohol-induced number, as a bitter and spastic Dan Dailey later lampshades his way through a business party, complete with a Jerry Lewis parody. These three guys are not in a happy place. Ten years after they agree to meet after coming home from the war, they find they aren't where they thought they'd be in life, and hate each other's guts. It's somewhat dissonant fare for a Hollywood musical, but is leavened by the funny and satirical jabs at television, the then-rising threat to movies.


Also pepping up the sometimes gloomy proceedings is the gorgeous, lithe and leggy Cyd Charisse. You'll recall her as the gun moll in the middle of Singin' in the Rain, but she's more attractive than ever in this movie, especially in the dynamic and burly number "Baby, You Knock Me Out," which she performs with a team of brawny characters in a gym. Excellent stuff.


Topping off the story, which of course ends well is Gene Kelly in skates, gliding down the streets in a scene that doesn't quite reach but evokes the centerpiece of Singin' in the Rain. Watching him tap dance on roller skates, you try to figure how they cheated it, when he suddenly takes off without a cut. Astonishing and graceful, it's a brilliant capper to a less known musical.



Sharky's Big Bites Logo

A huge new resort and water park is opening up February 29th just north of where I grew up. The brainchild of Dave Anderson (of Famous Dave's Barbecue restaurants), KeyLime Cove is located in Gurnee, Illinois, between Chicago and Milwaukee. Dave's created a few new restaurants that make their debut within the sprawling complex. He's had me work on a few characters and logos, the latest for Sharky's Big Bites, which I helped develop over the holidays.


Sometimes Dave turns me loose to see what I can come up with if he doesn't have anything specific in mind. Other times he knows exactly what he's after, as was the case with Sharky, and I delivered the art pictured above. He's since made some clever changes and additions to the overall sign. View the completed Sharky's logo here at the Key Lime Cove web site, where you can learn more and make your reservations.


Tzivos Hashem Kids Comics

I'm delighted that we're beginning our second year doing comics stories for the outstanding Tzivos Hashem Kids magazine. Over 300,000 copies of each issue (in English) are distributed world-wide, and tens of thousands more in a variety of additional languages are sold. This strip is one of our favorite regular projects. I'm so pleased that clients like Tzivos Hashem are choosing to use comics to communicate their important messages, in this case to interest kids (ages 8-13) in their Jewish heritage and religion, teach them about their background and where they come from, in a manner that is fun, informative and that will speak to them.


Comics are an effective and entertaining medium. Not only do comics stand out and grab attention due to their visual nature, but because they combine words with pictures it's easier to convey sometimes complex actions and concepts to readers of all ages and backgrounds. Today I'm working on layouts for the next installment, and though I can't share those yet, I can show some art from a previous issue. I begin work on each issue with a rough layout, breaking down the plot or adapting the story into comic book pages. These breakdowns are a few inches tall, kept small so I don't focus on detail yet, but rather on panel and page composition and storytelling. It may be difficult to tell anything from my chicken-scratch, but trust me, I know what's going on there, which may become more clear to others when compared side-by-side with the completed page.


I then proceed to larger layouts, working at print size. The  lower portion of the page was of particular interest to me, as I needed to show the hero, Joey, chasing a bunch of ice cream trucks through the city streets. Breaking these actions into a series of smaller panels, especially when followed by the larger title image, I found a fun and interesting juxtaposition. Instead of showing the whole city, which is suggested in snippets, we focus on the drama of Joey's chase.


Between this layout stage, through the pencils and the final art stage, I changed the last panel to show better Joey's reaction, as well as the the men beginning to unload the boxes from the trucks. This also builds suspense, as one has to turn the page to discover their destination.


The final pencils and inks are done at an enlarged size (124-140% depending on the project). Sometimes we have to finish these comics quickly on a tight deadline, and I'm feeding finished inked pages or sections to Mary, so she can scan and prepare them digitally to get started on coloring, while I pencil and ink more. Read all of the comics we've done so far for the magazine, and we'll let you know here when the one on which I'm working now is available.


Dipping Toe In Paint

A short while back, the Blue Moon Crew set up a still life for each member the family to paint, with the intention of decorating our kitchen/dining area. We chose fruit for the subjects, to be painted on a set of 10 x 10 pre-stretched canvases. Each of us picked what we wanted to paint and made our own arrangements. Mary and Laura were working in oils, Emily and I with gouache. None of us completely finished, but it was a rewarding afternoon.


The session was fun, especially because we were all four in one room together, painting away. That sense of activity and shared goals is exciting in a studio, each working at their own piece, but checking out each other's progress. It reminded me of life drawing classes, except at home, and with my kids! It also offered Mary and I teaching opportunities, which may not have come our way at all or as naturally in other situations. We were on hand while working to answer questions about composition, contrast, color, lighting, and more.


I hadn't done any painting in years, having had some experience with acrylics, watercolors and oils. It turned out many of my acrylics were dry, so I just used the gouache I had on hand. I've always liked using gouache as it can be used to achieve both transparent and opaque effects, but I found it a little dicey handling it on canvas. Next time, I'd either use gouache on illustration board, or try oils or acrylics if I stuck with canvas.


I sure enjoyed the day, and thought I got a good start. I wouldn't mind finishing off this one, but we'll see. If not, I'm looking forward to the next time we'll all jump into the paint again and start fresh.


Our Li'l Em'n'em

Our daughter Emily turned eight last week, and we had a blast celebrating her special day as a family. Then last night she had over a half dozen friends for a sleep over. Mary and I were surrounded by giggling and screaming girls as they bounced through the house, playing Twister and marbles and Pin-the-Hat-On-Harry, finally settling into their sleeping bags to watch a Harry Potter movie and chatter 'til sleep overtook them. They had a great time, and Mary and I seem to have recovered. I can barely believe it's been this long since she was born. Emily's a great kid. She's smart and funny, and seems to do everything with style and panache. Many of the qualities she displays now seem to have already been present when I did these drawings for her birth and baptism announcements.



She also has an artistic flair. You can see some of her drawings and sculpture here, and keep an eye out for some of her comics, which she's working away at diligently. Happy Birthday, Emily!





Fun with Florapop!

Mark and Lisa Flora are a talented husband-and-wife Minneapolis musical duo whom I've known since 2000. After reading about their CD release in a local newspaper, I listened to some of their audio samples at their web site, ordered a CD, and the rest is history. Mark and I struck up a friendship, at first exchanging emails, and I've since illustrated a couple of their albums.


The first, Sunshine Saturday is sometimes mistaken at first glance for a kids album, but that impression can be forgiven due to Mark's vision for the Saturday morning cartoon/cereal box style I used. Though the music certainly is bright pop, it's actually a full fledged, fun-for-all-ages festival in anticipation of the birth of their first daughter, McCartney. Featuring catchy melodies, layered harmonies and sprightly arrangements, this album evokes Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds and Lindsey Buckingham at his best, while still all its own.


Once we had our visual and thematic hook, images sprang forth, as I reminisced on my own Saturday morning fun and early love of The Archies. I remember cutting out Archies records from the back of cereal boxes that could actually be played on a phonograph! The art for the CD itself is a recreation of those cardboard 45s. For the art behind the CD, I envisioned staring into the bowl of sunshine pictured on the front cover, stars and hearts and flowers flying from the bowl.


For the back of the CD case and the rest of the CD package, we threw in as many references of those wonderful Saturdays as we had room for and could think of. For Mark, that meant Evel Knievel, Jaws and Godzilla. For me it also meant cartoons, funny pages and comic strips, Johnny Bench and the Big Red Machine and playing softball for hours with my brother.


You can listen to audio samples and purchase the full CD package for your own self at the superb independent music site, CD Baby. I especially like For You Two (one of my favorite all-time songs), the toe-tapping instrumental, Doot Doo, bouncy You're My Baby, and check out the more melancholy Once Upon a Saturday and Turn to You. It's not all sugar, sugar.


For their next album, an enhanced Japanese re-release of that self same self-titled 1999 CD I'd ordered way back when, Mark asked for a superhero/Kiss look, which was fine with me, since I've always loved comics, and Kiss was my first rock concert. I employed a similar layout and structure to Sunshine Saturday for this next CD package, this time with a sweet-sounding pop super-siren, Elton John glasses and flame-spouting guitars.





After something of a hiatus, Mark's feeling the musical itch again, and we're already planning the next two CD projects, which I'll be drawing and Mark and Lisa will be recording. Should be fun!


Creative Preferences and Working Temperament

Having lunch with a fellow artist a couple years back, he described to me his working schedule. He had the same job all year, storyboarding a cartoon, doing about four-hundred drawings per cartoon each quarter, four cartoons a year. Given that, he could schedule his working time, balance it with home and family life, and basically work nine to five, easy as pie, just the way he liked it.

I then gave him the rundown of how things are in my studio, at our house. I work for a variety of clients during each year, sometimes juggling five-ten active jobs at once, oftentimes not knowing what I'll be working on exactly next month, let alone the next week or next day. Our family has gotten used to being flexible, ready to adapt to a new schedule at a moment's notice.

"That sounds awful!" he said.

And I had to laugh. I like it this way, and I think I'd get a bit antsy were I in his situation, which he obviously preferred.

And that's the trick, really, when you're a freelancer, artist or otherwise. You can get all kinds of advice about what kind of work you should do, what pays the best, that you should specialize in this or that, what's the best schedule, etc. But when it comes down to it, you have figure out yourself what works for you. You need to think about and choose what you really want to do, how and when you want to work, then put it into action. If you're not doing something you love, it makes everything that much harder. You have to like what you're doing, and pinpoint when and how you best you perform, then put yourself in those situations more often than not so you'll excel and succeed. For me, it sometimes took a while to learn about myself and my preferences, and I'm still learning, after freelancing now for twenty-three years.


Early in my career, I worked in the comic book industry, having spent years dreaming of doing exactly that. I met my goal fairly early, at age twenty-two, and drew hundreds of pages over several years. I started out by self publishing, drawing my own characters, then drawing superheroes for other, large publishers like DC Comics. Over time, I became less interested in putting in the many hours it takes to do comics. I realized I'd already achieved the dream. And the kind of comics I really wanted to create weren't necessarily the type on which I could make the kind of living I envisioned. It was time to set new goals, find a new dream.

So I began searching for other kinds of work. It wasn't easy at first making the transition, but I've found a nice balance between doing finished illustration, comics in other fields, and storyboards. Balancing between these three, I can work on long-term projects and those with a quick turnaround. Plus, working fast on storyboards helps me keep loose and think on my feet, not sweat the details, while finished illustration helps me keep that work tight and polished. And with it all, I'm applying the skills I learned in doing comics, what I love the most: telling stories and composing pictures.

Now, there are nights I put in time when I'd rather not, and there are weekends I'm working when I'd hoped to take it easy. But in every case or situation, I make the call. There are times when I'm bushed, would prefer to take a pass, and do. But after a busy weekend, I can always take a break in the middle of the week if and when things slow down. Juggling this way mixes it up, keeps things interesting, and helps me stay creatively fresh. I can also take on certain kinds of work that pay well which allow me to do others of interest that pay less.

I understand some would find my working situation chaotic and make them crazy. Some might prefer more stability and a better expectation of what's coming their way the next day, week, month or year. The key is to find what suits you best.