Never Knowing

I want to talk about uncertainty, and how it is both a blessing and a curse for artists. It is the cause of our doubt, our frustration and insecurity, but it is also the abyss we choose to venture into, that we mine for treasures and attempt to fill with our art. Without that open space, we couldn’t do what we do. It is something most people try to avoid at all costs – hell, the fear of it is the basis for every religion – and yet artists have to spend much of their time seeking it out in order to explore it. I think it’s the biggest factor in people steering clear of artistic careers, or giving up on them after they’ve tested the waters.

There is a mistaken perception of an association between creative people and mental illness, where it’s assumed that, at the very least, you must be an eccentric or a prima donna to be a good artist. There’s little evidence to back this up, and in my experience, professional artists tend to be pretty well balanced, mentally healthy people, at least in part because of what they do – though we are all somewhere on the same mental health spectrum, and it is certainly the case that creative work can help people with mental health problems, so they can well be drawn to it for that reason. One of the main reasons creative people’s behaviour can often be perceived as odd is simply the extent to which they are compelled to explore areas with no clear paths or boundaries. They must deliberately seek out uncertainty on a daily basis. Of course, life itself is full of uncertainty, everyone faces it to some degree or other, it’s just that for most people, they do so reluctantly. People tend to crave security, or at the very least, narrowly defined risk. There is no clear career path for a professional artist, no obvious ladder to climb, so they have to be enthusiastic about their future, while never knowing what’s ahead. This is rarely regarded as ‘normal’ behaviour.

I’m a writer and illustrator, so these are my terms of reference, though I think most artists will recognise the states I’m going to describe. Let’s talk about the uncertain nature of an artist’s work first. As a writer, I stare at a blank page and think about how to fill it with words that will a) make people want to read them, and b) have something worth saying. As an illustrator, even if I have a brief from someone else of what to draw, I have to choose where to put the pencil to paper for that first stroke and how I’m going to create a picture, in what style, with what materials. When I worked in advertising, our creative director – a man who matched the stereotype of an artist; chaotic to deal with, though he had a brilliant mind – once said that he thought the most creative thinking was to be found in advertising agencies, because of the range of areas they often had to produce ideas for, on subjects they didn’t get to choose. Working in that industry had never been my ambition, and I fundamentally disagreed with him, making one simple argument: Every ad has a starting point with the product it has to sell. Art has no clear starting point at all. When I’m setting off on a book, I look at a blank page and there’s no obvious place to begin, no clear objective to achieve.

Every word you write for a story has meaning; each new word you add to the text is a variable that can change the direction and meaning of the narration – it’s an option that, in turn, leads to a range of almost limitless other options that can lead you in an infinite number of directions. And in every word you write, is the hope that people will find something that appeals, that it will make them want to read it, and to keep reading. It’s all questions with no right answers. It is the contemplation of this gaping abyss of potential that scares the shit out of inexperienced writers taking on their first novel, even as it might excite them.

This is the kind of uncertainty that I haven’t feared in a long time. I enjoy it now, I look forward to it. I savour the anticipation of the special moment when I write the first line. It’s a treat. I learned long ago to plan ahead, how to prepare for it and how to tackle each new question as it’s asked. Even so, the nerves are always tingling a bit when I’m setting off.

Drawing or painting has a different flavour of uncertainty. These are practical skills that demand the manipulation of physical materials – your ability to convey your thoughts is limited to what you are capable of showing directly, leaving less to the viewer’s imagination. The clearer the picture, the less open it is to interpretation, but it’s also more accessible, as it is not constrained by the limits of language. Anyone, whether they can read or not, can understand a picture if you’re communicating clearly – visual art is the only truly universal language we have. But you don’t automatically begin at the top of the page in the left-hand corner, so where on the page do you choose to start, and how? Which direction do you move the pencil? And where next? And where after that? Leaning heavier or lighter changes the quality of the line. I can use a harder or softer pencil. What if I use a brush, or dip-pen, or charcoal or a technical pen? What if I do it on screen, rather than on paper? And these are only the most basic questions. A different shape of eye or mouth, the slightest tilt of an eyebrow can change an expression, change the meaning. More blue than red in the depths of a shadow can suggest a different atmosphere. Again, decades of doing this has made this a pretty normal experience for me, and yet there’s still so much I can’t predict at the outset. You either embrace this uncertainty, learn to craft within it and love it for what it is, or you’ll run a mile from it.

I like to use stories to explore ideas, particularly big meaty ideas I have lots of questions about; I have a need to pull them apart, and particularly in my novels. But the bigger the idea, the harder it is for people to get emotionally engaged with it, so making a gripping story out of that involves an extra dimension of difficulty. It adds to the uncertainty, but I enjoy the challenge. However, the point of art is to get something that’s in your head into someone else’s head in such a way that they willingly accept it. They have to invest themselves in the experience. No matter how good you are, that other person’s interpretation of what you’ve made is completely beyond your control. You do your best to make yourself clear, but this is a different mind, that sees the world in ways you can’t anticipate – which is why every writer needs an editor to tell you if you’re making any sense to outside of your head.

This is another level of uncertainty and unlike your piece of art, there’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let go and accept it – much easier said than done. You can never know what’s going to happen to your creation once it’s absorbed into someone else’s imagination, mixed in with all the other stuff going on in there. Now their opinion of your work – and, inevitably, of you as a person – is being influenced by their own views and experiences. You are subject to subjectivity. And in the age of social media, anyone can publish their opinion of you and your work.

Just about everyone’s job is subject to the opinions of others, where there can be differing views over even the most straightforward task. In art however, every goddamn stroke you draw or paint, every word you type, can be argued and debated over, with no clear resolution. Every mind has a different view of that work’s effect, of its quality. Two equally expert critics can judge your work, one considering it nonsense, the other a masterpiece. It’s impossible to have a clear right answer in art. In fact, even reaching the point where people actually will discuss and argue about your work can be a major struggle. Being the subject of an argument can seem a strange thing to which one should aspire. And how, in the end, do we judge that quality? By sales? By critical acclaim and awards? Weirdly, in publishing, one is often seen as an alternative to the other. Go figure. Me, I want both.

Moving outwards again, let’s look at the very nature of a creative career, which is prompting the thoughts I’ve been having lately, because this kind of career seems to be getting increasingly difficult – and certainly harder for new writers and illustrators to establish an lasting career. Art is valued less while being spread further; artists, paradoxically, are doing ever more work for free in the hope that they might be valued more. Publishing is a prime example of this occupational uncertainty, because though self-publishing is becoming an ever more realistic alternative, most writers and illustrators seek access to their audiences through the distribution provided by traditional publishers, believing they’re not ‘proper’ writers until they’ve found this, often arbitrary, approval. Few of those hopeful souls realise how insecure and unstable a life still lies beyond that approval, if you choose to devote yourself full-time to writing, and how many new skills you will need to become the kind of entrepreneur you must be to make this art your career. And it starts with not knowing, surrendering control of your career entirely to someone else’s judgement, with you pitching your book and waiting, pitching and waiting, pitching and waiting . . . that’s only the earliest stage of the uncertainty that begins with the completion of a manuscript.

If, as an illustrator, you find a single style that provides you with a reliable supply of work for the duration of your career (I haven’t), if as a writer you achieve the kind of wealth from sales of a particular book or series that means you’ll never have to worry about money again (I haven’t), then you’re one of a tiny few (I’m not). To be fair, I probably haven’t done myself any favours on either front; I’ve always wanted to publish a wide variety of books for different ages, and illustrate in a range of styles and as a result, perhaps I’ve spread myself very thin. But still . . . I’m having a good time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that having doubts about your life or your future makes you a better artist, or somehow stimulates creativity. Frankly, having to worry about where the next mortgage payment comes from or paying the electricity bill is not good for your head and I need my head in good working order to get stuff done. I’m creative enough without having mundane shit to worry about, thanks very much.

But for most professional artists, uncertainty is a constant companion, one we have to learn to accept. On the negative side, it is a destructive force. It undermines your confidence, demanding huge self-belief to keep going. It often means financial insecurity and the stress that accompanies it; despite your best efforts, you can appear unreliable and both antisocial and attention-seeking. What are often characterised as the eccentricities of a creative professional are merely the visible manifestations of the demands of your work. It takes extraordinary discipline to keep at something that might take months to complete with little immediate reward – or possibly no reward at all – working your ass off in a way that can mean thinking for hours at a time, while wondering what the hell you’re doing with your day. Doubts about your future can get under your skin and eat away at you like acid. It’s hard to find your ‘Off’ switch, because there’s almost never a point where you can say, ‘Right, that’s me sorted for the next year or two’. It’s hard to relax. You don’t like taking days off work, or taking holidays – like any self-employed person, if you go away on holiday, you’re paying twice, once for the holiday and once for the work you’re missing. You only take a sick day if you physically can’t get out of bed.

More than anything else, it can be exhausting, not knowing what’s ahead, what’s best to work on next or constantly trying to come up with ideas for which there is no clear objective, no easy standard to measure it by, or set criteria to be met. Never knowing wears you out. There have been a few periods in my life when I had a job where I earned regular wages, and while there were downsides, it made structuring every other area of my life much easier, even when there was my own work to do on the side. Working as a self-employed artist is quite different.

There’s no such thing as a normal day, a normal number of hours to work, a normal amount of money to charge or to expect. There’s no such thing as ‘normal‘ at all – nothing to measure your career against, to say ‘This is where I should be at this stage, what I should be doing. This is what it takes to be a success’. A book could be worth everything to a publisher or nothing at all. Nobody’s sure about anything at the outset. Even the most successful artists can suffer bad luck, their careers can run out, or they can just produce a turkey. Publishers and agents will often talk about what they’re looking for in a fresh new book, what’s going to be the next big thing, what the year’s trends will be, but the longer I work in this industry, the more ridiculous and self-aggrandizing these predictions sound. The truth is that nobody knows. Nobody knows what readers will seize upon, so much depends on the environment of reading, as much as the material itself . . . and by the time they do know, it’ll be something else before they can reproduce that success.

I always find myself sighing with resignation when I have to fill out an official form. It is hard to find a place for us in the official structures of society. Banks, public services, institutions, utility companies . . . in fact, any organisation that deals with large numbers of people, demand certainty. They can make little accommodation for the lack of it. They base their decisions upon, and operate upon, the assumption that people earn weekly or monthly, that they earn the same every year, have completely predictable work costs, that their careers have established paths, that they work set hours, drive set distances . . . None of these things are true for an artist. Nor are there any universally recognised certificates or professional qualifications to establish your expertise or state what level your career is at. I don’t have a third level qualification and not once in nearly thirty years have I ever been asked for one when looking for work. Official forms often fail to provide us with boxes we can fill out with any real assurance. And if you can’t, you are given extra hoops to jump through, often costing added time and/or expense. To get a mortgage years ago, I had to pay an accountant to go through three years of my accounts, to assure the bank that I earned as much as I claimed. Which would be fair enough – except this was the same bank I’d had my accounts with since I’d finished school. They had twenty years of records they could check; my income was just too varied for them to make a judgement for themselves. Now I have an accountant do my tax return every year, which, after fuel for the car, is often my single biggest business expense.

The phenomenon of uncertainty affects how you look at the future. Ironically, having loosened up enough to acknowledge the hard fact of never knowing for certain, you can become conservative in your choices, scared to take chances. If you don’t know what money you’re going to make next year (or next month), you don’t just avoid spending money, you avoid situations that might put you in a position where might have to spend money – resisting social pressure on this can take excruciating effort. Paradoxically, you can also end up trying to avoid starting things that might provide new opportunities, but will definitely cost you time, effort, money and possibly some of the good will of those around you. It might drop you in embarrassing situations, as risk so often does. This is when your career can really start to tighten in about you, constricting you, where you’re limiting your choices rather than expanding them. Sometimes this is necessary for survival, the occupational equivalent of battening down the hatches in a storm, and I’ve found myself in this position any number of times, but it takes real strength of will to stop it getting to you and deciding to just leave those hatches shut for good and going off and finding some other way to make a living. Sometimes, having a vivid imagination isn’t such a great thing, when you’re staring into that storm.

But here’s the thing about having a job this weird, this uncertain. Mingled in with all that uncertainty in this nutty career, is tantalising possibility, just as there is in the art we produce. Never knowing what’s there can be a good thing, as well as a bad thing. Take up a more reliable career and you’ll find a clearer path, but that also means a path with less potential for the unexpected. For the extraordinary. No matter who you are in life, what path you choose, there is the chance to explore if you’re that way inclined. Choosing to make art your daily occupation however, to commit yourself to a career in it, means you’re allowing that exploration to shape your life, to shape you as a person. You will retain that sense of wonder many people lose as they grow out of childhood. It means embracing that uncertainty and all the shit and thrills that come with it. Like believing in a religion, (or completely rejecting it), you have to surrender to a certain amount of acceptance – of the insecurity, of the things you can never know, of your lack of control over how your work is perceived, and of the future itself. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling and it can threaten ruin and promise glory and make you look really bloody bonkers at some times, and be embarrassing or hugely frustrating at others, but it makes for a passionate life. I know very few people who’ve thrown themselves into it and regretted the experience, and many more who’ve never taken the risk and constantly regret it.

Some people are lucky enough to have careers where they can get to do what they’re passionate about as a normal, reliable job. Art is rarely that kind of career. My question would always be: What’s it worth to you, to be able to spend your time doing what you love? We have one life, and apart from death, the only certainty is uncertainty. I think we should get stuck in and make the most of it.



Between the Dark and the Light

I still take on illustration jobs and private commissions, but it’s rare enough that I get the time to do some decent painting, so when a guy I owed a big favour to asked me to do an A3 poster of a role-playing game he’d run with his mates, based in the Star Wars universe, I thought I’d record the process. If you’re into illustration – either doing it or just looking at it – you might find this interesting.

If I was doing a painting to be printed A4, I’d probably work at A3, though it can vary. For best results, it’s always a good idea to start any painting with some decent reference photos and a lot of sketching, but I had to plunge straight in with this one after a minimum of preparatory sketches. Also, one of the problems with working in different styles, is that it takes time to get up to speed when you switch from one style to another. I hadn’t done something like this in a while, so this picture took about four days to do, from the first sketch to the point when I cut it off the board. Someone who works in this kind of style all the time could probably cut that time down substantially.

I always start a picture by doing a thumbnail sketch, drawing very loosely to map out the composition – setting out where all the pieces of the picture have to go, and what size they’ll be. This is a stage that normally won’t be seen by anyone but me, so it’s little more than a scribble, but it’s a vital stage nonetheless, as I don’t want to be moving big elements around once I start fiddling with details. This is a complicated composition, as there are a lot of distinctive characters which all have to feature. What’s even harder, is that the focus can’t be on any one character, as they all represent players, so each one has to be given a decent position. Normally in a picture, you’d have a few key elements that attract the eye, and everything else would be placed around these in secondary positions.

After the thumbnail comes the finished pencil drawing. Now I have to work the details out properly – I’ve been given a lot of pictures to help to describe the characters and the ships, but none that can be used as direct references; they all have to be changed to match the brief for the picture. This stage takes a lot more time – in this case, the best part of a day. I’m not too concerned with shading yet, if I’m going to be using a heavy painting style, as I will here. But I will normally give myself some indication of the direction of light. This picture is going to be absolutely filled with light sources, so there’s no real point worrying about shading at this point. As you’ll see with the next part, I’ll be painting over everything first anyway.

I create the logo in Photoshop and trace it off. I could do it freehand, if I wanted to give myself a real headache, but there’s no need. This is being hung as a painting, however, rather than printed as an illustration, so I will be painting the logo into the picture. If this were an illustration job, I’d place the logo in using Photoshop or Illustrator after I’d scanned in the final picture. The Star Wars font, as I’ve discovered, is a bit of an ugly sucker, and I’m having my doubts about using it for the main title – the bit on the frame looks okay. Also, having that ‘A’ in ‘A Dark Legacy’ (notice the change from the first pencil) throws off the composition, but that was the title of the game, so that ‘A’ has got to go in.

After I’ve done the pencil drawing, I’ll scan it in and email it off to the client to make sure everything’s the way they want it. If there are any changes, I want to do them at this stage – it’s a lot easier to change a pencil drawing rather than a painting. As it turns out, there was one change that came a bit late, but not a major one. If you can see the character with the beak halfway on the right-hand side, his beak needed to be closed, which only came up after I’d done the first wash. That’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to change in pencil than with paint.

After I’ve got the all clear to to start painting, I draw the picture again – onto a heavy painting paper this time – by tracing it using a light-box. If the paper’s very heavy, or your layers of paint hide too much of the linework, you need to use transfer paper or the like to copy down the drawing a piece at a time.

With the drawing done onto the painting paper, I then stretch the paper, by wetting it so that it swells – and often buckles – and then taping the edges down with a gum-paper tape. As the paper dries, it contracts again until it’s perfectly flat and can then be wet with paint without fear that it’s going to buckle or curl again. This is the way I work; other artists will use card so thick that it doesn’t buckle at all, but you can’t trace through that stuff. You have to mark the drawing onto the card using a copy of your drawing and transfer paper. Don’t mind the distortion in the photo that makes the edges look like they’re bending – that’s down to the slight fish-eye effect of the lens of of my camera. It’s just not made for photographing this kind of stuff. Something I’ll have to sort at a later date.

After the paper has dried and flattened out (a hairdryer can speed the process up a bit), I lay down the first few washes of background colour with a large flat brush. I start with a strong green, then gradually add black and blue to the green paint as I go. I’m using acrylic here, which won’t budge too much once it’s dry. Gouache will cover better and give a flatter colour, but it can lift back up when you lay another layer of paint over it. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I want a solid base here.

The area around the eyes at the top of the picture is the only part that will be painted using a light style (painting with light washes, then gradually getting darker, as if I was using watercolour). For most of this picture, I’ll lay down the dark colours first and then paint lighter colours on top. This is where you really need to have a clear image in your head of what your end result will be, because you have to hide a lot of your drawing under these washes before you bring it out again. If you were inclined to worrying that you were going to cock things up while painting, this is where you’d be getting butterflies in your tummy.

The darker and heavier you go with the paint, the more you lose of your drawing, so either you reinforce your drawing as you go, or you draw it on again afterward. In this case, once I’ve laid down the darkest washes, I go over a lot of the linework with some thinned down black acrylic, to make the drawing more visible again. I also do some of the finer work around the eyes, with the same shades that I use for the washes. It’s at this point I’m starting to curse the slightly weird, square proportions of that Star Wars font. I should have used something else, but I’ve committed, so to hell with it.

Now is the time to start thinking seriously about where the light is coming from for each element of the picture, as this will dictate how I paint the lighter shades of colour, and where I can put down darker shadows. There will be a lot of different colours, but I want to keep some of this blue-green in the shadows of each element wherever possible, to help hold the picture together.

As I said, you need a strong sense of what your picture is going to look like at the end. If I had photos as direct references for all of these elements, this would be a lot easier. Anyone doing a real film poster would have plenty of stills to work from, but it would take ages to set up and shoot all the pictures I’d need – not to mention the expense of models and props – so I’m pretty much doing this all from my head at this stage.

Whenever possible, it’s best to work from the top left corner down – if you’re right-handed – so you’re not reaching across your finished work too often. It’s also the direction your eye takes across the page, because of the way we read, at least in English-speaking and European cultures. I paint in the lighter parts of those eyes, the spaceships at the top, the explosions and the blast from the jet-pack on the Boba Fett lookalike. There’s also a malevolent figure emerging from the flames in the middle there. These elements are now pretty finished, but there’ll be some retouching later as I go back around for another pass when I’ve got more of the picture done. While I’ve got some yellow on my brush, I do a few of the Fett character’s pieces of armour that are the same colour too.

Then I paint the remaining figures on the left side, again, trying to keep a hint of that green in the shadows wherever possible. It unifies what is otherwise quite a scattered composition. The black ‘darksaber’ in the middle of the picture acts as a mast, which helps too. I’ve got to add markings to the blade and a bit of a glow, but basically it’s little more than a flat black area running up through the centre. That character in the flames is now reaching out for the jedi who’s leaping away from him. Notice that the armoured figure beneath them is all brushed steel at the moment; that’ll change on another pass. I think I’ve made him a little too folded up, I should probably have done him further into the foreground, but his light-coloured armour would have overpowered the light from the all the flames and lightsabers.

I had originally intended to have stars in the background, at least behind the ships, but the picture’s so busy already, I decide to leave them out. With so many sources of light, I need as many dark areas as possible for contrast.

Now I finish off the darksaber, add some shadows to the eyes at the top, and go to work on the figures on the right-hand side. The character with the beak now has his beak closed. He is an old, wise character, in contrast to the young swordsman below him (the blue-tinged character between them is a ghost-like mentor for the younger one). The different lighting of these two characters reflects their two roles, but it’s only after I’ve done the younger man’s lightsaber red, that I realize it’s supposed to be blue. This changes not only the sword itself, but also the highlights on the character’s face, hands and clothes. As I’m using a heavy painting style, this isn’t a major problem. If I was painting with watercolour, with loads of translucent layers making up the dark shades, it would be.

I change that red light to blue. I also give the armoured figure in the bottom left corner a green tinge, and paint in some yellow highlights to tie him into the picture around him a bit more. The final figure in the bottom right corner is in an action pose, deflecting a shot from a blaster with his hand, jedi-style. As with the jumping figure on the other side, to show his full body, I have to show him much smaller in comparison to the other figures. This also gives the composition a bit more variation and balance.

All the most enjoyable stuff is done now. This has been a fun job – I haven’t drawn Star Wars stuff since I was a kid. At this point, I’m going back over things, strengthening shadows, defining the odd detail a bit better, doing what I can to pull the whole picture together . . . and anticipating doing that logo. Lettering is always tricky when you’re painting, and this square font is unusual; the weight is even through the curves and yet some of the letters are designed to join up, while others aren’t. Oh, and I’m trying to give it a kind of fiery gold effect, an uneven colour that makes keeping the edges even all the more interesting.

It’s not long before I’m really starting to hate this bloody font.

I finish up by painting a black frame all the way round, its edge broken only by the blue lightsaber on the right. As is the case with any illustration larger than A4 that I do on the drawing board, I can’t scan it myself. So I have to take it to a place in Dublin to be scanned. If this was a job for print, I’d then do a bit of retouching before I send it to the client – I do a bit on this scan anyway, even though the original will have to stand as it is.

Though I work a lot in Photoshop, I haven’t quite switched to doing painting digitally, and part of me will never want to, even though it makes sense for commercial illustration. The software is getting better all the time too, although a lot of digital painting still looks a bit too greasy or plasticky for my tastes. But there’s no getting round the fact that, soon the day will come when work restraints will mean taking the painting onto the screen, switching my pencils, paintbrushes and paper for a stylus and tablet. I do have to admit to being sorely tempted by the prospect of being able to back artwork up as I go, to play with textures and photos, and being able to hit ‘Undo’, when I cock things up. But you can’t feel graphics under your fingertips, or smell the colour as you mix it, or see the textures and sheens of the different types of paint, see the sweep or stipple of the brush in the surface. Do your work onscreen, and you’ll never be able to hold the original in you hands.

Back when I made my living entirely from illustration, there were some jobs I just didn’t care that much about – I did them to pay the bills. That kind of stuff I’d happily do on the computer. But though the phrase might seem trite, with very few exceptions that I’ve seen, digital painting has no soul. And I say that in the full knowledge that I’ve just produced what amounts to fan art of the world’s biggest entertainment franchise (or is that Disney?). I do other stuff too. It’s just that I haven’t spent most of my life learning how to paint (and as you can see, I still have a lot to learn), to see that work in a printout. So, wherever possible, I say: Keep it live. Keep it messy. Keep it real.