There is a moment that happens while working on any big art project that for me is full of electricity and magic. In a film, this moment would fall at the end of Act 1, about 25 minutes in, when the character makes a choice and crosses into the world of Act 2. It’s when Ripley and the Nostromo touch down to investigate the signal in Alien. It’s when John McClane decides to stop the terrorists in Die Hard. It’s when Joel gathers his things to erase Clementine from his memory in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. (Can you tell that I’m married to someone who loves to talk about story structure in film?)
But in art, in books, when working on a manuscript in life, this transition into Act 2 really does happen (which is why it works in stories at all). And for me the moment looks just like this: a tiny box divided in half full of scribbles that represent a page spread:
To anyone else this might look like the very beginning. After all, my sketchbook is empty, and I’ve made countless trips to the kitchen to avoid doing actual work. But usually months have already passed since the initial project discussions and I’ve been turning over the problems in my head for some time. I’ve met or spoken with the editor or art director at least once or twice, and I’ve done my reading, I’m doing research, and I am beginning to fall in love with the material and the context. Perhaps I’ve even started to doodle some characters. Anything (but not everything!) is in the realm of possibility, and I’m trying not to let my fear of certain failure keep me balled up on the couch.
Now there’s nothing left to do but to “start.” More and more I am learning to recognize (and have faith in) the threshold of Act 2. There is a beat, a breath, a pause… and the world goes absolutely silent. I peer into the abyss ahead, knowing that in six months or one year I’ll have completed the project, even though from where I stand I can’t see how it will happen. I pick up a pen and I take a leap of faith. It will all work out (or it won’t) but there’s not going back to Act 1!
We’re in the thesis homestretch!! This semester is going by so fast I can hardly believe it. I’ve finally started a binder with empty plastic sleeves to hold the drafts of my Egypt project, moving from the full 180+ page thumbnailed rough first draft into the penciling stages for a section of the story. Here’s a sample two page spread from the section I’ve been working on this week:
Above is a spread of my initial thumbnails, executed on the Wacom tablet and printed to fit on 8.5X11 paper. They are clean, but really boring: see all those medium “two-shots” I am using? This is fine in an early writing stage, but I think the panels can do a lot more to tell the story. So using a light box I then put a new sheet of paper on top of the thumbnails and do a first pass at penciling, which looks like this:
There is a lot of mess and clutter, I’ve taped in new panels, struggled with the perspective of the lounge chairs on the cruise ship, all the while trying to focus on composition, composition, composition. “What is this panel doing for the story? Can it be cut? Do I need more information? Do I need all this dialogue? Is the story moving forward? How’s my pacing? Where do the word balloons go? Why would a grown person spend so much time filling in little boxes with pictures?” I then scan in this drawing and use the Wacom tablet again to clean things up, resize, and drop in some Google Sketch-Up lounge chairs to get them to look right, and print it again:
Now I’m pretty happy with this spread. I stick it in my binder on top of the first two drafts and keep moving forward. This is pretty much ready to pencil onto Bristol board with blue pencil, so that I can ink on top of the blue lines and delete them in Photoshop. This week I’ve done about 9 pages like this, a scene that falls in the latter half of Act 2 of my story. I’m hoping to get through about 30 pages like this, and then ink and color a sample by the time the year is through. Back to work!
About two weeks ago I wrote about a potential project based on my travels in Egypt, and promised to finish thumbnailing the pages for a full length story by February 23rd. “Did she finish?” asks one. “Is it brilliant?” asks another. “Can I read it right now Katherine? When will it be available on Amazon? Will you be doing a promotional tour across America?” That last part, I am quite certain, no one is asking.
The answers are as follows: YES! February 17th (5 days EARLY!!) I finished, printed and bound a 186-page booklet of a thumbnailed graphic novel. NO! It is not brilliant. Not even close. I’m lucky if half of it is even legible to anyone but me. BUT! I think I know where it is going, and that was really the point of the journey: to see if anything was there underneath the mental snapshots of our two week trip, and I think I’m onto some good leads. Tim Stout (my wonderful, talented husband) sat down with me on Sunday and helped me to extract the POINT (theme) of my story from a certain thumbnailed sequence I’m rather attached to, and I’ve spent the week diving into the pencils based on what I’ve learned about that same scene. I am excited about the road ahead over the next two months as graduation closes in. By May I should have a solid idea of where this project can go, and some sample finish pages to show for it. And, in the meantime, I will continue to do shorts, to try out different styles and approaches to cartooning. I will post excerpts from the process as I go.
Here is a sample thumbnailed spread from the Midpoint. This was executed by drawing with a wacom tablet and using photos from our trip to create page layouts on my computer:
And here is a sample thumbnailed spread from the latter half of Act 2:
This method of working has treated me very well. Using photos feels a little like “cheating,” but, hey, I took them, right? They are placeholders for drawings until I get a little farther along, but when trying to get through 10 pages a day, it was one of the best ways I found to keep moving. “Hey, I already composed this image– in a photo!– so I’ll borrow from myself. Thanks self!”