Tag Archives: The Center for Cartoon Studies

Diamond in the Roughs

The manuscript is in sections all over my studio, covered in notes and brightly colored page markers. A mug of lukewarm coffee is to my right, a silent inkjet printer is to my left, and directly in front of me is my computer, wacom tablet plugged in and ready. I’ve been sitting digitally drawing for days, and haven’t looked back at a single thing I’ve drawn. What am I doing? The Roughs!

The physical illustration process for almost any book begins with the “roughs,” an initial set of rough sketches that go along with the text. For myself I like to get through this stage as fast as I humanly can, because a blank piece of paper (or a blank screen) is one of my biggest fears, a world where every mark can become an instant, ugly scar. Without a break-neck pace I’ll endlessly revise and revisit drawings, resulting in zero progress and crushing self-doubt. It almost doesn’t matter what I draw or how bad it is in the first pass; the point is to get something completely done so that I have a place from which to start editing. In my first pass at the 36 to 40 rough scenes of interior art, how many times did I draw three West children pointing at maps? At least three (yuck!) but from there each scene could only improve. I’m happy to say that by now all of the “map pointing” has hit the cutting room floor.

One of the things that keeps me moving during the Roughs is an even more terrifying shape than a blank white rectangle: a black diagonal line keeping time on The Chart:

This metronome for progress is one of the most useful illustration tools I own. Back in February, when I learned that I would be illustrating Sarah Stewart Taylor’s THE EXPEDITIONERS, I also learned that I’ve only have 12-14 weeks to do the book from start to finish. The drawing experience would be a marathon, with some sprinting and high-jumping thrown in for good measure, and I needed a gun to get me sprinting from the start. The Chart was directly inspired by the ever-talented Alec Longstreth (Basewood), a former teacher from The Center for Cartoon Studies, who uses this tool to track progress on his own work. With an aggressive goal of reaching 40 interior drawings (vertical axis) in the time span of 8 days (horizontal axis), there was absolutely no time to be afraid of the blank page. The rest of my to-do list may have failed, but this angry line kept me on track at a pace of five rough digital drawings a day.

Of course, not everything drawn in the Roughs stage is bad, and sometimes I even hit on something terrific. A stellar composition! A character design that rings true in future drafts! Or even a concept can be relocated to work better earlier or later in the manuscript. The Roughs give me a foundation on which to build the book, and each successive pass gives the structure more definition.

In THE EXPEDITIONERS, one of my favorite drawing moments is when the eldest brother, Zander, discovers a new species of slug. Here’s the full sequence of drawings, from concept sketches to digital rough (above) to the final rough draft before it goes to final art. This reflects about four weeks of worth of change. Note that after the digital rough draft, I abandoned the idea of having the characters posing with the slug in favor of showing the slug alone, as if from the character’s point of view. The result is, I feel, a much stronger and more interesting compositon:



I’d like to thank Art Nouveau, the Viennese Secessionists, Japanese postcards, and everyone who’s ever posted photos of cool slugs. More roughs and sketches from other scenes coming soon!

Three hundred pages of S. S. Taylor’s EXPEDITIONERS!

‘Tis Friday the 13th, which means that I finally get to announce the THIRD book (!!) that is on my desk and in my life: this spring and summer I am teaming up with none other than mystery novelist/teacher Sarah Stewart Taylor to illustrate the first in her fabulous chapter book series, THE EXPEDITIONERS! Whooooot!! Book one, THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN’S CANYON, is full of action, suspense, high adventure, and a dab of steampunk futurism, and is exactly what I would have loved to read when I was a kid. I am oh-so-happy that the weeks and months ahead will be filled with time spent in the world of this book. Orphaned children and government agents? Mysterious treasure, terrifying cave birds, and a newly discovered glowing slug? Boy howdy, do I love it!!

Here’s how our publisher describes THE EXPEDITIONERS online: “Explorer of the Realm Alexander West has disappeared and is presumed dead under mysterious circumstances while on an expedition … But not before smuggling half of a strange map to his three intrepid children — Kit, the brain, M. K., the tinkerer, and Zander the brave. Why are so many people trying to steal the half-map? What powerful secrets does it hold? (And where is the other half?) It’s up to Alexander’s children — call them The Expeditioners — to get to the bottom of these questions, and fast. Success could mean fame and wild riches. Failure could be … Well, let’s just say failure is not an option!”

Sarah and I first met at The Center for Cartoon Studies where she teaches writing classes to first and second-year students. While Sarah is a terrific teacher, and her graphic novel on Amelia Earheart is one of my favorites, I never dreamed that I’d soon be at work on her first book project written for children. THE TREASURE OF DROWNED MAN’S CANYON will be out this November from McSweeney’s McMullens, which means that it will be my first book with a major publisher to hit the shelves of a book store. There is still a vast amount of work to do between now and the final art for both the interior and the cover, but it begins with notes and sketches filling the margins of the 308-page manuscript as my studio wall rapidly fills up with roughs:

With the thirty-six black and white illustrations we’ll need for the book, I’m doing by best to try and both 1) capture each scene and 2) maintain an even pace. In the end it will be a bit of a balancing act, as there are 50+ chapters of 2-10 pages each, but thanks to a terrific 2-day brainstorm with Sarah in my New York apartment and many, many hours of work put in at my drawing table, I think we’ve hit on a good direction from which to take the roughs. The next step is to fully work through all thirty-six drawings to get a clearer sense of what’s working… and what’s not.

The loudest “THANK YOU!” ever shouted is soaring over hills towards the state of Vermont. Sarah, thank you so much for wanting to work on this series with me, it’s been a privilege and an honor to be on your team and build this visual world. I’m already such a huge fan and can hardly wait to read the rest of the books to come!

Last, but not at all least, a programming note is needed for this simultaneous explosion of good news: EXPEDITIONERS, CITIES, and SHARK all at once would not have been possible without my Amazing Agent, who has maintained order in my drawing universe for the last four months straight. Stephen, I think I owe YOU a burger feast. Or, in the very least, a bacon pancake shake. : )


Cartoon College: The New Trailer!

The new trailer for the film Cartoon College is out, and I am in it (however briefly) along with an instantaneous shot of my work! I’ll be making a slightly longer appearance in the full version of the film, along with pretty much everyone else who went to The Center for Cartoon Studies between 2009 and 2010. Check out the website for more details on the debut date this year. Yay!

Lynda Barry & the “You and Me and Leslie” Writing Workshop

Last week author and cartoonist Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons, What It Is) stormed the town of White River Junction with her honesty and quirky charm during her two-day writing workshop for CCS students and alumni. “I’m excited to be here, and I was thinking of you all last night while drinking a tiny bottle of whiskey. I felt like a giant. And then I drank another.” She sang songs, acted out South Park episodes, shared stories, and spread out thousands of idea notecards for us to peruse at breaks.

For the next two days we wrote one 8 minute story after another, responding to prompt after prompt as Barry encouraged us to listen to the stories from the Image World already waiting for us in the back of our mind. Her writing method, explained in both of her books, follows these general guidelines:


1) You must write out all of your stories by hand.

2) You may not read over what you are writing while you are writing it.

3) If you get stuck, keep your pen moving by drawing your spiral. Continue writing when ready.

4) You may not read over what you have written when finished, except for while reading out loud to the entire class, during which

5) No one may look at the person reading.

6) No one may comment on what has been read except for Lynda, who always says “good! good! good!” after each story.

7) You may not talk about the writing until the very end of the workshop.


To read out loud without being able to first look back over your writing is pretty terrifying indeed, but the stories that people had written were breathtaking and complete, wonderful little first draft shorts done from start to finish in less than 15 minutes. Incredible! Who knew writing could be easy?

One of my favorite insights that Barry shared was on the song “Groovin'” by the Rascals. Like her, I had always heard the lyrics as “Life would be ecstasy, you and me and LESLIE,” and wondered ‘who is this Leslie person? A man? A woman? Is this a threesome he’s singing about? Maybe Leslie is their child.’ Barry pointed out that from an editorial point of view, ‘Leslie’ isn’t properly introduced and should thus be cut from the song. But the lyrics ACTUALLY say “Life would be ecstasy, you and me ENDLESSLY.” Which makes more sense, right? But is also completely general and boring! The Image of Leslie is lost, killed off, edited out, and replaced with a non-image concept word.

The more specific an Image is in a story–the more of a handle it provides into the world of a character–the more universal and relatable an Image becomes to a reader. How cool is that?

A huge thanks to Lynda Barry for her fabulous class! I’m already writing more, and I plan to keep it up.

“Paneled” at Nisus Gallery opens tomorrow night!

Tomorrow night the Nisus Gallery, a brand new art space in Portland, Oregon, will unveil the exhibition Paneled which stars students and alumni from The Center for Cartoon Studies! A huge thanks to Creative Director Brad Nelson for putting the show together and for extending an invitation to me to participate. I will have two pages of original comics for sale from Soup: A Caterpillar Tale (published in Junior Pharaoh and Other Caterpillar Tales), along with the enormous, 18″ x 24″ one-page original from White River Junction (also published in Junior Pharaoh). If you find yourself in Oregon tomorrow night or this month, please stop in and take a look at the work! Mini-comics and zines will also be on sale in the gift shop. Thanks!

Center for Cartoon Studies!

This week is Center for Cartoon Studies Awareness Week! Which means… that I’m telling all of you to be aware of CCS! No, it isn’t a disease; CCS is a terrific place to find an awesome community of creative cartoonists and pursue an MFA while studying with some of the best professionals in the business. I’ve grown enormously as an artist because of this experience, and I know that the relationships I have with my classmates and peers will be with me for the life of my career. I can hardly believe how many talented and committed artists, cartoonists, editors, illustrators, and agents I’ve met because of this program!

If you are at all considering cartooning or publishing as a career option, and think that an MFA program would be a good fit for you, I strongly encourage you to look at the school and come up for a visit. For more information, please go to their website here! They are still accepting applications for Fall 2012.