June 23, 2009

Cromwell Dixon's Sky-Cycle #3

I was the guest blogger on the Penguin Blog a few weeks ago... so I thought I'd recycle these in the event anyone didn't see them in this last installment of the blogs.

What are your favorite tools for making art?

My favorite book-making tools are the 2B pencil, the eraser and Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. The pencil and eraser are the basis for any illustration I'd think, including mine. I find that InDesign combined with Photoshop is the greatest thing since sliced bread for bookmaking. It's so much fun once I start adding in bits of drawing and text to turn it into a book. It can be really quite addictive. But I guess it could all be done with just a pencil, paper, scissors and tape. Only InDesign makes it so much quicker and flexible. It's sort of like comparing a pen and notebook to a word processor.

As for drawing... I mostly erase.

What was it like doing a book in both real and digital mediums?

It was a very interesting experiment. When I started painting the first spread I decided to try out using a hybrid technique using both real and digital painting. I painted it first with acrylics on watercolor paper, then scanned it and processed the image with Photoshop. It was evident, as soon as I began adding in new layers with texture and shadows that it would work out just as I had hoped. I have to say I'm completely delighted with how it all printed up.

I think the flexibility of combining real paints with Photoshop is amazing. On some of the pages I'd start out with a blue sky... and then decide to change the sky to yellow for a sunset scene. Moving around the page elements is effortless in Photoshop, but almost impossible once the real painting begins with real paints on paper.

You can see an animated step by step and more about the digital techniques I used at the book's web site.

Were there special problems in a making a book on the computer?

As we all know, computers can drive a person insane. But the world suddenly seems to be entirely dependent on them anymore. Every time my email goes out I almost have a panic attack. I wasn't that way 5 years ago and certainly not that way 10 years ago. It makes one wonder about our futures.

I found that backing up the book became critical. The consequences of losing 6 months of work would be unthinkable. So I'd start keeping DVDs with all the files copied and hidden away in various cupboards and bookshelves... in the event of a disaster. I never do that with real paintings. There are always those times when one questions one's sanity in doing digital art.

What do you like more... real painting or digital art?

Once again I have to say both. I like the magic of digital art and Photoshop, but I think in many ways real art materials are better.

The reason that using both works so well for me is that when I get weary of painting on watercolor paper and re-mixing that same shade of blue for the 137th time... it's wonderful to switch to Photoshop. With Photoshop, mixing paint is just a click away.

And then, when I get burned out in Photoshop and can't stand the stress of layers and zooming in details, it's wonderful to get back to a real painting and real paper. Real art materials can feel so therapeutic in comparison... sort of like working in pottery. And I enjoy the unpredictable element of working with real paints.

But digital art can be a lot more intellectually challenging and flexible. Often I'll get an idea for a digital technique and wonder if it might work. Then, when I try it out, it's always amazing to discover it really does work exactly like I hoped it would.

When I get really burned out with illustration in general, I go downstairs to my painting studio where I can slosh big messy brushstrokes on a BIG canvas. So I guess making art is largely a matter of therapy and escape. I've always thought that illustration is just painting in miniature. So it's nice to do really big paintings to hang on the wall sometimes.

Sometimes I dream about a day when I might paint on canvas for a living.

What new books are you working on?

I've got stacks of new stories... way too many to be good for me. I've got stories with runaway babies and dancing cows... witches, mice and pigs of all sorts. A lot of my stories have never been seen by anyone. I recently spent two days writing up what I think is a hilarious graphic novel. I just couldn't stop writing it was so much fun. No one's read it, but that's okay... maybe some day they will.

Making books can seem like an indulgent luxury I suppose. But often it keeps me from going nuts. Sometimes I wonder how I'd get through the day if I wasn't working away on something. That's part of life as a freelancer I think... getting used to finding a direction completely on one's own.

What are some of your favorite children's book-makers?

I think 'Scuppers the Sailor Dog' is my all time favorite children's book, by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Garth Williams.
It's one of the few books I can remember from my childhood. When I look at the page where Scuppers gets his new coat, it brings back a distant memory I can hardly explain. So it belongs in a league of it's own for me.

Other favorites are book-makers are Maurice Sendak, Errol LeCain, A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard, Janet & Allan Ahlberg, E.B. White... and on and on. It's just about impossible to try and make just one list. Basically any book that creates it's own unique world seems a marvel to me.

I sometimes wonder if my childhood interest in Robert Lawson's book 'The Great Wheel' was responsible for my interest in history.

What are some of your favorite grownup books?

I might choose 'Merry Hall' by Beverly Nichols and 'The Egg and I' by Betsy MacDonald. They both share the same intrinsic quality that I love, best described with the two words, 'beguiling audacity'. They both have a youthful quality that resists the concept of being grown up somehow. Last summer I read almost every book that Beverley Nichols ever wrote. It was sort of the literary equivalent of eating potato chips. I'm not sure if it was a good idea or not. I hope I don't pick up another copy of Merry Hall and start all over again... it could happen!

What do you like and not like about being an illustrator and freelancing?

I think making a living with publishing and freelancing is a bit like Pandora's Box. There are all sorts of awful things about it… unpredictable income, always wracking your brain for a new direction, never knowing where the next project will come from. And then there are days when I literally don't have a clue what to do next. But finally there's always Hope... the fact that sometimes all it takes is one new client and you're happily busy for the next year. But like riding a flying bicycle, I'd say freelancing is not an advisable activity for everyone.



June said...

Lovely post John, I am glad I dropped in on your blog and caught this.

John Nez said...

Hi June!

Glad you liked the blog article.
Now I'm back to just blogging about photos and other trivia I suppose...