"How'd you come up with your style?"
I get this question more than anything else. And it's funny because my "style" was a pretty big hindrance to my career up till about 4 or 5 years ago. Don't get me wrong, I got work. But getting editors to really invest in me fully used to be pretty friggin hard. I just figured it was all me. "I must not be good enough." So it's really odd when young artists wanna know how I developed the look of my work.
Of course, I don't have a set formula for this stuff, really. And I certainly don't have the secret to becoming a great artist. It works different for everyone, I think. As it should. I think the key is finding the place where you're most comfortable. And by "place", I mean a visual vocabulary. For me, I'm most at home in a place that's bright, silly and manic with just a hint of darkness under the surface. Unfortunately, it took me something like 10 years to find it. Sorry. There are no shortcuts.
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
Circa 1991, my first official mini-comic. I was 9 at the time, and I ended up doing dozens of these between then and high school. No focus on "style" or anything. Hell, the thing was done in Bic pen on pink construction paper. Not much to discuss here, really. I just loved comics even then, and my motives for making it were pure. I just wanted to entertain the few friends I let read it. I may even revamp this later, so don't steal it.
Jump to around 10 years later, 2000-ish. A young Rob was just starting college as a Computer Animation major (because how the Hell does one just become a pro comic artist anyway?). I was still dabbling in comics between classes, still trying to draw "serious" comics that "mattered". I'd always been a Marvel kid, and stylistically, I'd always tried to attempt that look.
Except for the fact that I totally sucked at it, as the above images show. This was about the time I was discovering Photoshop (Ooooh, lookit the colors!). I had a decent grasp of what color grabbed the eye, but still had no friggin idea what to do with the program.
Cut to 2001, the above page changed the course of my career, and I suppose, my life. I did this autobiographical comic on a whim, just trying something different. Angsty, right? OH, it gets much, much worse.
I sent this page to an old artist friend of mine along with the page above it (the one with the fire). I think I even did both in the same day. Anyway, I sent them to this older, wiser artist pal, expecting him to tell me how friggin AWESOME the angsty "serious" stuff was. But what'd he say?
"Hey, what was that other thing you sent me? That cartoony thing? That was great. I think that might be your style."
"Really?", I thought. How could he like that page? It was just me messing around. I didn't even break too much of a sweat on the damn thing.
But being the glutton for affirmation that I am, I pursued it, deciding to try a stripped down, elastic style to learn the finer points of storytelling. After all, I sucked at drawing backgrounds. And I hadn't done a whole lot in the way of composing a page. If I wasn't focusing on "the cool shit" (like drawing veins and abs that showed THROUGH clothing), maybe I could learn these rudimentary comicbook principles that had eluded me. What a concept.
Cut to 2002. Simple style, it was. Not a lot of frills, but I was learning. Also, I was pumping out art by the assload. I didn't even remember half of this stuff existed until I found it today. A lot of these were failures, but I still see seeds of things that I still draw from today. Most of my vocabulary for character expression came from this period. Learned a lot about color, too.
More 2002. Young Rob was full of angst, hormones, philosophy and loneliness. I'm posting this because it shows some pretty neat experimentation with transition, storytelling and page layout. Also, I was getting better with Photoshop.
2003. I was doing a weekly strip for my college paper, getting the hang of this nifty simple look. As I got the visual language down, I started experimenting with texture, adding more detail to the art and testing Photoshop's capabilities.
All autobiographical, by the way. The bottom one was a cathartic documentary of how I was let go from my job at Office Depot. Upon seeing the strip in print, my old manager sent a letter of warning to the University's Dean. I stand by my decision, since the rival Office Depot found it hilariously accurate.
2004. This shows nothing, other than I still had a hell of a sense of humor.
More 2004. Slowly adding more and more detail. I was getting confident with the simpler style. I was learning a lot about Photoshop, too.
Now 2005-2006 was weird. I'd gotten the rules of the simpler style down, so what'd I do? I started breaking them. I started bending things that shouldn't be bent, twisting shit around, and I loved it. Another really important time for my development. Also started working on line quality and inking after Erik Larsen thumped me during a critique for having shitty line variation. He probably wouldn't even remember it.
2006-2008 was a blur. Having graduated from college, I basically got a real job and barely drew for a good year and a half. Yep. I just stepped away from it and paid some bills. Here are a few pieces I came up with for various projects once I decided to return to comics. By this point, I knew how to navigate a comic page pretty well.
2008-NOW. You know how this story ends.
Anyway, I'm hoping this can be somewhat encouraging to up-and-coming artists unsure of their direction. Everyone has a beginning. Ya just gotta keep pushing. Not everything will be beautiful, (as this post shows, I think) but even the bad stuff is ultimately redeemed by what you learn from it in your new work. So make some ugly-ass art, dreaming of the day when it'll be beautiful.
And you suckas better appreciate me embarrassing myself, just to make your asses feel better...