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The Business of Being an Artist – Working on a long form project (or how to keep running in the race after you’ve just fallen flat on your face).

Part of being a commercial artist is running a business. While there are aspects of this that I’m horrible at and procrastinate on (accounting, marketing) and parts that I very much enjoy (comic book conventions, book fairs, meeting fans and showcasing my latest books, and art), I still have to do all of them. This series of my process blog will talk about different aspects of the business.

I just wrapped up the art on the final book in The Arcane Awakening trilogy for Mess Bucket Comics. Created and written by Dom Riggio, The Arcane Awakening is a sprawling epic battle for control of the earth fought by the forces of good lead by the angelic Ministry against the forces of evil lead by the dastardly Blight. It’s a real fun read, with lots of action, as well as some thought provoking dialogue and moral dilemmas for the main protagonists. It’s also been a great learning experience! I’ve had the pleasure of being the artist since book 2, and just finished book 3. Each one brought different challenges, but the main unifying factor for me is that they were both marathon races of a project that I had to pace out over several months of a year. I’d like to chat a bit about the mindset I had for each one and how I dealt with working on something that would require focus and discipline for such long periods of time.

As a commercial artist, if you want to make money, you need to figure out a process that allows for the amount of money you are receiving to equal your standard of living. In other words you can’t work on a piece of art for too long before it starts to become a money suck. That’s a luxury you might have if you are independently wealthy (which most of us aren’t) or if it’s a personal project that you can space out over years of your life. Projects where you get paid require you to have a set schedule, so that you can make sure that you are able to pay your bills on time, and not become the clichéd, starving artist.

For The Arcane Awakening Book 2, Dom Riggio and I set out to have a schedule where we had a pretty good idea when the book would be finished. That way plans could be made to premiere the book at comic book conventions, as well as let all of the fans know when they could receive their copy. We took into consideration the amount of pages I could pencil and ink in a week, and allotted time for my con schedule as well as post-production of the book. The book consists of 52 pages, as well as additional work for a cover, back and interior of the cover plus lettering and design. The series was also created from a screenplay, so it wasn’t in comic book script form on the outset. So we had to go through the pacing of the book before hand to make sure we knew what was going to happen on each page. We figured it would take about 5 months or so to get it finished at a reasonable rate that I could handle.

Now when you are working with someone for the first time, you should take extra steps to insure clarity of communication and make sure both parties understand each other’s expectations. Dom is a great guy, an amazing visionary and very driven. He was very easy to talk to and collaborate with, and when we initially started working together we had the best of intentions to make this book be the best it could be. Since this was my first long form graphic story (graphic novel) I wasn’t completely prepared for the amount of work that it would require, and while optimistic to finish in the allotted time, I didn’t think to factor in rest or relaxation. In other words, I didn’t know my abilities as well as I thought, and after a few months or so at a break neck pace of work, I was starting to get burned out.

Part of the issue was a mental one as I had only worked on stories with a much shorter page count. I didn’t have the proper endurance to keep up the focus and energy on a 52-page book. The other issue was that because I was working from a screenplay and not a comic book script, I was in unfamiliar territory, leading me to work on pages a bit longer than normal. This added extra time, that I hadn’t completely taken into account when I was figuring out the schedule, and so to keep on track, I was working longer hours and not taking breaks. With shorter form graphic storytelling (comic books) I was able to sprint most of the way so even though I was exhausted by the end of one of those projects, I was able to get the work in on time and still have a somewhat normal life style. Not so much with this graphic novel.  

By the end of the first book, I was kind of miserable to be around, and while I was proud of my work ethic because I had kept on schedule and delivered a quality product, I wasn’t able to enjoy the work as much as I was in the beginning. Using the marathon analogy again, I think I had run to fast early on and wasn’t pacing myself correctly. I kind of fell flat on my face and still had a lot of race to run. Even though I had soured a bit on the project by the end, with some rest and time away I realized that the only way to build up my endurance was to run the race, even if I did fall a bit. Looking at the book with clear eyes, I also realized that I was very proud of the work regardless of my mindset towards the end.

When Dom approached me to work on Book 3 about a year or so later, I knew that I was ready for the task. I had thought about what worked and what didn’t work with book 2 and brought my ideas and concerns to our pre-production meetings so that we could create an even better book and end the trilogy with a bang. This time Dom had taken the screenplay for Book 3 and converted it to a comic book form, so that I could just jump right in. I wanted this experience as close to the way I would do my own art, so that there would be a more streamlined approach to each page. Since Dom knew that what he envisioned was pretty close to what I drew, from our last collaboration, he had no problem cutting down some of the process to make it more time efficient. He also outsourced the lettering, which meant that I could just focus on the art this time!

As of this writing I just finished the last page yesterday. Looking back on the last 4 and a-half months, I can honestly say that I was able to enjoy this process much more. Because of my experience on the first book, I knew how to pace myself better, so I was able to really get the pages the way I wanted them. Trimming some of the fat from the process also allowed for me to keep on schedule while taking breaks, so that I came to each set of new pages refreshed and with lots of energy. Both my wife and Dom probably enjoyed dealing with me much more. By making my process more efficient, I was able to do more pages in a week, and actually improve upon the quality of the pages as time went on.

Now that I’m done, it’s time for me to reflect on what I have just achieved, try to figure out what worked and what I can improve on. I might need a few months away from the art to get proper perspective on what needs improvement, as an artist often gets so immersed that it takes time to see their own work objectively and to start seeing the mistakes clearly.

However long your project is, remember that pacing yourself is key. Take breaks so that you can refresh and reenergize. Finally, realize that you will make mistakes. Each new project is going to be fraught with unexpected challenges and you may fall flat on your face. As long as you get up, brush yourself off and keep on running will you ever get closer to the finish line.

AA3-pg38-finalGo to Mess Bucket Comics to check out Arcane Awakening Book 1 and 2