Jenn Manley Lee

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Posts tagged thinking process
Process of an Illustration - Stage 1: Initial lines & color

As I wrap up the production files for the print version of Dicebox: Book 1 : Wander, I've decided to share my current art process to compensate for sporadic page updates. This'll specifically follow me making a stand alone illustration, but a lot of the steps hold true for how I approach comics. The piece in question is the art for the cover spread for the Asides, those fill-in comics that I was lucky enough to have folks gift me when I needed a break from Dicebox. As you might have noticed, I don't really have fill-ins anymore; my impetus for doing them was initially due to me being on a subscription site, Girlamatic and I figured paying customers deserved regularly scheduled entertainment. I continued to have them after leaving Girlamatic as that was the current expectation of a webcomics audience. Nowadays, with the general acceptance of RSS feeds and social media as aggregators, folks are more forgiving of a fumbled update (even if I am not). Also, I don't intend to take that much time off during parts anymore and I'm certainly not planning to have another kid.

Anyway, let's begin:

Click above image for slightly larger view.
Above is Stage 0, the rough sketch of an idea. This is a pretty elaborate rough sketch for me, but as this started life a cover concept for Book 1 and–though I liked the potential of the illustration– was iffy about it as a cover. So I sent it around to the usual suspects for feedback and got confirmation that it was a nice idea for a picture, but not a cover. It was during this process that I had the epiphany that it was actually the Asides cover spread in the print edition of Book 1 (silly me).

The entertaining white gap running vertically in the middle is me realizing the bed was too short and hence extending it.

Click above image for slightly larger view.
In Stage 1 you see the beginnings of final line art and initial color blocking. It's common for me to take the line art to a nearly finished point and then block in the basic color shapes so I can see how the basic composite is shaping up and to help me spot any drawing problems. The rougher line art indicates what wasn't working for me and where I started to extend it vertically.

Also, obviously, I've flopped the drawing. I actually liked it better this way from the get go and as I want to put the title and intro paragraph on the right hand page, it was a win-win situation.

This illustration is actually beyond this point in refinement, but not quite at Stage 2: Final line art and initial rendering. Which'll be my next entry here in a few days.

I got better*

So Dicebox got a write up on io9 yesterday, which was a completely delightful shock. It is a great review with the added bonus that the reviewer, Lauren Davis, picking up on those aspects most important to me, making me feel that I did my job as a storyteller. So I am a little ashamed that my first reaction was my, uh, dissatisfaction with the art of the sample pages she chose. From a story angle, her selections are very rewarding. And understand that as I've been going through the rewriting and tweaking process on Book 1, I've gotten kinder towards my old art, finding most of it acceptable. (Do I still want to redraw everything? Yeah, but I wanna finish Dicebox even more and move on to the other stories rattling around my brain)

Of the seven examples chosen for the review, only one will stand as is. And two more will need only minor tweaks. But of the other four, one will be reincorporated into a rewrite of the scene and so redrawn, one needs everyone to get back on model, one is slated for a serious makeover and one has already been redrawn and recolored though not uploaded as I need to tweak the following pages to have it integrate.

But I'm actually not here to whine and moan about that. Heck, it tells me that I chose correctly on what some of the keys pages are. I'm here to show and go through why I chose to redo a page that contains a panel that is used over and over again as a positive example of the art of Dicebox. That being page 10 of Part 5, "Blood from a Stone."

(click a thumbnail for a larger view in new window)

On the left is the original page art, on the right, the revision.

I was never satisfied with the feel of this page, specifically I wanted more of a sense that the characters are in and surrounded by the space and for the plains they are walking across to be a significant presence. So I took the opportunity of being invited to a group show to rework this page, exploring how I could make it really work the way I wanted it to. Which is my criteria for the other couple of pages I plan to revamp, i.e. that they are somehow key pages and there is something I can learn in the redoing. After all, I always intended Book 1 as my journeyman project, what I would use to learn the craft of a cartoonist.

First thing I decided to do was make the first panel a background flood image to allow it to be an environment to the characters and the other panels. To aid this, I felt some indication of foreground was called for and so moved up the second panel to reveal some of it. This had the added bonus of suggesting motion between it and the next panel. Lastly, I decided to let the Griffen in the last panel break the frame for continued integration with both the background and the first rear view of her. Also as a mood break to accompany her comment.

And you probably notice the updating of the color palette and the increase of contrast, all things that I need to apply to the rest of this scene before I will upload this revision. Because, as happy as I am with the redo, I would find the disconnect too jarring and so be doing myself no favors.

*The title for this post comes from a response I made to Kevin Moore when he called me on my propensity to redo the same pages over and over again. He and many of my other friends are forever trying to break me of this filthy habit.

What was old is new again

I broke my week long Dicebox fast yesterday by doing some exploratory sketches of what Griffen will be wearing at the beginning of the next book. And her wardrobe through out Book 2 in general, which will be a cut above the bargain bin ensembles of Book 1. More extreme for me will be the actual styled haircut she'll be sporting.

(click this and all images for a larger view in new window)

I haven't come up with what I want just yet, but the colored sketch above is getting there. However the real reason I'm sharing it is that, before I had even finished this sketch, I realized that I had sketched Griffen wearing a similar get-up a few years back.

Once upon a time, I had planned to do a short story featuring a younger Griffen in a stream of conscious tale called "Journal" which was structured around Griffen, well, writing in her journal right after she had gotten back from visiting her father's grave. This sketch below, freakishly like the one I had just done down to the cigarette, also served as a color test for the limited palette I was planning to use.

Though I hadn't actually written or drawn said comic, I had done a good deal of prep work which included, beyond designing a look and outfit for 30 year-old Griffen, creating a decorative map of her home world as well as her old home office. There was also back story generated along with some contemplation of the culture and structure of her home country, most of which will be used to inform certain parts of Book 2.

I'm actually glad that I was suddenly inspired to sift through this old abandoned work, rediscovering certain things, some remembered, some not quite. Disappointingly, the fully colored and refined Photoshop art files for the map and Griffen's office had become corrupt, but I rescanned the pencils, quickly spot colored the office drawing, as both will be useful reference for Book 2.

And whereas I have no real desire or need now to do the short comic "Journal," I do regret not being able to use the nifty title graphic I came up for it.

This gal's best friend

Yep, it's been awhile, more than a little dusty here at the ol' process journal. But, as I am finally embarking on my revisions and edits of Book 1 of Dicebox as well as doing exploration and ramping up for Book 2, don't be surprised to see more entries here. Today I alloted a goodly portion of the day to fine tuning and rewriting Part 9: "Out of a Molehill," which necessitated me to begin my serious review of what has gone before. So I created the Scrivener database for Book 1, a snapshot of which is below:

(Click here or image above for a full-size view)

I've known of Scrivener for a few years now and have dabbled with it now and again. But in the past year I have embraced this program in all its flexibility, workflow capabilities and wonders of organization. I won't detail them here, you can go to the Literature & Latte site for that. A nice thorough run down of features and workflow possibilities can be found on the video tutorial page, "An Introduction to Scrivener " to start.

What's particularly useful for me in this part of the process is the easy ability to include image and text files in the same project, work with a split screen, not to mention reference links for any section or individual file. And the ability to make, organize and color code parts as lists.

Lists are my mantra, my rosary and guide for projects as small as household chores for a week to something as big and complex as this. They are my anchor and comfort, preventing me from getting lost in a overwhelming sea of to-dos. And being able to change the status of an item or cross it off is one of my thrills in my day-to-day life. (Yes, I'm quite aware what this says about me.)

That's about all I have to say on the matter today, though I might very well share more Scrivener screen shot and process here in the future.

Music to think by

Like all good geeks, I have made a mix tape soundtrack for my story. You know, the Dicebox thing I do. I've actually made three so far and will end up with five or so by the time I'm done.

The first mix I made back in 2003 and named it "Under and Overture." It's a quick musical mood overview of the whole of Dicebox; the next four mixes are done for each Book of the story. Here are the cover and playlist I made for the CD I made for friends:

It begins and ends with songs from two albums I listened to exhaustively in college and I can can point to as early influences for Dicebox: Jane Siberry's the Speckless Sky and Tom Waits' Rain Dogs. Actually the entire albums are good mood music for Dicebox, supplemental soundtracks in a way. This is also true for Poe's Haunted and Michelle Shocked's Captain Swing.

The origin of the soundtracks are the collection of songs I've long paced to with headphones on while thinking about the story of Dicebox. They either create the right mood for a passage or spark imagery for me. I gradually made note of those I felt really spoke to the story and arranged them in suitable order.

Now, the reason I'm sharing this with you now is that I've been recently been made aware of the website Muxtape (thanks Dylan!) that allows one to share a selection of songs (their mix tape) with the internet. And that's what I've done with my Under and Overture, broken into two parts* by necessity:

Under and Overture, side A Under and Overture, side B

I'll leave this mix in place for a couple of months and then switch it out with the soundtrack for Book 1 : Wander. Enjoy.

* and two accounts, mine and Kip's by use agreement.

Frontispiece for Dicebox : Book 1 : Wander

First off, that is exactly what I based my design for the Dicebox homepage on, the frontispiece of a book. Here are some examples from books from the 1600s:

Ovid's Metamorphosis The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

(Click images for larger views.)

Note the pillars in each example; this is a reference to an architectural frontispiece which "constitutes the elements that frame and decorate the main, or front, door to a building; especially when the main entrance is the chief face of the building, rather than being kept behind columns or a portico." (definition courtesy of Wikipedia)Also note the pair of framing figures in iconic clothing surrounded by all sorts of symbolism.

Since Dicebox was started as a way for me to process stories throughout my life and since the earliest way I remembered getting stories that meant something to me was through books, this was a natural choice for the story's homepage. I will be creating a new frontispiece for each book which will then take up their traditional place in the printed collections.

Now for the symbolism.

Obviously much of it relates to Molly and Griffen but all of it is influenced by the particular Book of Dicebox it fronts. This is Wander, the book of Earth and Plants, the Black book, South, Summer and so on. Hence the black background, the idyllic summer landscape with a prominent mountain and so on. (I did make an entry in my Process Journal which illustrates and somewhat explains how I've organized the four Books of Dicebox and why.)

Before I list the symbols that are Molly and Griffen specific, let me emphasize that they are not opposites; they are partners. I paired the symbolism on this page evenly between them in categories, sometimes it's classically opposing aspects, sometimes they are items the same category, and sometimes they are two parts of an equation.

The Pillars

The capitals (or crowns) are Green Men which also form the masks of Comedy and Tragedy. Green Men make repeated appearances throughout the entirety of Dicebox; there have already been three in this first book. (As this dissection of the frontispiece will be lengthy as it is, I will explore why this figure fascinates me in some other time and place.) Molly's Green Man is comprised of Hawthorne, Griffen's is Alder implying all the further symbolism tied up in those trees. The aspects of Comedy and Tragedy aren't really that character specific, they mostly are announcing a story. I made the decision who got which on who seemed unhappier throughout this Book (it was close).

Topping the Green Men are the Moon and a Beetle for Molly and the Sun and a Bee for Griffen. The celestial symbols are due to their essential presence more than any implication of gender roles or primacy. Molly's insect is a beetle because they are associated with secrets and cycles of awareness. The bee is associated with Griffen for its link to speech and thought as well as the ritual uses of honey. (The Sacred Bee by Hilda Ransome will give all the particulars)

The base of the capitals is an egg-and-dart pattern with a kanji symbol in the center. Molly's character is rou, a root of flesh, a carcass cut open; Griffen's is gua, a root of bone, representing a skull and vertebrae. I chose the egg-and-dart pattern because of the variety of interpretations I have heard of its meaning: life and death, male and female, symbol of Aphrodite (to go with the symbol of Hermes of the top bar) and so on.

The symbols contained in square plaque that begins the shaft of the pillar are very character specific. The dominating center symbol represents their place of origin: Molly is from Korsevei, which means crossroads in Norwegian and Griffen is from Aaleth, an arctic-like planet which has an artificially created green space around the equator named the Ouroboros for obvious reasons. The squares in Molly's represent Earth and the triangles in Griffen's are for fire. The symbol in the top left corner of Molly's is an electrical notation of "ground" which pairs with the on in Griffen's upper right representing "fuse." The symbol in the lower right of Molly's is for salt and Griffen is blocking hers for for sulfur.

The base of the pillars are decorated with the mystical representation of each character's celestial object, interspersed with the stage in the poppy's cycle the best aligns with each; Molly is the Bloom, Griffen is the Seeds.

The Objects

I'll start with the "female" and "male" tools: Molly has the broom for all it's association with protection and controlling influence, Griffen has a distaff as she is the storyteller of the two. Likewise Griffen has a saw given her tongue and Molly the hammer as she is the stabilizer.

Molly's coins at her feet and Griffen's blade are nods to where I feel they are in the classic Tarot categories, thought you'll want to refer to this journal entry as to how I place Swords.

The cat and the crow are the common animals that best represent their respective personalities; is they had familiars, it would be these animals.

Molly and Griffen

First off, I should mention that the color red is their color. As to why, let me refer to my response to Dylan when she asked me on the Dicebox Forum:

I've acknowledged to myself ages ago that Dicebox is, beyond being about Molly and Griffen, a call and response to all the stories I grew up with and ever encountered. So I spent some time exploring certain recurring and dominant themes of classic tales and myths, researching them and forming my own response to them. The hell with Joseph Campbell. You won't see most of this directly addressed within Dicebox--it will be often be even more than subtext, more like 3rd sub-basement text. It's the flavor and my personal unifying force.

Naturally I was going to delve into color symbolism--and this was still when I thought Dicebox was going to end up being black & white. Each Book has been assigned a color as well as other forces. And red is first and foremost blood to me.

I don't think it's any secret that I am interested in female energy and roles in stories, along with other border walkers such as tricksters and the like. Repeatedly, blood is aligned with women and border places. Death, birth, the river surrounding Faerie, blood on the snow, blood in the shoe. And then there's the whole idea of blood as guilt by association. Can't trust a woman 'cause they bleed 3 days a month and don't die of it. (This leads me back to the Southpaws thread--female energy is often associated with the left side, the sinister and dark.) And of course the whole Dicebox-->Peorth-->Womb connection.

And, yes, so far in Dicebox Molly and Griffen have worn some scrap of red, be it shirt, pants trim, knee patch or coat lining. And the red will vary from a maroon to a pink---from dried blood to a blood partially rinsed from a white rag.

Now, all that said, this is a standard I am setting up so I can break it at the appropriate time.

They have their own colors as well, represented by the clothing they are wearing. Griffen has white and yellow, representing air and fire, whereas Molly has yellow and black, for fire and earth.

They are both dressed in idealized versions of the outfits they appear in at the beginning of Dicebox, Griffen being the Victorian fop and Molly the hardy rustic traveller. (side note: Molly's boots are based on those on a statue of a priest and soldier somewhere in New York City, somewhere near Time Square. I can't remember who and haven't found it again on subsequent visits. These were to be the boots she wore throughout Dicebox, but, obviously, I changed my mind.)

Pieces of the same puzzle: the candle and the egg, the lock and the key. These have much more to do with how each keeps their secrets and how the other might discover them.

And, finally, Griffen's mouth is open, where as Molly's is shut, an aspect of this pair that will be elaborated on in the page notes of the very first page of Dicebox.

Dicebox's Phantom Alphabet

I know some folks have noticed that the lettering on various background elements tends not to be the Latin alphabet, but a made up alphabet which I call ALS:

As you see, it's an alphabet created in direct correlation to the English/Latin alphabet--a phantom alphabet. The reason I call it ALS is because it is in large part the phantom alphabet created by Amy L. Sacks for a comic she abandoned over a decade ago. Alas. I liked it, the way you could see the essence of the origin letter in the alphabet, and since I needed a phantom alphabet for Dicebox I happily adopted and adapted hers. With permission, of course.

Here's Amy's final version of the alphabet from her sketch book:

I altered some of the letters: the F, J, M, N, W and to a lesser degree the L, R, T, V and Y. The alterations I made were mostly in order to simplify the character in question, though sometimes it was to add consistency or difference. This I did after reading Adrian Frutiger's theory of reduced hand movements as being a main cause of the evolution of the Latin Alphabet, both in how the capitals changed and the creation of a lowercase. And it was either in Frutiger's Sign and Symbols: their design and meaning or Writing Systems of the World by Akira Nakanishi that I read the additional theory that the most successful alphabets, those truly known and used by the common populace have characters that require no more than three or four lifts of the pen. Amy had a gorgeous, almost calligraphic number system that broke that rule big time and was less intuitive to me, so I created my own number system.

Why did I need a phantom alphabet? Well, I didn't want it to be assumed that the dominant language is english in Dicebox, In fact I don't imagine that the common language everyone is speaking is strictly English. I think of it more it as a creole with an English/Spanish base, with healthy additions of Dutch, Japanese and Ukraine among others.

But I suck at language beyond English and so didn't feel comfortable to fool around with other languages or alphabets. Besides, I wanted to do something that could technically be interpreted by the average reader of English. I have included English words in the background and do plan to tap the linguists among from my friends and family for Japanese, Chinese, Russian, etc. But the main thrust will still be ALS spelling out English words.

Here's the first clear use of ALS seen in the background of Chapter 1:

It reads "Transient Skin." There are uses before this, but they are obscured or half nonsense.

In order to try to give it a living use feel, I have created different fonts of ALS absed on early 20th century typefaces, like Bastion:

Here's a side by side look at some type I used in a background flyer set in English and then ALS in the Bastion Style:

Here you start to see the another aspect that really appealed to me about Amy's alphabet, the dipthong rule:

Vowels are indicated by two dots, and when combined into a dipthong they share these two dots. Adds variety without extra clutter.

I will Include ALS in the Explication page soon, after I settle on what ALS stands for in the Dicebox universe, as well as articulate how I figure it came into use--basically utilizing the long travel of the main colonization fleet as a time of restructuring and new culture conceptualizing. (Yes, this where "peh" comes from.)

Photo reference part 2: Environments

Photo reference part 2: environments I don't really reference actual buildings or interiors in Dicebox. I'm inspired by some in books and real life, but I tend to alter or adapt what I find, though occasionally a conceptual building from a book does make it into the odd back ground.

I do take lots of random reference photos of buildings and cityscapes that appeal to me, but I collect these more to use as reference for a particular sense of environment then for any particular architecture style.

Here is the photo reference I used to create the industrial district that open Chapter 7 : Scene 5:

The photo is of Portland's SE industrial area as seen from the Hawthorne Bridge. This is probably the closest I've cribbed a cityscape photo within Dicebox. Beyond being able to quickly create a believable neighborhood, I was able to get my perspective from the building in the photo and build on it. This how I often use my building reference, for a perspective map, something I learned in David Chelsea's excellent reference book, Perspective! For Comic Book Artists.

For the factory interior, I first hunted around the internet for shots of factory floors that had the feel I was after--old school factory, floor space used efficiently but awkwardly:

Using the reference above, I was able to create the look I wanted for the Tidsanden factory:

Now, I had collected some lovely and innovative factory interiors, but this factory was to be neither. Also, I purposefully do keep certain things in a visually anachronistic vein whenever I feel justified doing so. I want people to respond to the imagery on an empathic level, almost as if I was using icons to convey a recognizable experience more than simply a place. And also to serve as a contrast for those things I intend as strange and unfamiliar.