Saturday, March 2, 2019

Silhouette Girl and the Moonhorse, Part 1: Creative Process

Wow guys, I've been so excited to share this with you...

For Christmas I received a sketchbook to send to the Sketchbook Project in Brooklyn!

What is that? Great question. At the time I was only vaguely familiar with it, myself, so I spent a few minutes on the google machine and checked out the details.

The Sketchbook Project is housed at the Brooklyn Art Library, an amazing library of sketchbooks from artists all over the world. You can purchase one of their blank sketchbooks (a little 5x7 blank book) and fill it however you like. When you send your sketchbook back to them, they add it to the permanent collection, and they'll alert you every time someone looks at it!

I heard about it a few years ago but never pursued information on how to join the project, and forgot about it pretty quickly, so it was a great surprise to open up the package and discover this awesome opportunity.
Coffee and sketching with my little brother!

Every year they have different themes/inspiration cues, but it's pretty open to interpretation. The few rules pertain only to size and a couple of paints (gesso and acrylic) that aren't allowed because they make the pages stick together.

I got started on January 3rd, brainstorming what I wanted to pour into the sketchbook.

As you know from this blog, I work with a lot of different materials and media. Charcoal, pen and ink, paint, collage. My first hazy visions of this book involved collages of texture, color, and folded paper.

Pretty soon I decided to make it a narrative. I took my cue from everything that's been inspiring me lately... Astronaut memoirs, sci-fi novels and short stories, and astrophysics-for-dummies books.

I recently read "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku, and I was fascinated by his explanations of the science behind some of the "impossible" technology in sci-fi books. Things like teleportation, hyperspeed, and time travel.

Another great book I read was "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" by Mike Mullane. It's a funny, brutally-honest peek into the NASA's space shuttle program. Mullane doesn't shy away from criticizing NASA management, but he also conveys his love for space-travel and gratitude for NASA and the chance he had to fulfill his lifelong dream. He's also very open about astronaut culture in the '80s, and his personal struggle with accepting feminism (working with the first American women astronauts was a big adjustment for a man who attended an all-boys school and went straight into the military after graduation!).

With the help of these and other inspiration-boosters, my little story grew as a series of images in my mind. I had a plan for the narrative. As I started the rough sketches, I scaled back my intense collage-pages and chose to make simple line drawings in ink. I wanted the images to shine, not the materials I made them with.

Whenever I begin a particular art project, I start with an exciting mental image of it, and work eagerly until I hit a roadblock or two and set it aside (for a week, a month, three years, it varies!). After some time stewing in my mind, the solution suddenly hits and then begins the feverish race to create.

The same process held true for this one.

Once the idea for this journey from Earth to Moon to Mars came to mind, I started sketching away, determining each scene and each step of the way.

The sketchbook had 16 pages, so I had 16 scenes to create. I was able to sketch most of these over the course of a few hours spent with my brother at my favorite coffee shop.

Later, I got out my transfer paper and transferred each image to the pages of the sketchbook, and started drawing with ink... and that's where the big roadblock appeared...

The paper was too thin. 

My ink lines showed right through the paper, and even bled through in a few spots! This was not going to work.

I considered my options. Glue pages together to make them thicker? Prime each page with thin layers of gesso for a more opaque surface?

Gesso was out, since it's frowned upon in the Sketchbook Project rules. Normally, gesso is an awesome primer for art surfaces, but in a booklet format, gesso could cause the pages to stick together. I wasn't going to risk that.

I knew rebinding the book with different paper was allowed, but I wasn't feeling it... I didn't know what paper I wanted, and I didn't know how to deal with the stiffness that comes with thicker, ink-friendlier paper. Inspiration fell away and quickly as it struck.

My Sketchbook drawings stopped in their tracks, I set the book aside and stewed over the paper problem for about a week... until one day I was at work and the solution hit me.

Paper cloth!

I first made this a few years ago, at the suggestion of my art teacher. I fell in love with the unique effects of drawing on tissue paper, stabilized by a layer of cotton fabric. It's awesome for wet media like watercolor, acrylic paint, and pen and ink, and you can glue or sew on other materials to create a collage! I immediately knew that's what I wanted.

So what is paper cloth?

It's regular ol' tissue paper glued onto cotton fabric. I use about equal parts water and mod podge, but you can play with that ratio for stiffer or more flexible results - more glue for stiffness, more water for flexibility.

The sketches are transferred onto the paper cloth, ready to be painted!
You can also layer in other paper, threads, lace, sequins, paint, or anything else you want between the tissue paper and the cloth. Here's a link to a blog post explaining how to make paper cloth and the world of possibilities for customizing it.

I don't quite know why, but I hadn't used paper-cloth since that one project in high school. I was pretty excited to try it out again, so the minute I got home from work I dug some tissue paper out of the gift-wrapping supplies, got a large scrap of cream-colored cotton fabric from my meager sewing stash, and got to work. Yes, I have a sewing stash - I mostly do clothing alterations, with the occasional pillow or baby quilt.

With my paper cloth dried and ready, it was finally time to cut it all to size and get drawing... and time for a serious overhaul in my vision.

For one thing, paper cloth is one-sided. I suppose you could glue tissue paper to both sides of the fabric, but at this point I lacked that kind of foresight. For a brief time I was all action and no thought.

It took mental gymnastics to do this! Each sheet had two
different half-scenes, except the centerfold page.
I had several large sheets of paper cloth, thick but flexible. Being one-sided, I'd have to use twice as much if I wanted to keep all 16 pages, and that was going to be one fat little book. I needed to pare things down to the most important images.

Chop, chop, chop - out went half of my carefully-crafted scenes! This was a tough process, but necessary if I wanted to use paper cloth and keep the book thin enough to be accepted by the Sketchbook Project.

After transferring the remaining scenes, it was finally time to get painting.

Wait... Painting? Wasn't this going to be simple, black-and-white line drawings?

That's where the second element of my overhaul came into play! When paper cloth came to mind, the project changed entirely.

My illustrations would no longer be simple pen and ink. These would be full watercolor paintings, with line details inked in at the end.

That's the thing with art - sometimes you've got to be fiercely loyal to the original concept. But sometimes, you fall in love with one element and the while thing morphs to fit. That's what happened here, and I love it!
All painted, ready for ink details

It's nothing like what I envisioned at the beginning, but this process of adjusting the vision along the way was a lot of fun and resulted in a more creative, organic book.

The end result? An eight-page full-color book, bound with purple thread and with the edges of each page hand-stitched (cloth sides together, painted tissue paper facing out).

Work-in-progress, stitching together the pages
Don't worry, I kept the original cover with its all-important Sketchbook Project bar-code!

Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I'll share shots of each finished page. I've taken copious amounts of pictures - full-page, detail, and process shots. I've also kept all the original pencil sketches, including the ones that didn't survive the big chop.

Since I'm mailing the finished book to Brooklyn in a few days, these pictures and sketches are very important to me. I have to capture it all before it leaves me!

I hope to see it in its new home at the Brooklyn Art Library one day, of course, and I'm excited to be a part of the Sketchbook Project, but I'm going to miss this little book. We've spent a lovely two months together.


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