Rescuers Commission and First Digital Painting

I just finished an art commission I'm extremely proud of. I received the request from Etsy and once I heard it, I immediately accepted the challenge.

The requestor was buying it for a couple expecting their first child. They were doing the nursery in a "Rescuers" motif, including framed animation cels from the film. She asked me to create a new piece to add to the collection. They also wanted their last names (Zagel) incorporated into it somehow. 

So I decided I wanted to make something that looked as if it couldn't been taken from the movie itself. I drew out the Bianca and Bernard characters using my usual inking method and flat colors. And the background is a more detailed digital painting. I used a lot of movie still photos as reference to try to get the look and feel right. I also thought it'd be cute to show the two characters with their own little mouse baby.

I've played around with Photoshop brushes off and on, but this was my first real attempt at a full painting. It's got some real issues and I have a long way to go, but I'm so proud of the outcome. I think it feels exactly the way I'd envisioned it, which doesn't happen often. 

It's going in the mail tomorrow, and I really hope the recipients love it. The Rescuers is one of my all-time favorites, and it was a ton of fun to do. 

Here's the sketch:

And here's the painted background:

And finally, the finished piece:

Also, I'm super excited that I finally bit the bullet and enrolled in the Oatley Academy of Concept Art and Illustration. It's an 18-month, go-at-your-own-pace course taught by a former disney concept artist. I only was able to watch the first lesson on lighting prior to trying this piece, but it helped tremendously. Can't wait to get better at this. 

My 2014 Roadmap

It’s January 1st, 2014, and time for plotting out my upcoming year. I don’t call these “resolutions” per se, but more of a roadmap for the general direction I want to go this year. There will be inevitable roadblocks and delays, but if I can get to even half my intended destinations, I’ll be happy.

Here’s the roadmap for 2013, and here’s my recap of how it panned out.

So let’s get to 2014…

What I’m Doing in 2014

Daily Sketches

I’m hoping 2014 will be the year I can finally break through this barrier I have with sketching. I did a whole talk at Big Nerd Ranch last year about “Blank Page Syndrome” and how it contributes to my lack of art output. I often get wrapped up in deciding what to draw and trying to make it perfect that it takes way longer than it should, and often I don’t even try.

Jay Myers' 365th sketch of 2013. I can do this, right?

Jay Myers' 365th sketch of 2013. I can do this, right?

I’ve brainwashed myself into believing everything I put to paper has to be perfect and has to be shared with the world. I’m going to try my best to get over this hump, and hopefully can lean on some fellow artists for support. I follow some guys that do amazing daily sketches and are a real inspiration. Jay Myers is one. If you don’t follow him, you should.

One thing that has helped with sketching in the past is to collect a list of ideas ahead of time. I’ve recently switched my to-do manager from Things to Wunderlist, and have started a list for “Daily Sketches”. I often think of things that would be fun to sketch and stupidly think I’ll remember them. I never do. But with Wunderlist on my Macbook, iPhone and iPad, I always have a way to make a quick note of it for later. Then when I sit down to sketch, I just pick one.

Giving this new sketch book a whirl.

Giving this new sketch book a whirl.

I also grabbed this new daily sketchbook from Amazon. The one I tried last year (which now contains a whopping 28 drawings), just wasn’t working out. It was a small book, and each page was split into two days. Plus, the paper is super thin, so brushed inks would bleed through. I ended up having to switch to colored pencils for coloring anything. This new one is much larger, about 8x10, with one page dedicated to one day. Plus, the paper is thicker. Only issue I can foresee with it, other than being heavy, is that it’s not spiral bound. Could be a pain trying to hold it flat while drawing. If all else fails, I’ll just keep using my toned paper sketchbook, which has a really nice look, too.

Art Store(s)

My Etsy store

My Etsy store

One of the things I’ve been struggling with a lot lately is how to display and sell my artwork and prints. I’ve had an Etsy store for quite a while now, with not much success. I only made 18 sales all year, including commissions, and I paid $68 in fees (not including Paypal). Overall, Etsy isn’t bad, but there is a limit to what you can do with it. And your fees are always totally different each month. Items are always expiring, so you have to re-list them again and again.

So I’ve been looking at options. A few weeks ago, I set up a trial store at Shopify. Hands-down, I believe Shopify is the superior platform for building a store and customizing it to your needs. And if you’re a developer, you get full access to everything. I absolutely love it, but it has some drawbacks. The main one is the price. The base tier is $30 per month, which is just out of range for a “hobbyist” artist like me. If I ever got a large enough following and could count on enough sales, it would be a no-brainer. But I just don’t (yet) sell enough to break even at that price point.

The other issue, and this is not unique to Shopify, is the lack of “discoverability”. On Etsy, I often make sales out of the blue to folks who later tell me they found my art through a random search. They might search for “Muppets” and find one of my sketches and buy it. They had no idea who I was before that moment. If all you have is a standalone store on Shopify or Big Cartel, etc, you’re out on an island by yourself. It puts a lot more pressure on you to self-market. Like I’ve said, if you’re Skottie Young with 44k Twitter followers, you can do that. All you have to do is tweet about new artwork and people will go check it out. When you’re still a nobody, your percentages are drastically lower.

I’ve also toyed around with a store on Storenvy. They are similar to Etsy, but also allow far more customization. You have a standalone store, but you’re also linked into their Marketplace, which supports discoverability through searches. One drawback to Storenvy is its lack of support for digital downloads. I can only imagine they’ll have to add that eventually to keep up. Even Etsy supports that now.

Then a few days ago, another option occurred to me. I’ve hosted AtlantaJones.com on Squarespace for a few years now and really like it. I’d forgotten that they’d added ecommerce support in the last couple years. When I first played with it, I wasn’t impressed. They provide a Shopify importer, so I was able to quickly add all my products and give it a spin.

My Squarespace store

My Squarespace store

I have to say, overall, I’m pretty impressed with it. It supports physical products, digital downloads, and even “services” as product types. It also supports multiple product variants and groups, all with potentially different prices. This was also a major failing of Storenvy. You can make a variant (like, specifying a matte or glossy print), but you can’t charge differently for each option. You also can’t group variants, to have separate sets of dropdown menus. Squarespace supports Stripe for payments and a bunch of shipping options. I’m not totally happy with my options for displaying a main store page, but as a developer, I have lots of flexibility there.

So I’ve been paying $10 per month for Squarespace for my blog. To open a store, you have to bump up to their “Business” plan, which is $30. In reality, it’s only $20 more, and it lets me integrate even more of what I do into one location. So for now, I’ll put Shopify on hold, and keep going with Squarespace to see how it goes. Most likely, I’ll also keep Etsy around, unless Storenvy just totally takes off. This will all evolve over the course of the year, I’m sure. The main thing will be to start increasing the amount of art I post and trying to drive up my follower counts on Twitter and Instagram. That should also organically increase traffic to my stores (fingers crossed).

Artist Proof Sketch Cards

My artist proof sketch cards for Superman and Walking Dead

My artist proof sketch cards for Superman and Walking Dead

So over the course of 2012 and 2013, I contributed to two trading card sets:Superman: The Legend, and The Walking Dead. The way it usually works is, you get paid a base fee for each card, then for every so many cards they approve, you get a certain number of blank ones back. These are called Artist Proof (AP) cards. You can then sketch on these and sell them outright for whatever price you want (they’re still subject to licensor approval first).

I’m still sitting on six AP’s for Walking Dead and 5 for Superman. This year I would really like to get those cards drawn and available in the store, or maybe up on eBay. I haven’t done any sketch cards since I finished the last set, so I could use the practice.

Chuck Jones Auction Painting

My 2011 auction painting.

My 2011 auction painting.

In both 2011 and 2012, I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute a painting for the annual Red Dot Auction to benefit the Chuck Jones Center (which I’d done the website for a couple years ago). Was very honored to be invited and happy that they both fetched decent prices in the auction.

I was invited again in 2013 and received my canvas, but somehow everything conspired against me and I just ran out of time. I hated to not submit something, but this year I definitely will.

Moichandising!

Super happy with how this came out.

Super happy with how this came out.

Towards the end of 2013, I started selling a bunch of shirts with the “Ancient Aliens” artwork. Not sure where the surge came from, but it was enough to get me my first payout from Redbubble. I’ve got several more ideas, so I’m going to make some more merchandise available throughout the year, starting with this Walking Dead/Toy Story mashup (which, ironically, started out as a simple sketchbook drawing).

 

Writing

2013 was a landmark year, in that it solidified something for me: I really, really like to write. Sure, I’ve written blog posts over the years, and at one point thought I wanted to be a screenwriter. But then I get busy with web development, art, or any number of other things. This year, I started reading more, and consequently developed more of a hunger for writing (a new Neil Gaiman book always does that to me). I’ve got a dozen short story ideas filed away, and posted one to the blog already. I have one about done, but got hung up on the ending for a couple months. Then one day, BAM, the ending hit me. I just have to write it down.

I’ve also been writing a lot more for work. I’ve already written two chapters for an upcoming Big Nerd Ranch book (and training course), and since starting in August 2013 have written a total of 7 blog posts (one will be published in early 2014). All told, it’s added up to over 14,000 words. And I’ve got a lot more articles lined up for 2014.

So my goal for this year will be to definitely keep reading more, but also finish 2–3 more short stories. And in between, find some time to keep my own blog fresh. Always. Be. Writing.

What I Might Do in 2014

First Sketchbook, Second Attempt

I love this sketch from early 2013.

I love this sketch from early 2013.

Last year, one of the end results for sketching more was to have enough art amassed by year’s end to collect them in a sketchbook. It may have been a physical printed book, digital or both. Unfortunately, I felt I hadn’t done enough art to warrant it. However, once I started really looking back through my files, I think I just might have enough, if I sprinkle in some older favorites as well.

So for starters, I think I’m going to try to put together a 2013 book in January or February. It will likely be a digital e-book only, and will compile all the halfway decent art I did that year, plus some noteworthy other pieces, and what the hey, maybe a short story or two.

Then, by next fall, I’ll start planning for the 2014 book. Sounds like a plan, right?

The Webcomic

Once again, I’ve utterly failed at a resurrection of my comic strip. I only did one in 2013, and that was in December, a full two years after the last one had been published. Problem with strips is that they just take so long to produce, even going as fast as I can. And ideas aren’t always readily available. Any time I try getting it restarted, I put so much pressure on myself to keep it up, the whole thing just implodes.

So, in regards to the comic, I’ll continue to play it by ear. I’ll do a strip when I feel I have a good idea and the time to do it. Period. Some year might be the “year of the webcomic”, but this probably isn’t it, either.

Artist Commission Site

I continue to be unwavering in my belief that this is a good idea: a web-based service dedicated to making it easier for artists to list, sell, manage and deliver art commissions. Nobody is doing anything exactly like it, and attempts by sites like DeviantArt are pretty lame.

I’m going to have to play this one by ear as well. Whenever I get close to starting, I realize the sheer amount of work to be done and I sort of freak out. Once I get it carved up into manageable chunks, I’ll feel better about getting started. This project depends on how some other things pan out this year, but I’m hopeful.

Speaking Engagements

One thing I’m looking at doing in 2014 is more speaking on web development topics. There are a couple conferences I’d like to submit proposals to, including the CSS Dev Conf, which I attended last year in Colorado (this year it’s in New Orleans). Not sure if I’ll make it in, but even if I don’t, I’ll try to do more internal talks like the one I did on Blank Page Syndrome.

What I’m NOT Doing in 2014

There are always casualties in these roadmaps, and in 2014 there are a couple.

Trading Card Game

This is the idea I had for a trading card game based on the Avengers poster project from 2012. I think it’s still a good idea, and I still plan to do it. Just no place to squeeze it in. I’d almost have to dedicate the bulk of my free time for a year just to pull it off. And I’ll need help.

Avatar Commissions

I’m going to keep my Avatar Commission service on hold for now. Honestly, it’s a mixed bag for me. I really don’t think $25 is enough to charge, but would anyone pay $50? And at $25, it doesn’t feel worth it to haggle with someone who insists the likeness isn’t “just right”. I mean, nobody will argue with me that a Batman commission doesn’t look like Batman. But if they think that drawing doesn’t look like Aunt Judy, holy shit, watch out. Right now, until I can safely raise the rates, it’s just not worth it. That said, once they reopen, I’ll likely also offer caricatures and zombie-fied versions to delight your friends.

Summing Up

So that’s that. Another year, another roadmap. More of a guideline, really. Plans will change and surprises will pop up, some for the positive, I’m sure. But mostly, this is the path I’m hoping to take this year. Watch me do it at the links below!

And hey, why not buy some of my crap?

2013 Roadmap Revisited

So last December, I put together a little post called “My 2013 Roadmap”. So often, I’ll throw together a bunch of New Year’s resolutions into a stew of unfulfilled dreams and hope that at least one will congeal into a real accomplishment. Last year, I decided to put some thought into it, and came up with an actual plan.

Here are the results of that plan, along with passing (or failing) grades.

A New Sketch Card Set

walking-dead-card.jpg

In 2012, I completed a set of 40 sketch cards for Cryptozoic Entertainment for theirSuperman: The Legend trading card set. They invited me back to “try out” for another upcoming set and I was accepted. At the time of my original Roadmap post, I couldn’t disclose the property. In February, I was able to announce that I was working on 50 sketch cards for a Walking Dead trading card set. And in May 2013, I got to post all the artwork. As I said in that post, I think 50 cards for any one project is about the limit of what I can realistically deliver.

I actually was invited to 3 other sets in 2013. One was for a Mars Attacks series, and two were for Star Wars. While these were super tempting (especially Star Wars), they all were either a) super short deadlines with a minimum commitment of 100 cards, and/or b) paid way too little per card.

Doing sketch cards is rarely about the money. But at only $1.50 per card, you’re practically doing the work for free. To stress out on such a short deadline drawing 100 cards, only to make $150 to show for it just didn’t compute, so I had to turn them all down. To put things in perspective, Cryptozoic was (at least on my sets) paying $5.00 per card.

Verdict: SUCCESS!
 

My First Printed Book

At the beginning of 2013, I was fairly certain that I’d be able to self-publish my first book of artwork by year’s end. Unfortunately, as usual, real life has gotten in the way. That, coupled with my usual crippling “blank page syndrome” has left me with not enough artwork to fill the pages.

I’d started on a “One Sketch A Day” book, in which I filled all of 28 slots. I like the concept of a sketchbook with dates and day counts clearly delineated, but each block is about the size of a 3x5 card, and the paper is super thin. It really was a challenge to be able to use inks or markers without a lot of bleed-through.

I also started working with a toned-paper sketchbook, which I’m loving the look of. A lot of artists I admire are using that medium and it can make for some really cool looks. Will Terrell, in particular, has got some great toned sketchbooks. So far though, I only have 6 pages filled in this one.

Some random artwork from 2013

That said, I wouldn’t exactly qualify 2013 as being an art failure. I sold 12 pieces on Etsy, four of which were custom commissions. I also did a handful of other sketches including six for “Inktober”.

The more I think about it, the more I think I probably do have enough art from 2012 and 2013 to compile a basic art book. Not sure I’ll have it started in 2013, but I’m going to give it a go. Now, whether anyone will want such a thing is another story. But one bridge at a time.

Verdict: FAIL (but possibly just delayed)
 

Artist Commissions Website

Sometimes, ideas just follow you around like a lost puppy. You don’t have time or money to take it in, but gosh, you can’t leave it out in the rain now can you? That’s how I feel about this project. I’m still as convinced as ever that the concept of a web service that makes it easier for artists to sell and manage commissions is a sound one. I’ve polled several artists and nobody yet has told me it’s anything but a great idea.

At this point, though, I’ve only gotten as far as setting up the domain with a brief signup form. Honestly, whenever I think I’ll get started on it, I get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project and freak out. More of that “Blank Page Syndrome” working its magic. I’m still going to build it, but 2013 just wasn’t the year for it.

Verdict: FAIL
 

Adjusted Pricing

This was an easy one. I raised the overall prices of each type of art in my store:

  • Sketch cards start at $7.50 each
  • Prints start at $10.00
  • Black and white sketches start at $20.00
  • Color sketches start at $25.00

As for commissions:

  • Sketch card commissions are $15.00
  • Black and white sketches are $20.00
  • Color sketches are $30.00

I averaged one sale per month on Etsy, which I suppose is better than a shot to the nuts. But I’d like to sell a lot more. Which means I need to draw a lot more.

Verdict: SUCCESS!!
 

Websites and Social Media

At a certain point, I started getting overloaded with the number of social media outlets I had to maintain. It should not take more than a couple minutes to update all your “identities” with a new piece of art or a quick update. I think I accomplished what I spelled out in this section of the roadmap. Artwork posts get made to Instagram, which auto-posts to Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. I still have to post manually to DeviantArt, but I tend to do those posts in batches later. I honestly don’t think I’m getting much good from DA lately anyway.

I did end up getting a Dribbble account in 2013 and posted a few things there. But again, I’m not sure I see a lot of value in it for me. Same can be said for Behance. Which is a shame, since I get a Pro account free with my subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. Maybe in 2014 I’ll make an effort to explore that more.

The only thing I didn’t do was post to the Myths and Nonsense blog or Facebook account. I’d like to get that going, but it’s so far down the totem pole of priorities. Plus, a lot of the stuff I’d be writing about will just make me angry, and life is too short to constantly deal with the ignorance of others.

Verdict: SUCCESS!
 

The Comic Strip

I threw in one wildcard on the 2013 Roadmap, which was breaking the hiatus of my webcomic. It’s something I desperately want to get back into, but it’s such a huge time commitment. For any webcomic to get going, the key is to keep a regular schedule, even if it’s once a week. But something always comes up, or I can’t think of an idea, or paying work comes first, yadda, yadda, yadda. I only posted one strip in 2013 and it was in December, TWO YEARS since the last strip had been posted. We’ll see if I try to squeeze it into the 2014 Roadmap, which I’ll be writing soon.

Verdict: FAIL
 

So it seems like I broke even on success vs failure this year. While there were things I didn’t accomplish, I think overall I did okay. And let’s not forget landing a dream job, which is nothing to spit at. I’m also writing a lot more, both for Big Nerd Ranch and personally, so expect that to factor into the 2014 Roadmap. Look for it soon!

Regarding Blank page Syndrome

What scares you? Spiders? Bats? Clowns (ugh)? As an artist, the thing that instills the most fear and dread in me is… a blank piece of paper. 

It’s one thing when I know exactly what I want (or need) to draw. But just sitting down to sketch quickly becomes a nightmare. What do I draw? How about…no, I don’t think I could do that well enough. Well, what about…no, that’s too complicated. And the struggle continues until finally, I close the sketchbook and go play Call of Duty. 

This fear of the blank page has plagued me for years, and has also become a nuisance to my recent fiction writing attempts, and even my coding. I’d always called this “The Blank Page Syndrome”, and wondered if I was in the minority. Turns out, I’m not. A quick Google search returned over 100,000 pages with that term, which I actually thought I’d made up. It often is used generically to refer to “writer’s block”, but affects a lot of artists as well.

I’d been giving this a lot of thought lately, and then this past October, I attended CSS Dev Conference in Colorado. The opening keynote by Zoe Gillenwater seemed to have been written specifically with me in mind.  Her talk explored the idea that a lot of times, we compare ourselves too much to what others have done, and let that hold us back from doing our own thing. We think we could never reach that level, or that everything worth writing (or drawing) has been done before, so why should I add my two cents? 

Hearing that keynote made me realize that I’m not alone in these feelings, and I should explore it further. Coincidentally, I was asked by some folks at Big Nerd Ranch if I’d do an upcoming Tech Talk, which could cover any topic I wanted. Boom. I took the opportunity to craft a quick talk about Blank Page Syndrome and ways of coping with it. 

I say “coping” with it, not “solving” it. For many of us neurotic creative types, I’m not sure “solving” it is even an attainable goal. But I do feel that with some motivation, sprinkled with a bit of peer pressure, we can push through our issues and fears and keep on making things.

Instead of droning on and on in this post, below is the video from my Tech Talk, as well as the accompanying slides. Hopefully this will provide some tricks to overcoming the blank page barrier and getting back to making cool stuff. 

Hilarious Game of Thrones Fake Trailer

The folks behind the popular Bad Lip Reading videos have made maybe the funniest fake trailer I've ever seen. Using clips from the show (don't worry, no spoilers), they've created a trailer for a movie called Medieval Land Fun-Time World", about a renaissance fair-themed amusement park. Wish I had the kind of time on my hands these guys obviously do.  

Theme park manager Eddie Stark has one week to whip his lackluster group of employees into shape before the park's grand opening.

Bonus material from the "Medieval Land Fun-Time World" Extended Trailer