I’ve been reading some interesting books lately. The most recent and the one which resonated the most is Ken Robinson’s ‘The Element’. It’s made me think some more about how I was as a kid. Namely: my interests, my passions, what moved me. And also, what I actually enjoyed at school, even in the more difficult subjects which I wasn’t that suited to, such as Physics and Maths.
It also made me think about how, even in school, some avenues for creativity could be found, which ties-in nicely with what Cal Newport says about: Becoming Really Great at What You (already) Do—Rather than Following Your ‘Passion.’ In other words, even in dull jobs, there might be things that you have an aptitude for, that you can concentrate on getting really good at and then you’ll end up enjoying them/the job.
In School: No Art Classes
We didn’t do art or crafts in my primary and secondary schools—in Ireland. Yes, this may surprise you, but unless boys went to a Christian Brothers secondary school or a fee-paying one, creativity was more or less out the window. I say, more or less: because there were sometimes—occasionally—opportunities. Well, for drawing, at least.
In National School (i.e, Irish Primary) in the 1970s, you might have got to illustrate an essay or a piece that you’d learned about during the Religion period. But that was basically it as far as arts and crafts went. The only other opportunities for drawing were in the likes of Geography when you’d reproduce maps by an extremely tedious and painstaking process of tracing 3 times. I think it went like this:
- You traced the map from your text-book onto a piece of your mum’s grease-proof paper with pencil
- You turned the paper over, and drew along the lines again in pencil, on the back of the paper.
- You then placed the paper—and its traced map—right-way up, on a page of your copy book (an Irish ‘jotter’), and drew along the lines again, transferring a sort of carbon-copy of the map onto your copy book.
- You then drew over those faint transferred lines in your copy book—again!—to darken them.
So clearly, if you followed this process as directed you might have a good mental imprint of the shape of Ireland and it’s peninsulas, estuaries and major lakes—from sheer repetition. 4 tracings!
Bored by this, as a 9 year old—and as a creative artist, I soon enough started to just draw the map by observation without tracing. To me this was much more interesting and satisfying. It was still painstaking, but it wasn’t merely a mechanical process. It took observation, judgement and artistic skill. Rather than the recommended method which, I suppose fitted into the ‘rote learning’ approach to education which was still clinging on to the education system in the 70s.
My way was—at the very least—a kind of drawing in which you created, with your own independent mind and hands, something from thin air, without merely acting as a human photocopier.
My maps tended to be quite a bit off; much like those medieval ones that you see with their finely detailed coastlines, but weirdly distorted landmasses! I suppose I could have said, “But sir, you never told me what projection to use, so I went ahead and applied my own patented ‘John Ivan White Cartographic Projection’.” But that’d be more like the kind of brainy thing that my desk-partner and pal Niall F would have said. And words weren’t especially my thing, not as much as pictures–even though I loved to practice storytelling through my own comics. Neither was I all that intellectual. I have to say though, I was pleased with myself when I spotted how the edge of South America seemed to fit uncannily into the edge of Africa, and I had this sudden flash of inspired insight. For my first time, I’d stumbled across the possibility of Continental Drift, which we’d never been told about. That’s not too bad for a 10 or 11 year old, is it?
Secondary School: and Still No Art Classes
In secondary school also, art wasn’t in the curriculum. I was the first kid in that school who ever did a state exam in it. The only opportunities for drawing were in the following subjects: Mechanical Drawing, Metal Work Theory, Science and Maths. The rest of the kids were probably grateful for that fact. I wasn’t.
Science offered me the most creative drawing outlet. I took a very old-fashioned approach to making diagrams. Drawing an image in Science class (a subject I enjoyed) of a distillation set-up, could be achieved with the most basic, functional outlines of the beaker and bunsen burner etc., as if done with a pre-made stencil; but I seized the opportunity to draw it as realistically as possible, with pencil shading, glassy-shine, boiling liquid and even the rubber tube between the burner and the gas tap. And the human digestive system was drawn in an attempt at full realism–such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Vesalius might have done, once again with my effort at realistic shading. and when we drew tools in Metal Work Theory (which was a pretty dull class), my ‘Bastard-Cut’ file and drill bits were in realistic steely-shaded-smudged-pencil.
Mechanical drawing and Maths however, demanded a rigorously accurate and mechanical approach. This usually couldn’t be avoided. But it was still drawing–and somewhat creative at least. However, I didn’t like Maths. I had no ability or interest in it whatsoever, and as we progressed through secondary school, it became increasing abstract and baffling to me—as did Physics, which we started in 4th year. The best part of Mechanical Drawing was when something occasionally had to be drawn freehand, such as eliptical shapes. That was when I got to break-out of purely mechanical drawing and test and show-off my manual drawing skill and my artistic eye. That was when I could probably do the work better than anyone else in the class. And that felt good. God knows, there were precious little other opportunities to be the best in school.
So those were the drawing opportunities. But what other creative opportunities were there? Metal Work (Practice) and Mechanical Drawing enabled us to actually make things. It was mechanical and by the instructions, but we did walk out of a classroom or workshop with something that had never existed before. I desperately wanted to do Woodwork, but my dad insisted that I do the more academic History and Geography instead. History was OK, Geography was mostly a boring chore. When Geography was about the natural world, and more like Geology, it was fascinating. It was more like Johnny O’Sullivan’s Science classes, which I loved (he was my favourite teacher). Exploring the various types of rocks, and how mountains and waterways were formed, and volcanoes and glaciers—even environment and pollution. All good stuff. The mysteries of real world, tangible things that you could see and touch—revealed. But when we had to learn facts and figures by rote, like all of the principal rivers or towns of Ireland, or the average annual rainfall or how many tonnes of CO2 were expelled into the atmosphere by industry… I just drifted off. Even more boring was when we’d learn about and have to remember the principal industries of certain cities and countries.
So I’d sit there in Geography and History classes with a handful of the more clever boys, and a load of girls who seemed to do the subjects by default—and I’d wish that I was in Woodwork class, making things and feeling proud of my accomplishments. The one upside to this situation was that we ended up in mixed classes with the girls, who we never mixed with otherwise. I’d spend most of the classes, when we weren’t hearing about Geology or World War I, and I wasn’t wishing I was doing woodwork, admiring and falling in love with a girl named Susan who had come back to school after the summer holidays with long, shaggy, blonde hair.
I later wrote a rubbish song about her, for our heavy rock band. Unrequited love.
Imaginative School Essays
English class was mostly boring too, especially when we were studying poetry, prose and Shakespeare. Like Maths and Physics, Shakespeare mostly baffled me. And when the teacher went over and over it, line-by-line in class, analysing it for us, it didn’t get any more enjoyable either. What English did offer though, was the opportunity for creativity. I quite enjoyed imaginative essay writing, and did quite well at it. I might never have done well, if I hadn’t been reading science-fiction—and more latterly horror. I learned a lot from the likes of Stephen King especially. Dune by Frank Herbert and King’s Salem’s Lot and The Shining were the ones I returned to the most. I think King really taught me how to write fiction, especially in terms of characters, atmosphere and drama—and even pathos. I’d been a story-teller from a very young age—making comics of course—but King made me appreciate the words even more than some of Marvel’s excellent writers ever could. Marv Wolfman’s great writing on Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic was largely obscured by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer’s stunning artwork. It was a magnificent creative synergy in which, to a youngster who loved images, the words lost out to the art. Or at least, blended in so perfectly that I noticed them less.
In the end, I did some art classes outside of school in order to pass my exams and get into art college. The staff had to come into work just for me when I sat my exams—and I got an A each time. Of to college I went, and it’s been a varied and meandering creative journey ever since.
Creatives find Creative Opportunities
So yes, even in school—and maybe even in your dull job, some avenues for creativity can be found. I gravitated towards those opportunities. So much so that one primary school report in Scotland read: “It’s a pity that John doesn’t spend as much time (effort?) on his writing as he does on his art!” I’d dash off my essay as quickly as possible and devote the rest of the session to the accompanying illustration!
I got thinking about: being creatively ‘stuck’, and not taking the leap into creating your own work, which led me to think of what Julia Cameron said about ‘Shadow Artists‘ in her book ‘The Artist’s Way‘.
I can definitely relate to this. It’s also why the self-help industry is huge. We want to keep reading variations on the same wisdom in the hopes of filling in gaps we missed – or getting that final combination of ‘secrets’ that will finally give us the confidence we need.
The Shadow Artist
I first became aware of it when reading Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s way‘. The author introduced me to the idea of the ‘Shadow Artist‘. I suddenly realised that I was one! Instead of actually making my own art, I was voraciously reading books about art & artists – and painting technique. I was almost an art historian, but producing nothing. I read biographies and diaries of artists – hoping it’d inspire me, or rub-off. But I think really, it was an easy substitute for doing the work – taking a risk. It was procrastination.
People also like to talk about their great novel – which they haven’t written yet.
Taking Action: Art Classes
When my wife finally pushed me to do art classes, I started reading a lot less about Art – and watching less art documentaries – because I was more interested in doing my own art. I was no longer a ‘Shadow Artist’. What I did read, and look at, had real purpose. In-between painting, I was studying the work of people like Lucien Freud and Velasquez, and trying to apply it to my own work. Continue reading
Here’s another artistic/Design process article for you; showing how I created this illustration with pencil, paper and Photoshop. (See more of my illustrations at my portfolio: johniwhite.com)
Where Did the Idea Come From?
I wanted to experiment with pencil drawing – and Photoshop. So: no inks and no graphics tablet for the drawing phase. But what to draw?
The subject idea probably popped into my mind after walking through Knocksink Wood, near Enniskerry, County Wicklow here in Ireland. There was lots of ivy all over the trees, and it reminded me of tentacles (and snakes, which I can’t bear!).
How Did I do it?
As part of their artists’ profiles TV series, I spoke about Art, Illustration, Making Comics and the inspiration that we can get from our younger selves. Because our childhood interests and passions, can be the key to what we’ll enjoy doing when we grow up – if only we’ll listen!
Star Wars gets a very big look-in as a major inspiration and life-changer, to me, when I was a creative youngster. So, if you’re a creative person and you love Star Wars and comics; this is for you. I spoke a bit about 2 of my comics, the young Star Wars one: Star Wars age 9 – and my current grown-up 1970s nostalgia one: Between * Wars. Please check them out and follow them after you watch the video and read this article.
Above: My Artist Profile video feature on RTE TV’s Two Tube
In a Nutshell…
What the producers of the 2 minute piece took from it went like this,
“Two Tube went behind the doors of Illustrator John White’s Dublin studio and explored his diverse and colourful world of fine art, comics, illustration, and design; the secret is to always remain a big kid at heart!“
It was a fun thing to do at the very end of last summer, but it also focused my mind about a few things; particularly about us spending our life – and we only get one of those – working at what we enjoy.
Finding Our Own Voice – and the Web
I also spoke a bit about how we should try to find our own voice, creatively, and not be too intimidated by what other brilliant people are doing. Continue reading
An updated look at the production process of my comic. The previous blog post about the process « can be seen here.
“Where do you get your ideas?”
That most often asked question… The « Peace-keeper strip idea came to me in a flash, as usual, but this time as I walked with my wife, Gabby from one building to another. In the space of 5 or 10 seconds. I mentioned a kid who used to be in school with me, and suddenly I had the concept of the whole strip in my head. Some dialogue and lot of images.
Developing the idea – scribbles
* NOTE: This used to be in the Comic section but it’s not really a story or gag strip, so I’ve moved it into the blog to take it out of the comic continuity (getting big ideas about the comic now…)
Heroes 1 – 3. I won’t lie to you, I’ve put very little thought into their personalities and back-stories. You see, I’m trying not to delay things or get over-ambitious like I did with my other now-cancelled webcomic. I want to just get stuck-in. The characters will be a mosaic of various friends that I had, blended with whatever interesting ideas pop into my head as I go along. Who knows? maybe you, the readers will make suggestions based on your own childhood pals, and they’ll go into the mix too? Continue reading
Yep, I’ve decided – since my old job ended – not to do this comic anymore. It’s just not cheerful enough!
So what now?
Now, I’m working on a new happy webcomic! It’s about childhood, geekery, the seventies, nostalgia and FUN! Here it is:
I’m still not getting Clive’s character design right.
The week before last I went back over pages 2 and 3 to make him more consistent [he’s like Lon Chaney Sr., The Man of a Thousand Faces!]. I thought I’d managed it – well enough. But I haven’t. I posted a bit on the Facebook page ^ yesterday, and I’ll expand a little on it here.
‘Cartoony’ & Detailed/Abstraction vs Realism
I’ve also realised the problem of using a simple cartoon style and then trying to do close-ups. Surely the face should become more detailed in close-up. Otherwise, you end up with a few abstract looking lines?
Above: Clive, has been drawn anew each time in closer/larger aspect. See how he changes?
Next, I crudely increased his size from the small, quickly scribbled version using Photoshop. Pretty abstract little bunch of lines – but he still looks like the same guy.
Above, having learnt my lesson [finally] I drew over the blown-up version on the right, adding just a bit more detail. He looks more like the same person. The lesson is so obvious that I’m probably the only person on earth who didn’t realise it – to my cost. You have to work out the design of the character in the simplest possible forms – FIRST. Basic shapes and dimensions – and stick to that no matter what size he’s drawn at and regardless of detail.
It’s all in the preparation
That’s what decorators say. The problem really, is impatience and over-confidence. I have a small part of 2 days per week when I’m off work to do the comic and I just dashed into it. I’m going to have to loop-back over the previous pages – again, fix the faces and hopefully that’ll be the end of it. But I mustn’t do it until I’ve got Clive’s design nailed-down and codified into some sort of easy to use formula. I also need to work on drawing him from every conceivable angle. In animation studios they end up with what’s called a model sheet for each character. And as I mentioned in a previous post, they often even sculpt the characters in clay so you can examine them from every angle and make sure it works.
Jamming it all in
I bit off more than I could chew with this page. Remember on the < last page I seem to have learned all of these important nuggets of wisdom via trial and error? You’d think that all the trouble I ended up going to with revisions would have taught me something? Not so.
So here it is, page 2. Drum-roll…. Ta da!
I hope you were surprised by the twist that this page has taken so soon into the story, and that it strikes a chord w… No, actually. I hope it doesn’t. I hope you like getting up each Monday morning and going to the job you love. There’s nothing quite like going to bed on a Sunday evening with a smile on your face, and springing back out of bed at 7am knowing you’ll be doing fun, interesting work which people will enjoy – especially kids.