The Project – 3

(Monday:) Sitting at the airport waiting for a visitor to arrive. Might as well tell you a bit more about The Project. (This is the third in a series of posts unveiling The Project. See here and here for the earlier ones.)

So the sample I ended with in the previous post was, I presume you have realized, a little attempt at irony and humour. While it does take a while to bring about the transformation of technique that I wanted, and while it has taken some time to explore and then make choices about the various techniques I want to use, it would be hilarious if that was the product so far. But this is not a joking matter. The whole process is very slow indeed, even when ticking along nicely, and additionally of course I’ve got this Professor gig I’m doing for most of my waking hours. So…

Anyway, samples of what I am doing are in order. Well, what I’ve worked up so far, in a prototype story, is only really an example of one story. So the whole thing won’t look like what you are about to see, for better or worse. This is because the outcome of trying to decide what visual style to use for the project was that I would use more than one style. Some stories will call for different styles.

Another key element I mentioned earlier is that I am having the dialogues (by the way, the working title is: The Dialogues. Yeah, I’m tricky that way…) take place in real settings, some of them may be familiar to you. So go right ahead and guess away. Here is a skyline from page one of the prototype story, helping to set the scene*…


This prototype story, called The Arena, has a pair of characters accidentally (er…or maybe not accidentally!?) meeting again and picking up on a conversation. You can see one of them below and to the right, in one of my big scene-setting splash panels (it has what’s called a “bleed”, in that it runs all the way to the edge of the page, with no border or margin – you can’t get a sense of that visual feature here since I’ve not shown you the whole page). She is on her way to that encounter. You, the reader, are (one hopes) now firmly embedded with her as she walks along in the city.

arena_extract_2As you can see, for this story, I’ve not gone for an overly stylized or abstract look. This is a decision I made partly in order to root the reader in realism, emphasizing the feel that these are real people, having real conversations, of the sort that they themselves can if they were to put down the book and talk to that person next to them. Another reason for this choice is that, believe it or not, those more abstract styles, when done well, actually require much greater mastery. I can pull it off now, more or less, but I was not there when I started work on this prototype, way back in May. I have some roughs of a story done a more spare mode that I will do next, perhaps.

For those of you interested in what lies under the bonnet, I should say that first and foremost, I’m a slave to the pencil. I love working things out in pencil, and I love the look of pencil. So a lot of time was spent trying to find the best way to keep the pencil-ly aspects of the work in the final finished piece. I wanted a lot of the dirty lines and suggestive scribbles that describe or suggest form, half tone, and so forth. I want the forms to be mostly held in those lines, and not in the colour work, so my colours are mostly -deliberately- flat colours. (I will add a few highlights here and there later on, but not much.)

There are other ways to go, including some that have a very crisp, clean finish, common these days with computers being a major part of the production process. You get stronger, more uniform lines in outline, and a lot of the bulk of the forms created by intricate colour gradients and so forth. Very impressive, a lot of this work is. I’ve experimented with that, and might do more with that one day. But, truth be told, I’m very old fashioned, and find myself less drawn to the computer-heavy (or stuff that looks computer heavy) work the closer it comes to realism. There are several exceptions, of course, but generally I only like a high degree of crispness when it is more abstract of stylized. (Look at Chris Ware’s utterly captivating and beautiful work on Jimmy Corrigan, for example.)

Throughout the work, the visuals are based on a combination of my imagination and somewhat (overly? 🙂 ) meticulous research of details, including lots of scouting of locations and so forth, counting the number of windows on a building, etc. It is a real location above, and so I’ve taken from real life and combined it with things in my head to produce a final work. So while that’s a real building in the big detail panel above (some of you might know it), know that I am intimately familiar with every (damned**) window you can see since I placed them all individually, following the perspective grids that I built in to guide the layout of the whole image, and pencilled, inked and painted them individually, and so forth. I studied that real sculpture too (it is by Alexander Calder), and included a simplified version of it (I relied a lot on multiple reference photographs to help me remember all the bits and pieces) in the final piece. The people, including our main character, are in my head. Other places are entirely made up and designed from scratch, like the (very incomplete) more rural location below, through which our character is moving (albeit, ironically, in the mind’s eye, as it turns out in the story).


(And yes, you knew a bike had to appear in there somewhere, right? 🙂 )

So, a lot of experimentation and decisions (over the course of my Sabbatical and the Summer and Fall that followed) went into getting the work to where I wanted it to be, and into choosing and refining the techniques, tools, and workflow I wanted. I’ll tell you more about that later. Maybe next time I’ll show you a couple of interiors of a cafe conversation I’ve been working on.


*Yes: All images and samples in this post are copyright Clifford V. Johnson, all rights reserved. And so on and so forth.

**Indeed, there are times when I am drawing the Nth window in a city scene, where N is large, and wondering why on earth did I not stick to my original idea from many years ago of just having everything in cafes. Then all you’ve got are heads, cups, tables and chairs to worry about. Sigh…

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14 Responses to The Project – 3

  1. Plato says:

    I’m impressed with your drawing abilities.

    The arena picture caught me of guard, as to the location of the sun, as the shadow was laid over the windows of the building. At first, it looked like I was looking right through the building at a completed structure through too…windows on the other side. Is there another building across from it, or in the same direction as the shadow?

    Should one line up the shadow of the building with the woman in blue’s shadow?

    I know you tend to the ole ways, but I was wondering again about mouse overs for computer based images(sound, wording captions) how you are going to portray these discussions.

    Again, wonderful creative process. It must have taken a lot of work.


  2. Clifford says:

    Thanks. The windows reflect the sky and other buildings (of similar height) that are close by.



  3. Ele Munjeli says:

    Dialogues, eh? Like that witty work by Galileo…

    I very much like your attention to line here; the sensitivity to pencil and dynamic compositions remind me of Asian art. Also, I’m particularly fond of that Calder, or any Calder, for that matter. If I were you I might put more wiggle in the chick’s walk 🙂 she looks as tight as the architecture.

  4. Jude says:

    This is SO COOL! (heading over the Colorado passes towards Denver–no time to add a detailed analysis, so I repeat: This is SO COOL!)

  5. Oliver says:

    And there I was thinking that things get easier in the large-N limit!

  6. Belizean says:

    I bow before your patience and artistic integrity.

    Me? I would have hired actors, situated and posed them as needed, photographed them in each situation, used (or invented) software to make the photographs appear hand drawn, added dialog balloons, and called it a wrap.

  7. Brunsli says:

    Very exciting!

    I love the idea of making science accessible to non-scientists. I love the idea of you exploring outside your comfort zone.

    And, you have an open invitation to come observe LA from my skyscraper office. 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing you and yours.

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  11. Scott G says:

    I think this post (and the following ones with more images) should squash the idea that you should go with a “professional” instead of trying to it yourself. Very high talent here, Clifford! (For what it’s worth, coming from a very non-artistic type.) People sometimes forget that “professional” merely means “paid.” In and of itself, it does not mean “skilled.” There are many amateurs of all crafts who are far more skilled than those who get paid to do the job.

    Keep it up – I’m looking forward to seeing how your project goes!

  12. Clifford says:

    Scott G. – thanks for the vote of confidence! Much appreciated. Note however, that a key thing a professional has is time. That’s one of the key things. They get paid to spend the time needed… I have to find time to do it between all the things _I’m_ paid to do (and a bunch of other things I’m not paid to do…). But I’m up for the challenge, obviously. Let’s see.



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