One of the central truisms of being an artist is this:
You will have to do many drafts of your work.
It’s unavoidable. There is this myth among artists about how the masters of the craft were gifted from the beginning — that they went into their studios and produced works of greatness in a matter of hours. This is exacerbated by videos like this one, where it’s possible to watch a master like John Romita Sr. as he quickly busts out perfect drawings of Spider-man with a felt tip marker. Amazing, right? And deservedly so! John Romita Sr. has created comics since 1949 and has been drawing Spider-man since 1966. He’s had a lifetime of practice in order to reach a place where he can draw something amazing with minimal revisions.
About fifteen years ago, when I was really starting to commit to a life in the arts and illustration, you could have opened my sketchbooks and seen lots of drawings with a big “X” through them. Why did I do this? They weren’t perfect! I demanded perfection. When reading my Spawn and Spider-man comics I knew that my art needed to be like in those comics and anything short of that was not cutting it. I had a ruthless inner critic (still do to some extent) but in order to move forward I had to learn to listen to it less.
In 2008, I started working at a high school called High Tech High Chula Vista. It was the first time in my life I had been in a project-based learning environment. Sure, I had done projects in my Graphic Design & Art Education majors, but I had never been in a situations where all the students in school had to take art and were charged with creating amazing things. At first I was not good at working in a project-based learning environment because I made a critical error in my understanding of how I progressed in my own art. I thought the reason I improved my drawing capabilities had to do with the fact I had that harsh inner critic. For the first year that critic came out in me as a teacher. Quickly, students started to resent me and their projects which I oversaw wouldn’t be completed in time.
Then I met Ron Berger and saw this presentation about the role of drafting work and the role of critique in relationship to the drafting process:
My eyes widened and I realized the critical mistake I had made. I did not get better at illustration because of my harsh inner critic. In fact, that harsh inner critic had more to do with taste. The reason I got better at my own illustrations had more to do with the fact that I kept trying. Every time I started a new illustration I was practicing. I never considered that if I had had more feedback from others on each of my drafts of my work, I could have accomplished my goals even faster than I had previously thought.
I never thought that all of those drawings with X’s in them were just initial drafts of work leading to the work I am doing now. It is hard to remember even now that all of my art is just current drafts leading to the work I will be doing in the future. This means that you artwork is a record of your journey as an artist, and you are best served by understanding that the work you do at a given time is part of that journey (a.k.a learning opportunities).
I know, I know. You don’t want your artwork to be just a learning opportunity. You want it to wow audiences and bring them into the world that you have created. Guess what though? You have little control over how an audience experiences your work. By the time you present your work to them you can only see their reactions, so these reactions must serve as a learning opportunity.
We artists are people who tend to get invested in our work — in fact we are likely to spend way more time creating work than presenting it to audiences. In my experience, the best way to enjoy making art is to find a way to relax and view each “failed” effort as part of an ongoing process. I have to constantly remind myself “Patrick, if you want to become a master comic artist, you are going to have to keep drafting work.”
On the subject of first drafts:
That blank page is the worst sometimes! It stares at you and says “I dare you to try doing something great. Betcha won’t though! HAHAHA!” (yet another reason I used to put X’s in my work). My first Life Drawing teacher once spoke about this and told us if the blank page was that intimidating, don’t draw on it. He told us to get a newspaper or a book, and draw on top of that. He told us he would ride the subway sometimes doing caricatures of people on the top of newspapers, to get in the habit of drawing regularly as opposed to drawing with a goal in mind.
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really s—– first drafts.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,’ you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”
An excerpt from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
So I tell my students, and myself, that you should only plan on getting 10-20% out of your first draft that you can actually use. If there is more than that — great! You have less work to do on your second draft. The point of that first draft is writing 100% of your thoughts to get to the 20% that really work. The rest is part of your learning experience. This is the time for you to play, make mistakes, and write your comic the way it is in your head.makingcomics.com