Dave Sim's blogandmail #28 (October 9th, 2006)
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So, where was I?
Oh, right. Photorealism in comics.
I have picked up a few tricks over the course of the last year or so. One of the things that I picked up on was that in photorealism, the reverse is true that holds for pencilling comics pages that aren't photorealistic. That is, you have to do the most detailed work at the earliest stage, the actual tracing of the flopped photograph onto tracing paper on a light table. The inclination is just to indicate approximately where everything goes, put the tracing paper onto the page, transfer the image and then, with the photograph near at hand (I actually tape it to the art-board where possible so I don't have to keep holding it up for comparison purposes) to try to "tighten up" the detail. From several bad experiences, I figured out that that's a good way to lose the likeness right off the top. Not to put too fine a point on it, I developed a greater appreciation for God's handiwork in recognizing just how minute and subtle the details of the human face are from my own inability to capture those details or, in fact, to even recognize them when I'm looking right at them. As Leonardo da Vinci said, the majority of picture-making consists in seeing accurately. In the case of photorealism, this quality is effectively doubled in that it's not only necessary for you to see accurately, but to translate what you are seeing into a comic strip/comic book style of illustration. There are very rare instances where that takes place in the seamless fashion the artist desires. I think of the use of John F. Kennedy in Superman comics of the early 60s. Even at the age of 7, I was aware that Curt Swan (and long-time inker, George Klein) were rendering JFK differently from the way they rendered Superman or Jimmy Olsen and I really couldn't figure out why. The assumption is that if you know how to draw that well (and Swan and Klein drew very well indeed) then you should be able to draw anyone in your style without breaking a sweat. What that fails to take into account is the idiosyncratic nature of each artist's drawing style. All of Curt Swan's people looked as if they were drawn by Curt Swan, which is why you recognized it as Curt Swan's style. But, of course, people in the real world aren't like that. God doesn't have a drawing style, just a nearly infinite variety of subtleties and nuances to the way a fixed number of facial muscles and features act and interact with each other. It takes one level of aptitude to draw the face of a pretty Vietnamese woman and quite another level to make that pretty Vietnamese woman look, recognizably, like Siu Ta and in Dave Sim's recognizable drawing style.
John and I were thumbing through Neal Adams' Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic a while back and you could see the same problem. Where Neal used photo reference for Ali the likeness is remarkable. Not only is the likeness remarkable but the rendering is even more remarkable. Ali looks as if he inhabits the same world as the other characters—a (take my word for it) almost impossible feat to pull off. Where Neal didn't use photo reference, however, Ali is just a handsome short-haired Neal Adams black man. For the first time looking at the variety of pictures, I wondered what kind of problem that might have caused in the approval process especially for someone like Ali who had no awareness of the problems involved. "Neal Adams is supposed to be the best so presumably I should be feeling as if I'm looking in a mirror when I'm looking at these pages and that's not what I'm feeling." The answer of course would have been to get Ali to pose for each and every face and figure in the book. That would be completely unlikely as well. To whatever extent his agent or business manager would have authorized the project it would not be considered something that would take up much of the Champ's time. That was for underlings to deal with. I'm sure a pile of photos were supplied and that was considered to be all that was needed. You're an artist, here are photos, draw Ali from the photos. When I had the first Siu Ta strip done, I knew that it was a good thing I was doing them gratis. If she had had to pay for them I would've have to have come a lot closer to a good likeness. And I HAD photos—GREAT photos—to work from. It was in light of this that I was looking at Superman vs. Muhammad Ali through new eyes.
He nailed it. Neal nailed every one of those photo-referenced images of Ali 100%—they were a great likeness and they were a great Neal Adams comics drawing.
Al Williamson used photographs of himself extensively in producing Secret Agent Corrigan, but, of course he was actually drawing Corrigan, not Al Williamson. At some point there was a meeting place between those two realities where Secret Agent Corrigan started to look more and more like Al Williamson while still looking like a photorealism comic strip character. Williamson had developed the facility for simplifying his own facial features, hair style, etc.—translating them into the distillation of line that makes up that comic strip/comic book illustration look—so that Corrigan became more real, more identifiable as a flesh-and-blood individual but without that quality that made it clear that JFK was being rendered in a different way than the other characters Curt Swan was drawing.
And, of course, this was not the work of a day. Al Williamson worked on the Corrigan strip for many years under gruelling deadlines which meant that he got to a peak of ability in the photorealism school that, arguably, no one else will ever get to. And I'm always aware of that when I'm looking at his and Stan Drake and Neal Adams and Leonard Starr and John Prentice's work. I have the advantage in that I'm doing single pieces for the most part and that I can take two or three days to do them, but that's really only one quality in what I admire in photorealism. The other is the effortlessness of the guys that I admire, which again comes only from relentless practice. First you get good, then you get fast, then you get good and fast. I'm doing far too many other things these days to ever be in that category in the photorealism school. I go for the spontaneous line, miss my intention and then have to white out the same four lines on the face six different times and re-inking them until I have a fake spontaneous look accomplished.
But it is gratifying when I can even hit 70% of what I wanted the strip to be. I just enjoy sitting there pretending I'm Stan Drake or Al Williamson.
Check out Following Cerebus for all the latest in my efforts in the photorealism school. I'm afraid it takes me too long to do them to just post them here for free.
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If you wish to contact Dave Sim, you can mail a letter (he does NOT receive emails) to:
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