Thursday, February 16, 2012

Problems With Paleo Art

When I started doing paleontological illustrations, I was unquestionably inspired by Gregory Paul. I'd track down a diagram or photograph of a skeleton, and draw or trace the individual bones in a new pose.

And then I'd flesh them out. At this point, what I was doing wasn't so much art as a grunting, primitive attempt at getting some kind of visceral contact with extinct life. But this technique was so restrictive -- the silhouettes do not deliver as much of a sense of a living animal as I'd like, and I always had a shabby feeling about relying on reference materials. It's not like any of this was commercial work.

In order to vary things, sometimes I'd take a photograph of a skeleton, manipulate it a bit, and use it as the basis for a piece. I'm not sure where the original photograph for this came from -- I just figured I'd changed it enough not to worry. Again, personal work, not commercial.
But it was frustrating. I wasn't able to render as well as I'd have liked, my draftsmanship was weak... I was struggling for a comic book look, and then being unsatisfied with the results.

And I knew I needed to get closer to the original material. So I tried contacting some working paleontologists. The experience was kind of a drag -- at first, I was received with open arms, and told that after the next Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists convention, I'd have a nice sit-down with a very prominent paleontologist, who would go through my portfolio and see if we might have some mutual interests. Sweet!

But then I got an email that suggested rather strongly that my man had been exposed to some bad, wrong people. He said something about too many paleo-groupies, and called off our meeting. Probably just as well, given the caliber of my work at the time.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was asked to produce work for an art show. Let's not go into the details, but after I put a good bit of work into it, things fell through. But I did make some advances. These aren't digital pieces. They were done using a mix of graphite pencils and sticks, ink, and black and white Prismacolor pencils. I found that the ink and Prismacolors were necessary to get deep grays and blacks without developing an unattractive sheen, and the white Prismacolor allowed me to add touches of light to inked areas, making them congruous with the pencil work.

In this piece, I worked from a reproduction of a Velociraptor skull I probably shouldn't have bought. Oh, well. It classes up the joint. But I think it proves my point about needing to be closer to the fossils to produce good work.

The frustrating thing about working from photographs is that you're never sure if they're really orthogonal, you don't get a sense of the actual shape of the bones -- they're reduced to graphics rather than representations of solid objects. I can feel myself losing valuable information as I work. It drives me nuts. And I never quite get the poses the way I want them. They seem too posed.

But when I get that feeling of life, it's worth it to me, even given the various awkwardnesses I generate in the process.

This image is probably the most popular thing I've done, at least among my friends. For this one, I didn't use an initial skeleton, but rather sketched it out freehand. Why I felt obliged to stick to a strict side-view I cannot say...

This was the heartbreaker of the project. It was a life-sized Ceratosaurus head. It took me over a month to draw the neck, shading every scale, and my back gave out twice. I had to give up in the end, having rendered the neck, unable to physically execute work at that scale. I have to be able to work from my recliner. Oh, well. Live and learn.

So let's see. So far, I've gotten some social disrespect, some physical pain, and some artistic dissatisfaction.

I did have a number of pieces published in Mike Fredrick's Prehistoric Times magazine, which was quite pleasant. It also gave me an excuse to ditch dinosaurs from time to time.

A pal of mine told me this Hyeanodon Horridus looked like Benji gone bad, which dated the man fairly savagely. Still, this has a not-quite-there feeling to it. Look at how disjointed that skeleton looks. Good hobbyist, eh illustrator, bad artist.

Science humor -- it's pretty much a blot on the earth, but sometimes I can't help myself. This was one that got me involved in the on-line pale0-art scene when Brian Switek posted it on his Laelaps site. This led to my eventual involvement with the Art Evolved website.

And this is pretty clearly a cartoon, not scientific illustration. I'd decided at that time that since I wasn't going to get access to fossils, then I may as well just fake it.

See, this does and does not work. Still hobbyist stuff. The sleeping Allosaur looks dead, the ground is simply lacking, the shadows are weak, etc. But it's got a bit of a thing, where if it was like this but only good... He sighed.

Japanese brocade prints are one of my most important influences, and I've tried to incorporate this into my paleo art. Part of this is due to the distance many of these artists had from their subjects, and how inaccurately they portrayed them.

When I saw photographs of famous waterfalls in Japan compared to their print renderings as drawn by Hiroshige, I realized that the stylization and inaccuracy of these representations made them perfect models for my paleo art.

And there are other graphic traditions to draw on. With these two pieces, I felt as if I'd gotten some real art in -- but this one was based on a print by Max Ernst, and the next was drawn from a photograph I took of a skeletal mount at UC Berkeley. If given access to fossils, I would dearly love to do a full series of prints in this style.

But why do I do them? It's purely out of nostalgia for the prehuman.

It's been a long time since I've done a paleo art piece. This was the last one I did, my first attempt at the kind of fully-rendered 'realistic' art that's standard in the field.

Honestly? I'm not sure where to go next. I want to know more about prehistoric plants, I wish I was a better draftsman in general, but in particular of landscapes, etc, etc, etc. Here's the thing. I'd love to work with paleontologists, but until I do? This is art, not science. I wish it were otherwise, I struggle as hard as I can for accuracy, but I am not a scientist.

So until then, I'm doing this for personal creative satisfaction -- and I'm honestly not sure which direction I should take next. Grrrr... all I know is that dissatisfaction means I need to work harder.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Catherine Schaff-Stump: The Final Viable Paradise XIII Interview

If you are unfamiliar with Catherine Schaff-Stump, that’s because you didn’t attend the thirteenth session of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She’s a writer, teacher, and academic who’s released the novel Hulk Hercules, Professional Wrestler, and a number of short stories. After Viable Paradise XIII, she took it upon herself to interview every other student. You want to see a fascinating cross-section of fresh writers who are starting to make some waves? Check it out.

So I figured it was about time someone asked her some questions.

To begin with, please, tell us about your current projects and immediate plans and anything else you think we should know that might otherwise go unmentioned.

Right now there are three long term things that I’m working on.

Front and center at the moment is a book called Abigail Rath Versus Blood-Sucking Fiends. The Abby Rath books are YA books about monster hunting kids. Abby keeps trying to be a tough monster hunter, but she keeps running into supernatural critters at school, at the mall, at the roller skating rink, and some of them are nice, so her career path is taking an unexpected turn. The books use a lot of folklore and horror monster knowledge, and is sort of a homage to my husband’s love of cheesy Hammer horror.

Next is the Klarion series, which is about 4 generations of a family of demon binders. The story spans 90 years, from the 1830s to the 1920s. I’m reaching for a Gothic feel. I’ll be working on this for a long time.

Finally, I’m playing with a series that involves Norwegian folklore, mostly trolls. It’s contemporary YA and begins in Decorah, Iowa, which has a reputation of being the Norway of Iowa. There are also disillusioned frost elves, Old Nick, and ice giants, in no particular order.

I have other projects in various stages of writing or development, including a story about wild dogs in the Southern Iowa I grew up in, and a magical retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo.

What led you to attend Viable Paradise? How did you hear about it? How would you compare it to your other educational experiences?

In 2007 I decided I would make time for my writing. It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to ramp up my game, and as a PhD, I realize the intrinsic value of going to school. So, I went looking for a way to educate myself, and the Internet was full of valuable information! Clarion and Odyssey were there, but I have a pretty demanding career that would miss me for six weeks, so I decided against those. Then there was Viable Paradise.

One of my fellow Cats Curious Writers, Christopher Kastensmidt (VP XI), had great things to say about it. So I looked into it, asked the college for a little funding, and off I went. It was a fantastic, intensive experience. Like grad school, it was great to be around people who were as geeky about something, in this case, speculative fiction, as I was. Unlike grad school, the intensive nature of VP resulted in some close bonding. We all worked hard together and survived a week of sleepless critiquing. And we saw glow-in-the-dark jellyfish. Bonds like that stay forged.

I’m fascinated by the connections you’ve established between your vocation and your aspirations as a writer. Was this intentional on your part, or just a matter of following your interests? And are these two streams in your life as mutually supportive as they seem from the outside?

That’s a good question. I wish I’d asked that question when I’d interviewed all of you.

In many ways, although I don’t think I knew it all the time, my life has been one big attempt to get a job that’s flexible enough to allow me to accomplish many of my life goals. I love to travel, and I travel to really interesting places for work. I love to research folklore, so even though my area at Kirkwood Community College is English Language Acquisition, because I work at a community college, the administration encourages us to diversify. And yes, I do like teaching and administrating ELA too.

Kirkwood also supports my creative writing. I have received professional development grants to go to writing workshops, and they even gave me some release time to work on Hulk Hercules. I think that the college expects me to get rich and set up an endowed chair and a couple of scholarships when I retire, though, so I’d best get cracking and gain some wild success soon. Honestly, though, I’m very lucky to work in such a supportive environment, and I appreciate that I can bring all these things together in one spot. It really makes it easy to go to work in the morning, and then come home at night to write.

I’m both gratified and impressed by the job you’ve done on interviewing all of the other people in our session of Viable Paradise. What struck you about your own experience after you’d heard from everyone else? Is there anything you’d like to say Viable Paradise that you think may have been missed?

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to all of the VP attendees is because one week is such a short time to spend with so many interesting people. I could see that there was a lot of talent in that group, and I wanted to know more about its members. One of the things that I felt as I reflect upon the experience was that I felt validated as a writer. Many people dream of being a writer. While I have a long way to go, I felt like I’d leveled up. It was heady that others saw the potential in your work.

I guess the only thing that I want to say that I think has been missed is that not only are the VP faculty great, but Viable Paradise has a great support staff. All of the former VP members who cook, who give you Kleenex when you cry, who talk you down from an anxiety attack before your first pro meeting, these people are the unsung heroes of VP, and I hope they know how many of us appreciate their good work.

(This is true. Everybody wave.)

It seems as if everyone in our circle is comics-literate and familiar with role-playing games, and that this is standard in the fantasy/SF field. Do you think this has had any influence on what’s being written these days?

Yup. In some ways good and in some ways bad. While genre has certain beats and riffs that are essentials, it’s also easy for an author to go on autopilot and write something very similar to what has gone before. I think that the trick is to find that alchemical mix between genre and originality that makes your writing stand out. That’s what the best comics and the most original role playing games do. Come to think of it, that’s what the best film and fiction do too.

What’s your take on the idea that popular fiction is living mythology? To what degree should we regard what we do as representative of forces other than our own creativity and taste?

Wow. That’s a question that could really be answered in a thesis. But I’ll keep this brief.

Could I just talk for a minute about Superman? Because you know Superman was created in 1932. Back then he could leap. Flight didn’t come until later. Superman has been re-imagined by each subsequent decade he has existed. He has been all-American. He has been square. He has been an orphan. He has had hip mid-Western parents. His secret ID Clarke Kent has been a wimp. His secret ID Clark Kent has been a really interesting reporter. Regrettably, he’s now younger than me, which is a good trick for a guy who came on the scene in 1932.

Most people in the First World know who Superman is. They know where Krypton is (was?). They know that Superman came from Kansas. The other things come from our generational preferences and re-envisionment of a hero that we admire and wish to remake in our own image.

Another place to look as we consider this question? Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (many thanks to fellow VP XIIIer George Galuschak for this one). In this book, Booker lays out the stories we keep telling over and over and speculates why we do this. He suggests we tell stories because we want to understand our world and re-create it in our own image, and that stories are ways in which we interpret our life experiences. At a certain level, this ceases to be an individual pursuit, and becomes a cultural one.

Speaking of which, your book Hulk Hercules was a good-natured middle-school romp, and it seemed as if you put a lot of playful thought into publicity and marketing as well as the writing for that one. No need to go into the entire process – unless, of course, you want to – but can you say something about the feeling of seeing something through all the way from concept to product, and the difference in the way you regard a work before it’s finished and later on when you’re deciding on the design for a promotional medallion?

Cats Curious asked me to do a re-telling of the 12 Labors of Hercules. The requirement was that the book be in a modern setting, but otherwise I could do what I wanted with the story. My goal was to make the story accessible to young modern readers, and create a bit of a mystery around the original story. If readers became interested in tracking down the original myths, so much the better. At first, the story was more about Nona’s retelling of the labors, but of course Tony and Bianca took center stage as the book progressed, both as part of the framing device, and because of their own story. Tony, Bianca and Hannah reinforce the idea that knowing about mythology is cool, and their knowledge gives them power when they encounter mythology.

As to the coin, well, you have to know I am blessed with crafty, artistic friends. Sculptor Gerald Dagel designed the medallion, which is actually a replica Morty Moose token. (Morty Moose is the pizza place/arcade that Tony and his friends frequent.) When there were plans to have more than one book, each book was going to get a Morty Moose token. They’re made more meaningful when you’ve read the encounter with Chiron.

While I take my writing seriously, honestly, part of what I am doing is playing. It’s not hard for that to translate across. When we conceived of the medallion, we wanted to bring a piece of the book into the real world, which I think helps the reader hold onto the experience longer. Perhaps that’s one of the philosophies behind merchandising? By the way, Morty Moose tokens are free, especially for kids who buy the book.

And finally, would you care to say a few words about ambition? You’ve written extensively on your blog about your approach to the problem of advancing as a writer. If there were no one around to accuse you of hubris or attempt to hold you responsible for pipe-dreams, what sort of vaulting castles in the sky would you build, with which demi-deities would you rub elbows?

I am an ambitious writer, but in an intrinsic sense. Right now at work, I’m learning a new interview process for a criterion-referenced test to help our ELA students place in their courses. This interview judges the students in relation only to themselves. Their future interviews are examined in light of their past performance. This is me with my writing.

Alas, what I am learning is that the more you know, the more fault you find. I strive toward artistic perfection, but in reality, steps forward are made in a groping, intuitive type of way, which is how learning occurs. There are breakthroughs and setbacks. But the point is that I have a point I’d like to reach and I strive to reach it, in reference to where I have been and where I am going.

However, what would my pinnacle of achievement be? Honestly, what I would like the most is to write a character so memorable and convincing that the character is remembered. Not me so much. I would enjoy having my work read after I’m gone. There’s some hubris for you! And while I don’t expect to support myself with my writing, I guess the bottom line is that I write to the best of my ability and I strive to get better as I work toward my voice and my memorable characters.

So that raises the question: Would you rather write an immensely popular, mediocre book, or a critically acclaimed respected book? The latter, although if I could pull off a critically acclaimed respected best seller, that would be a bit of all right.