I’ve been very diligent over this past week, cranking out ten more pages. That puts me at a total of twenty pages so far: A paltry number that I wish to get away from as soon as possible. I’m already exhausted, although the excitement over how it’s turning out is keeping me going during those nights when I’m still drawing at 3am.
Momentum is difficult to generate at the start of a large project like this, but it’s slowly building now that I’ve devised a proper workflow. The process is simple but tiring because I essentially draw every page three times: I pencil in sketches on tracing paper, then refine the sketches with a sharpie, then go over to the light table to trace out the sharpie sketch onto acid-free vellum, making final adjustments as I go. Once every week I scan the pages and prep the final grayscale TIFF files, which I will send in batches of fifty to the publisher as I complete them. This allows me to maintain my focus on the artwork, as it keeps interruptions to a minimum. This weekly scanning schedule also allows me to live with the artwork for a few days, so that I can make last-minute improvements and corrections on the final files before moving on for good.
It’s wise to take the extra time to set up an efficient production process before you begin a long-term project like this. You’ll find your footing as you do the work: there’s no way around this period of acclimation, you just have to charge into the belly of the beast. The hope is that after a month of solid work, you’ll raise your head from your desk to find you have not only hit your stride, but you also have an appreciable amount of the project behind you. I hope to feel that way by my fiftieth page, which I plan to reach around the first week of August.
My setup in the basement is simple: two drafting tables, tracing paper, pens, vellum, and a lightbox. Despite the recent heat wave it stays rather cool down in the netherworld, so much so that I find myself having to wear a thick winter bathrobe while I’m working, which can be as much as eighteen hours per day. I hope to maintain a brisk pace this summer: ten pages per week is my goal, but that may be hard to maintain with interruptions like illustration assignments, dental appointments, meals, and showers. My goal is to complete 100 of the 260 pages by summer’s end. That should give me a little breathing room for the other 160 pages I’ll need to complete by the end of next March. I hope to give this book to myself as a present on March 22nd. It will be nice to have a project of this size completed on my 45th birthday.
I’ll be interested to look back over the first hundred pages to see if any appreciable stylistic shifts have taken place. The artwork as it is right now is as tight as it’s likely to get, and not just because tightly-rendered images are more time-consuming: I want the overall feel of the book to be dense and poised, but with a slight wobble and roughness, which I think is in keeping with Whitman’s aesthetic. I’m already getting the itch to loosen up the line, let it go slack here and there; there’s something very pleasing about crisp, flat prints of loosely-rendered, wonky line art.
A final thought–and perhaps a mistaken one, but one I’m entertaining at the moment: Whitman’s verse can be rather opaque as far as imagery goes, but not because the work lacks for objects. Rather the opposite: Whitman loves to fill his passages with things. Lots of things. So many things, in fact, that the verse becomes (at least for me) thematically vague. In my layman’s ignorance, I understand that Whitman is trying to achieve an epic, expansive sweep to his poems by filling them with the stuff of the world, but if I may be allowed to momentarily doubt the Good Gray Poet himself, I find these passages to render parts of his poems inert, at least as far as imagery is concerned. The lists of people, places and things often feel like dead weight to me because they often lack further description or action. To my modern eyes, it seems that Whitman points at them, but doesn’t always hold them or interact with them, at least not enough for my purposes. For this reason it’s sometimes a real challenge for me to lend imagery to many of these passages. When I encounter this, I’ll often employ tangential images to accompany the text rather than illustrate it, or sometimes I’ll just get out of Walt’s way and let the text be the image. As I see it, my job isn’t just to merely illustrate or depict the subject matter: it is also to enhance the language with texture and atmospherics. And that’s probably the aspect of this project I’m most excited about, so I think my difficulty with Whitman’s imagery is ultimately a good thing, forcing me to find less obvious avenues. I may feel very different after I’ve had more conversations with people who know much more about Whitman than I ever will.
And so, I bid you adieu as I return to the underworld, with sandwich in hand. I’ll continue to mock up one or two spreads each week or so to give you a taste of how things are progressing.