Questions From a Young Student

A young student approached me with some questions that I think some of the rest of you might find interesting (although I’m probably beginning to sound like a broken record to some of you with my constant pushing of life drawing and plein air painting), so I’m going to share his questions and my answers. Here you go:

On 9/25/10, Lxxx Axxx wrote:
Hello William Stout, I am an 11th grade student doing a career research paper. The career I’m interested in is in comic art and writing. I was then referred to you and after seeing your work; it’s completely amazing! Anyhow, if you have the time, I’d like to ask a few questions about the business and getting into it.
Thanks.
—Lxxx Axxx

Hi Lxxx Axxx,

I’m not sure I’m the right guy to talk to about breaking into comics. I love the medium and never stop drawing comics but my work is sporadic (at best) in that field. I always work under my own terms — without any creative meddling.

I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions, though. I was a co-founder of the Comic Art Professional Society and its 10th President. I also help many young artists with the business aspects of art.

Best,

Bill

1. For specific training in art, what would be the best things for me to know?
The quickest way to get good as a drawer is to do as much life drawing as possible. I still do three hours of it every Sunday at my studio. Animal drawing one day a week (at the zoo or from pets) will benefit you enormously.

The quickest way to get good as a painter is to do as much plein air painting (creating a small outdoor landscape painting; generally begun and completed in a one or two hour sitting) as possible. Nature will constantly surprise you with her color combinations and it will also teach you composition and design.

2. How does it work; are you basically called about a job to draw for someone?
Yes; all of my jobs come to me. In general, I don’t pursue them (except for mural work). It’s been that way for over thirty five years. If you always give 100% on each job, word spreads, along with your good reputation.

3. How did you get into art?
I’ve been drawing nearly all my life. I was going to be a doctor (doing lots of anatomical studies and superhero drawings taught me anatomy) but changed my science/math major to art my last semester of high school because the academic classes at my high school were so crappy. I went to art school (CalArts) after that and majored in Illustration.

4. When you did, how long did it take to begin to get recognized?
I gauged my success by how long I had to eat peanut butter sandwiches around Christmas time (winter is Slow Time in the entertainment business, especially around the holidays). The first year out of art school it was for about four months (October through January). The following years were three months, then two months, then the three weeks around Christmas and New Years. After that, my peanut butter days were over.

5. How do you go about starting to be a comic artist?
Draw up some sample stories. The stories should show that you can draw and ink in a good, consistent style and that you know how to tell a good story well with pictures. If you’re a good writer yourself, all the better.

6. What’s the general process of starting your work, or any work?
I define the problem presented to me that needs to be solved. I then look for graphic solutions without regard to style or technique. I let the problem itself dictate its own solution. After I’ve done a series of thumbnail sketches to solve the problem, I develop those sketches and refine them until I end up with a piece of beautiful finished art.

7. How does it work getting things published?
Basically: I do the job; it eventually gets published.

8. If your works are successful, how much money do you make in an average year?
I had a string of “best years” where I was making over $300,000 per year. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg.

9. Are there any downsides to this?
To making a lot of money or creating art for a living in general? Very few that I can see in either (if you make a lot of money you have to pay more for your kids’ private schools and universities), but let’s talk about that: People with so-called “steady jobs” can’t understand how I can function as a freelancer, not knowing where my next job is coming from. I feel I actually have much greater job security than they do. If they get fired after being on the same job for twenty years, they’re out to sea. They have no idea how to secure another job. Me? As a freelancer, I get fired every week, so it’s no big deal — just business as usual.

I always have about six to eight irons in the fire. At least two or three (if not all of them) will pan out.

10. I noticed you draw Dinosaurs and prehistoric life quite a bit. In general, is it much easier to draw things you like to draw?
It might not be easier but it’s much more fun.

11. Following that, do you often end up having to draw things you wouldn’t normally draw?
I’m at the point in my career where I don’t have to draw anything I don’t want to. Having said that, I love drawing things I’ve never drawn before. I’m always trying to stretch myself as an artist. Except that I hate drawing stuff that involves rulers. Me love organic!

12. As far as classes, were there any which helped you?
Figure drawing and plein air painting helped the most, especially when I had Hal Kramer as a teacher (because he was so honest and accurate with his criticisms). And my business class.

13. Are there any specific schools that would help?
Find a small, relatively inexpensive art school that is strong on teaching traditional art. The best schools for that change from year to year with faculty and educational philosophy turnover. I’ve noticed that the best computer art guys are also very skilled as traditional artists (Justin Sweet, for example).

14. As it is, I’ve basically just been randomly pencil and paper drawing, but I noticed things are computer enhanced quite often nowadays. How would I go about learning to practice that?
First, do the standard PhotoShop tutorial. Then, take a good beginners’ computer graphics course. From there, you’ll get a feel for what you’ll need to do next.

15. As far as creating your own series, how exactly does that work?
I assume you’re talking about your own comic book series.

Create model sheets of all your characters and clearly define whom they are and how each one is distinctively different from the others in your cast. Write, draw and letter the complete first issue. Write story outlines (and maybe create a few covers) for the next nine issues. You want to show that your concept isn’t going to run out of exciting ideas — that it has what we call in the film biz “legs”.

Print all of this stuff up as handouts (xeroxes are fine). Before going to a publisher, get feedback on what you’ve done. You may have to start over. You don’t want to present anything but the best you can possibly do to any publisher. Once you’re satisfied that what you’ve done can’t be improved, then make appointments to meet with the editors of the publishers you would like to see print your work. You can usually do this all in one spot if you’re at a major convention like Comic-Con International. Listen carefully to what they say. They may be full of crap (it happens) but occasionally you’ll run into someone who is smart. His or her criticisms will help you to become a better comic artist.

Don’t give up!

2 Responses to “Questions From a Young Student”

  1. Tom Ortega says:

    These are really interesting answers, to a great set of matter of fact questions.

    Re: Question #4
    I take it that you started to bank money for the lean times and started buying a better peanut butter?

    Re: Question #6
    Yeah it really is problem solving isn’t it, first before anything else?

    Re: Question #7
    This is kind of related to this question, did you do any art “on blind spec” or did you view this approach as wasteful time.

    Re: Question #9
    Interesting point of view on the freelance life and how you see the firing aspect of it.

    Re: Question #12
    What business classes did you take?

    Finally a couple of freelance questions:
    At what point in your career did you decide to pick your medical insurance or did your wife carry it from her job?

    Are you investing for your “retirement” (something tells me you’ll never retire)?

  2. LARRY AUBERT JR. says:

    THANK YOU FOR BEING SO GENEROUS WITH YOUR TIME (AND INSIGHTS) FOR THAT YOUNG, ASPIRING ARTIST. IT MEANS A LOT FOR SOMEONE THAT AGE TO BE ENCOURAGED BY SOMEONE WHOM THEY RESPECT AND ADMIRE.
    MY THOUGHT IS, THAT IF YOU HAD SOMEONE IN YOUR PAST, INFLUENCE YOU IN THE SAME WAY…THEY WOULD BE SMILING TO SEE YOU PASS THAT GIFT ALONG.
    WELL DONE, SIR.

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