Dogged Daily Drawing

Cartoonist,  comics artist-author, web designer  Erik Kuntz drew a dog every day for a year.

And now he can draw them out of his head quite easily.

I know this because I saw him do it with my own eyes a few weeks ago.  I was sitting across the table from him at Central Market Cafe at an Inklings critique session. He had his sketchbook out. (A lot of folks bring their sketchbooks to Inklings gatherings.)  He was doodling as he listened to the various conversations that were going on around the table.

Suddenly this friendly,  rough and ready four pawed canine fellow appeared on the page — and everyone stopped talking.

I was always  impressed by  Erik’s decision to create  regularly  (by drawing then posting to his website a dog every day so we could keep tabs on him.  And not the same dog, either.)

It was the sort of character building put-your-time-and-money-where-your- mouth-is goal that I’ve always aspired to.  (Alas, I’ve found that other peoples’ deadlines motivate me more than my own.)

Erik never missed a day– and no one ever told him to do it.

He talked with us a few weeks ago. 

Why a dog a day, Erik?

I came up with the idea in 2000.  I even designed a logo for it way back then. Somebody said  if  you do something everyday,  it’s not possible to get worse at it.  Some of the newer studies, like those quoted in Malcom Gladwell’s  book Outliers have suggested that genius is over-rated.  I read something about that in 2002. 

I thought I should force  something ;  I really should be drawing more. But I let my own personal insecurities  get in the way.

It did bother me for six years.  I kept thinking,  where would I be now in my skill if I’d put more effort into it years ago.

On January 1, 2008, I launched my web comic Hex Libris and I thought,  as as long as I’m doing this, I should start doing a dog a day at the same time.

Dog a Day wooden model conceived by Erik Kuntz

Dog a Day wooden model conceived by Erik Kuntz

And why dogs?

People like dogs. It’s not like doing  a cat a day, because with cats you don’t get the huge difference — all the variations that you get with dogs.  Dogs are funnier than cats and have more personality.
I knew more ideas would come from them.

Plus I was working on a children’s book about a Dalmation, and I knew that the reason I wasn’t  drawing the way I wanted to was because it’s easier to just not work.

And so how did you proceed?

As best I could.  I tried to do them in one sitting.  Some of the pieces would take more than one day. Generally they took a couple of hours.  I didn’t intend for  them to take  me as long as they did.  Some days I wished I had more time  — and came away a little bit discouraged. But as I started to improve and become more proud of the stuff I was doing, I would ask myself, what do I need to put into this image to make it a piece I’m happy with?

I worked mainly with a Wacom tablet.  I discovered that the ‘happy accidents’  that you often get in watercolor –can happen in digital mediums, too.

Working digitally you could just go back and work it to death.
But I learned to just stop and post the piece. I discovered the freeing nature of just stopping when I was reasonably done and telling myself, ‘This is what I did today, and I’ll do another one tomorrow.’

I put them up on the web as I completed them to keep myself honest.  I never missed  one. But one day something happened to my webserver  and the dog that had been up went down.  And I heard from eight people.

Dog a Day ala Dr. Seuss

Dog a Day ala Dr. Seuss

How did you give yourself ideas?

There were some days when I would sit down and just not know what I was going to do. Often I would begin by noodling around with the Wacom.  For the one dog I did in complementary colors, I just put on a sphere and started to form a dog out of this. I spent an hour and a half on that,  just finding the dog hiding in the raw thing.

Complementary Colors Dog

Complementary Colors Dog

Some of the dogs I did with Bic pen or Sharpie marker on typing paper.  Sometimes I would scan these and repaint them digitally.

People would send me ideas.  Some people would send me photos of dogs and I did drawings.

Some days I would search the web for interesting dogs. Some days I would work completely from my imagination.  I would do these three minute-dogs, stopwatch running.

I’d start with a really loose gesture, with some fuzzy notion of an action or a composition. I’d work really rough and light with blue pencil on paper, or the blue digital pencil  on the computer.  I used to be one of those kinds of people that tried to get every line right and I was really slow and cramped in my drawing. I felt like there was some sort of freedom missing in it.

Now I know I can get away with a fast, loose gesture. I learned that I could draw the arm as an arc, and everybody would be fine with it and nobody knows…

Fu Dog a Day

Fu Dog a Day

And now,  the book: You’ve repackaged your drawings in a new format!

I was thinking initially of  a small run of books that would be a Christmas present for family and some friends.

I started with one print on demand publisher but had problems with their color. Later I  turned to CreateSpace, owned by Amazon. They were substantially cheaper but they didn’t have the high grade glossy paper. But now the book is available  through their store.

I’ve designed books in the past, but never an art book. I used Adobe InDesign, which is a great program.

You know,  the Dog a Day project was never meant to be anything commercial.  It was meant to improve my skills and yes it did.

The idea was to challenge yourself and accept that if it wasn’t very good, then at least you drew.

I’m still drawing every day. And, yeah,  I can draw dogs with my eyes closed — no peeking.

"Hex Libris" Dog a Day (Connie and Watson)

"Hex Libris" Dog a Day (Connie and Watson)

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You can order your personalized softcover copy of  “A Dog A Day”  at Erik’s webstore here.

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Erik is also the creator of what is probably the most charming comic created for the web, the kid-friendly Hex Libris . Since its launch on January 1, 2008, the series has been unfolding a narrative about Kirby,  caretaker of a magical library and his fictional friends. (They range from a Nancy Drew-like character and her big dog Watson — to Frankenstein’s very literate monster.) You can read our early interview with Erik about Hex Libris here .

Bat Girl Dog A Day

Bat Girl Dog A Day

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The narrator in the “Dog a Day Project” video, of course, is Erik’s wife, brilliant actress, comedian writer Maggie Gallant. They met in London while both working on start-up team for America Online – UK .

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Author Cynthia Leitich Smith interviews author Chris Barton on the publication of his picture book bio “The Day Go Brothers: The True Story of Bogb and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand New Colors” (Charlesbridge, 2009)  illustrated by Tony Persiani. The book has been getting great reviews  and you can learn how to enter to win a free copy in the post in Cynthia’s  blog Cynsations.

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Mark Mitchell hosts the “How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator” blog.
To enjoy some free watercolor lessons from his online course
on how to illustrate a children’s book go here.

Shadow Dog a Day by Erik Kuntz

Shadow Dog a Day by Erik Kuntz

Paper Engineers!

Two members of our Inklings Picture Book critique group recently made a pilgrimage  to see the original pop-up art of Robert Sabuda and David Diaz in an exhibit “The Wizards of Pop-up.”  It was at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas.

Austin author-illustrators Christy Stallop and Erik Kuntz basically spent the day with Sabuda, Caldecott Medalist Diaz, museum executive director Debbie Lillick and the Illustration Chair of the National Society of Childrens Books Authors and Illustrators, Priscilla Burris. They had dinner with Diaz .

Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart are considered to be the  premier contemporary  pop-up book artists in the U.S.

Maurice Sendak tried his hand at 3-D moveable art with great results.  Mommy? released in 2006 by Michael di Capua Books/Scholastic was  a collaboration between him, author-playwright Arthur Yorinks and pop-up wizard Reinhart.

Erik and Christy’s field trip got me thinking how much I enjoyed pop-ups and  any kind of  “3-D” art as a kid.

Maybe because it broke the picture plane and added one more dimension of  “make believe.”

I once owned a reprint of a Turn of the Century pop-up book. It was  about  a Victorian family’s visit to a  zoo. I don’t   remember the title or the artist.

As you turned each page  you saw the same family and a different cage of animals come to life. The animals stayed behind the bars,  thank goodness.  The book gave you a charming experience of visiting a zoo.

One issue of “Jack and Jill” magazine, I remember ( I was a proud 10 year old subscriber), had a sort of 3-D assemble-it-yourself Dinosaur Diorama.

It featured Pteranadons, Brontosauruses and maybe a T-Rex.
You placed them into a primeval forest stage-set. Its curved backdrop gave depth to a world of  volcanoes, ferns, and Jurassic beasts.
(Of course the best dinosaur is a 3-D dinosaur.)

After doing my part in the assembly, I felt as if I’d done the whole mural myself.  It wasn’t like I’d painted the dinosaurs. I’d  just punched them out of cardstock and inserted them into their places in the scene.
But I’d helped to contribute to the 3-D effect!

Pop up books have been around since the Middle Ages — for kids books, since the 1800s. Here is Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart’s List of “Top 10 Pop-Up Books” , according to Amazon.com.

And speaking of 3-D papercraft, Kids Can Press has re-released the eminently kid-friendly The New Jumbo Book of Easy Crafts by Judy Ann Sadler. A redesign and smartly graphic illustrations by Caroline Price keep176 pages of step by step procedurals from feeling  burdensome.

The New Jumbo Book of Easy Crafts by Judy Ann Sadler and Caroline Price

 

Mark G. Mitchell hosts the How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator blog.

A new milieu for an old art form: Erik Kuntz and a spellbinding (kid-friendly) “Hex Libris”

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Who is the creature lurking in the library in Erik’s Webcomic? I think I know, and I’ve entered Erik’s contest, but I can’t share my guess with anyone. But I will say this much — it’s a character from a book we know. After all, the strip is Hex Libris, in which Kirby, the main character is charged with taking care of a ginormous enchanted library. 

Ever read a novel that just comes to life before your eyes? Well, Hex Libris seizes that theme and runs down the field in an unexpected direction with it. The webcomic by designer- writer Erik Kuntz of Austin, Texas began as a New Year’s resolution. So did his illustration blog A Dog a Day Project  that features Erik’s unstop able canine imagery — with doggy bites of daily commentary.  But that’s a subject for a future post. 

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Erik was thinking of the classic Nancy Drew stories of the 1950’s, mulling  how they compared to and contrasted with the Nancy Drew graphic novels being created for today’s teens.

“I wondered, ‘What if there was a place where characters could wander out of their books?’ ” Erik says. “‘And what would happen if the real Nancy Drew ran into the punky Manga style Nancy Drew?'”

Our hero Kirby meets them both as a result of his new archival responsibilities. And so it is inevitable that the trio and who knows who else (stay tuned…) join forces to solve a mystery or two.

Kirby’s story unfolds in  semi-weekly panels that move us cleanly, easily — even sweetly —  through space and time.  We care about Kirby and Amy (a girl who likes him) and teen girl detective Connie Carter ( the “original” Nancy Drew) and even the little old lady (or is she a witch?) who leases Kirby the uptown apartment that, somehow, magically contains a Library of Congress-like basilica within its tiny walls.

Erik hatched the idea at last year’s Summer Arts Workshop at California State University. He studied comics and animation in the summer program.  He knows and adores comics.  He’s studied under Scott McCloudthe author of Understanding Comics, Re-inventing Comics and other titles all about the ‘language’ of an art form that goes back to well, let’s just say paintings on cave walls. 

One of the teachers at the summer workshop, comic book writer-illustrator Trina Robbins encouraged Kuntz to see it through  — his Hex Libris storyline.

“I’ve done so much study over the last few years as to what makes a comic a comic as opposed to an illustrated story,” Erik says. “It’s a constant struggle between what needs to be put in the picture and what needs to be said ‘out loud’ in words.”  For inspiration, he looks to the late “father of MangaOsamu Tezuka and the late  E.C. Segar, the creator of Popeye and Thimble Theatre.

Kimba the White Lion  was my favorite show as a kid,” Kuntz says. “It was cartoony without being overly simple.”

“I like the older style of newspaper comics, where the adventure strips had a more realistic look.”
As much as he enjoys comic books,  Erik says, “it’s the comic pages in the Sunday paper that I most enjoy and try to emulate here — their sequential nature and the art style and sense of humor — especially from the 1940s to the 1950s, where they could work bigger and there was more possibility.” 

Alas, the gorgeous graphics of Prince Valiant (Gary Gianni carries on with the storybook imagery first created by Hal Foster in 1937) and For Better or for Worse  (Lynn Johnston) have been scrunched to near-insignificance as newspapers continue to shrink their content. 

Newspapers themselves seem to be folding (no pun intended) as a mainstream media and the ultimate cartoon delivery vehicle. But perhaps the World Wide Web can do for the old newspaper “funny pages” what Manga has done for comic book and graphic novel publishing.

“I think every artist who does children’s or cartoony stuff would do well to look at the web as an opportunity.” Kuntz says. “There is a huge number of people publishing strips. Often the content is poor. You won’t ‘get’ it if you weren’t out drinking with the cartoonist and his friends the night before. Other webstrips cater to extremely specific readers, such as Penny-Arcade.com.  “If you don’t know anything about video games, you’ll be mystified by the strip,” he says. 

“There is a stunning amount of good work out there. There are quite a few brilliant child-friendly comics.  More kids are reading comics on the Web. Half of them are newspaper strips in syndication — the traditional old newspaper strips like Calvin and Hobbes, which is being run again and again on the Web. That’s where kids go now to read Calvin and Hobbes.  My browser opens all the comics I want to read each day in tabs. I don’t read them in the newspaper any more.

“I decided some while back that the Web would be an ideal way for me to do an old fashioned serial strip.  It’s an inexpensive way to put work out there and a much easier way to get in front of somebody. With the Web and the 2.0 social networking, everyone’s sharing things, pointing their discoveries out to each other.  It’s a new milleu. It’s an old art form, but a different way of delivering it.

Some cartoonists endeavor to make an income from their sites. “The business model is web advertising, or accepting donations or sale of merchandize, such as T-shirts, mugs or print versions of their work. Others are willing to do it for free,  for the artistic expression or to have an online portfolio or as just another way of posting,” Erik says. “It’s an interesting way to get people to your site. ”

 February panel of \

 He begins by writing a synopsis of what’s going to happen in the chapter, without the dialogue.

“With a serial strip, just like in the Sunday funny papers, you kind of need to have a stop every day. You want each page of the comic to be a beat  Each one has to be a sort of mini cliff hanger. And each chapter must have its own arc. That’s the other thing I work with to get right.”

Then he sketches in the panel and the individual frames. Once upon a time it was pencil on paper. “But now I’m working directly on the computer, starting with rough sketches in Corel Painter using my Wacom Cintiq tablet monitor,” he says. “To be more precise,  I use Painter’s Mechanical Pencil brush set to a light blue color.”

“They look a lot like my traditional sketches look, since I use a col-erase blue to do my roughs on paper,” he says.  “I’m most of the way done with this roughing, I have some poses to adjust, some faces to finish and I’ve got to fix the perspective on the backgrounds, which are currently just scribbled in.  Oh, and I need a background in the final panel. Painter has a perspective grid,  which is useful for simple 2-point perspective, so I’ll be using that to get the kitchen sorted properly.”

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Erik’s ‘pencil rough’ for the March 13 panel of “Hex Libris”, except he’s done it digitally, using the “mechanical pencil” brush  (set to blue) in Corel Painter.  

“I stay with Painter through the inking process. Then I bring the whole thing into Illustrator to do the lettering. Once in a while when I’m out and about with my sketchbook, I capture a pose I want to use and scan that in and mix it in with my computer sketches.

“When I ink, I use a variety of Painter’s Ink Pen brushes — mostly the Smooth Round Pen one. For the next one, I’m going to experiment with the tools that more closely imitate traditional comics inking brushes. It’ll be looser and I am not certain whether I’ll like it. I’ll know in a day or two when I get to the inking.”

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Erik incorporates a slight shading  – a barely perceptible yellow layer — behind his “inked” panels.  The off-white tinge “warms up” the strip and maybe subconsciously evokes the nostalgia of newsprint, Erik believes. “That kind of pulls it together for me,” he says.

He imbeds his URL on the bottom left and his copyright information on the bottom right. 

Erik and his wife, writer-actress-comedian Maggie Gallant own 2 Bad Mice Design in Austin, Texas. He teaches classes (for children and adults) in animation, digital art and digital cartooning at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.  The “Hex Libris” webcomic can be found at http://hexlibriscomic.com/

Mark Mitchell writes for How to be a Children’s Book Illustrator and The Admiral’s Blog    An award-winning author illustrator, he also teaches classes (for adults) in children’s book illustration at the Austin Museum of Art Art School.