Rorschach

But Wait, There's More!

Poor horse, it is officially good and beaten.

I mentioned that in creating Rorschach's mask-pattern, that I was running into one downside, namely that by incorporating that bit of symbolism I was breaking the template of how the inkblots typically work in the story, and using a symbol that was basically for insiders. 4 months ago, I myself would not have made the connection. The last time I'd seen it was probably in Back to the Future, since Plutonium/radioactive hazard symbols don't surround us regularly.

The first proof that I was being too clever by half came while showing it at DragonCon. I got lots of great responses to the piece, but one fellow who liked the piece pointed out that he didn't like the way the shape broke with the Rorschach template. Hmm. His was the only spoken critique of the kind, but it squared with my own suspicion.

Returning home, I went about including the image in an email update to friends and colleagues, and got some good responses there. The Art Director who I mentioned much earlier was at dinner and saw my Cosplay photos really enjoyed the piece, but asked if he could chime in with a couple cents, having finished the graphic novel recently. I'm always open to constructive criticism, so was eager to hear what he had to say. His primary issue was once again with the mask, for both reasons. What struck me most was he used almost the same words I'd thought to myself: I was trying to be too clever. Hmm.

Well, that sealed the deal. Soon as I finished up a project I was on, and in the middle of these posts appearing, I pulled the painting off the shelf and worked back into it. It's not often that I rework "finished" paintings. I prefer to learn lessons but apply them forward. This one was fresh enough that it wasn't much effort to change. As well, because the mask is an isolated shape, it was easier to paint it out--had I decided that I didn't like the graffiti in the corner, for instance, it would've been much more risky to get things to match up again.

I still liked the idea of putting something referential into that mask--such a shame to waste that space! So this time I dug back into the book, and used the exact Rorschach blot used when he's being questioned and lies about what he sees; the "pretty butterflies" pattern. That was a really haunting moment, and it tied everything together again--I got to include a good reference from the book, and got to reestablish the face in keeping with Gibson's portrayal. I also repainted the wrapper to be a little bigger to help it be more readable--again, since it was isolated it was a quick change.

"Rorschach" 11x17" oil on paper over panel

"Rorschach" 11x17" oil on paper over panel

And with that, this story concludes. I've posted it more than the usual once a week to get it over with a little sooner so we can move on to other things.

Rorschach Pt.5: Finale

Lest I be accused of cruelty to a dead horse, let's wrap this tale up, shall we?

Early on, I looked at Rorschach's mask and considered that it was basically an open canvas for adding another layer of storytelling. It creates Rorschach blots, so basically any mirror-image could go there. I was constantly surprised at how Dave Gibbons didn't exploit this to even subliminally create icons in his mask for readers to maybe pick up on...or I'm too dull to have noticed, which is a strong possibility.

My initial thought was to weave in a bit of the apocalyptic into his facial pattern. The character's own existential take on things and the background of a looming nuclear war meant that the obvious choice was some sort of mushroom-cloud pattern. I toyed with these for awhile and had a lot of difficulty making such a shape that both read well if you knew what it was, but could be abstracted out to not be obvious.

These appear in this format, or as a negative image

These appear in this format, or as a negative image

One day while outside stretching for a run, I noticed something on a neighboring building that I'd seen on many buildings in NYC, but which hadn't occured to me as useful until that moment. During the Cold War, the basements of many residential and other buildings were designated as fallout shelters, and placards were placed on the exterior walls so you knew where you could go hide when the Commies decided to nuke us. Seen now, they are a somewhat amusing reminder of a serious era. I looked at the shape and decided that this could serve a double-purpose: I could create a symbol that was very New York (though I'm guessing the placards were used in other cities, they are ubiquitous here, though I've never noticed them in other cities), which added another layer, and hint at the apocalypse. It had one downside, namely, that it was not a symbol that would be widely understood and it also sorta broke the template of Rorschach's usual blotchy facial patterning. It also had a sorta Jack-o-Lantern vibe about it.

~7x9" Pencil on paper

~7x9" Pencil on paper

I've included city names on everything the past few years, and this one proudly bears "NYC" on it.

The actual execution of the painting proceeded along very orthodox lines, so I've focused more on the backstory for this image in telling its tale. The pencil drawing was done as a fairly accurate depiction of the crime-scene doorway. The tacked-in metal number plates are not present in real life, but are on a neighboring door. Turning back the clock, it was a reasonable liberty to have them on this door too, calling out the door number--without them, reading the crime scene into the image would be impossible for all but those who'd been there. Now anyone who reads about the story after reading Watchmen can clue into it.

Digital value study

Digital value study

After playing with various crops, I ended up with the above. You'll also notice the position of the chewing sugar wrapper has moved so it reads better and breaks up the large blank space the windows have caused. At this point it was time for GenCon and another personal deadline was missed. I was doubly sad now.

Upon returning I worked at 11x17", the same size as my Batman, and closer to the comic book cover-format of being tall and skinny. After I printed out my drawing and mounted it on masonite, my wife also reminded me that the brim of the hat didn't seem right--she was continuing to read the book this whole time. Flipping through, she was right--he has a very narrow round brim, so I adjusted that in the paint.

Some folks at DragonCon asked me whether I lay down an underpainting of toned color before I really start. I used to, but in the past few years have replaced that step entirely. What I do when I mount paper to masonite is work on toned Canson paper. This is your garden-variety Canson paper: it is acid-free, non-fading, and comes in a rainbow of colors. I stock a number of colors and choose one that I want to use as my underpainting. I print my drawing on it, prepare the surface to accept oils, and get to work with a nice non-white surface. If you've seen my originals, you'll notice that I leave about 1" around them to account for shipping and the possibility of corner chipping. I use black or white acid-free artist's tape to edge the artwork and help it look a little more crisp before framing. If you were to carefully peel back the tape, you'd see what color Canson paper I used. I rarely let the paper show through--I typically cover the paper entirely with pigment, but the color affects the way the paint sits on it and helps unify the palette. I forget but I think this one was a sort of honey-wheat colored paper to start, a little darker than the windows.

As I painted, the windows were bothering me. They were continuing to operate as big, blank space--too big, too blank. Most cover art needs empty space for type to go over it, and I suppose I envisioned this as a sample to have that space be a high-contrast text box. So at the very last moment I decided to dirty the windows--after all it was an old apartment in a dangerous era for the city. I gave it the look of years of being wiped in the middle of each pane, with the dirt still accumulating around the outside. Then I broke a pane. These lended a good amount of verisimilitude to the piece, as well as helping to break up that space. It was a good instinct. In that era--in real life as well as in the comic--graffiti was everywhere, so I added some. In the lower right you can make out the lines that begin, "Who / Watches/ The /..." and "Watchmen" would fall below the frame--a common tag found in the comic.

All of which resulted in this:

Final before repaint

Final before repaint

Rorschach Pt.4: Cosplay!

Yes, I did it. I don't generally show my reference photos because most of them are either half-nude and/or utterly embarrassing. These are just embarrassing, but because you can't see my face they fall just short of "utterly." And in most of these Tips & Techniques entries I mention reference shots but rarely post any.

The dimly lit entry ways of the Austin St. Apts. meant that my initial conception of Rorschach being near the camera with the scene in the distance no longer worked. So, I decided to move him right up to the entryway of the door--after all, at night, the only way you could see him was to have him standing in the doorway's light. I would roll back the clock to sometime between 1964 and the Watchmen's alternate-universe date of 1985. By looking at Rorschach you can't tell what year it is--he wears the same basic outfit for most of 21 years. I didn't have any sugarcubes handy, but holding one is easy to pantomime. My first shots, which I will not show, had him lifting the mask and eating one, as he does on occasion in the story--a very odd but endearing detail they chose to portray. From no angle was it readable, however--the mask lifted up, the hand position, the ink that would be on the mask, and the distance all made for that portrayal to be an impossibility. So, I went for various poses that had him unwrapping a piece of "chewing sugar," and about to pop one.

We were now in our apartment in NYC. As it turned out, the door that closes off our kitchen/dining area has window panes almost exactly like the windows in the actual Austin St. doors. What luck! By blocking out some lower panes, I essentially had the door again, and the dining room ceiling lamp was positioned roughly where the hallway light was. So I could count on the door and the lighting, and I had most of the costume together. Not having a mask, we covered my head with a hand towel and just knew that would be where I'd have to make the most stuff up.

And now, what you came for:

We took a lot of shots, but these were my favorites. I liked the raking shadows from the window pane above, and the negative space of the one below. My wife, who was still in the middle of reading the book when we took the shots, noticed his left shoulder strap was constantly undone, so we undid mine. Point for her!

I honestly intended to have the painting done in time for San Diego Comic-Con for obvious reasons. I failed to do so, and so these were taken just afterwards. My next goal was to have it done for GenCon less than 2 weeks later.

A couple days later I found myself at dinner with a couple of industry folk, including a person I know who actually works at DC. We had our camera with us to take pictures at dinner, and my oh-so-lovely wife decided it would be fun to bring up my pending Rorschach picture. One person was working at DC, the other--an Art Director I've worked with for years--was currently reading Watchmen, too, having been handed a copy while visiting the DC offices. Mind you, the DC person is not in a position to give me work, and I am loath to impose myself on people out-of-context. So you can imagine my dismay at having it brought up at all, and my horror as Monica decided to show the reference photos, which I had failed to delete from the camera's memory card.

Oh my. That's what I get for Cosplaying. Of course they greatly enjoyed seeing them; I just kept hearing "How To Disappear Completely" by Radiohead in my mind until it was over.

I had had difficulty in choosing which of the finalists I was going to use, but I was sorta leaning towards #1. I think the consensus at the table was that #2 was better. Since I was happy with either, it was not much of a decision to trust this early focus-group and switch my choice. So, thanks guys!

With that in place, we'll get to the final chapter--the doing of it. It sorta seems anti-climactic now--I think this backstory may end up being more interesting!

Rorschach Pt.3: Decisions

In illustration, one is taught repeatedly that when image-making and truth collide--unless you are doing historical illustration or proposing nonsense--image-making wins. What this means is that facts are disposable and should be disposed of to create a better image. As you look around most fantasy art, you can see that this dictum has been broadly embraced. I agree with it in many situations, actually. In investigating the Genovese crime scene, I was struck by the number of sheer differences I was unprepared for. The architecture, the lighting situation, that I could not have Rorschach standing across the street with the building in the more distant background, since there was no street to speak of behind the building--just a few feet of weeds, a fence, and then train tracks. I returned from my trip excited but also with this dilemma: which side of the law written above was I going to come down on?

"Flight of the Bats" 11x17" oil on paper over board Sold My unpublished Batman image, adored by dozens!

"Flight of the Bats" 11x17" oil on paper over board
Sold
My unpublished Batman image, adored by dozens!

Consider the purpose: this was to be an uncommissioned, comics-related piece intended to eventually make its way into a portfolio with other images, which at this point only include a Batman from 2 years ago. At this rate, I'll never finish. Until then, I am doing them unpaid, for me. But, I'm also hoping to use them to perhaps eventually get work in the comics industry--not even necessarily with DC, though the first two have been DC characters. In fact, what I know of DC tells me that I actually have very little chance with them at this point in time. So what do I do--do I delve into a much darker and quieter scene than I intended, and remain true to the backstory, even though the only people who will know my intentions are visitors to this blog, those I relate it to in person, and Genovese case buffs? Or do I chuck the truth, create what might be a cooler picture, unconstrained by the facts of the matter, and just focus on the eventual portfolio-goal?

I struggled over it for a long time, but decided that though it might be more noir than comics typically allow, I would stay true to the story, true to the reality I'd discovered, and please myself first. The reasons were twofold: 1.)I may never finish that portfolio, and if I do there's no guarantee it'll get me work anyway--in either case, I'd be personally unhappy with a portrayal that ignored the facts. 2.)That portfolio will need the inevitable action sample--you can't want to do comics without action--but I could pick another character or two that lend themselves more to action scenes. Basically, let Rorschach be who he is--dark, brooding, mysterious. Sure, he's a tough guy, too, but I think the thing that endears him to people is his mind--his diary entries, his worldview, his pessimism. His personal story. Being unpublished, most of the people who will encounter it will probably do so in connection with this blog or my website, or a convention where I show it and can talk about it to interested parties. So, they'll have the opportunity to learn what I was thinking. And, hopefully, I could create an image that would please them even if they didn't.

With that decided, what followed was a garage sale. The borough of Roselle Park, where we were living, was having a neighborhood garage sale. We were nearing our move to NYC and needed all sorts of things anyway, so we spent the day on block after block picking through people's leftovers. Half-way during the day I sorta tuned out and let my wife do the heavy shopping. I randomly poked through cd collections and piles of books. On one rack, a very familiar overcoat was hanging. It was, by all appearances, the exact one Rorschach wore. I had intended on posing in my usual clothes and then making up the costume by referencing the comic. Here I had a key part of the costume in front of me for a steal. I bought it.

What immediately followed was the urge to get the whole kit together. Why not? At the Goodwill Store I found a hat that, while not exact, was definitely close enough. Via eBay, a pair of gloves. It seemed a lot of trouble, but now I own a nice overcoat and gloves. I'll pass on wearing the hat. As for the mask, that would involve some imagination since I don't think that sort of thing exists yet. So you see why I did that post a couple weeks back before this series; here I was, proposing my own private bit of Cosplay....