Art in the Quarantine Age

What a year it’s been! Like everyone else, I’ve seen a lot more of my house this past year than usual. Although I’m usually home quite a lot, since that’s where my studio is, I’ve come to realize that I wasn’t as much of a homebody as I thought. Such weekly routines as swimming and jam sessions have come to a halt; impromptu trips to the store for a few groceries need to be carefully thought out and planned in order to go as little as possible (and now I’m getting groceries delivered, which is even more planning), I cancelled my annual camping trip, and all of my comics conventions, classes, and musical gigs have disappeared. Life has shrunk to a very small space. 

But I sure drew a lot of cats this year…

Yes, there have been compensations. My garden is flourishing; I had lots more time to grow food and flowers, and watch the surprising amount of wildlife that appears in our little urban yard, from deer and raccoons and squirrels and hummingbirds right down to the many varieties of bees that flock to my herb garden. My cats love me, as I am at their beck and call, and when the weather is nice, we go outside with them on their leashes and me following wherever they want to go (really, I think it’s me on the leash). I even put in a bird feeder so we can all watch the birds. My physical horizons may be smaller, but my imagination actually seems to have expanded!

The local wildlife has been an inspiration! (Sketch created in Procreate app)

Although sometimes it has felt like I’m living in limbo, it seems I’ve made a lot of art this year. It’s been my retreat from the daily doom-scrolling (I still spend too much time on the internet), and has kept me somewhat sane. And since this is an art blog, let’s get to that!

2020 did not get off to an auspicious start for me. I managed to catch some horrible flu (even though I dutifully had my annual flu shot) that lasted for most of January and into February. By the end of January, I was able to drag myself upstairs for a bit of sketching, and by the beginning of February I was starting to work on my ideas for the new Quadra Cats story — being bedridden gives one lots of time to think, if nothing else.

I spent a couple of months playing with how I wanted the new Quadra Cats book to look — I knew there was going to be a lot more human architecture, and I was tired of the static ink lines of the pens I had been using, so decided to try for more of a brush effect. Top left: a test ink drawing with brushpen. Top right: the same, hand-coloured with Prismacolor French Grey Markers. Bottom left: drawn with “studio pen” in Procreate app, lettered in Photoshop. Bottom Right: finished Procreate drawing, with hand-lettering over the Photoshop-lettered template layer.

A Musical Interlude

As I’ve mentioned occasionally, I’m a musician as well as a visual artist, and for years I’ve had wild schemes to combine the two. In February, I had already scheduled a recording session with my friend Mike Freeman (of Tania Opland and Mike Freeman fame) to record some of my own songs that I want to combine with comics in a book/CD combination. I had already done one song as a comic, “A Midsummer’s Night”, and thought it would be nice to have the combination of sound and visuals.

I also played flute, guitar, and a bit of keyboard, and sang some harmonies with myself, which has to be the ultimate in benign vanity. It’s like having a clone band. (flute by my friend and instrument-maker extraordinaire Casey Burns)

My voice was still quite rough from the flu (in fact I’ve had ongoing problems with it ever since) but we managed to get some good tracks down in record time. That project is still ongoing, and it will be a while before I have anything I can release, but I’m so glad we got those songs down when we did!

Learning Procreate
(No, I didn’t say “learning to procreate”)

Procreate is an app for the iPad Pro that I’ve been meaning to learn for ages. I already had my iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil, which you need to make the app work properly, so since I still didn’t have much energy for studio work, I decided to veg out on the couch with my feet up and do some at-home learning. I watched lots of tutorials and played with the app to see what it could do, and made a blog post about it after I was feeling fairly confident with it, a few months later. 

I’ve been experimenting with different styles in Procreate. I think this coming year I’d like to expand to doing some landscapes!

 It turned out that Procreate was just the tool I’ve been needing for the Quadra Cats comics. I’ve been having repetitive-strain issues with my hands for the last few years when doing intensive physical drawing and lettering, or even when using my Wacom drawing tablet with the computer for digital colouring. Drawing on the iPad takes all the physical tension out of drawing, colouring, and lettering for me, and I love the more polished look it gives the comic. I’m going to save the details of my process for another post (or two), but wanted to say how happy it’s made me to have this new capability. 

You can read the entire Quadra Cats webcomic for free at this link!

Pandemic Pandemonium

Here in BC, Canada, we’d all been watching the news of the pandemic across the world with increasing trepidation. By mid-February, I had barely recovered from the flu, and was torn about whether I should cancel my first local convention of the season, Tsukinocon, or not. All I needed was a case of the Con Crud, or this mysterious new malady! But I went ahead anyway, and washed my hands a million times, and thankfully didn’t catch anything. I had a fabulous time, and met a lot of wonderful people… but I was already feeling nervous.

I always bring my sketchbook to conventions; sometimes it is very slow in artist’s alley when the panels are in session. I got quite a lot of pages thumbnailed for a comic I am (still) working on, featuring Cat from my mini-comic Cat on Beach, which you can read here.

When Covid-19 officially reached our shores, I was ready to retreat into isolation immediately; I cancelled my classes, begged my band to cancel our upcoming gigs, and started keeping my distance whenever I had to be around anyone. As it turned out, provincial restrictions were initiated shortly after I got twitchy, to my great relief, as now I didn’t have to be the weird germophobe that was spoiling everyone’s fun — the province did it for me!

Around the end of March, everyone discovered the Amabie, a magical creature which was said to have appeared in Japan in the mid-1800s, which promised “… if disease spreads, show a picture of me to those who fall ill and they will be cured.” Almost all the artists I know made a version of it — what the heck, it might work!

Of course, almost all my income has dried up with this strange hiatus. We’re not suffering, as I know many are, though we have had to be much more careful about spending. Fortunately, I probably have enough art supplies to last the rest of my life, and with no travel, we’re using a lot less petrol! 

An Unexpected Comic

In late May, I got a call from my friend and mentor Ken Steacy. He was swamped with work, and wondered if I could give him a hand on a comic he was working on for the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law Research Unit. A bit of comics-industry background: many comics projects involve multiple people working on the various aspects, from layout to pencilling, to inking, to colouring, to lettering, and comics creators help each other out when the deadlines get deadly! So he asked if I would do the pencilling from his layouts, basically drawing the comic. I hemmed and hawed a bit, as 1) I was deep into my own Quadra Cats project at this point and 2) quite frankly I was scared — I’d never collaborated on this level before and wasn’t sure I was up to snuff. But Ken is a great confidence builder, and convinced me that I could do it, so I said yes. 

The cover is entirely by Ken; I did the pencil drawing for the interior pages, then Ken inked them, then I coloured them with watercolour, then he applied some airbrush to smooth things out and do the shading on the faces.

Well! What was supposed to be a couple of weeks job ended up being a couple of months of very intense, but very rewarding work (this is entirely normal, especially in collaborations). It was really interesting seeing what Ken did with the inks over my pencils (one simply cannot be precious about one’s pencil work when it’s going to be inked over!) and I learned a whole lot about inking just from seeing what he did with my drawings. I also ended up doing the watercolour colouring on it (finished up by Ken’s air-brushing), which was a whole other learning curve, to adjust my style to accommodate different expectations of what the finished project will look like. With both the pencilling and the colouring, I was pushing my boundaries, and ended up with a lot more confidence in my own drawing adaptability.

Zooly, in Sketchcards

I was so busy with the comics project, and disoriented by the general every-day-is-Blursday feeling, that I totally forgot about the annual Zooly Art Challenge’s daily prompts! Fortunately, one of the members of the Zooly Weekly group, not hearing anything about it, had put together her own prompt list for it, and I adopted that as the official one this year. It was actually quite a treat to draw someone else’s list for a change!

I knew I wasn’t going to have much time (or hand stamina) for it, since I was still working on the comic, so I committed myself to doing little sketch cards. They actually served as nice warm-ups to my work-day, or rewards at the end of the day — it’s nice to have a little project of your own when working to someone else’s parameters!

These are 2.5×3.5 inches, on Opus Watermedia Paper, using ink, watercolour, coloured pencil, watercolour pencil, and gouache, not necessarily all of those on any one card, though!

I wasn’t able to get them all finished during July, due to the demands of the comics project, but I did finally do all of them! You can see the whole set on my Facebook album here, with explanations about each animal.

The Kittens of Doom

Then it was back to the Quadra Cats. I used up my entire buffer during June and July, and have been trying to get it back ever since, and have had to take a couple of breaks. But the project has been going well; as of now I’ve posted up to page 63 of the story (this is going to be a very big book). If you’d like to read it, from the very beginning, go to the Quadra Cats site and hit the “first” button (the post that pops up is the latest). If you just want to browse through, check out the archive.

The actual Kittens of Doom haven’t yet made their appearance as of this date in the story, but there are kittens already — lots of them!

Curious Comics Comic!

One of the conventions that was cancelled was the Curious ComicCon that happens in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, every year. It’s a one-day event, held in a mall called the Country Club Centre, and is a great deal of fun, so I was particularly sad to miss it this year. It’s a great community event in tandem with the international Free Comic Book Day, with fundraisers for local charities. The lovely folks at Curious Comics (which is based in the mall) are putting together a fundraiser anthology comic, the Adventures of Captain Curious, to be on Kickstarter, and I was thrilled to be asked to participate with a couple of pages. I can’t reveal much about it yet, but here’s a little snippet of one of my pages:

Meet Cavity Cat, caped crusader for dental hygine!

I’ll be sure to let you know when the Kickstarter begins — follow their Facebook page for updates!

Explore the Eelgrass Meadow with Sam and Crystal

And last but by no means least, just before Christmas I received the first copies of the latest children’s book I illustrated in collaboration with author Dr. Gloria Snively, Explore the Eelgrass Meadow with Sam and Crystal. I had done a few last-minute illustrations for it in September, and then things started moving fast at the publisher! Here are some of my favourites from the book:

It was hard to pick just a few! The book is 64 pages long, with illustrations on almost every page. It was a lot of hard work, but very satisfying.

I’ll be making an in-depth report on it soon (and all these promises for future blog posts are going to keep me busy, I can tell)! You can order it from Heritage House, the publisher, and it will be out in stores throughout BC later this month. Earlier this year, Heritage House also released a beautiful new edition of our classic colouring-storybook High Tide, Low Tide, with ten new illustrated pages! Here’s an example, and you can see more here and here:

We have lots of minks on our beaches around here, though they’re not easily spotted. Wherever you live, be sure to get some outside time this year!

Happy New Year, everyone!

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