Through Concentrated Breath

the making of images from memory

The Generation of an Image

19 July 2016 by Rey Armenteros

Here we have textbook steps for a painting; this is textbook in the traditional sense, which is something that rarely happens in my work.

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This began with a rudimentary drawing.

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The drawing developed a bit more before going into color.

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In this case, before introducing the colors, I placed more gesso over the drawing to allow for later transparent washes of color.

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Textures were added for still more washes of color.

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With a return to drawing, I further cut into the forms, refining them a bit by using lines. There were no opaque painting in this one.

This image, like all my images, is from memory. It was done with the Great Kamakura Buddha in mind, which I had seen twice when I lived in Japan. I did it in 2012, and looking at it now, I clearly see where this falls short (on all manner of levels, including the fact that it has only some remote resemblance to the real one). I will say that I did have a slightly different way of entering paintings in those days (notwithstanding these steps), and it was more of a purist, hit or miss approach, where in this case, I got the essence (or structure) without getting the details, without really getting the subtlety. I may explain this better one day.

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Worth Another Shot or Not

31 May 2016 by Rey Armenteros

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There was a drawing in an ad for a comic book that was just the type of drawing I didn’t like. I could tell the guy could draw, but it was scratchy – scribbly crosshatching coupled with thick, tapered lines. It was so sketchy, I couldn’t tell if it were a girl or a boy (most likely a girl), and she was propping her chin with one hand, holding her head in profile, while holding a flute with the other.

I was in my early teens, and it’s funny how many times in life you hate something and later rediscover how wrong you were. A year or two later, I found myself compelled by this drawing, in love with it, never letting it go! Years after that, with no access to the drawing, I would try to bring it back together. With a pen, I would try to recreate what was there, in my memory. It would never come close, but I would focus on different aspects of it with each failure, like the nature of the scribbling line on my third attempt or the exact turn of the head on my fifth one. That turn of the head was originally from a lower angle looking up. And I would try it again.

That is what I’ve done here, but this time in paint. But what I have here is something that is not even in the same hemisphere of methodology and treatment, what with the color wet-into-wet and my own brand of strokes creating a weave all my own and nothing like that one from memory – of an image that no longer resounds with the same poignancy, but still worth another shot.

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Emulating a Doodle

02 May 2016 by Rey Armenteros

Using a brush to make marks like a pen. Using paint instead of ink. Bringing out the idea of a doodle onto a skin of paint rather than a scrap piece of paper and putting down one image after another, as if I were still at the back of the class, jotting things in my notebook. This little thing was an exercise in emulation. I don’t know if there’s enough here to justify emulation (when using the simply natural tools would be better), but it was fun.

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Another Living Room Moment

26 April 2016 by Rey Armenteros

Why show this? I don’t know. It was nothing more than me trying paraline perspective in a room in my dad’s home. I added my dad in the corner, but he’s not coming under the paraline rules, almost like an objective bystander. He’s an outsider, floating above the room, delineated by thick lines that no longer hold him together. Paraline, as a diagrammatic handling of reality, succumbs here to the standard rules of perspective, here and there, wherever I forgot the rigid rules. Theoretically, a paraline drawing can run forever, if you have enough drawing surface, like the diagrams in assembly instructions and eye trickery. I’d like to try this again and make it work this time.

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Dynamic Light and Shade

12 March 2016 by Rey Armenteros

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Burne Hogarth’s series of art instruction books continues with this volume that centers on shading. It is over150 pages populated by many black and white illustrations and minimal text. Most of the drawings are by Hogarth himself. Is it a worthy art instruction book?

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Hogarth begins with the idea of silhouettes and how even in their flat and limited capacity, you can imply spaces and relationships between objects. He follows that chapter with edge light, which is when you take a silhouette and penetrate its flatness with hints of highlights around the edges of forms.

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In the third chapter, he delineates the nature of light and shadow in five types of general situations. The first one follows when an object is hit by a single light source. Then, he brings up the characteristics of dual light sources (one strong, direct light source and an indirect light source on the other side of the object). Next, he goes into diffused lighting, which is when the light sources are not distinct, such as during an overcast day. He has a category on nothing more than moonlight. And the last one is sculptural light, which is not a lighting situation that happens in nature but more of an art technique where you shade forms in order to heighten the form rather than to form realistic lighting.

He continues with other lighting situations that each get a chapter. Similar to the idea of sculptural light, spatial light and expressive light are less about depicting a natural occurrence and more about using light to manipulate the viewer’s focus or raise some higher emotion, respectively. Environmental light are the weather and seasonal conditions that can come into play, and textural light focuses on the surface texture of objects. Transparent light illustrates a few strategies when drawing objects that have transparency. Fragmentation light underscores those situations wherein light breaks up, such as light on choppy waters. And radiant light is light that is in some way aimed at the viewer.

When I teach shading, I go about it differently, but I find some sense in his categories. At first, I was reluctant to accept a distinction for the very specific moonlight, but as I read what he had to say about it, I felt that he was presenting a situation that conflated two other categories, the single light source (the moon) with a diffused light (since the moon is not a direct light source but a reflective one that can render dim contrast).

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Each category is detailed in a chapter, and each chapter gives variations for the student to understand some of the possibilities within each category. One of the biggest problems with the book is that there is no formal text. Each chapter starts with a paragraph and the rest of the words are confined to captions. In other words, he is doing very little instruction but providing many examples. He never goes into explaining how one might go about doing this, and I suppose for a beginner, it would be frustrating. Actually, I would not recommend this to anyone who is closer to the side of novice drawer; this is better put to use with someone who already knows some things about shading.

As a textbook, it could have some use, since the instructor could fill in for all the gaps in the book. It could be used as a sampler of things to look for. You could even use it to copy (as an exercise) Hogarth’s drawings. Nevertheless, it is so steeped in his comic book style, that anyone not interested in such heroic drawing will not get a lot of value from it.

Curiously, it works best as an art book that showcases the art of Burne Hogarth. His stylized drawings are reminiscent of his work on the Tarzan newspaper strip, but they are rich with intricacies that make you want to keep the book for that value alone.

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Some Old Factory or Warehouse

17 February 2016 by Rey Armenteros

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I see this every time I drive up the I-5. I caught some of the details and lost others. The rudiments of coming up with something from memory allows for this sort of ambiguity. I sometimes wonder what is the best way to approach memory work. Is it better to make it all up in order to work with visual knowledge you already know without hamstringing yourself with attempts at capturing actual reality? Or should you only record the reality you know and forget all the details you can’t recall? Or is better to have a completely different approach, like making it up as you go along?

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Pure Memory

08 January 2016 by Rey Armenteros

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This is from pure memory, but what does that mean? To me, it could be something as simple as I got this out of my head. But since this is the way I always work, I know there are facets to it most of us take for granted. For example: This is a general memory from my dad’s living room, and there was no doubt a lamp where you see it, but if that lamp looked exactly like that one you see in the picture is highly doubtful. I had to make it up in most places because I simply do not recall. His face, on the other hand, is from whatever I could bring back from direct memory, which is also spotty. There are also points where this picture has taken embellishments because there comes a point to most paintings and drawings where you try to make it clearer or closer to the goal you set out for it.

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Hogarth’s Dynamic Anatomy

28 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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As an art instructor, I need to be aware of the various art books on the market. Though I have known about Hogarth’s line of books since my days in college, I never felt the need to ever pick them up, and my reasons always settled on the fact that the instruction we readers were getting was not how to draw, but how to draw like Burne Hogarth. Throughout his line of “Dynamic” books, he usually uses his drawings for examples, and his strong style dripped off these books, undermining any attempt at a universal approach to drawing.

However, I finally bought two books a couple of years ago, and it was for the strangest reasons anyone could have. It was during a Gil Kane kick that I had, and the more I looked at Kane’s work, the more I realized that his structured anatomy had parallels in the Burne Hogarth school of approach. So, I wanted to also look into Hogarth, and instead of buying his more popular comic strip work on Tarzan, I decided to buy his how-to books solely for the reason of admiring the stylization of his work.

In one more twist to this story, I ended up using his book, Dynamic Anatomy, as a means to study structure and found that all of my early assumptions about the book were true but were also not true. It is not an ideal anatomy book, and what may push a contemporary audience further back is his stilted prose. (Burne Hogarth, for those that don’t know, was one of the co-founders of School of Visual Arts, and this striving to carry an “educated” tone is overdone here.)

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I don’t know what decisive verdict I could give this book. It has good and bad points that seem to work off each other. Overall, it’s good if you seek to draw in this manner and to follow this very particular structure, but it’s bad for almost anything else, even if ultimately I did have some use for it.

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A Short Day at CALA

11 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Held in the art space, Think Tank Gallery, in the Fashion District of Los Angeles, CALA is a comic book event that brings together some of the best alternative comics creators. I went in and explored the inspiring work of dozens of creators. It immediately brought imagery that I sought to use in my own work.

Having met Robert Goodin at the Long Beach Comic Con in September, once again, I passed by to talk about The Kurdles. When I discovered Farel Dalrymple was there, I approached his table to give him my thoughts on The Wrenchies, which I happened to have finished just a couple of days before. I wanted to talk to Ryan-Cecil Smith about his work, about living in Japan, and about Tim at the Deconstructing Comics podcast, but he had stepped out. Making it a point to go back and see him later, I stepped into the presentation hall to see the discussion with Jaime Hernandez.

For me, the feature event of the whole program was the talk that Jaime Hernandez was going to give. After the presenter asked him questions about his work, the floor opened to questions from the audience, and I was slowly confounded by how no one acknowledged his status in the field. As Jaime was asked question after question about his working methods, I wondered what the new generation knew about the older comics. Here we had someone who was to alternative comics what Shakespeare was to English Literature. Along with Wendy Pini and Dave Sim and Jaime’s brother, Gilbert, Jaime was one of a half a dozen creators that made the alternative scene come to life when there was nothing else on the map but corporate product. It was not the land of plenty we have around us today. If not for them, we may not have been sitting in that art space partaking of this fine venue of artistic creation.

In the end, a question occurred to me and I asked about the layout he had been using in recent years with the eight-panel grid (which made me no better than anybody else, since what I really wanted to do was give him a standing ovation). In the layout he had been using in The New Stories, I was reading into it things like Alex Toth’s last issue of Hot Wheels and some of the theories that Frank Santoro has brought up about losing the center in certain comic book page formations. But Jaime simply answered that he needed more panels per page when there was more dialogue, which is what he needed during the Hopey and Maggie scenes. Whenever the action returned, he went back to six panels. In hindsight, Jaime felt that it was not fair since Maggie and Hopey were not populating much of the action scenes lately, so they were only ever showed from midsection up.

Since no one commended him, I took the time after the convention panel to approach and tell him how much of an inspiration he was, and I recounted my first Love and Rockets experience (Love and Rockets #3) and how much of a game-changer that was – how much of a revelation in the world of comics. I shook his hand, and when I went back onto the convention floor to speak to Ryan-Cecil Smith, I changed my mind and found that this was the perfect note to end on. I went out onto the pavement and found that I was genuinely joyful, almost as if I didn’t know why.

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Showa

02 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Two days ago, I wrote this: “Today, Shigeru Mizuki died,” and I didn’t know what else to say to follow it up. Words were not coming to me. What stunned me was that I am now in the process of reading the Showa series, and I was elated by the fact that he had been able to survive an incredible number of life-threatening moments and that he was 93 and still a practicing cartoonist. The very fact that Mizuki as an infantryman survived World War II is nothing but a miracle.

Showa is a series of books that tells the history of the Showa Era of Japan (1926-1989) through all of its tides and developments done in comic book form. It employs Mizuki’s signature style of having simple, cartoon figures populating realistic backdrops. The backgrounds are so realistic that they do nothing to assimilate the simple line drawings of characters. This is important because it may say something about Mizuki’s approach and why he has chosen to work this way in many of his books. The gritty realism is obviously pulled from photo references, and they exhibit a labor-intensive rendering approach that must have been an uphill battle, panel by panel. However, the pages flow quickly for the reader as Mizuki moderates the speed not by the elaboration of the drawings but by how much narrative he places per page; often, there are few words, and the detail of the photo renderings are not enough to slow you down to admire all the work. In fact, these pictures of WWII planes blowing up over rough waters and important leaders signing documents act in the opposite manner: they show familiar pictorial archetypes that can be glanced quickly. These images are covered in crosshatched textures that provide a surface “grime,” that also serve to push the reader back. It is a use of detail made to be ignored rather than pull you in.

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The general narrative begins with a plain, third-person treatment that is translated here in present tense. I don’t know if this were the verb tense the Japanese was originally written in, but in English, it feels quick, simple and current. It is one of the reasons some fiction writers use it, so that the events feel as if transpiring right now. This general narrative soon reveals itself as the words of Mizuki’s Rat Man, who eventually comes in to lace the events with a deadpan tone of incredulity. He serves the reader in ways that would show a sardonic, questioning attitude to the decisions made by the Japan’s leaders. At times, the Rat Man interacts with the powerful people, making comments or asking questions, and these historical figures either ignore him or answer his comments with their own cynical replies. The other narrative voice is that of Mizuki himself. In Showa, we have not just a rendition of a chunk of history but a personal account of Mizuki’s life as they were shaped by the times. Mizuki enjoys a special place in that he was a witness to the entire period, and the story of his life and family are interweaved with the larger events.

In the art, the cartoon characters serve as counterpoints to the realistically-drawn movers and shakers that seem so distant by comparison. However, when a famous leader is shown saying something, his physiognomy is reshaped into simpler lines showing bonehead expressions. These moments are interspersed with photo imagery culled from history. Replete with cold, photographic impressions, the series’ use of this strategy is not as effective throughout the work. At its worst, you get nothing more than an image that goes with the text, as when the narrative mentions a return trip for Mizuki that he did by train and it is accompanied by the mundane, redrawn photo of a train doing its thing.

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However, as I get to the last book, these techniques begin to feel mechanical. If you read all four books, you will have read 2,000 pages, and it is difficult to sustain interest for that long. In this last book, the war is finally over, and we get snippets of Japan’s rise from the ashes as it climbs into the status of a global economic powerhouse. The episodic nature of events in this book is fragmentary with the only real cohesion being Shigeru Mizuki’s own personal life trials. It feels like now that the war is over, it is more difficult to coalesce a suitable narrative for all the various things that happen over the next thirty to forty years. A much larger timeframe is enveloped in this book than the other three put together. It makes me wonder if tackling on the entire Showa period may have been more than anyone could have worked with and still maintain unity in the work. When the narrative breaks down into one unrelated event after another, I feel that Mizuki is striving to catch up with the rest of the era and end it already.

As I was reading this last book, I was also wondering if he had only shown those aspects of the later Showa period that he happened to have focused on when they were transpiring in his life. There were several bizarre murders that he might have brought up to show the changing psychology of a modernized Japan. The deaths of a couple of famous actors are mentioned. World events are brought in to show how they influence Japan. All of these episodes felt sporadic, and the art did not help. By now, all this grainy photorealism begins to raise ideas in my head that he and his assistants were likely working from photocopies of photos, which would have made the decision of where to place the blacks, for example, already delineated by a machine. Indeed, some of these historic moments were nothing more than a grainy snapshot of the moment without even bothering to copy them in a drawing. A great amount of these images do possess the mark of degenerated photocopies. They’re quite ugly, and I felt in the first couple of books that this was a strength since it was counterpoised with the cartoon drawings. As I’m nearing the 2,000-page mile marker, I’m not even looking at these pictures anymore. It’s just too much of the same process of a very long work.

In sharp contrast, Onward to Our Noble Deaths is a work of his that uses the very same techniques but succeeds on every level. It is a unified story that is a fraction of the size of Showa. There may be something in the respective sizes of these two works and their respective successes; any theme, any technique can overstay its welcome.

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One saving grace in this last volume of Showa is the creative way he incorporates fantasy or dream elements into the general line of events. There are moments in his life where he dreams of situations that at first seem real but soon reveal themselves to be dreams or otherworldly moments. Since Mizuki is tied to the world of yokai (ghosts from Japan), this fits with the work he is doing on his yokai manga and the interests he has had in ghosts since childhood. In one inspired moment, he has a writer acquaintance of his who has shown up in the narrative suddenly take over the narration from the Rat Man and claims that he can do a better job. It suddenly brings you out of a stupor and makes you realize that this is a living, breathing account instead of a mere recording of history. In the end, Mizuki’s playful treatment of the material and his warm outlook on the era make these four volumes of his work a notable reading experience and an artistic account of a remarkable life.

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