But for the inky trees

Left: my first attempt at inks, 2014 Right: my most recent attempt at inks, 2016
Left: my first attempt at inks, 2014.  Right: 2016 (ref. by Scott McDaniel)

I always loved to draw. During a recent trip to my childhood home, my mother unearthed a collection of my earliest works, the central themes revolving around dinosaurs riding helicopters and insanely impractical Goldberg-esque devices, the main purpose of which, according to my cryptic captions, seemed to be processing cranberries.

While I loved to draw, I was never particularly good at it, mainly due to a crippling and persistent fear of failure. While a common theme in many of my short-lived endeavors, it was most apparent in drawing. Through the media I devoured over my formative years (the intricately detailed brutality of MacFarlane, the doe-eyed caricatures of Kricfalusi, the expansive worlds of Hergé, and the pure unmatched genius of Watterson), I was simultaneously inspired and disheartened. The chasm was great, and well-intentioned sketchbooks remained untouched. I pored over my library of Ed Emberley (whose delightful how-to drawing books for children used basic geometry to construct complex objects step-by-step), looking for the secret. I quickly mastered the three-triangle, two circle fox; the massive pirate ship on the last page, somehow made of all the same constituent parts, confounded me.

I found little solace in Emberley’s cheerful reassurance:

If you found some of the things in this book difficult to draw, that is because some of the things in this book are difficult to draw!

Paper and pencil fell by the wayside as I gravitated towards computers in the late 90s. Later, when my college degree required a fairly significant fine arts component, I (short-sightedly) managed to slide through the painting and figure drawing classes with minimal experimentation or risk. I didn’t need this; I was going to be learning Maya, dammit.

I didn’t revisit analog media until I arrived at DreamWorks Animation. Artistic development there was taken very seriously, and the studio provided a wide selection of classes, such as figure drawing or sculpture, that could be taken during lunchtime or at the end of the day. These classes were available to everyone, so even an engineer like myself could attend. For some reason I was surprised to see the storyboard and concept artists present each week. Why? They were already amazing, why would they bother with…


This revelation continued to become clearer as time passed. I got to know some of the artists personally, and I began to notice the small Moleskines they always carried and doodled in. I noticed the many, many sketches they tossed aside. They practiced. Constantly. One artist in my department, upon hearing I didn’t draw that evening, said in a dose of his curt, Parisian honesty, “Don’t be so lazy.”

Somehow the very logical (and obvious) solution of discipline, persistence, and embracing failure managed to escape me.

After this revelation, the context surrounding the work of the masters became apparent, and the chasm began to shrink. Now, when I looked at original panels in the Cartoon Art Museum, I noticed the Wite-Out touchups and X-Actoed fixes not visible in flawless final prints. I came across the published sketchbooks of Chris Ware (author of the masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth), which contained hundreds of his sketches made in the ten years prior to the book’s publication in 2000. In the sketchbooks, themes and characters in Corrigan iterated and developed over the course of a decade. Notes interspersed throughout the crowded pages read “Awful!”, “You’re forcing ideas!!” and “Why is it so hard to get started?”

The work that inspired me didn’t just spontaneously burst into perfect, fully-formed existence. It came into being over time, the margins filled with discarded thumbnail sketches, edits, and self-doubt. Ideas were shelved, reassessed, and trashed. Concepts failed, but their creators persisted. And this is what I neglected to see when I stared hopelessly at the final product.

Ink is unforgiving, and the past two years have left many pages packed full of failure in their wake. It’s easy to get stuck on some particularly difficult anatomical structure or perspective that just doesn’t look correct. But as I have to be reminded time and time again, the important thing is that the sketchbooks are finally getting used. Every once in a while something emerges that I am proud of. And it’s always worthwhile to take a step back and see the forest.


If you are looking for some inspiration, these are some of the artists I looked to during my time at DreamWorks.