Artist’s Notebook: James Harvey

January 19, 2015 | Rhett Jones

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week, James Harvey talks about his special brand of work in graphic novels.

I’ve been working with collage a lot lately in the preparation of my drawings. Here’s what I’ve been doing: I make a photo collage of images in a rough approximation of how I want the page to look, print them out at a huge scale and lightbox over them to turn ’em into comics pages. It’s not my only way of working, but it’s interesting and alchemical, and it produces some pretty unexpected results.

I’m probably more comfortable and fluent with photoshop than I am with a pencil at this stage, so this technique is easy and fun for me. I don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand there’s an aesthetic purity in knowing that a piece of hand-drawn art is entirely a result of the imagination and skill of the artist, and “lightboxing” photographs (i.e., tracing) feels wrong, dishonest. On the other hand, I’m pretty wicked with a lasso tool, I have access to an infinite repository of images and I should probably take advantage of that fact.

Collage 1

The above image is a thing I did about a year ago. It’s a plan for a comics page. It’s for a story about a girl who (at the beginning of the story) hates her screen-focused, mostly online life. We watch her break out of that. I patterned her after my online girlfriend at the time. I keep trying not to get into online relationships but being an agoraphobic nerd who is on the internet a lot makes it hard. Anyway, I planned the page out by cobbling together a.) screengrabs of my desktop b.) photos from my tumblr. After the process is complete, the idea is there would be no trace of the photos in the finished art.

That story is on ice, but I like it and want to come back to it eventually. I definitely like the sheer audacity of making a comics page by just pasting in screengrabs of your desktop and photos from your tumblr, cutting them together and then tracing them. It makes me think of the writer Tao Lin, who just copy/pastes his gmail chatlogs, gives everyone the names of famous people and then calls that a novel.

miuna damien

I’ve included the piece above as an example of a recent project drawn purely from my imagination, just in case you’re thinking all I do is trace over pictures of my ex-girlfriend now.

I’m sure everyone says this but I can’t recommend having an inspiration tumblr enough, white-space-conflict.tumblr.com is mine. The inspiration I draw from it is similar to what William Burroughs got from his cut-up technique. I never know what image is going to land next to another totally unrelated image, and they often play off each other in really interesting and unexpected ways, creating accidentally genius compositions or suggesting surprising narratives I wouldn’t have thought of by myself. I get a lot of ideas from it. I’ve learned a lot about how to lay out a page just by paying attention to the times when my tumblr looks aesthetically pleasing and narratively coherent by happenstance.

4a - Collage

This is from the time I had to draw around 200 pages of a huge story that was mostly set in a shopping mall. The shopping mall had to be detailed and consistent in every panel. I figured out the architecture of the shopping mall from the script and then drew up a detailed plan of the whole thing. Then I got someone from the Team Fortress mapping community (Eric “Icarus” Wong, who made Coldfront) to build the entire thing in Valve’s Source engine. Then I posed characters in the 3D mall using Garry’s Mod, took pictures and pasted those pictures into the page which I then light-boxed over.

4b - inks_1

Above is the page I made from that. As you can see, I remained faithful to Eric’s architecture, but used the 3D characters as a jumping-off point to improvise upon. This might sound like a long-winded and laborious process, but it really worked well- I was banging these suckers out at a rate of two fully-inked pages a day, which is pretty much unheard of for me. My nickname in the comics community is not exactly ‘Billy Whizz’.  Anyway, this was supposed to be coloured in, but we were never able to secure funding for a colourist and by that time my passion for the project had waned so the whole thing is just sitting on a metaphorical shelf somewhere. It’s a shame, because I never got to give Eric his dues for helping me make this thing.

Ok, now I’ll talk you through a whole piece from start to finish. This is from my creepy and mysterious graphic novel Zygote which I hope to finish this year. I chose this piece to talk about because I drew it when I lived in New York in 2012, and this is a New York-centric blog.

3a - single-storey-house-plans-gilded-desert-beauty-5

The jumping-off point for this page is this photograph of a minimalistic bedroom which I undoubtedly found by googling ‘gold room’. I would have done this ’cause I was obsessed with the gold ballroom Stanley Kubrick had built for the set of The Shining. Every tile in the walls and ceiling of the huge set was meticulously painted silver, then gold when Kubrick changed his mind halfway through. It’s such an interesting choice for a set that we don’t really see a whole lot of in the film and which few viewers even register as being particularly memorable. Nonetheless, it has a very unique and enigmatic feeling to it and I wanted to try and recapture that for the giant basement seen towards the end of Zygote.

3b - collage

That the gold bedroom photo was such a good template for the establishing shot of the basement was a happy accident. Here you can see how I pasted it into the MSPaint-level thumbnail sketches I did for the scene. I kept the sketches rough because this was a period of heavy editing for the story and I wanted to have no qualms about throwing a panel away if it wasn’t working. That said, it wouldn’t have mattered because I’ve actually thrown away a massive amount of totally finished and fully rendered artwork for this project. I decided (for some reason) that I was going to let this book find its shape through editing and constant revision, as if it was a movie with an infinite budget and shooting schedule- deleted scenes and reshoots and extensive post-production, and well … it’s been good for the book, but it’s not an experiment I’d like to repeat (as my aching drawing hand, and the hundred-odd pages of art that no longer fit in the book will attest).

3c - pencils

Above you can see a little better how the bedroom became a cavernous basement. It’s unreal, dreamlike architecture. There’s a few subtle perspective tricks in there to make the image work- what you’re looking at is actually impossible. If you go by the height of the character closest to us, you can see that the main character (in the center of the composition) should actually be half the size that he is.

Here’s the inks of the same scene. Not much changed here. Fun fact, I didn’t actually get around to inking this until about a year after I drew it.

3d - inks

Below you will find the ‘finished’ product, or at least for now. I returned the kissing panel back to its original location. I also removed all of the main character’s “voiceover”, since I decided it was much better to let the readers alone with their thoughts for this scene, and encourage them to provide their own lyrical, symbolic interpretation of the scene rather than letting the words dictate the reader’s understanding of it.

3e - finished