Even Wizards Need Day Jobs

In my post about how I’m rewriting The Demon King to be a proper novel instead of serialized story, I mentioned that it’s important for the reader to know from the beginning that the main character is using time magic, but that the extent of his time travel will only be revealed gradually. It turns out that Ananth, the eponymous demon king, is actually from the present day, and that the world of the story is postapocalyptic in a major way. Just to amuse myself, I drew an illustration of the world before the apocalypse in which Ananth is the IT manager of a private biotech research firm. Even in a world where magic is commonplace, Microsoft Excel is probably still a dysfunctional mess.

The other day I saw a tweet that resonated with me. It reads: “The key to making ‘better’ art is to keep making ‘bad’ art shamelessly and consistently.” And damn if that sentiment didn’t resonate with tens of thousands of people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “bad” art recently, and I realized that this illustration might be a good example of just how much trial and error goes into making something halfway decent. Here’s my process…

This is a quick thumbnail sketch that took me about five to ten minutes to draw. I thought it would be fun for Ananth to have his bangs tied up in a baby ponytail, which is something a lot of boys at UPenn do around spring finals season after having gone months without cutting their hair. I immediately realized that this looks way too young for him.

This sketch is a bit more refined, with each of the separate elements drawn in a different color on a different layer. This makes it easy to make each element larger or smaller, and you can move them around to experiment with how they fit into the overall composition.

In the last sketch, the character doesn’t really have any distinguishing features, and his eyes felt a little too “anime.” For this sketch, I studied photos of real people to try to refine his face. The style still feels a bit flat, however.

In order to think about how to stylize the character, I made a separate test sketch that broke away from the original composition altogether. This style still feels way too anime, mainly because the eyes are too big and the face is too wide.

I made another test sketch, and I really liked this one. The proportions of the face and eyes are more realistic, but they’re balanced by the stylized mouth. I felt like portraying the character’s grit teeth as small and sharp was an apt way to convey the frustration of being the only technologically literate person in your office.

Now that I had a grasp on how I wanted to stylize the character, I returned to the original piece and overlaid another sketch onto the composition. I decided that it’s not necessary to show Ananth’s hands on the keyboard, but that it would probably be good to look at reference photos for the computer. In the real world, an IT manager would definitely have a set-up with two monitors, but I decided that this would be too much of a pain in the ass to draw. Ananth’s tie is also a bit on the short side, but I decided not to care about that either.

I inked over the sketch and added flat colors. I originally intended to draw a background, but I decided that the photo reference I used for the test sketches would suffice. I generally have a fair sense of what will do well on social media, and I knew from the beginning that this illustration wasn’t going to get much attention. Since I don’t have any interest in drawing offices anyway, I don’t think it matters that I left the reference photo intact. I’m also not entirely satisfied with the character’s face – the eye on the right is a little too far away from his nose, for example – but we only have so much time on this earth, and you have to choose your battles.

When people talk about the value of making “bad” art shamelessly and consistently, I think the messiness of the creative process is a large part of what they’re talking about. You do the best you can, and you try not to let it bother you that what you’re creating in the real world isn’t as brilliant as the image in your mind. Even if the final product isn’t great, you’re building the skills that will be ready and waiting for you when the perfect flash of inspiration strikes.

At least, that’s what I think people are talking about. In the end, I’m a writer, and I don’t know much of anything about visual art. Honestly this is why I ask other people to illustrate my ideas, but that’s no reason not to enjoy drawing.