Embracing the Artist Process


Casey Roonan
Teaching Assistant, Illustrator & Comics Artist

There was a long time after art school when I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I’ve always been a very product-oriented thinker, and throughout art school I treated both class assignments and freelance projects as problems to solve. I loved the challenge of finding a visual solution and the perfect art media or format to express it. If the first image that popped into my head was at all workable, I would go for it. There wasn’t room for exploration. I was excited just to skip to the end.

When I was home on break I would give myself the objective of completing a comic book every summer, each time increasing my target page count. In a sense, I was doing exactly what I used to do as a kid when I would steal stacks of printer paper from my Dad’s office, staple them together, draw a “cover” on the first page, and then fill in from there… I was starting with the product first, then working backwards. The primary difference was that now I would at least finish the booklet, instead of just wasting office supplies.

That approach worked for me at the time, and I’m still proud of a lot of the art I made during those years. But shortly after graduation, I found I no longer was finishing the little booklets I dreamt up in my head… I’d start in on those preliminary sketches, and then things would sputter out before I could move onto the final artwork. I was stuck in my sketchbook. Without school deadlines to push me, I found I couldn’t prioritize one idea over another. How did I know a concept was good? Which product was actually worth making? I was filling up sketchbook after sketchbook with fragmented, half-imagined notions and unresolved doodles. Everything looked awful. I was wasting paper, again!

Paradoxically, my only solace from making such bad drawings came from… well, making more bad drawings. I began regularly hanging out with my old high school art buddy, Mike Karpiel, and we started making jam comics: We would pass our sketchbooks back and forth, trading off panels in collaborative comic strips. We drew directly on the page in pen – crummy pens, even – without any kind of forethought or pencil under-drawing.

The goal wasn’t to make drawings that looked good, as we didn’t plan on showing them to anyone. The point of the exercise was to pass the time, to riff, to surprise the other person with a weird twist, and to make each other laugh. At first we would work at my place or his, but soon we were drawing while hanging out at coffee shops, or in bars. We started incorporating characters and objects from our surroundings into the strips. Suddenly, I was drawing from observation again! Not in the way I used to when I was going to figure drawing sessions in art school, however… In an unprecedented way, I was taking in my every-day surroundings, and drawing from my life as opposed to simply “from life.”

My sketchbooks started to look completely different. I’d tricked myself into enjoying drawing again. I started treating drawing as a process, rather than a means to an end.

Lately I’ve been drawing virtually everyday, and I do it for a number of different reasons. I doodle aimlessly to get my mind moving. I brainstorm by drawing directly with my black pen, to fully resolve ideas as they come to me. I sketch out compositions in pencil for my freelance work. Before starting a finished piece, I warm up with blind contour drawings in colored ink, using photos I find on Instagram, magazines, or old yearbooks as my references.

I carry smaller sketchbooks with me when I go out, so I can capture the faces I see, and I draw “master copies” of the art when I go to museums. I draw on top of the lists I make compulsively to keep myself on task, or over my notes for future projects. If something feels compelling I redraw it, over and over again. The disparate ideas gradually come together. Initially unrelated influences meet and become coherent.

I mark an especially interesting idea by leaving an empty page following it – a space to resolve the concept more fully in the future, when I’m nearing the end of the book and my need to just fill it becomes undeniable. As a result of all of this, I’ve probably doubled or tripled the amount of paper I stack up on a regular basis, but at least now those pages are filled.

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3 responses on "Embracing the Process"

  1. Profile photo of Deepti Menon

    I love the idea behind the jam comics! What a wonderful way to bounce ideas off of one another. It reminds me of exquisite corpse exercises I used to do with friends, where we would collaborate to make a really exciting larger piece, all while adapting to what was presented to us!

  2. Profile photo of Annie Irwin

    Love the idea of leaving a blank page next to a particularly interesting idea- I always find myself flipping through old sketchbooks looking for any ideas i’ve written down or drawn, but they are almost impossible to find because I’ve scribbled on any blank space near!

  3. Profile photo of Clara Lieu

    Those routines are so important to keep your art making process alive. Sometimes it feels like 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there don’t mean much, but if you are persistent and keep at it, those 30 minute chunks really do add up over time. You have to be so patient to be an artist!

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