Monday, April 23, 2012

Interview with Artist Alex Sheikman

Now for something different for a Monday post.

Dark Crystal Art
Jim: It has been since March 2008 when we last interviewed Alex and during that time we did get to see the next mini-series on Robotika. So let's get that out of the way first. Are both Robotika books still available and if yes where can we buy them? And is there a next chapter and when can we expect it?

Alex: The first volume of Robotika sold out and Archaia went back to press with the second edition, so both hardbound Robotika collections are still in print and should be available in the comic shops. Both volumes are also available on and I am sure that the individual floppies can be found in the quarter boxes across the land :)

(Jim: Note click on link for Robotika and Robotika for few Rubles More. These are both great stories and well worth the money.)

I have the plot worked out for the third (and final) Robotika instalment, but I have not started drawing it. My hope, at the moment, is to do some work for hire for as many publishers as I can in order to get some name recognition and after that I hope to finish the Robotika storyline.

Dark Crystal Work
Jim: Work for hire, sounds interesting. What projects that you can talk about do you have lined up and/or coming out?

Alex: I just completed a 70 page Dark Crystal graphic novel. It is a "prequel" to the Dark Crystal movie and explores the origin of the Dark Crystal world. This is the first of 3 volumes and it is being art directed by Brian Froud and the folks at Hanson Productions.(Note the link takes you to Amazon so you can now buy Dark Crystal).

The whole book is illustrated in pencil with washes and tones and then digitally painted by Lizzy Johns. This was a bit of a departure from my usual pen and ink work, but I felt that I would be able to better capture the illustrative quality the characterized Brian Frouds' famous concept work for Dark Crystal this way. I think it worked, but the real test will be once we hear from the fans. I am actually very curious about how the book will be received...I am aware of a Marvel Comics Dark Crystal adaptation by Brett Blevins and Vincent Colleta from the 80's and I have seen same samples of the Dark Crystal Manga books from 2007-2010. Our version is different from both of them, thus I am curious what reaction we will get...if any :). I believe the book will be out in November.

From Strangeways
I have also contributed to Matt Maxwell's western horror anthology called "Strangeways". For volume 2, I did the cover and spot illustrations and for volume 3 I drew a short story "Are Not Men" about the traveling freak show. Very fun.

I also contributed a short story to Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard and that was well received. The anthology won an Eisner at San Diego, which was wonderful for everyone involved and I think has helped open up some doors for me. JH Williams III has seen the pages and felt that I would be a good collaborator so he wrote a Batman/Scarecrow story that he would like for me to illustrate. I am just in the initial stages of working on that, but I am very much looking forward to drawing that.

I like to switch back and forth between working on paid jobs and personal projects. I feel that in order for me to develop into a good storyteller, not only do I need to learn how to adapt writer's scripts, but I also need to continue developing my own writing. That way I can learn and grow as an illustrator, a storyteller, and a writer.

More from Strangeways
To that end I have a variety of personal side projects that I have been working on. Last year I self published a sketchbook of my drawings and I am planning on putting together a second collection soon. I finished a 20 page crime noir story set during WWII and I am drawing illustrations for a collection of Russian fairy tales....and of course there is always my sketchbook where I try out different techniques and just practice almost every day.

Jim: So many artists rely on computer tools anymore and original art is almost dying off in some quarters. It seems that the digital era is touching everything. With that as a long preamble and not being an artist, what is your process to producing a comic book? And how when you are doing work for hire how much direction are you getting?

Alex: Technology and art :)

I think that as technology has advanced, artists had to adapt. Can you imagine the leap from carving or drawing with charcoal on stone to drawing on papyri? Granted this did not happen overnight, but that is a huge leap. And of course artists always had to adapt to the advances in printing technologies (well, at least the illustrators had to do it, fine artists not so much).

Another Dark Crystal page
I also think that the drawing tools have not changed all that much for a couple hundred years. I am not a historian but my guess is that the pencil leads, brushes, and dip pens are all pretty much the same now as they were back 100 years ago (although I think the markers and the repidograph pens are fairly "recent" additions to the arsenal). If the tools survived for as long as they did, there must be some value in their design to help artists produce art.

So my approach to creating art (for print) is a "hybrid" version. First, I need to figure out if the finished art will be printed in color or black and white. At this stage it is also determined if the piece will be inked or will be reproduced from pencils only. All of this is important because without knowing what the final product needs to look like, it is impossible to start.

Alex's Thumbnail Layouts
For Dark Crystal, I produced fully penciled pages with added gray wash. I knew that the pages would not be inked, so I did not pencil them to be inked; I knew that the technology has advanced enough to be able to wonderfully reproduce a gray-toned picture with fine lines and subtle gray washes.

I would start with a sketch on plain paper. This is convenient because I can do it anywhere where there is a flat surface and I don't need any special equipment (other than a pencil and paper). A sketch is a pretty minimal investment of my time and I want to go through a few sketches to make sure I got the right composition. This is pretty important with comics, because storytelling is king and you got to get the right layout before committing any serious time to a page.

Once I get the sketch figured out I gather whatever reference I need (the web is a great resource for that) and then I sit down and draw the page on nicer paper with pencil. Knowing that the piece would not be inked, I would shade the figures and other shapes, producing a real pencil drawing that (I would hope) could stand on its own. The last step was an application of ink wash. I would also like to add, that sometimes it was easier to draw certain panels bigger that needed and later combine them digitally with the overall page. Without Photoshop that would be impossible.

More thumbnails
The last step involved scanning the page in, adding some digital gray tones, and adjusting contrasts throughout the drawing.

The end result is that the original is different than the printed version. But I think for a collector of original art, that actually makes the piece pretty unique. It's different than the printed version, but it is unique and is the origin of the final printed image. You can get the printed version and the original version and you can compare the two and see what the artist was thinking while he/she was preparing it for final printing. What did the artist think was important in the picture? What did the artist feel needed digital modification? Maybe it's not that interesting to most folks, but I find it fascinating...a great way to learn from the best how to make great pictures.

Jim: Thanks, Alex, we hope to continue this conversation as our schedules open up a little bit more, but sadly this has taken months to get this far. Most of that is my fault since my life has been a little hectic lately.

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