4 Time-Saving Tips (from a guy who spent 13 YEARS drawing a comic)


Hello, my name is Lars Martinson and I’m a cartoonist. Recently, I finished my three-volume graphic novel Tonoharu a decade behind schedule. That, unfortunately, isn’t an exaggeration. I started working on it in 2003, and expected to have the entire thing finished and ready to go to press by 2006. In fact, I remember thinking the 2006 estimate was, if anything, somewhat cautious. I kinda thought finishing it in 2005 was in the realm of possibility. Or worst case scenario, maybe the first half of 2007. Never ever did I imagine I’d end up devoting a total of 13 years to it. I’ll leave it to others less biased than myself to evaluate Tonoharu’s artistic merit, but logistically at least, it was a colossal failure. This was due in large part to several misguided artistic decisions I made early in production. For example, I really love the etchings found in 19th century books, and liked the idea of doing a comic that evoked that style. Tonoharu’s title page probably best illustrates the effect I was going for. Better capture the varied line widths that these etchings often have. I eschewed felt-tip pens and markers, instead working almost exclusively with a brush and a dip pen. These tools do indeed create beautiful lines, but they are messy and time-consuming, as you always need to dip them in ink every two seconds. Combined with the dense cross-hatching, this added untold countless hours to Tonoharu’s production. Compounding that problem was my approach to illustrating the setting. Tonoharu takes place in Japan, and I very much wanted to portray the totality of the landscape. I didn’t really give any thought to limiting the number of locations I used. As such, Tonoharu contains more than 200 distinct locations. And just to be clear here, I’m not counting when I re-drew the same place from a different angle, which I often did, and which still took a bunch of time. No, these are separate, visually distinctive locations. Bars, restaurants, classrooms, apartment buildings, shopping centers, train stations, post offices, hotels, airports, convenience stores, (gasp) break rooms, ports, karaoke boxes, temples, offices, video stores, dozens of exterior shots of everything from rice paddies to suburbs to densely populated cities. (gasp) If it was a part of my experience in Japan, I tried to squeeze it in there. I went out and took photographic reference for the majority of these, like a movie location scout or something. I then go home, meticulously compose the scene based on my photo reference, and spend hours cross-hatching the results. In addition to all that, there were a million other creative, innovative ways that I squandered my time. From adding visual flourishes you’d literally need a magnifying glass to see, to re-drawing recurring backgrounds for some reason, to re-drawing hundreds of faces and frankensteining them into the original artwork. I mean, this looks like something a crazy person would do, right? The list goes on and on and on. Okay, so these are intended to serve as examples of my idiotic, pig-headed workflow for Tonoharu. But as you can probably tell, I’m also sort of humble-bragging here. I’m pretty proud of the look and feel of the comic. I like that it has weird little Easter eggs that most people won’t even notice. I like that I, as a single creator, made this thing that has hundreds of extras and enough locations to put a big-budget Hollywood movie to shame. I think that’s kinda cool. And if time wasn’t a factor, I wouldn’t mind creating more books in a similar style. But as we mortals know all too painfully well, time 𝘪𝘴 a factor. No, time is 𝘵𝘩𝘦 factor. I was 25 years old when I started Tonoharu and didn’t wrap it up until the age of 38. If I were to continue at the same glacial pace for future projects, I could finish two or maybe three more things before I died or was too old to work. And that’s making the dubious assumption that I could work at the same pace in my 60’s that I did in my 20’s. You could say that’s morbid or pessimistic, but I think it’s just an acknowledgement of the reality of the situation. And I gotta say, the thought of being able to quantify my lifetime artistic output on one hand does not sound good to me at all. I wanna finish more than a couple artistic projects before I die. Like, a lot more. Ten times as many, let’s say. But in order to make that happen, I need to completely change my entire approach to creating art. So now, half as a reminder to myself and half as cautionary advice to any budding perfectionist artist out there, here are four things I hope to keep in mind from here on out. #1 is to fail faster. I’m stealing this one wholesale from a video created by the YouTube channel ExtraCredits. The focus of their channel is on video game development, but a lot of what they discuss applies to creative endeavors in general, and their ‘Fail Faster’ video in particular really hit home for me. I recommend watching the actual video, and I’ll include a link to it in the description for anyone that’s interested. But just to summarize, they put forth that no idea comes out fully formed, and only by testing out an idea can you begin to iron out its imperfections. They argue that since provisional failure is inevitable, it’s best to fail as quickly and efficiently as possible, or to fail faster, so that you can, to use their words, “spiral towards a better center, course-correcting along the way.” I’m sure that if I’d experimented with my workflow on shorter test projects, and tweaked it to be more efficient, I could have saved myself literally years worth of work. Though I have to admit, my younger self might not have been receptive to a more streamlined approach. Which brings me to my 2nd guideline, which is to embrace creative laziness. When I first started Tonoharu, I wore my inefficient workflow as a badge of pride. I equated hard work with artistic integrity and taking an easier path with artistic compromise. I saw shortcuts as basically cheating. Something only used by work-for-hire hacks on a deadline. True artists, I told myself, toughed it out. I learned the hard way what this kind of stubbornness gets you, and since I don’t want to be in my 50’s when I finish my next project; I’ve realized that I need to swallow my pride, stop fetishizing hard work for hard work’s sake, and embrace the path of least resistance. Doing this without the resulting work feeling cheap or shoddy requires a bit of ingenuity. To give you an example of what I mean by this, let me show you a brief clip from the anime movie, ‘Lupin the 3rd: Dead or Alive.’ What I think is interesting about this scene, and with a lot of anime actually, is how little actual animation there is. There’s a sense of movement, sure, but this is accomplished by panning or zooming the camera across still backgrounds. In fact, there’s only one instance of actual animation in this entire 30-second clip. And that’s coming up here. But even then, they only animate the guy’s arm, leaving the rest of him, and the girl sitting next to him, completely still. Moments like this are interspersed throughout anime, and what’s cool is the average viewer doesn’t even notice. These scenes are lazy, but in a subtle, creative way. And I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here. For Tonoharu, I went out of my way to avoid shortcuts. But for future projects, I intend to vigorously seek them out. To almost make a game out of it. For every artistic decision I make, I want to pose the question, “Is there any way I can make this happen for less work?” Even if that means making 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 artistic concessions, or at least redefining my artistic vision. Anime brilliantly masks its corner-cutting techniques by making them seem like stylistic choices, and I aspire to that level of sneaky laziness. Though to be fair, the advice “be lazy” could be taken to an unhelpful extreme. And sure, you shouldn’t always go with the easiest option. But I think it’s important to be extremely selective about what you choose to invest extra time in. Which brings me to my 3rd guideline, which is to pick your battles. I most certainly did not do this for Tonoharu. I fought each and every one of them. Every background is densely cross-hatched, every crowd scene has a bunch of unique, meticulously rendered extras. There was no strategic thinking involved in Tonoharu’s creation. Just me indiscriminately waging war on every front. This came at a tremendous cost in loss of time. Granted, some of these battles, even the really time-consuming ones, were worth fighting. Like take this pannel. It establishes the scene, it helps the reader get a sense of the sheer spectacle of a Japanese festival in a way a simpler composition would not, and on top of that, it could be used for promotional materials. But let me give you an example of a battle that, looking back at it now, probably wasn’t worth fighting. This four-panel sequence. So as you can see, the setting is quite complicated with a bunch of extras moving around. The artwork is fine, but not really visually striking enough to be used for marketing purposes. And as for the scene itself, all I’m trying to convey is two people saying goodbye, so there’s really no reason that couldn’t have taken place on an empty street corner or something. Having it take place in a busy train station doesn’t really add that much value, considering how long it took to draw. So this is probably a battle I wouldn’t fight if I were to do it over again. For the majority of Tonoharu’s production though, relocating a scene is probably something I wouldn’t have even considered. Which leads me into my final guideline, which is to let nothing be sacred. Tonoharu is not an adaptation of anything, and although it was inspired by various aspects of my own life, it is a work of fiction. So when it comes right down to it, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with it. I wasn’t beholden to source material I had to be faithful to, nor did I have to try to accurately represent true events. Yet in spite of that, I was weirdly resistant to tinkering with the details once the script was written. Like take the previous example of the train station. The location wasn’t really critical to the story, but when I originally conceived of it in my mind’s eye, that scene took place in that train station. And once I solidified a detail, it suddenly felt non-negotiable and beyond reproach. This extended to pretty much every aspect of Tonoharu, from the character designs, to the flow of events, to trivial minutia. This sort of stubborn devotion to an artistic vision is bad logistically, in that it doesn’t give you much wiggle room to change things to be more efficient, but I’d argue it’s bad artistically as well. We tend to idolize artists that refuse to compromise, but I think there’s something to be said for having the humility to allow your vision to be malleable. To recognize that none of your ideas are precious or sacred. By giving yourself the license to experiment and mix things up, you open up the possibility of improving your work in addition to discovering more efficient ways to create it. Okay so, I separated all these into four bullet points for the purpose of organization, but I’ll admit there’s a lot of overlap here and they’re really all speaking to the same basic idea. That our time is a painfully limited resource, and it’s important to be cognizant of how we’re using it if we have a lot we want to get done. I’m a stubborn perfectionist at heart, so I’ll probably always end up spending longer on my projects than I’d like, but I’m hopeful that if I can make time-management the priority that it clearly must be, I can finish future projects in a matter of months, not a matter of years, while maintaining an acceptable level of quality. That may sound a bit overly ambitious considering my track record, but like I said, I’m willing to completely overhaul the way I produce art right down to the very medium that I’m working in. But that’s a topic for another video. For anyone that’s interested, signed copies of all three volumes of Tonoharu are available through my website, I’ll include a link to that in the description. Otherwise you can pick them up at your prefered bookseller. Thank you very much for watching!

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