Monday, March 31, 2014

Let's Get Organized — Part 2 of 2

This is a cross-post with Muddy Colors — An Illustration Collective

Gouache and acrylic on bristol board, 11 × 17″.

In Part 1, I talked about the benefits of keeping track of your working hours with digital calendars. For this installment, I wanted to share how I organize my various assignments, while also tallying income and expenses.

But before I move on to the next subject, I wanted to clarify how I use Calendar. If I have a specific appointment that is time-sensitive, I will, of course, mark it down at the appropriate time in the future. Everything else is simply logged as I go (pressing Control + the Up or Down arrow moves events forward or backward 15 minutes, while that plus Shift increases or decreases the duration by the same amount). It's a to-do list and a log, as opposed to a schedule.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #646, Variant Cover. 2010.
Gouache and acrylic on bristol board, 11 x 17".

Moving on. It's tax season yet again, and while I entrust my accountant to take care of filing, I still need to keep track  of the many projects I complete throughout the year (and whether or not they were paid for). Prior to 2012, I had an exclusive contract with Marvel comics, which meant that although I was paid per project like a freelancer, I was actually treated like an employee when it came to payroll and taxes — in other words, I received a W-2 at the end of the year that was calculated by my single employer. Nice and easy.

When I became a true freelancer with many different projects and clients, deadlines were no longer the only detail I had to worry about. To keep things from getting out of hand, I created a spreadsheet with Google Docs that can record and tally all manner of information. (I also use Google Docs for recording art print inventory and to write comic scripts. It keeps everything updated no matter what computer I'm working from.)

Here's a link to the document in the Template Gallery. It contains fanciful information, but I filled in all the cells as if for the current year. The rows are color-coded according to the type of work — that makes it easier to see what's on the slate at a glance. Red is used to highlight projects in progress and/or pending payments. (If you've used a spreadsheet before, it should be intuitive, but you can find more detailed instructions here.)

There are two main benefits to keeping these records: (1) my gross and net income for the year is automatically calculated as each project is added and (2) my project rate is divided by the hours, which lets me know how valuable my time is (to people other than myself). This information will help me make decisions in the future, like whether or not I want to work for a particular client again. The pic above reveals 7 of the 148 rows from last year's records. As you can see, my hourly rates are totally unpredictable. (And I get into negative territory when I do pro bono work that nevertheless requires paid assistance.)

Long before I started using a spreadsheet, I recorded all my transactions with Quicken, an easy-to-use personal accounting program. I still use it because having separate records can help me discover errors when there are discrepancies between the two. If you're diligent about categorizing every transaction, Quicken can generate a year-end report that lets you know how you spent your money. When it comes to tax-deductible purchases, (computer equipment, conventions, travel, art supplies, meals, lawyers, utilities, rent, advertising, printing) you still need to save all your receipts, but you won't have to add them up — it's already done.

That's quite a bit of information that you need to keep track of. And that's not even counting the countless digital files that comprise your actual oeuvre. It's only a matter of time before your computer gives out on you, and you had best have a backup. After burning through several external hard drives, I stopped using them years ago, opting instead for an on-line service, CrashPlan. I don't ever want to have to use it, but that's what insurance is for.

You've probably heard of Evernote, but just in case you haven't, it's worth a look. Although they offer a paid subscription, the free service is more than enough for me. I use it for reading (it can strip away ads and save articles for later), gather reference for projects, structure plots and ideas for my own stories, or even remember people I meet. (Oh, and recipes too.) They seem to be a responsible company as well. When Adobe's servers got hacked, Evernote was the one to tell me — not Adobe. They cross-referenced the leaked data and informed anyone with an email address that appeared in their own records.

Last, but not least, my most annoying recommendation: I have my computer announce the time every 15 minutes. My wife hates it (and I can't blame her). I got the idea when visiting then-Marvel-editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada. It was a constant, grating interruption — but it kept us focused on the task at hand.

Friday, March 28, 2014


CARNAGE. 2014. Watercolor on paper, 9 × 12″.

I've got a busy few days ahead, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Here's a commission that I completed down in Mexico. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wacky Reference Wednesdays, No. 257

I'M NOT DAREDEVIL. 2014. Watercolor on paper, 9 × 12″.

I got to see Jim Krueger and his wife, Ashley, last night. For those of you who aren't familiar, Jim wrote Earth X and The Footsoldiers, 2 of my favorite books. He also happens to be the guy that got me into this industry, hiring me for his own books when I was just a teenager, and introducing me to Marvel later on. Always a pleasure to see them.

... and here's a picture of me with a wine glass and a paper tube. Yay, comics!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Gouache, watercolor, and acrylic on illustration board, 16 × 24″.

Well, this got posted on Ain't It Cool News today, so I'm guessing it's okay to show. As you can imagine, I had an awesome time working on it... and I can't wait to the see the movie. I'll do a full tutorial post on the original art at some point (I recorded the entire painting process via time lapse) but in the meantime, here are a couple of early comps that almost were. Have a great weekend!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Magneto Commission

MAGNETO. 2014. Watercolor on paper, 9 × 12″.

Here's a commission from Sacramento a couple weeks ago. I was going for a sort of "war-worn general" look. As for current projects, I'm finishing up my Little Nemo contribution, as well a new secret project. If all goes as planned, I should be able to reveal an old secret project next week.

I'll leave you with just 3 of the many awesome moments from La Mole. Apparently, I have way more fans in Mexico than I do in the states — I lost track of how many sharpies I went through. Have a great weekend!

My Dad, Joker's Harley, Harley's Joker. and myself

Just one of many lines. Mark Waid's line is to the right.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wacky Reference Wednesdays, No. 256

Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on bristol board, 11 × 17″.

I'm back! And my inker/father has returned home safely as well. We had the most wonderful time at La Mole, from all the fabulous fans and record-breaking lines to the infamous Lucha Libre wrestlers. There were too many awesome things to recount here, so I'll leave it to a special post. In the meantime, thank you to all our Mexican fans (and the ever-helpful staff) for making it such a memorable week.

I had only recently moved into my new apartment.

As for this week's Wacky Reference, I thought I'd show the extra step I did on some of the Batman pages. I often have to edit things digitally if I'm not happy with the result. My Dad is ever-faithful to my pencils, but my tastes can change after I approach something with fresh eyes. I can't always "see" the final composition until ink is on the page, and so I'll go back to make minor adjustments where needed.

inks with digital edits
inks by my Pops

blue-line print of pencils
pencils over digital sketch

digital layout

panel 5 pencils

Monday, March 17, 2014

Poor Planning

This is a cross-post with Muddy Colors — An Illustration Collective

Gouache, watercolor, and acrylic on bristol board, 13 × 19

Sometimes things don't work out as planned. Case in point: today's post was supposed to be part 2 of my "Let's Get Organized" post. But with back to back comic conventions, I'm having a tough time adhering to my own calendar.

Instead, I thought I'd show my most recent cover for Daredevil, which proved to be almost more painting than I could handle. Marvel wanted art to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the character, so I decided to pay homage to the many creators who have contributed to the title.

I liked it more before I added all the names. Oh, well.

The basic idea was fairly simple: Daredevil flipping across the gritty New York rooftops, backed by graffiti representing creators through the ages. Picking the representative art was an easy process — I just selected my favorites — but when I got to the names, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume. As I attempted to record every penciler and writer, I realized that I wouldn't have room for colorists, editors, or inkers (my Dad among them). If you're feeling brave, you can check out the formidable list. Apologies to those I missed!

burnt umber washes and slowly building up to color

The art is painted in gouache with touches of acrylic for things like highlights. The 13 × 19″ bristol board (Strathmore 500 Series 3-ply vellum surface) is taped down to a steel drawing board (so I can use magnets to keep tools and reference in place). I paint thinly at first, almost like watercolor, and save the opaque passes for the final stages when I'm more confident in the composition. Certain colors, like the bright red on Daredevil, lose their brilliance if applied too thickly. But when I couldn't avoid opaque strokes, I actually used a bright orange to achieve the same effect.

digital sketch

The perspective grid was laid out in Photoshop using Smart Objects, which acts as a file within a file. By nesting layers within those files, I can switch out a grid for bricks. I also imported the art from various artists to expedite the process. The perspective guidelines were color-coded using Layer Properties, which keeps things organized according to vanishing point.  Finally, the digital image was printed in a light orange to mimic an underpainting of burnt sienna.

As is often the case, simple ideas can be very complex when it comes to execution. I spent 72 hours from initial sketch to final scan over the course of several months. (hourly breakdown — layout: 2.5, digital sketch: 7.5, paint: 61.25, post-production: 0.75) The scene itself was pretty simple to render, but as you can imagine, the graffiti added an extra layer of work to every square inch. Maybe I'll have a better plan next time. Maybe not.

(I should be returning from the convention tonight. I'll be happy to reply to comments and questions upon my return.)

Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr. make an appearance

digital color study

Monday, March 10, 2014

Thank you, Sacramento!

Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on bristol board, 11 × 17″.

I just wanted to say thank you to everybody for stopping by the booth. I hadn't done a convention in a while, but it's always a pleasure to meet the people who support my work. I hope you all had a good show — I'll be posting the commissions I did there in the coming weeks and months.

And what's this? I've got yet another convention this coming weekend in Mexico City! This will be my first con where I don't speak the language, but I'll have a translator on hand to help ease things along (and my inker/father will be there as well). As for the blog, I'll be taking a short break, but I should have a new Muddy Colors post next Monday. Have a great week!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sacramento Comic Con

HELA. 2014. Ink & watercolor on paper, 9 × 12″.

I'll be at the Sacramento Comic Con Friday through Sunday at table A17 (here's an interactive map). I'll be signing and sketching all day, so feel free to stop by (look for the Daredevil #10 Cover or my mirror setup). I'll also be part of the Artists Roundtable on Sunday from 1:30-2:15 in Room 104. Hope to see you there. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wacky Reference Wednesdays, No. 255

Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on bristol board, 11 × 17″.

Magneto #1 is out today, featuring the fastest cover I've ever done. It was one of those rare moments when I knew exactly what I wanted to do, sketched it out in less time than it takes to deliver a pizza, and even executed it quickly. Not including my Dad's inks, it took me 5.5 hours (most of which was spent rendering the barb wire, reference below). You can see a preview of the comic (which looks awesome) at CBR.

Layout: 0.5
Digital sketch: 1.25
Pencils: 2.75
Colors: 1
Total: 5.5 hours

I found these among pics of Pamela Anderson's Barb Wire.

inks by my Pops
blue-line print of pencils

pencils over digital sketch
digital sketch

digital layout

with trade dress

Monday, March 3, 2014

Let's Get Organized — Part 1 of 2

This is a cross-post with Muddy Colors — An Illustration Collective

BOOKS OF DOOM #4 COVER (originally slated for #3). 2005.
Oil on masonite, 16 × 24″.

(Finished in Feb 2005)

I have in my possession an artifact of great historical importance to myself and no one else: my digital calendar. Beginning on Monday, February 28, 2005, it records nearly every event of my life, both personal and professional (including the hours required to write this blog post). If accurate, during the course of that initial week I spent 6 hours at the gym, cleaned the bathroom for 1.5 hours (filthy, I'm sure), went to Costco, a friend's book signing, and Drew's party (I can't recall who Drew is at the moment).

Boring, I know... but bear with me.

The vast majority of the week, however, was spent making comics. I finished painting 2 covers, varnished and photographed 2 others, and began painting the 4th page of an X-Men book — all in all, 68.5 hours of work. I know this because I used iCal, Apple's default calendar app, not like an appointment book, but as a time log and to-do list. Nearly a decade later, haven't stopped keeping track.

Oil on masonite, 16 x 24".
(Finished in Feb 2005)

Although I've upgraded computers twice since then, I still use the same program to monitor my "man-hours," albeit with a few more bells and whistles. I now keep Calendar (formerly iCal) linked to my Google Calendar account, which keeps the information in the cloud, and hence accessible from multiple devices. There are several sub-calendars within the program, meaning I can separate different types of tasks and toggle them on and off. They're also color-coded to help me organize things at a glance. My current list includes Projects, Books (to keep track of what I'm reading), Personal, Blog and Email, Art Sales, and $ (to help keep track of bills and such). You can also subscribe to calendars like US Holidays, Phases of the Moon, and Birthdays from your contacts list.

I used to keep more detailed notes on each event. That lasted for a week.

But you probably already knew all this — what I want to show is how I utilize that information. By far, the best tool I've found is GTimeReport, a web site that will tally all those hours and organize the results according to my own specifications. I used to enlist the help of another app that required each entry to be labeled with special tags in the note section, but this one needs no special designations, making it far easier to use.

To use it, you must have a Google account (automatic if you have a Gmail address) and be willing to give the program access to read the calendar. I don't take this step lightly, of course, but permission is granted through Google's own site, so you never have to reveal your password.

this information can also be exported to spreadsheet apps

It only accesses your calendar when you ask it to, and only for the designated interval. I always choose the "Show summary table" option, which combines and tallies similarly-named entries. This makes it easy to read and organize, especially since a single project can have many phases. I like to keep them separated so I know exactly how long each part took. (I used to record the details of each event in the Notes section, but now I put most of the pertinent information in the title so I can read it at a glance.)

a Timetrek screenshot

If you'd rather not do that, there are plenty of other options. My colleague and friend, Katherine Roy, uses Timetrek, a time-tracking app that lets you clock in and clock out (or even take a coffee break). Although I haven't used it myself, it looks very easy to setup and manage.

SABRETOOTH: OPEN SEASON #4. 2004. Oil on masonite, 16 × 24″.
(varnished in Feb 2005)

So what? Why keep track of your hours in the first place? Because no one else is going to do it for you. Since nearly every project I do comes with a flat rate, I need to have a solid idea of how long it will take me.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Keeping track of hours matters little for the project at hand — the true purpose is the accumulation, over time, of working data, the ultimate goal being the rejection of projects that pay too little or, more importantly, require more time than available. There's no substitute for experience, so this will naturally be more difficult for those illustrators just starting out. The hope is that staying organized will make whatever experience you do have more meaningful.

Next time: Organizing projects, deadlines, and $$$.