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It seems logical, right? Mass production would mean more room for error. Tell that to Grant Gould who, in the job of a lifetime, had to draw 1,000 sketch cards for the upcoming Star Wars movie. The catch? He only had two weeks to finish all 1,000. Grant talked to Comic Foundry about how he got the job, how he finished on time and what shortcuts he picked up along the way.
What do you do as a production artist? How did you get that job?
“Production artist” sounds a lot cooler than it is. I basically work on large-format layouts for corporate presentations and then print and mount them. Earlier in my career, I was a graphic designer, which is actually what I went to school for. I graduated with some awards and was offered a job very quickly. I had to spend a couple years working my way up to the position I wanted, but eventually, with a good attitude, I got there.
I’d imagined that as a graphic designer I’d really be able to flex my creative muscles, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. It ended up being restrictive, and the bottom line is that executives were making all of the design choices, not the actual designers. So it was unsatisfying. Then after being laid off in 2002, I was offered my current job in production, and it turned out to be something I really enjoy. I can go to work each day without feeling weighed down by corporate decision-making, and then in the evenings I work on my art. I suppose you could call me a full-time production artist and a part-time illustrator, though it would be nice to reach a point where my drawing could become the full-time job.
How did you get the job doing the Star Wars card series? What did that job entail?
I really have StarWars.com webstrip artist Tom Hodges to thank for that. I was an online friend of his for some time, and Topps was interested in finding new talent for their upcoming “Revenge of the Sith” sketch cards. Tom had seen my art and liked it, and he knew I was a huge Star Wars geek, so he gave them my name and e-mail address. Shortly after, I received an e-mail from Matt Saunders (Topps’ product manager) saying that he liked my stuff and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing the cards. After exploding into a million pieces and choking on my own tears, I calmly said, “Yeah, sure.” And that’s how it happened. Lucasfilm reviewed my stuff, and I became an official Lucasfilm-approved artist.
Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. I could only guess at how long each card would take me, how much pressure I’d feel, etc. But I knew I wanted to give it my all. I told them I could do a thousand, and shortly after that I received the blank cards in the mail. I’ll be honest with you, it was intimidating. I had a thousand sketches to draw in about two weeks (and for someone with a full-time day job, that’s insane), and they were for Star Wars! Fans would be looking at them, judging them, selling them on ebay! I had to wrap my head around it. But I plowed through ‘em and tried not to second-guess myself. I made friends with some of the other Star Wars artists online, and that was a great help because they gave me confidence. They were going through the same craziness.
When you’re doing so many sketches in such a short time, you have to keep it interesting. I mean, I was drawing at least 30 different characters, but I had to draw some of them many times over. I had to mix it up a little. I ended up switching between pencil, pen and marker a lot.
I also let myself spread out in terms of drawing style. For the most part, I stuck to my usual comic book style, but occasionally I’d spend a little more time on a card and try to stretch myself. The Topps cards were a great experience, and it taught me a lot in terms of what I can do, what I’m good at and how fast I can work without losing my mind.
How fast do you work? How long did it take you to do all 1,000 cards?
Well, as I mentioned, I had about a two-week time frame for the Topps cards, so I finished my thousand in about two weeks. But that was unusually hyper for me. Given my deadline, I only had a couple minutes to work on each card. There were a few I was able to spend more time on, but for the most part they truly are sketches in every sense of the word. Quick, raw output.
What shortcuts helped you work faster?
The biggest shortcut I had to learn is finding an image or pose that I could sketch quickly, and then repeat it, you know, 40 times over or something. At first I wanted to put a lot of detail into the cards, but I learned quickly that I had to keep it simple. I also discovered that sketching with markers is a lot of fun for me, and for some reason I can do it much faster than I can with pencil. So I think those things kept me alive on the project. And, of course, I had Star Wars DVDs constantly playing in the background for inspiration. It was a good excuse to catch up on listening to all of the commentaries.
What mediums did you use to complete that project?
I’m a low-tech guy when it comes to that stuff. I had my box of four-dollar automatic pencils, Uniball pens, and Sharpie markers. Another thing I learned over the course of drawing the cards is what works and what doesn’t in terms of color. (Most of the sketch cards aren’t colored, but a few here and there got the special treatment.) I started out using colored pencils, which I shouldn’t have done. They don’t look as good as the ones I colored with Prismacolors toward the end. I now have much better tools, and, again, it was a learning experience. I never used to pay attention to what other artists were using, but now I’m beginning to understand that I have a lot more to learn in that area. Still, I love my Sharpies!
Where did you receive your art training?
As a kid I would stare endlessly at comic books, cartoons, and role-playing books and try to mimic the artwork. Even in high school I remember cloning Jim Lee’s work, trying to replicate his poses. I eventually grew out of my copycat phase, and after a few years of procrastination, I went to college for visual communications. At the time I didn’t think enough of my drawing skills to believe I could make a living off it, and I had a real passion for design and layout, so it seemed like the smart choice. I had one or two actual drawing classes in college, but for the most part I’ve had no official training. Just a lot of practice.
Any words of wisdom to those looking to pursue freelance work?
I think networking is really important. Create a Web site, promote yourself, get to know other artists, join forums, go to conventions, be friendly and get your name out there. I think a lot of artists jump into the game expecting too much too quickly. They get a table at a convention and expect everyone they talk to to buy their comic. They set up an online store and expect everyone they know to buy one of their prints. It just doesn’t work that way. You need to go into it with low expectations and high spirits.
If you’re good at what you’re doing, and if you have a good attitude, then one day something big will probably happen. Be patient with it. Fortune favors the bold, right?
How does trading card work differ from sequential work?
The sketch cards are essentially quick, small-scale pin-ups. Sequential work involves planning and a lot more time. I suppose I can’t comment too much on how different they are in the professional comics world because I’ve yet to draw a comic with an actual deadline. All the comic work I’ve done in the past has been for my own self-published creations. But I’d imagine they each have an advantage over the other.
From my personal experience, the sketch cards were more exciting because they move quickly. There’s no time to second-guess yourself or start over. Sequential work is fulfilling, though, because in my mind it’s more like a movie. It tells a
story, and that’s something the sketch cards generally lack.
How did you establish your style drawing with something that’s been drawn before?
That was the scariest and most amazing part of working with Star Wars characters. I don’t need to tell you, that’s a big pool to be jumping into! I mean, here are these iconic characters, and suddenly I’m drawing them.
It was a little overwhelming at first. But as the days went on, I sort of put that out of my mind and just went with the flow. By the time I was through the first four or five hundred, the way I was drawing some of the characters was already evolving. I had never drawn most of the Episode III characters before, so I had to find my groove as I worked.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing fan reaction when the cards hit stores on April 2.