Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thesis Post-Mortem Pt. I: Process & Expectations


"Man Made Monsters" BFA Illustration & Cartooning Thesis Exhibition
Thesis year was a major turning point in my cartooning career. This was not due to all the hype built around the project or its accompanying thesis show. Instead, I owe part of my success to the framework of the project, one of the many elements which came together to pull me out of the failures and bad habits of my sophomore year.

In this inaugural weekly series for the Keep It Steady Initiative, I’m going to break down my journey to a better work ethic into advice which I hope will be useful to other students and cartoonists tackling their own thesis comics or any long-term work. This week’s post focuses on process and expectations, with a section dedicated to those who treat their work too preciously.


The Goal of Thesis

Thesis is a scary and mysterious prospect to incoming juniors. On one hand, great pressure is put on the student, with prestige built around the thesis show and all of the exaggerated rumors surrounding our department chair’s opinions and mood swings (Newsflash: Woodruff is a pretty nice chap). On the other hand, those who took Keith Mayerson or Klaus Janson for Principles of Cartooning are puzzled as to why finishing a 16-page comic in a semester and a half is such a big deal.

One of the big secrets of thesis is that making a masterpiece is not the point; the framework of the project is there to help students develop a work ethic for completing long-term works. If sophomore year is for pumping out work to develop technique, then the goal of junior year may be to create art at a consistent rate and quality (while balancing it with other responsibilities, depending on your load of humanities and internships). Depending on your professor, the opening of the year is dedicated to preparation, breaking your project down, nailing in the concept, initial designs, etc. This is also an ample opportunity for figuring out your process. 

In Keith Mayerson’s class sophomore class, it was expected for your story’s last page to look radically different from the first, considering how much your drawing and storytelling abilities were bound to grow between at least three year-long cartooning courses. However, such a gap of inconsistency may bar a thesis comic from entering the show. Once you move on to the second page, you sacrifice most opportunities for experimentation, so use those first few months to flex your muscles and work outside of your comfort zone.
I must stress at this point that consistency does not equal consistent perfection.

While you’re searching for a better way to tell the story, also be mindful of how you will make it. Incorporating new techniques into your work process (such as using a lightbox for inking, making digital screentones, or even working in a studio instead of your bedroom) will always make your work take longer before they will help hasten your workflow. When you’re approaching a major deadline, quickly adopting what is traditionally a faster technique may further impair you because you’re not yet comfortable with it. 

When I began the heavy lifting on my thesis, I tried to integrate a lightbox into more of my work process. While it was a shortcut for some aspects of my comics craft, it also let me indulge my perfectionism. Thankfully, I learned that it wouldn’t speed me up as fast as I’d hope before I needed it to save me from a looming deadline. So take advantage of those opening months to test new tools and adopt a more efficient workflow.


No amount of preparation will help you if you view your work with the wrong mindset. I’ve spent my life being told that I shouldn’t take my work so preciously or I’d never finish anything. This advice always rang true, my perfectionism being the greatest damper on my work, but it’s a simple advice that’s difficult to follow. If the driving goal behind your art isn’t for it to be the best representation of the story in your head, what should it be?

Your art can be something to learn from.

As young cartoonists, we can erect a huge mental wall between assigned comics and personal projects. The first comic requires less effort, existing as a means to the end of learning a lesson. The latter comic requires maximum effort; we want it to represent the pinnacle of our abilities, and anything less than that seems like a betrayal of the soul behind the project. Putting the matter of inexperience aside, aren’t you short-changing yourself if you’re dedicating so much time to the comic you refuse to get messy with, when you learn more from the comics that dirty your hands?

I feel that this distinction is not helpful to growth. One of the realizations that helped me finish thesis was that it’s more important for thesis to be a comic I learn from than one that looks marvelous. This did not mean dropping quality off the back of the truck. I learned to perform a new balancing act between the two paradigms. I would try to make a great comic, but if I messed up along the way, I would accept it for the lessons it taught me.

The longer you spend working on a comic page, the more frustrated you become when it doesn’t work out as planned. This only causes you to linger more, because if you’ve dedicated twenty-four hours to a page, you think that it better look like you put in those hours. This was especially troubling for me, as I’m already a slow artist. My ambition alone will not propel me to draw at the same quality as my friends who were making comics while I was studying English and computer science in high school. Ultimately, meticulously working up a page for hours on end won’t help me catch up to my peers as much as learning to live and let live, dedicating my time to making more pages in less time with the fumbles that involves.

As we grow as cartoonists, we’re going to flail less and have to make fewer compromises. However, we will always be learning. Like a child, loving a comic means letting it fail sometimes. Each failure can lead to a plethora of successes in future pages and stories.

Whether you’re facing thesis next year or are just trying to tackle a long-term project, don’t simply set goals to complete pages; try to be critical of your own skills and address the lessons you need to brush up on. We’re artists; when we finish something, we only view a sea of mistakes. If we can map out our growth among those mistakes, we can take in greater satisfaction from both success and failure and propel ourselves to become greater cartoonists.

Next week I’ll discuss selecting and organizing a workspace.

If you have your own thesis/long-form comic advice or responses to my advice, feel free to comment on this post or in the Keep It Steady Initiative’s group and I’ll add it to the article.

Eric Alexander Arroyo is a hot-blooded senior who wears a fedora, digs giant robots, and obsesses over flowing scarves. He's spent his life wandering Florida and Las Vegas, and hopes to find an apartment in the bowels of a volcano. Although he's training to be a cartoonist, he'd rather be a crime-fighting cyborg when he grows up.

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