April '09

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When you're employed full time in the industry (for, oh, let's say twenty years), your artistic spark can get snuffed out by prolonged exposure to corporate bullshit. It's easy to feel like the last thing you want to do when you get home is anything creative.  Why would you want to... ugh... work  in your spare time?  I had this attitude for years. But lately I've learned there is a deep satisfaction to be had by re-connecting with the very thing that once brought you so much joy,   you couldn't imagine actually getting paid to do it.  

After finishing an all-too-brief development gig, I found myself facing what looked like a long dry spell, employment-wise.  Feeling restless, and not exactly eager to jump back on the taking meetings/pitching projects merry-go-round, I happened to walk into a Blick art materials store in Pasadena one afternoon.

Wandering the aisles of pens, pencils, and multicolored construction paper made my fingers start to twitch.  I realized I was itching to get my hands dirty again, to create something on my own just for the pure enyoyment of it.  Something that required no studios, no meetings, no writers, no executives, just me.  

Halloween (my favorite holiday) was just around the corner, so I bought a sketchbook and began to doodle. Soon, a goofy assortment of ghosts, monsters, black cats, and Jack O' Lanterns filled the pages.  A boxy, rectangular Frankenstein looked like he needed some company, so he was joined by a triangular Dracula and a circular Wolfman.  I drew a border around it, and the idea of finishing it as a greeting card occurred to me.  But why stop with Halloween? Why not do a whole years worth of cards, one for each major holiday? It sounded like a fun challenge.  Encouraged by my girlfriend Heidi, I headed back to Blick, loaded up on supplies, and got to work.  

My process is charmingly (perhaps alarmingly) low-tech.  The designs begin as rough thumbnail scribbles in my sketchbook.  I'll settle on one that I like a few weeks before a particular holiday, and redraw it at a slightly larger size, usually 5"x 7", refining the shapes and composition as I go.  I'm also thinking about color, so I jot notes under the sketch detailing what the color scheme might be, and any special materials I might need to create a desired effect. This becomes my shopping list when I head back to the art supply store.

Then it's off to my local Kinko's, where I blow up my sketch to 10" x 14".  Back home, I lay a fresh sheet of tracing paper over it and do a tight clean-up in pencil, making more adjustments if needed.  This becomes my pattern/template for the finished card.  Working from the largest to the smallest, I use carbon paper to transfer the individual shapes onto colored construction paper or scraps of vintage fabric.  The final collage is created with scissors, a matte cutter, glue-stick, a steady hand, and a lot of patience.  After the glue dries, I take it down to my good buddy Manny at Cantu Graphics in South Pasadena.  He scans it into the computer, re-sizes it, and usually has a printed proof for me to approve by the end of the next day.  We might make a few tiny fixes in Photoshop to get rid of any sloppy glue blobs.  He prints up a batch of fifty on heavy card stock, trims them down, creases them, and they're ready to go.  

I've been asked why I don't make these cards in Photoshop and I usually answer, "Well, then I'd actually have to learn Photoshop".  I'm not a technophobe by any stretch, but the real answer is that a good deal of the satisfaction I get from making these things comes from the fact that I'm using my hands.  I like the tactile feedback I get from the materials, and the concentration required to cut out the shapes takes me to a very Zen place.  I can actually feel my blood pressure drop.  I like being able to see the little shadows and imperfections that the computer tends to smooth out.  Plus, I have an actual, tangible, real-world physical object at the end of the day to show for my efforts.

I cite the Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday specials, Jim Henson's original designs for the Muppets, and cereal box art from the 1960's and 70's as equally strong influences on my style.

On the Disney front, I love Mary Blair's use of color, and the innocent appeal of her character designs. Ditto Tom Oreb, for his use of shape.  T. Hee, Bill Justice, and X. Atencio did some amazing stuff for their animated title sequences, using a wonderful mixed-media cut-out style that incorporates paper, fabric, and what looks like old radio parts.  Miguel Covarrubias, a magazine illustrator and caricaturist from the 1930's, had an amazing design and color sense that completely bowled me over when I saw some of his originals at a show in NYC. His use of shape, color, pattern, and texture is still second to none.   

Virtually everything I know about color and design I learned from the infamous Bill Moore at Cal Arts.  He was a surly, demanding hard-ass with a biting sense of humor that bordered on cruel.  He was also a brilliant teacher, and my classmates and I loved him for it.  His goal was to make a bunch of "dumb cartoonists" start thinking like designers.  To start thinking, period.   The principles he drilled into our mushy little brains - - expansion and contraction, positive and negative, geometric vs. organic, repetition with variation, contour continuation - - still echo in my head whenever I start a new card.  The projects we worked on while in his class were often cut-paper collages, the same technique I'm using now.

Designing the characters, I concentrate on creating a clear silhouette, and a pose that will read at a glance from across the room. Just like in animation, I'm thinking about attitude, expression, and personality.  Since a still card doesn't have the advantage of motion, I use color, pattern, and contrast to help grab the eye, and shape and composition to take the eye on a "visual trip". (another Bill Moore-ism)

The positive reaction to the cards has been one of the best parts of this process.  I've gotten lots of supportive emails, phone calls, and thank-you cards in return.  It's been a great way to stay in touch with old friends, and stay on the radar of business contacts who might eventually be in a position of being able to say, "Hey, Kirk Wise would be great for this project."  Directing full-length features is certainly rewarding, despite the headaches and hard-won battles with studio bigwigs. But those moments are often spread out over a protracted, sometimes painful process.  The cards have provided a more immediate, and much-needed, sense of accomplishment and gratification.   

Right now, I'm creating the cards for my own enjoyment and the enjoyment of family and friends.  Even in the age of e-cards and instant messaging, people still like to receive mail, and genuinely appreciate something that's made by hand.  I didn't set out with any kind of business plan or commercial application in mind.  Sometimes, I think the best art is created that way.  At the end of the year, I'll step back and take a good look at what I've done.  Then I'll start to think about how I could possibly spin them off into a profitable sideline.  You never know...

Artwork for this article is the property of Kirk Wise.

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