Guido Crepax & Me

Barefoot Justine, Crepax sketch, final

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I’m going to walk you through the thinking that has gone into one of my recent pieces, thought by thought and step by step I will break it down, both the thought process, and the physical process.

The genesis of this work came when I was approached about doing a Guido Crepax tribute piece (Valentina in particular) that will be in a collection from Fantagraphics. Obviously I was honored and leapt at the opportunity. I’ve always had a funny reaction to Crepax. While I could never help but recognize the profound influence he has had, and while I have really enjoyed the work of his that is in my library, I can’t honestly say that his work has had any direct influence on me, however, his work has had a profound influence on some of my biggest influences.

The reason I never followed Crepax is simple… he draws on the surface of the paper, delineating the shapes without bones. Thought it’s not always the case, I’m not naturally drawn to art in which volume is not clearly expressed or where anatomical form is not studied. His line work, however, has always excited me, as well as his mastery over the gloriously perverse subject matter, ditto the style, and I can’t help but recognize his influence. It’s not about having any criticisms of Crepax’s work, it’s more that it hadn’t pulled me in. Seeing below, it’s obvious what I mean about the facial features and so forth sort of floating on the surface, and also obvious the brilliant line work and his dedication to craft, and less obvious, the influence he’s had on some of my favorites (we’ll be talking about that shortly).

Art by Guido Crepax

Art by Guido Crepax

Among the many things I’ve loved about Crepax is the use of white, and how the features and elements of the picture often float in a sea of white. This is something I grew to appreciate more and more through the mentorship of Jeff Jones.

Let’s get going by talking about the influence he has had on many of my favorite exploitation directors, particularly Jess Franco from Spain, and Jean Rollin from France. The influence of comics, particularly European comics, has always run very deep in the films of Franco and Rollin. Jean Rollin, I know from the time we spent talking, had a surprising knowledge and good eye when it came to comics. My initial thought was to find a way to frame Crepax (Valentina in particular) into the framework of Jess Franco, who has had an enormous influence on me, and the influence Crepax has had is abundantly evident in his films. I figured if I could say something about the influence Crepax has had on Franco, then through that door, we would arrive at the influence he has had on me, so my first sketch dealt with that concept. Jess Franco was a well known cinematic voyeur. His films often expose him as such, the main action and the women in his films are often viewed (spied upon) through things, windows, screens, or from behind things, plants, bars, etc. This seemed like a great subject for a single page illustration, so as you can see below, that became my starting point:

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #1

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #1

The problem was, I wasn’t all that excited about drawing this particular piece, and since the assignment was not a paying one, I decided to keep looking for something I would really enjoy drawing… so, as they say, back to the drawing board…

My next thought was to go through my extensive morgue and find a couple photographs that might inspire me, but as I did very quick sketches from them, they both fell short of not only any narrative quality, but fell short of inspiring me to sit down at the drawing table and work them out.

I’d like to talk about how common a problem this is for me. While I love drawing comics pages, I really struggle with the layouts and pencils. The inks tend to come more easily to me, the anxiety is always at this stage, especially on a piece like this that will be sitting amid other images by artists like: George Pratt, Bill Koeb, David Mack, Dave Mckean, Michael Gaydos, Beto Hernandez, Michael Avon Oeming, Vince Locke, Brian Bolland, Bill Sienkiewicz, Paul pope and Mike Huddleston, so this was not a piece to take lightly. Believe it or not all these years into my career and I am still so easily intimidated, not just by the company I would be keeping in this book, not just by the legendary status of Crepax, but forevermore by the blank page itself. This is why it is so important for me to enter into an image like this wholly at peace with what I am going to see through to the finish. While both of these sketches held a lot of potential for elaboration, neither were ideas that captured me.

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #2

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #2

Before I get to the next sketch that did not excite me, let’s just say that looking over the image above again, I can see that while it is nothing more than a sketch from an inspiring photo, the kind of line I wanted to play with is already in evidence.

Below is the other sketch that simply didn’t do it for me:

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #3

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #3

I think as you can well imagine, the photo I referred to in this case contained nothing more than anatomical reference, the rest of the concept, the eels, motion, the specifics of the character etc., all came from my head.

I’d like to talk for a moment about the taboo against using pre-existing photos, well for one, it’s fine if it’s done right, if the photo is nothing more than anatomical reference (or something similar), and if we use it is a staring point from which to launch our own creation. I’d also like to point out that the artists who have influenced me mostly used photos. Take Alphonse Mucha for example, he not only drew and painted from photos, he actually, in some case, gridded them first. Mucha was well paid, had a huge studio full of props and all the money in the world to hire models and take photos, but since illustrators haven’t had a raise in a hundred years, we, at this point, are at a great disadvantage. I, at least, am in no place financially to afford props and models, let alone a big luxurious studio. With this in mind, we have to work with what is available to us as reference, even if it is pre-existing, as in photos from magazines.

My fourth attempt to thrill myself came from a clipping from an old fashion magazine, and while I liked the potential elegance and class of it, it too, did not excite me, though this time around the reference was at least getting lost under my own sense of design, and I liked that the photo did what it was supposed to do, get my creative juices flowing so I could go off in my own direction. Ultimately, my goal is usually to use the photo as a source of inspiration, and to fact-check my anatomy, while I go off and do my own things around it.

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #4

Barefoot Justine, Crepax tribute sketch #4

While I liked this one, it just wasn’t yet the one, though it would have done in a pinch. What I liked was, once again, the linework I was aspiring to was already in evidence, and the drawing was mine, the design was mine, and I started to realize exactly what it was I wanted.

By this point I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve, and exactly what I wanted to learn. I realized at this point that I simply wanted to draw on the surface like Crepax, no bones, no anatomical under-drawing (beyond the bare minimum of getting the proportions down), and most importantly, I wanted this drawing to be about line. That became my laser-point focus, I wanted the drawing to be flat and on the surface and all about line and white space, nothing else mattered, so I decided to really look for some imagery that would excite me without my working for it, so that I could get to what I wanted to do and stop worrying about everything else. Sometimes that is the best way to go, figure out what you want to learn, experiment with or master, and find ways to cut out all other anxieties and struggles.

At this point, however, four sketches down, I began to worry a little that I might be too intimidated by the company I was keeping to relax and produce my best. But then realized there was a scene in one of my very favorite exploitation films that was begging to be honored, though not a scene by Franco or Rollin, but by Hubert Frank, who is sometimes mistaken for Franco. The film, “Angel and the Beasts” is francoesque, but far too rich in narrative to be a Franco. There was a particular scene of one of the women dancing over a fight that was going on at her feet. The scene is amazing, so wild, such an exploitation apex, but there was something about that scene that really seemed appropriate… and that was that the actress had a haircut, body, and a style that was very Valentinaesque. I assume that like Franco and Rollin, Hubert Frank was also influenced by comics and Crepax in particular. Below is a blurry still of her in mid-dance.

Angel & the Beasts screencap

Angel & the Beasts screencap

I simply paused on the images that most excited me and sketched them, then wrote down where they were in the film so I could easily find them. The sketches came quick, loose and open, and possessed exactly the potential for excitement I was looking for. I often do my thumbnails in ballpoint pen, in fact I do most of my best sketching in ballpoint pen as the absence of an eraser can be very liberating.

As you can see, even as I drew them I was piecing together the puzzle that would become the final page. I’d also like to say that I rather like these loose, open and easy sketches, and I hoped to capture some of the spontanaity and fluidity of these lines in the final piece.

Barefoot Justine, Crepax sketch, final

Barefoot Justine, Crepax sketch, final

So here’s where I started to unwind into cross-purpose thinking. On the one hand I really wanted to explore some of what makes Crepax’s linework so lovely, yet I wanted to explore the influence of Jeffrey Jones too (who, like Crepax, used a lot of empty white–or negative–space), and lastly, I didn’t want to lose my own sense of line in all this. My main ambition was to create a final pencil that would lend itself well to loose zig-zaggy linework and motion, the motion of dance within the lines themselves. Problem here is, I didn’t take the time to scan the pencils, but I snapped a few pics on my phone, however I’m a luddite and just can’t manage to get to that damn pic, so in lieu of that pencil sketch, here’s a picture of Spiro Agnew:

Can't get to my pencils, so here's Agnew!

Can’t get to my pencils, so here’s Agnew!

Now that the hard work was done (finding a concept that excited me, and getting the pencils finished), the intimidating part was ahead… how could I ink this and keep it loose? Looseness is a thing I can’t manufature, I don’t know that anyone really can; nor is it something that can be forced, which is where focus, meditation, concentration and letting go come into play.

I started inking the 4 panels across the top, hand I have to admit, I was feeling very discouraged about the last two panels. They weren’t really loose, they seemed to possess a forced looseness that I didn’t care for, so I decided that after I finished the fourth panel in that tier, that I would stop for the day and hit the last 2 panels another day.

Then something unexpected happened. Just as I was about to walk away from the drawing, it suddenly hit me that I had found the place I needed to find within the maze of my mind, that place that can only be found through focus. My mind works like a maze, and I have realized as I have gotten older that I can access almost any state of mind if I simply focus on going through the maze in my mind… until I find the right room. I don’t know why, but I knew that even as I had been about to give up discouraged for the day, that I had, in the end, found that elusive place I needed to inhabit were I to let my brush dance across the page like Jeffrey Jones. There are a number of Jones pieces that have inspired me, below is one of them:

Art by Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Art by Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Yeah, terrifying stuff! One simply can NOT manufacture or fake lines that loose and confident.

My research done, my influences in hand, I went ahead and nailed those last two panels, finishing the page in an inspired moment, attaining my personal best. I’ll talk more about the particulars of line after you get a look at the panels:

Final Barefoot Justine Crepax

Final Barefoot Justine Crepax

As you can see, the linework on the final two panels is open, loose, and right on! By the time I got there, everything I wanted is in evidence in the final piece, the looseness, the white, the surface drawing, and the lines… those zig zags, the openness and confidence. Easily the most ON panel is the final, in my eyes a hybrid between Hubert Frank, Jeff Jones, and mostly Crepax’s Valentina. Enjoy… I did!

Detail, Barefoot Justine's Valentina

Detail, Barefoot Justine’s Valentina

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