Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Be a Rookie

The retail operation where I sometimes grab shifts is now welcoming a handful of rookies onto the roster. As a result, I find myself proffering some hints and lessons here and there.

Which takes me back to when I was a rookie (and believe me, I feel like I'm a rookie on a regular basis--this is not a job where you learn everything in the first week and then never pay attention again).

Unlike other professions that take on apprentices formally, with guidelines, caricature operations really vary. Some folks have to adhere very specifically to a house style and medium, while at other places it's a free-for-all. But there's a certain set of unwritten rules in this business when it comes to learning the craft as a newbie. I decided to write them down.

1. Be Nice.

I don't mean "draw nice." I mean BE nice. There always seems to be one or two folks a year who show up and think they already know it all. Invariably, they don't. Nor will they learn. Be nice to your fellow newbies, your new boss, and any other seasoned artists who are there. These folks will be key to your learning process over the next months or years, and they will also help you earn an income.

2. Be Humble

You aren't as good as you think you are. If the first sentence out of a potential new hire's mouth is something about how awesome and talented they are, I steel myself for what their work is going to look like. It's usually awful because they have invested more time in self-worship than self-improvement. Most everyone who actually gets good at this is constantly self-critical. In order to get better, you need to be able to tell where you went wrong, and the ability to see that much is a key ingredient in a caricature artist. If someone cannot see flaws in their own work, it's usually a sign they don't have that power of observation. The flip-side of this is that if you ARE overly self-critical, take a breath and realize that it doesn't necessarily mean you suck . . . it means you have the ability to see where you could use improvement. That's the ticket right there.

3. Be Observant.

Before you even officially hire on, you should show up and watch each established caricaturist work for at least an hour or two. This was the first assignment I ever had as a rookie with Quickdraw. Even if you show up to observe and there's no business, chances are the artist will show you a few tips and tricks and you can ask questions. For the first year, whenever the artist next to you is drawing you should be watching.

4. Be Grateful.

There's an attitude I have come across lately, online and in person, of "I deserve to be an artist--because REASONS!" The universe does not owe you an audience or a living. Someone I know (only peripherally) recently griped "I just want a fun, creative job in the arts that can pay my bills, is that too much to ask??" Well, in a word, yes! We are phenomenally lucky to live in today's age, where we non-royals don't have to spend dawn till dusk subsistence farming in order to live. So we have some leisure time. And that's getting spent consuming creative arts, so much so that people start thinking that's all there is to life. Then they believe that it's logical that they, too, should be gainfully employed making content. Not everyone can, not everyone should, but believe me it seems like EVERYONE IS TRYING. Quite frankly, our country might be better off if folks got this determined to be a really good vacuum repair person, or shoemaker, or botanist, or tailor--the "sciences and useful arts" as our Constitution puts it. The people lucky enough to make a living in a creative field, even one as varied and "carny" as caricature, are in it because of dedication, practice, and maybe a little insanity. That's what it takes to rise above the background hum of a few million aspiring doodlers. If you get a chance to be one of them, remember there are a million people who would trade places with you. Don't ever gripe about the fame and fortune you don't have. Draw the face in front of you and learn from it. And be glad you aren't subsistence farming.

5. Be Open to Learning--from Everyone.

You will likely hire on to a crew with decent artists, great artists, and maybe a couple lousy ones too. The lousy ones will have their good days, and the great ones will have their bad days. You can learn from all of them. You might see someone put a few bad lines on a drawing and start thinking that you're better than one (or all) of them and they have nothing to teach you. This is the day you will stop learning, and it is the road to being a lousy artist.

6. Be Trustworthy.

Nothing gets a person fired quicker than stealing. And yet I have seen folks try it time and time again in this business. Skimming off the profits seems easy, or victimless, to some artists--but the victim will be you in the long run. Pocketing the entire payment for a color double might mean an extra $15 or $20 for your take-home pay, but remember what it will cost you in the long run. Once someone notices a thief, word gets around. Maybe they get fired immediately, maybe there's a grace period but eventually the thief is let go. That reputation follows a person, and this is a small community. Fellow artists won't keep thievery a secret--they have a vested interest in seeing the booth pay its rent. And reputations follow you. When you want to work at an operation across the country, that might be cut short with just a few words, like "Oh I remember that guy. He got let go for stealing."

7. Be Resilient

No one is perfect at this. And no one gets great customer reactions 100% of the time. Be prepared for rejects, and deal with them in a mature way when they arise. Take a break, walk it off, and face the next customer with all the effort and optimism you can muster. If a jerky customer or hen-pecking grandma rattles you enough to ruin your entire day, this might not be the best job for you. 

8. Be Brave.

I have seen some artists get gun-shy and avoid working with one of the really seasoned crowd favorites because they feel inadequate, or a bit jealous. "I hate working with that guy! He's so fast and the crowd loves him, it makes me feel like chopped liver." Well guess what? You will always, always, always make more money per shift working next to an artist that is more dynamic and better than you. Because their work generates interest that will lead to more butts in YOUR chair too. You might not beat their total, but you will benefit. And sitting next to them is an ongoing learning opportunity. You only rise to the level of those you surround yourself with. Aim high, and don't let a fragile ego hold you back. 

Good luck!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Fallacies that House Built

First, a disclaimer: I am not a doctor and I am not giving medical advice. I'm more of a couch potato giving advice on how to watch TV.

What the hell does being a doctor, or watching TV, have to do with a caricature blog, you ask? Well, Hugh Laurie has an awesome face. I played around with it and did a quick digital doodle of him, but I'm not quite satisfied yet. I'll be drawing him at least a few times more. Rich features and bone structure there. You can see his young face (and native accent) on Laurie & Fry, an old British comedy also available on Netflix instant, for any of you who want something Monty Python flavored but who have memorized all of Flying Circus already.

House has long been on my list of things to check out. Dr. Gregory House is based on Sherlock Holmes, as Baker Street fans already know, which makes for some quirky dialogue and fun relationship friction . . . and every now and again a direct reference makes its way into the show. Doctor Wilson (who is the de facto Watson of the show) at one point talks about "hearing zebras instead of horses," and then in a later episode tells a group of doctors a lengthy lie about "Irene Adler," some woman whom he claimed House was infatuated with. And instead of a solution of cocaine, or the occasional bit of morphine that the original Holmes indulged in, Dr. House is hooked on vicodin and sometimes other, stronger pain-killers.

Netflix has all the seasons available on the instant download, and I found them perfect for what I needed. See, I recently took on a huge pile of commission work and it drives me bananas to not have something in the background as I draw. Some find that distracting, and I would never recommend it if one is doing something verbal-based (for instance, I can't watch TV and write, I need silence for that). But for repetitive actions like filling in swaths of color? I love me some podcasts, talk shows, or interesting-but-not-too-enthralling TV shows. I cannot work during really impressive shows like Game of Thrones or Walking Dead, because every frame is gold. House though? It's pithy, but for the most part predictable. While House has been trumpeted as a "skeptic" character and launched a thousand memes with snarky quotes from the show, I'm not exactly watching it with eyes glued to the screen . . . and if I really want to see the explosive bloody diarrhea that just coated the guest star's hospital bed, I can just pause and rewind.

I'm up to season 5 so far and have seen quite a bit of explosive bloody diarrhea.

The show introduces one or two medical mysteries that are resolved by the end of the episode (think Law & Order, but with doctors), and so it's no surprise the scripts are formulaic. But there's a sort of comfort to formula 42-minute dramas . . . Law & Order has eight hundred spinoffs for a reason. Not to mention the cool guest stars that sometimes have popped up. I got to see Jeremy Renner as a punk rocker who coughs up tons of blood, Felicia Day as an organ recipient, and Dave Matthews as a brain-damaged savant. That last episode is worth checking out just to see Hugh and Dave jam on the piano together.

But medically. Oh, ouch, medically. As I said above, I am not a doctor. But I am not a moron either.  This show gives me flashbacks to college, when I tried watching Chicago Hope with my roommate, who was working at a hospital and attending dental school. Between laughing fits, she would say "Uh, no, that doesn't happen," quite frequently. When one episode showed the transplant-harvest lab monkeys being brought down to the cancer ward so that sick kids could play with them, she near about had an aneurysm.

Paging Dr. House . . . it's 34 minutes into the episode!
House, indeed, has unrealistic medical things all over the place, and the very nature of the 42-minute-drama formula plays into the false medical information. The doctors (who should be used to seeing blood all the time, I mean, they're doctors) never seem to get really worried until that precise moment in the show, around minute 34, when a patient starts gushing blood from a particular orifice--or all of them. The writers use blood as a touchstone because of its visceral value to all human beings: most of us get panicked when we see it. So, like clockwork, the patient will become an Old Faithful of the red stuff whenever the story needs to signal viewers "okay, shit's getting real now!" Blood gushes from noses, or ears, or it gets vomited out, or comes out mouth, nose, and eyes simultaneously, or gets pooped all over the bed, or a catheter bag that should contain urine instead has--you guessed it--blood, and even once they had a doctor get wide-eyed and say "you're sweat . . . you're sweating blood!" as the camera zoomed in on little blood droplets and dramatic music crescendoed. The blood on this show has its own theme music, it's really one of the stars.

And then by minute 38, Dr. House, or his team, in conjunction with some teeny tiny clue they found while illegally breaking into the patient's home (when was the last time your doctor cared so much that he or she broke into your home?), figure out the diagnosis. And usually they save the patient. Not always, but usually. Not only that, but the out-on-a-limb nutty diagnosis is usually the right one, and House often dismisses previous doctors, who had made perfectly sound diagnoses based on the presenting symptoms, with "They're idiots." I wondered how doctors felt about the show . . . but then I remembered the internet! People post opinions on the internet! Indeed, some doctors had actually compiled a list of medical quibbles, dissecting every episode point-by-point. And you thought I was a skeptic busybody.
The Amazing Randi, who is a delight and generously gives
of his time to skeptically pose with many attendees at TAM.

Speaking of skepticism, this past weekend I was able to attend The Amazing Meeting, a yearly get-together of skeptics, science educators, and activists who seek to spread rationality and combat bunk. And, oddly enough, House came up. This year's theme was the brain, and Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist who runs my favorite weekly podcast, The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, mentioned the show and how it has changed the assumptions of some patients who come to see him. Dr. Novella told the crowd about a patient that had presented with a laundry list of what are typically referred to as "non-specific symptoms." Fatigue, headaches, soreness, and so on. She had been to some other specialists but none had found anything wrong, so she was now getting an MRI. When he went over the results with her and said there was nothing abnormal in the MRI, she started crying. Not crying in relief, just crying, agonized that there was nothing visibly wrong.

He said he's been seeing more and more of this type of reaction, and he has termed it the "Dr. House Effect." Patients have taken the House formula to heart: on that show, they run test after test, and the victorious moment comes when the really smart doctors finally make a successful diagnosis and treat the patient, who then gets better. If they cannot beat the clock and diagnose something, well then, that patient dies. No specific diagnosis = death. That's what this poor woman was internalizing; she thought that having a normal MRI was actually bad news. Dr. Novella had to reassure her that the "normal MRI club" was definitely where she wanted to be. Having a confirmed brain tumor or neurologic defect is way worse than having some symptoms that seem mysterious because they're unexplained. And, in actuality, not every set of non-specific symptoms gets diagnosed. Nor should we expect doctors to ever be able to do that. Human bodies are terribly complex, we aren't just walking sudoku puzzles that have a specific answer if you just connect all the right numbers. In cases like this patient's, Novella said, you just prescribe some lifestyle changes (exercise, better diet), see if you can mitigate the symptoms (try some headache drugs or muscle relaxers), and clinically keep an eye on things (see them for future appointments, see if anything gets worse).

So bear this in mind the next time you get frustrated at doctors for not having a cut-and-dry explanation for exactly what might be your health issue. Many popular TV shows have contributed to reductionist thinking in America, and I think House is a good example of that. Watch enough of that type of medical drama and you start to expect that doctors are all either idiots or geniuses, and lack of diagnosis means you'll be dead by the end of the episode.

But knowing all that, I'm still anxious to see the next episode. Drs. House and Cutty are coming dangerously close to a liaison, and, even if the hospital shennanigans are pumped with bunk, they are also fun to watch. Plus I have a few more angles I want to try with a Hugh Laurie drawing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tribbles and Klingons and Borg, OH MY!

Andorians make the best
drinking buddies.
It may surprise you to find out I am a bit of a sci-fi geek. No, no, please hold back your astonishment. I realize I come off as sophisticated and mature, but believe it or not I squeeeeeeeee from time to time.

Well, July is usually my "play around month," as for the past few years I've managed to attend both The Amazing Meeting in early July (not really sci-fi, but still geeky fun with brainy skeptics) and then the San Diego Comic Con in late July. This year it has not just rained, it has poured fun sci-fi stuff in July. In fact, this week, almost as a harbinger of the geek celebrations to come, I finished up a Star Wars themed digital commission.

The recipient was a past client who wanted to gift it to a like-minded person who was leaving their company. The photo references were pretty awful, but I could tell the outfits, poses, and private "in" jokes were important enough to forgive a few lackluster likenesses on the background jedi. So these faces felt pretty generic, but the finished piece was a hit. I got a delighted email this morning from the client saying he had incorporated the caricature into a powerpoint presentation with Star Wars music and narration for the guy's going-away party, and it was met with rave reviews. It really is fun hearing that my work wasn't just presented to the person in a frame but also used in such a creative way for a wonderful, memorable celebration. Warms my heart.

Now, to keep with the genre but switch canons, I have been a huge Star Trek fan my entire life. I watched the series daily as a kid and own far too many Trek-related apparel and gizmos. And yes, I am putting together a fun Trek-related costume for SDCC. Just you wait. It probably won't hold a candle to Lar deSouza's epic Sailor Bacon costume, but what could?

I and fellow artists JW and Jay weren't excited at ALL
to work at the Star Trek experience. Nope, this was just a
ho-hum day at the booth. Yawn. 
Anyway, Star Trek conventions are the grandaddy of fan get-togethers. They are the gold standard (uh--gold-pressed latinum standard?) in sci-fi geekdom, and to my shame I have never actually attended one . . . I have, however, orbited on the outskirts and plied my trade. Several years back, Doug was able to get his merry band of facemakers a temporary booth at Quark's Bar in the famous Star Trek Experience during the week of the convention. I met a few celebrities, including Robert Picardo, Garrett Wang, and Bobby Clark--the dude who played the Gorn. Yep, I met the Gorn. And I got to draw him. He described the experience as simply a day's work for a day's pay, in a rubber suit. He had handlers with him and was clearly enjoying the convention experience--so nice to see that a day in a rubber suit can lead to fame among a whole culture of people decades afterward!

We had fun times drawing trekkers as green slave women, or with Borg implants (make up your own joke), Klingon forehead ridges, or with a particular class starship in the background. We named our short-lived enterprise "Facial Anomalies" (get it? enterprise? facial anomalies? Wokka wokka!) And we got to draw there for a couple years in a row, at least, before the fun all had to end.
Yes, I engaged in Ferengi foreplay in public. I do what I WANT!

Alas, the awesome Star Trek Experience closed up after ten years serving fans (1998-2008), and now even the Las Vegas Hilton has been bought and rebranded. This year, the annual Star Trek convention will be on the other side of Las Vegas, at the Rio Hotel & Casino.

And I'll be there, drawing!!!! SQUEEEEEEE!!!!!! 

I like fan conventions. I get the fan mentality. I'm a fan of quite a few shows and I have, over the years, tried to get into various conventions with the caricature angle. In college I thought I had a brilliant Mystery Science Theater 3000-inspired idea: I could draw folks on paper printed with that iconic silhouette of Tom Servo, Crow, and Joel/Mike. Alas, I sent some samples and a promo kit to MST3K, hoping to draw at the 1994 or 95 ConventioCon ExpoFest-a-Rama but never heard back. Similarly, I had inquired about working the Stargate conventions, which I happily attended as a fan in Vancouver three times. Looking back though, I was kind of glad not to be working it--I would have missed out hanging with my friends and going to all the awesome activities and meet & greets! 

But aaaaah, Star Trek. It's the first sci-fi show I really became a huge fan of, and yet technically I remain a Star Trek convention virgin. Until July 31st, anyway! The company that puts on the Stargate cons and the Trek cons, Creation Entertainment, contacted me a few months back and asked about having caricature entertainment for the main hall this year. First I listened to the voicemail about three times and danced around my bedroom like a little girl making squeaky sounds and hyperventilating. Then, after composing myself, and rationalizing why it wasn't a dastardly deed to undercut everyone else in my market, just this one time, I called them back and quoted their rep an insanely low price--and I told him why. In 2008, when I unexpectedly had to cancel my plans to go to the Vancouver Stargate con due to a death in the family, I emailed Creation Entertainment seeing if any refund was possible. It CLEARLY states on the tickets that there are no refunds, so I figured it was a lost cause. But it was a large chunk o' change, and I figured I'd try. The company emailed condolances and immediately refunded both tickets I'd bought on my credit card. It was a gesture of good will that stuck with me, at a time when every kindness really helped. They could have kept my money, legally they had every right to. But they didn't. They were awesome.  
See? Trekkies and wookies CAN get along.

Sci-fi people are good people, in my experience. 

And, so fast-forward six years to the present . . . Yeah, I booked that gig at a steep discount. Because personally doling out good karma feels GREAT, not to mention the perks! I'll be getting to draw in the main hall and hopefully rub elbows with Trek luminaries while getting a glimpse of all the fans dressed up. I might even get a chance to collect some autographs and add to my bat'leth collection. 

If you're going, let me know! I'll squeeeeeeeee you there! 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Caricature marathon gigs, I love and hate them...

Just finished a type of gig that's kind of unique to Vegas. Or at least more prevalent here than elsewhere. This is the land of giant, round-the-clock casino resorts, which employ literally thousands of workers split over three shifts.

When these resorts decide to throw an employee party, it can get complicated. Rob, Doug, and I worked a long day today for an employee-appreciation celebration and it was so much fun! But also exhausting. Honestly, this blog post will probably suck. I have no wind left in my sails today. Typing kind of hurts. I got about three hours of sleep last night because I'm really bad at making myself fall asleep early. Not the best approach to preparing for a caricature marathon that starts at sunrise.

I'm used to these gigs around December. Some of the holiday parties are crazy long, employing multiple artists over sometimes a stretch of 12 hours straight in order to give all three shifts of workers a chance to get to the event. This one was for a smaller sized Strip resort, only about eight hundred employees, so we were hired in spurts. We arrived at 6:30 am and drew for two hours, then got a long break and worked again from 11 am till 2 pm, then had a longish break again and finished up our last drawing shift at 9pm. So though it was a 14-hour day, at least it was broken up a bit. However, we were kind of trapped on property because you can't really leave and do anything substantial in a couple of hours. Going home would eat up 45 minutes each way, if traffic was cooperative, and why bother wasting the gas?

Likewise, we don't want to be too obviously on property while we are relaxing between drawing sessions--it's just bad juju to hang out too close to where the client and guests are. If you linger, you invariably invite questions from the hoi polloi: When are you going to start up again? How can I sign up to be first when you guys start? Can you start early, pretty please? Twice in the ladies' room I found myself recognized. "Hey, you're the caricature artist! When do you guys start again, will you be here tomorrow too? You're way better than those two guys working with you." (Hahahaahah! Rob and Doug probably got the exact same thing in the mens' room.) It's just more comfortable to get as far away from your target audience as possible when you're not on duty.

Luckily, this gig was happening near where Doug does tattooing part time. So we were able to sneak into the "Tattoo cabana," which happened to be vacant. A small room, but comfortable and with wifi. We killed nearly two hours in there, just chatting, and Rob caught a short nap on the tattoo chair. It was peaceful and, more important, away from all of THEM, all those people we'd been drawing and would be drawing again soon. We kept the curtains drawn, the lights dim, and just enjoyed the quiet. Rob said it felt like we were hiding from the Nazis and suggested someone start a diary.

I make it sound like we hated the people, but nothing would be farther from the truth. The drawing time wasn't bad at all. With any group of local people like that, you get to experience Vegas being a small town again. A good portion of the employees we drew were lifelong Vegas natives, and so we end up finding people who went to our same high school, or even graduated in the same class. So the chatter is always fun. Banter happens, and it's an adults-only environment where one can lapse into blue material if you also stay coy and classy about it. And on three hours' sleep I'm friggin' HILARIOUS. Or at least I think so.

Our contacts were awesome, and though there were a few bureaucratic snags (there always are when dealing with a large corporation and it's accounting department), they resolved everything in due time and made us feel really welcome. When they were unable to get us special dispensation to eat in the employee dining room, they instead handed us three comps for the nicer tavern restaurant out in the casino. It's definitely awesome working for folks in the hospitality industry!

To minimize muscle strain, all of us were using markers, which flowed with ease and stood out on the paper. I'm really loving the Crayola marker barrels filled with copic ink, and I'd made enough for all three of us to use. It was fun being between Rob's excellent structural skills and Doug's adorable, curvy linework. Both of them, being seasoned pros, took to the markers with ease. We were going at a good clip and, between the three of us, produced around 300 caricatures over the course of the day. Any feelings of awkwardness or needing to "warm up" fade after the first leg of the race, so I felt "on" for the rest of the hours. And just like some experience a runner's high, I swear there is a "caricaturist's high."
This guy. I had SUCH fun drawing this guy!

The different demographics filed in group by group, we'd spend an hour working on housekeepers, then several valets and bellhops would file in (sweating and happy to be indoors, it was 111 degrees today!). Managers, dealers, cocktail waitresses, lifeguards, front desk receptionists, I.T. folks, all took their turns. The security guards all had a great sense of humor and kept asking me to draw them "mean" or "angry." I ended up drawing one of these guys looking furious, with the Hulk in the background saying "Calm down, Hulk no like you when you're angry." I figured it would be a hit or a flop--luckily the guy loved it and laughed for a solid thirty seconds before showing it around. (Doug made fun of me for needing to do a quick Google search in order to properly draw the Hulk.) It felt like the last few drawings were breaking into new territory for me, pushing a little farther than I've been able to before. At the end of a gig like this I feel such a combination of exhaustion, giddiness, and euphoria . . . it could all be an illusion, as I said I'm crazy sleep-deprived right now, but pushing yourself to that point seems to be a way to tap into a deeper level of muscle memory and learning. I felt great.

Now I really, really, really need to sleep.