Vampire (Likeness) Hunting

Looking for another project to test out my new set of pen nibs and brushes, I decided to attempt a caricature of an old favorite TV character; Dark Shadows’ resident vampire, Barnabas Collins. Rather appropriately, it ended up being a pain in the neck.

First, I had to find a reference photo of actor Jonathan Frid made up as Barnabas (just as an aside, it’s depressing how a Google image search for “Barnabas Collins” turns up so many pictures of Johnny Depp). Interestingly, Frid manages to look quite remarkably different from various angles and over the course of the series, which didn’t make my job any easier. I ended up deciding I liked the eyes in this headshot, which somehow for me capture Barnabas’ twin qualities of menace and suffering:

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best image as it’s kind of washed out and light on details (which is part of what makes it cool, too, ’cause it looks like it was taken in Barnabas’ original time period). Anyway, since what drew me in were the eyes, I chose to accentuate them in the caricature, and make them larger than life. Which is fine, only somehow over the course of the project, I kept adjusting everything else in relation to the eyes, obsessing over the nose, the mouth, etc, each in isolation, until I ended up with something that didn’t look at all like what I’d intended, because I failed to step back and look at how all the elements connected. Then when it came time to apply the inks, I was so focused on how to hold the nib pen that I didn’t focus my gaze on more than a couple millimeters of the image at a time. It didn’t help that I’d for some reason determined I was going to churn out the whole thing, start to finish, in a couple hours time. And here’s what that gets you:

Not so bad maybe for an image that says “generic vampire” — or “creepy dude” since there’s no fangs on display — but not what I’d hoped for. I was pretty happy with the “fog” effect a #6 “shader” brush got me (especially since it just kind of “happened” in the moment), and the cloak came out pretty well, but I was not pleased, overall. Laura snapped a photo of it almost as soon as I made the last stroke and pasted it to Facebook (ugh) asking friends, “What should go on the tombstone?” She got some interesting responses, but a more pertinent question for me was, “Who is it supposed to be?”

And so I learned my first two lessons: first, don’t rush a project, because that will never end well, and second, always take time to step back and look at the whole picture; don’t get lost in the details.

So almost immediately I started over. Usually I just move on from my artistic failures and shove them in a drawer (or the trash), but for whatever reason, this time I was determined to try a do-over. So I traced over the figure and started from scratch on the head, adding a couple more reference photos to the mix and watching a couple episodes of the show on Amazon Prime (always fun).

This time I was a lot happier with the results.

Or anyway, I was temporarily happy, until I came back the next day and decided I had drawn former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. I snapped the photo above and pulled it on my PC, and somehow just seeing the image in a different scale, on a screen instead of paper, brought all the problems into focus. I’ve often seen it suggested that you should hold your drawings up to a mirror to find the problems; now I know seeing it in a different scale can help, too.

So lesson #3: check your work in a mirror and view it a different scale before you commit to ink.

Anyway, I decided my revised Barnabas looked way too healthy for a 100-something-year-old vampire. His face was too full and well-fed. Also, there was too much forehead showing below those stylish bangs. So I went into Photoshop, lowered his forehead (which also meant widening the top of his head) and pulled the sides of his jaws closer together, accentuating the gaunt cheekbones. I also decided to give more of an angle to the nose. This got me a lot closer to where I wanted to be.

The difference is more obvious if you see the faces next to each other:

One thing I struggle with is drawing faces as they are, as opposed to the “idealized” or stylized generic faces I taught myself to draw as a kid, when I basically just cribbed from comic books. Whenever pencil hits paper, muscle memory takes hold of my wrist and people start looking like superheroes. In real life, people don’t always have perfectly symmetrical faces, straight noses, lantern jaws, eyes that line up, Ken doll hairlines, etc. It’s the little idiosyncrasies that define us and make one person distinct from another, and the art of capturing likenesses is to find those things and put them on the page. Ian Fleming once wrote that ” The difference between a good golf shot and a bad one is the same difference between a beautiful and a plain woman – a matter of millimetres.” The things that make us recognize a specific person out of millions are often tiny details.

So anyway, now I have an image that’s more or less what I was shooting for. The problem is it only exists as a Photoshop file, so if I ever want a paper copy, I’ve got to go through all that inking a third time. It ain’t likely.

The real kicker is that I’m not even sure you could call this a “caricature.” It’s a comic-book like drawing, but is it exaggerated? Whimsical? It’s a more-or-less “realistic” head on a dwarfish body. Neither fish nor foul.

Just to prove I can never leave anything alone, a couple days later I pulled out my Kindle Fire and used my stylus to try a more cartoonish approach, using the “Medibang Paint” app. I have to say I’m probably most satisfied with that version, since it doesn’t even try to be “realistic.” I like that it’s limited to a minimum of linework, though honestly, having spent so much time wrestling with Mr Frid’s features earlier probably made it a lot easier to reduce them to just a few angles and curves. The cool part is that there’s just enough there to suggest “Barnabas,” and the viewer can do the rest of the work.

Of course, your mileage may vary, and in a week’s time, I may dislike this one as much as the others.

Another Art Project Goes “Splat”

I got a set of nib pens for Christmas in hopes of finally figuring out how to do “proper” inking. Historically, I’ve used fine-tipped markers and tried to recreate the effects of nibs and brushstrokes through “fakery.”

Since the object was to concentrate on technique and self-instruction, I didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with an original pencil image to start from. Instead, I “swiped” an image of Jack Kirby’s Captain America and another of Sheldon Moldoff’s Batman. Trying to copy their styles was another sort-of test for me, though I’ve done something similar before with an image where Kirby’s Silver Surfer met Al Plastino’s Superman. I’ve always been struck by the huge gulf between Marvel comics art styles of the early to mid-60s (generally energetic and innovative) as compared to DC’s output from the same period (fairly bland and still stuck in the previous decade). I like the idea of these characters running into each other back when they were most different from each other. Sort of a “changing of the guard” thing.

Steve and Bruce throw down

Anyway the brush work went a lot more smoothly than I expected, but it took a lot of trial and error to figure out the nibs. I used Speedball’s “Cartooning Project Set” and leaned heavily on the “B6” nib for wider lines and the “100” nib for the finer stuff. I couldn’t work up the courage to try the wider ones.

About 3/4ths of the way through, I had a temporary bout of insanity and changed nibs over the board (!) which resulted in some splatter. I considered (a) using white-out to cover it or (b) tossing the whole thing in the wastebin, but then I decided it might be fun to add more splatter, on purpose. So I traced the figures to make an overlay mask, dipped a toothbrush in the ink and ran my finger over the bristles. I couldn’t figure out why the results were so uniform — lots of tiny dots of almost the exact same size, creating a “static” or “fog” effect — so I tried going over areas again to make some parts darker, but that didn’t help much. Eventually I realized what I needed was more variety in the size of the droplets, so I switched to smacking the toothbrush against a pencil. The end result is a lot “busier” than I wanted, but at least now I know better how to control splatter.

I finished it off with watercolors, which was fun as the ink was waterproof and didn’t run. With some practice, I think I could do some interesting projects with these methods.


I was finally coming to grips with the fact that I’m living in the 21st (!) century and now here we are in the previously inconceivable year of 2020.  I mean seriously, doesn’t “2020” sound like a subtitle at the beginning of a sci-fi movie? Arguably, we are several years into a post-apocalyptic dystopia at this point, so it’s not like it totally came out of nowhere, but still, that number is nuts.


Or maybe it’s just an age thing.  I wonder how my grandparents felt when the calendar rolled over to 1970, or 1980, considering they’d been around for the Great Depression and World War II?  My Dad’s dad was born two years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, and lived to see men land on the Moon.  Surely towards the end of their lives, they thought the numbers were getting just as far-fetched as I find 2020.

The weird thing is, I remember being in the car on New Year’s Eve, 1969, on the way home from visiting relatives, and the announcer on the radio was wondering what surprises we had in store for us in 1970.  That means that at this point, I’ve lived in parts of SIX decades.  That’s pretty much the textbook definition of “sobering.”

Anyway, I drew a doodle on the fridge to kick the year off:



I seem to have a lot of trouble coming up with stuff to post here, while at the same time I’m always doodling something or other, so this year I hope to share my drawings, good and bad, warts and all, just so there’s some content for a change.




Scott’s Heroes

Some time ago, I posted images of Scott’s self-created superheroes Fireflash and Tongueman. Well, lately he’s been at it again.

I gather Fireflash is his signature character, as he’s still a frequently drawn subject and the recent recipient of a nifty costume upgrade, as seen here:


I’m digging the mask and the cocky smirk that marks Fireflash as a wiseguy hero in the Spider-Man mold.  Also I have to say he’s nicely color-coordinated with that orange and brown scheme, and I like the lightning bolt weapons that make him seem almost Zeus-like.

The only potential trouble area is the ear pieces.  To me, they look like decorative lightning bolts or possibly functional Tesla coils, but Laura interpreted them as tufts of hair, giving Fireflash a Larry Fine vibe I’m fairly certain Scott didn’t intend (though he is a Stooges fan, so who knows?).  Also it’s a bit troubling that our hero seems to be stomping some kid’s baseball bat into pieces.

Next up is this awesome action shot of “Laser Lad” punching out a bad guy:


As a fan of the Composite Superman, I’m a sucker for the bifurcated look in comic characters, and Scott pulls it off nicely here by keeping it down to just three colors, artfully applied if I do say so myself.  Actually, it’s interesting how much he reminds me of the Golden Age Daredevil, considering I know for a fact Scott’s never seen him.


Hey, if you’re going to be a comic artist, you could do a lot worse than to be on the same wavelength as the great Jack Cole.  Also, why has no one else ever used “PUNCH!” as a sound effect?  It’s the ultimate onomatopoeia, yet totally neglected.  Too obvious, I guess.  Again, if I have a criticism at all, it’s that Laser Lad should pick on someone closer to his own size.

Then we have The Unknown:


Now, normally you’d associate a name like “the Unknown” with capes and hoods and lots of shadows; you know, stuff that suggests mysticism or at least intrigue.  In this case, I guess what’s unknown is why this guy has a Dr Octopus-like tentacle coming out of his skull, not to mention a second one in easily the most unfortunate location possible.  I can just hear him now, crowing in his best villain voice, “Beware the awesome power of my Third Leg!”  I notice the “coloring” job on this one almost looks more like an attempt to rub out the image, so maybe Scott took a step back and said, “What was I thinking?”

Finally we have Double Brain.  This is the only one I actually asked Scott about, because I couldn’t figure out the meaning of “Juble Brian.”


Apparently, Double Brain is not the masked character in the foreground but the flying figure in the distance, breaking up a robbery attempt. Notice the bandit’s mask is tied off in the back; a nice touch.  Not sure what’s in his right hand, though: rubber bands or pickles?

I can’t remember what my drawings looked like at age 6, but I’m thinking Scott’s already ahead of where I was, then.  It’ll be cool if he keeps it up.  And even if he doesn’t, he’s already making more interesting comics than 95% of what’s on the stands today.

Another Art Project

I was doodling on the boys’ “magic paper” one day and came up with a Batman caricature I kind of liked, so I sketched a thumbnail, then did a bigger version in a sketchbook and went over it with one of those groovy new brush pens Laura’s mom picked me up in Ohio.

It worked out pretty well, so I ended up doing a Robin and four bat-villains in the same style, eventually painting them in acrylic to hang in the boys’ room. With their blessing, we took the Pooh paintings I’d done before and moved them over to the baby’s room as a gift from her big brothers. Here’s a photo of how the Dynamic Duo turned out, with a batmobile thrown in for good measure:

Batman and Robin painting

We hung them over the boys’ dresser, surrounded by the nefarious members of the United Underworld:

United Underworld

Just to make the occasion more special, Laura topped it off by making t-shirts with craft paint, using the Batman and Robin art as a model. As you can see, it went over well:


Now I’m back to what I’d meant to do in the first place, which was practice more with the Wacom tablet using a scan of the original sketch. Here’s what I’ve whipped up in Photoshop so far: