Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Art Career Begins (and evolves)

The spring of 1983 represented a major development for me in my career as an artist. I was six years old. I liked dinosaurs, Atari, and Legos. My future was wide open.

My big break came in the form of a cartoon contest being sponsored by a monthly magazine put out by the company my father works for. They make air-conditioners, and he's an indoor-air-quality specialist, an applications engineer who designs optimal air-flow pathways for multiple scenarios, commercial and residential. He is an expert. He and his company have a genuine concern for the ingredients of our breath, and what they've done has improved the lives of untold millions. Everything I am today is a direct result of what this corporation has provided.

When my mom told me I should enter the contest, she probably figured it was a good way to keep me entertained for the afternoon. She is an artist herself, and had lots of cool supplies. Like all kids, my brother and sister and I were all encouraged to make pictures, yet I was the only one that really picked up on it. I don't remember drawing the comic for the contest, but have a distinct recollection of coming home on the bus one beautiful spring afternoon and being greeted with jubilation. My mother was on the porch of our house, waving an envelope and shouting my name. I had won the contest! My drawing of my dad sitting at a desk overflowing with papers, searching for the phone while his boss shouted his name off-panel had captured the attention of the judges, and was to be printed in the next Triangle Magazine. I was issued a check for 25 dollars, which I invested in a Super-gobot that cost $10 at K-Mart, one dollar I kept for spending money, and the remaining $14 I used to open a bank account at First Federal.

my first consumer purchase

In today's money, that prize would be more than $65. I was a high-rolling 1st grader, and quickly became well-known in class as a really good artist. As a graduation gift my mom gave me a sketchbook. The following pictures document it page by page.

my first sketchbook
inscription on the inside cover:
If I was going to earn more money from art, I needed to learn my trade, so I began to make copies of comics. Having recently adopted a kitten of my own, my natural favorite was Garfield. My first few attempts contain many eraser marks and appear fairly distorted. I fought the desire to trace the characters, wanting to learn to draw them freehand, and quickly.

Already, I had designed a stylized signature: "T______" which I used for most early sketches. Somehow, the idea of a signature and it's value was instilled in me. The next 3 pages were drawn on a trip to my grandparents house, then edited by me soon afterward. The message above Snoopy was added to make sure that people interested in my comic portfolio wouldn't look at the other pictures that my sketchbook also contained.

It seems at times I lost track of my career and drew some things for leisure alone. I guess I didn't realize pages could be torn out, so this one remains. It's a tank, driving through rock and blasting the rock as it's driving.
I figure the tank and war imagery came from video games where you shoot little balls and smash rocks. The aesthetic considerations of the tank were undoubtedly inspired by my favorite movie at the time, Starwars. I thought the Jawa's were cool. These pictures are from some a book I still have from that era.
The picture on the next page is eerily similar to the studio spaces I'd have decades in the future....

The next page I erased in an attempt to destroy the evidence of a doodle in which a spider is casting webs at a squirrel, a snake, and a frog. At age 6 I apparently didn't want to confuse my potential audience with these kinds of images, so I replaced them with more Peanuts. If you click the photo, you can easily see the old marks from the original drawing.
On the next page I attempted to capture action, and did some tentative Smurf studies.
One more crack at Lucy, and I was back to good old Garfield. I remember practicing Garfield so much in second grade that I would often have a group of people getting out of their desks during class and standing over my shoulder to watch me draw. I was regularly asked for my autograph.
The little Garfields running off the bottoms of the pages are most likely inspired by the Mad Magazines my brother was reading at the time. There were always little drawings in the margins.

My drawings were getting better. I was erasing much less often. In the second panel of this page, I pick up for the first time on the all-capital writing style in the comics. I think before this I wasn't reading as much as studying the pictures, but as 2nd grade came and went, my investigative skills were growing, although my spelling still needed work.In the summer of 1984, I began my first formal art training. At the suggestion of my mom, I took a summer drawing class. It was taught by a professor at one of the local universities, and I entered as a young kid amongst many older students. All I felt comfortable drawing was Garfield characters, but wanted to learn to draw realistically. Our first assignment was a simple still life. I chose an apple. On the following page, next to Odie the dog, is my first attempt at realism. Copying the comics had trained me to look at what I was studying as much as what I was drawing, and now I tried to draw from life.
The shape and texture on this apple show that I was definitely trying to capture the portrait of a specific fruit. I combined a wide number of texture, shading, and coloring techniques to define the shape as an apple. I remember not liking this picture because it didn't seem right. With the cartoons I had control, here I felt less certain.

The class was called "landscape drawing," and the focus was trees. I felt that it would be easier to draw a tree realistically because they were so complex that nobody would be able to tell if every part was perfect. I did a good job with the branches, but the leaves were much more difficult. I couldn't see them as individual objects, and wasn't able to understand how we were supposed to draw them correctly. I didn't think it was possible, plus my patience wasn't there. I wanted to draw a quick, perfect cartoon, what I was good at. As hard as I studied the tree, I couldn't figure out how to draw it.
When I went home after class, I went for more comfortable ground, making the most confident Garfield yet. Bold and crisp with no erase lines or hesitation. My day spent studying the tree had perhaps honed my skills for cartoons as well.

On this page, my mom was trying to help me overcome the frustrations I was having with drawing leaves. I still couldn't see trees as anything but massive moving blobs. The notion of drawing millions of moving leaves seemed impossible. I signed my name next to her examples, likely as a joke, then crossed it out to make sure nobody accused me of lying. I was always an honest kid. She gave me a model to study, however, that was easier for me to grasp than the trees themselves.I tried to mimic her strokes, having a bit of success at the perimeter, but still unable to commit to trusting such shapes in the middle of the tree. I think I believed there was more depth in the real tree than a bunch of simple strokes could ever capture and communicate. I didn't like the idea of stylizing reality for the sake of communicating something too complex to actually draw. I wanted to be able to actually draw what I was looking at, and to draw it perfectly.

I reconciled my discomfort by choosing a broader landscape, the hillside where I lived, drawing distant trees as shapes alone. That seemed easier to handle, more believable.

Similar scenes exist to this day....

The class and the summer over, it seems I went back to my career as a cartoonist. Landscapes had been okay, but I had a public to impress. My signature switched to a full spelling in cursive, which looked more adult. I was, after all, 8 years old, no longer a kid.
In order to avoid a repeat of the second grade, I decided it was time to come up with my own characters . By this point I was already a little sick of being known as the kid that could draw Garfield. I knew I could go further. I started with a long-necked creature, but I didn't like him so I drew a purple thing on his nose that was spitting at him. Above them sits a silver spider.
My second attempt was better, but lacked refinement. Too fairytale.
This was more like it, very eighties and cool. Contemporary. A variation of this character appears on a solitary page as "Biggy," in charge of a suspect repair shop. I can only imagine I sketched it idly while our car was in the shop somewhere.

After this I tried something more stylized that looks like a cross between Big Bird and Kermit the Frog.
Finally, I created a character I could use. He was quick to draw and personable. I had stylized every aspect into simple, repeatable shapes. His shirt reads "PIGS HAVE Feelings Too!" I imagined he had gotten it at K-mart on "blue light special." Me and my friends thought he was hilarious.One of the big things at the time were Garbage Pail Kids, the boy version of Cabbage Patch Kids. We loved them because they grossed the girls out. In fact, they contained amazing artwork and smart humor. I collected them thinking they'd make me rich someday. In over 25 years, they have not appreciated noticeably.

I mimicked the back of one of the cards to create a description of my new character. His name was Irving Farley, and he was dubbed the "eternal idiot."
I started to draw another character, but didn't develop him.
The entire effort culminated in the following scene. At this point my signature had become simple, all caps, like a real cartoonist.

For Christmas in 1984, I got a ton of cool Star wars guys, including Jabba the HUT!

I also got my first skateboard, and found a subject that was easier to draw than trees. This was an important step for me, because drawing 3-dimensional linear objects is similar to drawing 2-dimensional cartoons. The subject could be reduced to definite, definable shapes. A skateboard was not like an ever-changing tree.
I became obsessed with skateboarding and Chuckies. My family moved out of the country and into the town. I was now within walking distance of the school. Friends who had previously only been reachable by a long car ride could now be met by bike.

At the same time I was doing lots of computer drawings on our new Apple2C computer. It was a new design from the familiar 2E model that everyone had come to prefer to the Commodore64 and the Tandy. Whereas most other monitors were either green or orange, the Apple2C now handled 16 colors, and with a mouse it was possible to draw freehand lines, then use "flood-fill" to color closed shapes. This picture is a drawing for one of the pictures I drew on an early paint program. The pictures always looked good on the screen, but the pin-feed/ribbon printers of the day were not capable of producing any decent hardcopies, one line was always sure to be wrong, and so much ink was necessary that the paper would wrinkle uncontrollably.
Good report cards earned us free tokens at the new Showbiz Pizza, which was later renamed Chuck-e-Cheese. They had robots that sang and tons of arcade games. The following creature was inspired by a video game called Joust, where you rode on an ostrich with a medieval lance, collecting eggs. I remember drawing massive amounts of creatures like this, and the individual circles drawn show I had developed a different kind of patience for repetition of similar objects.
Just before beginning 4th grade, I drew a picture of the family room of our new home. Every detail is recorded. It's perfect.Sitting on the same floor a few weeks later, I designed a button for a local festival called "JUNE DAIRY DAYS." Every year, they select a new design, and the competition is open to all students in the West Salem School district. Here's my design:
The theme was "Celebrating Dairyland Farming" and I wanted to make a partying cow. I won. I was excused from school for a halfday to attend a formal brunch at which the town mayor presented me with a certificate and a $50 savings bond from the village of West Salem. $50 in 1986 is equivalent to $97.41 in today's money. Everyone in the entire town would need to purchase my artwork for $1 if they wanted to enter the fairgrounds. This was a great honor.

Ted Stanke: famous artist!

The next drawing I made is a surprise to see today. I had no idea at the time what the implications regarding this image actually were, and are. For me it was a cool shape, woven triangles, and I used the bright colors to better emphasize the shape. I had no idea it was religious at the time. Now I can't see it without seeing the meaning.

And the next page doesn't skip a beat, coming back to the apples, and studying them individually, one after the other. One appears to still have its sticker.
While in the waiting room at the local hospital to get a physical before joining Boy Scouts, I drew the following series:

"The Eternal Idiot on tour for the very first time. First Stop... Hawaii."

"Next Stop... Egypt..."

"Next Stop... Disneyland!"

"Now the tour is over and the Eternal Idiot is going back to his Beverly Hills Mansion."
It was time to leave 4th grade and elementary school behind. I was graduating into middle school, then junior high, and finally, the strange and dangerous highschool, that still seemed far away. That summer I went to scout camp, where we repelled down a 60 foot cliff. I was allowed to get my first Swiss Army Knife, and developed an avid interest in fishing. I got a calculator watch for my 9th birthday that had a buttonless face and full digital LCD. I still have the same wrist.
During this period, my Dad read us a chapter every night from the Chronicles of Narnia, and my interest in dinosaurs had shifted to dragons.

these creatures were only alive in my mind...
I tried to develop an optical switch, but didn't take it far.

I sketched the interior of our van as we went on a family trip to a lake in the northwoods of Wisconsin, where I would spend many summers fishing and swimming. My mom is driving and my dad sits in the passenger seat. The days of making cartoons had passed, and I was ready to become a serious artist.

again, my corporate sponsor:
The final few pages of this sketchbook are from my first few weeks of 5th grade. The introductory unit was perspective, and I recorded a bit of my thoughts.
A rare, random doodle.
Falling bricks.
M-16 A1 Rifle. Standard issue. USA.
Thus ends my first sketchbook. I have spanned 3 years, moved from the deeply rural to the psuedo-urban, and stand already a distinguished and honored artist at age 9. My mind has not changed, and the project continues.

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