On Digital Art

I’m sometimes amazed, considering some of the work that’s out there, that some people – most notably traditional media artists, but others as well – continue to disparage art that’s produced digitally. While I wouldn’t hold myself up as the best example – I mean, I think I’m pretty good, but there are many out there who are far better than me – my work is created exclusively on computer these days. Granted, I have a background in traditional media, but some of those brilliant digital artists out there have never touched an actual paintbrush to real life canvas – or, to be more accurate, many of them had never handled traditional media until well after they mastered the digital. It’s worth noting that most of the best of them have, at some point, chosen to experiment with traditional forms just to expand their experience and skills.

Digital media offers opportunities that traditional media does not, and this is true, I think, in all the various art forms. My best friend and co-author Rev is also a musician, and though he still plays an actual guitar, he’s also recording using some of these digital techniques, doing stuff he could never, ever have done without a computer, at least not without spending outrageous amounts of money (which is true of many musicians). I know filmmakers who can produce professional looking results that would have cost millions, or needed a big Hollywood production company behind them, without the computer.

Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there, and the democratization provided by digital technology puts the ability to create and disseminate work in the hands of people who have no idea what they’re doing, filmmakers with zero sense of cinematography or story, artists without a clue about anatomy or composition, writers who publish through Amazon who don’t know their arse from a hole in the plot. But this technology also puts these possibilities in the hands of those who do know what they’re doing, and and provides far more options than they ever had before.

Sturgeon formulated his famous law (“90% of everything is crap”) in 1958. That it’s still true today should be no surprise. Computers and the internet aren’t responsible for this. All they’ve done is increase the total volume of both crap and valuable work, and made all of it more accessible.

What I’ve noticed is that every time there’s some technological innovation, there’s a flood of that crap that seems to overwhelm the good stuff, as both the clueless and the clueful glom onto it – but eventually it settles down. Because with notable exceptions, the shit tends to sink and the worthwhile stuff floats to the top. I see it happening right now in self publishing. Initially, you couldn’t find anything good for the ocean of badly written books with terrible covers. Today many of the self and indie published works are rivaling what the big publishers put out, in both the quality of the writing and that of the packaging. Sure, there are a few bad writers who’ve hit it big this way, but no more of them than the bad writers who are traditionally published.

If you’re passionate about your art (painting, writing, music, whatever it is), you’ll work your butt off to get better, to learn what you need to learn to improve and perfect your work. Not only does the digital world provide you with tools to do the work, it provides tools to get better at it. There are some great online courses available, some of them free, some moderately expensive, all certainly cheaper than (and many just as good as) brick and mortar schools that would put you in debt for life. I’ve yet to meet an art director who gave a shit where I went to school if they liked my portfolio. I don’t believe most editors care about your degree if they love your novel. I don’t know much about other equivalent fields, but I suspect that outside of areas that specifically require degree programs like medicine or law, the same principle applies.

Every day, I see artists working on computer produce incredible work, as good, or in some cases better than, the ones I know who work in traditional media. The technical skills may be superficially different, but the aesthetic skills remain the same. Bottom line for me: I don’t care what your medium is, it’s the result that counts.

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Inktober: Timothy Dalton Sketch


Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcom Murray

in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

One final Inktober piece, done in a new painting program I’ve been experimenting with called Rebelle.  It provides natural media style tools that rival those of Corel Painter.  Still getting used to it, but I think it’s going to be a very useful tool.

I’ve never been a fan of Timothy Dalton, but I thought his performance as Sir Malcom Murray was excellent.  And this character is a fine example of the way series creator and main writer John Logan finds inventive ways to re-tool the elements of his Victorian source material.  Rather than do the obvious thing, and haul in Professor Van Helsing as the leader of this misfit band who oppose these supernatural horrors, Logan turns to a character who naturally must have existed, but is never mentioned in Stoker’s Dracula – that of the father of Mina Murray Harker, the heroine of the novel.  His absence from the original story Logan explains by making him an explorer and adventurer, probably modeled loosely on Sir Richard Francis Burton.

I find this particularly admirable because with a single character decision (“Make him an explorer/adventurer a la Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and their like”), Logan solves several problems at once;  he provides a reason for Sir Malcom’s absence during Mina’s ordeal and kidnapping, and for the guilt about that which drives the man, and it provides the kind of background and experience which prepares him for each aspect of the pursuit of Dracula; for the violence of it, the acceptance of the supernatural aspect of his quest (he’s seen such things in his travels), and the obsessiveness required to follow through on what would appear to be a Herculean task.

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Inktober: Eva Green


Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

Moving from the classic to the more contemporary:  I started watching Penny Dreadful with scant hope that it would be any good.  The premise of the show, bringing together the characters of the classic Victorian horror stories (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Jekyll & Hyde, Dorian Grey) had been done several times before, from the Universal films of the 40s, to the abysmal Van Helsing of a few years back, and it’s almost always been done badly.  Watching Penny Dreadful, I was pleasantly surprised.  Everything about it was top-notch, from the writing to the acting and production values.

I’ve always admired the work of Eva Green, and her turn as the protagonist of Penny Dreadful, the cursed psychic/witch Vanessa Ives, was outstanding.

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Inktober: Sir Christopher Lee

leeChristopher Lee:  Count Dracula (1978)

Later generations would come to know Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings, and Count Dooku in Star Wars.  But Lee made his name originally playing Count Dracula.

Bela Lugosi established a standard for the interpretation of Dracula for the 30s and 40s, but at the end of the 1950s, Hammer Studios brought a new vision of Dracula to the public in the person of Christopher Lee with their groundbreaking version of Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in America for copyright reasons).  It was the first Dracula film to show blood (in Technicolor), fangs, and staking, and a Dracula who moved any faster than a snail on quaaludes. Lee’s approach to Dracula was far closer to the character as presented in Bram Stoker’s original novel than had ever been seen before.

Lee would go on to play Dracula for Hammer in seven more films through the 60s and 70s, and he grew to hate it more with every sequel.  He had great affection for the original novel, and always wanted to play the part in an authentic and faithful version, but Hammer had other ideas. The studio wanted to update the Count for the “mod’ generation.  People have wondered why in some of the later films, Dracula had no lines.  Turns out he’d had lines in the original scripts, but the writing was so abysmally bad, Lee refused to say the lines, and instead went through the whole film without speaking.  It says something about Lee’s popularity, how firmly he’d become identified with the part in the public’s mind, that the studio let him get away with this.

The picture here is from an indie production Lee did as a labor of love.  1978’s Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) was intended to be a faithful rendition of the book, which was why Lee signed on.  Good intentions went downhill fast, and though the opening scenes are taken from Stoker, after that, the film becomes an incoherent mess.  But at least Lee got to do the appropriate costume and makeup, and play some of the film “right.”

As Karloff and Lugosi had dominated the horror films of the 30s and 40s, Lee, Peter Cushing (and arguably Vincent Price) would dominate the genre in the 60s and 70s.  Lee and Cushing would appear together in 22 films, primarily from Hammer and Amicus, and if the quality of the scripts was not always sterling, their performances never fail to entertain.

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Inktober: Morticia

morticiaCarolyn Jones as Morticia Addams

Considering the impact Carolyn Jones as Morticia had on my young mind and libido, it’s a wonder I never developed a Pavlovian response to French like Gomez had.  “Goth” style hadn’t been named yet, but she had it in spades.  And her marriage to Gomez had to be one of the healthiest on 60s television – certainly it was the only one with any passion in it.

Carolyn Jones had quite a career both before and after The Addams Family.  She appeared many times on Dragnet, and had parts in both Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original ’56 version) and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  She was the Queen of Diamonds on the 60s Batman series, and played Hippolyta, the mother of Wonder Woman, on the Lynda Carter 70s series.

Irony Department:  Jones’ last gig was on a soap called Capitol, and when she was dying of cancer, she was subbed in the series by an actress named Marla Adams.  Only one “d,” but still…

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Inktober: Cushing


Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein (1967)

Peter Cushing was perhaps my all time favorite horror star, and a bit of a role model when I was young.  It was his performances in Hammer’s films of the 50s and 60s, as Professor Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Baron Frankenstein, and others, that gave me hope that a skinny, bookish fellow could also be dynamic and admirable, and that one didn’t have to be a muscle bound hulk to be a hero (and, yes, even Baron Frankenstein seemed a to my young mind to be a hero, albeit a misguided one.  Come on, he was trying to conquer death, fercryinoutloud).

Cushing was also the un-numbered Doctor.  He starred in two Doctor Who films in the early 1960s, which apparently are not considered canon by Whovians, and his Doctor is not considered an official incarnation.  In later years, he would become known to new fans as Grand Moff Tarkin, the creator of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.

There’s been a lot of flap on the interwebz recently regarding the digital recreation of Cushing (who died in ’94) as Grand Moff Tarkin for the next Star Wars episode.  Personally, I don’t see why they couldn’t just hire another gaunt older actor  – Richard Grant, Charles Dance, Patric Stewart, Hugh Laurie, or someone.

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Inktober: Evelyn Ankers

ankersEvelyn Ankers (1941)

I understand there are entire conventions these days devoted to “Scream Queens” – women who act primarily in horror films.  But in the thirties and forties, few women specialized in horror.  Male actors like Karloff, Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Dwight Fry, Lionel Atwill and others might be typecast, or choose to specialize (if you’re falling anyway, you may as well make it a dive, right?).  But the women who played opposite them in the drafty castles and foggy moors of Hollywood’s back lots tended to do one or two such films, and then go back to more “normal” roles.  Dracula‘s Helen Chandler, Frankenstein‘s Mae Clarke, Zita Johann of The Mummy, Rose Hobart of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all returned to playing ingenues in dramas, romances, and mysteries, and supernatural monsters troubled them no more.

During this period, only two leading ladies acted in more than one or two horror films, and one of those was Evelyn Ankers.

Ankers appeared as Gwen Conliffe, the love interest in The Wolf Man (1941), and went on to become the reigning “Queen of the B’s,”  playing in  The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and other similar films.  She also appeared in several of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films.

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Inktober: Karloff

Continuing my Inktober celebration of horror film stars, herewith the inimitable Mr. Karloff.

KarloffBoris Karloff  in The Black Cat (1934)

Boris Karloff is most famous, of course, for his first big role as the creature in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein.  In choosing a source pic of him, though, I wanted to show him with a little less makeup – his craggy face is a fascinating character study.  This shot came from one of my favorite films of his, The Black Cat, in which he co-starred with Bela Lugosi.  The film has nothing to do with the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name (Lugosi would later appear in another Black Cat film, loosely based on the Poe tale, in 1943, with Basil Rathbone ).  Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, the leader of a Satanic cult, supposedly loosely based on Aliester Crowley.

While not a great film, the Black Cat is notable for several reasons:  this was one of the first films to pair Karloff and Lugosi together (they would work together on seven more films over the next  six years, including The Raven and Black Friday); it’s one of the few films in which Lugosi plays a hero, rather than a villain; and it’s one of the first ever films to feature a musical soundtrack throughout.

As with my Lugosi portrait, this one was created in Photoshop, using minimal layers and no effects (no selections, masks, adjustment layers, etc) except for a texture overlay on the background.

On a related note, a true story:

When I was growing up, there were no VCRs or DVDs, no cable stations, Netflix, or On-Demand.  We could only watch movies at home when the TV stations chose to air them.  Frustrated by this, I got myself a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and recorded the soundtracks of my favorite movies when they aired, so I could play them back later.  I listened to those tapes so often that I knew some of them by heart.  I can still recite large sections of the script of Lugosi’s Dracula.

The Black Cat was one of the ones I recorded.  Toward the finale of that film, Karloff as Poelzig is conducting a black mass, and gives a grand sounding invocation in Latin.  As a teenager, I memorized that Latin invocation, and recited it for my high school Latin teacher, who helped me translate it.  It turned out to be a random assemblage of cliche adages (like “Take it with a grain of salt,”  “Judge a tree by its fruit, not its leaves,” and so forth).  Not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect would entice His Satanic Majesty into a personal appearance.
Just after high school, a friend of mine was into LaVey Satanism.  He had met those ghost chasers and “exorcists” Ed and Lorraine Warren (on whom the characters in The Conjuring were based), and they wanted to attend and tape one of his rituals.  Being short on attendees, he asked me to join them, and do a piece in the ritual.  I was an aspiring actor at the time, and did it as a lark.  The joke is, the piece I did in that ritual was a Latin “invocation” I already had memorized  — Karloff’s nonsense recital from The Black Cat.  The Warrens duly taped the whole thing, and for years afterward, the tape of my sonorous recital of a bunch of Latin cliches was a feature of their lectures, presented as part of a legitimate “Satanic Ritual.”  I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t ever a Latin scholar or a film buff in one of their audience who got the joke.

The Black Cat on IMDB    Boris Karloff on Wikipedia

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Inktober: Lugosi

So I’m late to the party with this “Inktober” business – just found out about it the other day.  Choosing to jump in, I figured considering the time of year, I might as well make my Inktober creations celebrate some of my favorite horror stars.


Bela Lugosi – Dracula, 1931

Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was the film that caught my imagination as a kid, and got me into horror to start with.  Although I have a nostalgic fondness for it, and there are a few outstanding performances, the truth is, as a film, it’s not actually all that good.  Director Todd Browning was apparently asleep at the wheel through most of it.  He let Karl Freund cut loose with his camera work in the introductory scenes in Transylvania, which are the only scenes of any real cinematographic interest – once the action moves to England, Browning plants his camera in a medium shot, and barely moves it even to intercut any closeups, so it’s a lot like watching a stage play.  In fact, the Spanish language version, filmed at night on the same sets by another crew, with Carlos Villarías as Dracula, is a much better version overall (though I think Villarías and Eduardo Arozamena in the roles of the Count and the Professor do not measure up to Lugosi’s and Van Sloan’s performances).

All that said, Lugosi’s Dracula was certainly an iconic film which created a lot of what would become the standard tropes for horror movies, and kicked off Universal Pictures’ series of horror classics in the thirties.

For the artists in the audience:  Technically, my Lugosi isn’t “ink” per se.  It was created in Photoshop, but I set myself certain rules to try to make it more like an actual ink piece:  minimal number of layers, and no using selections or masks, no layer mode changes, no level adjustments, just painting with black and white.  I broke my rules just once, putting a texture on on the background in multiply mode to give it a little more visual interest.  pretty happy with how it came out.

Dracula on IMDB    Bela Lugosi on Wikipedia

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Phoenix Island

Much has been made of the fact that this book is the inspiraton for the CBS series Intelligence (and more power to John Dixon for it). However, be warned, Hollywood being what it is, Gabriel of Intelligence bears only a passing resemblance to Carl of Phoenix Isand. Not that they’re not recognizably related – the protagonist of Phoenix Island could easily have become the main character of Intelligence in a decade or so of living. But if this is a prequel (or Intelligence is a sequel), they take place in alternate realities.

That said, Phoenix Island is well worth the read, whether you’re a fan of the show, or have never seen it. The book is a taut, well crafted action/adventure with touches of horror, that grips the reader (or gripped this reader, anyway) from the first page.

Carl, the young protagonist, is the quiet badass orphan in his late teens, a bundle of fury in the boxing ring, who otherwise keeps himself to himself, and keeps his head down. However, injustices witnessed on a personal level bring that fury to the surface, and his reactions to such incidents bring his fighting skills and physical power into play, uncontrolled by any reason or judgement. Unsurprisngly, this tendency puts him into the hands of the law, and then into a reform school/juvie. The place he’s sent, however, is more than a little unorthodox, and to survive the place, he’ll have to learn to master himself. In that sense, Phoenix Island is a coming of age tale. It is not, however, a YA novel (though YA readers might well enjoy it).

The action is nonstop, and well delivered. It’s clear Dixon is a boxer himself, and has an enthusiasm for the martial arts generally. He knows enough not to bog us down in elaborately clinical descriptions of a fight, but includes just enough tactical and strategic details to be absolutely convincing, hitting the important points hard, and letting the less important give and take glance off us. Anyone who has ever stepped into a ring or onto the dojo mats will recognize the authenticity of his descriptions. Myself, I’ve always been of the opinion that authenticity comes through, even for those who don’t have personal experience or knowledge of a particular subject. You don’t have to be an expert on Victorian history to recognize the difference between, say, a flashback episode of Dark Shadows and an episode of Masterpiece Theater. And you don’t have to have fired a pistol to intuitively pick up on the difference between a writer who knows his revolvers from his semi-automatics, and one who doesn’t. All other things being equal, authenticity communicates.

You can’t help but like Dixon’s protagonist, even as you’re shaking your head at his youthful stupidities. And because he’s not, on the whole, a stupid kid, you know he’s going to have to get past those blind spots, and quickly. Dixon pits Carl against Stark, the warden of Phoenix Island, an older and more experienced antagonist, physically more powerful, with enormous resources at his back. This forces Carl not only to find some self control and self discipline, but also a new measure of cunning. His antagonist, and his situational disadvantages, will force Carl to take what he knows of tactics and strategy on the small scale (that of a fight in the ring, in the dojo, or on the street), and apply it to the larger picture (his long term conflict with Stark).

There are a few of the usual prison/military tropes – the sadistic drill sargeant/guard, the fragile prisoner who breaks, the regular guy who gets offed – but Dixon injects each of them with his own unique flavor, and makes each seem less like a stale trope warmed over than a logical consequence of the situation (and the dreaded and inevitable Harmonica Scene is passed over qucikly, without use of an actual harmonica).

One of the great pleasures of Phoenix Island is the way it plays with the standard tropes of works like Cool Hand Luke and other prison/chain gang movies, mashed up with war stories, some Bond villain vibe, and a touch of The Hustler.   One reviewer compared it to Cool Hand Luke by way of Lord of the Flies, and I wouldn’t argue too hard with that assessment.

As you read Phoenix Island, it starts to feel familiar, and then takes a left hand turn. And keeps turning. Almost every time I thought I knew where he was going, Dixon threw me a curve ball.

In the end, it seems to me that Phoenix Island celebrates that ultimate ability we have to choose, to draw lines for ourselves, to say “No!” to unfairness, injustice, intolerance and hate, and “Yes!” to compassion, companionship, and love, whether we’re boxing and martial arts stars, or just an unfortunate schmuck who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or both.

Highly recommended.

Get Phoenix Island from: Amazon or Barnes & Noble

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