I was fortunate enough to get to talk a bit with Steven Sanders not long ago. Steven is a local Kansas City artist who has been working in the comics industry for quite a while and has produced a lot of original comics such as Five Fists of Science with Matt Fraction, Throwaways with Caitlin Kittredge, and his independent work on Symbiosis. Steven was great to talk with and shared a great deal out his processes. In this production I’ll play the role of DB: and Steven plays an uncanny SS. I sprinkled some of Steven’s original art throughout the interview. Let’s get to it.
DB: Getting these things rolling can be tricky (I heard it through the grapevine), so let’s kick this off with an easy one. If you could be any well-known scientist from history, who would it be and why? (Is it leading the witness if I say Tesla was my favorite?)
SS: Ha! I definitely understand the Tesla angle, and if it were 6 or so years ago I’d be tempted to go with him, as I had been the worlds biggest Tesla fanboy since high school. But I ran across a site that made a compelling argument that his work was not unique, and had been based on prior art or at the very least others came up with the same ideas before or around the same time he did. That he was basically an excellent engineer with some quirks (or mental disorders or whatever one would care to call them). The popular image of Tesla is quite compelling, though, and he was a fascinating person in general, even if he likely wasn’t as great of an inventor as people like to say he was.
But, Tesla aside, hm. If I could somehow be him without suffering from a racist culture, I’d pick George Washington Carver. I’ve always been amazed and inspired by people who can take very limited materials and turn it into a cornucopia of new things. Or James Lovelock because I’m a big fan of the Gaia Hypothesis, or … well, you only asked for one, I should stop at two and/or before I say Hedy Lamarr. Haha.
DB: Seriously though, what got you into drawing? Was it something you started as a kid on your own?
SS: Yeah, I just always drew as far back as I could remember, and it was something that I would easily get praise for as a kid, so that definitely spurred doing more and more of it. But I also liked it because I could use the paper to make little words to escape into/visit. A friend of mine and I in grade school used to use graph paper to make these “dungeons” with various traps, treasures, etc. etc., and then we’d each go through the other’s dungeon. I think we always died due to some filled in square that was actually an acid pit or something like that. A lot of my conceptual work like the Symbiosis Kickstarter is fueled by that same desire to make and visit unexplored places using pencil and paper.
DB: Oh man, I used to make graph paper mazes in my chemistry class! Totally forgot about that, thanks for excavating that, Steven the Memory Archaeologist. In Throwaways #2 you had a map in the background of a flashback. What inspired you to use that?
SS: That double-page splash scene was pretty much all Caitlin. I just did my best to do it justice.
DB: What sort of things do you enjoy drawing the most? If you were to become independently wealthy tonight, what would you draw tomorrow, Science Fiction, Fantasy, or something you pluck from the spider web of your own mind?
SS: I’d definitely finish and continue on with my Symbiosis project. There’s enough there to keep me occupied for quite a long time, quite likely, however long I have left on this planet. Ah, barring that, I’d be doing more world building, and maybe see about some sci-fi projects with some writers that had been talked about but never got off the ground.
Now that I think about it, if I had the money, getting a studio together to help make all the comics I’ve wanted to draw for people but couldn’t due to time and/or money would be pretty great.
DB: I was looking back through Throwaways and was pouring over the art. The book has a VERY hand-crafted feel to it visually. Was it a look that was inspired by the story or did you have some techniques you wanted to try and felt this was a good fit?
SS: It was mostly me just trying to do “gritty realism” for the first time to any significant degree. As far as I know, drawing technique didn’t change that much, it was adapted to use of more photo reference… It might have to do with the conscious decision to not use any rulers except in the layouts, so all lines are hand drawn without guides.
DB: Can you break down the creation of a page from say, sketching to making the final coloring choices?
SS: Sure! I do everything in Manga Studio, and my “template page” has a number of layers already set up for blue-line, pencils, inks, colors, etc. I’ll read the page of that script, check it against the prior page and what is going on there, and figure out what panels seem to be the most important. Generally, I tend to be pretty plain with my use of grids, versus fancy angled panels and whatnot, and most layouts will fit in some way into a 3×3 grid, where each “beat” gets clustered onto a one of the 3 horizontal areas. From there it’s deciding how each panel feels in term of emotion, and determining camera angle from that, then roughing the backgrounds in, and then the figures.
From there, depending on a number of things, I’ll find or shoot photo reference or find 3D models for places, persons and things. Even if I think I have a good mental image of something real, looking at the actual object gives you all kinds of little visual landmarks one is likely to miss unless they are just super familiar with what’s being drawn.
I’ll do pencils and inks from there. Due to a combination of not wanting to take the time to master traditional inking, and the love of how pencil looks, I’ve ended up with a hybrid pencil/ink style that lets me get the softness of pencil and the graphic weight of ink when I want it.
Coloring is basically me painting with a digital oil brush underneath the linework. I like it, but it’s also very time intensive if I give it the attention I want to. So I’m trying to find ways to speed up that process, like using flats to easily select/mask off each area. I’ll often try and give each “scene” its own unifying color, and use the “Photo Filter” process in Photoshop for that. It works out a lot like the natural media painting method of working some of a chosen color into every mixed color you use in a painting.
DB: Do you like having more than one project going, so you have things to bounce between when you hit a sticking point on one?
SS: Yeah, Symbiosis has been my main side project for a while, but before (and after) that I’d either have other jobs, or I’d take breaks to do non-2D arts and crafts. Like homebrewing, carving/turning stones like alabaster/soapstone, making electronics projects, building computers (when I had more money than sense I was working on making a hackintosh inside of an old NeXT cube as a super nerdy in-joke. OSX is kind of OpenSTEP… 5? 6? I forget at the moment.), wildcrafting herbs and fruits/nuts (yay acorn cake!), and just trying to learn as much about everything as I could.
DB: Are there any tips/tricks/advice you would like give aspiring illustrators?
SS: There’s no substitute for practice, don’t be precious with/attach your ego to your work, and learn how to market yourself online and make friends in the industry you want to get into.
Don’t “network,” it turns people away. Just make friends. It’s win/win that way.
Don’t skimp on the business end of things. Or at least find someone to delegate it to. (I learned that one the hard way.)
Be like a dog with a bone. If you think you have the ability to be a pro, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.
Be a good, kind person; help out your peers and others looking to work as illustrators. What goes around comes around.
And if you have social anxiety like I do, nobody ever died from it, so get out there and be social anyway. Meditation can help. I like the Headspace app/website, but that’s just me.
DB: And finally, what can we possibly see from you in the future? Are you planning to continue in comics? Do you have stuff in the works that needs a Level 10 clearance to discuss or any teasers you could share?
SS: Yeah, I plan on continuing in comics, I have another creator owned book in the works, but can’t talk about it, unfortunately. It’s pretty fun, though. Alt-history sci-fi stuff. I’m going to be putting out a PDF/CBZ Symbiosis Chapbook as a way to get Symbiosis backers something while waiting for me to finish getting the time and money to finish and print the book.
That wraps it up for this session people. Steven was a blast to talk to, was quite accommodating, and would make a formidable pugilist. LITERALLY everyone in KC who goes to Planet Comicon should find his booth and stop by, chat him up, pick up a print, or…I dunno maybe just loiter about it for hours? Make everyone else at The Con wonder just what is going on over THERE?! A mass of people gathered about his table fueled by CONSTRUCTIVE INTERFERENCE!