by Greg Ruth
I was approached by Irene Gallo to do a piece for Tor.com's WHERE THE TRAINS TURN by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, and as typical to my previous efforts, (and despite my swearings to be cured of this method) I ended up doing two. Overall I have always railed against this double work as a poor and time consuming way forward. "Why not just thumbnail it first, you dolt?" is the usual refrain when it comes to confessing this as a recurring event. And I thought for a while that it was true. That my impatience to get right to the piece itself was causing this. But as it turns out, this is not the case. So, I have decided to hug this as a legitimate part of the process, and celebrate its necessity rather than try and undo it. So, in full confession mode, here's the deal as representative of deals to come and deals long past, and why it's maybe not such a bad thing.
So since this was assignment was also coupled with a second piece for another Cabal installment, and we were in the height and heat of vacation time, I thought sketching an initial notion out would be the best way to make sure I wasn't entirely lost. Really this is the normal way of things, but for Irene and myself, it stood in for my usual approach to either provide a written concept before charging into the final, or simple just going whole hog into the endgame. Sometimes this nailed it right off the bat, other times... well it just didn't.
Having come back from Maine where I did a series of Panetoid photographs, I was energized to bring this new series into the piece. It all made sense thematically, it seemed right, even the sketch seemed to confirm we had a good way to go. Easy, right?
|TRAINS first attempt final drawing|
Sadly... no. I ended up executing the drawing as sketched- and as you can see it was entirely close to the proposed notion. By every measure this should have been a mechanical process locked and on it sway. It was just about doing it right and I quite liked this as a piece. However... there was something not entirely right about it. The composition I liked, the approach to do something very a-tonal was on track... but nevertheless, it wasn't working. Looking at it now I can see the focus was wrong. The drawing is well done I suppose, but what was it representing other than my pre-ordained desire to bring those spherical planetoid images into a project? So much of this story is about the boy's direct experience and fear of the trains that he was certain sought to jump their tracks solely to chase him down. That sense of the story was missing completely here as was any sense of character. This is a fine piece of drawing, but a book cover can't just be whatever we want to draw- it has a function to fulfill: it must grab the reader's attention, be of and about the story without spoiling it. Covers are the frontal face of any narrative, and this first impression is essential. While at the time I didn't know why, I did know it wasn't working... so began to wonder what else to do. I stepped away from it for a day or so and let it sit, when of course as usual a new direction came to me late int he middle of the night. I emailed Irene right away before she even had a chance to chime in on this one, warning her off doing so in lieu of this new direction I was certain she'd also prefer. Stay tuned I said with all the false confidence I could muster.
|Final orignal graphite drawing|
|FINAL cover with title treatment|
And here's the thing I discovered at the end: I couldn't have made this piece, without having also fully executed the former go at it. The certainty and wisdom gained from doing it wrong the first time is entirely what informed this final far more successful piece. Recognizing that sometimes, and in my case apparently all the time, the need to get lost in order to find the way home is the most important take away from all of this. That all failures contain a solution within them is a lesson well learned from this. Also trusting the gut of experience doesn't hurt either. I can now look back on the original effort and dissect why it wasn't working, but at the time I couldn't at all. It simply just felt wrong, and trusting that was the smartest thing I could have done. And I now have two drawings where I would normally have one. At the end of the day, the struggle to get there fades and your just left with what you did or didn't do. Way I see it I got a bonus piece out of this, and a reconciling with my nature I couldn't have otherwise achieved. I'm better at what I do and can do for the next job as a result, and by working the previously erroneous method as a vital part of the whole process means I'll know hoe to make time for that in the future. We as a species have a total inability to learn from our successes. Our mistakes thought, are an orchestra of learning. Whether it's a holdover of our survival instincts going back to our monkey times, I can't say. Somethings are best left as mysteries, even though they are as tangible and valid as any lesson learned.