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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, November 30, 2020

What I Learned Painting 2,047,500 Pixels of Homestuck Fan Art

I didn't expect painting a series of illustrations for Sarah Zedig's Homestuck novel Godfeels would involve so much deconstruction of my identity and how I make art! Here's what I learned from the experience.

content warnings: depictions of physical assault and gun violence, abstract depictions of violence, soviet constructivism, suicidal ideation, homestuck, internalized transmisogyny and ableism, aggressive colors, self doubt



Anyone can draw a chalk outline around a corpse after it's already fallen.

There wasn't a grand plan to my collaboration with Sarah Zedig on her new chapter of the story "Godfeels", at least not on my end, cause I went into the collaboration half assuming that there wouldn't BE a collaboration. I'm not a cartoonist, I said to myself and to her. I'm no good at drawing poses or expressions or bodies in space or doing things in a timely fashion or or or

And she sent me a snippet of text where the main character June, grappling with an opponent, flooded with the guilt of both the alternate selves that make up her being, asks herself "isn't this what i wanted? a fair fight? isn't this... how i wanted to die?"

Ok, I said. I'll do a test sketch, I said.

It's pretty weird though, I said.


Follow this thread wherever it leads, she said.

I did.


That's to a large extent the story of Godfeels' production, as far as I can tell. The backstory to this article is Sarah's video on that production, which was a frenzied initial sprint followed by a whole lot of wild experimentation and rewrites since (there are SO MANY versions of the conversation between Terezi and Karkat!). It's a weird, wild, constantly evolving story about a person who happens to have godlike powers over causality realizing that she's a woman, and also maybe two people, and also maybe really tired of people being so god damn condescending all the F8CKING TIME!!!!!!!! I'm not gonna cover too much story stuff in this article, cause Sarah's already done a great job of exploring that in her own video:


That's her story. My story is one of process and intuition. This month has felt like I've been strapped to some sort of extremely garishly colored rocket sled nyoooming along through a process totally alien to me. See, I like to go slow, methodical, carefully tiptoing out of my comfort zone, gently working my way into the deep end one webbed toe at a time. (Shoutout to the fans who've been waiting for more hints about my feet for a decade, I got you gang 😉 .)

This was not a slow methodical tiptoing:


The initial sketch was rough and the painting was rougher, a frenzy painted with a solid hard edged brush that I'm only JUST realizing now would've been better done with a more standard brush with the sketch painted over later. Dammit!

I just scaled the sketch up in my art program of choice--the free and open program Krita which is legitimately one of the best programs I've ever worked with. The brushes were a set of hard edged aliased circles that resized a bit on pressure and didn't do much else, achieving their solid pixels by cranking the Sharpness component of Krita's unhinged mad science experiment brush control scheme. Initially I stuck to just the one pixel brush, but I also had access to some brushes with a dithered pixel pattern and set out to use that for lighting effects:


Oh, and of course, there's the solid vector images that made up the text. Aaaah vectors in Krita. If the brush tool in Krita is a bizarre laboratory of interesting controls, the vector controls are, surprisingly considering the rest of the program, a bit of a crude nightmare. I achieved this look by taking the vectors, overlaying a couple gradients, and hitting the result with a color assignment and posterization set of filters. It was kind of clunky, to the point where I dropped it in favor of a different technique later, but it gave me those hard Homestuck edges I craved. This was a Homestuck fic after all!

Except... they weren't really hard Homestuck edges were they? And the characters I had drawn weren't really in the Homestuck simplified "hero mode" style, the comic at its most abstract. The closest is probably a real weird variant of hero mode that pops up early in the comic and... never really shows up again:


I wasn't sure how to feel about this. I certainly didn't feel like I was doing "Homestuck Art" exactly. It felt like I was trying to sculpt something new but it wasn't quite taking form yet.

I wanted to push things further, force my way into some new territory for me and for the aesthetic of the story that Godfeels itself had already textually pushed beyond.

I wanted to find the thin edge of the wedge.


Sometimes art processes are really literal, I guess.

This composition is weird right? For the moment in the story, I mean--a bit where June watches an enemy combatant break through a force field. This isn't a "natural" way we imagine dudes breaking through forcefields, if big budget blockbusters are anything to go by, the forcefield and its ruptured interior flat, not in natural perspective at all, and the figure crouched and straining to tear away the wall with his bare hands. Actually this and the first image were both on some level probably inspired by the visceral, bestial combat of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where the ostensible giant robots regularly tear at forcefields with their hands or even teeth. (And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking of the famous strangling scenes in the series and End of Evangelion when I did the first composition...)

A lot of the oddness comes from the explicit source:


El Lissitsky's "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge!" boldly rallies the Bolshevik revolutionaries to crush the old aristocratic holdouts still menacing the new Soviet republic, poster art astonishingly conveying its message through pure geometric abstraction. Yeah, hyped up by the boldness of the first image, I decided to lean into an aesthetic I've been fascinated by since my undergrad art history classes: Soviet Constructivism and Suprematism.


Sarah by her own admission to me didn't know quite what I was going for at this stage, while the pieces were still strange messy sketches. But something happened that I hadn't expected and certainly wasn't used to: she told me to keep pushing, keep exploring the idea. 

I didn't quite know what to do with that creative latitude. I've fabricated art and code and pieces of graphic design for people before, and never received that kind of trust to explore things as a collaborator. Sarah was already talking about changing her intended plot--where the artist character Calliope, who has an established style in the comic, would present these images as "her" work--to one where the images came from another, mysterious source. All to fit the weird style I was developing into the comic's lore! In prior work I'd always restrained myself to the occasional design flourish on the edges of the project's parameters. Here, I was going wild:


And when she saw the more developed version of this piece, Sarah loved it. My wild gamble seemed to be paying off for us artistically.

With that freedom came a lot of anxiety, though. I was using brushes in a way I never really had before, laying down layers of pixel dithering to sculpt figures I was throwing into a weird flat poster world, and I was drawing a lot of the linework on the screen, using a tablet in my lap.

I hate drawing like that. I learned to draw using sticks and paper scraps to carefully measure out anatomy on a physical drawing pad and while I'm proud of my digital painting ability, my digital DRAWING ability kinda sucks., or at least doesn't give me nearly the same kind of control that I can get with paper and pencil:


Feeling insecure and uncertain, worried I was steering the project in a disastrous direction, I did the only logical thing.

I decided to teach myself how to draw in four point panoramic perspective 🙂


I'll give myself this much credit: having bashed my head against the first couple of figures, I took more time with the underdrawing of this piece, making sure I had a better sense of how a panoramic shot (and a vertical one at that!) would cause very large things like say giant fucking spaceships to bend and warp in perspective.

Oh, did I mention that part of the reason this chapter had images was because it depicted a giant battle between gods and aliens on the moon? And I had decided the best way of handling this dramatic image, the opening shot of the chapter introducing visuals to a previously text based story, which was already pushing me WAY outside of my comfort zone just by actually having a figure in an environment,was by composing it in a deeply weird perspective that's normally achieved by computer software not by some asshole with a pencil and some tracing paper.

Initial results were, predictably, kind of... ugly.


We had this notion, drawn from the original comic, that we could use a bunch of stock images of spaceships to populate the sky, but warping photos with perspective grids left me unsatisfied. There were elements I liked--particularly, the big warped shadow of June and her centrality in the image--but... I needed to take a break.

Luckily I had another piece of art with enough structure to it, a clear enough image of how it should look, that I could pretty much just use Sarah's reference photo:


Uh, wait, no, not that one, that's a very silly mod Sarah did of girlpillz's amazing Godfeels fan art. (We also used Hunter M's big Godfeels poster for the look of the mechanical arm.)

No I used this one:


I learned my lesson in the earlier pieces. Relying on rough dynamic doodles felt exciting until I started rendering anatomy. This time I needed a stronger basis.


Actually, this piece took shape so easily that I don't have a lot to say about it. Here's about where it ended up:


With this piece I refined my process in some big ways. It gets form from an outline on one layer and a solid block of color on a back layer which is then painted over with a somewhat thinner dither pattern than I used in previous images (the color dots separated by a few more spaces rather than just being a checkerboard). I quickly found that layering those patterns in different colors offset from one another let me build up more controlled and nuanced washes of light and shadow.

In that sense I think I came to terms better with the fact that my process for actually finishing a piece just... is my process, and I'm always going to gravitate towards images where I can do more subtle and controlled things. Oh and it just makes sense to draw stuff out ahead of time cause that's where I have the most control.

Control, yeah. That's the crux of it, isn't it? That technical mindset that lets me play a tune and have Krita get up and dance. It's the mindset that allowed me to set up weird convoluted art and filter layers to get the aesthetic I wanted... like in the beams of light here, which are vector rectangles under gradients under a layer that strips the middle values in the alpha channel under a posterize layer that simplifies the gradients under a layer of painted dithered cyan pixels under a final layer that turns the black in the original rectangles to pure transparency, leaving only the colored pixels. That kind of sheer nonsense comes from the part of my brain that plans everything out.

God damn I hate that part of my brain sometimes.

In some ways this whole project was a furious struggle against that aspect of myself and its associations: masculine logic and socially approved autistic processing. It's the expression of my psyche that leads me to quietly overwork myself in search of perfection, the part of me that people look at and go "ah, yes, autism is clearly an Extra Male Brain."

And what if I want my art to be a hysterical meltdown? What if I want it to be explosive and aggressive and offputting like the transfemme industrial I love so much? I never feel like my artistic process is FAST enough. You can't make a careful technical drawing, or a complex procedural interactive narrative, or a well argued logical critique of culture with the kind of frantic fury that a lifetime of skating on the edge of sensory overload and dysphoria inspires.

So I blew June's brains out.


The moment is in the story... and Sarah gave me this reference still from the movie Come and See which I relied a lot on for the mood of terror and anguish... but the result was... god it was just too much wasn't it? I stepped back and sent Sarah what I had done and we both immediately were like hm, no, that's not gonna work.

My attempted hysterical meltdown had failed.

Well, sort of. It left me with a strong sense of motion and geometry. Could I express this, I wondered, in something purely abstract, something expressionistic and rough? Initially I pictured something like a Pollock but that wasn't quite right. I decided to stick with the muse I'd been chasing for the whole project, a style I found both mesmerizing and frustrating. 

Suprematism.


I have a weird frustrating relationship with abstraction. My background is with a very classical art instructor, and a kind of cultural smugness that together led me to look down on a lot of forms of abstraction and modern art generally--anything that wasn't the geometrically consecrated Analytic Cubism and De Stijl at least. Constructivism and particularly the vibrant dancing shapes of Suprematism flustered me in some way when I first encountered them in modern art history. They had something of the order of other movements, they were all boxes for god's sake, but everything was sort of... jumbled, tilting, complicated. I couldn't pin it to a golden section grid yes really, and that did actually bug the hell out of me, no, REALLY. For a long time the world for me was this very strong divided space of good and bad art, split down the middle:


Yeah sort of like that. I returned to that first piece and started laying down the more subtle dither effects I'd discovered elsewhere and refining some last bits of the anatomy but... it was still not quite right.

And neither was my suprematist composition of Davepeta shooting June. I had the shapes but... they weren't coming together quite right!

Looking over actual paintings, though, started to clarify things for me.


In this Kazimir Malevich piece, his clusters of shapes aren't strewn around the canvas in a sort of uniform way. They're more like... a Chinese landscape ink painting, or a particularly misty Turner. Things sort of cluster in this almost organic way, jostling together and echoing each other in this intriguingly inconsistent rhythm. But there was still order to it.

The thing about the weird layer stack in Krita is that it's really easy to tweak and modify. I started to tweak and modify, moving shapes around, manipulating colors, clumping things together and building more rhythms and correspondences, little clusters of material that suggested the violence I was trying to depict without just being a dang mess. I actually had four layers of shapes each with their own filter to get that hard edged look, all piled on top of each other, and I wove back and forth between those layers methodically, rotating, warping, recoloring...


It was a weird process for me--fiddly and meticulous in the way I'm used to, and yet driven not by predefined mathematical grids or careful measurement but intuition. Why did I take the one set of lines at the top and tilt it so it was more vertically aligned? I couldn't tell you. I did it because somehow it felt like it needed to happen. By the end I started even to accept this strange hybrid process of meticulously working to capture the intuitive burst of emotion I had when first doing that frantic ugly drawing.

The big panoramic got the reverse treatment:


There was no way around it. Doing a perspective grid meant really doing it, really mapping it out and understanding how things bent in space. Moreover, I needed to really think logically through where the "camera" sat: putting it much, much closer to June would warp her body more, which is actually exactly what I wanted for the perspective to read properly as a warped panoramic! And I felt it would help clarify the size of the ships relative to her, hovering hugely overhead. I ditched, for the most part, the idea of relying on stock images, and laid out a bunch of basic perspective boxes instead. With the abstract piece I started with a frantic burst and then refined it to draw out the emotion and energy. Here, I started with a grid and then within that order opened up to wild invention and experimentation and the rhythms the piece called for. (And yes, I have at least some idea of what all the main ships are and do.)  


Oh and then I dumped some more shapes into the moonscape at the bottom. I liked the way they suggested a transition from something more painterly--something more like Calliope's art style--and something jagged and abstract--more like her evil brother Caliborn's? It lined up with the twist Sarah had planned around my new art style, and it felt right somehow, like I was capturing something of the duality I was struggling with myself. The warped perspective of June's shadow seemed to fall into the field of abstraction. I started to feel some vertigo as I worked on it, and I felt it was right.

It was all tweaks from there. Refining the sculpted form of figures and clarifying space:


Unifying the whole series with the abstract elements and finalizing the layers of light and shadow:


Doing final tweaks to the color schemes and shapes, both to aesthetically improve the pieces and to suggest hints about the story's current and future narrative:


Oh, and quickly putting together one final image which you'll just have to read the chapter to see.

And in the end, I learned that I was...


...Not totally satisfied with this actually? Like, I wish I had spent a bit more time working out the anatomy to make it more dynamic at the beginning, or spent a bit more time designing the alien and the ships and so on to give it a bit more detail and realism (or, cartoon naturalism I guess?). The letters could probably use another pass, the shapes in the piece with June and her magical dice weapons feel a little perfunctory when I feel like they got blended better into other pieces and woof those eyebrows could use another less sloppy pass, I'm really not that satisfied with a lot of my linework...

I didn't come out of this feeling like this was an absolute success.

But when I read through Sarah's draft and it got to the point that June is recalling the phantom memories of one part of her personality, the narrative absorbed into an exchange between a traumatized teenage girl and the ghost of the peer she killed in a moment of desperation and anger, and then it hit a piece of art I did, back to the present moment, June struggling for her life while overwhelmed by the question of whether or not she wants, even deserves, to die...

...Well what I did was I went back and completely reworked the color of the image, leaving it as you see it above, haha. I'm always going to be someone who fiddles with things, tries to perfect them, scraps whole versions because they're not satisfactory. 

But I sent that last draft in and that was it. Sarah hit publish and the fic was out there in the world.

I couldn't indulge my desire to control things any more.

Sarah just told me that she really likes my tendency to "yes and" her--agree with her wild ideas and then push the concept further. I love the same thing about her as a collaborator, though I also paradoxically like that so much exactly because she's good at telling me when to stop, move on, put things down, try a different direction, or tweak something that isn't working. I don't know if I've ever felt so free in a project, partly because of that interplay of freedom and control.

It would be both pat and actually counter-thematic at this point to claim I've come to any grand conclusion about myself, some revelation from working on this that unifies the tendencies that for so long I've seen as masculine and feminine, ordered and expressive. If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that there's not a perfect conclusion to this process. I didn't go into this project or any other damn aspect of my life with a perfect plan for exactly what moves I'd make, drawing a chalk outline to simply fall into. I'm starting to feel, though, that even if someone else would have treated these images completely differently, even if the art I drew on as inspiration is wildly out of left field, that doesn't invalidate how I got here or wherever I end up going next.

This Has Been

What I Learned Painting 2,047,500 Pixels of Homestuck Fan Art

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Godfeels Illustration Krita Masters!

Download the source files for the Godfeels illustrations and see how they were put together!

Junetopia

When Andrew Hussie canonized a transgender character in response to a fan finding a Toblerone he hid in a cave, it was more than just a weird stunt. It was a piece of revolutionary performance art, and an affirmation of a new model for fandom.

I Don't Ever Wanna Talk That Way Again: Transfemme Singers and the Dissonant Body

Shouting and howling. Pitching up and clipping out. Smothering in soundscapes of sighs. From 100 Gecs to Against Me! to Ada Rook, trans women push vocal technology to the breaking point--and in the process expose how we think of gender.

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