In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I speak with P.J. Day of Flatt Bear.
Travis Blair: P.J.! Thank you for talking with me. I’d like to start by asking you about your professional life, specifically as a technical illustrator. What does this entail?
P.J. Day: Ah yes… technical illustration… where it all began for me.
Well, a technical illustrator is someone who creates drawings or diagrams for instruction, technical information, or assembly manuals. Unlike someone who illustrates for storybooks or magazines, there’s really no room for creativity in what you’re drawing because the main goal is to give the reader something to reference that’s as accurate as possible.
If you’ve ever seen one of those “Getting Started” sheets or an instruction booklet you get with a new appliance or TV, those cute little drawings that show you where to plug stuff in or insert water filters… that’s what a technical illustrator does.
My first job was with a company called Sperry (now Honeywell), so I did a lot of logic diagrams, electrical schematics and such. I also worked for a couple of aerospace companies where I had to draw what would be considered 3 dimensional line drawings of components for the factory assemblers to use. These are called isometric or diametric drawings and back then, I didn’t have computers to draw this stuff on, I had to lay them out by hand using pencils, rulers, and templates, then inked on velum or Mylar sheets using Rapidograph pens.
Think that stuffs all done on computers now using CAD or illustrator or some such thing.
Travis: You just sparked a memory of me taking a field trip when I was a child to a place that had those giant, tilted desks with motorized erasers and long rulers. You have a valuable talent! How did webcomics come from such a technical background?
P.J.: I still have one of those motorized erasers.
I’ve always been attracted to idea of drawing something on paper that represents something in real life. But I was never really interested in things like life drawing or still life. I liked line drawings, pencil or pen. No colors just black and white. Simple.
Those years as a technical illustrator, I learned a lot about how to properly execute an illustration. Inking techniques, the subtlety of line weight to convey perspective and distances. Even how to convey the illusion of great detail in a drawing with the use of a few well placed lines. And doing all this as quickly as possible so not to spend gobs of unnecessary time creating a piece of artwork. So when it came to cartooning, I could pull from that experience and apply it to the art I do now. If you think about it, cartoonists are essentially illustrators anyway. We are illustrating a joke while trying to be as visually concise as possible. And then trying to do it all in as short amount of time as creatively possible.
Travis: It’s great that you’re applying your technical expertise to comics. And yes, I would agree that cartoonists are illustrators. Comics are also enjoyed for their humor and observations. How does a technical perspective add to figuratively illustrating these features?
P.J.: When I was given a task as an illustrator, I would always try to figure out the best way to show what’s important in that drawing. Keep it simple and concise. Include only what was needed. Same thing with my strip. I write a gag and I want people to read it, get it, and laugh hysterically for hours. I don’t want them to be bogged down with a lot of unnecessary distractions. I ask myself, how can I do this as simply as possible? When people read cartoons and comics, it’s kind of a surgical strike, especially now that most comics are read online. They come in, read the gag, look over the art, hopefully laugh, then move on to YouTube to watch the latest cat fail video.
Travis: Concise is a word I appreciate in many aspects life. What are some of the tools in your belt used to produce comics? And speaking of modern consumption of comics, how have computers changed the way you create?
P.J.: Since I still embrace the old school method of drawing my strip by hand, my tools are mostly old school. I like using drawing tools that I’m comfortable with and not necessarily how popular or even expensive they are. I use an inexpensive Pentel Click mechanical pencil for sketches and layouts. My main go-to pen for most of my inking is a great little pen, Kuretake No. 7. It’s listed as brush pen but it’s got a great fine tip on it and I’m able to get a nice consistent ink flow out of it and I can control it really well. The best part is that it’s refillable so I can load it up with a nice India ink. I also use a Faber-Castel PITT fine for lettering and some of my finer line work, and a Pentel Pocket brush pen for those times I need to lay down an ocean of black. All this is done on Bristol smooth surface paper. I was using vellum surface but recently went to smooth because it takes ink better.
You asked about how computers changed the way I create my comics. I wouldn’t say they changed them, just modified… maybe even enhanced how I create. Computers allow me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do decades ago. Coloring my strip for example. I always struggled with hand coloring my material. I had to use colored pencils or Design markers and I could never get the hang of them. Now I use Photoshop and it allows me to color to my hearts content and If I mess up, I can hit “Undo” and try again. I use a Huion digital tablet so it makes digital editing and coloring even easier. Using a computer also allows me to do some post editing and modifications which takes some of the stress off me if I make a mistake with a line or a misspelled word. The only downside to using a computer is I sometimes wind up with original artwork that doesn’t match what’s been published online. And any color work only exists in digital form.
I look at computers as another tool in the process, I guess. I know there’s a lot of artists who are 100% computer creators, and that’s great. I don’t see myself going 100% though. There’s been some great advances over the last few years with programs like Manga Studio and custom brushes for Photoshop and Illustrator that do a great job imitating traditional drawing tools effects. But I like the look and feel of hand drawn strips. Gives it a more organic look. There’s also an element of spontaneity that comes with drawing things by hand. If that line goes down wrong, it’s there. If I went 100% digital, I’d be more likely to over work my material and end up with something that was perfect but sterile.
Travis: I appreciate your interest in using what works best, and how tools vary from a mechanical pencil to a digital tablet. Speaking of how one might come across, one aspect of artwork that I like is seeing life that comes through. What in life inspires you to create?
P.J.: My family. More specifically, the humor of my family. Myself, my wife, and my two girls have some ridiculous conversations at times. My two girls were blessed with an amazing and quirky sense of humor and they’re not afraid to embrace it. I find quite a bit of material from them alone. My life around me is filled with what seems to be scripted ridiculousness and it seems a shame, to me at least, for me to be the only one to experience it. I’ll see something happen in a or overhear a conversation and think, “hey, that would make a great gag.” Some of my characters are built on from those who surround me like friends and family, even myself. Of course no one is directly represented through any one particular character (so stop trying to compare me with North). My characters are a sort of culmination of many different personalities and traits. I just pick and choose different aspects as I build a character. That way I can relate to the character better and hopefully those reading will connect with them.
It’s just that really. They say that writers and cartoonists should write what they know. Well I know what’s around me. I know what I find funny. And hopefully I can put it down and translate it where someone else will find it funny too.
Travis: Family is a great inspiration, indeed. For someone with a technical background and eye for the appropriate tool, you have a keen mind on how to imbue your comics with personality. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!
P.J.: My pleasure Travis. Thanks for having me.
Now, head on over to Flatt Bear by clicking here!