Science Fiction Artists Are In the House — Boskone 2009 con report (part one)

This year’s Boskone had a stellar line-up of artists, including the likes of Donato Giancola, Daniel Dos Santos, Omar Rayyan, Dave Seeley, Bob Eggleton, Ruth Sanderson, Alan Beck, Margaret Organ-Kean, Stephan Martiniere (Artist GOH), and others!  (Greg Manchess participated in many of the demos and panels as a member of the audience.   Greg Manchess and Rick Berry were also hanging around.  Sophisticated crowd!)   Art Director of Tor Books, Irene Gallo, was a Special Guest, too.  This made for a really art-centric program, which, in my opinion, was excellent!   Not only were there five art demos, but there were three panel discussions about art techniques, one dedicated to graphic novels, one about science fiction cover art design, one to care and restoration of original art, one about this year’s Master Class workshop, and another panel in which the artists interviewed the art director.

As Gallo pointed out in one of the panel sessions, “it’s amazing when you consider that these artists are in high demand in painting workshops, where memberships cost hundreds of dollars and are always sold out.   And yet, they are all here at Boskone, for three days straight, teaching, painting, and sharing knowledge at a fraction of the cost.  Someone really needs to get the word out!”   If this trend continues, Boskone will be the premiere low-cost concentration of SF artists, that’s for sure.  Considering next year’s slated Arist GOH is John Picacio, things are still looking pretty good…

The graphic novels panel on Friday night delved into the subject of sequential art and what unique aspects the medium has in comparison to literature and cinema.  The consensus seemed to be that comics and sequential art occupy a special space in the reader’s brain, involving both the right and left lobes.  This is due to the simultaneous apprehension of both the word and image.  Unlike film, which is almost by necessity carrying the viewer’s attention with constant motion, the comics medium offers a series of freeze frames that can be either minimalist studies or packed with incredible detail.  The reader of comics can speed through the panels or linger over them as they wish, unlike watching a film, in which the pace is set (sometimes in beautiful way, sometimes in a nauseating way) by the director.

The session called “Evolution of a Drawing,” was incredible, featuring Donato Giancola sketching on earth tone paper with red pencil and white chalk pencil, and Dan Dos Santos ripping through a composition on a digital tablet.  As if watching a tennis match, the audience found themselves turning back an forth from one artist to the other, as they explained the steps involved in producing a prepatory sketch.   Donato explained that using the earth tone paper had the advantage of serving as mid-tone over which he could sculpt the shadows and outlines with red, then pop out the highlights with just a few strokes of white chalk.  Using white paper, by contrast, required stepping down the entire sketch in value to get away from the white, which would end up brighter than the highlights.  He also said the sketches sell for more money, since they look so classic!     Dos Santos showed, with an ease of technique that was deceptively simple looking, how to work directly in Photoshop using standard brushes and filters.    Dos Santos worked completely in grayscale, working up the tone of the composition with a constant sweeping of brush and eraser tools; the advantage of avoiding color being that once the black and white sketch has been saved, various color schemes can be tried out and deleted one after another, until finding the one he likes.

Also on Friday was the panel session on the “Uncanny Valley“, that part of our satisfaction with robots that drops-off suddenly when something creepy or strange about them bothers us.  The subject seemed sure to set off fireworks among the panelists, among them Charles Stross, James Patrick Kelley, Allen Steele, and Paul Melko.  Steele, amazingly, managed to stray from the Uncanny Valley topic to stories about dwarves inside of 19th-Century poker playing mechanical Turks, not once, but twice! Stross sat silently through the dwarf stories, looking at times as if he was choking on gristle, and then pointed out that the concept of the Uncanny Valley is more than likely a direct parallel of racism, if not a form of racism.   Steele did not agree and asked for an explanation.   Stross didn’t answer.  Melko explained the analogy to Steele, in terms of the historical sense of doubting those who are not of one’s own tribe, who are different, and Other, hence subject to suspicion.  James Patrick Kelley, accused of being a silent robot at his end of the table, had an amusing malfunction during which his notebook and pen went flying out of his hands and he slid out of his chair.   Then he rose to suggest that robots have often been used in SF as surrogate slaves, because one of the most basic human traits is the desire to completely dominate someone else.  Now that human beings have become too civilized to dominate one another, SF has turned to robots, androids, & simulacra to serve as slaves.   An audience member objected to the amalgamation of racism and slavery in the discussion, since slavery historically is not always racist in nature.   For some reason, nobody objected to this argument on the grounds that there is no rule about discussing the topic from more than one aspect at a time…   Then, strangely, Steele began to tell an anecdote about Susan Sarandon’s voice emanating from the self-serve checkout lane computer at his local supermarket.  On that note, the topic was officially pronounced dead.

At the Art Show reception there was a tremendous array of cakes, a bar, and a band playing some pretty decent jazz.  In the center of the reception area was a gigantic NESFA freebie table of duplicate SF magazines.  There was also a large table containing chocolates of different sizes, shapes, colors and ingredients.   The extra delicious items may have been in honor of Jane Yolen, celebrating her 70th birthday.  Happy Birthday, Jane, and many more!

Saturday morning there was a panel called “Stupid Art Tricks:  shortcuts to take, traps to avoid,” featuring Dave Seeley, Bob Eggleton, and Dan Dos Santos.    Seeley started off by saying that taking the synopsis from the publisher too literally is a trap.   Dos Santos said that, in his case, he tends to agonize too much about the three quick sketches he sends in, because he will be stuck painting one of them for two to three weeks straight.   He also said that he doesn’t talk to authors about the painting, because they will call him up and say, “oh, I just added a tomb to the story, can you paint that in?”  Eggleton said that one trap is running out of time by accepting too many jobs at once.   “Since we don’t know from day to day if we will ever work again, we take everything that comes in the door.  But then we have this horrible mountain of a backlog to work through.”   Seeley said that one pitfall is to send out a preliminary or an underpainting to the publisher, who puts it into their catalog before the final painting is done.  That image sometimes gets picked up by Amazon.com or trade journals and ends up floating around, instead of the actual finished piece.   Dos Santos warned: “never show the art director your photo references!  They’ll see a photo and ask you to redo the color or the angle of somebody’s nose!”    Seeley advised artists not to directly rip off others, but to use photo reference when they paint — “some people just scan others work and then paint over them.  It may be expedient but you’ll become a pariah among other artists if you do that.  On the other hand, many people don’t understand how ubiquitous the use of photo reference is in the field of commercial illustration.  So the best art trick is to use good photo references.   The trap is to follow photo reference too religiously.   Especially with action figures…your eyeball has a way it expects figures to look, even though the poses aren’t completely realistic.”    Dos Santos said that he sketches from his imagination first, then takes his own photo reference images to match the figures.  Sometimes the photos have to be stretched or warped to fit the dynamic poses that he created in the imaginary sketches.  Eggleton said that he’ll paint some studies from landscape photos to get the mood and atmosphere of the setting.  Then he puts the reference photos away and goes into the painting according to his own ideas.   “That surreal space in between photo reference and imagination is where I capture the look,” said Eggleton.   One question from the audience was, “when do you know a piece is done?”  Seeley said that “as soon as I start a piece, I start fixing it.  When is the fixing done?!  Even a year later, I’ll pull something out of the rack and say to myself I need to fix that some more!”   Dos Santos comment:  “For me I know I’m done after a painting is sold.  Once someone else owns it is nice because I know I can’t touch it anymore!  But then, I’ll see one of my old paintings and notice some detail and go:  why’d I do that?!

The panel called “SF, the Fragmented Genre,” took on the problem of the hydra-headed monster that SF- Fantasy has become.   Moderator, Peter J. Heck, started off by saying that some thirty years ago, a reader might feasibly be able to keep abreast of the major publications in the field of SF and Fantasy.   But, today, after decades of fragmentation, the genre has matured to the point that a reader who is dedicated to a particular sub-genre (romantic fantasy, or military SF), could happily stick within their own niche and have plenty to read.  Indeed, it is no longer possible to actually read all the publications in the field as a whole.  Even a single publisher, like Tor books, will release 400 titles a year.    The editor of Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, picked up the thread to say that there are some successful sub-genres and some less successful ones.  Splatterpunk, he contended, was the invention of three authors, and had no legs to stand on.  On the other hand, occasionally an SF sub-genre will take off and go mainstream, as was the case with Steampunk.   Eleanor Wood chimed in to say that “the real question should be not what sub-genre a book fits into, but rather:  is it fast-paced?  do I care? Some books don’t fit easily into any genre, but that shouldn’t detract from their value.  For example, Dune went to 21 publishers in a row, and was rejected by all of them.  Eventually it was published by Chilton [better known for auto repair manuals than SF].   So when there isn’t a frame of reference as a precedent, books in new genres or sub-genres are hard to publish”.     PNH said that “there are cases in which sub-genres emerge out of SF into the mainstream, like Steampunk, or individual books end up getting published as mainstream fiction that originated in SF circles.   Vonda McIntyre tells the story of a participant in one of her workshops who contacted her a year later and said that she had sold her first novel, but could only get $100,000 advance for it.  The writer was Jean Auel and the book, Clan of the Cave Bear.  Hearing this, Vonda wanted to put a gun to her head….[since that was probably ten times more than the highest paid SF writer would get].”   Peter Heck said that despite mistakes and ambiguities in how books get categorized, the process isn’t completely arbitrary because it does convey some useful information to the readers.    PNH:  “You wouldn’t want to go into a bookstore and find everything lumped together in one giant category.  It helps to have some categories.  That doesn’t mean that a book has to necessarily fit into a particular genre.  There are great books that could be sold in several categories.  But there are some hideous contortions that occur when books are packaged.  One of my favorite hobbies is to go into the bookstore and try to imagine the dialog of the editorial meeting where a particularly terrible packaging decision was made.”   An audience member suggested that it would be great if a book didn’t have to have a single category, but instead could be tagged with different user preference rankings, similar to the Amazon.com system of ‘other people who bought this book, also bought…’   PNH agreed, “it would be great if those rankings were stored as tags in an RFID chip on each book.  The customer then walks down the shelf until his smartphone begins chiming to indicate that a book has matched enough of the category tags that he previously selected as his preferences.  I need to patent that.”

In the art show, the eternally creepy and amusing Charles Lang, presented a sculpture consisting of six soup cans stacked three, two, one, in a pyramid.  The packaging of the soup cans were similar to Campbell’s Soup, except that the portrait on the cartouche in the center of the gold band was that of H.P. Lovecraft.   This was H. P. Lovecraft’s brand, consisting of the following delicacies:
Cream of Cthulhu Soup
The Old Ones Stew
Shoggoth Broth
Yog-Sothoth Rice Soup
Cream of Fungi from Yuggoth Soup
Gug Noogle Soup

The can on the top of the pyramid was pried open a crack and green tentacles were oozing out of it!

(to be edited with hyperlinks and continued)