By Richard Serrao
I’ve been a fan of Michael Lark’s work ever since i saw his work on Batman Nine Lives and Gotham Central. He is a rarity in the comics community as he continues to improve and grow as an artist, while remaining humble and willing to talk to others about how he works and give helpful tips. A gentleman and a pro.
First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.
I did a comic called AIRWAVES that was published by Caliber Press. I think it was in 1991 sometime. It was the first comic I’d drawn – I drew it while I was working an absolutely loathsome job in advertising art. I was kinda full of myself at the time, so I shopped it around to everyone. The editor at Piranha Press (sub-imprint of DC) sent me one of the most ridiculously critical and discouraging replies I’ve ever seen! (The book was awful, and I probably deserved it! But I’m surprised that anyone had that much time and energy just to rip me a new one!) Thankfully, I ran into Gary Reed from Caliber at a local convention and he decided to publish it on the spot.
Self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)
I went to art school, but studied design, not illustration. So most of my drawing is self-taught. Anything that’s not self-taught was learned by studying and asking a lot of questions of the many talented (much more talented than me!) artists I’ve met in the last 20 years.
Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?
I am constantly experimenting with tools. But my brushes have been pretty consistent the past several years: I like the Pentel Color Brushes, with the replaceable ink cartridge. I like the ink in them, I like the brush tips, and I especially like the lack of cleanup. I use three different sizes, and I keep two of each size going at any time – one that is fully loaded with ink and very wet for filling in larger black areas and creating smooth, thick lines, and another that is a little more dry for finer detail work and also for drybrush effects.
I also use a variety of pens for detail work and for ruling. My favorite is the Pentel Fountain Pentel (I think they’ve recently changed the name). I’ve also recently started trying out the Pilot Fineliner for the same purposes. I also use Faber-Castell Pitt Artist pens with brush nibs for some stuff.
For special purposes I use litho crayons, white china markers, and generic Office Depot white-out pens.
And in the last few years I’ve started doing some digital stuff. I create all my backgrounds digitally, and those replace the pencils. Sometimes I ink them, but often I just manipulate the digital images to match up with my inks, and just combine the digital backgrounds with my inked foregrounds in the finished art.
Type of paper?
I use Strathmore 70 lb. drawing paper (it comes in 50 sheet pads). I like the tooth on that paper better than any illustration or bristol board I’ve ever found. I like a little tooth for when I’m working with drybrush or litho crayon. For a while I used Canson watercolor paper – the 90 lb. student quality, which has a fairly fine tooth for watercolor paper. But it was making things a bit TOO rough for me, so I switched. For penciling, I just use plain ol’ 11 x 17 copy paper, then lightbox when I ink. (I hate working over my own pencils!)
Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?
There are way too many to count, and they vary depending on what I’m working on. I tend to lean towards illustrators more than comics artists. Robert Fawcett is my favorite. Also Austin Briggs, Robert McGinnis and Noel Sickles. As far as comics artists go, I always have my collection of Jorge Zaffino near my drawing table. Alex Toth, Alex Raymond, David Mazzucchelli, and Milton Caniff. As far as current artists go, I’m a big fan of John Paul Leon, Tommy Edwards, Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo, and David Aja. I also really like Stuart Immonen, though his current work on Ultimate Spider-Man is more of an influence on my storytelling and composition than it is on my inking.
Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. A quick overview of your process.
Since I pretty much only draw comics, I’ll describe this with that in mind.
I start off with a script, of course. The first step is to visualize the action of the story. I try not to think in terms of individual images, even though many writers tend to write in those terms. I try to picture the flow of the narrative, then pick out the individual images based on that and on the needs of the page. That means I end up changing the imagery a bit from the script, sometimes, but not always. I experiment with different ways of laying out the page, different combinations of long, medium, and close shots, until I’ve settled on something that seems to work.
Once that’s done, I shoot photo reference using myself or one of the models I hire on a case-by-case basis. I also get to work building the 3D models of the sets in Google Sketchup. I have a great assistant that does most of this work for me, based on my direction. She also digitally lays out the panels and rough lettering for me. I always begin my page layouts with the lettering, to make sure that there’s plenty of room for the balloons and that the page flows smoothly.
I then place jpegs of the of the 3D background models into the layouts and rough in all the figures. If I’m penciling, I do the figures in pencil, drop them into the layouts in front of the backgrounds, and send the digital file to my inker, Stefano Gaudiano, to finish. If I’m inking it myself, I print it out and lightbox it onto the board in ink. I generally just pull out my brush and go – do the fine details in each panel first, then work out to the broader shapes and large areas of black. I try to improvise as much as possible at this stage, to keep it fresh and spontaneous.
What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?
I’m currently on a Tom Petty kick. Don’t ask me why. I also play West African drums, and listen to a lot of that. I’m sure it annoys my neighbors. 🙂
What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?
I just moved, so there’s nothing on my walls, yet. But I have a few pieces of art that I keep nearby – a Robert Fawcett original, an Austin Briggs original, a Toth, a Sickles “Scorchy Smith” strip from 1935, and a big ol’ Frank Robbins “Johnny Hazzard” Sunday from the early 1970’s.
Last novel you read and last movie that you saw (that you’d recommend)?
Currently re-reading the “Illuminatus!” trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea – not “light” reading! Last book was “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher“, a Victorian-era true crime book. Good stuff! Also recently read a book on the murder of J. D. Tippitt, the police officer that Lee Harvey Oswald killed about an hour after assassinating JFK. I’m a Dallas resident, and was into the local history parts of the book. As far as fiction, I also just re-read “Riding the Rap” by Elmore Leonard, and “The Thin Man” by Dashiell Hammett. Those two are probably my two favorite authors in the world. Clearly, I like to read about crime. I wonder what that says about me…?
Current and upcoming projects?
I’m not allowed to say anything about any of my upcoming projects, yet. I’m currently doing something written by Brian Bendis, and after that I’m going to be doing a run on one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters, so I’m pretty excited!
What would you tell an aspiring artist who is working his ass off but still needs and wants to break through to the next level?
The thing to remember about drawing is that it’s a verb, not a noun. The ONLY reason to be doing it is because you like the verb. If you want to have done a drawing, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. And if you’re doing it only to get paid, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. The process is all that matters, and you’re going to be spending all your time doing the verb, so you better enjoy that part of it!
If you’re aspiring to do this for a living, you need to be prepared to start working at the minor league level. If you think you’re going to go straight to inking or doing art for Marvel and DC, I’m afraid that’s not how it usually works, at least in my experience. It takes a while to develop your own style and to cultivate the discipline to work at their level. So, self-publish, work for small publishers, and get as much experience as you can – it will pay off in a longer and more satisfying career in the end. Those who go straight from obscurity to stardom rarely have much longevity, which is too bad. Were they given more time to develop, that probably wouldn’t happen.
I think the other important part is to discover how YOU draw – I see way too many young artists who are just trying to draw like they’ve always seen in comics. Stop looking at comics, and start looking at real life. Then translate what you see into black and white lines and shapes. It takes lots and lots of practice, and most of us will never get it “right” 100% of the time. Shoot, I’m lucky if I come close 20% of the time. The constant trying and pushing forward and learning and growing is what matters.