Layers Upon Layers

It’s always interesting to see how other artists work. I’m always very excited to see photos of another cartoonist’s studio or watch a video of them drawing.

So much of what we do is self-taught. But even the stuff you learn in school is handled differently by every artist. We’re all like little snowflakes, aren’t we.

This morning I was working on The Trenches which is a project I collaborate on with Mike and Jerry. I normally draw the strip but last week Mike drew an installment of the Trenches and this morning I was going to reference some of his art. And since we all work out of the same dropbox folder, I had a rare opportunity to open up a high-res PSD file of one of Mike’s strips.

What I found was very interesting.

Mike had one layer for every line of text. And then one layer with all his art. Flattened. My intent was to select and lift some foreground elements from his inks layer to reuse in my comic. But I couldn’t because all the art was flattened. Meaning that there was not a separate layer for the inks, colors, background colors, textures, etc.

So I called up Mike and I asked him “Do you always flatten your art onto one layer?”

“Yes. I always flatten it. I can’t stand having a ton of layers.”

“What if you need to go back? What if you need to change something?” I asked.

“Well,” Mike responded “you’re assuming I would be willing to go back and change something.”

Now, Mike claims that this is a part of his OCD. That he has some mental disorder that prevents him from saving a file knowing that it contains tons and tons of layers. He called it “messy” and recounted a time when a client required he turn in a file with layers and it literally required help from a co-worker for him to do so. Later, we even joked back and forth about it on twitter a bit. But honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that this is a part of Mike’s OCD.

The truth is that I can’t stand having a bunch of layers either. Which is why I hide all of mine in groups. I don’t think anyone really enjoys having a ton of layers. You can lose track of them very quickly, it’s a pain to stop and label them, and I have a habit of creating a new layer every time I want to draw a line crossing over another one. It’s natural to hate having a lot of layers.

But I think there’s something else at work here that’s far more interesting than OCD. I think that artists are weird. And I think that we make decisions about our art and the way it’s presented to people to protect ourselves. It’s why I always delete my comic strip sketch layer after I’ve completed the strip. It’s also why if I know I have a difficult artistic task ahead of me, I’ll never broadcast myself drawing the strip. I don’t want to be that vulnerable. I’ll broadcast when I know I can knock it out of the park.

I spent a very short time working in graphic design and I can’t tell you how many artists I met who refused to tell me how they did something in photoshop. They just flat out got angry and told me they wouldn’t tell me. I’ve had artists refuse to send me a brush they created in photoshop because they didn’t want me to use the same brush. For the longest time I refused to tell aspiring cartoonists what font I used. I didn’t want my work diluted, as I’m sure those other artists didn’t want their work diluted by me.

I think that there is something very interesting about Mike flattening all of his art onto one layer. I don’t think it’s any crazier than me keeping every layer I make during the course of creating a strip. I think Mike flattening his art and saving it that way, with no hope of going back is actually a very brave act. Certainly if we were working in traditional media, and Mike finished a comic strip he would not be able to lift the words and balloons off of his inks. You can’t take the color of a canvas to look at the pencil sketch below it. This is what he made. Now he’ll make something else. He’s not looking back.

It’s always so interesting to learn how other artists work.