Artist's Alley 5: Setting The Mood With DECLAN SHALVEY

It's been a big few years for Irish comic artist Declan Shalvey — after making rumbles with BOOM! Studios' 28 Days Later last July, he's now playing with lightning on Marvel's Thunderbolts.

Yet don't think that this is all this artist does — Shalvey also works on a number of online ventures, including the comic sketch site ComicTwart as well as Eclectic Micks. Known for his moody, atmospheric pencilwork, Shalvey joined us for the fifth edition of Artist's Alley, as he discussed his influences, pacing, and how he approaches lighting and tone on work ranging from the Infected to Marvel's baddest pack of antiheroes.

Newsarama: Declan, just to start us off with — how'd you get involved in comics? What made you decide that comics art was where you wanted to go?

Declan Shalvey: Well I’ve always wanted to draw comics, ever since I can remember. I was drawing comics before I even knew what comics were. I kept it up all through school but didn’t know how to make a career of it once I had finished school. My art teacher suggested I go to art college, which I did, to the Limerick School of Art and Design. During my time in college (and after) I was working various jobs; waiter, kitchen porter, coalman, construction, etc, and pretty much hated them all. I hate jobs where you actually have to deal with real people. Working jobs I hated gave me all the determination I needed to do what I really wanted all along; draw comics. Once I had my degree nothing was stopping me, so I decided to make a go of it.

Nrama: For you, how'd you build up your artistic chops to get yourself working at a professional level? What aspects of it that were particularly challenging, and how'd you get yourself past that?

Shalvey: Well art college helped me an awful lot, which I’ve only recently realized. I used to think that the time I spent in college would have been better-spent drawing comics, but in retrospect, college really helped me open up to other forms of art and gave me the opportunity to experiment. It’s only in the last year or so I think I’ve managed to apply what I learned in art college to how I draw comics.

While I’ve always been good enough at drawing (for my age) the more artists you meet make you realize all the ways in which your art is flawed or weak. I spent a few years drawing small press comics trying to build-up my drawing ability. You really need to get a lot of 'bad' drawing done before you can properly hone your craft. Partly, it’s just being in the trenches and, well, drawing your way out (if I’m going to strangle that metaphor). However, I think it’s when I really started to think about the lines I was putting down was when I really started to improve. My favourite artists are those that when you look at their work, you can actively see that they are really thinking about what they are doing, rather than just sitting down and robotically drawing. It’s a really easy trap to fall into, to get complacent, and when I became aware of the trap, I tried to make sure I never fell into it. In a weird way, it was a mental change of approach that helped me improve to a professional level. Along with the act of drawing day-in-and-day-out for a few years, of course.

Nrama: And looking back on that, were there any influences — whether it's fellow artists or books or teachers or what have you — that really gave you new perspective on art?

Shalvey: With the intense workload involved with drawing comics it can be easy, as I mentioned before, to get complacent or too comfortable with your own work. Seeing other people doing phenomenal work (and there’s a good few of them out there) has always given me a kick to do better. Looking at artists I admire such as John Paul Leon, Tommy Lee Edwards, Goran Parlov, David Mazzucchelli, Guy Davis, Jorge Zaffino, (along with a lot of new guys) etc, always forces me to ‘up my game’ and really think about what I’m doing. I do also have a couple of art friends that have been great for honest, constructive criticism and can I always can rely on them to give me feedback that will keep me on the straight-and-narrow, as it were.

Nrama: When you're approaching a page, what's the first thing you have to, have to have? Or, maybe to put the cart back behind the horse, how do you typically attack a page?

Shalvey: Before I start drawing a page, I will have already have worked everything out in a sketchbook. So when I start drawing the actual page, I will have all my layouts already done. The layouts themselves however, take a few days of going over the script, woking out the storytelling, where the letter balloons might go, any logistical problems or continuity issues, etc. I end up spending quite a while on my layouts, to the extent I have this rough, 50x75cm sized comic story. I will then lightbox the layouts onto the artboard. That way no elements of the composition will have changed (I find that when you try and duplicate a drawing, it never retains the ‘spark’ of that original drawing). Light-boxing my layouts is my attempt to retain an element of that original spontaneity.

Then, I’ll flesh out the drawing in pencil and make sure everything is fully realized before I get to the inks. I will have already figured out all my black-spotting and light-sources in the layout stage. When I ink a page I try and make it as rough, loose and expressive as I can without sacrificing clarity of storytelling. For me, inking is very much the ‘celebration of the work’ as I believe Kevin Nowlan once said.

Nrama: One of the things that really stands out about your work is the link between shadows and mood. For you, how do you approach concepts like lighting to really draw out the emotion of a sequence?

Shalvey: Thanks very much; I appreciate you saying that. It’s very important for me that I’m establishing a mood, or atmosphere in my pages. That’s a big part of why I enjoy to ink my own work. I think you can also achieve mood, etc, in the composition of a page, and in how you draw it, but the way in which you ink can have a very clear effect on the mood of a page.

When lighting a page, I’ll admit I’ll center it on the events of the page, rather than the actual lighting of the scene. By that I mean I’ll do both, but I will generally light a scene around the dramatic moments I want to emphasize. For example, I just drew a panel in Thunderbolts where Juggernaut runs toward the viewer. I could have just drawn the figure and left it at that, but I knew if I heavily shadowed him and had a lot of black areas on him, he would stand out a lot more, be far more dramatic and become more powerful an image. Then I looked at the rest of the scene and lit it to (roughly) support that dramatic panel. I try and use lighting and heavy blacks to emphasize storytelling, more than anything else. I also try to use lighting to experiment with using different types of mark-making.

Nrama: Looking at the flip side of using shadows and the like, obviously you have to take color into account. Now, I've seen some stuff you've done on Comictwart that you've colored on your own, but what do you do to help make things more simpatico as far as working with colorists and the like?

Shalvey: Honestly? I never think of colors when drawing pages. Well, mostly never. I ‘think’ in black and white when I draw. That's all I can really control, when it comes down to it. People may disagree with me, but I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you change your work according to how it’s going to be colored. Even if you are familiar with a colorist’s work, you never really know how they are going to interpret your work, so in trying to guess that colorist’s decisions you will end up second-guessing your own decisions. So, even if you are correctly guessing what they will do you still end up with work that was dictated by an imaginary voice that was not your own. Potentially that’s very messy. I think it’s better to concentrate on your own work and own decisions. If you can do your own work the way you want and a colorist works well with you, that’s great. If the colorist ‘ruins’ it, well then at least you can be happy with what you did.

Of course, if you have a trusted relationship with a colorist, that’s completely different (Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson on Thor: The Mighty Avenger for example, clearly have great collaboration), but in most cases an artist has little control over how his work is colored, and to try accommodate an imaginary colorist in your head will ultimately lead to work you are unhappy with. Better to be unhappy with a colorist than to be unhappy with yourself, I think. Or, maybe I'm just a jerk. More likely the latter.

Nrama: Obviously, there's a big difference between standalone images and really working the storytelling flow of a page. (That said, there's also a lot that can be told in a single image.) For you, how do you approach things like panel composition and the ability to really control time to really maximize the tempo of your images?

Shalvey: If a writer can think visually when writing, that helps SO much. If they do, then all the story beats are there for you. Now and then though, when reading a script, I'll feel like a beat is missing, or I want to create more tension. In that case, I'll and add another panel or two. Doesn't happen a lot, but often enough. It's just a personal thing; I will pace it in my brain first. That's why I don't like seven-paneled pages, because if I feel the need to add a panel, my options are very limited and the layout becomes too complicated. When I read a script, first I make a note of how many panels there are in a page. If there are three panels in a page and something important happens, one panel will be big, and the others will support that more important panel. If there's a six-panel page and five important things happen, well, then I've got a problem and have to spend a lot more time figuring out how to layout that page so that there's a proper balance. I'm also a big fan of 'widescreen panels.' The six-panel grid bores the crap out of me, and I find it leads the eyer around the page in an awkward way. When you use a 'widescreen' shot, you can very deliberately control what order the reader takes in information. So, widescreen is my most comfortable way of getting information across but generally they will support a bigger panel of more importance. Initially figuring out the 'focus' of the page is paramount though, to make the page visually interesting to the reader, without sacrificing storytelling.

Nrama: When you hit a creative barrier, how do you go about breaking it down? What do you do when you find you have "artist's block"?

Shalvey: I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but I don't so much suffer from 'artist's block' as I do from 'artist's fatigue'; I'll work really hard at a good pace and meet my deadline, then finally decompress and relax. When I get back into a proper workflow, I find I've lost my momentum and have a hard time building it back up to a steady, productive pace. When that happens I just have to keep drawing and work my way through it. Now and then I'll try draw and find a mental block, but I'll just pull out some art that inspires me and it gets me out of that funk. Or, just put it away for the day and try look at it with fresh eyes in the morning.

Nrama: Now, as far as the actual process of drawing goes — what are the tools you use? How did you go about picking these specific tools, and what opportunities do they afford you?

Shalvey: I use a HB lead for basic construction and broad strokes, technical pencil (HB) for tightening up the pencils. B lead smudges the page too much and is a pain to rub out after inking. H is too light; you end up marking the page which makes inking torturous. I use a Pentel Color Brush for general linework and a quill-type pen nib for more detailed and scratchy lifework. You can get a rough, more spontaneous and gestural line with a nib, so I try and use it as much as I can but balance that out with the blocky lines and refined rendering from the brush-pen. I have an old, messed up brush to ink bigger areas that helps me to keep a rough look, and not make everything ‘clean’. It stops me from filling in certain areas with black and helps me to keep a slightly 'unfinished' ooh. I also end up using whatever is handy for various marks. I’ll rub the back of the used nib on the page, my nails, my fingers, etc. I try be as brave as I can with my inks. More recently I've been experimenting with greywash and halftone, getting different results with both. I'm still trying to find my footing with those techniques, but I like the results so far.

Nrama: Have there been any lessons or maxims that you've picked up over the course of your career? Any hard-and-fast rules that always, no matter what, you're always reminded of as you keep drawing?

Shalvey: It's something I've realized recently, but one thing that comes to mind is; Trust your gut. If you draw something you think 'maybe' isn't working, then you know it isn't working and do it again. If you think you should try something new, but aren't sure? Try it. I think a lot of the time artists don't trust their instincts and the work ends up complacent when trying to be 'safe'. Same thing happens when you use photo-ref. You can meticulously copy a reference photograph but that does not necessarily make it a good drawing; it will always look like a photo-of-a-drawing. Look at it as a drawing in-and-of-itself and you will instinctively know if it's working or not. I find if it's 'right' but it looks 'wrong'; it's wrong. If it's 'wrong' but it looks 'right'; it's right.

Nrama: Lastly, for those who are working to break into the industry as artists, what advice would you give them? As someone who's really broken into the scene in a big way the past year or so, what did not know that they should?

Shalvey: I have? Hmm… I… I guess I have. When you're slogging away on the work over the years and months, I guess it can be hard to get some perspective on how how things are going. Well, for one thing, networking is key. Things like Twitter, Facebook and even MySpace in its heyday have helped me a lot in getting my stuff out there slowly but surely. Of course, be aware there's nothing worse than someone who's constantly showing off their stuff. Remember the guy in school who was always "Look at me! Look at me!"… who wants to be that guy? Nobody, that's who. As incredibly helpful as it can be, all the networking in the world won't help if your work isn't good, so above all else; work on your craft. Try and be an artist in your own right, instead of one of those guys who perpetuates the same bland work we see all the time. Instead of trying to draw in a style you think is cool/popular, keep drawing 'til your own style develops. There's nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, but no one wants to read a comic by the clone of another artist, and no one wants to hire them either. Of course, a good work ethic and a friendly demeanor certainly can't hurt either.

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