The Lessons of Inktober

Every so often, when you are an educator, you are put in a position where you have to put up or shut up.

I am in touch with a number of my former students through various social media platforms, and most of them are continuing to make art in some fashion — several have turned pro, which delights me– but pro or not, virtually all of them have by now far surpassed whatever skills I have. (Witness Amanda, here.)

Which is why it baffled me when several of them were expressing anxiety about participating in “Inktober.”

Inktober is a fun internet thing created by artist Jake Parker. Basically you are challenged to do an ink sketch every day throughout October. (Or every other day, or once a week, apparently, but I did not know about these variations.) Neither did the kids, because the daily grind of it was what was freaking them out.

There are prompts provided and the idea is that you do some kind of ink sketch based on whatever idea the prompt sparks, or you can go off-book and do whatever.

Now, I am very familiar with the anxiety the students were expressing, because I deal with it myself. It’s basically a variation of writer’s block, which in its many guises, is always the same thing: What if people find out I suck? What if they laugh or jeer?

But it seems to me that whole point of “Inktober” is BEATING that. Otherwise there’s no need to post your work on the internet. Showing it to an audience is part of the exercise.

I approve completely of that part. It’s the same reason I have my own students publish their stuff in books and zines. That’s part of working in the arts. (Some folks may disagree with that sentiment, but they’re wrong, that’s all.)

So, in an effort to show the kids there was nothing to be afraid of, I told them I would do it too. There were different prompt lists floating around out there but several of the girls landed on this one and I thought it would be fun, and anyway I wanted to do the one they were working from.

Now, I have a full-time job besides the teaching and also I have freelance writing deadlines, so I set some additional rules for myself. The Inktober rules say ‘sketches,’ and frankly that’s all I had time for. So I decided they would all be done freehand, no pencil underdrawing at all. Just using regular and fine-line Sharpies, Crayola markers, Hi-Liters, and maybe a ball-point if I needed to get subtle with something. In short, pens lying around the office. (I did invest a couple of bucks in a nice little bound sketchbook.)

And never spending longer on a drawing then ten or fifteen minutes. I knew some of my artist friends would be horrified by this seat-of-the-pants approach, but for me that was actually the EASIEST way to do it, so *thbpppt* to them. This is how I roll, dudes. Moreover, I wanted the kids to see that it was okay to be rough, even bad sometimes. That’s what sketches are for. A sketchbook is where you work out ideas, not finish them.

That was a month ago. Most of the kids dropped out for one reason or another– mostly work, some medical. But we made it, and I and several of the others finished. I kind of had to, because it’s something I bang on all the time in class: finish things. You have a bunch of starts and no finishes, as far as a result is concerned that’s equivalent to doing nothing at all. If you commit to a project, take the commitment seriously.

I’m not going to post all thirty-one here, but I thought I’d share a few; what follows is a fair representative sample, I think. Here’s the raw material.

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The prompt was “seasonal witch,” and for me there is only one. Queen Jadis, the White Witch. She came to the land of Narnia by subterfuge from the dead world of Charn, after the war with her sister there caused Jadis to speak the Deplorable Word and end all life on Charn forever. Once she conquered Narnia she ruled that it would always be winter, but never Christmas. (I actually read The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it came as a complete delighted surprise to eight-year-old me when I realized that it was the same witch in both books.)

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“Socialite witch.” This was day five. They got spikier and faster as the week wore on and I got more beat from work. But in this case it kinda worked out, I think. It’s got kind of a Hirschfeld vibe to it. I was thinking of animated Samantha with a little Zsa Zsa makeover.

…all cultural references over fifty years old. Jeez I’m ancient. Though the kids had at least heard of Bewitched.

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“Oracle.” Well, really, the only Oracle I could think of was the one from DC; Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl until a gunshot from the Joker severed her spinal cord and put her in a wheelchair. She reinvented herself as a computer hacker and as Oracle she became indispensable to Batman, the Justice League, and eventually got to headline the Birds of Prey. I’m still peevish that DC walked all that back, because Barbara Gordon as Oracle is WAY cooler than she was as Batgirl. Not really a witch per se but then again hackers are called keyboard wizards, so let’s say she’s a keyboard sorceress.

This one is super rough but it looks better up here than I thought it would. The markers kind of got away from me so I used shadows to cover up all my mistakes. WORKING WITHOUT A NET KIDS!

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“Sewing witch.” This had me stumped until I remembered the three Fates who measure and cut the thread of life for each of us. That seemed witchy enough so I went for it. I got this far and thought you know what, I don’t want to overwork it like I did Oracle’s, so I just stopped. It’s basically a gesture sketch like we used to do in life drawing class back in my art school days.

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“Lolita Witch.” I had one friend opt out of the whole thing because this particular prompt upset her so badly.

She had a point: I didn’t really want to do a Lolita drawing in the meaning of ‘underage sex bomb,’ either. And I don’t think I could have pulled it off without skeeving everyone out, me included. But then it occurred to me to just sketch a Latina witch named Lolita, and here she is. Safely middle-aged but with a wicked sense of humor. Fun at parties.

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“Wicked.” Well, really, who else is there?

I was terrified to try this but I actually like the way it turned out, sort of raw and impressionistic, but you can still tell who it is. I like that better than I would have a more polished version.

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“Candy witch.” The gag came first. Another hell day at work and late in the week so again, this was only a ten-minute rough… but it made Julie laugh really hard so I’m taking the win. I actually like candy corn just fine and I don’t understand the furious hatred it unleashes in people, but “Brach’s demon seeds” was too good a gag not to use.

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“Space witch.” How could it be anyone other than Sylvia, consort of Korob? The shapeshifting sadist who decided to teach the crew of the Enterprise the meaning of “trick or treat”?

Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, scripted that episode. He did two others that were equally nasty, including “Wolf In the Fold,” a sort of unofficial sequel to his classic “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper.”

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I missed a day so I doubled up. The prompts were “royal” and “beastmaster,” respectively. so I decided to make one story do double duty.

Believe it or not, this is Sheena, queen of the jungle — the one from the Gena Lee Nolin TV show, which both Julie and I are quite fond of. Un-ironically, even. I didn’t want to do a Baywatch babe thing so instead I did her in mid-transformation into the creature called the Darak’na, a sort of jungle harpy thing with bone claws; one of any number of beasts Sheena transforms into over the course of the series.

This version of Sheena was mentored by the shamaness Kali, who also can transform into a variety of beasts, and I put Kali’s partial face in as background… well, okay, really just her eye, it was a long day. But anyway. Either qualifies as ‘royal’ and/or ‘beastmaster,’ and both are sorcerous enough to be witches.

It’s a really raggedy marker sketch but I kinda like it BECAUSE it’s so jagged. Suited my mood that day… and also, I wanted to demonstrate to the students and former students that your sketchbook is a place where it’s okay to be raggedy. Maybe even BAD sometimes. Too many of my kids get hung up on perfection.

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“Necromancer.” Magic from the dead. This lady and old Yorick are up to no good. Another raggedy mid-week one: quick and dirty, Sharpies and hi-liters. I stopped before I was tempted to overwork it.

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“Music Witch.” This one is mostly just screwing around with musical symbols to make a picture. The idea is better than the execution. But like I keep saying, sketchbooks are mostly about ideas. Someone with more talent than me should take a swing at it.

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“Technology witch.” The thing is, I already did Barbara Gordon as Oracle and that kind of stuck in my head as the tech entry. So this one was hard to get an idea for. Then I thought of an android, like the one from METROPOLIS… possessed by an evil sorceress. This is another one where the idea was better than the execution, but the idea’s going to get used somewhere. There is a story in there, somewhere between MANNEQUIN and THE EXORCIST. If I get the rest of it figured out, I’m going to do it.

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“Mermaid Witch.” This is like the day with ‘Wicked’… really, who else is there?

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This is when I started to lose my motivation. October was getting rough; both Julie and I became ill and stupidly went to work anyway, so even banging out a ten-minute sketch started to look like too much work. Also, I don’t have a scanner. I just photographed the page with our digital camera and then used its editor to crop them and occasionally tweak the contrast. In terms of efficient computer imaging this is about on the level of woodcarving by hand compared to using a power lathe, which is to say, it was kind of a pain. Also, many of the kids that were doing this with me had lost interest, which made it less urgent. But I promised, so I kept up.

Anyway. “Magical school girl witch”, drawn from twenty years’ worth of memory of cartooning students who wanted to draw this girl and pretty much nothing else. I’m not really a manga guy but I know enough to fake it on occasion. I gave her a hat but that’s it.

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Home stretch now. Day 29: “Alchemist.” I went Full Metal for this one. And the Cartooning kids thought I wasn’t paying attention…

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“Ghost witch.” No idea what they were hoping for with this one, so I just went with the obvious. Anyway, it was easy to do and during the work week it’s a lot harder to keep up, so a simple easy one was welcome.

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Last day. “Free draw.” Any witch I want. Well, I wanted the one that took the least amount of time so I went with an ancient gag. “Ship arrives too late to save a drowning witch,” popularized by Frank Zappa.

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What did we learn from all this?

Well, among other things, the kids were right. The commitment WAS intimidating and if not for my unwillingness to set a bad example I probably would not have made it all thirty-one days…even at that, I cheated one day with a double entry.

But I was right too– that kind of commitment to finishing is a lesson in itself. You would be amazed how many allegedly professional artists are less than conscientious– even reckless– about actually keeping their word. But it’s part of the gig. Once you commit, you have to follow through. Period. (Even if it’s just three lines with a Sharpie by the last day.)

Another thing I learned was how rusty I had become. Drawing is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. That said, I found it was kind of entertaining and challenging improvising my way out of mistakes, uneven as some of the results might have been, and what I discovered in terms of style was a revelation. I always thought of inking as something very polished. Using a set of markers to be as raw as a kid with crayons was a lot of fun.

Would I do it again? Right now I’d say no, but I’m still kind of worn out from this last month. Maybe by this time next year I’ll have regrouped. Certainly not just on my own, though. If another group of kids want to try it again, I could be talked into it.

Don’t even start with me about NaNoWriMo, though. I already have stories due. Not to mention this column. That’s PLENTY.

Back next week with something cool.

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9 Comments

  1. Louis Bright-Raven

    Bravo, Greg!

    Quite an impressive showing on your part, especially what with you feeling under the weather.

    “I always thought of inking as something very polished.”

    Drawing in ink (which is what Inktober is supposed to be) and inking are entirely two separate things, Greg. The former is a process where you learn how to be decisive in what you draw using ink because you can’t erase it (theoretically). The latter is a process where you take what it already drawn and finish it, possibly embellish and/or correct it.

  2. That Wicked Witch is instantly recognisable. Fantastic.

    I did inktober this year and made it to 24 (last year I made it to 13, an improvement!) but I only made it that far because I made my third week a commission week, but in the end the pressure to create something saleable bogged me down. (I did sell half my pieces though, so even though I was foregoing freelance to do it, I felt justified… he says as he rushes to finish his neglected work.)

    I might steal your 10 – 15 minute, no pencil prep rules, for next year.

    Also, ‘Lolita’ is a Japanese fashion subculture, they dress like Edwardian school children but with more colour. Almost guaranteed that’s what the list maker had in mind.

    1. When this was posted the listmaker let me know that, and apologized for any confusion. I had to laugh and reply that we were old and I’m sure that was the problem. Her daughter had suggested the fashion thing was possibly the meaning as well. The trouble is both my friend and I are a bit oversensitive to this because of decades of creepy pinup comics being all the rage, so it seemed like a perfectly logical assumption.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    That really is a fantastic set of 30 images. I actually saved all of your entries and put them in a separate folder on my computer. They’re really good – you included some of my favorites in this post, like the fantastic Socialite Witch, and I agree that Wicked is spot-on. Two others that I really liked that you didn’t include here are Urban Witch and Vagabond Witch, and Baker Witch made me laugh out loud – it indeed evokes Mr. Bill, as you noted in your accompanying comments.

    1. That was from a gifted former student of mine, who gave up on that one because it was frustrating her so, and I honestly have no idea what was bothering her about it. I think it’s terrific. And she was recovering from an injury at the time. But she is always absurdly hard on herself and her work.

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