Friday, February 13, 2015

Lewis LaRosa artist highlight.

Lewis LaRosa is a phenominal artist, and I am very glad I could attend this event. He was very generous with his time, thoughts, and feedback. Where others may have avoided talking about missing the mark, he was extremely upfront and honest about hard knocks, and mistakes. I have nothing but mad respect for the man and his work.

I want to say what you are about to read are my notes from a talk with Lewis LaRosa at a guest lecture at my University. Parentheses mark where I interject my own thoughts, and quotes are typically one-liners I was fast enough to jot down word for word. The rest is paraphrased and should be read with a degree of lenience in mind.  

Also, all artwork in this blog was done by LaRosa, and the author makes no claims to any of it. 

Background Story

He is a Kennesaw State University graduate, years from 1996 to 2007.
He identifies himself as an introvert, and said that he has always been drawing for as long as he can remember. He also said he’s always known that he wanted to be an artist.

He was not introduced until comics, however until age 11-12, but it clicked with him immediately, and knew that was what he was going to do with his life. He had no desire for any backup plans.

Around the age of 21-22 he had his first break-in with the industry.

He believes that 80% of his artist development occurred in the 1st 20 years of his life.

He had no formal education in art until he began to pursue his degree at Kennesaw State University.

In high school he won a local art contest at a local comic book shop. Dave Johnson, Warner Bros. and Marvel cover artist, saw his work and invited him to his studio a couple of times where Lewis was able to ask questions. That really reinforced his desire to become a comic book artist.

In his senior year, and shortly after high school he tried to break in. He printed out paper sample packs of his best work and mailed it to every editor and publisher’s address he could find. The then X-men editor for Marvel called him and asked for more samples to see he if would be a good fit. He asked Lewis for 5 pages in the next two weeks. Lewis marks this as his first hard lesson about the industry. He missed the mark and nothing ever came of it.

From there he went to Kennesaw State University. He really prizes the classes there, especially classes with Joe Remillard and Valerie Dibble. (Interestingly enough, Joe Remillard is the instructor who has been extremely beneficial in my own development and exploration into the concept art/illustration world.)
While at KSU he spent every day drawing, staying up as late as 3 a.m. in the studio. (This is back when they had very late hours, something only dreams could conjure now.) Also while he was at KSU he met some of the very same anti-illustration barriers that I have.

In 2001, when he was roughly 22, Lewis drew some Iron Man fan-art and submitted it to a fan board. (online? I am not sure, but I assume so.) He never could have imagined that the then editor for Iron Man at Marvel would have been a frequent browser of that fan board, or that he would get a call from that editor offering him a four issue mini-series.

After messing up and falling behind on the 3rd issue of that 4 issue Iron Man mini-series, his editor called in a fill-in artist to finish the series. As I understand it, his ego took a big blow there alongside his growing reputation.

After that brief stint with Marvel he did some odds and ends with DC on Spectre and Firestorm. The comics did not get very good reviews/did not meet expectations. (My notes are unclear exactly what he meant, but it was not positive as I understand it.) So DC changed editors on the projects and that new editor fired everyone working under the previous editor. This was Lewis’s second hard lesson in the industry.
Because of his work on Firestorm, Marvel gave him another shot. He was given a Punisher run, and was asked to redesign the character. He put a lot of energy into this redesign, and when telling us about it I really felt his passion about the subject. When redesigning the character he looked for ways to make him more true to the characters background as a Vietnam vet. Lewis wanted him to look older, and grittier, and told us Dirty Harry meets Terminator was his motivation.

In 2004/05, Lewis worked on The Hulk for Marvel and applied everything he learned from working on the Punisher. It was doing really well, and he was quite pleased with it until a new editor came on and (you guessed it) fired everyone under the old editor.

After that, Lewis got a call from Tom Jane and was prompted to work together producing the intellectual property, into a comic and eventually a pitch for Hollywood, Bad Planet. He drew everything in 2 tones to lay down the groundwork for the inker after him. He also designed all the visuals, from the ground up. However, Lewis did not want to delve too deep into a discussion of this period but made it clear that they were buddies doing this together, with no contracts. It ended poorly over disputes of workloads, responsibilities, credit, etc. He firmly told us to always make sure you have contracts, buddies or not.

He was very dissatisfied with his work and began to feel pigeon holed as a dark, gritty comic book artist and when Bad Planet came to a close, Lewis went back to KSU. He had quit upon getting work with Marvel back in ’01 and finishing his degree was a point of pride to him. He did, however, tell us outright not to be fooled. Getting a degree in art does nothing to get you a job. It is purely the amount of work you put into attaining the degree. Quality of work is always, always more important than a degree he said.

While going to classes at night, he began teaching (children?) full time. He graduated KSU in 2007. He all but left the industry for 6-7 years, occasionally doing spot illustrations but was sure his artistic career was over.

Enter Valiant


Warren Simons called him as Valiant was starting back up. Apparently that company had come and gone once or twice? Regardless, Lewis didn’t really want back in still mindful of how his last jobs in the industry. Warren, however, had always treated him well in the past when they worked together so Lewis started doing side work with Valiant, and went full time last January.

His position is technically freelance, but he has an exclusive contract with them for the next couple of years. While this does mean he cannot work for any other comic companies while with Valiant, he made sure to tell us that he has good co-workers he enjoys, gets as much work as he can handle, has consistent pay, and they have direct deposit.

Valiant also lets Lewis do all his own inking work, something he really pushed for, so he can better represent his work. He most often uses Micron 03 and 05 pens

Normally, (in the comic industry) you draw on 10 x 15 inch active area on an 11 x 17 sheet of paper. Lewis showed us some of his work done at 80% of that scale, which he does to work faster and to look better. This is fine as long as the end result, when blown up that extra 20%, is still really good.

Lewis can do 2 covers in a week. Sometimes 3 if there is a big push for it. He takes a day for brainstorming, planning, and thumbnails and then a day, sometimes two, for the rough sketch and inking.

Valiant lets him try new things, which Lewis believes is important to grow. For example, he just recently started experimenting with Copic markers.

Lewis on producing good work

Lewis believes there are always better ways to do things, and that there is no one way to something absolutely correct.

Lewis uses a lot of reference, and he thinks it is foolish not to. It always makes for a better image that way. Since he was in high school he has had a full length mirror and a handheld mirror for when he is drawing. When posing for his reference Lewis will often grab whatever he can to make it work, jackets, various fabric, lamps for lighting and if it gets really complicated he has his wife take a digital picture.
He made a point to tell us that no matter how good the reference you cannot become a slave to it.
When he makes thumbnails or is sketching concepts/ideas he never uses reference. Reference is only used to bring life to the imaginary, to help and support the concepts previously laid out.

On the talk of reference, Lewis talked to us about it being a tool for manipulation make better images. Sometimes, by having reference, he can find things or angles he wasn’t thinking of at first. Having reference is a good way to find happy accidents.

Tracing is not advised, but with references enough can be changed to make excellent work. Lewis made it clear here, that making excellent work is what matters most and in the end very few if any will care about how it was made.

When designing his compositions Lewis relies heavy on his ability to visualize the script or prompt he’s been handed. He tries to envision the story playing out in his mind like a movie, and when he starts sketching thumbnails he goes through many iterations to find the coolest, clearest way to sell what is happening.

When asked how he got those visualizations skills, Lewis talked about how analytical he is about normal day to day things. For instance, he mentioned every time he watches a movie he looks at it critically analyzing the pacing, the tempo, the composition, the cropping. He is always searching for cool ways to do things. Always thinking, and always working.

“Always look for ways to improve previous pieces to inform the next ones. Also, analyze others to see how you could do it better. Compete with yourself, always compete with yourself.”

“Maintain online presence with good work to be found.”

“Use reference, perspective grids, and always keep in mind foreground, middle ground, and background.”

“Learn as much as possible from life, and the end artistic style will be more your (own) interpretation/vision.”

“Save detail for where it is most needed to draw/keep attention. Edit yourself otherwise.”

Lewis on being a Freelancer

On freelancing and marketing yourself on social media- “Do good work and put it out there, and you don’t need an art rep.”

Working from home, they (comic artists) used to fedex their work to the editor/publisher and now because of the internet everything is sent through clouds like Dropbox.

Originals always pay double, once when the publisher prints it, and again when a fan/customer buys it at a convention.

“Stand up for yourself, if you have a strong vision make a case.”

“…Ask for more, don’t undersell yourself.”

Maybe an art rep would be good for selling originals.

“Be fast, friendly, good. Pick two.”

Lewis on receiving boring scripts/prompts: “Even with boring assignments you have to make it exciting. That’s your job.”

Lewis on quality and deadlines: “Don’t be a hack, do your best work on everything you do. (It is) Better to make something top-notch and late rather than mediocre and on time.”

Lewis is, ideally, in production every day for 11- 12 hours. He works a minimum of 60 hours a week, but life with his wife and kids occasionally distraction from that. He finds time to work, when kids are napping or when they go to sleep, whatever works. He loves working freelance though, because he never has to miss a meal with his family. That is something that is very important to him.

Lewis on Inspiration and Motivation

Lewis named Frank Frazetta, Mike Mignola, and Kevin Nolan as his biggest sources of inspiration. He did say that this was primarily based around those artists’ aesthetics and not necessarily their processes. He finds that he is really drawn to their bold graphic styles, and their beautiful rendering.

He told us, “Push yourself, vary influences and learn from everyone, even if it is not your cup of tea.”

He talked a short bit about anime, and that when you throw away the obvious aesthetic tropes, (big eyes, exaggerated anatomy, etc) there is quite a lot to draw from and be inspired by. For example, anime’s way of storytelling, the intensity anime has, the staging, and framing are all undervalued sources of inspiration.

“Inspiration or motivation are not necessary. It is all about discipline.”

I, for one, and extremely thankful he could come and talk to us. I hope you guys liked this write up, and if you'll excuse me I have to go draw something!
Check out more of Valiant's comics and LaRosa's work at:

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