The Gallery Ms,Shatia Hamilton
by Evan Miller, Oct 24th 2009
Just for those of you keeping score: the deadline for the next Morning International Manga Competition, held by the fine folks at Kodansha (Morning, Nodame Cantabile, CLAMP, Beck, more CLAMP, etc.) is a little over two months away. If you feel like you have the skills to take on the world, get your pens moving. Although the first competition was won by an American artist (whom some of you have asked me to interview but I haven't yet), North Americans were shut out of the finalist category in the third competition - so if you don't do it for yourself, do it for your country... and stuff. Okay, let's get down to business!
This week I am joined by an artist from my hometown who earned runner-up honors in the Rising Stars of Manga contest right before family hardships caused her to re-evaluate her art - and turn it into the style it is today. Please welcome...
A Little Bit of Sunshine
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Artist enters high school, improves their style, and plans on going to art school when their parents stop them and demand that they go into a line of work where they can actually "make money." It's a common tale, one with many variations - many of which have been featured in this very column. The mentality that life as an artist leads to a life of poverty has become so engrained in our society that the statement "I'm an artist" may evoke the same amount of pity that accompanies the statement, "I'm homeless." Ms,Shatia Hamilton doesn't see things that way. "Art kept my family off the streets," she told me, recalling the moment when she turned to producing commissions of her work to help cover her family's bills in the wake of a major surgery for her mother. When a descent into poverty seemed inevitable for her family, Ms,Shatia used her art skills - you know, those skills that aren't supposed to be worth money in the "real world" - and not only helped her family, but gained the experience through work that has helped her improve and refine her art into what it is today. "When I have a bad day, seeing work by my favorite artists cheers me up," says Ms,Shatia, recalling the mentality that inspired her to take her art hobby and turn it into so much more. These days, she's known for her online manga-inspired comic Fungus Grotto, not to mention the significant number of commissions that her fans ask for. It is apparent that she's worked hard to get where she is today, but through all the challenges she has faced, she still approaches art with a sense of appreciation and wonder. "I like seeing people's faces light up when they see my work," says Ms,Shatia, recalling a moment from Artist's Alley. "People remember the pieces they see fondly, and that keeps it fun."
Shortly after her second year at the Art Institute, Ms,Shatia's mother informed her daughter that she was going to need reconstructive spinal surgery - a procedure that would not only keep her away from work, but also greatly affect the family's income. "I was 19 or 20 when it happened," recalls Ms,Shatia, who left the Art Institute behind to work, take care of her siblings, and help her family pay the bills. Although she was more than happy to work hard for her family, bills continued to take their toll, and things looked bleak. Worried over what could happen, Ms,Shatia's friends suggested that she think outside the box to tackle her family's financial troubles. "People suggested that I sell prints and take commissions to make some extra cash," says Ms,Shatia, who took the advice of her friends and launched an account on Deviant Art, not knowing what to expect. At first, the idea of selling prints of her original work seemed bizarre - besides, until this point, art was more of an escape for her than anything else. As word got around that Ms,Shatia was selling prints and taking commissions, sales slowly began to trickle in. As the number of buyers increased, commissions began filling more and more of Ms,Shatia's time, which led to a new source of income that not only helped cover bills, but give her family peace of mind. "That's when my art became a serious focus for me," says Ms,Shatia, who soon got so many commissions that she had to pick and choose which ones she worked on. "I haven't learned how to say no to people yet, so I'm pretty behind in work," she admits. "It's kinda embarrassing, but it's definitely helped me become a better business woman. I just have to push through and try not to over estimate my ability to finish everything."
Ms,Shatia is quick to credit her commission work for helping her develop her style beyond what it once was. Expressive eyes and facial features are still central to most of her work, but instead of "over thinking" the look of an entire piece as she once did, Ms,Shatia is more comfortable now with beginning a piece with a face or expression and working the rest of the detail in afterwards. "I want to make my pieces more dynamic," she says, "more than just character modeling and poses." Her genre of choice remains fantasy, as evidenced in her use of flowers, sweeping green vistas, and other nature-related elements. "I don't get out much, so I like to represent Mother Nature in my work as if she was a character," says Ms,Shatia. In the interest of bringing the theme of nature together with the desire to draw more than simple character poses, she began working on a webcomic called Fungus Grotto that puts the two elements together but features characters inspired by personality types that she observes in the real world. Although the color in her work is digital, Ms,Shatia still does the majority of her first sketches in pencil. "After high school, I couldn't be at home as much because I had to work at my part time job, so I would start pieces on paper wherever I was at the time," she says, adding, "I think when everything is done digitally, it ends up a little too clean looking and you lose those 'quirks' you get from pencil or real ink."
Face to Face
Ms,Shatia Hamilton: I bet this will sound weird. I think jellyfish look like a developing baby when they're in the womb. The very early stages of conception. They look like living pulses of color and energy. I've never actually seen one in real life, I use photos for references, so I have an over fantasized idea of them. I find them cute but really creppy because they're all limbless, faceless, floating masses of goo with spines hanging unprotected out of them! Makes me wonder why they haven't been used in a horror film yet. Have they? I like that they look harmless but in reality are very dangerous. It seems like they aren't aware of the things around them so they just aimlessly float around. It's kind of horrifying to know they don't actually snatch things up to eat them. Unsuspecting creatures just run into them and die horribly! So that borderline fear/fascination people have of them is what led me to use a jellyfish. Plus it's really hard to know how to feel about some thing when you can't tell how it feels about you... At least sharks look like they're laughing at you just before they eat you. (laughs)
My inspiration for Face to Face played on the idea of coming up close and personal with something that had no unique facial features but it's very unique looking. I'd mentioned my favorite part of a piece is the character's face. I tend to associate faces with personalities. For me, it's in the eyes. You can usually tell who the bad guy in an anime is just by looking at their eyes, right? Obviously the face means expressions, and jellyfish just can't make any. Azure, the 'man' in the picture, has some pretty interesting things going on. You know he's not quite human, but he's sort of overshadowed by the blob floating by him. I've had nightmares about running into really giant jellyfish in really dark, almost black ocean water. I thought they were after me and in my desperation to get away, I found out they didn't even care I was there. I thought it'd be cool to see how this powerful looking character would react to one he came across. This jellyfish was brave enough to get all up in Azure's personal bubble. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were facing off. I think jellyfish is as blind as it looks and doesn't know it's literally staring in the face of death... They're both lethal creatures, so there's a slight air of hostility and I hope it left people wondering who'd win in a fight. (laughs) I also tried to make it feel gentle. Azure could just push the jellyfish away but he's not afraid and has the nonchalance of someone totally not caring that the jellyfish could snatch him up and give him the shock of his life. There's no reason for him to doubt he's more powerful than this glob harmless looking of jelly...
Well, I personally believe the tamest looking things are the most vicious.
ANN: You were a runner up in the second Rising Stars of Manga contest. How did winning the contest give your work a boost, and what do you think has changed most about your style since then?
Ms,Shatia: After the book, I started getting noticed more online in art communities. This got me lots of commissioned work. At one point some publishers were interested in me, but I had just started college so I could never pursue the work. I didn't talk much about placing in the contest but a few of my classmates, who became my friends, found out about it. They were into manga, big time, so the contest was a hot topic when it came around. I got a lot of positive feedback to keep trying at comics and reading the editor reviews definately made me feel way more confident as an artist. Getting feedback on the story, or lack of thereof, definately made me want to try harder at telling better stories, so I decided to try making my own comics in my free time. The best part though was that people thought it was refreshing to see a character who wasn't Asian or Caucasian as the lead character. I'd seen females who were other ethnicities a few times in manga but never any males. My entry and style is sorta gender biased so I do draw for girls and women. I think seeing a manga influenced character who was dark skinned, male, and pretty in a shojo style got their attention. They really liked him even though he never spoke or thought a single word. I got lots of "He's HAWT" compliments.
As far as style goes... The one I used for the contest wasn't one I was comfortable with. I've never used it again. I don't think anyone could tell. Maybe it's more the 'method' I used and not so much the style. I'd tried it out just for the contest and it was difficult and daunting, but I learned a lot. I'd wanted to catch the judges attention and I had a preset idea of what manga looked like thanks to Tokyopop. Clearly the contest was done during their golden era. Fruits Basket was only a few volumes in and insanely popular. I'd absorbed that and tons of other shojo manga at that point.
I can't remember what my work looked like before RSoM... Again, I don't think it's all that different stylistically but it's just my approach. I remember I used to draw everyone with really full lips and funny noses though (laughs). I started making a concious effort to adjust my style after the contest because of school. It was just way too detailed for animation, which is what I was studying to do. I streamlined it a lot so I could produce it faster. I feel like I've gotten better at drawing what I could draw. I have much cleaner lines and characters look more consistant. I also understand the schematics behind making an actual comic page now. It's not just pretty art. I've always relied heavily on color even before the contest so I don't do black and white ... practically ever. The RSoM entry was my first black and white project and I had the hardest time doing the grayscaling. I was into digital painting so I kept wanting to paint it in... I learned about screentones and cel shading around that time. Now that I'm doing comics, I favor the cel shading style seen in most manga and animation, and I save painting for covers and pin-ups. It's definitely less time consuming, and I like that it's very against 'realistic' shading. There's lighting I could never do in a soft painterly style.
ANN: What parts of Fungus Grotto have been the most difficult to write? How do you work through writer's block while working on a story like this one?
Ms,Shatia: All of it. Hahaha, I am no writer... The whole comic writing process is still totally trial and error for me. Fungus Grotto is very character driven, so lots of times the plot gets overshadowed by what the character is doing or talking about. I'm also still getting familiar with my characters, so I have to keep in mind how each of them will react to a situation. What they're personalities are like, things like that. I'm all about exposition but I'm finding there's only so much I can show before I'd lose the reader. Even with a script I get caught up wondering what to do next. I don't really experience writers block... I know what comes next. I just hit walls on how to tell it next. Should I show it or have someone tell it? Is it even important? I have to constantly remind myself to refer back to a plot elements or character revalations and make sure not to leave plot holes. It's a process... but I'm getting the hang of it. I've just had to pace myself.
Lord and Lady Autumn
ANN: Many aspiring artists have chosen other careers because they think art isn't lucrative. On the other hand, you ended up working on it more since it provided more income. Do you think artists in the anime and manga community are selling their skills short? What steps would you recommend to a fan that wants to present their art in a more professional manner?
Ms,Shatia: This one is kind of tough. I don't consider my art my career. Not yet anyway. I know there's always a client out there looking to get work done. Art is all around us, so someone always needs it. Do they need what you're drawing is the question. It's a really competetive industry that's constantly changing, and you have to work three times as hard to be successful.
The income side of it works like any other career. Most don't start off paying well. You might be miserable and probably not even be doing what you went to school for. You're going to start at the bottom no matter what you choose to do. I think it helps to know the artists you admire started off at the bottom too. But hundreds of other people just like you admired that artist enough to want their work. They invested in it like it was a monthly bill. Believe me, someone wants to have your work and values what you do. All I can say is just try. Take on small commissions in well known art communities like deviant Art.You'll build a nice body of work very quickly. Really apply yourself to the work you're doing and treat it like it'll land you a promotion. If you half ass, it'll show. I've noticed that a big majority of commissions I take are people's original characters. Try to avoid a lot of fan art. A few pieces are fine, but focus on original work and client work. Next take your best work and post your work on your own website or art forums. You're trying to build a portfolio. I tend to focus more on 'faves' and 'views'. The more people that see your work the more it becomes known. Feedback is always good but don't expect long great critiques. If you're serious about landing a career in art you HAVE to submit to companies. I have no job doing art regularly now because I haven't submitted work. Sometimes clients find you and request work. Be wary of these and do research to know they're serious. And don't be afraid to say 'no'. Your art is valuable. I've had to turn down work because it's not worth pursuing or I know I'm just not skilled enough to complete it.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will be copied into the forums when people ask how to submit their work to the column, making the writer wonder if anyone notices that he changes this text every week), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
All works © Ms,Shatia Hamilton.
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