Gareth Hopkins is a self-described “illustrator and/or artist” based in Essex, whose work is abstract and frequently experimental. This week, Tom spoke with Gareth about his ongoing Intercorstal series, his process behind ‘abstracting’ a comics page, and the benefits of physical rather than digital production.
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T: Something I’ve enjoyed about abstracting is the sense of liberation to play. Your approach with these abstract comics was initially to rework pre-made material, so much of the great weight of formulating a structured visual narrative was mostly already provided.
I’ve seen this a little in other experimental comics too – much more room for exploring and meandering around possibilities. Comics are often very intense in their structure, it can be a killer of flow. Whereas sometimes all you really need is just enough suggestions of a story, a hinted sequence or path for narrative, to give the reader something to work with.
How have you found it?
G: Certainly when I started making pages like that – reworking existing pages that I admired – it was about investigation and play, rather than with any clear idea of how the result was going to look, or even how I wanted it to look. I’d been making abstract comic pages in a slightly undisciplined way for some time, and had started running out of steam and ideas for panel layouts. By chance I had a copy of P Craig Russell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Murder Mysteries’ to hand and started flicking through that for ideas, found a really intriguing page layout and roughly copied it. The results of that were really strong so I started playing around with others — as I read comics I’d occasionally pick out a panel layout I liked and use that as a basis for a new page. It took a while to get really proficient at it, to be honest — sometimes the new version was so different it almost didn’t count, and sometimes it was so similar that it definitely didn’t.
During all that exploration I’d unconsciously been writing a set of rules in my head for how to abstract a page with purpose, and the culmination of that came about for ‘After Smith’, an exhibition I was asked to participate with in Bremen. The idea for that was to create a cohesive set of pages, that could be ‘read’ as a sequence, from a range of different comics, the unifying feature that they were all from comics written by John Smith. And it worked, I think — those rules I’d set myself tied me down enough to produce the type of work that I wanted.
During all that exploration I’d unconsciously been writing a set of rules in my head for how to abstract a page with purpose, and the culmination of that came about for ‘After Smith’, an exhibition was asked to participate with in Bremen. The idea for that was to create a cohesive set of pages, that could be ‘read’ as a sequence, from a range of different comics, the unifying feature that they were all from comics written by John Smith. And it worked, I think — those rules I’d set myself tied me down enough to produce the type of work that I wanted.
T: And what were those rules?
G: With them being semi-conscious, this won’t be an exhaustive list by any means, or in order, but:
- Always keep the panels within ratio to each other.
- Never leave a line untethered to another line.
- Unless it’s a title card, leave the word balloons out.
- No element of the original should be directly identifiable in the reworked version…
Um, I can’t think of any more right now. And there are exceptions to all of those of course, except (1) which can’t be broken.
So using these tools and processes I’ve developed, reworking a page isn’t as much of an experiment as it used to be. I’m able to assert myself on the finished page to a much greater extent, and apply a style to it intentionally. Having said that, I’m never fully sure what a page is going to look like until the moment it’s finished, and part of the ‘game’ now is finding that tension point. If I was drawing a conversation I’d know it was finished when all the faces and body language was conveying the story it needed to. With the Intercorstal, I only know it’s finished when all the elements on the page balance in a way that works to my eyes.
T: I know you’re currently working on quite a substantial sized publication, was this something that emerged as a result of your making or has it been an aim for a while?
G: It’s not something I’d planned on starting – my original plan for the future was to make 24-ish page comics and release them periodically. Producing a novel-length thing, all in one shot, was never something I’d really considered. It’s very different from the ‘reworking’ stuff I’d been doing, and in many respects was a reaction against it, because with ‘mastery’ of that style I’d worked on, I’d started to get a little complacent. I also didn’t want to be known as an abstract artist who could only work by taking other people’s work as a reference point. I didn’t really know how to break out of that, mind you, so was very lucky when I was contacted by David Quiles Guillo to work on a ‘novel’ for his Abstract Editions publishing imprint. His idea was that I’d draw a certain number of pages, and those would be paired randomly with abstract poetry by Erik Blagsvedt. The final book (Erik’s just finishing off his part now) won’t have that ‘random’ element because when it came to compiling the pages I actually spent a lot of time getting the order right so that there was a narrative element present, but the spirit of the endeavour’s still there. As I said, it was a reaction against the formality of my ‘reworking’ process.
I started by making page layouts and filling them with abstractions of family photos and still life studies of the park I’d go to work in over the summer, as I really wanted it to have a feeling of both memory and place. The title, ‘Found Forest Floor’, is meant to evoke those same feelings. Once I’d done 50 of those sort-of traditional pages, I worked on them in Photoshop a bit — chopped them up and re-layered the pages in much more sparse, less comic book patterns. Then, when that started to get too formulaic, I started printing those out and working into/over them with white paint and ink to change them substantially, but leaving enough that the ghost of the original was still there. And then I’d digitise those, then print out and rework the results again, over and over until I’d worked up the target 250 pages. In the end, I think the ratio’s about 50/50 digital and physical originals, if ‘original’ is the right word in this context. I mean, I have about 125 physical pages of artwork that are used in the final book.
T: There’s a lot of physical and hands-on involvement here, as opposed to all the digital options we have available nowadays. Is that important to you?
G: Yes, for a few reasons. First, it’s merely the most practical for me – I can carry my pencil case and a drawing kit around with me in my rucksack, chuck that around during my commute without fear of anything expensive breaking, and a lot of the physical drawing of Found Forest Floor was done in West Smithfield Park during lunch hours. Another is affordability – I can afford some A4 Bristol Board, ink for my brush pen and new Uni Pins every few months, but there’s no way I can afford a Cintiq or anything like that, and I’ve not been able to teach myself to draw with a mouse.
As for past those quite boring concerns… I don’t know. I think that because I’m doing non- traditional comics art, there needs to be an element of work, and of craft, that needs to be present. And that means measuring with a ruler, and sharpening pencils, and rubbing out guidelines, and starting again if it’s all gone wrong. Further, because part of the process is finding that tipping point between ‘not finished’ and ‘over-worked’… that doesn’t really count as strongly with digital work because you can move backward and forwards if something is not quite right. I guess it feels that taking the stress away from working like I do by using digital would lessen it somehow, make it too safe.
T: Getting back to collaboration – you’ve had some interplay with new layers of text added to the imagery before. How have you found the results?
G: I loved it – assuming you mean ‘Implosion Flower’, that appeared in Issue 4 of Sliced Quarterly? Similarly to ‘Found Forest Floor’ that came about almost by accident, just playing. I’d produced a sequence of four pages for Ken Reynolds (Sliced’s editor) and he came up with the idea of doing a call-out to get writers to write to them, Marvel-style. (There were two call outs – one to write to three of the pages as one continuous sequence, and then get four different versions of the remaining page). None of the initial pitches for the three-pager landed for me so I asked Erik, who I’d been working with on Found Forest Floor, if he wanted to give it a go. He sent in some blocks of his poetry and I broke them up into a script, which I’d intended to be quite conservative blocks of captions and balloons. Ken got brilliantly carried away though and wove the text into my drawing so that it complimented the flows of movement that I’d created. When I first got the roughs back I was initially a bit taken aback, but once I’d read it through I was in love with it. The combination of Erik’s words and Ken’s lettering fundamentally changed my original art. I’ve had the occasional whisper that people didn’t get it or weren’t keen on it, but then that’s half the game.
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