I’ve been working on some of my Great Gatsby drawings this week. That’s a project I started this year to do some illustrations for the book “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book entered the public domain a couple of years ago and I noticed a few people putting out illustrated versions of it. As I’ve been really into that book and the history around it for the last few years I checked out a few of the illustrated versions. They inspired me to do my own drawings of the book.

One thing I’ve discovered about myself over the years is that I’m not a good illustrator. I’m much better at being an artist. What’s the difference you ask? An illustrator has to be able to work from someone else’s vision. A Gatsby illustration has to do with the ideas in the Gatsby book. That’s the whole point. An artist has to work with his or her own vision. When making art I decide for myself what I want to make art about and I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s idea of what it should be. I’m good at that.

When I do an illustration I have to construct the picture in a way that I usually don’t have to. I have to figure out what parts of the book should be in the picture, figure out what they look like, organize them in a literal way, and put the whole thing together in a realistic space. If Fitzgerald wrote a scene with three people in a big house lounging around in fashionable clothes then that’s what I have to draw. The problem is that I find that whole process a bit boring. As a consequence my illustrations tend to be a bit boring. Or at least I find them dull.

As I started I really was in a weird place about my Gatsby project. What was I going to do? How could I even get it going? I ended up starting by giving myself a year to figure it all out. Once I had a long time frame I bought new sketchbook to work out some ideas in. It’s a small 5×7 inch sketchbook by Zen Art Supplies. It gets the job done. I also decided to draw in it with a Wolff’s Carbon 6B pencil. That’s a soft dark pencil that’s hard to erase. It’s almost like drawing with ink. I like drawing in ink because not being able to erase frees my mind from trying to make sketches perfect. There is no need for them to be perfect.

I just started making small sketches in the sketchbook. The first thing I did was to try and figure out what the characters should look like. There are five main characters that I had to figure out; two women and three men. Two months later and I still don’t have them all down but I have three out of five. I’ve got time.

I also drew some thumbnail drawings of various scenes. They weren’t always literal scenes from the book but sometimes little pieces of scenes. Whatever came into my head I would get down on paper even if it wasn’t as Gatsby-ish as possible.

All of that ended up getting me nowhere at first. It all seemed to be leaning in a literal direction that I was unhappy with. Then I had a bit of an epiphany. I could do this however I wanted to. I could do this in ways that I do my other art. That’s when I decided to do one of my “Drawings on Comic Books” with one of the Gatsby characters.

My “Drawings on Comic Books” are when I tear a page out of an old comic book (a battered one that my local comic shape gave to me because they are in such bad condition that they’re worthless) and draw a face on it with black marker and white pastel. I’ve been doing these for years and I thought the style would look cool. Comic books weren’t around in 1924 when “The Great Gatsby” came out and is a bit anachronistic but I decided not to care about that.

I found it a lot more interesting trying to figure out what the characters look like as I was drawing on a comic book that when I was drawing on regular paper. That’s because I was making art rather than just trying to figure something out.

The next step in the process had to do with my normal way of making art. I look through the many thumbnail drawings in one of my inkbooks (a sketchbook drawn in ink) and find a picture that I like. As I was doing this I ran across a couple of thumbnails that I though would work well for Gatsby. I wasn’t even looking for that purpose but they jumped out at me. One was for a party scene and the other for a portrait of Jordan Baker. Those two pieces weren’t literal at all and got me drawing.

Another thing I worked on was to mix my recent color ink style with some Gatsby drawings. I took a couple of working portrait drawings of the characters and tried drawing them with multiple color inks. I’m not sure how successful they were but I still like the process.

Figuring out how these characters look to me is one of the toughest part of this to me. So I decided to mix that with my 5×7 inch cartoon art card style. That’s where I draw a headshot of a character with a word balloon over his or her head and write something pithy for them to say. In this case I would draw the characters and then put a quote from the book in the word balloon. My Jordan, Daisy, and Tom are okay but I keep missing on Gatsby and Nick. That’s okay though. I’ll get them down sooner or later.

I got two color illustrations finished so far and they are two that I never expected to finish. There are two major symbols in “The Great Gatsby” and they are a green light at the end of a dock and a optometrist’s sign that has a giant pair of eyes on it. Illustrators can’t resist those symbols but they bored me as I thought I had nothing to add. Then, in an inkbook, I found a perfect sketch for the green light. It took a while to work it all out but I did.

With the eyes I realized I have drawn lots of “All Seeing Eyes” over the years and could easily leverage one of them for the sign. That and one of the sketches I had done in the Gatsby sketchbook would work well with the sign. So I put the things together and had a lone figure walking on the ash heap in front of the sign. Once again it took a while but I think it worked out.

So that is an update on my latest project. I’ve got this “The Great Gatsby” illustrated project under way. Maybe by the end of the year I can get it finished. Here is to hoping and doing!