How to Draw (Yourself)
Avatars, Jean Baudrillard, hex #ed9093, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, and more.
Outside there’s a biting mix of ice and rain coming down. It’s skin-rattling cold and the wind’s picked up and the now-bare Chinese elm planted along the street are beginning to peel to the side—a storm’s coming.
The winter always makes me reevaluate my body—I hide it away in layers in order to go about my day and so I begin to forget it, a bit. Each evening, as I undress and put on my house clothes, I revisit it as if I’m seeing it anew, the shapes and scrapes and bends. We think of Spring as the season of rebirth, but I’ve always seen Winter as a time of year to come alive in some new way, to change or update our perspectives and goals (see: Resolutions).
So, in my first newsletter, I’m starting with this idea of revisiting who we are and how we view ourselves. How we, as artists, draw or describe ourselves and why.
I want this to be a conversation, much as one can be in newsletter form. So, the goal of this monthly-ish newsletter is to invite some discussion of the illustrative art form, yes, but even if you have no experience drawing or with comics, I’m hoping there’s something here you can pull from and meditate on. Additionally, I’ll be giving updates on the graphic memoir I’m currently working on (HARD BODY: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF MY FORM ON DISPLAY, out in 2024 from Simon & Schuster), share what I’m currently reading and listening to and watching, and offer a prompt.
Wherever you are, I hope you’re staying safe and warm. Oh, and a belated Happy New Year. ♡
“Everything can have a second birth, the eternal birth of the simulacrum.”
—Jean Baudrillard, America
Okay, bear with me: It was landscapes that got me into writing. I’m from Michigan but I daydreamed of the American Southwest, high deserts and mighty skies and terra cotta vistas. In middle school, I wrote tomes of stories about a world inhabited by elves—but spent the bulk of my time describing the flora and fauna, the ecosystems, how they all connected. In grad school, I studied regionalism in literature, fascinated by how a breadth of art could be inspired by a physical place, all that it brings together.
See, our face is a landscape, too. All of us is. I’m starting this newsletter talking about drawing our own avatars because it’s a crucial part of the comics-making process: How do we represent ourselves to the world? The nooks and crannies, the weathering. To be a writer—no matter the genre—is a lesson in being truthful on the page with who we are. It’s a raw process and needs to be: If we are self-important, if we hold back, if we try to become champions with no faults…there’s no longer buy-in. Artmaking is, to some degree, about being able to poke fun at ourselves and lay it all bare.
This is especially true for comic art. I call myself an accidental memoirist because I never set out to do this. I began writing and publishing fiction because it was easy to hide behind. It was H-A-R-D to make the jump to nonfiction. I had to accept the fact people would know things about me. Autobiographical comics go one step further: they ask the creator to do more with less. The format requires us to distill an essence down to an easily-digestible format—while simultaneously being more revealing.
When I got serious about the medium, I had to figure out what Comics Rob would look like—and what to focus on. As Baudrillard wrote: Everything can have a second birth. Even us. Avatar creation is a fascinating concept; there’s truth always in our conception, how we wish to be seen, how we actually are seen, and what we wish, endlessly, to be true.
I’m thinking of the Churchill quote: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
Drawing yourself is much the same: We decide from the beginning who we are on the page and figure out the world we inhabit later. Sure, there may be different iterations of us, depending on the story, but there’s always an underlying truth on the page (below, in the various drawings of myself, there are some markers of my work that remain the same over the years).
Cyanide & Happiness co-founder Kris Wilson: “[P]eople project themselves into something broad [...] This [stick figure] represents a person they can project themselves through and empathize.” There is often some degree of “universality” at play in comics; this is one of the major draws of the form. In theory, this means the more generic our characters are, the easier it is to see ourselves on the page—thus, the popularity of comics like Cyanide & Happiness.
Here, a panel by Scott McCloud from his seminal work Understanding Comics expands on this notion.
And yet, while simplicity in design may allow for more universality, you lose intimacy in your own story. If I’m writing a story about a point in my life, I want the Rob character to read as Rob, not as a generic being.
In this snippet of “Museum of Mistakes” by Julia Wertz, even with details and specificity of characters, it’s still very accessible—perhaps even more so because we’re viewing two characters at a distinct place and time. We can vibe with them, this scenario, even if we haven’t lived it exactly as they are.
Another example, this time from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The characters aren’t overly detailed, but we understand they are representing specific people and memories and places. There’s a simplicity here that invites us to dwell on the complex issues at hand, a Trojan Horse that forces us, once inside this narrative, to bring us closer to her world.
Ultimately, need to trim to focus on what’s important, so we need to ask ourselves: What is our style? What is it we’re trying to say? How do we look compared to other characters? We may evolve our style over time but we need to determine the how of our identity presentation.
Here, then, the digest of my avatar creation, past to present, and my creative process of how I moved from one to the next.
We start with how I was taught to draw: the Loomis method.
If you’ve ever taken an art or drawing class, you may have been taught to draw human faces in this way, how the ears neatly fit between the top of the eyebrows and the bottom of the nose, how the whole face is split (roughly) into thirds. This is how I drew humans when I first began—I was way into drawing superheroes, and understanding anatomy is key. Now, people don’t actually look like this, and learning to draw this way doesn’t take into consideration the variable aspects of being human (genetics, musculature, diet, life). I love comics, but for what I’m trying to say and do in my autobio comics, this just feels boring. Expected.
So, I moved onto a hyper-characterized version of myself:
I took a hiatus from drawing for much of my adult life. When I came back to it, I was taking the form—and myself—way less seriously. Artists are often self-deprecating when it comes to their avatars. So, when I crafted this version of myself I was instantly drawn to pink cherubic cheeks and minimal details but also emphasizing my large ears and my massive mound of hair that’s, pretty often, just in birdnest shambles. But, while easy to doodle, over time I started having problems with this version of myself, chiefly: it doesn’t really feel like me. Glasses? Sure…but I’m not that skinny and haven’t been since high school. The expressions seemed off, too. I had veered into something so simple it really could be just about anyone.
At this stage I had the urge to draw myself somewhere between realistic and cartoon, messing with my nose style (while keeping the pink cheeks) and adding details. This still didn’t capture how I saw myself—replicating the design was difficult as well. This one didn’t last too long.
I moved on to:
I’m a silly person, and that didn’t come through in the previous avatars. Here, though, I was playing with a fun, more recognizable autobio comics style, retaining the big ears (always retaining those), adding glasses (even though I wear contacts half the time), yet keeping the same amorphous blob of hair. This one worked for me—and for a while! And it was easy to draw!
But. As my comic narratives dealt with heavier and more personal subject matter, this cartoonized version of myself felt out of place—an inaccuracy.
I played and played and, eventually, developed this:
Inspired by Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel and Craig Thompson and Hergé and, like everyone, Daniel Clowes, I developed an iteration of myself somewhere between realistic and goofy. I love details, and it’s often hard for me to not add lines and shadow and other corporeal minutiae, so I leaned into it. Here, for the first time, I really felt like this version of myself represented the real me. I can see myself—people know it’s me when they’re reading my work—and I can play in the liminal space between serious and big, wild expressions while still keeping it grounded in reality. Here is when I began opting out of using a skin tone and instead just keeping it white, for simplicity. For a long period, I stuck to grayscale completely—focusing instead on the story, the designs, and the pacing, rather than the color palette.
I’m very okay with this version of myself but wanted to make a few tweaks to represent how I’ve aged. Around this same time, as my stories became even more personal and I decided that I’d like to make a book airing out my mental laundry, I played with the idea of representing myself as something other than human. A rabbit emerged—Robbit. He was easy to draw, expressive, and I could see myself in him. This Robbit avatar proved useful: When I was going to write or create something difficult, he stood in as a buffer. It helped me push through triggering subjects.
Here, then, on the left, the current iteration of myself (human); on the right, Robbit.
Notice how I haven’t referred to the act of drawing yourself as a self-portraiture. There, you’re trying to account for a given moment. There are artists who make exaggerated depictions, of course, but in comics we are, from the beginning, going for a sort of heightened reality. I don’t know what the future holds for my avatar(s), but I’m currently working with these two yahoos and loving it. They represent me, are replicable for projects, and, most importantly, have meaning behind their form.
Draw yourself in at least 4-5 different “styles.” In each version, try to change the look of your avatar while keeping a few details the same (think: my pink cheeks, the big ears, the hair).
Try to develop something that’s your own in this collection; start to learn what works for you/what’s replicable. Pay attention to how you draw yourself—and why? What do you want us to see with your avatar—Human? Animal? Something completely made up? Do you have a project in mind or do you want to just free up the ego and determine how you want to view yourself in this world?
There is no wrong way to do this, friend. This is not about experience or how “good” you are. Comics and drawing and art is all subjective. Even with little practice or training you can still create a fully realized and emotionally resonant piece. Not to oversimplify the process, but this really is just about adding lines and shapes on the page in a way that pleases you. That’s all this needs to be. Don’t hold yourself back dwelling on what you think you “can’t do.” This is you taking control of your own story. Take delight in that.
Play and see what sticks. It’s very rarely the first version of something that hits the mark. If you like one aspect, scrap everything else and cling to the bits you’re excited about. Show it to no one or everyone. (Want to share with me? Please do! Tag me—I’m @Robhollywood on Twitter and Instagram—or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
My graphic memoir HARD BODY: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF MY FORM ON DISPLAY will be out in 2024 from Simon & Schuster. I’m finalizing my manuscript as we speak and will be spending the bulk of this year MAKING THE ACTUAL ART. I’m equal parts excited and terrified.
Making a graphic memoir is an odd thing: first I have to write the whole manuscript, rethink and reorder, then take my text and translate it all into a coherent graphical thing. The making art part is what I’m most excited about, and while I’ve written books before and made comics…I’ve never made a graphic book. It’s going to be challenging but I’m excited to share about my process as I go.
What I’m reading:
Graphic: The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius
Novel: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Graphic: It's Lonely At The Centre Of The Earth by Zoe Thorogood
Novel: The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Varela
Graphic: Ducks by Kate Beaton
Graphic: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Graphic: The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Filipe Andrade and Ram V
A perfect panel:
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr #1
What I’ve been listening to on repeat:
“The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies
“Just One Smile” by Dusty Springfield
“Souled Out On You” by Robert Finley
“Spitting Off the Edge of the World” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Perfume Genius
“Be Sweet” by Japanese Breakfast
“Coming Back” by James Blake (feat. SZA)
“Pay Your Way in Pain” by St. Vincent
“Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy
The color I’m obsessed with right now:
hex #ed9093 – “Sea Pink”
Beautiful things I’ve watched recently and can’t stop thinking about:
The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)
Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel (2022)
Encino Man (1992)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The Velvet Queen (2021)
I’ll be teaching another comics workshop this year courtesy of the always wonderful Word West. In my 2022 six-week workshop “An Introduction to Diary Comics,” I invited anyone who wanted to try to create short-but-meaningful diary comics to tell their own story—in a new way. (Below is an example of the sort of diary comics we worked on creating together.) The workshop sold out within a week. I’m hoping to mirror this workshop again in 2023, again inviting anyone who has a hankering to play around with the diary comics form to come and play and create. Stay tuned for details—I’ll post updates on Twitter and Instagram.
I’ll be at AWP 2023 in Seattle this March 8 - 11. Will you? Let’s say hello to each other!
In 2022, Aaron Burch and I started the LOW LIFE, LOW STAKES ART SALON, a near-weekly, Zoom-based drawing (and art) club hosted on (most) Fridays. We’ll be bringing it back in 2023—no experience necessary, and all we do is chat and make art and talk for as long as folks want to be there. If you’re interested, DM either of us on Twitter or Instagram or send an email (email@example.com) and I’ll get you a link.
Goonies prints! The Goonies is an all-time favorite movie of mine, and I decided to make a limited-edition 8x10 print celebrating one of its most iconic scenes. These very limited-run prints will be signed and numbered, and I'm hoping to launch them in February. Stay tuned to my social media channels where I’ll announce when they’re for sale, price, etc.
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