Friday, March 5, 2010

Interview with John Watkins-Chow

How did you get involved in sketch cards/What was your first sketch card job?
My first card set was Lord of the Rings Masterpieces, back in 2006. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was on a previous LotR set for Topps and he passed my name along. Somehow I was invited to join in on the LotR Masterpieces set.

How do you feel about working on such a small surface?
It’s just the right size to put the amount of detail that I can come up with in the time that I usually have! I’m grateful that it’s just small enough that I don’t feel compelled to draw a background!

How do you feel about the entire process?
I’m much better at the quick sketch than the more labored finished product, so many of my cards are really just that—sketch cards. Having had no formal training in art, I am, alas, a prima donna in that I usually only do art when I’m in the mood—when I’m trapped in traffic miles away from home, I’m itchin’ to get to the drawing board, and when I’ve blocked off some time to get to my cards, I realize, “Hey, the bath tub needs to get recaulked!” As a result, I’m terrible with deadlines. Somehow the first few sets that I was on, I managed to finish early. More recently, I’m practically working on the last few cards as the FedEx guy is picking ’em up. I haven’t had any contract-breaking late contributions (yet), but I’d still like to streamline my process a little. I’ve been fortunate that my interactions with all the companies so far have been positive. (at least from my point of view!)

Do you prefer to work with a specific media?
I work exclusively in marker. As little talent that I have for drawing, I have even less for painting. I’ll usually sketch in pencil, ink with a Pigma Micron pen, erase stray marks and lay down color starting from the lightest and work my way to the darkest. I wish I had a little more bravery working with higher contrast and putting more shades in faces but mostly my work suffers from looking a little washed out, if you can get past the scribbles.

Do you have a lot of contact with collectors regarding your cards?
I don’t have a lot of interaction with collectors, unfortunately. The Scoundrel Art message boards are a terrific way to interact with collectors and other artists, but lately I barely have time to finish my cards, let alone keep up with collectors. It’s terrifically sad, because getting and giving feedback is really important, and I have grand intentions to reconnect, but my day job as a math teacher is a major time sink, and I’ve been less and less willing to put off time with my family to do my art work.

Has your career as an artist benefited from doing sketch card work?
Tremendously. Doing sketch cards has let me share my art with many more people than my typical forum (refrigerator at home), so that’s been a bonus. I’m too undisciplined to do regular sequential art, not talented enough to even post at deviantart, busy enough teaching that I can’t devote more time to my art, and lack any entrepreneurial spirit to promote my own work: sketch cards align perfectly with my current situation.

Are there any cards that you are particularly proud of?
Every now and them I’ll stumble upon a card of mine that I really like—very rarely do I begin a card thinking, “this one is going to be one of my Artist’s Return Cards!” I usually spend a bit more time on panel/puzzle cards—ones that join together to make a larger image. I take great pains to lay them out so that each card can stand alone, in terms of having a character on it (instead of, “Ah! Yoda’s left foot!”). I’m really pleased to hear that Rittenhouse will begin offering at-size cards for upcoming sets to accommodate multicard panels (their cards usually come larger and then are later trimmed to size). For some a card that is part of a panel makes the cards more collect-worthy; for many others, probably not.

Also, on some sets, I’ll make a Tarot set—selecting 22 cards to represent the major arcana of a tarot deck. Occasionally, there will be a serendipitous revelation of just the right card for the imagery, theme, or title of a tarot card. I remember working on the tarot set for the season one Heroes sketch cards and gave myself the additional constraint of selecting an image from episode 1 for card 1 (Magician), episode 2 for card 2 (High Priestess), episode 3 for card 3 (Empress), etc. There were several instances that lined up just so… Other sets that have gotten the tarot treatment: Lord of the Rings Masterpieces, Star Wars 30th Anniversary, Indiana Jones Heritage, Marvel Masterpieces, X-Men Archives, and Star Wars Galaxy 5. These are always fun to do. Every now and then I think, “maybe I’ll do the 56 minor arcana as well—the coins, swords, cups, wands”—because I like the idea of selecting images with another meaning or that fit into a grander design (“This would be perfect for a 10 of swords!”), but I haven’t followed through yet. Ah, the power of inertia.

I’ve had a crush on Jean Grey since I was in kindergarten (I remember sitting in my friend’s house while in 4th grade and he was talking about a girl he liked. And when he asked whom I liked, I sorta looked sideways and mumbled, “…she doesn’t go to our school.”), so I’m always looking forward to drawing her one more time. Yes, my wife is a redhead.

Some companies provide return cards for working on sketch card sets. What do you do with yours?
Most of them are sitting in a little pile on my bookshelf collecting dust. Some have been given away to friends who have been generous (and are interested in a baseball-card-sized sketch). Occasionally a collector will ask if I have any returns; sometimes I’ll remember to bring them to a convention to show to passersby. I usually choose cards that I liked working on (“I drew this card while drinking a Jamba Juice! Ah, happy memories!”), and not necessarily ones that I think, “Wow. Some collector’s going to want to pay money for this!” since I’ve never been a good judge of anything but my spouse. That being said, I haven’t really advertised, “These are available for sale!” so perhaps they’ll just be inherited by a grandchild, or, more likely, by a neighborhood kid whose mom said in earshot of me, “My little boy really likes Mace Windu!”

Do you see yourself continuing with sketch card sets?
I really enjoy working on cards, but my time has been increasingly limited. I’m planning on cutting back on my sketch card presence, contributing only to sets that I’m really interested in and invited to join. Having a day job means that I never work on a set of cards for the financial compensation—but it also means that the only time that I can work on cards is, like, 2am–5am. As long as I’m excited about the property and I remember to budget my time well, I’ll be a happy contributor.

Is there any advice you would like to give to people wanting to break into the sketch card ‘biz’?
If you’ve not gotten in despite repeated attempts, it’s probably one of two things: 1) it’s a really crowded market and editors are already inundated with artists with whom they are already familiar, or 2) you need to work on your craft. In both cases, patience and perseverance are almost certainly essential. If it is the second case, do not confuse “style” for “my art is flawed.” Honest feedback is both difficult to get and difficult to take, but it may be the best way to find out what you need to improve upon. I was extremely lucky to have been able to join when I did, so perhaps it couldn’t hurt to try to build up karma in other areas of your life!

Can you tell us what future sketch card sets you'll be working on?
At the time of this writing, I’ll be contributing to 5Finity’s P’ups, and Bad Axe Studio’s Treasure Chests & Booty. Perhaps there may be more…

What are you currently working on?
I always have grand intentions to return to my work on Talismen, a comic series that I wrote and drew a decade ago. Some collectors are still waiting on commissions. Mostly, though, I’m trying to make up for a few years’ worth of “Daddy, can you spend time with me instead of drawing cards?”

Where can people see more of your work? will periodically update with my art.

Thank you so much, John!! It was a pleasure to interview you.

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