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  • Leah Sayles

The Modern-Day Bake Kujira: A Struggle to find Self



2019. A new year, a new you, right? That's what they say at least.


Over the past few weeks, as I have assimilated to the new year and it's already-presented challenges, I have pondered my goals for 2019 while tediously bending over a piece of work that has been on my drawing table since September 2018: the modern-day Bake Kujira, known in Japanese folklore as the Ghost Whale who haunts fishermen and the villages they reside in, vengeful of the the ones that killed them.


This Bake Kujira piece, begun under the tutelage of well-known Magic: the Gathering artist, Terese Nielsen, was a piece I began in excitement, not realizing how much of a challenge creating this piece would be for me.


The goal of taking a course through smART School was to experience creating work of a fantastical nature. The project that Terese presented at the beginning of the course centered around "Mythical Figures." I of course could have gone with any of the figures and creatures that immediately came to mind from traditional or Greek folklore, but, as I am known to do, I quickly decided to do research of other, lesser known mythical beings before making the decision of what subject I would be drawing. As soon as I came across information regarding the Ghost Whale, I was hooked and knew that would be the subject for my piece.


In preparation for my first round of sketches, I was given a short list of requirements for the piece, and was instructed to create an accompanying list of words that I would strive to communication through my work, once the piece was completed. I created some quick sketches and list of descriptors (Mystical, Moonlight / Night, Starry / Brilliant, Shimmering / Aura, Skeletal, Cursed / Vengeful / Eerie, Environmentalism / Pollution, Luminescent / Bioluminescent, Translucent, Soft, Surrounded / Overwhelmed, Cool Colors), excited to see where my hands would take this Ghost Whale.


After a few sketches of skeletal whale-like creatures, two things happened: First, I realized that something more interesting needed to occur in this piece since it was proven quite difficult to portray emotion through an animal like a baleen whale. Second, I reread Terese's initial e-mail and found the following requirement that I had somehow missed upon my initial review: "Vertical (8x10” proportion) portrait, mid thigh on up. This will provide the opportunity to delve into faces, expressions, hands— all crucial to become adept at."


Oh no! I was supposed to incorporate human anatomy! How had I missed this crucial detail?


I immediately began redrawing and, with that simple requirement, my ideas for this piece went wild. I decided to create a personified variation of the Ghost Whale, based on my own self, incorporating the skeleton of a whale, and surrounding them with the "fishermen" that would have been the murderers of this particular Bake Kujira in the current day and age: No person or harpoon, but plastic – the modern-day murderer of our world's natural environments.



Upon seeing my sketches, Terese was a great help in moving me on to the next step of my process: detailing and refining. She questioned why I was only sketching plastic bottles; what other plastic items could I incorporate? She urged me to take photographic references, for both the sake of the figure (expressions, hands, curves, etc.) and the plastic surrounding the character that I was in the process of creating. From there, I took photo references of my model and the plastic that I would be incorporating into the piece before redrawing my figure based on my references and not from my mind's eye.


After that, it was time to think about style, color, and medium. I knew from the start that I wanted to create something in this piece that I had not created yet in my time as an artist. Something both graphic, stemming from my background as a Graphic Designer and Artist, and realistic, which I am striving to incorporate more of into my work in order to evoke a more authentic emotion from the viewer. I also knew that I was interested in experimenting with a new medium: acrylic inks on matte DuraLar, a flat sheet of plastic medium that can be worked on both the front and back and which I was inspired to work on by watching the work of Scott Fischer, another well-known Magic: the Gathering and fantasy artist.


The question was, how do I combine all of these stylistic goals into one piece? Honestly, I had no idea how I was going to do it.


After stalling and deliberating, unsure of how to begin, I decided to start the final piece by doing something I know how to do and do well: line work; the graphic side of the goals set for this piece. I created two separate pieces of line work based off of my acquired photographic references. One of these pieces incorporated the personified figure and the surrounding plastic, which would be illustrated on the front side of the matte DuraLar. The other piece incorporated the skeleton of the whale itself, which would be illustrated on the back side of the DuraLar and show through to the front side of the piece once all was said and done. Once these illustrations were complete, it was easy to create quick color studies incorporating the whites and blues found just underneath the surface of the ocean.



Then, came the difficult part: creating the final piece.


Creating the idea, sketches, general line work, and color studies for the Bake Kujira was the easy part of the creative process. This part of the process took the better part of September and October, considering I only met with Terese on Monday evenings and I was juggling managing my new full-time freelance career. Once half of October had slid past, things started getting a little more difficult. At the same time that I was struggling to create this original work, I began traveling with Star City Games as a surprising and delightful addition to my career. Unfortunately, the travel and plethora of commissions that flooded in with this new addition to my job requirements added to my workload more than I would have imagined. Not to mention the designs I create for my major retainer client, who I work with up to 80 hours per month.


How was all of this happening all at once and so quickly? I would never have thought, six months earlier when I decided to jump start this full-time freelance business, that by the end of the year I would be overloaded with the amount of projects on my plate.


Nevertheless, I started creating the final piece, working on weekends to finish what I could of this personal project before each Monday's class with Terese. Each week, I would layer thin, washed-out layers of ink on ink on ink, attempting to add more depth and tone. But something wasn't working. I was loosing the transparency and glow of the piece the more I worked on it. That week, I brought the piece to Terese with progress and she said the exact same thing, but she added, "Is there a way to strip the ink from the surface to see back through to the other side of the DuraLar?"


Having worked with removing ink from foil Magic: the Gathering cards I said, "Well, I could see if acetone will work and not remove the matte surface of the DuraLar."


I tried it, and it worked like a charm. From there, I used the acetone with a paintbrush, painting strokes over ink that I wanted removed from the Bake Kujira, much like someone would use paint. I removed quite a bit of the acrylic ink that I had overly layered to reveal the matte DuraLar and the skeletal whale on the other side of it. I added almost no remaining ink washes. The next week, I was so proud to bring this variation of the illustration to class. I even stated how close I thought I was as soon as the critique began. Perhaps I was hoping for some sort of praise.


[Spoiler alert: You should never ever come in to a critique overly confident, and sure that there are almost no edits to be made. You will almost always be sorely mistaken.]


When Terese looked at this new variation, she was glad to see that some of the glow had returned to the figure, but she pointed out quite a few points of contention as well. Where was the shading within my plastics, which were intended to be such an important part of the piece? I had a good range of light and medium values, but where were my darks? I'd taken such care to add more lights back in to the piece, but I needed to look back to my reference in the face and hands in order to achieve a proper likeness.


I wasn't distraught, but I was disappointed. Maybe I wasn't looking for praise, and just the light at the end of the tunnel that was this original work. Looking back, I see that I was struggling so much with this piece, that I was hoping if I said the piece was done, Terese would give me a way out. Fortunately, such is not the case in life and, if it were, we as human beings would never learn anything.


After this critique, which took place shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, I spent two to three weeks making minuscule edits to this piece. I added dimension and value to the plastic items; restructured the face; added darker blues and blacks. However, no matter what I did, something was still missing. Portions of this piece were still overworked and did not reveal the true feeling and emotion that it was supposed to evoke.



Suddenly, it was the last day of mentorship before the Christmas holidays, and I had nothing to show for it. With the holidays approaching, I had almost no time for additional personal projects with the expedited commissions and other work-related projects under my belt. I felt disappointed in myself for how little progress was made on this piece since the Thanksgiving holiday, and I couldn't face Terese. I decided not to attend class that evening and instead, worked on said commissions and projects, which at the time was a necessary priority.


Later that same week, my husband and I traveled for the Christmas holiday to Georgia, where both of our families reside. He fortunately persuaded me to leave all commissions and work-related items – other than my laptop – at home, which gave me time over the holiday vacation to think about the first eight months of my new career. What was working? What wasn't? Through the time away from my work, I was able to to take a real step back and re-evaluate how I could manage myself and my work more efficiently. I had so much that I wanted to accomplish that I had to create a proper schedule, both short-term and long-term, to follow so I knew I was making progress on all facets of my career as an artist.


As an artist, you learn that the more time you allow yourself to step away and contemplate your thoughts, ideas, and struggles, the more likely you and your work will grow successfully. The time away from the studio over the holiday season was proof of this. As soon as I was back in the studio after the start of the new year, I jumped in. I created day-to-day schedules for myself that incorporated all facets of my freelance career, but also took into account my own needs, namely self-care through activity and socialization. It was easy to jump into this new work flow, and I immediately was working on the Bake Kujira each day during my "Personal Work" hours of 4-6pm, after I had completed work for clients between the hours of 8am-4pm.


When I returned back to the studio and laid eyes on my Bake Kujira, I knew what I had to do. It was time to strip all of the areas that had been overworked, in order to reveal the skeleton of the Ghost Whale on the reverse side of the DuraLar. This was my opportunity to create an original work that was all my own and, after much needed space to breathe, I was ready for it.


Over a period of one week, I removed ink on overworked areas of the piece. I added more tone where necessary and more contrast to the reflections of the plastics. I cleaned up edges and added more line work. Eventually, I even redrew both hands and added graphic elements back in throughout the piece, especially in the hair. Through each of these drastic changes, I moved one step closer to the realistic, graphic work that I was attempting to create.



When I completed this piece on January 7, 2019, I was overjoyed. She was complete. My Bake Kujira was complete, and she had transformed so quickly and without notice over the first week of the new year. Through every moment of progression in this piece, I had struggled and stressed, but continued to press on until the piece was complete.


I won't deny that there are spots within this piece that I don't find to be perfect, and that I wish I could work on more without disassembling the whole image. However, as an artist there is always a point at which you know a work is done, and you understand that all you have learned in one piece should be translated into the next piece that is created by your hand.



The excitement of this piece is not that it is complete, but rather is the process that was required for this piece – this breakthrough – to be completed. Every coinciding struggle, excitement, disappointment, and discovery that was fostered by this piece of work has strengthened who I am as an artist and symbolizes not just the process to create this particular piece, but the process required to break through and be the best self-managed artist, designer, and illustrator that I can be.


I was adamant that this piece would be the first piece completed in 2019 in order to symbolize that the struggles of 2018, a year where I was merely finding my foothold, would turn into lessens learned and unfold into new experiences, new works of art, and new opportunities. I know, of course, that 2019 will bring a variety of new struggles to my horizon, but I no longer wonder if the leap of faith I took in 2018 was worth the jump. My leap of faith has brought me closer to both my professional and personal goals, and I know that if I continue this growth and re-instill the lessens learned throughout all of these processes, I will only continue to succeed as an artist, freelancer, individual, and human being.


Here is to 2019: a year where I hope all of us can become closer to being the strong, creative, innovative, and progressive individuals that we hope to be, whether that is professionally, personally, or both. Know that your wishes, hopes, and dreams are worth the leap, even if struggles accompany them. Every step may seem difficult, but when you break through you will be so proud and thankful that you never stopped moving forward.


To 2019. May it be your best year yet.

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Leah Sayles © 2020