Comic Workshop: Carey Pietsch

On Friday, March 12, Swarthmore’s libraries continued its hosting of comic artists with a Swarthmore alum, Carey Pietsch ’10. Pietsch is best known for working on “The Adventure Zone” series of graphic novels based on the Dungeons and Dragons podcast “The Adventure Zone” by the McElroy family. In her half-talk and half-Q&A, Pietsch touched on her journey from Drexel research assistant to Adventure Zone artist, as well as on her comic making process.  

Pietsch described the course of the afternoon, which functioned more as a comic-making workshop, as such: “First I’m going to walk you through my own kind of sideways and backwards wander into comics. Second, [I’ll] talk about the actual messy, nitty gritty of how I make comics. Third, touch on a little bit of ways to get started making your own comics.” Post-workshop, attendees were also provided with some instructions on making a one-page comic, a resource sheet with helpful links, and of course, some free swag.  

Before committing herself fully to being a comic artist, Pietsch studied psychology and cognitive science at Swarthmore, where she also first published some short form comics in The Phoenix her senior year. Like many artists will tell you, Pietsch’s career was not exactly straightforward. She didn’t attend a full time art school or receive job offers drawing comics straight after graduation; in fact, her first job after Swarthmore was as a research coordinator at a psych lab. 

“I didn’t see comics as a possible career,” Pietsch remarked. “So I went with the much more practical goal of academia.” 

While applying for graduate school, Pietsch began to notice that she spent an inordinate amount of time working on comics for local anthologies with friends, especially for someone looking at academia as a possible future path. She quickly realized that expanding her knowledge or continuing to learn didn’t have to take place in a Ph.D. program, but could take place in a night class at a community college or a community arts center. 

“You don’t get just one shot,” Pietsch said. “There are so many ways to continue to pursue your interests in the future.” To emphasize that point, the resource document provided to attendees contains links to various blogs and podcasts for the fledgling artist. 

Over time, Pietsch flipped the structure of her career, taking more and more classes as her grant at Drexel came to a close. Now a few years out of school, she was attending small local conventions and trying to get her art seen by the right people. For the next year and a half, Pietsch picked up work in cover art for multiple comics. After sharing pages from one of her biggest projects to date — “The Adventure Zone” graphic novels — Pietsch gave an in-depth look at her creative process. 

“If you talk to ten cartoonists you’ll get ten vastly different answers. Comics can really be anything you want.” 

The two processes Pietsch outlined were: one, a more collaborative comic-making venture, and two, the personal, one-person project. For the first process, Pietsch recalled the steps she took to complete a graphic novel like “The Adventure Zone,” an undertaking that involved a whole slew of people, from writers to editors. Unlike other art forms such as literature or photography, the final product is an amalgamation of arts. A comic tells a story through not only words and drawings, but also through the careful attention to the background, the characters’ expressions, and their costuming. Each aspect of a visual world that a comic artist creates must be seamless. Even after the content of each panel is set in place, there is further refinement. Colors have to be chosen, details highlighted, emotion intensified. The very final polished stage of a single expression can hide the rough beginning.

The first attempt at putting pen to paper can also be final. 

“Here is a comic from a couple of years ago about the feeling of sending difficult emails. I just drew on the page. It is messy, but I think in this case that really helps sell the feeling of sending a bad email. […] So no roughs, just draw. Sometimes the feeling is there.” 

That’s what makes these shorter comics (and really all comics) effective to Pietsch. She felt the emotion, drew it on paper, and then could recall that emotion successfully from the drawing. There didn’t need to be hours consumed by perfecting lines or color, only a moment spent on holding onto that initial feeling.

“I think a lot of what I’m working on these days is how to make my process shorter so that I can preserve that energy and feeling,” Pietsch concluded. 

The other half of Pietsch’s workshop consisted of answering questions from attendees, sometimes asked directly through video, and other times through the chat. Many wanted to know more about Pietsch’s personal inspiration (She mentioned comics such as Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie and Snotgirl), how to make time to simply enjoy art without it feeling like a job, and how to find one’s own personal style (“I think it is a question that comes up a lot because it is unfortunately one that I don’t really have an answer to, and one that I certainly have asked a lot […] to my peers and other artists.”) 

After discussing technical aspects of drawing (like what programs to use for digital art), and the particular research she conducts when dressing characters or placing them in fantasy worlds, Pietsch wrapped up with some thoughtful advice. 

For those that have a project they’ve been working on for months but can’t quite finish, or only exists in the back of their minds, Pietsch said, “That specific kind of art block often comes from a place where what you’ve been doing is really building your ability to perceive, and to see. […] The mere act of reminding myself that like, when I feel that way [art block] it’s a good sign. It means that I am continuing to develop my ability to think about what I want out of a drawing, kind of expand my visions of what I want out of a drawing, and see where my drawings fail to meet that mark. That means that all of those skills are expanding in that moment.” 

For any aspiring artists wanting to get into the world of comics, simply know that there is no way but up.   

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