This is a post I’ve been planning for months, ever since I attended a local school’s career day and geeked out with a bunch of middle-school artists about fandoms and fantasy. When I told them their sketchbooks reminded me of mine at that age, they exclaimed that I should post re-draws of some of my old art. I told them I would—but of course, between then and now, I’ve had a full manuscript to re-write and an eighteen-chapter middle grade novel to illustrate, on top of my day job and maintaining the illusion of being a competent parent. Now, in the brief inhale between projects, I have just enough time to finally follow through on this post.
There was no question as to which work I should redo, particularly not after I got my hands on Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves, the fifth book in the Queen’s Thief series. I’ve posted twice before about the impact MWT has had on me and my art and writing, but the cliff notes version is--a lot of impact. I read the first book shortly after it came out in 1996, and from day one the protagonists started appearing in my childhood drawings. From sketchbook to sketchbook, through the rise and fall of other obsessions, Eugenides was a constant face—he appears at least once, and usually much more, in all fourteen of my high school sketchbooks. And Turner’s storytelling has been driving my own since I first started scribbling stories in spiral-bounds at age ten—right around the same time I first read The Thief.
So it’s fitting, I think, for this post to be half art-redraws and half testament to my longest-running, longest-beloved fandom.
I wish I had some of the earliest pieces I drew in elementary and middle school, but unfortunately, most of that art is gone now. The plastic portfolio I was keeping many of them in got wet at some point in my parents’ basement and mildewed beyond recognition. So sadly, the earliest work I have is from around 2005, when I was a junior in high school and nine years into my relationship with MWT’s work.
Based on context clues from the surrounding pages in my sketchbook, at that time I was hashing out the plot for my 7th spiral-bound novel and in the first real fever-pitch of my obsession with Lord of the Rings. I had the time and brainspace in those days for two obsessions at once, and sure enough, in the midst of cropping off movie-Legolas’ blonde locks and drawing weird winged cat creatures, Gen and his companions pop up, complete with awkward posing and a cartoonishly villainous Ambiades.
My style in those days tended toward oversized heads and undersized necks, and noses that extended halfway up foreheads. I was learning from old Internet mainstays like Tealin and Makani, trading my ill-formed pseudo-anime for their Disneyesque style. I still draw my heads too big and my necks too long, so even though the below redraw was done in 2015, I tweaked it a little to fix some of those errors.
Half a sketchbook later, in the summer of 2005, amid the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Gen was back, this time with Helen, who is obviously telling him off about something. Gen still has his long hair, so I like to think of this as Helen coming to find him after the events of The Thief.
At the time I was not a fan of Irene, thinking of her as soulless and cruel, but the thing I love most about MWT’s work is that it has aged with me. Now I love the sharp vulnerability and complexity of Irene’s character and how both she and Helen use every ounce of their resources to direct their lives and their countries.
As a strange interlude—this was around the same time I started watching the Marx Brothers, too, which my brain somehow fused irrevocably into a moment from Thick as Thieves, when we learn Gen re-introduces himself to the Mede ambassador every time they meet.
Near the end of high school I started teaching myself to work digitally. I’ve lost a lot of my earliest work—it’s probably on some ancient floppy disk or fifty-meg thumb drive, but I’ve yet to find it. The oldest digital Thief piece I can find is from around 2007, when I was a freshman in college and re-reading the series for the umpteenth time. By this point I had developed a basic proficiency in Photoshop, though my egregious use of a single jarring background texture leaves something to be desired, demonstrated here as Pol threatens Gen to keep his mouth shut. Judging from Pol’s exaggerated Bruce Timm torso, this was around the time I was watching a lot of animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited
My college sketchbooks were dominated once again by Lord of the Rings, my own novels, and new faces from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Gen still sneaks in once in a while, accompanied now by Costis and Sophos. The “Are you out of your mind?” exchange in Queen of Attolia is probably my most-illustrated scene, showing up in 2006 and 2007, and again here in 2010—the year I got married and started my first position with the National Park Service.
“What would I have done if Attolia had caught you, cut you up into little pieces, and sent the pieces back to me?”
With the birth of my daughters, my time to draw dwindled, and as I wrote and queried Woodwalker, my time vanished almost completely. Any sketching went to character development for my novels, and finished digital work went to promo material for their publication. And yet. In 2015, despite having less personal time than I’d ever had before in my life, guess who pops up right in the middle of paintings of Mae and Mona?
2015 was only two years ago, and while I produced some good art I still like, the piece below was not my greatest. I was practicing my speedpainting, trying to force myself to work looser and faster, and I still hadn’t gained full confidence in the process, leaving my colors over-saturated and my proportions a bit too stretched. I solved this in the repaint by using practically no color at all, which you might recognize as cheating, but in the spirit of the thing I decided to keep to a speedpaint, focusing more on correcting the wacky proportions and garish lighting.
Now, in 2017, I’m working on muting my palette, making myself work within a narrower range on the spectrum. I’m hoping this moves me toward a more mature look, as my current aesthetic tends to lead folks to assume my novels are middle-grade unicorn fantasies. I’m embracing a little softer style and, as always, fighting for good depth. It’s fun to dive into my cringey old sketchbooks and see where I’ve come from. Maybe soon I’ll do some more redraws. Maybe in another few years I’ll redo some of the ones in this post.
At any rate, it’s safe to assume Eugenides will still be right there with me.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator