Kleefeld On Webcomics #46: The Mentorship Experiment

By Sean Kleefeld

In one of my earlier columns, I talked about how webcomic creators can be a bit more accessible to fans than comic book or newspaper strip artists. About how you ask them questions more readily and have more of a dialogue with them. It’s even possible that you can start calling one of them your mentor.

Webcomics are still a comparatively new outlet and, while they draw heavily on the work of print media, they still have their own quirks that make their production unique. There’s currently very little formally written about developing webcomics, so many creators are left to figure it out on their own. But Krishna Sadasivam is looking to change that. At least for a few people.

At the beginning of this year, the PC Weenies creator put out a call for two apprentices. He noted that he felt his own attempts at artistically leveling up were dreadfully slow, in part, because he had no mentor of his own. There was no one to guide him and provide advice on how to improve. So, he decided to take on two apprentices and try to help them become better cartoonists. Sadasivam is not making any money off this experiment; he just wants to give back to the artistic community.

I never really had a mentor in the years before going to art school. It showed in my work. I made every single mistake an artist could possibly make. I learned at a snail’s pace and my improvement as an artist was slow and painstaking. It took me the better part of 13 years to get to where I’m at now, and I feel that I still have a lot to learn. If I can shave off a little bit of that time for other artists, I want to do it.

Now, he’s not exactly going into this experiment blindly. He has a Masters of Fine Arts from Savannah College of Art & Design, and is a faculty member of the Media Arts and Animation department at the Art Institute of Tampa, so he does have some solid experience teaching and critiquing artistic work. In fact, Sadasivam mentioned testing some of his mentoring assignments on one of his students before beginning with his actual apprentices.

The way he’s set up the experiment so far (and bear in mind, he’s only a few weeks in right now) is that he’ll essentially provide a lesson of some sort in cartooning, followed by an assignment based on it. The apprentices submit their work and Sadasivam examines it, making suggestions on how it might be improved. This is all done in the public space of Sadasivam’s site, so that everyone can follow along.

The responses to date have been positive. The apprentices, Barry Buchanan and Kyndra Osterholt, seem to be taking Sadasivam’s advice and trying to apply his suggestions to subsequent assignments. Interestingly, too, Buchanan maintains his own webcomic, Don’t Feed the Geek. While it’s still early, it looks to me as if Buchanan’s applying some of the ideas to his webcomic already as well.

Osterholt, by contrast, doesn’t have her own strip. Not yet, at any rate! She also seems to have more artistic skill than Buchanan, though, it’s unclear if that’s from previous training or innate ability. Regardless, she notes that she wants to continue to pursue art and improve her craft, but is not able to follow any formal education, in part, because she’s busy raising a family. She adds, though, “But I am still passionate about art and pursue it in my free time until I can better accommodate my needs.”

This is what stood out for Sadasivam. The applications he received that struck him the most were from artists (of any skill level) that were hungry for someone to help them grow. “This isn’t a casual want, it’s a need.”

That revelation perhaps speaks to webcomics’ popularity. Sure, they can be entertaining and engaging in their own right, but how many readers out there are artists of some type themselves and are seeking advice? They’re looking for good or different ways to accomplish things and webcomics provide not just examples, but access to creators who can answer specific process questions. Perhaps a figure’s pose or a cross-hatching technique or business advice?

Sadasivam’s experiment is beneficial for a few reasons. First, he’s providing guidance and instruction to those who could benefit from it. Those people, in turn, can apply their learnings to their own comics. But, perhaps, more importantly, he’s putting the idea of webcomics mentoring out there as a model for other cartoonists to follow. If other creators began following Sadasivam’s example, who knows how many other great webcomics we could discover that might not have even existed were it not for a program such as this.

Sadasivam’s mentoring experiment will continue on for another month and a half or so. I don’t doubt his readers, and Buchanan and Osterholt in particular, will come away better artists because of this. What will be great is to watch who else is able to follow up and what comes next!

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Kleefeld On Webcomics #45: Fragmentation

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