#55 Sequential Art

On my desk is a framed page of storyboards from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Spin the frame around and on the other side is a print from Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor.

They’re in the same frame to remind me that film and comics share a common ancestor (#3).

This discovery expanded my appreciation of both art forms (well, began my appreciation of comics entirely!) and thinking of myself as a Sequential Artist helps me really understand the clay that I’m moulding as filmmaker.

The film and the graphic novel are related like a pop song to a poem and, just like reading or writing poetry can make your songwriting better, I think filmmakers benefit from indulging in graphic novels.

I love seeing how a good graphic novelist approaches a scene because it is almost guaranteed to be different to a director while still using the same clay: a sequence of images with (or sometimes without) words.

I want to see - and make! - films with a graphic novelist’s eye.

In particular, I think graphic novelists have a more interesting understanding of the relationship between words and pictures.

The dynamic between these two halves of visual storytelling fascinate me. Back in journalism school I was trained in an arcane craft called “writing to picture” and I learned that the ways words and images can be combined can create poetry - even in journalism.

Remind me to tell you about that one day.

It’s hard to articulate how words and pictures work together so let me use an example: Jason Lute’s epic graphic novel Berlin, which I just finished reading.

I use the word epic pointedly: the novel is 500 pages long, spanning four years of history with a cast of 40 characters. It is a lush and vivid portrait of Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, a time of extreme inequality, political polarisation breaking out into street violence, dizzying technological progress and nihilistic decadence…sound familiar?

Jason spent an epic 26 years (!!) completing Berlin and someone had better have paid a lot of money for the screen rights already. This book is crying out to be an HBO miniseries.

There’s a three-page scene that I think is sophisticated visual storytelling, especially in regards to the dance of words and picture. I scanned, printed and stuck the pages in my sketchbook before scribbling notes all over.

A journalist, Kurt Severing, is struggling to find purpose in his work as fascism takes root around him.

First of all, nothing actually happens in this scene: there is no action, just reflection and thought.

This is an interesting distinction between film and comic. Films, we are so often told, are about action, they are stories about things people do not things people think about.

The filmmaker must convert inner thoughts into external actions or forget it.

The graphic novel, meanwhile, literally has the word ‘novel’ in it - it’s able to devote pages to inner monologue and still make it visual!

If we were to put this scene on screen, we’d use typewriter sound effects rather than the “tak-tak” Lutes writes in his panels.

But to do that, we lose the wonderful descriptive words that float up from the typewriters in the first five panels of page 77. This is a treatment that would never occur to a film director because they’re not thinking of visualising the sound effects!

I really love the match cut between the cigar and the bullet, above.

An idea like this is translatable to the screen, but a modern director would most-likely favour a realistic treatment over something symbolic, maybe feeling an effect that requires the audience to consciously acknowledge a juxtaposition would pull them out of the photo-realism of the scene.

The same goes for the first panel below - an almost magic-realist vision of the newspapers reaching into the sky.

But back to words and pictures.

In this scene, I’m struck most by two things: how descriptive the narration is and how the images are often showing something unrelated.

Scroll back up to the seventh panel on page 76. Kurt is typing “The leaves of the horse-chestnut tree have all changed colour but most still cling to their limbs.” Lutes chooses not to show us the leaves of the horse-chestnut tree, instead beginning a multi-panel zoom-out from Kurt’s apartment to the street.

You have words and pictures delivering information on two separate channels. There is no redundancy. Like a musical counterpoint, the words and pictures are gently pulling against each other and in doing so creating an extra energy.

I’d love to see a film made like this, but I acknowledge there’s a big hurdle. In a comic you can read the page twice, or at least slowly. The challenge for a filmmaker is making sure the viewer is not overwhelmed with information, without slowing the film down to molasses.

I’m not saying graphic novels are better than film and, in fairness, many other scenes in Berlin are clearly influenced by cinematic staging and editing.

But I’m fascinated by the way these two mediums - these two accents speaking the same language - can intersect!

Until next Sunday,

#54 Rocks, Chalk and Ink

I received some lovely emails after last week’s letter!

Marc sent a message about writers who keep journals. I’ve been thinking about this since watching lessons in Joyce Carol Oates’ Masterclass. She talks about the importance of building a habit of writing descriptive observations of the people and places around you.

That’s a great example of practicing scales (#17) for a writer isn’t it? Write a page of vivid description every day.

I loved this excerpt from the journal of mid-century novelist Mavis Gallant in the New Yorker:

‘“Mama, look at the señora smoking,” a little girl cried, staring at me, in a café. Cool wind, fluttering apricot-colored tablecloths. At night the sky is deep indigo, the moon a piece of cold metal. Few city lights, and so it is almost a country sky. The sound of Madrid is a million trampling feet. Its smell is cooking oil.’

Are there any writers among us who write like this every day? I’d love to hear about your technique or process!

Eric, Lino and Eileen wrote with some great resources for sketching inspiration that I am psyched to explore: a Creative Live class on Drawing the Every Day by Kate Bingaman-Hurt; this book by Lynda Barry (which has now passed the threshold of “I have seen this recommended so many times, I need to get my hands on it now!); and this advice on repetition by James Clear who I’ve written about before (#45).

Thank you all for sharing!

Midweek I stumbled upon this video, also about a daily sketching habit, and I tried filling pages with different kinds of natural phenomena like rocks, trees and mountains.

Like collage, drawing the natural world is a great warm-up or fallback.

No matter how you feel, you can just start making marks on the page, following your gut, and keep working at them until they start to look right. Mistakes can easily be turned into something that looks intentional. Happy accidents!

I was proud of this sketch from my life drawing class on Tuesday night. He feels well-proportioned and I think I got the foreshortening on his right thigh right.

I tried a new pencil: a rough chalk that comes with the Procreate app. It feels almost like a heavily loaded brush - the “ink” just falls off and it I was able to feel a lot freer and looser making marks on the page.

And it really helps! Instead of carefully constructing a figure, I very quickly and loosely made this sketch:

And then went over it with a more refined pencil.

It’s only fair to also show you this one which I spent 40 minutes on and is nowhere near as good!

I started inking your postcards this week - my first time using a nib and ink like this!

It takes some getting used to but it’s satisfying as the pen scratches rich black ink into the paper.

Jason wrote to me a couple of weeks ago to warn against inking before painting watercolour as the black ink might bleed. This prompted me to do some tests and thankfully the India ink does not run once it has fully dried.

I’ve broken the cards down into categories - starting with landscapes as I feel (just like my sketchbook) it’ll be easier to turn a mistake into a happy accident; then animals (lots of you requested animals - I can’t draw animals!); before finally tackling people and complex objects.

There’s something else I wanted to write to you about but I realised this morning I need a bit more time to articulate my thoughts. More soon!

Until next Sunday,

#53 Fill Sketchbooks!

Hello and welcome to a new year of The Third Something.

This feels like an appropriate time to remind you of what this is! The Third Something is a letter by me, Adam Westbrook, dispatched every Sunday.

You’re receiving this because you signed up here.

If you’d rather not hear from me again then click on the unsubscribe button at the bottom of this letter. (I don’t receive notifications of unsubscribes so you won’t hurt my feelings.)

If, on the other hand, you really like The Third Something, here’s a PayPal page where you are very welcome to show your appreciation any time.

Either way, it’s exciting to be writing to you for another year!

If I have one solid goal for 2020 it is this: fill sketchbooks.

It’s a thread I can see slowly emerge into consciousness through last year’s letters, beginning with #17, #22, and #32 building through #43, #45 and #46.

Pull the thread and it tells a story about the importance of daily practice, doing things for pleasure as opposed to outcome and building systems that support this.

I realised sometime in November that if I do want to find my creative groove again I need to be constantly filling pages, accumulating a pile of used sketchbooks and notebooks.

The sketchbook is a sort of creative engine: with every page I fill the pistons make another revolution; like any engine, it works best when used often; it is hungry for fuel, meaning I have to be better at seeing and recording the world around me; the art, whatever that is, will be the by-product, the exhaust fumes of this creative combustion.

OK, enough metaphors.

Starting the engine from cold, I have been filling my sketchbook with collage.

I have started my days going through newspapers, magazines and any other printed material I can get ahold of, and clipping out anything that catches my eye.

Then I have moved it around on the page until it starts to looks pleasing to me, before gluing it all down - doing my best not to think about it too hard.

Collage is the quickest way to fill sketchbook pages and so it’s a powerful way to build momentum when you’re just beginning, or you need to get unstuck. 

Firstly, it is scrappy - you can’t get too precious about the page. The job is to make a mess!

Secondly, it requires very little intellectual engagement, so it’s perfect for times when you have nothing to say, when your thoughts and dreams are foggy, you are tired, hungover or sick - or life is generally trying hard to stop you feeling creative.

Thirdly, in place of the intellectual, it is an excellent way to connect with the emotional: moving paper around until it ‘feels’ right - without having to justify why.

I’m very late to understand this, but the day-to-day job of the artist is not ‘making art’, it is filling sketchbooks. “Filling my sketchbook” is a perfectly legitimate answer to the question “what are you working on right now?”

“Fill sketchbooks” is about quantity over quality.

I will measure my success at the end of the year, not in whether I’ve made anything good, but in how big the pile of used sketchbooks is.

I am extremely curious to know if any Third Something readers are avid sketchbook fillers. If so, do you have a system or process that works for you?

Hit reply and I’ll share your wisdom!

Until next Sunday,

.52 End of Season Finale

I have begun work on your postcards this week! I have so far sketched out about half of them.

After a bit of research into how ink actually works, I think the process will be in three parts: pencilling, inking (going over the pencil in an outline of India Ink) and painting. I say ‘think’ because I won’t know until I finish a postcard whether it is the right way to do it!

My hope that I could complete this over the holidays was optimistic. Instead, this will be my ongoing project for January. My new target is to post all these out to you before the end of next month.

Kirby Ferguson is a filmmaker who has inspired me hugely over the past decade. You will almost certainly have seen at least one episode of his series Everything Is A Remix, which (I think) was one of the earliest examples of using online video to construct an articulate argument in words and pictures, (in other words: the modern video essay) while also starting a conversation.

On Christmas Eve, Kirby released the sixth instalment in a multi-year project called This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory. It’s a well-researched and fascinating examination of how the stories we tell shape our view of the world. The latest chapter looks at emergence and how simple rules can create unpredictable outcomes.

The first episode of the series was released back in January 2014 and there is one more episode due in 2020 - meaning the whole project will have taken Kirby more than six years to complete.

On the internet this is a lifetime!

That long view, plus the dedication required to pull it off, makes Kirby one of the most interesting artists working in video in the last decade: he stands a world apart from the YouTubers churning out weekly videos.

This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory is behind a paywall but I highly recommend the investment.

Earlier in the month (#48) I asked you for your thoughts on what I should do with The Third Something next year. Many of you took the time to write and let me know how much you appreciated this little letter; I was very moved reading all of your emails.

I pitched four possible futures: 1) a continuation of what I’ve been doing 2) focusing the letter on a single, practical, niche 3) opening up a paid subscription level 4) making the letter a record of my creative output each week.

The responses were overwhelmingly in favour of Option 4, with a little bit of Option 2 thrown in - or as Doug put it: “number 4 with a splash of number 2 (no pun intended)”.

I am very happy about this - it is exactly what I was hoping you’d say! Option 4 excites me much more than the others because it is the only option that I cannot foresee in advance what it is going to look like. It is a path unexplored, rich in unknown potential!

So on January 5th 2020, Season 2 of The Third Something will begin.

This letter, though, wraps up the first year. Thank you so much for being part of this project, for your kind and thoughtful responses. In an otherwise bumpy year, this letter has been a hidden cabin in the woods, a calm, secluded oasis, a gentle wellspring of inspiration and comfort.

I wish you the very best for 2020 and beyond.

Until next Sunday,

.51 Banksy and The King

First up - wow! I received way more requests for ink postcards than I was expecting. Yesterday I bought two extra packs of blank cards just to match demand. It might take me more than a week to do them all, but hopefully I’ll be able to post them in January.

Thanks for your enthusiasm - I can’t wait to spend the holidays painting!

Next, I’ve just had a new film published by the New York Times.

It’s called You Should Be Freaking Out About Privacy and I take you on a journey through the different ways your private data is being taken and used against you.

We made it to wrap up a year-long project by the New York Times’ Opinion section into data and privacy and if you like my old YouTube video essays you’ll like this one - it’s even narrated by me!

But I don’t mind telling you I found it a really difficult video to make. The remit was so broad and it had to encapsulate so much information that I really struggled to get my head into it. I wrote a really ambitious opening scene but when we tested it out with storyboards we found the tone was completely wrong.

In the end, it took me so long to nail the writing we had hardly any runway left to make the thing. So the result is scrappy (video-makers among you will find weird mistakes in the images - all my fault) but I think this video wanted to be scrappy.

I tried so hard to control it, but only when I gave in and let it be the hot mess it was determined to be, did it come together.

And finally, I want to tell you a story I heard about two artists.

Earlier this month my friend Charlotte took me on a walking tour of street art in East London. (If you are familiar with the city, we started at Liverpool Street station and walked for two hours through lanes and alleyways to Shoreditch High Street.)

This part of town is a Mecca for street art and artists and - if you know where to look - there are remarkable pieces of work everywhere.

I find street art fascinating for several reasons:

  • Street artists make public spaces their canvas. Where you and I see a utilitarian wall or a door, they see a blank sheet of pristine paper. Most of us never think of public spaces as something we can “play” with - in fact, laws usually make sure we don’t - but how wonderful it is when people do play! Imagine if your walk to work was also an art gallery!

  • Street art is ephemeral. We saw some extraordinary pieces on our tour: hyperrealistic portraits, intricately rendered landscapes, even some pointillism - but the street artist works knowing their art could disappear within days. The rest of us labour expecting some kind of permanence for our creations and I imagine you must have a completely different relationship to your work when you know it will be gone in weeks.

  • And the street art world is racked with politics - oh boy. There is an established hierarchy: those whose work you can tag or paint over and those whose work you never touch. Woe betide the young artist who touches a piece by a more established name. Equally, woe betide any artist who tries to make any money from their work. One well-known artist, Ben Eines, took a commission from then Prime Minister David Cameron to create a gift for the Obamas. Since then his work in East London has been covered in ugly graffiti tags - the street artist’s way of showing disrespect.

All three of these points come together in the story I want to tell you.

It starts with a street artist called King Robbo who, at the start of the century, was considered the grandfather of London’s street art scene. Active since the mid-80s he was as established as it gets.

Here’s a piece he was famous for, made in a tunnel in Camden, North London in the 80s.

I don’t like publishing pictures without credits - but there doesn’t seem to be a record of who took all these photos. All I’ll say is I found them here and will happily update the credits in light of new information!

Now, one of the politics things about street art is the ritual of greeting a fellow artist. You are supposed to fist-bump and say ‘respect’.

In 2009 or thereabouts, King Robbo was at a party when he was introduced to a young artist, going by the name of Banksy. King Robbo offered a fist-bump, but - according to legend - Banksy shrugged and said “well I’ve never heard of you”.

Then - according to legend - King Robbo punched Banksy in the face.


Shortly afterwards, King Robbo’s legendary mural had been defaced - in the witty stencilled style Banksy is now famous for:

Painting over the work of a more established artist - let alone the grandfather of London street art?

Oh no he didn’t.

King Robbo wasn’t having any of it. This appeared on Christmas Day 2009.

Banksy faced a choice here.

Play the bigger man and let bygones be bygones…or double down.

Banksy doubled down.


At this point, it is thought the local council stepped in. Their contribution was less than creative.

But shortly afterwards, King Robbo hit back with another broadside.

With his international fame and notoriety today it’s hard to imagine it but, at this point, Banksy was not a popular chap in the London’s street art scene.

King Robbo just had more supporters than the upstart and this battle partly explains why a Banksy has not appeared in London in nearly a decade - he was effectively driven out of the capital.

(Quick aside: our very knowledgable guide on the walking tour, who told us this story, also matter-of-factly revealed Banksy’s real name. He’s a quite ordinary guy called Robin who lives in Bristol).

Anyway, the story suddenly takes a dark turn. Firstly, the wall is painted black again, probably by the local council…

…and then in 2011, King Robbo fell down a flight of stairs and into a coma. He never woke up.

In November of that year, Banksy painted on the wall one final time.

Until next Sunday,

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