The Watercolor Works of Dawn Chapel: Interview with B. Root

One of my favorite traditionally-colored webcomics is Dawn Chapel by B. Root. Brian has a gift with watercolors, and I decide to ask him if he would be willing to do an interview with me. Dawn Chapel is a series of eloquently rendered short stories in comic-form. Each story consists of detailed panels and beautiful illustrations that could easily stand on their own. I strongly suggest going and reading some of Brian’s stories. My favorites are A Fine Day Out, Firefox has Crashed, and They Sit So Still.

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Have Some Questions

When did you start drawing comics and what inspired you to?

I started doing The Dawn Chapel in October of 2009, but I’ve fooled around with comics a few times before then. I did a few comics for the university newspaper when I was in school, and attempted a webcomic called Rabicano about a year before my current one that I stalled out on as soon as I started.

I’ve been wanting to get started on a comic for something on the order of ten years now, and I had these big obnoxious plans about these awesome stories I wanted to tell and kept not ever getting started because I didn’t really feel like my art abilities were at the point where they’d do any justice to the stories; until finally I decided that the time when I was ‘good enough’ just wasn’t ever to come and I was wasting my life not doing this thing I wanted to do.

So with The Dawn Chapel I threw out any big stupid ambitious plans about epic, sweeping stories and just gave myself a homework assignment of one page a week, doing little short stories that I wouldn’t have to commit years of time to, and put the comic work itself first and foremost. I didn’t fuss over the web page layout (right now it’s still the barebones Comicpress theme, now that I’ve been at it for almost a year, I should probably take the time to do something with it) and used a domain name I’d registered for another project I meant to do and never got around to, and just started throwing comics at it.

There were a couple of specific things that gave me the boot in the pants to get started on the comic, though: one was a contest called the Sequential Endurance Competition, where all the participants were required to draw and post a page of comics every day, that I thought would be pretty good practice but then missed the entry deadline. The other was seeing my friend Beckey do her comic String Theory, which she started at around the same time I started Rabicano, but she actually stuck with her project and seeing her successes was hugely motivating to me.

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You use a variety of techniques for your comics, what is your favorite medium to use?

I do all my layouts and pencils digitally using Manga Studio Debut 4, and then print them out on ledger-sized paper and use a light table to transfer the drawing to watercolor paper to finish it with watercolor. (And by light table, I mean “cheap frosted-glass Ikea table with a desk lamp underneath it.”)

I love using watercolor. My first college art class was taught by this really exceptional watercolorist named Dan Petersen, and at the time I was only interested in watercolor as one tool of many in my illustration repertoire, but at the end of the class he told me he expected that the watercolors would get into my blood, and it seems like they did. (And from the number of times I’ve almost accidentally drank my watercolor water because I tend to put my drink cup right next to it, I probably will literally get watercolor in my blood sooner than later. Cadmium poisoning is awesome!)

Another big reason I prefer watercolor is because it’s such a difficult medium to control. When you’re working digitally, everything is very safe, you can ctrl-z whenever you need to, you can save a bunch of iterations as you work through the piece. Watercolor’s not very forgiving; if you fuss over your mistakes too much, the piece just turns to mud, so to do watercolor well, you need to be bold. Having to own my mistakes like that helps me get used to working with the crippling fear of failure (and/or crippling fear of success) that tends to go hand in hand with making art. And having to do it every week is like watercolor boot camp.

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Several of your stories are from traditional folk tales, correct? What makes you decide you want to turn one into a comic?

That was kind of an accident! The first story I did for the The Dawn Chapel was A Fine Day Out, but I had done How The Raccoon Got his Coat as a commissioned work a year earlier, and so when I was setting up the site I used it as a placeholder, and left it there to pad out my archive while I was still getting started. People still pass it around a lot, though, so I’m not going to take it out now.

I like folktales because they’re short and they always have situations that translate very well to pictures, and a lot of them have to do with animals. Also, they’re public domain. Probably won’t do too many more of them, though, doing an anthology of folktales isn’t really what I had in mind when I got started.

From Dawn Chapel, which story is your favorite so far? A Fine Day out is mine!

Haha, that’s awesome. Of all of the stories I’ve done so far, I like that one the most, but as far as viral traffic goes, that one’s not really a very big draw.

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If you could sit down with any illustrator or cartoonist and chat about anything in the world, who would it be and what would you talk about?

Oh man, yikes. I’d love to hang out with Tony Diterlizzi for a few hours and talk shop with him, his work on the Planescape supplemental materials for Dungeons and Dragons back in the 90s was hugely influential to me, and one of the reasons I took watercolor classes in the first place. Apparently he was working under crazy tight deadlines when he did his D&D stuff and so all of the linework in those books has this very loose, frantic, energetic quality and the watercoloring he did was all very limited-palette earthtone stuff. I still open those books up regularly to just try to ingest his methods. And I’m still nowhere close.

How long does it take you to finish a full page panel?

A single page typically takes me around 8-10 hours to complete. It would probably take me less time if I was better at staying focused, and also if I didn’t stress so much about getting everything perfect when I know it’s not going to be. There’s a lot of detail that I put in the digital drawing that disappears when it’s transferred to watercolor paper, so I need to train myself to spend less time on prettying up the preliminary drawing and save that energy for the inks.

If I wasn’t using Manga Studio it would probably take me a million times longer, though. It’s so much easier to plan a page using MS’s tools.

I know you’re a fan of podcasts. What do you generally listen to when creating?

My Brother, My Brother, and Me (mbmbam.com) is kind of an event in our household and I recommend it to everyone in the entire universe; but I spend several hours a day drawing and it’s only once a week and typically 45 minutes long, so it doesn’t make up the whole diet. The Overthinking It podcast is another favorite, and I also listen to Jordan, Jesse, Go!, Webcomics Weekly, the Webcomics Beacon, Digital Strips (who were kind enough to review The Dawn Chapel a few weeks back!), The Sound of Young America, and Escape from Illustration Island.

What are your tools of the trade? What kind of paper do you use, pens?

I already mentioned Manga Studio Debut 4, which is a godsend. It’s also cheap, $50 normally, and if you’re a student you can probably get it for half that.

I’ve experimented with a bunch of different kinds of paper, but I’m probably going to settle on Strathmore Gemini cold press, since I’ve had the best luck with that. My paints are all Holbein tube watercolors. I only use two or three sable-hair brushes for most of the comic’s watercoloring, a Princeton 1/4″ flat and a Cotman #6 round. When I’m feeling really crazy I might mix it up and use a 1/2″ or 1/8″ flat or a #3 round. Good watercolor brushes are kind of spendy, but as long as you take care of them they last a million years.

Pens are a different story, I haven’t really settled on any that I like. I’ve tried copic multiliners with brush and tech pen nibs, more recently I’ve been using a set of sepia-colored Faber Castell Pitt pens but I’m not real keen on those, either. My problem with pens in general is I have a very unsteady hand, which doesn’t get along well with tech pens. And all the ‘brush pen’ options that are the sepia color I prefer aren’t true brushes, they’re tapered felt nibs.

Pentel makes a really excellent brush pen that you can get from Jetpens but it only comes in black; if I could get it in brown I’d pretty much be set. (There are brown and sepia-colored true brushpens available from Jetpens, but none of them are waterproof.) What I’ll probably wind up doing is getting a jar of sepia-colored india ink and using a #1 or #2 round brush and dip it the way our caveman ancestors used to do, I guess.

Also, it’s not a tool I use to make my comic, but I’m a huge fan of Storenvy, a free customizeable online storefront service. Generally webcomics with the kind of audience that I have might be lucky to pull down a few dollars a month in Project Wonderful ad revenue, but having a Storenvy shop to sell my merch through has provided me with a tidy little passive revenue stream. I’m not getting rich anytime soon, but as far as e-commerce sites go, Storenvy’s head and shoulders above Bigcartel or Etsy as solutions for webcomickers, in my opinion.

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And finally, what is your favorite webcomic?

I really like Ekwara, by Tod Wills. Tod’s an incredibly hardworking dude and the characters he draws in Ekwara are just achingly cute. Other favorites of mine are The Abominable Charles Christopher, Funny Animal Books, Housepets, Achewood, Pictures for Sad Children, and Copper.

There’s also a bunch of print comics that are big inspirations to me, like Tellos, Fables, Pop Gun War, Blacksad, Mouse Guard, Animal Mystic, Skeleton Key, Books of Magic, and especially the Flight anthologies – I went with the short story format for The Dawn Chapel because I wanted to do stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in Flight.

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You can find more about B.Root and his work here:

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