Researching…Sean Gordon Murphy

SeanMurphy-1I’ll start this post by saying that just over a year ago, I had no idea who Sean Gordon Murphy was – that is until I picked up an issue of THE WAKE. I picked up THE WAKE because it was Scott Snyder’s new series and I was enjoying his writing on BATMAN and I thought I’d give it a shot. I didn’t expect anything from the artwork and it was such a surprise to have my eyes opened to Sean’s work.

Skip forward a year and as I’ve mentioned in a couple of past posts, I’ve really been digging around and studying the work of various comic artists that I like and seeing what I can learn from them. So today’s post is really a bit of an report (of sorts) on Murphy’s work and what I’ve learned from it.

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So why did I take to Murphy’s work so much?
This is always one of the questions that I think is hardest to answer. Why do you actually like someone’s art. If I was being honest, I found like I was finally seeing someone’s work – from a major publisher – that was exactly like what I am trying to do with my work. Now that might sound like I’m trying to compare my artwork to Sean’s art or that I’m saying that I’m trying to rip him off or something. I’m not, so let me explain… I want my art to feel like it was done by hand, in ink with a brush and a quill and some pens. I want smudges and imperfections and fingerprints (a Murphy trademark for sure but something that I’ve been both purposefully and accidently putting in my artwork since college). Heck, back when I started working on ON THE VERGE, I was producing the inks on gessoed watercolour paper so that I could get an even rougher texture to ink on.

Anyway, Sean’s work has this exact same feel to me. He spends a lot of time talking about how his work is a mess, but I get the feeling that it really is something I like to call “controlled chaos” – which is exactly what I tend to describe my work as. I mean you don’t always know how things are going to work out but at the same time, when you work with certain tools enough, you know the type of linework or mark that they’re going to make – just not the exact mark.

And I guess this is the number one reason why I wanted to sit down and study Sean’s artwork: it felt like something I was already comfortable doing with my own work and I obviously “like” the way it looks. Plus, it really fit the bill for what I wanted to study in comic art – specifically spotting blacks and drawing backgrounds – two things that I really felt I needed to work on.

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Earlier work…

Besides digging through Murphy’s artwork, one of the things that I’ve spent time doing was reading through his blog posts on his DeviantArt page and this was really helpful in getting some insight into what he thinks about art, illustration and comics. I actually love to find out more behind-the-scenes type information to help me understand WHY their art looks like it does.

What did I learn?
What I’ve found really interesting was watching Sean’s artwork evolve over the past several years. In his blog posts, he readily admits that he struggled with trying to do a more conventional “house style” and it wasn’t until he really decided to embrace his current “messy” style that I think his work really started to come into it’s own. A couple of quick thoughts:

  1. Sean lists Jorge Zaffino and Sergio Toppi as influences (among many others) in his developing his style and as you can see from the images below, the influences are right there.
  2. That being said, the dude could always draw. If you go back to his early work when it was more of that house style, he could always draw.
  3. I think the interesting thing to really notice is that even though his influences are easy to spot once you’ve seen the sources, what he’s currently doing is a really interesting fusion of his drawing and those influences. And that’s what makes his current work so interesting.
  4. All this talk about drawing and surface style is one thing. I think what I’ve really come to love about Sean’s work is his storytelling which is super strong! I love how he paces stories out and the choices that he makes when framing shots.

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Above are some examples of Zaffino and Toppi’s work. Can you spot the influence?

Spotting blacks
I’ve heard Sean mention in a couple of different interviews, his DeviantArt blog and a couple of other spots that he likes to use black in his art. So his work is the perfect thing to study when you’re trying to work on things like spotting blacks in your own work. What I guess I’ve really learned was to go back to things that I learned in college when we were first doing ink and watercolour drawing/painting. Sean’s work really embraces contrast between full white against full black to tell the viewer where to look. He uses texture, halftone patterns and linework to create “greys” in his work. And he embraces the idea that suggesting something – but not necessarily drawing it – will invite the viewer to “finish the image” in their own minds. These are all super helpful tips to remember and things I’ve kind of forgotten over the years and now I’m trying to put them back into my art.

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Drawing backgrounds
I think one of the things that really struck me about Sean’s work early on was the backgrounds he draws. They’re insane and I’m jealous of the amount of work he puts into them. Just looking at them makes me feel like I’ve cheated on 150+ pages of OTV. And it all comes down to time and effort – which is one of the reason I feel like I’ve cheated on all those pages. It’s not that I can’t draw detailed backgrounds, it’s that I chose not to. So I’ve been re-evaluating my thought process and approach to drawing settings and if you were to check out some of my newer work, you’d see the difference.

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Can you see the influence?
What’s super strange is that just over a year ago, I had no idea who Sean Murphy was and yet the influence of his work on mine has been tremendous so far. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s all surface stuff that you can easily see. Here’s how I see his work influencing mine:

  1. I’m trying to use more ink. I’m putting more linework down and I’m spotting more blacks. And I realize that this is a conscious decision on my part and I specifically studied how to “spot blacks” so I could do a better job than I was.
  2. I’ve always been messy, but now I’m really trying to embrace it. I think this is super important because I’ve often felt like what my art naturally “looks like” just doesn’t fit with how “most comics” look. So in a way, seeing Sean do his thing has really encouraged me to let go and just do what I do.
  3. Learning from his storytelling has changed the way that I approach telling a story. It’s given me more options and that means better results.

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I’m sure by now everyone has heard about Sean, but if you haven’t, go and check out his work. I mentioned THE WAKE above, but he also has a few other books worth reading: PUNK ROCK JESUS, JOE THE BARBARIAN, HELLBLAZER and AMERICAN VAMPIRE are all readily available in collected editions.

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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