Servant of Many Masters

This week I gave the visionary address at the CBI West Coast Medical Education and Research Grants Breakthrough Summit. They’re teaching storytelling as a vehicle for medical education, and I was invited to be the expert on storytelling,

For the six weeks leading up to the conference I prepared material, practiced, and worked on speaking points. Unfortunately this cut deeply into my drawing time.

It’s incredibly difficult to slice one’s time between day job, speaking, writing, and playing a little ukulele, while trying to put in the hours necessary to acquire a new skill.

When I started out as an entertainer I understood that it was to the complete exclusion of other extra-curricular pursuits. I gave up all the weird things I like to study to focus on learning music and storytelling. I don’t regret it one bit. My success as an entertainer has been phenomenal and I’ve enjoyed a tiny bit of notoriety, but as I’ve always said, “I’m less interested in what I’m doing now as I am in what I’m doing next.”

That’s not to say I’m going to explore drawing to the exclusion of all other things. My focus on drawing is as a supplement to my writing and storytelling, to create a more full-featured package. But, that does mean buckling down and concentrating my efforts, and giving up performing, at least until I have acquired enough skill as a visual artist to satisfy my needs.

At times it seems overwhelming, trying to do so much with so little time, and I wonder about men of history who accomplished so much in their lives, and how they could possibly have done it all. Benjamin Franklin was a politician, writer, inventor, musician, polyglot, scientist, and so much more.

The lens of history has a narrow depth-of-field, and I need to keep in mind that Franklin lived for 84 years. He didn’t do it all at once. I’m sure he put a pause on his kite-surfing (really!) while he learned to play the glass armonica.

Fall of the Red Baron, Part the Third

Red Baron Portrait Red Baron Portrait 1 Red Baron Portrait 2 Red Baron Portrait 3 Red Baron Portrait 4 Red Baron Portrait 5 Red Baron Portrait 6

I’ve drawn a number of different portraits over the short drawing career. The back of my sketch book is filled with printed Instagram selfies that I duplicate whenever I have some spare time.

My Red Baron project is not a story about airplanes, it’s a story about men – Wop, Roy Brown and the Baron himself, consequently I’m going to need some portraits.

Despite the fact that I’ve drawn so many selfies, I find the Red Baron particularly hard to draw. I’ve been chipping away at him for about a week now. I think I’m making progress, but I still have a lot to learn.


For the 2005 remake of King Kong, Peter Jackson wanted to create a Skull Island that was entirely fleshed-out in every detail. He set his artists to drawing. No specific deadline or goal, just draw pictures of Skull Island. The result was a place with a rich eco-system and detailed history. They created so much material that a book was published, called: “The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island”. The book is, for me, an incredible inspiration. It’s the kind of in-depth world building that sparks my imagination and pushes me to work harder on my own product.

Similarly, John Lasseter emphasized world building when his team designed the city of San Fransokyo for movie Big Hero 6.

In this clip, Norm asks the directors of Big Hero Six for any recommendations they could give to would-be film-makers – draw, draw constantly.

Fall of the Red Baron, Part the Second

Model AirplanesSo, I’ve finally assembled the Camel, but I ran out of time to build a mount, so I just used my Joby Gorilla Pod, which worked out pretty well.

Following that I positioned the planes in a number of situations and photographed them. Using the photos for reference makes it a lot easier for me to pose the planes and take my time drawing them.

Sopwith Camel Colored PencilNow I’m experimenting with a number of difference techniques, to see what I like best for this project. The Camel on the right was rendered colored pencils. At first I didn’t think the technique suited what I’m trying to accomplish with this project, but it’s starting to grow on me – the colored pencils have a dry, old-fashioned look that certainly suits the time period.

Red Baron chases Wilfred May in watercolorHere I’ve done the contour drawing in ink and painted with watercolor. This is my first attempt at a non-pencil watercolor painting, and I like the results. I would eventually like to develop a loose, splashy style like urban sketchers Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steel.

This image depicts the last few moments of the Baron’s life as he chased Wilfred May up the Somme River.

Knights of the Air

This morning I’m boarding a 747 and flying half-way around the world at three-quarters the speed of sound. It’s an experience that really makes me think about my current obsession with World War I aerial combat.

My personal philosophy is generally anti-war, but like most boys I have a fascination with militaria. In particular, I’m tremendously fascinated with the primitive airplanes of the Great War.

At the start of the war airplanes had existed for less than a dozen years, and they were little more than kites with primitive engines strapped to them. Most military leaders thought these death traps were of little use. But, the ground war was a bloody clash of nineteenth-century tactics meets twentieth-century technology, and the standard tool of reconnaissance, the horse, was useless. The only tool that could give them the necessary recon was the airplane.

The more I study the aviation of the period, the more intrigued I become, not only with the technology, but with the men. To climb aboard a 1914 aero-plane and fly over trenches filled with enemy machine guns and artillery required balls big as church bells.

When I read the stories of men like Manfred von Richthofen, Lanoe Hawker and Oswald Boelcke, I read these rich, exciting lives – men who shot down as many as 80 enemy planes, taught dozens of pioneer pilots, led brave men into battle, and died in their early twenties.

More than simply blood-thirsty warriors, the fighter pilots of WWI had reputations as gentlemen knights of the air. When Boelke died in 1916, the Royal Flying Corps dropped a wreath over the camp of Jasta 2, which read: “To the memory of Captain Boelcke, a brave and chivalrous foe.”

In June of 1917, German pilot Ernst Udet engaged France’s ace of aces,  Georges Guynemer in single combat over La Salle, France. 

The two men twisted and turned, trying to get a shot at each other. When, Udet finally had Guynemer in his sights, his guns jammed and he was forced to disengage.

Udet beat furiously on his guns as the Frenchman circled back around. Guynemer saw Udet fighting with his guns, and he knew the German was defenseless. 

Udet turned his Albatross D.III, and tried to run for his life, but Guynemer, in his Spad S.VII, named “Vieux Charles”, sped passed and loop around, flying straight down his twelve o’clock – Udet knew this was the end.

Some people think Guynemer’s guns jammed as well, it was a common problem in early fighter planes, but Ernst Udet always believed that the Frenchman had spared him, because it wasn’t a fair fight. 

Instead of firing, Guynemer inverted his plane, and flew over Udet, waving. 

It’s not about the shark

I’ve been tapped to give the keynote at an upcoming medical conference. The theme of the conference is storytelling, and how medical professionals can use it to educate their patients, and reps can use it to sell their brands and products.

In the storytelling game they call this “corporate storytelling”, and it’s become a big buzzword in recent years.

The pundits will tell you it’s all about communicating your brand identity, educating your customers and getting your message across clearly, in a warm and fuzzy way (the warm and fuzzy is suppose to be the storytelling part). That so misses the point that I will just come right out and call that philosophy wrong.

I’ve had this argument many times, and it’s one of the primary reasons I quit the National Storytelling Network. The point of telling stories is not to educate, deliver a message, or sell a product. The one single point of telling stories is to entertain. Ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors sat around the campfire talking about the “one that got away”, people have used storytelling as entertainment. Once you understand that, and make that your goal, then getting your message across is easy.

For some reason the idea often meets with a great deal of resistance. Typically it’s from people who want to push a product or service, and they want their message to be the most important aspect. Or, sadly, performers will tell me that they’ve been taught to push the benefits of storytelling, not the features, and that entertaining people is merely a feature, that education has to be the most important benefit if you’re going to sell storytelling as a product.

To those people I say, you’re making it about the shark.

J.J. Abrams gave a TED talk a few years ago in which he talked about the movie Jaws, and how it wasn’t about a shark: “It’s really about a guy, who is sort of dealing with his place in the world. His masculinity, with his family, how he’s going to make it work in this new town”. But people , who try to copy the success of Jaws always focus on the shark, the monster, and they’re never successful.

Sometimes the most important aspect of something is not the most obvious, but this time it really is. If you’re going to tell stories, make them entertaining first and foremost – if you’re not entertaining your audience they won’t be listening when you deliver your message.


Fall of the Red Baron, Part One

Airplane mountLast weekend I assembled the first of my models, the Fokker Dr.1. It’s a “New Ray Classic Planes” 1/48th scale model. It’s not a particular good model, more of an assembled-yourself toy. The struts are a little thick, to accommodate its screw-together assembly, but it’s a nice rugged replica that serves my purposes.

Fokker Triplane on standI epoxied a 1/4-20 nut into the bottom of the plane so it would attach to a camera mount, and I modified a microphone clip with a piece of aluminum bar stock. I then attached the whole assembly to a boom microphone stand, and this gives me the ability to position the aircraft in just about any attitude. Once the camel is finished I’ll be able to pose them in any number of cool dog fights.

Climbing TriplaneI didn’t paint the plane flat gray. Originally I thought that would help with me figuring out the tonal range of the image, but I thought the fore-shoretening of the insignia might be problematic, so instead I chose to photograph it in black and white.

As I expected, the foreshortening of the wings proved very difficult, which is why I decided to work from a model. But, unexpectedly, close-up camera work distorts the image as well. I haven’t decided if I’m going to try and eliminate that, or embrace it.

Fall of the Red Baron, planning

Official squadron crest for no. 209 Squadron RAFI’m spending the next few years developing my drawing skills. The easiest way to do this is simply to draw – a lot. But I always find it easier working on skill development when I have a specific assignment.

One of my “most interesting” topics is air combat from World War One, and I saw some WWI models at Hobby Lobby, so I thought, “Why not illustrate an historic air battle?” So, I’m putting together an illustrated telling of the air battle fought over the Somme River, on April 21st, 1918, that ended in the death of Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron.

Drawing the Sopwith Camels and Fokker Triplanes from multiple angles will teach me a thing or two about foreshortening, perspective and shading. And, describing an air battle in written text, not spoken word, will help me convert my storytelling to paper in a lively way.

But, this is a project and projects need planning. It wouldn’t be much of an assignment if there wasn’t a due date, so I’ve set myself a hard due date of May 13th, 2016, and I’ve broken the project down into tasks that need completing:

  1. Assemble the airplane models, paint them flat gray
  2. Create studies of the planes, work out any bugs in the rendering
  3. Write the text
  4. Storyboard the illustrated pages, with thumbnail drawings
  5. Render the final illustrations in watercolor
  6. Scan the illustrations
  7. Layout and combine the text and pictures

Because skill acquisition is something that’s hard to schedule, I’m not setting a deadline for individual tasks until I’m beyond step 2.