Art, the Plethodon, and NaNoWriMo’s Coming Dystopian Cyberpunk Future

Digital art in general is still very new to me, as are technical skills with things like perspective and the sharp, rigid geometry of cityscapes. To practice, rather than continuing to collage skylines and cityscapes and buildings in general from other art, which can be frustrating and make me feel like a copycat, I’ve started drawing from photos I’m taking in the area where I live.

For right now, I’m not editorializing a huge amount, just doing things like adding mountains to images in places where you can’t actually see the mountains (to still give the feeling of being surrounded by all these huge, towering peaks,) turning ugly architecture into colorful murals and signage, and getting rid of things that, while fine in real life, make for too much visual noise in a simple image or simple animation.

a street view I drew in RiNo, an art district in Denver

In tandem with my learning animation efforts, I’ve been planning out my project for this year’s NaNoWriMo. My friends in my writing group have been egging me on to do this cyberpunk dystopia magical girl story I’ve been toying around with. It would be set in a post-apocalyptic and re-settled-by-space-humans version of Denver, so I’ve begun trying to visualize a version of this place that’s fairly recognizable, but that I can play with creatively and see how I’d change it and how I’d have the re-settling humans interpret the leftovers of our society. What would last, what would fade away, and what would be wildly misinterpreted?

In doing this, I’ve started looking around where I live for things that space humans re-settling the area might find interesting, valuable, or worthy of note. The first place my mind jumped to was the first place that made me feel like Denver might be worth living in—Convergence Station. It’s this incredible immersive art museum that depicts a multidimensional transit station and is one of the few places in this city that—bizarre as it may sound—feel like home to me.

Meow Wolf Denver: Convergence Station

There’s this marvelous statue out front, by the car park. They call it The Plethodon.

Plethodon statue in front of Meow Wolf Denver: Convergence Station

Every time I see it, I think that Quetzalcoatl was possibly not, in fact, meant to be a literal feathered snake, but an exalted, deified form of the Mexican axolotl—and that the statue is exactly what a cute, anime version of one of his kind would look like. And while I know this strangely elegant statue is probably not built to last through the centuries, I decided that it’s too cool to get rid of, and it—or at least an homage to it—needs to be featured in my fictional cyberpunk version of Denver, and that I need to draw it.

I haven’t finished the Plethodon piece I started yesterday, but here’s where it’s up to so far:

WIP animation of rainbow Plethodon against the changing sky

Unfortunately, due to the workout all this animation practice has been giving it, my hand/arm/shoulder is so irritated and sore today that I can’t hold the pencil for more than 2 or so minutes before it starts to ache and go stingingly numb, so I guess I’m not finishing this piece tonight! But I did at least get the Plethodon’s eye and shine spots colored in so there’s no more entirely-blank areas. Tomorrow, please, hand, could you let me get back to work? Ideally, I wanna extend the timeframe a bit, as well as add things like clouds, cars, and birds. But like…ow, hand. Ow.

Anyway, that’s where I’m up to in this whole “teaching myself animation by feel” thing so far! While there’s definitely a lot of frustration involved, I’m really enjoying having something to work on that doesn’t require me to berate myself or feel like a failure if it doesn’t turn out right. Pre-stroke Alena had no experience or ability with digital art or animation, so there’s nothing to compare myself to and kick myself for not living up to, and there’s no sellable product I’m supposed to be achieving and worrying about whether or not people will like. I’m just…doing something for me. It’s a new and nice feeling; sort of fluttery and hopeful. Even if I hit a dead end with the animation stuff, I think the feeling of that lack of pressure is important to note and remember to try and return to when I’m feeling stuck. 💖

The Plethodon, illuminated in rainbow colors

Bonus: I didn’t even know this until after I started this animation—in fact, until I started writing this post and found photos of it at night—but the statue is actually sometimes illuminated in rainbow colors in real life, too! I am delighted by this development, and the funny little symmetry of having animated it that way just because I thought it would be cool! 😆

Further Adventures in Self-Taught Animation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been playing with teaching myself some really basic animation stuff lately!

I love how measurable the progress in this medium is—each piece, by bit, frame by frame, it inches closer to becoming itself, and when each one is done, I can put it down, see what I’ve learned, and move onto something new. Pleasantly self-contained little assignments for myself—I’d meant to do Inktober but digitally, but this process is flowing okay on its own right now, so I’m just running with it. 😅🤷🏻‍♀️🤞🏻

I started with an app called FlipaClip, which was solid to learn on, but a little clunky once I had a rudimentary grasp of things, so I traded up to Callipeg. It’s a little choppy, too, with what I consider to be an excess of fiddly, motion-based signaling (iPad nonsense, bah,) but which has more advanced controls and is nicer to work with as I get used to it.

like walking on the surface of the sun

I initially wanted to jump into playing with human figures, because I like to tell our stories, but trying to animate legs walking allowed me to learn that I do not enjoy animating legs walking right now! So, in the interest of being kind to myself and not just chucking this away in frustration, I’m going to do what I did when I was first learning to draw people and struggling with depicting hands and feet! I’m gonna put the fiddly stuff down until I’m more comfortable with the medium, and just focus on the process in general more than the precision of walking rhythms right off the bat.

CMY Crumpalump

The next piece—a little CMY doodle of my one-eyed cat, Crumpet, when she was a kitten—was much more fun. (I really enjoy the thing where cats are basically a liquid.) After that, I decided to try and create an image loop of an idea I reference a lot, something I call my “terrarium brain.”

Ever since I had a series of small strokes a few years ago, my thoughts aren’t as linear or as easy to reach out and get ahold of when I’d like; they feel nebulous and indistinct until and unless I give them time and peace to coalesce. I picture them forming like clouds on my brain’s ceiling, collecting, eventually raining down (when they’re ready) into some form of more coherent expression. When I’m struggling to get the thoughts to gather, or am dealing with a very rapid cycle of feeling/thinking/expressing that overwhelms me, I refer to it as “storms in the terrarium brain.”

Storms in the Brain Terrarium

This was the first lil animation thing I’ve done that actually came out the way I intended; I’m surprised with how happy I am with it!

incomplete cityscape and train animation line work

Clearly, I keep returning to this train and cityscape idea. It’s taken up living rent-free in my head, and there’s definitely a story I want to tell forming there. Wanting to quickly get to telling that story, I started by snagging cityscape outlines from other images and altering them significantly, but I kept getting frustrated and feeling like a hack.

The next piece really frustrated me, just on a technical level. I borrowed most of the building blocking and outlines from another picture, and then built my own little world on top of it. Just a simple little loop of a person sitting on a rooftop, swinging their legs, bobbing their head to music, and scrolling through their phone. I was pretty pleased with it, and got about 3/4 of the way through coloring it, to the point where I just needed to color and animate all the billboards and other screens across the city.

blocking lines for cyber cityscape

In the middle of coloring, I accidentally tapped on a line with the Fill tool, which, if you’ve ever colored anything digitally, you probably already know this happens a lot, and while it does grossly thicken any lines attached to the one you just tapped on in the color you’re using, it’s not a big deal, because that’s what the Undo button is for. I didn’t notice right away, which wouldn’t normally be a big deal, either.

Except my iPad was in my lap, where my darling cat, Crumpet, decided she needed to be. So she stepped all over the screen and it closed the Callipeg app. And when I reopened it, I found that I had lost the ability to Undo more than the last couple of actions…which meant there was no going back to the version without the weird, chunky lines and awkward double-filled color spots.

By that point, I was frustrated, my hand hurt, and I felt like the motion in the animation was too choppy and awkward to be worth going through all the effort of completely redoing the color layer through the whole thing. While I’m annoyed to leave any of these little projects unfinished—I really like being able to have little slices of my progress as I go, so I don’t spend ages working on a project started at a lower skill level than I’m at by the time I’m halfway through it—I also legitimately don’t want to spend the hours of work and pain in my hand required to finish this one when I’m this frustrated with it.

I may go back later and steal the blocking lines from it to make a new one later, but right now, even just looking at it kinda irritates me. Weird, right? Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria feels in response to my own failures is not very Badass Artist Who Loves To Learn New Things of me, but I’m doing my best. 😬🙃