Process Peek: Desert Vibes

An unscientific approach to illustration

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I have the distinct privilege of illustrating selected newsletters written by the ridiculously talented Courtney Cook. We met years ago in a professional capacity, and now when we get together we are generally as unprofessional as can be. Our artistic collaboration, however, stands somewhere apart in a limbo between work and not-work, with requests and responses mostly delivered via off-hours texts. We rarely remember to discuss our Substack lives when we meet up in person. We are too busy eating cheese or catching up on gossip.

This generally means that I’ll receive a note describing a possible theme a few days ahead of posting. It arrives as a loose reference to a topic (she knows I get doodler’s block with a too-specific prompt), carefully framed with a caveat that I can blow off her request without a second thought.

Here’s what that can look like:

In case you doodle while spectating I will have kind of Mother’s Day theme tomorrow. No worries if not though.

And

Technology, progress, oligarchy, resilience…those are the themes I have been thinking about.

And

this week I am going to write a bit about Tucson and things like cacti and blooming desert flowers, if you are feeling doodlish.

After I receive the text, I sit with it. Or, as I frame it for Courtney, I percolate. This last prompt got me daydreaming about being a lizard on a very hot rock, something that deeply appealed to me on a raw, wet afternoon in April. When I felt up to an attempt, I spent some time Googling appealing Arizona lizards, and then tried sketching one to get my doodle brain in gear:

Oh dear

This is an exercise I sometimes do just to practice the general lines of an animal. If, say, I don’t know lizards well (I don’t), then I can get more familiar with them by sketching the belly and the toes and the nose and the tail from a photo. As you can see from the above, these sketches are (a) usually atrocious and (b) have zero fun or personality about them. But while I go through the exercise, my mind wanders and starts to consider other additions to the doodle. When I finish the exercise, I hide the ugly lizard, open a new (blank) layer, and test out some of those ideas.

In this case, I started with a nice outline of a cactus. I then added some texture that I thought indicated a prickly surface, including a deep enough shadow to hint at a very hot sun directly overhead. I was pretty pleased with that. It felt Very Cactusy. Maybe too cactusy? My lizard would have to compensate for this realism somehow. Hmmm. Well, I let my mind percolate on THAT for a bit while my hands went to work making some scrubby, dry plants and a flat, baked-looking horizon. I needed me a desert.

From thought experiment to Arizona desert scrubland

Now I felt like the weather was right for my lizard. Not for that ratty, ugly, un-fun lizard; after a quick peek to confirm I hated him, I left that layer hidden. But I felt that I now knew the outlines that my fun lizard should have: a potbelly; a flat snout; some overlong toes. The weather was right for THAT lizard.

Or, if we are being honest, for me. In this scenario, I am 100% the lizard. I can feel the uncomfortably hot, baking rock under my calloused feet, and I know exactly how I will stretch out to appreciate an overdose of vitamin D.

Aspirational self-portrait

My lizard is comfortable. My lizard is warm. My lizard is dozing.

My lizard is thirsty.

And here is where I compensate for the accidental realism of my cactus (in case any reader has been convinced that Arizona lizards sunbathe on their backs with their heads pillowed on their arms). I give my lizard a tasty cocktail, as though he is lounging poolside at a resort. Yes, I have gone Full Lizard Lounge.

Siesta!

And this is how my dear friend Courtney, my patient and tolerant friend Courtney, got landed with a doodle of a lounging alcoholic lizard taking siesta as the illustration for her meditation on topologies and existential dread.

It was perfect.