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Interview: Whilce Portacio Draws Us Into Artifacts

Artifacts Top CowTop Cow Month wouldn’t be complete without a look at the artist behind the second arc of Artifacts: Whilce Portacio! With a career spanning from the early ’80s to today, Portacio’s art has graced everything from Alien Legion and Longshot to Batman, Spawn, Iron Man, and Uncanny X-Men–and from Power Pack to The Punisher.

Currently, Portacio has been busy at work on issues #5 through #8 of Artifacts, Top Cow’s mega-series starring its most popular characters. Portacio had a lot to say about his evolution as an artist, and the changes within the comics industry over the past three decades.

TFAW.com: You’ve been working in comics–first as an inker, then as a penciller–since the mid-’80s. Has your approach to the work changed over the years?

Whilce Portacio: Definitely yes. Because back then–and this is still true today–there were no guidelines of how to do professional work or school system to teach professional guidelines. As a new professional, you had to learn on the job. Funnily enough, the job of hitting your deadlines often gets in the way of actually having time to learn the ropes. You don’t ask and they don’t say. So like most new professionals, I did everything on instinct.

As an artist you follow your instincts, and unfortunately, a lot of what you learn on your own isn’t necessarily the best way to do things. So, before, I used to draw my favorite part of the page and go from there. Sometimes I’d even start with, let’s say, a nose, and then build the rest of the figure, crossing my fingers that the final drawing will look right and actually fit on the page. Now back then, as a young man, I had all the energy to waste to do that. In hindsight, it is what led to lots of deadline crunches. Nowadays, everything is planned and organized. At the beginning of an issue, all reference is gathered. Your deadline is set in stone. Layouts for most, if not all, pages are drawn and approved by editors. Looking at all of the layouts I can see and plan which pages are gonna be easier than others, so that in a deadline crunch I can attack easy pages, so my inker can keep up behind me.

Artifacts #7 Page 1 PreviewAs I attack each page I fully lay out each page, work out all anatomy problems, and then–and only then–do I go in and do the final drawing. My days are planned to which pages I do each day. I drive my girls to and from school everyday so I am awake every morning, so that means for the most part my sleep time is set. As a diabetic I need seven hours of sleep, otherwise I have no energy to work. When I was young, everything was done on the fly and you played catchup more than anything. Nowadays, everything is planned and predicted.

TFAW.com: How do you think your style has evolved?

WP: Style has never been in the forefront of my mind when I draw. I am a technical person, so the anatomy, the secrets of anatomy, the hidden lines of elegance within the human form, the truths of proportions within the body, etc., are where my interest lies. That and the secrets of different media and how I can relate it to my work.

For example, a few years ago I started studying oil painting. One aspect you concentrate on is the importance of what light does to your figure. More to the point, how a highlight must be clear and uncluttered of detail. So now I am so, so conscious of making sure the highlight areas of my figures and faces are just that, clear and uncluttered with “extra” lines. To the point that I will go back into the drawing when done and actually erase lines in the highlight area.

Also, as a result of my painting, and because I am such a computer geek, I have been constantly experimenting with digital painting and how that can affect my work. So all my style is dictated by my learning of art in as many aspects (oil painting, digital painting, technique, media differences, approach differences) as I can bear at any one time, and I try and try to apply it to what I am working on now.

Artifacts #7 Page 2 PreviewAs an example, I do all my layouts digitally on my tablets. It is not only quicker that way, but it allows me to “carry” all my drawings, all my reference, all my notes, around me wherever I go. Therefore allowing me to work on something at any given moment. So if you trace how I have been studying different art techniques and how technology has kept up through the times, there you will see my art evolving, and why.

TFAW.com: What have been the highlights of penciling Artifacts?

WP: The true highlight of working with this particular art/editorial team is just that, working with these friends. We are all professional, we all believe in each others’ abilities, and we each every day show our worth to each other. Whenever you have a team of creatives working on an art project, if you can rely on everybody on the team to always, without fail, show you 200%, then you always, without hesitation give 200% back. And that leads to amazing completed work.

I have not been so completely happy with the final outcome of a set of issues since way back, when I did the first Wetworks series. Back then we had the money and the fan base, and therefore the time to do it until it got done, the best way we could at the time. That lead to an ultimate product. Filip Sablik and Philip Smith of Top Cow have created an environment that allows its creative team do their best, to serve the story to the best of our abilities . . . it was a blast . . .

TFAW.com: There are so many different characters to draw in this series, and each has his or her own distinct look. How did you prepare for this?

WP: Just with brute force . . . I have a seven-inch tablet that I can carry with me everywhere I go. I live in California and am almost always wearing shorts with cargo pockets. My tablet slips quickly and easily into those pockets wherever I go. In that tablet I have gigabytes and gigabytes of costume references of every character in my plots. I have WiFi and 3G ability to grab more reference off the Internet (anywhere I happen to be). I also have the ability to email or text Ron Marz or Filip Sablik asking any questions I have.

Artifacts #7 Page 3 PreviewBy the way–not only do Ron and I work on weekends, but my editors are also on call for me if needed . . . neat. In my tablet I also have all my plots, all my notes. I now have a Dagi stylus, so I can experiment with painting, or just get use to drawing new characters or even design new characters if need be. Now at home, in my studio, I have a full two-monitor setup to do all my hardcore work.

As a precaution for deadlines, my home computer is a powerful workhorse tablet PC computer. Meaning I can rip it out of my studio, pile it into my backpack and do full high-res publish-quality work on the plane, in the hotel . . . and yes on the beach. 🙂 I’ve done so much published work on the workhorse computer I wish I could do all my work there. Without this type of a work pipeline I don’t know how I would keep up with the vast number of characters within the Top Cow Universe.

TFAW.com: Is there a character you’ve particularly enjoyed drawing?

WP: I use to hate the “Darkness” effect. It is so organic and unorganized. Drawing Darkness and Witchblade always seemed intellectually a chore. Now I get it artistically and it is fun just going with the artistic flow when drawing them. It makes each drawing of them different, and so never boring . . .

TFAW.com: You’ve seen so many big changes in the comic book industry first-hand: from working for Marvel in the ’80s and founding Image in the ’90s, to today. What do you think about comics today?

WP: Fundamentally working in comics is a totally different animal. I can freely say that the biggest problem we had back then was the belief that the work was more important than the deadline. Our business in the long run suffered because of that, but we put out memorable product.

Artifacts #7 Page 4 PreviewNowadays, there are strict rules, there are calculations made before each job, and for the most part people follow the guidelines. A high priority nowadays is making sure each job makes economical sense. In the long run that works and keeps the companies running. Unfortunately it makes for an atmosphere where the best cannot always work with the best, because together their rates would kill any profit that particular book might make.

Now for the top, top-tier professionals that’s no problem, because they can bring in the numbers, but that top tier is very small in number. The vast majority of working professionals fill the second tier and they are not given the number of opportunities to work with other pros of their caliber to create memorable product. That is why you are seeing more and more pencilers doing the inking and coloring on their own. By doing it on their own they can better control what the work ends up looking like when it gets published.

Now add into that mix how legally a lot of creatives can’t work with other creatives because they are “with the other company” at the time. I applaud the business sense of the companies nowadays and how much healthy they are and for the future, but I strongly believe (from a business standpoint) more and more risk must be taken at this time (where the whole society is watching our comic book creations) to allow the best creatives more and more opportunity to “play” with each other to make memorable product.

TFAW.com: What books are you reading?

Artifacts #7 Page 5 PreviewWP: I am currently in the first digital chapter on my tablet of War and Peace. I just put down John Varley’s science-fiction epic Steel Beach. And in between that and work (I keep them in my bathroom) I try, and I try, and I try to read and understand Richard Feynman’s books on physics.

TFAW.com: What else do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

WP: I actually have three comic book projects I can’t talk about, an art book, and hope to start a penciling tutorial DVD soon . . .

Thank you, Whilce, for your in-depth answers to our questions! Artifacts #7 is due out May 4–you can order it and the rest of the series here at TFAW.com.

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Written by Elisabeth@TFAW

Elisabeth has been reading comics since we was a wee girl. She's obsessed with John Byrne, Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and making the perfect scrambled eggs. Follow her on @Twitter to get bonus conversations with her cat!