Well, here we are. 2021. Time to take a look back at the year that was to gain a little perspective while planning for the year that is. I could take this post in so many different directions, and despite having a little outline of things I want to remember to cover, I’m still not sure what I’m going to write. Should I stick strictly to what goals I started 2020 with and which ones I accomplished? Should I get into some of the personal “stuff”, since that impacts and is reflected in art? Should I go by project, or by month? Should I get into the pandemic or politics?
Enough vacillating. Time to just start writing.
For the last several years, I’ve tried to get into the habit of writing up a list of creative goals for the year. I’ve learned a few things from this exercise: I do better when I break each goal down into several smaller steps (not surprising), and I both think I can get done way more than is possible in a given time frame (which also isn’t surprising, and it crops up when I’m working on house projects, too) as well as have way too many ideas fighting for attention in my Brain. My goals for 2020 were ambitious, but I thought I could get to all of them. Of course, this was before the pandemic and a whole host of other life events, but I put a lot of hurdles in my own way, too. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and it’s something I’m constantly trying to overcome. Whether it’s never feeling like a piece is done, or that something isn’t good enough, or avoiding something because there’s a component that’s outside my comfort zone (like anything to do with finances, making money, doing something completely new, etc), or getting lost in my day dreams, or managing my time poorly because I’m often overwhelmed and paralyzed by the shear volume of “stuff” I want to do in my head that I can’t decide what to focus on and any time I do decide to focus on a particular project, I feel guilty and like I should be focusing on something else. At 43, I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get out of my own way, but I keep trying.
I started 2020 working on my first of 6 planned shirt designs for the year (you can still decorate your torso with it):
This one took a lot longer to finish than I wanted, on account of my being detail obsessed. But, I was pleased with the result, and it sparked a loose idea for future shirts. I was also somewhat simultaneously working on a logo design for a non-profit martial arts motorcycle charity that one of my karate friends was starting up. The goal was to help raise money to get karate programs into underprivileged areas. The samurai helmet was one initial idea, but I ended up going with a graphic interpretation of a famous samurai statue.
Sometime around this time I put together and ran several weekends of ads for both my shirts and 10 Things. I don’t think I generated any sales from that effort. I had plans to continue, but once the pandemic hit, everything went out the window. I didn’t want to be spending money on ads, and I figured there was such economic uncertainty (to say nothing of the health uncertainties) that I figured people wouldn’t be in a buying frame of mind anyway (not that I’ve ever had many sales to begin with). I also started experimenting with turning my designs into stickers, as it is a service offered by Printful, the company I use to print my shirts. The majority of the stickers I got as samples looked great, but 3 had either print issues or physical damage. I had to request free replacements 2 additional times before they got those 3 stickers right, which didn’t leave me with a lot of confidence in offering that product at the time. I know they, like so many industries, have been hampered by the pandemic, so I cut them some slack and will likely try again in 2021. I’d like to have an option for people to support my art at a lower price point than a $21 tshirt.
As the lock downs were starting and my normal schedule and routine that is mostly based on the kids, school, and scouts started to get flipped on its head, I turned to two sewing projects: a new set of hip/holster bags and a wool poncho.
I decided my second shirt of the year was going to be a redraw of my original shirt, the It’s Plunger Monkey Dynamo Time! shirt. PMD has evolved quite a bit over the years, so I decided it was time for an update (also, because the lack of consistency between the original shirt and the way I draw him now really bugged me. See also my issues with never feeling like a piece is done or good enough, and constantly could be updated and improved) (you can spread the awesome of PMD with the world by being my walking billboard).
In May, it was time for my annual Mother’s Day card for my wife.
Constantly frustrated with my drawing skills and wanting them to be better, particularly for IPMDT and future comic projects (another one of those road blocks I set up for myself: can’t work on the bigger comic ideas until my drawing is better), I decided I really needed to do some turnaround studies of myself and PMD.
These were both fun and useful, but I’m still not happy with the way I draw myself.
On June 8, 2020, the first of a series of tragic personal losses happened: my memere, my last remaining grandparent, passed away two weeks after turning 99 years old. As I have done at the passing of my other grandparents, I had to paint her portrait. But since it was significant to me that she was the last of my grandparents, I knew I had to do something a little extra. The end result was by far my best painting ever, traditional or digital, and in my own head I feel like I have them to thank for it. You can read the emotional blog post I wrote and see the close ups here. It was an emotionally draining project that took me a month to finally complete in a year that was already emotionally draining on it’s own.
Over the summer, I decided my third shirt of the year was going to be a reworking of a random “character” from a random PMD illustration I had done in 2019. As is often the case, I couldn’t tell when I was done with it, and I also came up with 352 variations. Have I mentioned I can be extremely indecisive? My wife can probably tell you all about it…Anyway, I decided to sit on it and look at it with fresh eyes later. I also polled people on Face Book and Instagram. The end result was I narrowed it down to two options, but didn’t pull the trigger and actually turn the design into a shirt (which you can now confuse your friends, family, and co-workers with here) until a week or so before Xmas.
In August-ish, I started playing around with the free version of Z Brush, a digital sculpting bit of software that is highly used in art, movies, and video games. It’s very intuitive and a ton of fun. I immediately started sculpting a PMD head, but I don’t really have anything worth showing here yet. I haven’t spent many hours with the program, but I want to over the coming year. I see a lot of uses, and have already made good use of the original PMD head I made as a reference for drawing him from tricky camera angles in IPMDT. I’d like to create sculpts of all the characters I introduce, not only for my own drawing reference, but also to experiment with 3D printing some things. I see a lot of potential, but I have yet to manage my time well enough to devote the hours I would need to not only get competent at it, but also justify shelling out for one of the full versions with access to more robust tools, features, textures, etc.
September is Dragon Month. Why? Well, if you’ve been paying attention, my wife loves dragons, so every year for her birthday (which is in September) I draw her a dragon formatted to be used as her pc wallpaper (since she has to sit at her computer all day for work). Every year I pick a different theme for the dragon. I envision a world where just about every species evolved from a common dragon ancestor, so there has been a flying dragon, a sea dragon, a tiny mushroom-sized dragon, a forest dragon, and in 2020, an arctic dragon (which you can read more about here). I also turn the illustrations into one of kind shirts for her for Xmas.
On September 29, another personal tragedy hit: friend of the family who served with my pepere in WWII and who was in many ways like a fifth grandparent to me, Lou Celentano, passed away at 99 years old. He was an amazing gentleman and a fantastic story teller. I first met him while attending my pepere’s WWII reunions in the early 2000s. Whenever he made it to MA to visit my grandparents, I tried to come down to see him, too. I wrote many long letters to him, filled with lots of pictures, keeping him up to date on all the adventures and events of our little family in NH. I always intended to write more frequently, but life would always get busy so I’d write a 30+ page letter around Thanksgiving time each year. I would keep a separate folder on my computer where I would copy photos I wanted to send him that depicted the things that were keeping us busy. My 2020 folder was pretty full, and I was on the verge of starting my letter when I got the news. It was really weird not writing to him, the last letter I sent him was over the summer to let him know my memere had passed away. I’m very glad I knew him.
October rolled around, which meant it was time for Inktober 2020. I continued my 2019 theme of making every one of the official prompts involved Plunger Monkey in some way. It was a ton of fun and lead to some really good pieces, I think, one of which I turned into my last shirt of 2020 (more on that in a bit). There are 32 illustrations (because I used the wrong prompt list for day one, so I have an extra), far too many to post here, but you can check them all out in the gallery (I meant to do a wrap up post like I have done in previous years, but things got away from me). I’ll post a couple of my favorites, though.
I was staying on track with my Inktoberings for the first half of the month, but then another tragedy hit: a young man and Eagle Scout, Trevor Pierce, that I had worked with for many years as a volunteer in scouts was tragically killed in an accident just a month and a half into his freshman year at Syracuse University, and a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday. He was very motivated, intelligent, and vibrant, with a very bright future ahead of him. He left an indelible mark on everyone that knew him, particularly his close friends, fellow scouters, and the young scouts he mentored. It was a huge shock to all of us, and it was even more difficult for us to process and find closure due to the challenges imposed by the pandemic.
I did manage to finish Inktober, but it was in the second week of November, not that anyone is keeping track. I moved on to working on our annual family Xmas card (which got hung up in the mail and I wasn’t able to mail out until after the holiday). I then started focusing on a few art updates. I thought it was time to update the PMD Brainism image (which you can now see on the main page), as well as the little PMD head that dots the “I” in my logo (which you can also check out in the logo on the main page).
In the first days of December, yet another tragedy struck: I learned my original karate sensei, Kazumi Tabata, had passed away on or just after Thanksgiving. I started training with him all the way back in my first year of karate in 1995. He was a force of nature. Intense. Powerful. Full of life, and joyful. To this day, when I train, I hear him shouting, encouraging, trying to breath his life force into us. He taught me many things, the most important of which is that I am capable of much more than I think. His focus was mental strength and overcoming doubts and weakness, lessons I still struggle with today but I have his voice in my head urging me on. I earned my black belt with him on my second attempt. He failed me the first time because I lacked something, and he wanted to see how I would respond. Would I give up, or would I multiply my efforts and resolve, train harder, and try again. I had to participate in a weekend long “special training” that was by far the hardest physical and mental thing I have faced. We arrived at a college gym Friday evening and started training. We trained for 3 hours, then got a 3 hour break, and then trained 3 hours again. This pattern repeated until Sunday evening. We stood in deep stances for half an hour plus each leg while sensei walked around, climbing on our backs and hitting us with a shinai (bamboo sword) if we started to stand up to shake our legs out. We did hundreds of kata, hours and hours of basics, duck walks and bunny hops around the basketball court for hours, countless sparring drills, and finally, before we could leave on Sunday: 1000 situps, 1000 pushups, 1000 squat kicks, and 200 kicks with another student on your shoulders. I woke myself up Sunday night doing situps in my sleep. It was awesome. Unfortunately, after earning my black belt, I moved out of state with my now wife, and my ability to stay involved with is organization dropped. I trained elsewhere, and I’ve never stopped training on my own. I always said I was going to make time to go back, to go to a seminar or tournament or other training session. But with kids and scouts and the distance, I never made it happen. I had opportunities and offers to be more involved, to even teach, but I passed them up. I regret not staying more involved, and I will forever regret not having made more effort to train with him again in the 15 years since I was last able. I cherish the memories and what I learned, as well as the friends I still have and still train with occasionally. Sadly, I don’t have many pictures of myself and sensei Tabata, though there are some videos floating around YouTube that I was involved in (and by involved, I mean sensei tossed myself and other students around for videos on the application of katas. Here’s Heian Sundan, Heian Yodan, and Heian Godan. All the applications are near the end, and in one of them I was a tad out of place and slow in my reaction, so instead of going with the movement, sensei Tabata just basically picked me up and dropped me on my head). Here are a few pictures my dad took during my second black belt test, the one I passed in 2001.
I have entered the American Ninja Warrior contest every year except for a few (due to a kid being born and injuries). I have a long history with the show, going back to 2000 or so, long before it was ever broadcast on American airwaves. I had made a friend through karate that went home to Japan and sent another friend and myself a video tape of some Japanese tv programs. There was the original Iron Chef, but also the fourth Sasuke tournament, the first time anyone had beat all 4 stages. I was hooked, it was awesome, I dreamed of going to Japan to compete on the show, but that just wasn’t an option. I was happy when G4 started showing the subtitled show on their channel several years later, and super excited when they announced the first contest to send someone to Japan. I missed the first year, but entered the next. I never got to go overseas, but I did get to compete in 2012 when NBC started taking things over and filmed their own competition stateside. I didn’t do as well as I know I could have, and I’ve been trying to get a second chance ever since. So, it’s usually a big deal for me to put together my entry video every year. In 2020, the contest itself was very different due to Covid, but the turn around time for submitting entries for 2021 was much shorter than usual. I spent a week or so filming and editing and managed to submit the day before the deadline on December 12. I don’t have much hope that I’ll get selected again, there are so many amazing athletes and people with more charisma and better “stories” than me, but, if I don’t enter at all, there is zero chance.
The next PMD image I updated was one that I’ve wanted to turn into a shirt anyway for a long time, so I figured it would serve multiple purposes to tackle that next. I use it as the main logo on the IPMDT Gallery Page, I put it with different text (Plunger Monkey Designs) on the business card I haven’t printed yet, and, as the final days of December were winding down, I turned it into a shirt you can rock and help spread the word of PMD.
The fifth shirt of 2020 was one I had actually designed years and years ago, when the idea of making and selling my own shirts was still a pipe dream (technically, I still consider it a pipe dream since I don’t sell many shirts). It was inspired by Hokusai’s Great Wave print. You can get your zen on with this design here.
Our Xmas card prints finally arrived just before the holiday, so I scrambled to address them all. There are a handful of people on who’s envelopes I draw custom PMD art every year, which is often time consuming and sometimes stressful as I try to think of things that are either related to the person and my relationship with them, or just something funny in general. Last year I stumbled into the theme of “Totally Reasonable Uses for a Plunger”, which was fun, so I went with that again. Turns out, it was fun this time, too. I was really pleased with this particular crop of envelopes, which I will do a separate post about once they actually get into the proper hands (don’t want to spoil anything). As I mentioned last year, that whole theme is just begging to be made into a book, and I’m kind of using the envelopes as really polished thumbnails for more finished art. I’ve been keeping a list of ideas for “uses”, which I hope to add to and perhaps start illustrating in 2021. I still need to sort out exactly how I want the book to look, what the format will be, etc.
Throughout all of 2020, I spent a lot of time working on both IPMDT and Inside Toby’s Brain. With the former, I did a bit of writing and thumbnailing (which I need to do again soon), and finished panels 276-316, some of which were very detailed and complicated. You can check out all the posted strips either by swiping through the strip on the main page or going to the IPMDT Gallery page. I’m still unhappy with a lot of my panels, and I’m constantly threatening to “remaster” them digitally should I finally get around to putting the strip into a book format. I’d really like to do that for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is “fixing” stuff, but I haven’t decided where that falls on my priority list. For ITB, I drew a new page or two, and then started going back and making tweaks and fixes to things that bothered me, as well as trying out a new look in terms of adding paper texture and some custom pencil textures to the shadow areas. It still needs some tweaking, but that project was always about learning how to use Clip Studio better and figuring out the look I wanted and the process to get it.
Finally, on the last day of 2020, after much hemming and hawing and asking for opinions, I bit the bullet and turned that Inktober illustration into my sixth shirt design of the year. You can get your own rogue monkey samurai here.
There you have it, that was my 2020 through the lens of my studio (plenty more happened in “real life”). I came up short on a lot of my goals (didn’t touch Revery or any of the concept art goals, didn’t get as much done with IPMDT as I wanted), but I did get my six shirts out there, as well as a decent amount of other art. Most of my missed 2020 goals are on the 2021 chopping block, in addition to a few others. For example, Clip Studio periodically runs illustration contests, and winners can win money and free subscriptions to the app. I don’t know that I have a chance of winning, but the theme right now is “the best smile”. I figure that’s pretty much tailored for me to do a PMD illustration, which I’ve just barely started. I have until January 14, so that’s going to be my main focus for the next week. As I have mentioned over and over, my Brain is brimming with ideas and things I want to do-illustrations, shirt designs, comic projects, book projects, video game projects, sewing projects-so I’m not in any danger of having nothing to do. My challenge remains to pick something and focus on it while not completely neglecting other things (for example, it’s really easy for me to lose my day to working on IPMDT and not have time to work on something else, but I don’t want to not work on it at all while I work on other things. It’s a balancing act I haven’t figured out yet).
Hopefully 2021 is a better year all around than 2020, I’ll be doing my part to alleviate stress and entertain everyone with my art while I pursue my goals and get some of this stuff out of my Brain.