Alright, I’m notoriously bad at grasping the passage of time, but instead of being bewildered that 2023 just ended, I’m a tad surprised that I almost titled this post “2024 Year in Review”. I think that’s the first time I’ve thought more time had passed, rather than less.

Either way, growing up in the 80s and 90s, thinking ahead to anything past the year 2000 always seemed like the future. I mean, yes, literally it was, but I mean some kind of sci-fi, flying cars, robots, teleportation, and computer brain implants utopia kind of future. I suppose there are plenty of things I take for granted now that were purely science fiction back then, both good-ish (having an internet-connected computer in my pocket that can answer any question I have, plays music, movies, games, takes pictures and video, and allows me to record all manner of notes and ideas that synchronizes on it’s own with my other devices is mostly cool) and much less good (I’m looking at you, AI art and writing programs. You’re supposed to be making the menial and mundane elements of life easier and more efficient so we humans can spend more time pursuing passions and being creative, not the other way around. Jerk). Regardless, here we are in 2024 already, and while 2023 didn’t result in my being able to teleport long distances to be able to see family and friends more frequently, or even just fly around with a jet pack, the world didn’t end, either. I guess that’s good.

2023 was also my most productive year in my studio to date, which is really cool to be able to look back on. I won’t completely rehash my long journey of ups and downs to get to this point in my studio life (probably most notably the almost ten years I willingly spent not in my studio while my kids were young), but at the end of every year, I always feel like I could have, I should have accomplished more. There have always been (and continue to be) legitimate interruptions to my creative pursuits, things that sometimes disrupt my “flow” and make it hard to get back on track, as well as my challenges with the limbo-like state I fall into between projects. But while there are still quite a few things I had hoped to get to in 2023 that I didn’t, I’m currently feeling pretty good about what I’ve accomplished (we’ll see how long that feeling lasts…). It’s actually so much and so varied that I’ve been having a hard time piecing together a timeline and remembering what I did last year versus two years ago. I can’t reasonably repost all the art from last year, so I’ll just try to stick to some highlights.

I started 2023 wrapping up a series of 5 book covers for “The Patron Saint of my Art” L.S. Gagnon’s Warlock books. Every time I work on her covers, I wind up learning new things, developing new work flows, and improving my skills overall.

After finishing the covers, I returned to my digital sketchbook practice, trying to get better at drawing myself and figuring out some techniques and a work flow I intend to use for future graphic novel projects. I decided I wanted to do something more ambitious than the basic self-portrait studies I was doing, and wound up spending over 89 hours on this “Revery” concept art piece. It was the first time in a long time I had drawn anything related to the story I first dreamed up in the early 2000s, and it felt great to do it. 89 hours was entirely too long, but there was a lot of experimenting and trial and error going on.

When I finished the “Revery” piece, I realized I was already about 3 months behind on the whole Inktober 52 thing, which I had decided at the start of the year I wanted to do for the first time. I spent several weeks or longer playing catch up, all while putting the finishing touches on my first art book of Inktober illustrations I so cleverly called “Inklings”.

I’m not going to repost all 52 Inktober 52s – you can check the gallery to see all of them, or just wait for a future volume of Inklings…I’ll just sprinkle some of my favorite ones in as I get to them in the timeline.

I was really happy with the scale of this one, as well as all the line weights and textures and the contrast between detailed areas and open spaces. It’s neat to be able to see the improvements in my skills and decision making over the course of these illustrations.

I feel like I got a lot more ambitious with some of the Inktober 52 (as well as regular Inktober) illustrations this year, depicting fuller backgrounds and environments.

I have done about 19 of these Mother’s Day cards for my wife now (I missed one at one point, or I don’t have a scan of it. I’m not sure what happened in either case). For the first 10 years of being a parent, these cards were pretty much the only piece of art I found/made the time for each year. Since I was only doing these once a year, it’s really neat to look back at the progression of both my skills as well as how these characters based on our kids have aged and changed. I think this year’s card is one of my favorites so far.

My hand still hurts when I look at this one. I got carried away, but I enjoy that. The older I get, the more patient I get with my lines. I’m not usually happy with the results when I try to move quickly, I like being precise.

I still want to put this image on a beach towel and sell it on my Etsy page.

While I was making my way through Inktober 52 prompts, I was also putting some of the finishing touches on Inklings, trying to get it ready to publish. In conjunction with that, I was designing some related shirts, too, which can be found along with all my other shirt designs on the Plunger Monkey Designs Etsy page.

One of several new shirts to come from working on Inklings.

Gotta love squids.

Finally, on July 9, 2023, after more than a year and a half of work designing fonts, headers, embellishments, editing, laying out pages, and being anxious and unsure, I published Inklings. It was a surreal and strangely addicting moment. I’m already eager to get more of my work out there in tangible book format (and hopefully some of it will start selling sooner rather than later).

Once I clicked “publish”, I set about attempting an ad campaign that never got off the ground. My idea for the ads was to design some eye-catching (I hoped) single panel comic-style images of PMD reading Inklings and encouraging people to buy it to make him happy. The goal was to get people to share the images around on social media to hopefully grow a word-of-mouth campaign, but no one really bought into it and shared them. You can still get your copy of Inklings on Amazon, and if you feel motivated, you can still copy one – or several – of these images and share them around. I won’t be mad. Promise.

I also finally did a mini overhaul of my website, giving it a much needed appearance update, streamlining the look a bit, and adding a few new pages (like a page for all my merch…Toby’s Brain the Store…). I kept working on Inktober 52 while all that was going on, trying to stay on top of the prompts being released each week. At some point, I think I was actually caught up, but I don’t remember when that happened. I quickly fell behind once actual Inktober rolled around, though.

I kinda want a PMD headboard and a giant squid body pillow. I think this may have been the first pen and ink drawing I took a picture of with my iPad so I could try out some hatching/shading techniques digitally before I accidentally “ruined” the rest of the drawing. I did that a few times and found it gave me some confidence and peace of mind on other illustrations.

One of my favorite things about Inktober is finding ways to pay homage to the things that have inspired me as an artist, as well as a human. I frequently find myself making references to BIll Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes”, which is not only beautiful to look at, but chock full of fantastic imagination as well as social commentary. It’s brilliant.

I also found myself making several references to “The Muppets” this year. This particular one was tedious but fun.

I had to choose this one to highlight, even though there were others that were equally as fun for me, simply because I was reasonably happy with the sense of motion and action. There are many different ways to try to represent that, but I’ve always gravitated towards the manga-ish speedlines. I still have a lot of practicing to do.

I used this prompt as an excuse to represent what my childhood “felt” like. There were a ton of other personal references I could have and maybe should have crammed in here, but at a certain point I have to weigh my ideas against the amount of time I ought to spend on any one Inktober illustration.

If I have drawn a dragon, it’s probably September. This is another one of those traditional annual projects I have (drawing a dragon for my wife’s birthday) that makes it easy to look back and gauge progress. I say it a lot, but, this one was a lot of fun, as well as the most competently executed. These are designed to be the desktop wallpaper on her pc, and she has a pretty wide monitor. It lends itself to some cinematic compositions, but it also makes it tricky to actually work on on my iPad that has a much different aspect ratio.

September was a big month in 2023. For the first time ever (well, I guess since our second son was born at any rate) we were down to just one kid in the house. The two oldest were off at college together, nearly 8 hours away, for their birthdays (both in September). I was missing them and wanted to do something special, so I made and sent them each a shirt and a hoodie with a relevant piece of my art on it. The oldest got one of the wave designs that came out of Inklings because I noticed he, like me, really likes “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” that inspired it. The middle son got this tree design. He has always loved trees and is pursuing environmental science and forestry in college, so I thought this was appropriate.

Between Inktober and Inktober 52, I wound up referencing my eventually-to-be-completed graphic novel “Revery” quite a few times. Maybe it was the concept illustration I did earlier in the year so I had it on my mind, but it’s the first time in a very long time I had drawn some of the characters and environments from that unfinished story. Even though none of them are actual scenes or moments from it, I still consider each of the pieces to be sort of concept art, as I was able to start working out some design ideas, develop the appearance of some characters and critters, and explore my world a little bit.

This was the last Inktober 52 prompt I did before regular Inktober started. Apparently the prompts overlap, but I ended up doing a separate illustration for each challenge in the end, partially because I’m thinking ahead to future editions of Inklings, and partially because I have problems.

See? Same prompt, different illustration, but still in the world of “Revery”. I liked the action of this one, but I’m not entirely happy with my rendering on some of the background stuff. It’s tough because I still haven’t fully figured out what some of it should actually look like.

Normally I reference things that have influenced me, or I come up with an interpretation for the prompt that is as absurd as I can make it. A little less frequently I either have PMD wearing something I have made in the real world or things I plan to make in the near future. I have made several bags and wool coats and capes and things, but I’m always working towards a more “perfect” and functional design for them. I really want to try needle felting some wool designs into some upcoming wool coat projects. I also want to carve a cool walking stick.

With all the Inktober illustrations I’ve done over the years, this was somehow the first time I referenced my favorite graphic novel: “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind”. It’s very much the kind of dense, epic tale I hope to tell some day.

Say it with me now: “tedious, but fun!”

Despite the glaring (to me) mistake in this illustration, I really like the way it turned out. Another “scene” (but not really) from “Revery”.

Future PMD merch idea for when we become super famous? These fake product designs always amuse me.

I have a habit of hyper-focusing on details. I’ve been working really hard to be more deliberate with how I convey those details, particularly textures, without making things really “muddy” and “unreadable”. One tactic I’m trying to remember is to only draw the textures in the shadow areas, which essentially does double duty as shadow and texture.

Something else I don’t do often enough is commit to filling in areas with solid black. I don’t entirely understand my hang-up with it, other than having it obscure some of the detailed contour work I like doing. It’s sure a lot faster (and sometimes more powerful) than filling in large areas with hatch marks.

I like this one simply because of the sign taped to the mic stand. That concept amuses me more than it probably should.

I also got to work on the family holiday card WAY ahead of schedule compared to previous years. Part of that was planning, part of that was because for the first time in over a decade I didn’t film a video submission for the American Ninja Warrior contest. Despite being plagued with joint issues all year, I still intended to enter (I’ve only missed one or two for injury or a kid being born since the contest started in 2007ish), but they did something weird this year and filmed this season AND next season at the same time. There was no open entry in 2023 for the 2024 season, which stinks.

After the card, I finally finished this UFO Cat shirt design for my youngest son based off of a drawing he did when he was little. He had handed me that drawing back then and said I should make a shirt like that. I have always intended to, but life kept getting in the way. Better late than never, or so I’ve heard.

Once the holiday cards came back from the printer, I jumped on my annual envelope art, which I also managed to complete in record time. You can see all of them in the gallery or on any of my social media presences.

I always try to channel Bill Watterson when I draw snow. Maybe someday I’ll get it right.

With the cards and envelopes done and mailed, it was time to catch up on Inktober 52. My goal was to finish on time, but I knew because of holiday travels I’d likely be finishing the last one during the first week of 2024 (and I was right). I think this particular illustration is one of my favorites from the whole year. It’s simple, but I like the way the composition worked out, I like the characters, I’m happy with my rendering of Hobbes, and I enjoyed getting to work on my gullrays, developing their designs a little bit more.

This one just amuses me. Trying to make The Multi-Purpose Novelty Squid look grouchy was challenging, but fun.

Another ambitious Studio Ghibli reference. Once again, “tedious but fun”! In hindsight, there are probably some compositional changes I could have made to highlight the figures better, I could have adjusted the way I laid out the tones. But, all in all, I like it.

I didn’t have time to get the last prompt of Inktober 52 done (but I did manage to mostly finish the pencils on it) while it was still 2023, but I got #51 done before the end of the year. This was my last piece of art of the year, and it was another labor intensive illustration where I was really trying to be better with the way I placed the tones and textures in the composition to direct the viewer’s focus better. I’m still learning.

Phew. I made it to the end. As I said, there was a lot of art to sift through and figure out when I actually did it so that this post had some semblance of a timeline. It was hard to choose what art to post and what not to, but it’s a pretty good feeling to have that problem. I have had too many years in my life where I have barely generated any art, years that worsened my self-esteem and confidence. I didn’t feel right referring to myself as an “artist” for a long time, and truthfully sometimes I still don’t (at this point, that’s more related to my hang-ups with not having the time to promote myself and therefore not making any money off my work. Money and art shouldn’t be connected at all, but they are in my mind a little bit because I view it as justification for the time I spend and validation of what I do. That’s probably not a good thing). I still feel like I can do more. I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, but I have started listing out studio goals each year. They are usually intentionally overly ambitious (in an attempt to head off my between-project limbo issues) and tend to roll into the next year. 2024 is no different. I have a lot of plans for this year. I have several projects I want to attempt to juggle, and some of them have been a long time coming. It’s exciting to me finally to work on them. This first week has been a bit of a bust with getting kids to appointments and other obligations (this post has taken me all week to put together because I haven’t been able to get into my studio as much. The only actual art I made time for was the last Inktober 52 prompt), but I have my plans ready. Inktober 52 2024 just started, so I’ll be working on staying on top of that while embarking on some of the other projects. I also want to squeeze in some sewing projects to start out the year, because they’ve been on my mind for over a year now and they are distracting me.

That’s that then. If you read this far, I appreciate you! Thank you for the support, and I hope my art and ramblings continue to entertain you in 2024!