Side Projects That Ship

Photo by nancyr10Thanks to everyone who came to my session on Friday and the fine folks at WebVisions for having me! I was nervous to give my first brand-new talk since 2011 (!!), but judging from the kind responses I’ve heard from attendees, I probably could have fretted just a little less.

My slides are on Speaker Deck (embedded below) and I’ve included some additional linkage and notes in this very post.

If you missed me at WebVisions, fear not! I’m scheduled to speak at Refresh Portland next month. I’ll post more details about that soon.

Sources, links and credits

  1. Title slide is a stylized version of Detective Comics No. 38 (credited to Bob Kane).
  2. Image created by Mark Jensen based on a photograph by Matt Biddulph.
  3. Still of Bill Lumbergh from the now-classic Office Space.
  4. My source for this quote is Lifehacker.
  5. I don’t actually know which Call of Duty game this is a screenshot of.
  6. Still from Empire Strikes Back.
  7. You may recognize this rabbit from my second game.
  8. Quote taken from a 2009 interview with Drew on The Dropbox Blog.
  9. The quote is from Indie Game: The Movie, the artwork is from Super Meat Boy.
  10. The backdrop is from the website for the wonderful little Perch CMS, the quote is from Perch co-creator Rachel Andrew’s equally wonderful book.
  11. Getting Things Done by David Allen, The Pomodoro Technique by Frencesco Cirillo.
  12. Links to image sources: Sarah Parmenter, Massimo Vignelli, Matias Corea and David Gardner.
  13. This photo of Rachel is used in a lot of places, but the high-res version was found in this event description.
  14. Jack Kirby quote is from another Lifehacker article, photo by Suzy Skaar is from Wikimedia Commons.
  15. J.K. Rowling said this as part of her Harvard commencement address. Photo found on Wikimedia Commons, taken by Daniel Ogren.
  16. Screenshot of my We Draw Comics profile.
  17. Hooray for memes in HD!
  18. I hope I don’t have to tell you who these four are.
  19. Photo taken by Kent Derek.
  20. This quote is from A Man Without a Country, the illustration is Vonnegut’s rather famous signature.
  21. Closing slide is a stylized version of Star Spangled Comics No. 65. As near as I can tell, the cover art is credited to Win Mortimer.

I’m grateful for these lovely icons from The Noun Project, available for free under a Creative Commons Attribution license:

Typefaces used are the same as my website, Depot New Condensed and Source Sans Pro. Occasional bits of cartoony text are in Comicraft’s Scott McCloud face.

This Friday: “Side Projects That Ship” at WebVisions Portland

This week at WebVisions Portland, I’ll be giving a brand-new talk called Side Projects That Ship:

Starting a side project is easy. Finishing one? That’s a whole lot tougher. Is there a secret to being prolific part-time? What separates the countless projects languishing on hard drives from the few that see the light of day? In this dynamic session, you’ll learn how to identify your best ideas, focus on the right goals, eliminate cruft and maintain your interest level so you can complete your labor of love without losing sleep, your job or your mind.

I’m currently scheduled for Friday, May 9 at 1:15pm. I hope you’ll join me for a fun and frank discussion of what it takes to finish our passion projects!

The day before, I’ll be appearing at OMSI with my Backabit cohort Tim Sears for Play/Interact, an event celebrating Oregon digital creativity. We’ll be showing Lotsa Blocks, Ramps and a very early prototype we’ve never shown publicly. The event is free with the price of museum admission, see OMSI’s event page for more info.

Robot Masters Collab: Plug Man

After having so much fun drawing that fin piranha, I decided to go ahead and join Justin Hill’s Robot Master Collab. Robot Masters are the bosses in the Mega Man series of games. Some are really cool, some are pretty quirky, but they’re all really fun and creative.

Colin Abel beat me to my first choice (Magnet Man), but I consider that something of a “happy accident,” since it meant I got to draw Plug Man… a quirkier character probably better suited to my style.


I work at Cloud Four, home of the Mobile Portland Device Lab, so inspiration wasn’t an issue. He had to be waiting for his phone to charge.

One of the benefits of sketching with a tablet is that you can create new layers for certain portions of your sketch and adjust them as needed. In this case, the character’s arm was giving me some trouble, so I started sketching on a separate layer and used purple (instead of the usual blue) so that portion would be visible without erasing whatever’s beneath.


One challenge with drawing cartoony robots is to strike the right balance of precision and character. If your lines are too wobbly, it won’t feel mechanical. If your lines are too stiff, it won’t feel expressive. Instead of relying on the steadiness of my hand, I used three simple tricks to help maintain that balance:

  • I used the Rotate View Tool to make sure I was always drawing at a comfortable angle. This helped steady some of my lines a tad.
  • I held down shift while drawing straight lines. (Totally cheating, I know!)
  • For things like the power prongs that come in pairs, I would draw one, then make a copy and re-draw portions of it so it wouldn’t look xeroxed.


When I can, I like to avoid simply color-matching the source material (unless I’m trying to do a really literal homage to the original game sprites or something like that). I chose a more blue-based gray and saturated fuchsia, which I thought would compliment the chunky lines better.

Final Touches

I think it’s fun how the robot masters are typically rendered kind of like they’re made out of plastic rather than chrome, so I maintained that simplicity in my shadows and highlights. I felt the previous version of the word balloon and battery indicator competed too much with the figure, so I changed it to something closer to the original sketch.

You can see the finished collaboration here. (My favorite piece is definitely Frog Man by Eric Kubli.)

Zelda Collab: Fin Piranha

Lately I’ve been seeing more and more artists I follow on Twitter participating in some gloriously geeky collaborations. One example is Mario Collab, where each artist draws a unique character from Nintendo’s wonderful and enduring flagship franchise.

I thought it might be fun to join in, but the Mario project was too far along. Then my pal Colter let me know about a similar Zelda-themed collaboration that Dan Jones was organizing, which seemed like a wonderful jumping-on point.


Anyone who’s played the first world of Ramps knows I have a soft spot for piranha-based enemies in video games (I blame Chopper and Masher). So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that I chose the Fin Piranha when picking an enemy for the Zelda Collab. (It also helped that I recently beat Oracle of Seasons.)

I wanted my drawing to be free of the restraint of pixel art without losing the inherent simplicity of the character design.

I’ve been told my sketches are really loose. I like to get my ideas out quickly, and I find that the inking stage holds my interest better when my pencils aren’t very refined. Otherwise it can feel like I’m tracing my own artwork!


Colter gave me some feedback that the squarish tail fin in the sketch was working against the motion of the piranha jumping out of the pool. I agreed, so I made the fin shape more stylized and kinetic.

At first I thought that the rocky “exoskeleton” of the top half of the fish might feel too similar to the smooth underbelly. I changed my inking style between the two halves to try to convey the difference in texture more clearly. The eye got a bit more furrowed and angry in the process.


After filling in the major areas with color, I like to go in and color the line work, too. Maybe it counteracts the inherent falseness of objects rendered with lines (see this interview with the amazing Bernie Wrightson), maybe it softens the unnatural harshness of pure RGB black on-screen, or maybe it just obscures some of the drawing’s imperfections.

I held off on finishing any of the pool until the rest of the image was finished. I don’t remember exactly why… I think maybe I was nervous about getting it too far along only to have it steal focus from the piranha.

Final Touches

Here’s the final image (original tweet here). I added some highlights and shading, finished the pool and added my Twitter handle (standard for this sort of collaboration).

This was a lot of fun, especially when you get to see what other talented artists cook up, too. I did a few more before ringing in the New Year… but those will have to wait for another post.

Christmas tag toons

This year, I pre-made Christmas gift tags using my trusty Wacom Intuos tablet and some Avery shipping labels (I still addressed the tags by hand with Prismacolor markers):

Santa ClauseSnowmanRudolph the red-nosed reindeergingerbread manelfpenguin

Mal and I thought my brother Tim deserved an extra-special tag, so I also drew Belsnickel:

Be you impish or admirable?