I Went To Bolivia To Become A Better Illustrator, And It Worked

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Life can zip by pretty fast sometimes. Between work, family, social commitments, and the infinite responsibilities of modern life, it can be really easy to get caught up in the daily grind and lose focus on your passion.

Being an illustrator is my part time job and full time calling. Comics are like my native language- the medium is my favorite way to express my thoughts and feelings. When I've got a story to tell, I like to draw it.

I love that illustration is a symphony of skills working together: sketching, inking, coloring, storytelling; technical skills and emotional skills; careful planning and intuitive decision making. They are all skills that I can practice, explore, and strive to master individually as well as in concert.

So when my wife suggested we spend a few months in her home country of Bolivia, I jumped at an opportunity to take a sabbatical from the daily grind and focus on my art.

We got all of our ducks in a row pretty quickly. My day job let me take a 3 month leave of absence. We found an apartment on AirBnB just a few blocks from where she grew up in La Paz. We told our friends and family we were coming and started packing.

For me, that meant a few pairs of jeans, a couple of tee shirts, and anything I could use to make marks on paper. More than half of my luggage was art supplies!

Captain Bolivia

We got to La Paz and I had a whole new world to explore.

I spent the first few days just wandering around the neighborhood, getting to know the local merchants, and periodically getting chased by street dogs. There are a lot of street dogs in La Paz. Many of them are nice, some are a bit too nice, but about 10% of them are total assholes.

I got settled into my surroundings, started to figure out which dogs bite, and got ready to tackle my #1 goal: to focus on my craft and become a better artist.

Bolivian cholita

My sabbatical felt like a good opportunity to flex the ol’ brain muscles a bit with an online illustration class.

Since my crusty old formal education wrapped up, I’ve periodically enjoyed taking online classes. I poked around the web and found a class called “Comics: Art In Relationship” through Kadenze.com.

The platform is very easy to use and it does a great job of making you feel connected to the teacher as well as to the rest of the class, while also allowing a doodle-brain like me to work at my own pace.

I’ve always loved to learn, but never thrived in a traditional classroom setting.

Like many artists, I was easily distracted and pre-occupied in my own world. My notebooks were always rich with art and barren of actual notes.

The class was full of illustrators of all levels from all over the world. Every few days, the instructor would post a new lesson which we could watch any time. Each lesson would come with an assignment, and we would post our completed work to a communal board to get feedback from our classmates. It felt great to connect with so many people who were on the same path.

Even from that distant land deep in the Andes mountains, I had a community of people who got it. Out on the streets of La Paz, I tumbled and stumbled through conversational Spanish. But in this little online enclave, I was with people who spoke my native language- illustration!

For one of our assignments, the instructor sent out a few pages which had blank comic book panels laid out on them. Our assignment was to fill in the panels with a story. It was a really simple tool, but this wound up being a huge breakthrough for me.

I printed out 2 pre-paneled pages and tucked them into my sketchbook. Over the next few days, I played around with ideas and found a story to tell. My story, naturally. The one that I was in at that very moment. The one I’m telling you now.

I found the beats and worked out a script. I scribbled fast and nasty with my pencil, the trusty and durable Pentel Graph Gear 1000 Mechanical Drafting Pencil 0.7mm Blue (PG1017), the Mercedes Benz of mechanical pencils. I worked my eraser down to a dusty nub, too.

Bo Livin

Bo Livin

Then I hit it with my Sakura Micron Pens. I tend to work a real simple routine with the 005, 01, 03, 05, and 08.

Before I could finish the piece, I had to imbue it with magical power. I took it with me to a traditional Bolivian barbecue hosted by my tia and tio, who are both huge illustration fans. I promised them the piece as a gift once it is finished. I’m going to bring it back down to them on my next trip. Now it has a purpose, a destiny, and a will of its own. Like most Bolivian things, it is full of magic.

We left Bolivia after 3 great months. I left most of my art supplies behind with local artists and friends, because they are making magic down there and that stuff is heavy.

I never travel without my sketchbook and a pencil at my reach, though. I had a few pre-paneled pages in my carry-on luggage and I doodled out stories on them for the whole flight home.

I could feel scripts falling right into the panels for comic after comic. They were travelogues from our trip, or philosophical little diary entries, or sometimes just the fight scene between Wolverine and Rick Sanchez that was playing out in my head at the moment.

I realized then that I had unlocked this new skill, and that it was within my power to exercise it. 

By starting a page with blank panels and filling in the comic, I trained my brain to look for the beats of the story and massage them onto the page. This simple practice created a huge shift in perspective for me, and I was eager to dig deeper into it.

Suddenly, I imagined an entire sketchbook which had blank comic book panels pre-printed on the pages.

It could have different layouts on every page, with some of the most common comic book page layouts as well as some that are a bit more inventive.

It seemed so obvious to me that I felt it had to exist somewhere. I searched online and in the aisles of every art supply store I could find, but it wasn't there. That's when I decided to make it myself.

It turns out, that little piece of illustration picked up a lot of magic at that barbecue, because it inspired me to design and create the SeqArt sketchbook.

It’s been a little over a year since that trip. I designed the SeqArt from the ground up after researching a vast library of comics, as well as field testing page templates with my inspiring community of artists.

That trip to Bolivia was so important to the origins of the SeqArt sketchbook that I decided I had to put it on the cover. That's how the view of Illimani (a sacred mountain peak) overlooking La Paz (the capitol city of Bolivia... or one of them, anyways, it's kind of a long story) wound up on the front of the SeqArt!

SeqArt cover

I’ve blogged this piece and shared it all over my social media a million times, so I figured if I was going to write another blog about it, it’s probably about time to color it.

I did all of the color with a beautiful set of 72 Prismacolor Colored Pencils that were a wonderful Christmas gift. I picked up one of these handy little cases to carry them around and it was well worth the investment. 

SeqArt Bo LivinSeqArt Bolivia comic

I'll have my SeqArt sketchbook with me for my next trip to Bolivia.

The wife and I are hoping to make a return trip soon, and I'll be able to pack much more efficiently. All I need is my pencil, some pens, a little color, and my SeqArt.

I'll bring a lot of new skills with me as well. Lately, I've been filling pages in my SeqArt faster than I ever expected. With each page I finish, I can feel myself getting better as an illustrator and storyteller. I keep finding new tricks, techniques, ideas, possibilities... that's just what practice will do for you I guess!

Subscribe to my newsletter and you can watch all of the illustrations in my SeqArt develop in real time, plus I'll send you special deals and offers to say THANKS for supporting this project and being a part of my story!

The SeqArt sketchbook is on-sale now, and available exclusively in the GoodAtDrawing.com store!


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