I’ve always had a thing for amphibians and often post about them on Facebook. For most of my life I’ve raised newts, frogs, salamanders and toads. But this koi pond will be the largest expansion of my amphibian sanctuary dreams.

Below is a picture of my backyard as I started to plan out the koi pond. Our family put in all of the tile last year, so I already gained some experience with cutting stone and doing a little cement work. This area was either going to be a garden or a pond and I went with a pond. Little did I know that what I thought would take two weeks would become a monster month-and-a-half epic project!

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I started with online research. I interviewed every koi pond owner who wanted to talk about it, and like bee keeping, koi pond owners are a cult unto themselves. They share techniques on water flow, algae control and plant choices. Everyone has an opinion and they are informed by experience. I gained knowledge by watching hours and hours of professional koi pond builders.

May 10th, 2018 I was on the brink of breaking ground. I decided to document each step of building my pond and here is the first entry:

Planning the koi pond on paper

 

I think by sketching. That’s just how my works after drawing my whole life.

 

 

I draw step by step illustrations to make the physics work in my mind. Here is a sketch I doodled in charcoal showing how the tile steps down to an inner shelf, covered in black plastic liner then covered in rocks:
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There is a retaining wall in the backyard and the plan was to have the waterfall flow over the wall, but the wall was too high. I decided to rent a jackhammer and bust down part of the wall. I had to do this first because I didn’t want to blast cement everywhere after the pond was built. Of course, I later scrapped this waterfall design and wouldn’t need to tear down the wall.

This is a clip of an air-hammer:

Breaking the Wall. Jackhammer rental.

I found that it didn’t work very well so I rented a 75 pound jackhammer to actually tear the wall apart.

My friend Beau and I did a lot of cement work, blocking in walls, building a stone staircase, and laying the cinderblock edge of the pond.

Here is the first attempt at the waterfall. I had two pre-formed pools that would spill into each other before dropping down into the main pond.
I lined some of the pond with cinderblock and used old cement scraps to build up an island. I ended up ripping most of this out.
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I contracted a plumber to put in a water line so the pond could auto-fill if the level got too low. This keeps the pump from drying and burning out if we’re on vacation and the heat evaporates a ton of water. I used the ditch the plumber dug to also run an overflow drain from where the pump would be down to my rain gutter line that moves the water off my property and down to the street gutter.

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I tried to dig out the pond by shovel and the ground was full of rocks and clay. After a week of digging I barely got a foot deep and I was aiming to go at least three feet deep. I realized my hand digging efforts weren’t going to work.

The Ground Is too Hard!

So I rented a back hoe. Now, I’ve never built a koi pond and am not super handy with tools. Not naturally, anyway. So over the years I’ve done so many do-it-yourself projects that I’ve grown more confident. But renting a back hoe topped all of my equipment rentals! This is the smallest back hoe I could find.
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Once I got the hang of digging with a big machine, it came pretty easy. I scooped out a month’s worth of digging in about three hours.

Running the Back Hoe!

I wasn’t the only one who was terrified…

Back Hoe BUNNY!

As I scooped out the soil and clay I exposed an old, broken sprinkler system that hadn’t worked in five years.

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The hole was dug, and I cleaned up the edges making sure there was an outer ledge for tile and and inner ledge where I would pile up rocks to help carry the weight of the edging stone where people could stand.

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I ordered the liner from a local plumbing and drain shop. The guy who worked the counter was helpful as he was known locally as “the pond guy.” He became my Ben Kenobi. I got my kids to help roll the 1,000 pounds of plastic over the empty hole. We added a little water to the bottom so the weight of the liquid naturally pushes the liner out to where it needs to be. The edges are secured by dropping a few rocks along the waterline at each stage which helps remove wrinkles.
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By the first evening the kids decided I shouldn’t build a koi pond… they wanted a swimming pool! We checked the liner for  any sharp stones coming up from underneath. I started trimming the edges of the liner just so it was easier to manage. I also redesigned the waterfall by pulling the prefabricated tubs out and stacking a cascade of giant slab rock.

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The edges were made up of huge slabs of field stone that overlap the liner and are cemented to pre-existing tile. I got the waterfall flowing after installing the pump where I learned a little bit about plumbing. This was the first time I did a lot of PVC cutting and gluing. There were leaks, I’d have to rip it out and do it all over again. The waterfall leaked so I put on more cement, it would crack again and leak again. I covered it in a poly-sealer and it would still leak. I finally ripped it all out and laid black liner over the waterfall and covered that with rock. Then it finally stopped leaking.

I got so excited with the progress of the pond and the pump working that I bought some junker goldfish and some plants to experiment with what would best survive.

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Once the pond was done, I could hardly believe it. I cleaned up my tools and repaired the yard. There is still a lot more gardening work to do around the pond, but that’s for another day.

Clip of the finished pond

Oh, and what about the amphibian sanctuary? A bunch of tree frogs have already moved in. They sing every night and have laid hundreds of eggs in the pond… most of which are eaten by my fish!I caught a pic of this female croaking one night:

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If you ever want to build a koi pond I say “go for it!” But I would also recommend starting on a much smaller pond, because you really can make a 4 foot pond look amazing. But I’m happy with mine and look forward to spend my time buffing it out instead of hauling rocks and driving back hoes.

Building a koi pond is not an exercise in landscaping, it’s just another art medium. I considered aesthetics, composition, flow of line, appeal, contrast and a host of other design elements but instead of using paint, I’m using natural rock, cement, plumbing and fish. It’s like grabbing little gobs of nature and sculpting with life. It’s not nature, it’s my tribute to nature. In the end that’s what I do in comics, animation and painting… not actual nature but my tribute to life and to God who made it. As Tolkien said we are sub creators.

Koi Pond Update with plants!

One of the most difficult environments to create is one where amphibians reproduce. A universal sign of environmental flourishing is the presence of amphibians, because you have to get both land and water right for them to reproduce. Last night I found a clutch of tree frog eggs in my water plants and I had a sense of satisfaction:

Proof of Life

As I explore other forms of art, everything I learned from other mediums comes into play. Most of my formal design rules came from a single Introduction to Design class I took in college in 1984. As I read the Illusion of Life I saw how many of those principles were operating in Disney animation. I continue to remain the forever student and in offering these teaching videos, I’m only giving back what others gave to me.

Here is a smattering of links about me if you want more information:

For an overview of my career click here.

I don’t make koi ponds for a living, I make comics! You should check them out.
Check out my 16 graphic novels at Amazon

While this is my more personal website, you might want to read more about my usual art here:
More of my articles on my professional website.

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This is just a reminder that I’ll be going over some basic cartoon body types today on my Youtube channel. There should be a number of Earthworm Jim bodies from different angles and I don’t just show you how, but I’ll tell you why these cartoon principles always work.

Come join my youtube channel by clicking here!

It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it.

I get more than my share of attention for making books, a successful Kickstarter and art… but I almost never accomplish these things alone. I’m not just talking about the incredibly talented crews I’ve worked with, but the people who have nothing to do with my projects that made me into the person I am.

There was a critical period in my life as an artist when I went to college from 1984-1988 where I made the biggest leaps in becoming both a consistent drawer and a stable man with his feet firmly planted on the ground. I met my wife in 1988, but even before she came along, I met “the guys”. Here’s a picture of some of us below:
10398814_8806838847_205_n.jpgThat towering, long-haired giant in the middle is me in the middle of the guys when we took a camping trip to Death Valley somewhere around 1991. I weight 30 pounds less that I do now, and I was trying to make it as a struggling illustrator in San Diego. I know I’m not alone in saying this, but something in me always felt broken. It’s like no matter how happy I was there was this nagging sense that other people weren’t like me. This sentiment is most commonly found among teen-agers, but I didn’t grow up very fast so that feeling lingered longer in me than in most people I see. But my guy friends made me feel normal, or I should say acceptable. It was the most powerful feeling to finally think I could hold my head up among other normal people. Now it’s been thirty years since I’ve met these guys and we still get together once a year and I never feel more at ease or normal than when I’m around them. This was a foundation that gave me strength to take risks, one of the most important attributes of my career.

On the left is Mark Lorenzen, easily the smartest person I’ve ever known. He is a brilliant artist, computer programmer, musician, writer and builder of things… weird things. He invented a number of instruments including one featuring a bicycle wheel. We spent a lot of time together talking about girls-God-philosophy, drawing, making bad puns and repeating obscure commercial jingles and H.R. Puff-N-Stuff episodes. He joined me on Earthworm Jim 2 and later we made The Neverhood game together.

To the right up top is Dale Lawrence, who later helped write The Neverhood Chronicles. Sure, he works for the phone company now, but he’s the best writer I’ve read. We took a creative writing course together in college and his essays were the best. He just slays! As loud and rude as I am Dale is gentle and calm. In a group of guys you need some people who represent peace, and that’s Dale. To be with him is to lower your heart rate. When he speaks, I always listen because he usually has something deep and introspective to say.

The guy below him in the cowboy hat on the right is Clark Williams… my first roommate out of college. He’s a biologist and maintains the same salt water tank to this day that he started when we roomed together 30 years ago! He currently clones the foreskin of a dead guy to create sheets of skin to use for burn victims. We butt heads a lot because he’s probably the most like me in temperament. That means a lot of sparks fly between us but we have the deepest of affection for each other too. While all of the guys are types of brothers to me Clark is my most brotherest.

Down on the lower right is Joe Potter, the best man I’ve ever met to such a degree that he was the best man in my wedding. We were college art majors together and he became a graphic designer in Shawnee, Kansas. When I first met him he would put together these pathetic heavy metal bands and write songs to record on cassettes to give to his friends. It wasn’t unlike what I do with my zines or smaller projects. It wasn’t about making money, it was about making art. And of course, he mostly recorded a whole album just so he could make the album art. Joe is a man full of love, he ponders the Bible and tries to apply it to his daily life. Oh, and though we used to play Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun in 1998, we found it online a few months ago and play each other three games a day: one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

Laying on the ground at my feet is Darren Bowler, a fiery red-headed artistic madman. The “artistic temperament” went so deep into Darren that his art ate him. He’d make these giant installations, intricate paintings of giant chickens in hell (his nickname was “Fire Chicken”), wrapped up dead cats and staged his own fake hanging. For graduation a tower of propane fire blew out of the top of his black graduation square hat! His public art and secret campus graffiti was like Banksy before Banksy… which makes him a Basquiat. He left the arts and became a pest control guy then worked for the railroad and ended up a competent family man. Being a family man is the truest form of art I can think of.

Down on the lower left is Dave King, a naturalist and environmentalist who counts animals in the desert to shut down building projects. That’s probably saying it a bit too bluntly, but Dave knows how man tortoises are in a fifteen mile square radius because he drove across the whole thing and lived in a tent until he counted every one of them. To observe nature for hours is to know the land better than anyone else. He’s quiet. Among all of us, I’m sure Dave has spoken the least amount of words and listened to others the most. Like an angel, he pops into our group, then vanishes in the morning. He invents words what we call mutations. It’s hard to describe, but if Dave brings a word or saying to the group it tends to stick. He starting calling us all “Jim” when he imitated Star Trek’s doctor Bones correcting Captain Kirk. Soon we all just called each other Jim. It’s no wonder that the first cartoon character I made would be named Jim.

To conclude I’ll say that this artist wouldn’t fly as high as I do without the support of real people behind me. My parents, my wife, my friends are under me, holding me up. While it’s hard to imagine my life without art, the lights would truly go out when I imagine my life without the guys. Here’s to 34 years of faithfulness and comradeship.

I have been making these free facebook posts that contain the basics on the kinds of work I do in my studio. Some of you are looking for how to make art, some are looking for writing tips, some want to combine both and make graphic novels. Here are a number of different live sessions I posted on my Facebook page (they are public so you don’t have to click “like” to see them:

This is my last writing session I did. If you think writing is like watching paint dry you’d be right. It’s about as dramatic as a brick wall, but I’ve never seen a writer actually write something live so I thought I’d be the first.

Writing live on Facebook in case you want to watch.

Here is a tutorial on watercoloring foreground characters. These are just watercolor basics.

Watercoloring foreground characters

This video shows the layering I do to achieve pink worm-flesh for Earthworm Jim.

Watercoloring Earthworm Jim

I use an ink and brush in my comics when I’m not using a Cintique. This is a demonstration I did while inking commissions for my Kickstarter. The one after is about penciling art which I do before I ink it:

Inking a character tutorial.

Pencil Hall of Records from the Neverhood

Ever wonder how I digitally letter my comic books in Photoshop? It’s all right here.

Lettering comic pages!

Just for contrast, this is what it’s like when I ink my comics on a Cintiq:

Inking on a Cintique

These videos aren’t supposed to be super-tight, they’re kind of basic and conversational. If I spent the time it would take to properly light things, use a professional mic and edit them I probably would choose just to not make them. Please pass these along to your pals if they’re reluctant to start and just need a little demonstration to get going!

5 Books That Changed Me

March 23, 2018

  1. The Bible by God
    What if the creator of the universe had something to say to His creation and put it down in a book for us all to read? That would be some book. It would have to cover creation, explain man’s great problem with our nature, offer a solution via salvation and speak of the big ending where the universe is brought to a point of ultimate peace. The only book that can make that claim is The Bible. The more I read the Bible, the more I’m convinced of its high stature among all books. To read it is to witness an epic collection of wisdom that must have come from beyond the human hands that rendered it. No other book has changed western civilization like the Bible. I’ve read broadly on its defenders and its critics and it is the standard by which we argue theology today, as it would if it were divinely inspired. How controversial would an exhaustive book about the existence of unicorns be? Not very. But bring up the Bible and discussions erupt, rightly so.
  2. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
    I read this book after becoming a fan of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and their arguments point back to this earlier source. Chesterton was simply the most influential Christian writer of the last century and nearly all of his 10,000 articles are more relevant today than the day he wrote them. That’s a sign of wisdom, when a thinker can transcend his times to reflect on what is eternally true. Chesterton has a wit that has garnered a generation of fans from Orson Welles to Ian Flemming. To read him is to be both charmed and blown away as Chesterton makes sure you are lost right up until the final sentence of the chapter where everything clicks into place. His primary goal is to re-ignite wonder in a world that is bored with the miraculous.
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl
    Why did some survivors of the Holocaust choose to die while others chose to live? What can one do with one’s own suffering? These two questions are pondered by Frankl who survived the Holocaust. He faced starvation, betrayal and visited his fellow suffering inmates as each person made choices under the greatest stress a man can endure. His unique take on the ordeal flushes out Nazi guards who acted with compassion and fellow Jewish inmates who betrayed their fellow prisoners. His most important message is that while we can’t control when our freedom is stolen by others, they cannot dictate our response.
  4. Planet Narnia by Dr. Michael Ward
    As an author, I’ve read most of C.S. Lewis’ works, but one lone man might just have solved the greatest mystery of modern western lit. Dr. Ward proposes that The Chronicles of Narnia was not a simple, formulaic allegory of the gospel story but a complex, medieval structure that pays tribute to the cosmos. He unpacks most of C.S. Lewis’ writings to reveal an author who gave a million mile view of life by using Jupiter, the moon, Mercury, the sun etc. to tell his simple children’s fable. Ward posits that if Narnia was a true allegory, then why would Father Christmas show up as winter turns to spring? There would be no “Christmas” in Narnia, as Christ is depicted as the lion known as Aslan. They would have Aslanmas, but not Christmas in Narnia. But if The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was using Jupiter as a template, then Father Christmas would be the perfect carrier of a jovial spirit, Jove being of the words used in medieval literature to describe Jupiter. This book changed me as a story-teller because I was made aware of building a universe using atmosphere, not allegory.
  5. The Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas
    Okay, it was between this or Moby Dick, but I assume most people already know about Melville’s masterpiece while few have tried cracking the Summa. Aquinas was a logician who became a man of faith and wondered if the two disciplines could be harmonized. Was the Bible also rational? He set out to write an exhaustive tome that covers a broad list of topics from animals to the beginning of the universe and asks questions, offers his answers then challenges his own arguments. The book is the toughest slog you’ll ever endure but it is a meticulous search for truth, and that is always to be admired.
    Go to my Goodreads Page

Imagine me as a young artist living in the rural town of Denair California, population 2600 and wanting to be an artist. There were no art jobs to be found, and I didn’t have the knowledge of even art jobs available in the town next door. I didn’t know about the mass of graphics needed in advertising or put any thought to illustrators of books. Those seemed to be done by other people in far away lands. I knew about comic strips, because I read them in the daily newspaper (the only part of the paper I read). I applied to be a grill cook at the McDonald’s in Turlock and there were 120 applicants for the one opening I didn’t get. Those were tough times to be an artist.

Fast forward to the internet age. This world-connecting tool allowed any artist to post anything to anyone in any location. It’s the most powerful communication tool ever. I think back to the days when I would submit my comics to national newspaper syndicates and I’d camp at the mailbox to collect rejection letters. There were gate keepers at every art job in the world that the internet circumvented. When Kickstarter was invented, it not only opened up the communication between artist and audience, it opened up commerce. It is the ultimate free-market by asking donors to contribute to art projects and if the donors don’t show up you get no dough. I like that. It’s honest.

I put together a Kickstarter to paint 100 small 2.5″ x 3.5″ watercolor paintings of my most popular characters for a minimum raise of $3,000. I figured it would be a small campaign I could knock out between graphic novel projects. But the project blew up and I raised over $29,000 to make 600 paintings with an additional 300 sketches… and I had just under two months to do them.
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This is a mass-media artist’s dream come true. It’s a level of independence I couldn’t dream of in my youth as a struggling artist. What’s better, is that artists in rural areas could pull this off, that kid in a small farm town can now find an audience and get paid to make what he or she loves. Kickstarter raises through volunteers what the National Endowment of the Arts could only dream of. It’s one of the most powerful, creator-friendly inventions in modernity.

One of the things this Kickstarter opened up was my own teaching channel, a way to give back to beginning artists who might just need to see someone do it before they give it a try. Here is one for drawing:
This is a pencil demo.

I just keep thinking, if I could have seen Jim Davis draw a Garfield comic, I might have learned a few tricks. Given I made 600 watercolor paintings, I passed on a technique of “wet on wet” I used on nearly every art work for the campaign. It’s a simple trick that gives fast, dramatic results. The float and movement of watercolor is very different from my pixel art I did for video games and I like that. Take a look at this:
Watercolor Tutorial

The biggest challenge with painting 600 works of art is to keep them from looking like copies of each other, but the donor is expecting my painting to look pretty much like the ideal piece I promised I would get. Watercolor is a difficult medium to control, in fact, using its chaotic movement of color should be part of the strength of the piece. To pull off that mass amount of paintings I had to do in a day, I would lay out ten blank pieces of paper at a time, pencil ten faces, ink ten faces, erase the pencils on ten faces, watercolor the back grounds on ten faces, etc. After those ten pieces were finished, I’d lay out another ten blank pieces of paper and repeat the process until I was able to do about 20 paintings a day. Not a bad pace for an old man.

For more art tutorials click here for my Vimeo channel.

I also do live demonstrations on my Facebook page.

Live demonstrations here.

Inking Black Panther

February 20, 2018

When I see super-hero movies, I get inspired to take my own shot at the material. This is an awkward inking session, lots wrong with this piece, but you can see the step by step of how I drew this on my Facebook page here:
Click Here to see how I inked Black Panther!
Black Panther is one of those characters I remember from my comic collection when I was in the 8th grade (1980!). All of us guys loved the look of Black Panther, he was tough, mysterious and regal.
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