Magicians and Mastery

I’m sitting here slowly re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, whose primary virtues still seem to perhaps be that it is an exceedingly lengthy telling of a tale about magicians making bad deals with the fairies. It’s early in the book – I’m barely in the second hundred pages of this awkward thousand-page paperback tome – and I’m thinking about the contrasts Clarke is making between the Raven King, the near-legendary Great English Wizard of the Past, and the awkward, bookish Mr. Norrell.

Norrell has thus far been portrayed as a man who has pretty much spent his entire life far away from the world, collecting books of magic spells. As the book opens we see him starting to step out into the real world and perform spells. The Raven King, on the other hand, would do things like hop on a horse and lead an army into battle, slinging spells left and right.

And something about this is resonating in the back of my head.


This morning, I flipped through the usual set of Internet distractions on the tablet. One of them tends to be the Adobe Illustrator subreddit, where people post lots of “how do I do X” questions, and I answer some of them. Sometimes I’ll be specific and make little numbered lists of “open this palette, use this menu item” kinds of instructions, sometimes I’ll just say “I’d use x, y, and z” and maybe link to the online help pages of these features if the querent is lucky.

And sometimes I’ll do an epic reply wherein I say “there are many ways to achieve what you want, here’s short but explicit instructions for four of them, and some very brief notes on why I prefer methods 3 or 4 over 1 or 2 in my work”.

When I started doing this, it was an interesting way to push my Illustrator skills: how can I achieve this effect someone wants? And moreover, can I achieve it in a way that makes it super-easy to pick up and use in a future drawing? But I feel like I’ve seen the same questions over and over again, and perhaps I should go back over all these comments I’ve made and write them up as blog posts and/or text expansion macros. I’ve already got some of the latter for “pen tool basics” and “pencil tool basics”.

Or maybe I should stop wasting so much time hanging around that subreddit answering the same questions, and get more drawing done. That’d be nice.


There is a thought I am groping towards here about mastery of a craft, as demonstrated by the way Norrell frequently has to refer to books, while the Raven King just Does Stuff. (Which may be an example that’s invalidated over the course of the remaining nine hundred pages of this brick of paper with text infuriatingly close to the spine, ugh who the hell at Tor thought this was okay, why didn’t they split it into three 350p volumes for the paperback, but I digress.) And it’s something about the process by which people go from being Norrell with his library to the Raven King, who can just cast spells like crazy. After, of course, a long period holed up with a teacher, or a library, learning and practicing them. Eventually you have the library in you; eventually you know all twenty ways to achieve an effect because you’ve tried them all on similar problems, and you can sit around for a moment, think about how the strengths and weaknesses of each method will work with the problem at hand, then do the thing quickly and efficiently. I suppose this is what can be summed up as going from “journeyman” to “master”, which always feels like an uncomfortable thing to implicitly apply to myself.

There is also probably something here connected with my post from last week about visiting Pilchuck Glass Studio with my girlfriend, who is a relative beginner in one of the Nine Arts Of Glass. That probably boils down to “girl you should get out of the studio and figure out how to actually be sociable with people who are doing this small press comics thing if you wanna take it any further”, which, ugh, oh god, I’d have to be social at cons to do that and sitting there at a table selling my stuff all day drains all my social energy and then some, but again, I digress.


Maybe I just need to move back to LA and try working my various connections to find studio gigs, where I can hang out with other artists and work without having to organize a time and place for that. I dunno. I’m terrible at sitting in one place and working for more than an hour or two as a general rule.

Hell if I know. I’m stoned, it’s sunny out, and I’m stuck in the apartment waiting for a delivery of books I’m gonna take to VanCaf later this month. If all goes well it’ll be the first con I’m selling the Rita omnibus at.

If you were looking for a point to this blog entry, I’m afraid you’re not gonna find it here.

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