Gabi Mara, the creator of indie komiks Lore and Life on a Plate, currently works as a freelance artist. Her team, Comic Dojo, placed 3rd in the highest sales of Komikon 2016 Indie Tiangge. Gabi is also the illustrator of a number of children’s books, including Pages (written by Javier T. Delfin, published by Bookmark Inc.), which was nominated for Kid’s Choice Award back in the 2014 National Children’s Book Award Ceremony, and, more recently, Cave Dweller, written by Didith T. Rodrigo. Besides children’s books, she is also the illustrator for Joselito D. Delos Reyes’s books: iStatus Nation, Titser Pangkalawkan, and Troya. She loves to cook, read, and watch video game playthroughs on YouTube. You can follow Gabi and her amazing work on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Artstation, and Tumblr.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
I started really young. I think I have an evidence photo from when I was three years old: sprawled on the floor, doodling on a grade 1-3 pad with a thick black pencil. My family keeps saying I was born to draw, since my mom saw how, out of all the things given to me as a toddler, it was a pencil that I didn’t let go of. It was like breathing to me or learning how to walk and talk.
Although “realizing” it as in aspiring to be one? Hmmm…
It took a couple of years before it was a solid idea. All I know is I wanted my drawings to look better and I was thirsty to learn. I even recall that time, in my pre-school graduation, how I announced on the mic that I wanted to be an “artist”. I was only 5 years old and right after the ceremony I kept wondering what that meant and what about being an artist did I really want.
I think it was officially when I read Calvin and Hobbes when I was 8 or 9, visiting one of my dad’s friends in Pasay. And then once again when I was 10-15, where I got exposed to the wonderful world of anime. I really loved comics and invested a lot of my money on those early editions of “How to Draw Manga” booklets in National Bookstore. Hahah.
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
I think my biggest struggle is art competitions. LOL! It never made sense to me, since it feels like people are having a contest on who breathes better or walks better. Until now, I think I’m still struggling with this, especially when people compare themselves to me—whether it’s them thinking they’re better than me, or they think I’m better than them.
I’ve had a hard time seeing which competitions are healthy and which are toxic, because for me, drawing really is about the soul, about what we want to share to the world – not because I used this pen or program better or whatever. It’s about having fun and living! And if there’s anyone you wish to compete with it is with yourself since that’s what matters – self improvement!! Gahhh. (I must admit I forgot about this mindset when I got older and got worried about grades, likes, and performance at work etc., which caused more conflict in me since I knew that I originally didn’t think that way)
Even the fact that academic institutions judge our talent at an early age put so much pressure on me. I tried to enroll in Philippine Highschool for the Arts in Laguna, you see, and, of course, I failed. But it took me some time to understand why.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
I think it comes with age and experience. For me, it was encountering awful people, making bad choices, getting depressed over those bad choices and awful people, realizing you’re stuck in a loop of mistakes, having the guts to find a therapist to help you grieve over the loop you got yourself into and those bad choices and awful people. This same therapist will also help you make healthy decisions to forgive yourself and take the next steps to living again, with the knowledge that you still will make bad choices. But now, at least, you own them, and will make a different choice that will hopefully make it better…that sort of thing. But this is for me.
Personally, those competitions (in any form, whether official competitions or internal competition between friends, or applying for a company or school and getting rejected) were good eye openers to the reality of the world and the industry itself. I must admit that my thinking was leaning towards a very romanticized view of art, and that if I stayed there, I think I wouldn’t have improved much at all, or know myself and figure out what I want for that matter.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
It most likely would be what I got myself into around 2014-2016. It was an animation start-up company. It was filled with very talented people, but led by talented people with volatile emotions and ways of thinking. What happened to me in that company really changed my life. They were often verbally destructive/aggressive/threatening in the ways that they tried to wake me up to my senses and grow up. I guess, for my personality, that sort of thing was necessary.
You see, since 2007 I was stuck in this weird loop because of an abusive friendship during my college days. Ever since that friendship fell apart, I was like, in an artist plateau until 2016. I think from the perspective of my peers in that company I was this 23 year old behaving like a confused kid who should be acting like an adult. Looking back now, I can understand everyone’s frustration with me and why they thought that screaming at me, mocking me, or belittling me would be the best way to get my act together. The final straw was the company firing me because I didn’t even have the guts to make a decision and quit.
Within that company I also met this guy that I became close with. He became my painting partner and long distance boyfriend for a time. He introduced me to the wonderful world of Google Hangouts where I got a chance to paint with other artists from all over the world in real time via the app. Through him I learned a lot of things regarding color and lighting, and that overpaints were a common scenario between artists to help you get better with your art.
He’s very meticulous and technical about his process, which helped me balance my overly emotional and carefree view of art. It was only with him that I was unafraid to ask for critiques because it was the first time I really experienced an artistic friendship that initially had no competition between myself and another person. It felt pure somehow. Unfortunately it had to end as well because people change and life happens.
It was the heartbreak of this whole period that leveled up my skills, and also my character.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I think it would be: knowing when to quit/stop/leave a friendship/school in college and acting on it. Because saying “No” when it is needed is just as powerful in defining who you are and what your life will be as is saying, “Yes”.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making art or comics?
Right now, it’s the desire to let people know about depression and anxiety through comics. Which is what Lore is mostly about. Now that I think about it, since I’m an emotional person, I think most of my stories will relate to the human relations and emotions that we all go through in life. Since Life on a Plate discusses the same issues without me intentionally doing that. Haha!
But the main reason still remains the same: because I love to do it and I think I praise God in doing what He designed me to do (also heck, epic drawings just take your breath away. I want to do the same.)
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
Since I’m a freelance artist, I’m always doing my best to personalize my schedule that will also work with potential clients and my family since I’m at home. So half of my day is usually dedicated to helping around the house – doing errands like paying bills, or helping out with cooking and cleaning.
It alternates between mornings and afternoons. So sometimes I fit my art time in the mornings or the afternoons, although most of the time they all seep into night time, which compromises my sleep hours when it gets really hectic. This is all experimental since I just got out of therapy last year and my schedule was a mess then, so technically I’m starting over completely. Haha!
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
My biggest distraction is my mind. I overthink a lot and get nervous whenever I start on a new project – especially when it’s paid, a traditional piece, or if I want to make a serious painting for myself. 2015 was really tough since the words that my former employers threw at me still shook me up so that starting on anything really was painful. 2016 was the healing phase, since I’m getting more equipped with what to do with myself when I’m bordering on an internal breakdown.
The most helpful system I learned was shared by my mentor, Rory, this summer. She taught me about the Kanban system and the Pomodoro method. It really helped me with my concentration by almost 70-80%! I personally think it’s perfect for overthinkers because it breaks down the task into tangible, smaller bits. I finished a lot of backlogs this year because of those methods combined! Thank you ate Rors! <3
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
I had a very bad habit of disappearing for almost a week (or more, I stop counting time tbh) just playing video games when I feel burnt out or uninspired. Fortunately, I’m learning to practice protecting my Sabbaths recently. So I’m having a healthier perspective about work and rest.
Turns out that it’s really helpful to have designated hours and days for resting and working! So now I’m working harder to finish my deadlines before the weekend comes so I can rest without worry. It’s still a rocky road because I’m breaking bad habits but I’m really happy with the direction I’m going at: sleeping earlier, waking up in the mornings, resting on Sundays and working for 6 days etc., not to mention I’m learning to schedule better!
As for motivation…is being hungry enough of a motivation? LOL! I also think that client commissions/job offers and opportunities are excellent motivators. The prospect of being financially free is growing in me more and more lately; so financial freedom is turning out to be my biggest motivation nowadays.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
Being an exhibitor in KOMIKON 2016. It means a whole lot to me, especially when you think about how I became sure about comics when I went to my first KOMIKON in 2006.
It’s like I made amends to my past self, y’know? It’s definitely God’s grace, what else could it have been? All those people that came my way to help me heal and have a better view on my self and my confidence, all the circumstances that instantly happened after my fall, all the answered prayers. It gives new dimensions to one of my favorite verses: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
Not leaving that abusive friendship in college sooner. If I had, maybe things would be different; I’d be less damaged, and have leveled up my skills sooner. But then again, somehow, I think all failings are custom-made for each person. They were bound to happen to teach us things—no matter how stupid or unfair some of them may be…like this one is for myself.
What’s important is what I’m doing about it now. What’s important as well is that I did something to get out of that loop and not let myself be crushed by the second blow of failings – which is what I discussed earlier regarding my 2014-2016 episode.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
For me the best way is to be involved in real life. For example: Participating in extracurricular activities in college, even if it was just for a short time, helped me keep contacts that helped me grow even after college. Social media doesn’t even scale. Although, of course, I have met amazing people online, one to one interactions are much more substantial.
Also another good way I got to promote myself is to always be aware or open to opportunities. My first freelance job experiences were mostly invitations by my friend, Jakin, to join him in illustrating books for this publisher he knows, or my uncle, Joselito D. Delos Reyes who wants me to illustrate his books – which in turn gave me a chance to indirectly work with Manix Abrera and my favorite publishing company(!!!), or my editor from our college paper, Robx Bautista, who used to invite me to draw jams to meet other people, who in turn, invited me as well to live painting events and such.
Looking back now, they’re golden moments. Never let them go because, from what I see, they come in waves. It also depends on how active you’ve been at producing output. Especially now that social media has made sharing become static noise, making it harder for people to constantly pay attention to you.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
It used to be working for Masashi Kishimoto and being in league with him in Japan.
Now that things are different. I’m dreaming of taking my books to a wider audience through the internet. That, and hopefully have painting exhibits locally and then all over the world…Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, America. Haha! A girl can dream, yes?
But well, realistically: I just want to experience what landing a book deal feels like, and a solo exhibit. 😀
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
No one else but God of course!!! This can be summed up to this bible verse I grew up with: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” –Philippians 4:13
Q: What is your big “WHY”?
I just can’t live without it. I think as long as I have limbs I will keep doing this, or even if I’m only left with my mouth to paint things, I’d still do it. And even if I lost my eyesight, I think I’d go ahead and ask my family to buy me those brain scan machines that detect neural activity and translate it into drawings. I remember that was in an article where a blind man managed to paint digitally. If Nick Vujicic did it, so can I.
I do it for myself, I do it for my family who didn’t stop believing in me, I do it for God who formed me to be this way. I also do it for the people who—whether they know it or not—taught me things to do better in art. Nothing like paying it forward by making beautiful things too, right?
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
Calvin and Hobbes – His ink works and watercolors were amazing, also he broke the standards of western news paper comics. How he mixed realism with cartoon style is the best too. It was all so effortless, even the writing. Gah.
Spirited Away – I loved this because it’s the first Ghibli film and first Anime movie I’ve seen. I was so surprised with the quality of animation and cinematography of the whole thing. I was only in 5th grade but I’ll never forget it.
Naruto Chapter 13 – the one where they fought Zabuza and Haku. It was the first time I saw Kishimoto’s work, an older friend of mine from highschool loaned me his Shonen Jump book, and by golly…he broke the standard of anime that time – characters were anatomically closer to accuracy and those hands and feet!!! –fangirl moment-
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?
Hans Bacher’s blog: He was my professor back in college for one semester. He was one of the art directors for Lion King and Mulan among other things. His blog is dedicated to art history and Disney history. He also published a book about storyboarding and background design called Dream Worlds: Production Design for Animation.
This Facebook group called Level-Up! It’s organized by artists WojtekFus and Jonas de Ro. They also have a YouTube channel of the same name where they feature amazing artists in the industry. Within the group itself you can post your work in progress and be critiqued by artists from all over the world. You can also email them directly if you wish to have a one-on-one critique. It’s a good community with helpful people most of the time. J
Of course I’ll promote Comic Dojo since we also held a workshop last year that made it possible for us starting comic artists to publish our work and get involved in Komikon2016! (While, at the same time, the proceeds went to charity that helps kids in remote provinces get school supplies and books) We had amazing mentors like Jem Bernaldez, Wilson Tortosa, Elbert Or and Rob Cham!
Although I can’t afford most of them I recommend that artists invest on online courses instead of college ones nowadays. Some sites that offer online courses are Schoolism, Learn Squared, Level-Up!, Art-Camp… I know there are more but this is what I can remember at the moment.
Also YouTube has a handy amount of 5-minute tutorials by Proko, Ahmed Aldoori and process videos by artists like Yizheng Ke, Ross Tran and many more. Google is our friend and provider of all knowledge. Haha!
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
I want something similar to the house the family in Wolf Children or Summer Wars lived in. Or that house in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, or Howl’s Castle any Ghibli background….I think I’ll just end up mentioning fictional locations if I keep going. Hahaha!
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could,you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
Bill Waterson for artist. Haruki Murakami for writer.
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art really inspires you to get better.)
Bill Waterson, Masashi Kishimoto, Hayao Miyazaki, Saskia Gutekunst, Jana Schirmer, Lorna Santos, Hans Bacher, Rory Morales-Gutierrez, Daniel Enriquez, Adam Warren, Wilson Tortosa, Jeremy Vitry, May Anne Licudine, Manix Abrera, Alex Nino, Alexandre Zedig Diboine, Mobeius, Bahi JD…Sorry I can’t help it I had to mention most of them.