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Christian Patchell is a Philadelphia based cartoonist, illustrator, and designer whose art has appeared on everything from comic books to greeting cards. His new book is called I Put the Can in Cancer, and it tells the story, in words and images, of his life-changing battle with cancer.
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Please introduce yourself… where are you from originally, and where do you live now?
My name is Christian Patchell, but everyone calls me Patch. I am a cartoonist, designer and instructor here in Philadelphia. I have lived in Philly all my life, born and raised. I have been a working artist for more than 15 years.
When did you start drawing, and when did you start to think about turning it into a career?
I started drawing at a very young age (3 or 4 years old). I was encouraged by both my parents to be creative. It didn't hurt that my father worked for a printing company and would bring home reams of paper for me to draw on. My favorite was when he would bring home giant boxes for me and my brother to make a fort. We would draw all over it and create our own little world. I started to get freelance jobs as early as college (junior year); I couldn't wait until I graduated to get started. I even used a college trip to New York to take my portfolio to a publisher I admired. Shortly after I graduated from the University of the Arts, I was hired as a designer at a local greeting card company. I kind of consider that my grad school education. I worked there for several years, working my way up to Art Director. I learned all the ins and outs of the greeting card market and was able to turn that into a freelance career. I was really inspired by working in the greeting card industry to make work with a personal message, something from the heart.
Let’s talk about your new book, I Put The Can in Cancer. I understand it was inspired by your own experiences with cancer?
In May of 2007, I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma phase four of the lateral tongue, which is just fancy doctor talk for cancer of the tongue. While sitting and waiting for a PET scan I was doodling in one of my little sketchbooks. The entire time I was drawing I forgot where I was, more importantly I forgot about the cancer. For that thirty minutes or so I was my old self. That was where the idea was born: “I should keep a sketchbook while I undergo treatments.” I am also hugely inspired by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner and their work on “Our Cancer Year.” Being a cartoonist and seeing a comic about someone else's struggle with cancer really hit home for me.
So I set out to keep a sketch every day I underwent treatments. I had a total of 6 treatments of chemotherapy and 31 doses of radiation. I produced nearly twenty-six sketches. These were drawings of whatever I wanted to draw just something to distract me from my situation, to take me away, like transforming a box into a clubhouse with my brother.
When I was done, I showed the sketchbook to close friends, fellow artists and instructors. Everyone encouraged me to turn it into a book. I received two grants from the University of the Arts (where I teach and am also an alumnus) and was able to see that dream become a reality.
I am four years into being cancer free and just about to see my book released in mid-December. I couldn't be happier. Throughout the writing and design of the book we met with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to discuss the content and how to make it age appropriate. Through that relationship with CHOP and the grants, I will be able to give copies of the book to recently diagnosed tween and teens.
I liked the Cancer Card you posted to your Facebook page. Do you carry one yourself?
Glad you liked the card, it has been a running conversation with my students since returning to the classroom. The design of the card itself appears on the inside flaps of my book and was a collaboration between myself and the book's designer, Joe DiDomenico. I plan on having a bunch printed and giving them out at upcoming talks and lectures.
Are there any recurring characters or themes in your work?
Funny, as we were putting the book together and I was scanning some of the artwork from my childhood, it dawned on me that I have been drawing a lot of the same subject matter since about the fourth grade. Seems like monsters, masks and men in tights have been recurring in my work for more than three decades (since about age 6 or 7). Also, I have been drawing monkeys forever. At the last book signing I must have drawn about 40 of them inside people's books.
Can you share some of your techniques? For instance, where you start, how you put together a story…
I am a huge proponent of the process. Every time I sit at the drawing table, I will start with thumbnails, select one to proceed to a final sketch, work up a color comp and then it is off to the finish. I teach my students that when it comes to the final I really would prefer not to think, to have all my questions answered, so I can really enjoy the process of making the piece of art whether it's a painting, inking or digital work. I mean how can you have fun if you still don't know what color the sky is going to be? As of late I have been working a lot in pen and ink, I hope to sit down some in the new year and paint a little more.
Since I have been doing a little more writing and creating my own personal stories the process is still the same. I might start with a rough written outline, or story concept, then it is off to thumbnails. With a large portion of my book, the images from my sketchbook acted as the inspiration for the text. It was amazing to me that my drawings acted a lot like a photo album; stories, moments and words came back all at once. The hardest thing was editing it down to 112 pages.
Do you have any specific routines—a certain place or time of day?
It is really difficult to find a routine as a freelance artist and instructor; my classes change from semester to semester and you never know what job is around the corner. I do try to keep some semblance of a weekly routine in the studio. I will prep for a week of classes on Sundays. I have started weekly blog post on my blog called “Monster Mondays”. So I will use Mondays for social networking and answering e-mails. The rest of the week I will pick away at any projects on my desk, gallery work or personal creative projects. I try to take on larger projects, more personal in nature, so I can really dive in, take some time and produce work I am really proud of.
I also try and draw everyday in my sketchbook. As an artist, your sketchbook should be like your art gym. It will only do you any good if you work out in it every day. That routine has come in handy more and more. With tight deadlines I have been going to my daily sketches for concepts and inspiration for my freelance clients.
What are you working on now?
I am the busiest that I have ever been. My shipment of my book is due any day and I cannot wait. 2012 will be filled with lectures and talks around the release of the book. You can look to my website for continued updates as well as an upcoming online store. I am also a proud member of a local organization called the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society. Along with fellow member, Jeffro Kilpatrick, I'll be finishing up the editing and layout of our third anthology of local comics. So 2012 will see the release of that book as well. The group also puts together several art shows each year, they always keep us busy.
I am also working on a comic and grant proposal. About a year or so ago I made a pitch to Spike TV and Nickelodeon. Nothing ever came about, television takes forever, but I really loved the characters and wanted to see them in print or online. I am hoping to do both with this concept by the end of 2012.