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Taking Shelter in Art. Finding Strength in Community.

Web comic artist and founder of the Intervention conference, Oni Hartstein, shares the tools she uses produce her art and talks tips for those who want to start a conference.

You’ll recognize Oni Hartstein, web comic artist and founder of the Intervention conference, by the crowd of people surrounding her at many of the comic conventions on the east coast. Since 2003 when Hartstein began tabling at conferences and showing her art, which demonstrates her self-described strange sense of humor, artists of all stripes have sought her advice and encouragement.

“When I tell people the challenges I faced, it helps people know they can succeed too,” said Hartstein.

Hartstein’s story begins when she was abandoned by her birth parents as an infant. She was left in Pittsburgh, P.A. with her grandparents who already had 10 children. Hartstein’s parents promised they would return but never did. This promise led to uncertainty. “No one ever made plans for me because my grandparents were never sure if I would be there the next day,” said Hartstein.

As she grew, she sought her own foundation and refuge. She found it in art and with a community of like-minded creative people.

“I was living in extreme poverty. I had a pencil and paper. My brother had comic books so I drew characters from my brother’s comic books.”

Hartstein focused on strong female characters such as Rogue and Storm from Marvel’s X-Men. “Drawing kept me sane. I always had my paper and pencil,” she said.

Building a Community One Panel at a Time

In school, Hartstein began socializing with other creative students, often spending lunch in the library with her friends. Soon her work transitioned into her own brand of comic art. “My best friend and I drew a comic about dogs. The big dumb dogs bullied our main character,” said Hartstein.

Outside of school, Hartstein grew her community by attending comic conventions. At these conventions, Hartstein further honed her art, and began networking with her peers. “I found a chosen family,” she said.

After graduation, thanks to her good grades Hartstein went to college at Rutgers, but had to put her education on credit cards. “I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t eat, if I ran out of shampoo it would be weeks before I could afford to replace it.” Once again, when faced with adversity, Oni turned to art.

“A friend told me about this thing called web comics,” said Hartstein. “I was an angry person when I was younger and used web comics express that anger so that I could be positive in real life.”

Digital Tools to Keep up with the Demand for Web Comics

Around the same time, Hartstein was given a used Intuos 1 tablet. “That tablet was an extension of my arm. I don’t think it was even sold in the US,” said Hartstein.

Because Hartstein had taught herself art using just a pencil and paper, the Intuos tablet was a natural transition for her. It also allowed her to create her comics faster.

“Web comics are meant to be consumed quickly. It takes a long time to draw, color and scan one with a pen and paper. If I didn’t have a pen tablet, I wouldn’t be able to make them as fast as the internet consumes them.”

Several years later, Hartstein upgraded to an Intuos 4 Medium, which is now the Intuos Pro. “I wasn’t used to the buttons,” she said. To save time, she draws right into Photoshop, making sketches using a blue ink with 25% opacity. She then inks with the vector pen tool right over the sketches.

“When you’re producing web comics, you have to produce them fast. I create web comics outside of my day job, so I have to create them quickly.”

For Hartstein, digital art has an added benefit. “When you come from extreme poverty, you have a fear of wasting. Digital is great because it allows me to experiment and try so many things without fear. When you experiment on paper, you create waste.”

Inspiring Others with Intervention

In 2004, after staffing and tabling at dozens of comic conventions, Oni and her husband James Harknell decided they wanted to create their own comic conference that would focus inspiring people. They came up with the name Intervention – the combination of the words internet and convention. It would be another six years of learning and getting the seed money together to launch Intervention, but in 2010, they did just that through donations and support from readers of her comic and blog. The purpose of Intervention is “to intervene and inspire everyone to live a more creative, geeky, and fun life within the welcoming scope of a traditional geek convention.”

At Intervention and at the other conferences Oni staffs year-round, people approach her for advice or to share their stories of using art to overcome challenges. Oni recalls a young woman who approached her at a conference after Oni had responded to an email a few years prior. “I could tell that she was going through a hard time, like I had. She told me that she knew she could pursue her art because of an email I sent to her. This is why we started Intervention,” said Hartstein.

Hartstein had, at one point, been on the other side of the table, seeking encouragement from an artist she admires. One year at Pittsburgh Comic Con, Hartstein met artist Julie Bell who said the words that Hartstein would pass on to others: don’t give up.

Now in their fourth year of Intervention, Hartstein offers two tips to others who want to start conferences:

  1. Understand what you don’t know and find people to help you either learn those things, or people who can do them for you.
  2. Staff other conventions and build relationships with other event organizers. Hartstein staffs conventions year-round to continue to grow her network.

Hartstein is currently organizing the next Intervention conference as well as getting ready to relaunch her weekly web comic. She is also beginning to gain notoriety for her art inspired by Disney’s Haunted Mansion. But at her core, Hartstein seems to find the most satisfaction in helping others.

“Someone has told these artists that they couldn’t do it. I want to tell them that they can,” she said.

To learn more about Oni Hartstein, visit her website onezumiverse where she offers fantastic tutorials on topics such as Art Basics and Photoshop. She’s also the founder of Intervention: The Premier Showcase of Online Creativity. Be sure to follow @onezumi on Twitter too.