Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ink as Architecture

I have been working with seniors on the Picture Lotto project I mentioned last week. Several have made solid efforts at black line & shape combinations for description. Looking at their work I've thought of the 1 and 2-color line art from the middle of the last century. A favorite subject of mine: the stuff produced by designers and illustrators for inexpensive interior magazine spreads and throwaway collateral items, like paper cups and wrappers. Those images are the 15th century woodcuts of the modern period. I love them. (When I have time, I'll compose a little reflection on why they're often very good, in dramatic contrast to the throwaway visual crap of the current moment, which really is crappy.)

A month or so ago, I received a note from Sunil Manchikanti, a former student and designer/illustrator living in Brooklyn. I saw Sunil at ICON6, and enjoyed catching up. Sunil sent me a link to a valuable research tool, the stunningly comprehensive Flickr set of mid-20th century illustrators compiled by the invaluable Leif Peng. Suffice to say, it's a guaranteed visual treat to work your way through that material. It's also a sort of philosophical test: why is much of it so wonderful, and other of it such dreck? Discuss.

A few days ago, in search of fresh examples of reportage drawing to show juniors, I parachuted into Peng's archive, and came across his contemporary reclamation of the work of Lowell Hess. I had been unaware of Hess's work, about which there is much to say, because it is so diverse. Mr. Hess is still alive, and still at it creatively speaking.

My interest here and now is to show some of Hess's two-color work for Collier's, which in my view had extremely interesting art direction from the late 30s into the early 50s. Hess did some covers for Colliers, but he also had a regular gig illustrating the humor column of the magazine. These are classic examples of visual economy and verve in a two color setting. They are also cousin to Rea Irvin's illustration work from ten years earlier in Snoot If You Must, by Lucius Beebe. (1943).

But a pair of examples from Hess's work go right to the heart of two issues we talked about today. The first is a long horizontal line drawing in black with additions in red and blue. The relevant aspects of this drawing have to do with 1) the variation in line density as way to create interest; 2) the use of black solids [e.g., pants and dress shapes] to anchor what would otherwise be a weightless tangle of lines (also true of the Irvin example, above); and 3) the use of secondary tone/color to create an additional set of shapes.

I regret the scale of this image, which was quite small in print, because it would help to be able to zoom in and see the specifics of the red shapes. But even from helicopter height, you can see the variation in density; the use of red shape and pattern to create secondary emphases and rhythms. Consider the group standing in line on the right. Figures 1, 5 and 8 receive red pattern to contrast with the red and black shapes which characterize figures 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Meanwhile the building gets no red at all, to help separate it from the figures.

It's easier to see some of the same issues (and more) on this spread from Every Woman Magazine in June 1951. The lady of the house gets down to the task of killing bugs with the kind of chemical spray pump that was standard issue in the world of Wile E. Coyote.

First, see how the orange sherbet color is used to create new shapes. Without those stripes on the apron, her figure would be less interesting. The stripes are not chaperoned by a black contour line. In some of the work I saw today, equivalent passages were dominated by black line, leaving no communicative work to be performed by the second color. If so, why include the second color at all?

Second, look at the negative line used to describe interior information on the black bugs. The negative contour permits black to be used as a fill color on the bugs; the resulting visual weight nails down the perimeter of the spread and keeps the whole thing from disintegrating into a spindly mass of line.

Thanks, Mr. Hess, for the design lesson. And thanks to Sunil for the tip, and Mr. Peng for the monumental Flickr set!


mahendra singh said...

Nice post, look forward to your more detailed analysis of why 2-tone mid-century art looks better than current versions …

my theory is that is shows the presence of a hand …

Chris Del Rio said...

I am particularly intrigued by Lowell Hess' two illustrations for Collier's. It is interesting how the shapes interact with the large spot of color, making some of the props recede to the back, and pushing the other props and two figures forward (in reference to the first image). I noticed that this is achieved by allowing the color to come through the shapes or keeping it only around the outside of the figure, which brings the figure forward and lets the color recede to the back. This has helped me understand how shape and line work in different ways. It also showed me that a figure can be created using one uniform shape in a solid color. I always fear that in doing so my drawings would end up looking like nothing more than blobs, but it is clear now that if it is a strong distinctive shape, our eyes can make sense of it.
Thanks for the flickr link. That's a great resource.

Alex said...

If it were to be isolated the colored shape in Lowell Hess' work would make no sense. But it adds so much to the image on the whole and the way the shape interacts with the black and white image creates a vibrant, interesting piece. That's something I'll definitely try as I continue my visual exploration for this project.

Julia K said...

The use of line and shape work together to create a whole image, that is both expressive and simple. Alone the lines would be a mess and the shapes would not provide enough information. The colored shape is also an interesting way of calling attention to certain aspects, such as the people in line as opposed to the building in the back, which gets not color treatment.

Brandon Pogrob said...

I'm especially drawn to Hess' two color spot illustrations of the restaurant scene and the cop and dog. The play of black and white against the colored shapes in the background results in an interesting sort of contrast and hierarchy in the figure/ground relationship, especially when you get into stuff like how the black of the waiter's legs and suit juts him out from the blue shape, but the table that overlaps him is transparent and defined only by outline, with the blue "blob" flowing through it at its base. I'm also quite interested in the relationship between the shape of the "blob" and the flow of action in the figures. In the restaurant scene, the blue clearly mirrors the curved line of action created by the waiters outstretched, arching arm, while you could also make an argument for the round edge of the table influencing the rounded, right side of the blob. In the second composition with the policeman and dog, The inward slope of the dog's belly is clearly reflected in the left side of the red blob following close behind it, while if you remove the sign post (though why would you? I do love the way in which Hess drew it without a contour for its base, allowing it to be grouped in with the ground while still placing it visually in front of the cop), you will notice the cop has a largely triangular composition, coming to points at his left elbow, outstretched baton, and feet. Thusly the right side of the blob reflects this. My question is then what comes first, and how does Hess determine how these figures, grounds, and background blobs will interact? Is the blob a secondary thought, as I am reading it, reflecting the composition of the figures and linking them together visually in the same space, or does the blog come earlier and the process and influence the composition in a more poignant way?