Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thickets, Screens, Scrims

Proposition: things are located in places, but places are not made of things.

I have been stressing to our juniors: think a little less about looking at things than trying to see through them. At heart this advice gets at questions of place. Places reveal themselves in layers.

Here are three illustrations, all from Cosmopolitan, which create interest through a use of layers. At top, a piece by Robert Weaver depicting a man fleeing through a city park at dusk. (1962.) A row of orange buildings suggests the sunset which must have recently passed. The rising moon is untouched by color, a wink at a third moment in time. The trees in the foreground dominate the picture, even as we look immediately through/past them to gather the information we need to decipher the image. Take the trees out, and the image loses much of its force. Above, a second Weaver (1958). Here he uses a reflection on a storefront window to provide information about what's across the street, even as a shadowy scene takes place behind it at left. The monochrome color provides tonal levels and atmosphere. Finally, below, a Bob Peak image (also 1958) describing a stakeout of some sort. The sense of inside and outside are strongly established through the use of color and value to create transparent scrims.

Valuable examples. Enjoy. (Curated from Leif Peng's amazing Flickr set of mid-20th century illustrators and illustrations.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On the Scene; Points of View

Two images from the airport in Islip, New York, to which we fled some months back when the metropolitan NYC airports shut down. A nor'easter had put the region out of commission. Since the system has so many fewer flights in it these days, if you miss your flight you're often out of luck, because following flights are already full. Trying to get back to St. Louis took an additional day, and a late night trek 90 miles east across Long Island in sheets of rain.

The juniors are at work on a reportage project. This time out we are perhaps less invested in pithy summaries of the local than 1) a serious investigation of media and 2) the presentation of varied pictorial spaces. These pencils report visual phenomena without much adjustment, save for subtraction; the man waiting at the gate (will our plane ever come?) overlaps the tailfin which rises over the tarmac outside, because he blocked my view of it. But nothing would have prevented me from manipulating the space to tip it up, ever flatter, so the man would appear at the bottom of the image, and the fin at the top.

Such spatial maneuvers are common in modernist painting. Observe: two German Expressionists take a whack at tipped-up ground planes. The first, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, View from a Window (1914) profits from the altitude afforded by his perch. But care is taken to push the plane down in front, to heighten the effect–both literally and figuratively. A more radical approach is apparent in Erick Heckel's Bathers (1912-13) which combines a topographic p.o.v. with a theatrical presentation of many figures in profile. The two views–aerial and intimate–are presented with total aplomb, becoming one in the process.

Both of these paintings are in the collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which as it happens is brimming with Germans, including the enigmatic Herr Beckmann, whose roomful of paintings justify a visit to the place all by itself.

I have written about spatial plasticity before, particularly in the context of learned behavior in beginning drawing courses. It can be difficult to give oneself permission to treat space like taffy, but there are good reasons for doing so from time to time. And here, an essay on pictorial display for narrative and informational purposes.

Finally, to follow up our discussion of photography as a tool, here is a reflection on same and the sketchbook painting below. (More aviation!)

Students, follow the links for additional material.

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!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Environmental Narratives

By contrast to the Picture Lotto problem, which is all about the creation of isolated unitary forms–visual integers–the alternative project for seniors this week and next will be a narrative which is dominated by a sense of place or environment. As a point of reference, I am posting a few examples. For starters:

from Peasant Paintings from Huhsien County. Compiled by the Fine Arts Collection Section of the Cultural Group Under the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. Published by the People’s Fine Art Publishing House, Peking. [Beijing.] 1974.

This book is a compilation of Communist Party propaganda paintings, which are purported in the introductory text to have been produced by agricultural workers who work part-time as artists, “so as never to be separated from...the great revolutionary struggle.” Some of the paintings are unintentionally hilarious, but they are certainly not the work of amateurs. And very many are quite striking. These artists are illustrators. They are required to respond in alignment with a governmental text. And the assignment is pretty tough: make agriculture look wonderful, heroic, well- organized, and really fun.

For our purposes, what's notable is the plasticity of the spaces used to establish environmental information. The image above is reminiscent of the space-bending landscapes of Wayne Thiebaud, although in this comparison the figures seem to have been replaced by automobiles.

To take quite a different example, here is a Winsor McCay Little Nemo in Slumberland (I do not have the precise citation handy; circa 1905) in which characters play out a narrative in a mushroom-marked world. Here the control of emphasis is managed through a shifting frame that slowly reveals aspects of the environment to the viewer.

So in light of all of the above, those of you who want to build on the Galleria experience: I would counsel you to use that environment, but in an aggressive way, to make its presence felt on the action (however small that action might be–I'm thinking of the passing janitor image from Wednesday past.) If you eschew the shoppping mall, okay, but choose an environment that marks the space and the action of your tale.

See you tomorrow!

Picture Lotto!

I am teaching a methods course this fall to illustrators and cartoonists ("Visual Worlds", about which I have written before here and here.) The first portion of the class is straightforwardly diagnostic. In the first week, I sent the group out to make something based on observation and reportage, using the St. Louis Galleria as the generic subject, including inside, outside, parking lot. Back came a variety of things, all interiors. Last week I handed out a set of four sheets, each of which included six boxes labeled with a noun or verb, like so:

making a total of 24 drawings to be required. When 10 students did the project, it produced 240 drawings, which is a decent data set for reflection. We looked at them yesterday. A significant variety, as one might expect: but also, shifting conventions and forms of visual logic within the same student's group of works. A valuable question: are these a meaningful set? Do they cohere, visually and/or conceptually? The project was not couched in those terms: rather it was presented in a very matter-of-fact way: please fill in the boxes. The range of responses extended from the symbolic to the concrete, with explicit or implied narratives making necessary appearances as required (e.g., amputate).

These images are reminiscent of simple identifying pictures, as in flash cards or a midcentury visual game, picture lotto. The pink-field illustrations above and below are picture lotto cards, akin to a bingo card, used for collecting game pieces. The images in both cases are credited, incompletely, to one C. Clement, noted on the box cover (not shown). My friend and colleague Linda Solovic found them at a flea market this summer; she took the box and the game pieces, I got these. The game was produced by Samuel Gabriel and Sons Company, circa 1950.

Another version of the game was produced by the folks at Golden Funtime Punchout Books, a heavy-stock department at Golden Press, all part of the genius outfit of Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin. They made punch-out card things. As this scan shows, this game was manufactured in 1962.

The Golden Funtime version makes explicit what the Samuel Gabriel game leaves implicit: categories of things. The collection cards for the former organize the material into five groupings: Travel, Pets, People, Toys and Things We Use.

Here's evidence that people at these firms looked at each other's work. In both cases, the image for television features a console TV set with a puppet show playing.

The puppets in both cases suggest European Punch and Judy marionettes. And Howdy Doody was a marionette. But the most influential television show involving puppets from the time period was the brilliant Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which debuted in the late 1940s. Presumably the Punch and Judy profiles had more generic value to these illustrators in 1950, though by 1960 the same approach seems likely to have been a teeny bit dated. KFO went off the air in 1957, but Fran Allison and her pals enjoyed a long career in varying formats after that. I remember seeing KFO reruns as a child.

Okay, students: for those of you who will be taking the second project to finish, I want you to make your project a contemporary version of Picture Lotto: choose two of the above categories, with a sixth option included in your menu: Things We Fear. You choose the items within the categories. I want to see 12 pieces, six per card, with typography integrated into the solution. Keep the color to a limited palette: no more than three colors, plus white. Have a blast.

For those of you who will be pursuing the first project to finish, for the sake of contrast I am going to be asking you to revisit the problem with an emphasis on character and environment, more stress on the latter. More coming. Stay tuned...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Forgivable, Even Lovable, Goofiness

A modest thought, as I am wrapped up in bureaucratic tasks and cannot write reflectively at the moment. I finished this piece last week. I had imagined that it would be headed somewhere, but I think not. A one-off, but a warm up, too, for something else. This guy is an actual figure (with an actual clone-child next to him) who stands awkwardly on Watson Road in St. Louis, in front of the Sappington Farmer's Market. I have more drawings of him. (Dan Zettwoch tipped me off to the weird interior of the same location, similarly themed, which is part of General Grant Centre, a strip mall with historical pretensions.) This is our culture's replacement for large scale figurative sculpture: goofy commercial effigies. They have a certain folk integrity which far outranks the Gee-I-so-wish-it were-still-the-19th-century ghastly mock Winslow Homers--life-size bronze children playing "snap the whip", that sort of thing. Give me Farmer Fred any day of the week over earnest metallic urchins.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Forgot One

Another example of drawn letterforms relevant for the consonant project in Word & Image. The hand-drawn title legend for Milton Caniff's great adventure comic strip... From 1944.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fancy Type & Imagey Letterforms

Imagey is objectionable, I know. Sue me.

My long stretch of light blogging may be coming to a close. The academic year is kicking off. It's time to get back at it, at least in the teaching tool department. I write in this space for pedagogical purposes quite a bit.

Which brings me to our topic. The fresh-faced juniors in Word & Image 1 are hard at work on the introductory problem for the semester. We labored for several years to find the right equation for the first project, and I think this one works pretty well for now. The Consonant project asks the student to produce/collect a stack of (at least) 50 (non-Googled) type specimens and images that communicate, Sesame Street-style, the letter in question. Which has been pulled out of a fishbowl at the very start of the festivities. We work our way down to a satisfying set of contrasting examples, after which other activities commence on a TBA basis.

Brielle (Killip; my teaching partner, a graphic designer) and I presented the project a week ago Friday. After we did so I got to thinking that I might have stressed the image piece a bit heavily, and failed to emphasize the typography and lettering dimension of the problem.

So at this juncture I turn to our students to make the point: in addition to everything we talked about last class, don't forget to look in old type specimen books or ancient Sears catalogs for examples of individual letterforms that might broaden your set beyond typing your letter ad infinitum and switching out typefaces on your computer. The idea of creative research–to review–is to collide with items, images, whatnot you wouldn't otherwise encounter. It's more like browsing, even trolling, than other forms of research.

At the top of this post, a specimen from Doug Clouse and Angela Voulangas' Handy Book of Artistic Printing, a compendium of charming, occasionally oddball letterpress specimens published by Princeton Architectural Press last year. It's a hoot; if you're a graphicophile, I recommend it. Below, an array of individual letterforms and words.

And a second set, from pages 42-43.

Sprinkled throughout this post, a variety of hand lettered sources, from comic strip title panels to logotypes. My selections are heavy on the image side, as would be expected from an illustrator.

I have gotten away from detailed citations for the things I post, and have resolved to improve in that department. When I've done it in the past, I've always been pleased later to have the bibliographic data close at hand. Details below.

Images: Stark Brothers, Clerical Taylors, printed by John Baxter & Son, Artistic Printers, Edinburgh, Scotland; letterpress-printed advertisement 1882, reprinted in The Handy Book of Artistic Printing by Doug Clouse and Angela Voulangas, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009; Seymour Chwast, Bestial Bold, from "Push Pin Graphic No. 83" issued 1980, reproduced in the Chronicle Books compilation, The Push Pin Graphic, published in 2004, written by Chwast and edited by Steve Heller and Martin Venezky; David Hockney, "The Letter N" from Hockney's Alphabet, published in 1991 by Random House in association with the American Friends of the Aids Crisis Trust; Morton Goldsholl and John Weber of Goldsholl Associates, Holiday Delight Baking Company Logotype, 1965, reproduced in American Trademark Designs by Barbara Baer Capitman, published by Dover Books, 1976; Fancy Typefaces, 1878-1895, Artistic Printing; Revolutionary Era Question and Answer Cards, French, reproduced in Antique Playing Cards; A Pictorial Treasury, by Henry Rene D'Allemange, first published in 1906 and reissued by Dover in 1996; Mark Todd, Bad Asses book cover design, Blue Q, 2007.