Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Taxonomy Florentine

...that I mentioned yesterday just materialized through the digital ether, courtesy of Eric Portis, its composer. Ten years ago this January; a sophomore product. (Honestly, this is [part of] why I love where I teach: I get to work with students this smart.)

Eric has been busy over the past decade, especially making photographs and stop-motion animation. He works in Denver.

I remember gently trying to recruit Eric into entering the Communication Design program, as he struck me as an illustrator type. He became a printmaker instead–good for him!–but my impression wasn't all wrong...

Check out this lovely photograph of an installation: a miniature drive-in theater, installed in storefront, showing one of his animations on a screen. His site is worth your while. Link above. 

Thanks for the note, Eric!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Postcards from Amsterdam

A while back I posted about a wedding I attended as designated draftsman: an illustrated affair. The groom in that operation was Michael Hirshon, a web designer/illustrator and former student. At time I noted that Mike and Robin were moving to Amsterdam, on the strength of her Fulbright. Recently I got some nice notes via the comment section from family members. Of Mike I wrote at the time, "I'm already looking forward to [his] reportage drawing from that very picturesque city."

As expected, Mike has delivered some wonderfully seen images. At the top of this post, an earthmover working to shore up the sides of a canal. He writes:
At the end of every journey I have the pleasure of returning home through the massive construction project in front of my apartment. The walls of the canal need rebuilding and so half the street has been completely removed. It’s a fascinating process. The wall is dismantled, as layers of brick, dirt, wood, and pipes are stripped away. A temporary wall is installed outside of the newly created ditch, and all of the water is pumped out — this gives the workers a dry area to work on the new wall. I frequently find myself staring out my window to watch giant machines yank ancient polders from mud like teeth, and even more giant machines drive huge metal wall panels into the canal.
The spacing of the paving stones tells the tale. The open spot at left reads like a black abcess, an affront to masons everywhere.

A bike-friendly city.

A study in vehicles.

An aside: About ten years ago I taught a workshop in Florence to sophomore art students, a notoriously tricky cohort. They don't want instruction, exactly, but they don't know how to make anything yet. It seemed to me that the challenge was to come up with tricky/engaging project prompts. Mike's drawing of the various cars reminds me of one such attempt. I remember asking one student to create a taxonomic chart accounting for the evolution of wheeled vehicles in Florence. As if they had been bred. (I asked another to create an illustrated pamphlet or poster proving through diagrams that space aliens had built the duomo, or Florence's famous cathedral, topped by Brunelleschi's dome. Poor kid nearly had a nervous breakdown. He finished well a few years later, a graphic designer in our program.)

I'm a sucker for vehicles, myself. Readers of Spartan Holiday No. 1 will have learned of the Northeast Side Car Drawing Club I co-founded with Alan Reichel and Chris Midgeley in the third grade. It was awesome.

The spread in question,  from No. 1., "Shanghai Pictorial."

Great to see that Mike is busy drawing the world from his new vantage point. Keep it coming!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Visual Assessments

It's a busy season in academia. Classes ended this week just past, and end-of-term reviews begin Monday and run through Wednesday. It's an exhausting ritual, but rewarding, too, as my colleagues and I get a snapshot of how things are going in the program.

A digression concerning snapshots: for a while some years back it seemed I chaired or served on a hiring committee annually. However quaint it seems, in the late 1990s the quickest view of a candidate's work was a rapid scan of a sheet of 20 slides, gathered in a sleeve. "Scan" in the human sense, not a technological one. It probably sounds callous, but in those years I learned to read a slide sheet in about five seconds. Within that interval I could identify the MFA subcategory–e.g., college-town painter of rail yards, domestic tabletops and pensive half-naked brunettes; maker of symbolic house forms, sometimes on stilts, often attended by spirals, seemingly always characterized by high-keyed color and energetic "mark-making"; accretion specialist given to assembling large sets of weird though unremarkable bits of modified junk, typically mounted on a wall or otherwise installed–and gain a sense of whether the candidate (inevitably a member of some MFA creative subcategory) brought something distinctive to the given genre. (Yes, that was all one sentence. 89 words. So sue me.) Totally doable in five seconds if you have looked at hundreds of such slide sheets. Special folks jump off the page. They also write good cover letters. I always regarded the cover letter as a key indicator, and I still do.

Image: Robert Fawcett, cover illustration, Famous Artists Magazine, 1959. There's an essay waiting to be written comparing the Famous Artists School to university art departments of the same period. A meditation on social class, modernism, resentment, and mock-Jungian claptrap. Another day!   

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Listening to Sammy and Carmen

...sing There's a Small Hotel. (That's Sammy Davis, Jr., and Carmen McCrae.) 

...While recovering from having had 67 people in my house and retrofitted garage for Thanksgiving dinner 2012. 

In addition to those considerable consolations: the Zen Buddhism of Milt Caniff comic strip panels.

Above: ([left, rear:] Convoy, the innocent-but-not-so-dumb stowaway, and [center, front] Madame Captain Shark, opening a safe belowdecks on a submarine disguised as a freighter:) In panel #2 of 3 in the Steve Canyon daily strip that ran on Friday, August 13, 1948. Marvel at the manipulation of line weight, use of black shape, control of emphasis and spatial clarity in that single frame. C'est magnifique!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Precocious Piggy!

In class the other day we got into a discussion of the representation of animals, specifically for anthropomorphic purposes. There was a period in the late 19th century and early 20th when animal characterizations tended to rely on relatively faithful representations, adjusted for narrative purposes: quadrupeds become bipeds, and are outfitted with clothing. The development of cartoon vocabularies followed. The pathway from Brer Rabbit to Peter Rabbit to Bugs Bunny is a discussion for another day, in another format. But suffice to say, an intriguing arc, partly explained by the volume of production drawing required for animation. 

A case study, for now: "Precocious Piggy," written by Thomas Hood, an English poet, and illustrated by his son, Tom Hood. The younger Hood wrote more than he drew, and edited the English magazine Fun in the 1860s. These illustrations probably date to 1870. They appear in a disintegrating book from my grandparents library, The Merry Maker, Volume II in The Young Folks Library in Twenty Volumes.

This volume was edited by none other than Joel Chandler Harris, he the writer and "slave folklorist" of the Uncle Remus stories–which, at the time of this publication, were twenty years old. And fantastically successful.

An anthology, The Merry Maker was issued in 1902 by Hall and Locke, Boston. Precocious Piggy was included, one of the few substantially illustrated entries in the volume.

In response to queries posed by the narrator, Piggy declares his intention to engage in a series of activities, all of which turn on rhymes with "pig."

Piggy goes a-drinking, and offers us a boozy wink.

Alas, the story does not end well for Piggy. The butcher shows up, though perhaps his partial presence on this torn page offers our frantic hog a reprieve.

Hop the twig seems like a stretch for a rhyme. Perhaps it's a now-obscure British idiom. What does it mean? Is it a variation on "walk the plank," from pirate stories? (I checked on the dating of the phrase, since it could have been an anachronism. Walk the plank first appears in a reference work in 1788.) Or does it refer to the skewer on which the poor fellow may soon be roasted? 

These may not be the most distinguished drawings of their kind, but they're pretty darn good. The spot illustrations associated with the inital cap Ws have wit, though this one gets a little clogged up between the figures on the left.

The draftsmanship is loose but informative, and zeroes in where it needs to. (The scrawled pencil was probably a youthful entry from my father or one of his brothers.) 

Have a lovely weekend, and steer clear of the butcher!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Drawing as Erector Set

Most people associate drawing with preparatory activity. But from the dawn of printing and platemaking, drawing has also served a production purpose. And drawing for reproduction–from woodcuts to comic strips–has traditionally involved the use of a key drawing, typically printed in black. The key drawing provides the linear architecture, or a kind of skeleton for the image.

Think of these two images (top, an Osamu Tezuka panel from Astro Boy; above, the title page illustration for Guess Who! by Eileen Fox Vaughn, a Whitman Publishing coloring book) as gateway drugs for drawing geeks. An extended reflection on key drawings and visual approaches to same may be found here. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Invitation

I received a very nice email late this week inviting me to give a gallery talk at the St. Louis Art Museum early next year. On the subject of mid-twentieth century American painting and its companions in the commercial tradition. Specifically–in the realm of painting–Philip Guston and Stuart Davis, two of my aesthetic heroes. Delighted to accept; I'm already looking forward to it.

The subject of aesthetic heroes is a fascinating one, and clarifying, too. Before long it will be time for me to re-engage that subject; these are serialized questions, pegged to particular artistic episodes. A certain continuity is a given, but there are fluctuations, too.

Above, Philip Guston: Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lively Pictures of "Boring" Things

Illustration has its limitations as a word: chief among them, a narrow quality. I have tried to suggest more capacious readings of it, drawing the etymology of illumination or shedding light, but it's an uphill battle. If I had another word, I'd use it.

But the problem with narrow readings isn't confined to people outside the field. Many students come to the act of illustrating with a very limited sense of what's possible, especially in restricted circumstances. The time-honored two-color problem–back in the day, born of limited printing budgets; today, in an era of four-color ubiquity, a tactical approach–qualifies as a restriction. A subject I've written about before.

Exasperation with available visual means pales in comparison to asked-for depictive content: that's waaaay more limiting. Like, I mean, to the point of soul crushing. Say our young illustrator is handed an assignment to create a series of images about a canoe trip. Seriously? I have to illustrate a canoe trip? Just people standing around, with like, canoes? That is so boring! I can't possibly do anything with that subject!

How to begin? The old saw about there not being any small roles–only small actors–sort of applies. If characters are supplied with decent verbs, they have a chance to do real work in the picture.

In support of that position, I turn to the uncredited illustrator for the Better Homes and Gardens Handyman's Book, a compendium of information for the do-it-yourselfer published by the Meredith Corporation in 1951. (My copy is a later printing, from 1957.) Linda Solovic picked this one up for me at an estate sale, knowing full well that I'd love these things. God bless Linda Solovic. The BH+G guide was designed for a binder (not full of women), to enable the user to pluck out relevant information without having to lug the bigger thing around.

But binders are awkward, as Mitt Romney knows. To counteract the physical challenges of the three ring contraption, the designers (also uncredited, as were the copywriters) used heavy stock dividers to break up the sections of the book.

The beginning of each chapter is signaled by an orange or yellow divider bearing a legend and a snappy illustration that gives the potentially dreary topic (Doors and Windows!) a friendly little kick-off.

The value relationships on the orange divider pages are nicely balanced.

I am particularly fond of this one, Walls and Floors, for the use of negative line to define the tiles and sweeping black line to define the glue on the floor (which is totally implied; despite the chapter head, there are no walls). The yellow dividers are less effective, due to the neighboring values of yellow (8) and white (10); you can't really read fine white lines on a yellow field.

I have adjusted the levels of the yellow dividers in Photoshop to produce more contrast between yellow and white. The actual color is more lemony than this one, but a tougher read.

The back side of each divider provides informational content.

These things are charming, clever and inventive. Props, materials and implied spaces are used to create narrative specificity and to fill out the design. A "simple" subject is given form and wit; the reader is nourished and fortified. Note also that the approach is dominated by flat shape and an abbreviated approach to faces, informed by knowledge of how figures actually work (although the physics of how a few figures manage to stand up is open to question).

So now, what about that canoe trip? What scenes will we see? Can the landscape be largely omitted, leaving the figures and the props to carry the information? (Hint: yes.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Staying Ahead, Just

Another calendar page, in an ongoing series. Before it gets filled up with appointments and swimming workout notations. Stalling, while paint dries. Truly.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Google Hails McCay

This has been much commented upon, and was pointed out to me by a number of friends as word of it broke across the interwebs. A Google doodle celebration of Winsor McCay, one of the great graphic geniuses, gifted with an inexhaustible imagination and a work ethic for the ages. Embedded below, for posterity.

I have posted on McCay before, many times. Links to three examples: on how his work in comics anticipates his pioneering animation work; in a discussion of caricature and melodrama; and, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an appreciation of his propaganda film, The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Run, Turd Boy, Run!

Illustrator uncredited, cover illustration for The Gingerbread Boy, Platt and Munk, 1932.

Really, difficult to comment upon. But wouldn't you run from a woman in that outfit? Nostradamus foresees the Berenstain Bears. Holy crap. And what's with Farmer Redshirt? Serious ambiguity. You can buy this book. Act now!

Friday, October 12, 2012

It's That Time Again

The weekend has arrived when the students in my senior course receive the 100 figures assignment, described in some detail here, complete with commentary from survivors from prior years.

As Friday winds down, a wish for a good weekend to the group, with a set of pictorial reminders that figures need not be (sharp intake of breath) The Figure, but rather pictures of people.

At the top of this post, a Harry Beckhoff, interior fiction illustration for Collier's, June 12, 1941. Above, a petroglyph group from Nine Mile Canyon, in Central Utah. Photo by Stan Strembicki, with whom I went tramping around after these things. Fremont culture, between 700 and 1300 CE.

From Harlan Tarbell's Chalk Talk Stunts, Denison and Company, 1926. Recollections of the war in France inform these pictures, which are among the least objectionable in the entire book. (Another time.) Below: different French figures, also rendered in line, printed several hundred years earlier:

Death makes new friends, 15th or 16th century. The skeleton with the dark patch on his belly isn't a skeleton, but a dried-out partially decayed corpse, probably washed from an overcrowded (five or six deep) Parisian grave during a storm. 

A Lego policeman, reminding us the range is broader than we imagine.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907. Fluctuating between forest and trees.

Or people among trees. Milton Caniff, the Steve Canyon Sunday strip, October 14, 1947.

Richard Scarry, in Cars and Trucks, a Golden Book. 1951. A detail of a bus-boarding process.

Elegance is possible, too. From Gerlach's Allegories, 1900.

Mickey may not be people, strictly speaking, but his gigantic hands and feet are relevant for cartoon personages. From Steamboat Willie, 1928.

Finally, in a weekend languor–ooh, maybe another time–a Robert O. Reid Collier's cover girl, from October 14, 1939. Good luck everybody!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Quartz and Corn

Today I'm happy to report that I have a visual essay running on (in?) Quartz, a new offering from the folks at Atlantic Media Group.

The American Drought: What it looks like at an agriculture collective struggling with a blighted crop of corn.

The publishers of The Atlantic have made big investments in electronically delivered content. In the process they've helped blaze a trail out of the Totally Free Content Wasteland. That is, the Atlantic folks aren't willing go down with the print ship. They're working to generate enough online revenue to keep the Atlantic viable, and to build new properties. (I am a periodical junkie. I have long admired the folks who write and edit the Atlantic.)

Quartz has been conceived as a competitor to The Economist and the Financial Times: an international business entry, digitally native, designed for tablets and mobile devices. It's barely a week old. The enterprise does not charge for its content; rather, it's supported by sponsorships: Boeing, Credit Suisse, Cadillac and Chevron are signed through the end of the year.

Almost exactly four years ago, I was gearing up to produce a real-time Election Day Sketchbook project in St. Louis. I recruited two students to assist in the process, mostly shuttling sketchbooks back to the university to be scanned and uploaded. One of my recruits was David Yanofsky, a graphic designer, Red Sox fan, and all-around ball of fire.

We had a fun day.

After graduation David went on to work in journalism at Bloomberg News. Now he's taken a position as a reporter for Quartz. It's understood that David's information design skills are basic to his work, but by calling him a reporter, his employers integrate him into the journalistic enterprise on a fundamental level. By historical standards, that's quite provocative and forward-looking.

I'm in the same boat as a freelancer. My work for Quartz on this project was grounded in textual reporting, focused on the consequences of this year's historic drought on the corn harvest and agricultural businesses. I focused on Top Ag, a cooperative based in Okawville, Illinois. My visual reporting supported and expanded my writing. I generated a text plus five illustrations. Critically, I wasn't cast as a decorator; I built the story with words and pictures. If you'll pardon the pun, that's newsworthy.

I've written plenty about the history of visual journalism and the role of illustration here, here and here. I have been convinced that we're on the edge of a revival of visual reportage, and this project has underscored that belief. Good luck to David and the folks at Quartz; here's hoping we'll be working together again soon. Honored to be part of an exciting new and–for the periodical publishing industry–surprisingly historically aware entry:

"Like Wired in the 1990s and The Economist in the 1840s, Quartz embodies the era in which it is being created. The financial crisis that recently engulfed much of the world wasn’t just a cyclical decline or a correction or even a bubble bursting. It was a breaking point. And its shockwaves exposed a fundamentally changed economic order with new leaders and ways of doing business." From Welcome to Quartz, September 2012. 

Images: D.B. Dowd, Slow Day at the Granary, Trenton, Illinois, as seen on Quartz (qz.com) October 8, 2012; Dowd, Poll Workers, South St. Louis, November 6, 2008; Dowd, Mike Fuhler, Grain Merchandiser, Top Ag, Quartz, October 8, 2012; William Glackens, Loading Horses on the Transports at Port Tampa, Inkwash and Chinese white, field sketch on assignment for McClure’s Magazine, 1898. Collection, Library of Congress.

An Absence

The baseball playoffs have begun. The Cards won a dramatic, if sloppy, game against the Braves to get a crack at the Washington Nationals. The first game of that series went Washington's way today, 3-2.

I recently passed an old sports bar I'd seen an All-Star game in, years ago now, on Manchester in Richmond Heights. I was surprised–yet not–to observe that they'd torn the place down. The building was one of those old clapboard houses that grew porches and wings and extensions on its way to becoming an ad hoc monstrosity.  For some reason, I can't summon the name of the place. A cliche, like "The Dugout" or somesuch.

Anyway, I made a drawing in that parking lot a few years back. The absence of the strange, metastasized building reminded me of it, and I dug it out. Presented above. Vehicles plus satellite dish, far less than fully realized, yet now reminiscent of an obliterated spot. A quickie scan with a little shape support, like pictorial Spanx.