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.)

1 comment:

Leslie Ding said...

Actions imply attitudes. By reading what characters are doing, we usually get a sense of what they are thinking, which makes them easier to relate to. That is also what makes us believe that each part, even a seemingly trivial one, is arranged intentionally. The whole image then becomes more expressive since actions are expressive.

We say something is “boring” if we see too many clichés. These illustrations successfully avoid using visual clichés even though some elements, like colors, are so limited. It takes an interesting approach to solve the two-color problem: different textures are depicted by different patterns. Colors are applied in various ways, sometimes as color blocks, sometimes as lines. I found the rhythm created by that approach quite pleasing.