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.)