Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bethlehem Backdrop

It's been raining hard all day. Weather reports further north and west suggest misadventures galore in snow and ice, so I guess we should be happy with simple old dreary in St. Louis.

Last year around this time, on my way west, I stopped to see my friend Todd and wife Eileen in Kansas City. It was snowing then, in early December, and I arrived on the scene as Todd was scrambling a little at work to finish a backdrop for a Christmas pageant where he teaches. I helped him paint the scene as we caught up on each other's news. As we worked, Todd was fielding phone calls from family members about a health crisis in Minnesota. I stayed at their place that night, and headed across Kansas the next day.

Todd was kind enough to send this picture along days later, even as a very sad story played out for his family.

I am thinking of that evening, strange and worrisome and genuine, tonight.

God bless us all, in all our pageants, this Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Year Later

A year ago today I was holed up in Utah, ruminating on the professional arc that had brought me there and then, sifting through personal matters at the tail end of a sabbatical. Today–my forty-ninth birthday–I find myself in an improved position. Not in a material sense. But I've been more productive, more focused in the 12 months just past.

Last December 16th I wrote:
I have gone back to drawing the world. So today I’ll draw some rocks in a blank book. Later maybe I’ll paint the rocks in gouache. Or maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But at this late date, two years shy of a half-century, the act of showing up, of looking and listening, has been revealed to me as a wonderment. I expect to enjoy what comes next. I don’t know what it will be, of course. But I do know what it’ll be built out of. This. Now. Here.
My blogging has fallen off considerably, for good reasons I'll articulate soon. Tasks, plus a little tumult as well. But I like where I sit tonight, and I look forward to next year with a strong sense of anticipation. More soon.

Image: D.B. Dowd, Grinnell, Iowa, sketchbook gouache painting of two trees on a very cold day in February 2009.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two-Color Figurative Illustration Suite

In Word and Image 1 we have just launched the final project. The image-oriented problem is described below:

You are to create three two-color illustrations, each of which tells a simple narrative. Each of you will receive a prompt, such as Commuter Story, or Fast Food Frenzy, to which you will be asked to respond with a set of images. In every case you will have easy access to the material called for by the prompt. Observation will play an important role in your project. You may also cast your story, and stage your narrative by using photography to create targeted reference. These two activities–onsite observation and creative staging–provide complimentary perspectives to the project.

Your images will operate as a set, but they should not necessarily
seek to provide a sustained narrative across the three. Consider the trio as an ensemble of perspectives on your particular human pageant. Please note that narrative means any action or story, no matter how small, so long as it is visible. Each of your illustrations will include at least two figures. You may include props, costumes, and setting elements, but you will not produce environments. The storytelling will be accomplished through the figures and their attributes.

This project provides an opportunity to exploit our access to the Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University. The problem you are being asked to solve corresponds to one routinely faced by magazine illustrators during the heyday of periodicals in the twentieth century.
Women’s magazines in particular were an important source of work. Publications like Women’s Home Companion and Ladies Home Journal published a great deal of short fiction. These stories relied on the use of illustrated figures to create interest on the opening spread, cued to a resumption of the story in the back of the magazine. Typically three or four such stories would appear on succeeding spreads, in effect creating a sequential competition between the illustrators to lure the reader.

In the 1930s and early 40s printing budgets typically called for a two-color illustration on the inside of the magazine. You are being asked to work in two colors to keep things simple. Two colors means black and a single hue, like red or green. You may use the full value range of both colors if you choose to do so. Pay close attention to the value structure of your work.

We went to the MGHL on Friday and looked through the wonderful Charles Craver Tearsheet Collection as well as original Al Parkers with the photo reference he shot for the same project. Thanks to Skye Lacerte, curator of the MGHL, for her expertise and efforts on our behalf!

Images: Harry Beckhoff, Colliers, April 13, 1940; Frederic Gruger, Saturday Evening Post, December 13, 1930; Earl Cordrey, Collier’s, November 24, 1946; Robert O’Reid, Collier’s, May 20, 1939; Wilmot Heitland, Women’s Home Companion, October 10, 1931; Carl Mueller, Collier’s, March 7, 1931; Harry Beckhoff, Collier's, January 20, 1940

Monday, October 19, 2009

Jean-Paul Fuzzy Wuzzy

On Friday night I went to see Where the Wild Things Are with the family. A fascinating film. I have gotten the sense that people break one way or the other on it: positive response to Spike Jonze's extension of Sendak's premise, or negative reaction to the ambiguity of the narrative. Everybody in our clan liked it, but no small children are included in that group by now. There was some disagreement about how much analysis was warranted: Can't you just enjoy the movie!?

Well, yes and no. Mostly no, because the film does not ask to be enjoyed. I would like to see it again, after a while. But Wild Things struck me as a Sartrean meditation on the difficulty life with others: hell is other people, with fur. Troubled Max is doubled by Carol, the Gandolfini-voiced monster. Carol refashions his world as a make-believe sculptural landscape, and later bashes it in a rage. The interpersonal world of the wild things is richly managed. Needs, fears, uncertainties and frustrations play out in life on the island. Max fails in his reign as king, inflicting wounds in the process. I was reminded of Daniel Keyes famous short story "Flowers for Algernon." Carol's sadness and rage mirror Max's, but do they also prefigure the boy's trajectory into adult life? Things will not be easy for Max. I found myself pondering the evocations and intimations of mental illness in Carol's unraveling.

Don't go expecting a fuzzy grinning happyfest. But the ambiguity is worth it–is it, in fact. And wonderful to look at, too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rounding Things Out: Three Arrays

Finally, three dissimilar artifacts–an advertisement, an easel painting, an informational bookplate–unified by related approaches. Each of these pictures differentiates between items by constructing a tabular array of images, forms, items. Above, a fabulous illustration from a promotional brochure for the 1960 Dodge Polaris, plainly aimed at an audience of postwar wives (courtesy of the folks at Plan 59). Relevant aspects of the car are presented to The Missus. Has an internal combustion engine ever looked so clean and snappy? Uses the classical rhetorical device of amplification: an assembly of particulars to extend a general topic.

Next, Henri Matisse's famous Red Studio from 1911, a de-spaced selection of objects which retain their positions in a room otherwise flattened out of existence by high-keyed color.

Finally, a set of specimens from a book of English fossil finds; "Eocene Shells at Bracklesham" from The Geology and Fossils of the Tertiary and Cretaceous Formations of Sussex, by Frederick Dixon. 1850. This (and a thousand other printed pictorial excavations) at the wonderful blog Bibliodyssey. Like a stone wall built from tiny pebbles and varied rocks, mortared with negative space.

Spaced Out Cartography

Okay, another map. This one–a tip from Bob Flynn–is a National Geographic map of NASA missions from 1960 to the present. Above, a detail; below, an overview.

The project was a collaboration between illustrator Sean McNaughton at National Geographic and Samuel Velasco at 5W Infographics.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part Two

Following up yesterday's post on maps, I offer a handful of image-driven representations of places, things and processes.

If I noticed anything in Monday's class meetings, it was a sense of deflation: "You mean, I'm supposed to show just what a [blank] is and what it looks like, how it works or what parts it has?" As if the problem of communicating, say, insecthood, were stupefyingly easy. As it turns out, such things are surprisingly difficult to do somewhat well, let alone authoritatively. Not all these samples are maps, strictly speaking, but we're not using the term in a narrow way. Each of these examples is relevant.

London to Dover road map (1801) a forerunner of the AAA Triptik, a fond memory from family car trips. Such maps capture the linear quality of traveling in a compartment. You get in, you go for awhile, you stop; you get out in a new environment. You don't navigate terrain on a highway. You proceed along a path established by engineers. From Tufte's Envisioning Information.

Also reproduced in Tufte: this illustration showing the parts and assembly of an IBM Series III copier, drawn by Gary Graham. 1976. I've pulled a detail. Affectless, elegant articulation.

The story of steam power, narrated in a paragraph but captured in a visual set of surprising variety and control. From Our Friend the Atom, a bookification of a Walt Disney film of the same name. 1956. A stunning reminder of midcentury comfort with, and admiration for, science. Mickey Mouse was a positivist with personality.

At the top of this post, a representation of molecular behavior in water at room temperature versus near the boiling point. What clarity, ease, and abstract presence for a straightforwardly informational picture! Also from Atom, 1956.

Two process images: Clam Respiration, by Elizabeth Buchsbaum for Animals Without Backbones, 1938. A genius of lucidity. I have written admiringly of her work before.

And above, Norman Rockwell does heredity. The Family Tree, 1959. The metamorphosis of "data" into anecdote–typically, the exact opposite of informational work.

Finally, the earliest printed medical illustration: a human skeleton printed in Nuremberg in 1493. A striking combination of a visual/typographic vocabulary we associate with religous works, offered in the service of scientific knowledge.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Maps and Information: Words & Pictures Part One

I am teaching a class called Word & Image 1 this fall with the excellently dry + smart graphic designer Heather Corcoran, a longtime colleague. Heather, a writer and designer for information, strategic and brand contexts, is a great teacher–I get a huge charge out of working with her. Our course stresses creative methodology and 2-dimensional design while also working on a diagnostic level to help students identify whether theirs is a more design-centric or image-centric approach to visual communication. (And yes, that pairing begs a few questions; no time to dwell on the vocabulary today.) Sometimes Heather and I run parallel projects, and sometimes we work together on a single one.

At the moment, we are working with students on a shared project: a Zoo System Map, which asks the group to construct a map (understood broadly) using the St. Louis Zoo as a source or a point of departure. The project sheet reads in part:

Like other zoos around the world, the Saint Louis Zoo is a complex place. You might think about it as a system made up of many smaller systems, visible and invisible. These systems organize animals, grounds, employees, and visitors. They include things that curators consider such as as taxonomies of animals and species, and
evolutionary systems. Systems also include things that visitors experience such as walking and train routes and stroller rental programs. There are systems for donor signage, food distribution, and animal health.

The project calls for an oversize printed project, greater than 10" x 16".

As the course title suggests, these maps will have to engage both words and images. Some will emphasize one more than another. Some will be more schematic than depictive; others will stress the pictorial.

As an aid to the group, we are using this space to provide a set of examples. This post will be devoted to the first set, curated and captioned by Ms. Corcoran. These represent a diverse set of maps, which include geographical, numerical and narrative information to varying degrees.

At the top of this post: Example 1. A Glimpse into our Carbon-Filled Future, Good Magazine. Ironic presentation of information; comfortable, friendly, almost childlike presentation belies negative predictions for the future. Note how each axis (x and y) are used; time is horizontal while emissions are vertical, moving from the ground up.

Example 2. Country by Country Abortion Laws, Good Magazine. Map functions partially as a table of information. Compression of geographic detail in favor of clear shapes that are easy for the eye to perceive and compare. Hue changes at each level, as does value.

(Note: I was unfamiliar with Good Magazine. Four of Heather's examples come from that publication, so I looked it up. The editorial statement reads as follows: "GOOD - a platform for people who want to do well by doing good. We stand as independent media in the form of a bold, visually stimulating magazine and website that blend wit and relevant information. We engage and challenge the people, ideas and institutions driving change in the world." The web-delivered infographic section is called Transparency.)

Example 3. Health Care Costs Vary Widely by Region, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Effective use of value to convey intensity of spending. (Posted to a useful blog about Information Design, Flowing Data.)

Example 4. On News, Good Magazine. Typographic solution; size of word conveys significance of topic in the headlines. Position of words in composition is random, but size and color are carefully controlled.

Example 5. The First Garden, Good Magazine. Geographic map using illustrative icons.

Example 6. The Sad Tally, designed by Todd Trumbull for the San Francisco Chronicle. Schematic map that combines geographic and other forms of data.

Friday, September 25, 2009

100 Figures

Dear Seniors:

I am using this blog to formally assign the workshop project to which I have vaguely referred, from my perch in the Detroit airport.

You are to produce exactly 100 figure drawings/pictures of humans between 1:00 today, Friday, and Monday morning at 9:00 am, when your new week begins. These drawings should be at least 11” x 14”. The figure must dominate the picture–no “scenes” with teeny figures. And 100 drawings means 100 drawings.

I will conduct a walk-through midday Monday to confirm completion.

You may find this surprisingly difficult. All of your usual approaches will wear out within 20 drawings. You’ll have 80 to go. You will scramble to find another medium, a different way of thinking, and then you’ll have 30 done, with 70 to go. You may go bonkers. Nonetheless you will have to deliver 100 pictures of humans on Monday. The vexation you will experience is part of the process, and of significant value. If they take too long to produce, alter your methodology to speed things up.

My students have confronted this project for a dozen years. Some of them–Mssrs. Zettwoch and Flynn come to mind–generated frightful amounts of variation and quality. Others gasped and limped to the finish line. But all gained insight about their working methods, and always after the fact.

So do not think, behave. We’ll figure out what happened later.

Which reminds me of a story.

When I was in college, I had a brief and unsatisfying experience with a Greek organization. During “Hell Week”, which really did sort of have quotation marks around it, we were subjected to mostly lame but somewhat taxing rituals. In one of them, we were expected to remain quiet as doofy incantations or instructions of one sort or another were read aloud. To be honest, I don’t really remember the content. But I do clearly recall my friend Alex receiving a scolding from an upperclassmen named Mike, a peach of a guy who was nonetheless working to set the right tone.

Alex is goofing around, cutting up with our mutual friend Bill. Mike observes these shenanigans.

Mike reproaches my friend. “Alex...” he corrects, at notable volume, with a parent’s sense of modulation and across-the-room control. “Behave.”

Without missing a beat, Alex looks back and replies, stone-faced, mimicking, seditious, absurd: “Mike...Beehive.”

Have a productive weekend! Survivors of the 100 Figures project from previous groups who frequent this blog are invited to submit notes of encouragement or hectoring graphs.

Image: a very early Al Parker for Ladies Home Journal, May 1934.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Praise of Bernie Fuchs

I am late getting to this. In recent days I've appreciated the work of others, notably David Apatoff, in celebrating the life of Bernie Fuchs, a paradoxically famous but unknown illustrator whose work in the 1960s and 70s established a look characterized by light touch and grace. (I say famous but unknown because those in the field knew him as a major figure, but the shrinkage and slippage of periodical illustration after 1950 cost him a broader public following of the sort enjoyed by major illustrators from the first half of the century.) Mr. Fuchs died late last week. Today's New York Times runs an obituary by Steven Heller.

I remember Bernie Fuchs' work in Sports Illustrated from my youth. I didn't really get a fix on the person or the profession; I just looked at the pictures and thought they were cool. Fuchs did a lot of golf work for SI, as his investment in light and gift for pacing (inside a single image!) made him a natural. His work will always make me think of my Dad, a serious golfer at the height of his powers when Bernie was, too.

On a different sort of personal note, I am eager to celebrate Bernie's achievement as a favorite son of Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach. I had the pleasure of meeting Bernie and his wife Babe when they came to campus in 2001 for the Al Parker symposium.

My wife Lori interviewed Bernie at the time. I have rummaged around and found a transcript of that interview, which includes a wonderful anecdote about Bernie meeting Al, who had been a hero of his. I will post snatches of that transcript this weekend when I have some time.

I raise my glass to Bernie Fuchs. I see him strolling up a light-soaked fairway toward the last green, smiling.

Images: Bernie Fuchs Sports Illustrated covers, from 1961, 1970 and 1974, respectively. I bet he wasn't very happy about that horsey red spot they stuck on his Masters cover from 1961!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Space by Implication

Today, in a class devoted to the moment-to-moment progressions in cinematic storytelling, I showed a few shorts.

One of them was a Gerald McBoingBoing UPA film in which Gerald goes to a language therapist to learn how to speak in words instead of sound effects.

I chose the short in part because it uses such minimalist production design. Rarely do we get environmental information that goes beyond a color field. When we do get more, it's for a very good reason, and even then the touch is light. Below, a still from a hilarious sequence combining super-scientific technological processing with jet-age jazz.

Gerald's incomprehensible vocal signals are reversed telephonically–by placing a call across the room via Europe–and restated as words:

United Productions of America, released in 1954. Directed by Robert Cannon. Putting it up as a reference for students.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Super Park

Late last week I drove past the St. Louis airport and was reminded of these relic aircraft guarding the Missouri Air National Guard entry. When the Department of Defense went through the last round of post-Cold War base thinning, they kept the Air National Guard base, but got rid of the 131st Fighter Wing, which had flown out of Lambert for many years. All the F-15s are gone, but these talismanic remnants are still here. Something about the civilians trudging along with their suitcases near these planes-on-poles seemed evocative.

Coincidentally I posted another picture of airplanes in January with a discussion of onsite drawing and photography. In that case I sat down and drew, then checked photo reference after the fact when I got around to painting the spread.

Here I wanted to compress the planes with the parking folderol. This image cannot be seen in real life, because these two planes are half a mile from one another. Plus the parking booth is down a hill and quite some distance from the plane on the right. So I shot some photographs in several spots and built a composite image which suffices for the purpose. But I went straight to the drawing table when I got back early Friday evening, so my spatial sense of what I'd photographed was still fresh. Otherwise the effort would have gone to waste. Dead photographs, no drawing, less hard drive space.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Figures and Conventions

My Visual Worlds class is off to a good start. On the first day I handed out copies of the image at the top of this post, a goofy little hand-painted diagram of what might be called the creative scope of the course, but more importantly, one's own invented/interpretive universe. There are handful of big fat questions one must answer, typically through an evaluation of empirical evidence: what does my work say about what I'm interested in?

Few questions loom larger than the ones connected to representing people. The art school lingo tends to emphasize the figure. This locution, which strictly speaking is accurate, tends to reinforce the received practices of figure drawing as traditionally understood–and thus leaves out representations like the Fisher-Price cylinder-with-ballhead people, or other highly schematic visualizations. 'Tis a pity.

Charcoal-and-naked-people habitual associations narrow students' choices before the fact. So I try to keep the language a little breezy, and to emphasize the conventional aspects of representing people.

By conventional I mean the use of varying conventions, not a synonym for "normal" or "conformist." We'll be exploring figurative languages over the next month or so.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Offhand Thing

I am teaching a new senior studio this fall. Visual Worlds: Image Development for Illustrators and Cartoonists represents an updated approach to the methodology course I have long taught to first-semester seniors. I’m extremely fond of this developmental slice in time, when many students begin to carve out a sense of their own visual signature (a term I use in contrast to style, an often problematic term). In the several years since I began to work on hashing out a taxonomic approach to looking at cartooning and illustration, I think I’ve become more sensitive to questions of self-identification. So I use the word cartoonist more often, as a pairing with illustrator, to build some space for belonging to one tribe versus another.

The most immediate questions are visual ones. What does my stuff look like? Or what might it look like? As a question of draftsmanship (and sometimes, spatial organization) elemental answers may be found in the casually but lovingly-made thing. We all make birthday cards and other purposive objects in which we find joy, and about which we are not all self-conscious.

Case in point: my planners. I dislike daily planners, in part because I dislike the regimentation of modern life and scheduling. But I have to live with it. In order to get myself to use a planner, I have come to discover that I must produce a hand-made calendar. I ignore the standard printed ones. Making my own gives me a chance to bond with the object; having done so I am much more likely to write in it. I have used moleskins, blank books, you name it. Below, several examples:

A moleskin cover.

Holy Week 2008, in which St. Patrick’s Day lined up with Jesus' return to Jerusalem. Emblematic notations for Palm Sunday, the Irish shindig, the Last Supper, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (He descended into hell...).

Evidence of the compulsive way in which I track my swimming yardage.

Marginalia, Thanksgiving

In my case, the tossed-off handmade thing points toward an emblematic approach to drawing; a linear urgency which veers toward crudity but gets the job done; a tendency to use contour line to build shape; theatricality; and the frequent integration of text and image. It helps me to look at these things, and to use them to pose questions of my professional work. I've recently been asking such questions, and have been wondering about combining the playful aspects of these things with the reportorial imperative I've been responding to in the last year or so. I intend to do so this fall as time permits. Fleshing out a visual project which lends itself to this approach.

At the top of this post, a pencil drawing which seems mildly relevant. Ripped out in a several-minute interlude while looking out an airplane window at Chicago's Midway airport.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fourteen Years Later!

I have finally finished Visit Mohicanland, a portfolio of relief prints accompanied by a darkly comic adventure novel. The story, which has been formatted for online reading, debuts today on a blog devoted to the project. Have a click on over and give it a glance. Please tell your friends if you like it. Or link to the site, if you're feeling really generous...