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...