Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year, Folks!

Minutes before the end of the year. It would have been nice to write some annual wrap-up, but it wasn't in the cards. It's been a good year, and I'm especially fired up for the coming one. I will be otherwise occupied for much of January 2011, but will be back with words and pictures soon enough. In the meantime, Happy New Year from the man who gave us the New Year's Baby, J.C. Leyendecker!

Friday, December 17, 2010

0.5 Centuries

Turned 50 yesterday. A friend with an iPhone (equipped with groovy new app called Pocketbooth) snapped some pics of the wif et moi. I had hoped to draw a self-portrait yesterday to celebrate, but no time. This works for now, especially since she's way cuter than me.

Got the northern mammal beard growing in for winter. Settling in with a little Vince Guaraldi and a sweater...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

November Contest

Last week I went back to an old sketchbook to find something to use for a demonstration drawing for juniors on the properties of gouache. Found a pencil from a November 2008 high school football game between Clayton and Jennings. I think it was the final game of the season. My friend Kenny Shapiro is holding the down marker.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Operator? Operator!

Went to the Cherokee Print Sale last weekend and purchased this excellent Dan Zettwoch comic, explaining the inner workings and intramural scams of the AT&T (then Bell) plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Had jonesed this item online at Dan's blog. Typical Zettwoch: loaded to the gills with information, with characterization and setting to satisfy all comers. Written by his Dad. Love the cover. Printed on a punchcard from the plant in question.

I was in Louisville recently. (Swam in a meet.) Believe it or not, there is a facility in the city called the KFC YUM! Center. Wow. Really. Really.

Monday, December 6, 2010

We Could Name Heroes

The other day, I posed the following question to a group of senior students: What is your tribe?

Response: puzzlement.

I was not asking for affiliations by blood. Nor did I seek the name of a cult.

I went on to explain thusly: in about six months, you will no longer be surrounded by people who are exactly your age, who hail from your social class, who are interested in all the same things you are. There will no longer be a group of professional experts who are paid to be interested in you. You will be on your own, and you will have to construct meaning from your own resources until you find or construct another community.
How will you sustain yourself? I asked. Where will you find nourishment?

If you aspire to be a producer of culture, you must also be a passionate participant in it. But culture is a big word. We plug into it selectively, in accordance with our own predilections. In the age of the interwebs, you can find digital encampments of many varieties. At the heart of my question, however, lives something deeper. I am really asking: To whom will you turn? This is not the same as With whom will you chat? Whose tweets will you follow?

Typically, the people to whom I turn are dead. Meaning: museums and libraries are sources of nourishment, too. And you can belong to a tradition, an approach, a certain variety of impatience, and be sustained by it.

I think about influences quite a bit. There are many people I admire. Many came up in my last post: Milt Caniff, DS Martin, Harry Beckhoff. Add Al Parker. On reflection, however, I recognize that what I admire about all four is draftsmanship and a sense of design. Important stuff, but not quite on the level of the tribe, as I see it. My attachment to their work isn’t tied to content; in three out of the four, my attachment formed despite the content of their work. Milt Caniff made up adventure stories for newspaper readers; Beckhoff drew fiction illustrations of guys in suits and statuesque women--drawing room scenes, mostly; Al Parker did fiction work for romance stories. All three transcend their material, Parker especially, but they’re still attached to it. (DSM drew Jazz musicians and did his bit to establish the territory of the album cover; sturdier somehow, and plenty honorable.)

Yet when I ask where are my deepest connections--who, maybe I should phrase it, are my heroes?–I get a different set of people.

I have come to realize that all of my most significant work engages the social landscape in some basic way. Many of my major projects have all been about places: Mustardville, Mohicanland, Starkdale. (Gallery for same here.) The project I am preparing for 2011 is a cousin to these. Even when the places have been fictional, they’ve all been grounded in observation. I mean that physically and culturally. (I am a cultural empiricist!)

Three artists who come to mind immediately for me: Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Philip Guston (1913-1980) and Robert Weaver (1924-1994). All were readers of social landscapes, if in wildly different ways. Davis integrated cubism, commercial design and the American scene, forging a language grounded in observation and based on form. Guston built a circular career that began in the WPA, moved into the refinement of abstract expressionism, and culminated in a grubby embrace of the everyday. And Robert Weaver drove the journalistic imperative in American illustration from the mid 1950s into the 1980s. I have presented lots of Weaver in this space before, notably, here and here.

In addition, I feel substantial connections to certain interpretive artists: the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson comes to mind. The interpretive question is a fascinating one, for another day.

I identify with the novelist Richard Ford, another social landscapist, and his novel The Sportswriter.

The topic deserves more writing and thought, but this is not the format for it. For the benefit of demonstration for my puzzled seniors: over the course of writing this miniature essay, I think I might have named my tribe: social landscapists. For me, the social landscape is built out of human artifacts.

I did not know that, exactly, when I started to type. Which is why writing is an important act, even for artists.

Images: Stuart Davis, Variation on Little Giant Still Life, 1964; D.B. Dowd, Frances Yvette! Plate No. 4 from Cry Mustardville, 1995; Philip Guston, Gliders, circa 1943; Guston, Friend–To M.F., 1978; Guston, Pyramid and Shoe, 1977; Dowd, Elk in Cityscape, animation still, Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio, 2006; Davis, The Paris Bit, 1959; Davis, Egg Beater No. 5, 1930; Jimmy Katz, Cassandra Wilson, photograph, 2002; design credit unavailable, Vintage Contemporaries cover design for The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford; Dowd, So Pump it Yourself, from Visit Mohicanland, 200o.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Key Plates, Key Figures, Key Questions

I have been trying to get this post written for days. It's grown to sprawling size, but the content is relevant for several audiences. It covers the Beaux-Arts drawing hangover, the relevance of printing as a way to look at the act of drawing, and questions of visual handling in figurative work.

Recent efforts in the classroom have been focused on staging. My last post mentioned the problem of verbs; anybody who shows up in a narrative illustration had better have one. Energy has been devoted to "directing" the scene in question. Many thumbnails; many workups of those sketches into more informative drawings. It's striking how many students will try to freight such images with extra information or bonus complexity, when composing and executing a well-considered figurative group is hard enough, thank you very much. And deeply satisfying when brought off, too.

Below, one of Harry Beckhoff's legendarily teeny but shockingly informative thumbnails. Scan courtesy of Roger Reed at Illustration House in New York, where I once ogled a stack of these. Believe it or not, this drawing is about the size of large postage stamp.

But enough of the prepping; on to the problem of realizing those figures. Which brings us to a conversation about drawing. Once we've figured out what we want to make, how are we to make it? It might seem like a funny question. The issues in play matter a lot. At least to me. Three-plus years ago, in one of my first posts in this blog, I wrote:

I have taught a lot of beginning drawing in my career. One of the most basic precepts of Beaux-Arts drawing study involves close observation of the thing at hand, often a nude model. It is axiomatic that one draws what one sees in this setting, and for good reason—learning how to look at something for what it really is, not what one imagines or remembers it to be, requires perception-altering doggedness. As a byproduct, the student often retains an unspoken authoritarian dictum to obey a monocular point of view on all things. That is, 1) if I can’t see it from here, it must not exist, 2) if I can see it, I must draw it, and 3) all true drawings are made with charcoal or conte crayon.

These dicta often persist, as educational afterimages. They float before the composer and narrow her choices. So charcoal pops up as a likely media choice, because the student has experience with it, and also because it bears the imprimatur of an approved art material. In practice, charcoal means tonal drawing. Light. Volume. The simulated immanence of painting, delivered in monochrome. Which calls to mind images like this one, a Fredric Gruger illustration from 1930.

But arguably the signature element of drawing–tied to its ancient roots in symbolic communication and proto-writing–is line, not tone. The history of printing certainly captures the yes/no (mark/not mark) of drawing, heightened through technological transferrence. Woodcut and relief printing (see top of post) isolate this phenomenon, which is as old as pictograms and petroglyphs.

Printing provides a handy entry point to thinking about drawing in such contexts. In a color printing job (four-color process [CMYK] or multiplate spot color work) there is a thing known as the key plate. The key plate is printed black or the darkest color of a given palette. Before the key plate is printed, the image does not cohere: it's an indistinct mass. The last color pulls it all together and provides the visual structure.

Here's an example from a commercial printing manual published in 1922. The two color duotype features an orange pass and a black one, with the black exposure burned back a little to let the orange breathe through the finished print.

In drawn imagery the key plate comes from a key drawing. That is, the visual architecture is built from line and shape in black or other dark color. A particularly good place to isolate key drawings is in comics. Below, a daily strip of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. As a daily, the strip had to succeed in black and white; only the Sunday strips were printed in color. Notice the heavy use of black shape to ground the sequence formally.

Below, a single frame taken from a Sunday strip of the same period. Still plenty of black. But the color adds a great deal, both to our spatial understanding and the narrative: the shadowed Japanese are close to us, in hiding, dark; the ambushed Yankees are walking through the light, fatally exposed. The flying hat is a nice touch. The killers get their comeuppance the following week, through an ingenious American ruse.

In comics, key drawings can be tyrannical. Their control of shape and color can be total. Consider the David Stone Martin album cover below.

Have a good look. Now, consider the image as juxtaposed with the Caniff panel.

The two images use the same palette: black, blue, yellow. Both aspire to capture light and shadow through the temperature of the palette. But the Caniff is dominated by the black (and owes something to film noir visual techniques). By contrast, the DSM feels bathed in light and space. But for the moment, the crucial passage that captures the play of light in the album cover is the direct access afforded yellow to blue in the shadowed head of the waiting trumpeter. That is, no black line has been asked to chaperone yellow and blue; their edges meet in an evocative transition. This only works because everywhere else, black line is used to establish contours. The passage is unique in the drawing (though repeated in the type ROY).

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a formalist geek. I can get huge satisfaction out of passages like the one I just pointed out, and the comparisons which can be made between one approach and another. I love how things look, and I get a thrill when a recognition of same is conveyed by simple graphic means. In this case, rough, knowing elegance.

We've established the relevance of a key drawing for work of this kind. If the key drawing provides a graphic container for visual contents, we are free to see the image in radically two-dimensional form. We need not be concerned with questions of volume or light unless they provide opportunities: illusion is less important than clarity of communication. Which takes me back to another bit from that early post at GT:

One must often take a plastic approach to spatial construction and the arrangement of form. (I am sometimes asked what I teach: the best, simplest answer I can give is “Advanced Pictionary.”) But it can take forever to retrain the mind to get past the Beaux-Arts drawing thing, even as the echo of that observational rigor retains its value. Making things up out of thin air typically produces maddening levels of vagueness (not ambiguity, a different thing altogether); dutifully rendering a subject generally yields a snoozeable result. But the integration of observation with a willingness to manipulate as required or desired offers real opportunity...

Which brings us directly to questions of style. Above and below I've posted details from a piece of concept art for the UPA feature The Four Poster, directed by John Hubley in 1952. The concept work was by Lew Keller, an unjustly obscure, excellent production designer. (Other work by Keller viewable here on the blog Cartoon Modern, in support of the wonderful book of the same name.) The drawing works to communicate character, setting and atmosphere. Its casual handling can mask just how informative the image is. Each character is sharply drawn, even when minimal. The drawing betrays knowledge of gesture, weight, mass, and volume, even as it abbreviates. It is exactly this abbreviation (e.g., the male dancer's feet, above) that characterizes the best cartooning. Such work amounts to a distillation of knowledge, which is greatly to be distinguished from vamping to fill its absence. Look at the woman with the shot glass below. Hers a precise characterization–girlish and haggard at once. The secondary tone is applied as a gestural support–not slavish, but not willful either.

Recently I mentioned the work of Lowell Hess, a cartoonist and illustrator who worked in a variety of contexts in the mid-twentieth century. For the two-color dimension of the work at hand (speaking to you, juniors), Hess uses a blend of key drawing and spot color to deliver his fundamental form. Hence the poison gun, hair ribbon and apron are all defined by an orange edge. Here too there is abbreviation and distillation.

Below, the endlessly stylish Harry Beckhoff, converting one of his microscopic thumbnails into a comic tableau for Collier's. Here again, style emerges from the distillation of knowledge, matched to an eye and hand and brain.

Another album cover by David Stone Martin, one of the great calligraphic draftsmen of all time. Look at the control of line weight, density, and flat black shapes! What character and rhythm. An essay on density. The only odd note being that goofy numeral 2 in the lower left corner. Would have preferred another typographic counterpoint, as in the JAM and SESSION at top.

Finally, a few samples from the work of Rea Irvin, the graphic sophisticate who gave us Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker magazine dandy. These are book illustrations from Snoot if You Must, a compilation of comic essays by Lucius Beebe. These drawings are supported by tonal passages of screentone dots, which create an optical gray value from black ink. We're close enough to this one to see the actual dots. The composition would not cohere without them.

And one more, with an atmospheric use of that screen tone.

All of the preceding images operate on the principle of a key drawing. None of them use "shading," a naive term for the application of value to show volume. All use drawing styles that tend toward simplification and abbreviation, in the manner of cartoons. And all of them would be acceptable approaches for realizing the junior illustration problem. Which is to say: the use of reference and the acquisition of knowledge do not determine approach. The needs of the picture and the goals and sensibilities of the maker do.

Images: Mass of St. Gregory, hand-colored woodcut; South German, 1420-1430; Harry Beckhoff, Thumbnail Sketch, magazine illustration circa 1940; Frederic Gruger, Saturday Evening Post, December 13, 1930; Moab Man, Fremont Culture Petroglyph, circa 1000 CE, Moab, Utah, photograph by DB Dowd, 2008; Explanation of Duotype, Commercial Engraving and Printing; A Manual of Practical Instruction, by Charles Hackleman, published by Commercial Engraving Publishing Company, Indianapolis; Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, daily comic strip, November 22, 1937; Caniff, Terry, single panel from Sunday strip published on September 10, 1944; David Stone Martin, Roy Eldridge Collates, album cover illustration, Mercury/Clef Records, 1952; Lew Keller, Concept Art, The Four Poster, United Productions of America, directed by John Hubley, 1952; Lowell Hess, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bug! interior magazine spread illustration, Every Woman Magazine, 1961; Harry Beckhoff, Slowly the Clawlike Blades Closed Over the Package of Cigarettes, interior magazine illustration, Collier's, January 29, 1938; Martin, Jam Session #2, album cover illustration, Mercury/Clef Records, 1953 (?); Rea Irvin, book illustrations from Snoot If You Must, by Lucius Beebe; D. Appleton-Century Company, New York. 1943.