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I love to read, so I consider creating a book cover a distinct privilege. I sometimes fantasize about creating a cover for every book I have ever read and imagine what kind of life long project that would look like. Maybe in another lifetime.
Not long ago I got involved with an online manuscript editing company called The Editorial Department. They were expanding their repetoire and looking to offer design services as well as manuscript editing. After a bit of back and forth I signed on as one the the designers in their roster. The first project I worked on for them was the second book in a series of swashbuckling adventures from author John H. Cunningham. John’s stories feature a main character named Buck Reilly. Buck is a bit of an Indiana Jones type who lives in the Florida Keys, flies a Grummon sea plane and looks for sunken treasure.
The title of this new book was “Green to Go” and John wanted some continuity between this cover and the previous one. The first book, “Red Right Return” features Buck’s seaplane in a a circular logo design. John felt strongly about keeping the plane and the logo look. He also wanted to incorporate the idea of color since both book titles make mention of one.
This is all well and good, but for me to get hold of an idea I need to explore what comes to my own mind first. To that end I do loads of thumbnails. Each one an embodiment of a particular concept. Sometimes these concepts are good. Sometimes bad. Sometimes they are rip offs of something I have seen before. The intention is to spill out on to a page all the junk that is spinning around my head regarding the subject. Below are a few pages from my sketchbook that show some of this exploration process.
From here I took four or five of these ideas, blew up the the thumbnail and added color to them just to get an idea of what they might look like. The ones that stuck out the most for me were those that were modeled from cigar or rum labels. For all intents and purposes a label is a logo and if I stuck with that concept it would afford the continuity John was after. As an added benefit it would also speak to the more colorful aspects of the lead characters swashbuckling personality.
With the help of Chris Fisher, the Creative Director at The Editorial Department, I moved though the design, adding the coin, missile, tobacco and Cuban flag to the layout. The final touch was selecting a sun bleached weather beaten green background for the label to sit on. And with a few more tweeks and changes we arrived at the final cover.
Finally, I would like to give thanks to illustrator Tristan Elwell. At the same time he happened to be working on an image of a plane and talked about how he made the propellers look like they were spinning. I used his technique in the final cover.
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from John Dixon at the Village Voice asking if I was available to do any work for an upcoming issue. John had a great idea. He wanted to do an all comic issue of the Voice and felt my work would fit for a review of a new play opening on Broadway called “A Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo“. The play is by Rajiv Joseph and stars Robin Williams in his Broadway debut. Williams plays a tiger in the Bagdhad Zoo during the Iraq war who is killed for biting the hand that feeds it. He then spends a portion of the play as a ghost questioning the war itself and the justifications surrounding it. It’s a thoughtful play about human nature and reminds me very much of the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn.
At least it’s description does. This happened to be one of those assignments where I did not receive any source material. As a result I researched what I could and spent the rest of the time speculating and concentrating on what I the material evoked.
There were a few things I was certain should make it into the finished piece. Mainly Robin himself. However, if I could somehow include a tiger that would be good too. John sent me some publicity stills and when I got to see how raggedy and tired Williams looked in character the concept formed: I would paint Robin Williams as the character, only I would give him a bengal beard to make the connection and drive the characterization home. I thought the sensitive confrontation of close up of Williams was the best way to go. If I could somehow evoke the nature of the Iraq War, well that would only strengthen the image. Indirectly I wanted Williams to look kind of like those pictures of a defeated Saddam Hussein. Those shots after Saddam’s capture where he looks tired, disheveled and hasn’t seen a razor in months. The challenge would be to make sure the person in the finished piece looked like Robin Williams even though much of his face was obscured by a beard.
Things developed as the imaged progressed. I added some helicopters, smoke, minarets and a feeding slot to the cage. John gave me tremendous amounts of leeway in creating this image and as a result I made an early decision to give the painting a unique shape. The pointed arch is a staple of Arabic architecture and framing the final piece that way made it that much more descriptive. All in all a fun assignment.
Anyone with even a passing interest in drawing and art will get a lot out of this series of articles in the New York Times by noted Illustrator and Educator James McMullan. McMullan is best know for the last 25 years of Lincoln Center performance posters and a a series of illustrations accompanying a New York Magazine article that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. Click on the picture to get to the article.
I was lucky enough to attend School of Visual Arts where Jim teaches High Focus Drawing. A class that expands on the lessons mentioned in this article and is hands down the most in depth and intensive study of drawing out there. If you’ve ever wanted to know how the magic is done, this column will give you a great idea.
Continuing from a previous post, this was my first large scale mural project. However, Charles has done more than a few murals in his time and developed a few techniques and tools to make the job easier.
There is a lot to consider when doing an outdoor mural. Weather plays a big role. Staying hydrated in 90 plus degree heat and Baltimore humidity is a job in itself. The last thing either of us wanted was a bout of heat stroke three stories up on an eight inch board. The wind plays a role too. If the winds are too high, beyond 15/20 mph, paint starts to dry in the can between strokes. This is solved by keeping a spray bottle of water handy. Worse yet, the wind can make paint fly from the brush and land someplace all ready completed. Of course rain stops all progress and we had to wait for the wall to dry before we could start to paint again. Water kills a mural faster than anything.
Another challenge was height. I had to lean heavily on my balance and the ability to ignore fear of bodily harm. I got really uncomfortable on the top level and spent as little time as possible up there. I’m not really afraid of heights, more of an unsteady platform. While the scaffold was stable and bolted to the wall in a few places it still rocked and wiggled. And the boards were only 8 inches wide. It wasn’t all bad though. I did have fun monkeying around on a what was basically a three story Jungle Gym. I managed to loose a few pounds, tone up and get a tan too.
We could not have done the job without scaffolding, but the most annoying part I found was to paint an area that was covered by it. It’s like trying to draw around a corner. The scaffolding sits only a few inches away from the wall and obstructs it, so there is no good angle. One either has to stoop down and paint below “ground level”, or balance on tiptoes and paint out of reach.
Speaking of out of reach, Charles has some pretty ingenious methods for working on areas further than arms length away. A tool of his own creation was a bamboo stick with compressed charcoal on one end and a paint brush on the other. We would use this to sketch out the subjects. The long stick allowed us to not only get some distance and see what we were working on, but also gave us the ability to make a stroke two or three times longer than our arms can alone. Another important ability, considering when I work on a canvas my strokes are maximum only a few inches and we had such a huge space to cover.
When drawing the church and museum we used an 8 ft 1 x 2 as a straight edge to keep everything in line and in perspective. One of us would stand 50 or 60 feet away from the wall with the reference and holler to the other one on the scaffold telling them where to put the straight edge to make a line. It took a day just to draw the church in charcoal.
Another can’t do without; a reference book. Charles and I pulled together a lot of reference to make this mural happen. We printed out one page shots of what we needed, then stuck them in a photo album that we had on site. Everything was in there. The buildings, flowers, people, logo, and insects.
Another indispensable tool was Charles’s truck. It did doubled duty as a mobile paint box and an extension for a ladder after the scaffolding was removed and touch ups had to be done.
In the end we used 15 gallons of primer, and had over 60 individual gallons of colored exterior paint at our disposal. Beyond that we mixed up 16 special colors that we put in small Tupperware containers and we each had our own soda crate tray we carried up and down the levels. It took us a combined total of over 400 man hours. Just over a month and a half from start to finish.
Maybe next time we get a bucket truck or accordian scaffold like Chuck Close uses.
Next installment we’ll see the whole mural come together in a video.
Continued from a previous post, featured prominently in the mural are local landmarks like The Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Charles and I spent an afternoon touring the exhibitions and gathering reference at the museum itself. Not only would we have to include the building in the mural, but we also had to fit in a hand full of notable African-Americans from Baltimore.
The museum sits on the corner of East North and Bond Street and houses a wax figure tour of African-American History in life-size diorama form. Most of the exhibits are small and fit just a figure or two posed in an environment appropriate to the subjects history. For example, Billie Holiday looks like she’s singing in a club and the Tuskegee Airmen stand on a runway. Unfortunately the most memorable exhibits of the museum couldn’t be put into the mural. Aside from those profoundly influential historical figures like Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, the museum also features some startling displays of the atrocities visited upon African-Americans in their few hundred year association with the white man. Namely the Middle Passage and Lynchings.
The Middle Passage Exhibit draws visitors in by passing them through the hold of a slave ship circa 1750. Wax figures of all ages are seen chained and bound in horribly insufferable conditions. Torture devices hang on the walls and a display of the women’s quarters on the ship are passed off as a “rape” room. It’s a hard pill to swallow and one walks away overwhelmed. The Lynching Exhibit will leave viewers with a similar feeling. Traveling down to the lower levels of the building this display covers the walls from floor to ceiling in newspaper articles, letters and journals describing just about every lynching in US the last 150 years. The display’s brutally maimed bodies rival those of a Grindhouse Movie and includes a collection of lynching “Trophies” in jars. Sometimes I just can’t believe the stuff we do to each other.
The top floor is more of a Baltimore specific experience. Notable community leaders abound and their histories trace some proud Baltimore traditions. Overall The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is an enlightening experience and it’s clear to see the museum holds a strong place in the heart of the community. Charles and I left there, thoughts swirling with the history of the city. Building and rebuilding in our minds the underlying forces of the neighborhood through time. Next it’s off to the mural to prep the wall. Let’s get paintin’ !
At the beginning of August 2010 Charles Lawrance and I began our biggest piece to date. A mural for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & Arts. The wall measures about 25 ft x 75 ft and is on the side of Joseph P. Lock’s Funeral Home on N. Central and Hoffman Street and is part of a neighborhood beautification project. The wall faces a lot that has recently been converted to neighborhood garden space by local volunteers.
Charles has done more than a few murals for the City of Baltimore and had this project all lined up with sketch approved before I came on board. He’s well known for his wildlife and nature painting, which is one of the reasons he was selected. But rather than do a straight up nature scene he wanted to include some significant neighborhood landmarks and famous African Americans from Baltimore. Prominently on display would be St. Frances Xavier Church, the first African American Catholic Parish in the United States, The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum and the Apollo Theater. Charles managed to squeeze it all into the sketch with plenty of room left over for butterflies and foliage.
But we still had some research to do. Who would be the notable figures to appear in the final piece?
Patrick Arrasmith asked me to create some key frame animation art for a top secret television commercial he has been working on for a big time client. What we have here is a reaction shot of Captain Ahab after witnessing Moby Dick destroy a ship. At the moment it’s unknown whether or not this will make the final cut. Or if the commercial will even happen. It would be a shame if it doesn’t get used, but that’s the nature of the advertising world.
Kiss “Destroyer” was my first record ever. I actually got it on 8 Track, believe it or not. I had older cousins that introduced me to Kiss and when I saw that cover I was enthralled. I spent hours listening to that record and staring deeply into the art. I was especially drawn to Gene Simmons boots. I still want a pair of those. So you can imagine how happy I was to stumble across this interview with illustrator Ken Kelly, who created not one but two painting of this iconic image. Thanks Ken, for this epic cover. And thanks to my cousin’s Greg and Doug for setting me on the path.
I love to read. If I ever teach an illustration class I intend to make students read some, if not all, of these books. Why? Because I don’t find a lot of well written stories that feature an artist as the main character. If you are a lawyer, police officer or writer there are tons to choose from. But not so much if you’re an artist. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but more like a countdown, in no particular order, of some notables that left a mark on me. And please, if you have a recommendation, don’t hesitate to share.
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: I start with this because it’s a classic that just about everyone has read a piece of, most likely in college. For those that haven’t its pretty well self described. In the truest sense it’s a Day In the Life portrait of the main character Stephen Dedalus. There’s not much narrative to speak of. What makes this story unique is not only does Joyce effectively “paint” a portrait of the main character through words, but he gets a lot of mileage out of the first person point of view. When Stephen is five the narrators consciousness is too. As readers we get to watch the artists’ consciousness develop and mature as we follow the story along.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand: Not an artist, but an architect, the author tells the story of Harold Roark an ideal man of independent-mindedness and integrity. His challenges are about maintaining his artistic vision without compromise. Rand creates a whole range of architypal characters that are less and less idealistic variations of the main one. By Rand’s own admission, Roark is the embodiment of the human spirit and his struggle represents the triumph of individualism over collectivism. A dense and fulfilling read.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: The only Pulitzer Prize Winner on the list this story is set in New York City with the 1939 Worlds Fair as a centerpiece. It follows a couple of Jewish cousins that grow up together and create a Houdini inspired comic book character called The Escapist. The Holocaust plays a large role in the story as well. Interestingly, Dark Horse Comics made an actual series featuring the Escapist character.
Time and Again by Jack Finny: This story is about an illustrator working for a New York Ad Agency that gets recruited by the US government for a top secret project. The top secret? Time travel. And not just anywhere and any time, but the Dakoda on Central Park West. I love books about cities I’ve lived in. There is something so cool about reading a story that takes place in a book hundreds of years ago, then actually visiting that place in real life.
The Art Spirit by Robert Henri: This was one of the first books I ever read about an artist. It’s not fiction, but more like a collection of journal snippets, notes from students, quotes and letters from Henri himself. An Ashcan School painter who taught at the Art Students League Henri’s book is not about technique as much as it’s about the philosophy of art itself.
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: Recommended to me by Kim Anderson this book is set in Brooklyn and is about a boy named Asher Lev who is born into an orthodox Jewish family. Asher is on track to become a Rabbi but is diverted when he discovers a love for art. With the history of art seated deeply in Christian mythology Asher and his family struggle to reconcile it with their jewish heritage.
My Adventures as an Illustrator by Norman Rockwell: The first time I saw this book was on vacation in a vintage book store in Seattle. I couldn’t live without it and ultimately spent half my entire vacation budget on that book. Later that night my travel companions and I missed our last boat home and found ourselves stuck at the Ferry Terminal overnight with time to kill. So I cracked open Rockwell’s book and started to read aloud. The first couple chapters not only kept my friends and I occupied, it drew in a small crowd of homeless seeking shelter in the terminal.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut: One of my all time favorite authors, this is the story of a fictional engraver/illustrator turned Abstract Expressionist. It takes place on an estate in the Hamptons, where many of his contemporaries lived. The lead character has become a joke of the art world because he used an inferior brand of house paint in all his paintings which are now falling apart and losing their value. This book is in my personal Top Five and has a great great ending.
More drawings with friends….and then some. Two techniques for drawing revolving around music. The larger one is a pencil drawing of Elvis Costello from a performance at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. I was lucky to be close enough to actually make a couple sketches on the scene.
The rest are ball point pen (red, blue and black) on oaktag, the same stuff they use for office folders. I added a little White Out to bump up some shapes. I wanted to see what I could make with materials just about everyone has laying around. I’m also a fan of those old school red conté crayon figure studies. Yup, that’s Casey with his banjo again. And Anthony with the bass.