Illustration is a great gig any day of the week, getting paid to draw never seems to get old. Nevertheless some commissions are more exciting than others; some subject matter and themes are just more interesting, challenging, or closer to my heart.
This year I have had the good fortune of several such jobs coming across my desk in a relatively short time, two of which came from Nick Jehlen at The Progressive. The first was a piece for the magazine’s 2013 ‘The Hidden History Of The United States‘ calendar. My topic was the raid at Combahee Ferry in June of 1863, planned and led by the incredible Harriet Tubman. Right from the beginning I wanted the image to be special, but it’s often difficult to gain any real insight on historical events like this. Fortunately, this time the answer presented itself almost immediately; quoted in the main wikipedia article on the event was an excerpt from a biography of Tubman, a description said to be in her own words:
“I nebber see such a sight. We laughed, an’ laughed, an’ laughed. Here you’d see a woman wid a pail on her head, rice a smokin’ in it jus’ as she’d taken it from de fire, young one hangin’ on behind, one han’ roun’ her forehead to hold on, t’other han’ diggin’ into de rice-pot, eatin’ wid all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one an’ a black one; we took ‘em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin’ roun’ der necks; ‘pears like I nebber see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on der heads, and young ones taggin’ behin’, all loaded; pigs squealin’, chickens screamin’, young ones squallin’.”
What an amazing passage. When I read this, the images of these people leap immediately to life, and the humor and energy with which she recounts this scene took me by surprise. This was the only source material I would need, but I did my due diligence and came up with a few different approaches to the illustration.
Nick agreed that the last was the clear winner. A little research into period clothing and arms and of course some considerate attention to composition were all that was needed. The Union soldiers and the escaping slave family are shown moving along opposing diagonals, the family running upwards to freedom and the soldiers downwards into the fight.
The calendar was printed in duotone, so I was only allowed red and black. This was new to me, and proved to be the kind of technical restriction that leads to a solution which would otherwise not have occurred to me, and I think the red and black scheme really pulls this one nicely together. The piece was recently chosen for the Society Of Illustrators’ annual Illustrators 55.
A while later Nick brought me another, very different job. This one was to accompany an article by Terry Tempest Williams, describing a brief encounter she had with a Mute Swan and expounding on the spiritual significance it had for her. She covered a lot of philosophical ground in the text and any one of these concepts could have provided ample fuel for the illustration. I have had many chance one-on-one meetings with various wild creatures in my own life and they’ve always left a lasting impression, so in the end I chose to focus on how her description of the moment resonated with me and my own experience. I have always felt in these silent, surprising moments of eye contact with wild animals that my life as a modern human is on hold, so I worked with the idea of the encounter as a meeting of Terry’s world and the swan’s.
I looked at this a few different ways in the sketches, and we went with the approach of combining the water surface of the swan’s pond and a cityscape. I thought a reflection would be more literal than I intended, I feel this unreal orientation lends a more dreamlike touch. I also exaggerated the size of the swan somewhat to give it the dominant position on the picture plane
Really engaging jobs like these don’t come along every day. But they don’t come by dumb luck either; the best art directors know how to find the right artist for the job. I think this is a matter of recognising the way different artists think and not just the way they draw or paint. Big thanks to Nick for sending these great ideas my way.
It’s been some time since I’ve finished a personal, self-directed illustration, but this month I was able to give some attention to one that’s been puttering about in my head for a little while now.
I think a lot about where people come from, where their parents come from, and their grandparents and on through the generations. Beneath the modern, Western clothes and lifestyles common to everyone I have lived and grown up around, there are ancient traditions and homelands inherited down the line. For most of us these lineages are mixed from various countries and cultures, and in a simplified way that’s what’s behind this piece.
The masks are referenced from a Chinese New Year dragon mask and a Northwest Coast native sun mask (specifically this gorgeous one by BIll Henderson. The idea here was that they should stand in for the old cultural backgrounds the two parents carry with them and can pass on to their child. They serve the symbolic purpose of standing out against the modern clothing and pointing to particular cultural roots, and in this way they only scratch the surface.
The drawing started with a very quick sketch and needed only a little bit of tweaking to get the body positions where I wanted them. Initially I hadn’t planned on there being a tree in the background, but in fleshing out the drawing it became clear that it would greatly improve the depth and atmosphere of the image, and I added it in Photoshop with the lasso tool. This is something I have previously only done for adding or adjusting small elements like water droplets or snow flakes, this was the first time using it for a complex object.
This one is for Wired UK‘s ‘How To’ section, namely how to dress for everyday cycling in English weather. The main message was that with the right choice of clothes the A-to-B cyclist can stay comfortable without the extreme kitting-out of the hardcore rider. My approach was to push that comparison/contrast a little further towards the absurd by borrowing the gear-burdened characters from my ‘Shooter and Stopper’ drawings, and to reinforce it with a simple hot-cool color palette.
This will be the first of my illustrations to be animated. I drew out these characters separately and overlapped them, so that Wired’s iPad team could animate each one independently. I have yet to see the result for myself but will share when I do.
Thanks to AD Ben Fraser for this one. Below is a sketch showing one other way the composition could have gone.
In the last month and a half, my work has been hampered by the onset of what I’m calling Artist’s Elbow (epicondylitis, of both the lateral and medial sorts as far as I can tell), and as a result several running illustrations have been slow coming to fruition. This one, the 5 of Diamonds for the second edition of Zeixs Publishing’s ’52 Aces’ card deck, may well be my last drawing of 2011. I hope to be able to give the old drawing arm some rest for the Holidays.
While unintentional, I find the content of the image amusingly fitting considering my current trouble. This project came with near total creative freedom, and I think the hand imagery was more about the number 5 than it was about epicondylitis (I certainly would have had a harder time coming up with elbow ideas) but nevertheless I have to wonder if there isn’t a subconscious relationship. In fact this is the second consecutive Disembodied Hand image I’ve done this month, I plan to post the other shortly. I do seem to have a thing for Addams-esque hand creatures, but I suspect their repeated appearance in my work of late is likely not pure chance.
The geometric background is a departure for me, brought on by the perspective drawing classes I was teaching last month at Illuskills. I think it’s a nice counterpoint to the organic forms and wobbly linework I like to use, and I will likely explore it further.
Tomorrow’s edition of The National Post will feature my illustration for the ‘Month Ahead’ calendar on the cover of the Arts & Life section, many thanks to AD Geneviève Biloski for the gig. The brief was wide-open, the theme being ‘December’.
As it happened, shortly before the commission I had received an email from my father in New Brunswick with photos of his lovely country house under a thick blanket of snow and was itching to draw the scene. The detail that jumped out at me most was the bird house, weighed down with snow and nicely mirroring the cabin behind it. In the end I used an old-fashioned Austrian ‘Almhütte’ rather than the cabin on my dad’s land.
The main figure, more intended as a kind of Old Man Winter character than a Santa Claus, also owes a lot of its look to my Austrian surroundings. The differences between the Austrian Christmas celebrations and those I’ve grown up with have piqued my interest in the earlier ‘pre- Hallmark’ traditions, and while a certain Santa-ness was almost inevitable with this character I have tried to steer away from the big red Coca Cola Santa.
The piece is very tall and thin (over 20 inches in height) so I’ve posted it in a reduced format at right, but below is a larger version. Despite all the very legitimate critiques of Christmas consumerism, I still love Christmas time, and I’m waiting eagerly for the first good snowfall here in Austria, so I was very happy to have the chance to indulge my love of winter with this job.
It’s been a little while since I drew something for Michael Kimber at Colony Of Losers. The first few images I made for him drew from the frenetic energy and nearly desperate inspiration present in his writing on his daily battle with anxiety and insomnia. I took full advantage of the free creative reign he gave me to make pretty far-out interpretive images to accompany his stories.
Since that time Michael has in large part overcome his struggles, and his writing took on an accordingly different tone. More considered and deliberate, and more centered on the wider public issues of mental illness in general. He seemed to have broken through from his past frame of reference.
This image focuses on that change, presenting a visual metaphor for the way ideas and even personalities can change with exposure or a change of environment. In this case I felt that the more exposure Michael’s story was receiving and the more his environment stabilized, the more his writing – which had been quite molten at the outset – became tempered and solidified.
Interestingly, Michael actually wrote the piece which this illustration accompanies partly in response to the image itself. We had talked a little bit about where I was coming from with the piece and it seems to have resonated with his feelings at the time. It’s interesting to note how the style of the piece shows a bit of a return to his earlier voice while still clearly coming from a different place further along in life than where he started.
Recently I had the time to finish up a personal piece that had been sitting on the back burner for a while, mostly done but lacking those final touches. This piece is one of a series of -so far- three images based on myths and stories in the world of hockey, along with The Winnipeg Falcons and The Playoff Beard. This one deals with one of my very favorite of hockey’s weird stories, the Detroit Octopus.
The tradition of throwing an octopus on the ice at Detroit Red Wings playoff games was started in the 1952 Stanley Cup run, by the Cusimano brothers of Detroit. The legend has it that the octopus’ eight limbs represented the eight games the team would need to win in order to capture the Cup (it’s now sixteen games). The Wings won the Cup that year in eight straight games, and two more Cups in the next three years. Since the first octopus was thrown in 1952, the tradition has been carried on every single season. The NHL has tried to curb and even stop the practice, but it persists as one of hockey’s oldest and weirdest traditions.
The illustration shows the great Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuck in action against the Montreal Canadiens, with a little help from the Octopus. I wanted a composition for this piece reminiscent of the crammed battle scenes of Utagawa Kuniyoshi or the one-panel samurai fight drawings of Stan Sakai, but with hockey sticks in place of swords.
Prints of this image are available at Thumbtack Press