In February my wife Lisa and I had our first child, our lovely little son James, and since then the time has positively flown past. In what seems the blink of an eye, little James is four months old and it’s nearly July. Not surprisingly I’ve fallen behind with the blog since then, so here’s a bit of catch-up.
This personal piece grew out of a sketch for a commission. The sketch didn’t go anywhere useful in terms of the job, but it left me with an itch to draw spacesuits and a nice little compositional idea.
This is a self-portrait for the upcoming book ‘100 Illustrators‘ by Taschen. The book is a best-of collection from the Illustration Now! series, curated by Steven Heller and Julius Wiedemann, and being part of it is a huge honour for me. With the self-portrait I wanted to do something off-centre without being overly weird. In the end I took my inspiration from my newly-minted fatherhood. I partly see my fathering role as analogous to that of an entertainer, and I’m ready to make a fool of myself for James’ amusement or comfort at a moment’s notice. I feel in that way I’m a bit like one of his pull-string musical toys, and that’s where this idea is coming from.
‘Said The Caterpillar’
This painting in acrylic ink was made for Espionage Gallery in Adelaide, Australia. I was contacted by Josh Smith from Espionage to take part in a big group show on the theme of Alice In Wonderland, and I didn’t have to mull it over long before I knew what I wanted to draw. I have found the Alice stories that much more fascinating since learning of their origins, and that the books may never have been published had young Alice Liddel not requested that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) write down her favorite of his stories for her. There has been a lot of speculation about inappropriate feelings and behaviour on the part of Dodgson, and I didn’t want to go that way with it since doing so seemed cheap to me without some basis in real research, and I neither saw the need nor had the desire to do that. Instead I wanted to show Alice being transported by Dodgson’s story and show her as the center of the piece by inverting the usual Caterpillar scene; placing her on the toadstool and the Caterpillar (Dodgson of course) below.
These pieces were done for Laura Hogan at the British therapy magazine Therapy Today. The magazine’s beautiful design, set up by Esterson Associates, places a focus on illustration by commissioning one artist to illustrate the entire issue. It’s a very effective approach to the design and makes for a great project to illustrate. The top piece was a spread for an article on the experience of adoption from the birth father’s perspective. The bottom two are a spread and cover image respectively, for an article on the effect of class differences on the client-to-counselor relationship.
There is an interview with me about this project on the magazine’s website.
‘The Movement For Leaving Women Alone’
This one was for Nick Jehlen at The Progressive. The article commented on the state of abortion law in the US, and particularly the scrutiny and judgement aimed at women in the public debate. My lovely wife Lisa, who in addition to being lovely can also muster a very fine angry glare, posed for this. She was very pregnant at the time so I needed to downplay that in order to remain consistent with the subject matter.
This spot for Minh Uong at the New York Times Sunday Business section was about people piggy-backing on their friends’ streaming subscriptions to watch the latest TV shows. What with the terms ‘streaming’ and ‘surfing’ we went in an aqueous direction.
I teach classes at a small illustration school here in Vienna, called Illuskills. For this year’s promotional brochure and fold-out poster, the school’s founder Nana Swiczinsky asked me to do something relating to the theme illustration. What I think I love most about drawing is that it allows you to create whole words out of nothing, worlds you can sink in to as you bring them to life on the page, and that’s the crux of what this image is about. I also wanted to make reference to the learning process and the hard skills we teach, like perspective and construction, and I of course included a student at her table.
Big thanks to Nick and Minh, Laura, Josh and Nana for these projects, and thanks to Lisa for her great modelling and our lovely baby.
This month I had the pleasure of doing a cover for Nick Jehlen at The Progressive. I have always found covers to be very challenging, as they need to be balanced with text which is usually placed after the artwork is finished. This results in a special compositional challenge for someone as obsessed with image arrangement as myself. That said, I’m very pleased with what we managed to make of this one.
The cover article discussed the idea that the peace movement which thrived under the Bush regime has gone dormant under Obama, and tells of activist Cindy Sheehan’s efforts to revive it with a cross-country cycling action called the Tour De Peace.
Naturally the white dove made its way into the sketch concepts, but I did my best to avoid obvious dove ideas. I think #4 may be a bit of an obvious one-liner, but I couldn’t resist the morbid humour of it. There were also a few related to Sheehan trying to carry the movement on her back, with a comatose dove (my wife’s favorite), a disused Bush protest puppet and the dove under glass as stand-ins. I also played with the notion of Bush as a scarecrow that’s lost its effect on the birds, a crowd of sleeping doves who can’t be roused, and a pun on the ‘if a tree falls in the forest…’ idiom.
#3 risked being a little staid in terms of composition, but I found I could use the velvet ropes to break up the bottom area and the curtain to do the same at top and provide framing for the bird’s head. The way the curtain bisects the title letters was a happy accident. I did my best to make the dove display reminiscent of taxidermy without looking thoroughly dead.
Thanks to Nick for another great comission.
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.