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A Swan and the Civil War: two pieces for The Progressive

December 13, 2012


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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2012 7:41 pm

    Both of these pieces are really powerful – the first reminds me of a still from an animation, it’s bold and graceful. Really well done! Been following your work for a while and it’s awesome to see you grow as an artist and illustrator.

  2. December 13, 2012 7:53 pm

    Thanks very much Dan, I hope you’ll stay tuned!

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