Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Christmas Tale

Seeing that I haven't posted anything since July (yikes!) made me realize how far gone this year is. So, in closing out 2011 with a final post I would like to go back almost 20 years and showcase a pet project of mine. Ever since I was very young, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" has been a part of my literary, entertainment and animated life. I grew up with the very odd "Mister Magoo" version which was televised in the early '60's. Especially strange but catchy was the song "Razzleberry Dressing". This was a play within a play retelling of the Christmas classic, a theme played out over and over in dozens of versions even into our day. Then there is Albert Finney's "Scrooge", which in my opinion is still one of the best cinematic musical renditions. I have a tiny and age worn Rand McNally edition of "A Christmas Carol" dated 1938 from my mom's family. It is something that I get out every year and read - if not the whole thing - some of my more favorite sections sitting by the fire sometime on Christmas Day without fail.

I think that this story, so ingrained into our collectives psyches, has done more to crystallize our image and general philosophies of Christmas than any other secular story in the western world. It was inevitable that I would do my own version of "A Christmas Carol". In the early '90's I was looking for a project that I could sink my teeth into and could use to showcase my illustration and storytelling abilities and thus teach myself book layouts. Early on I had decided I would do my own abbreviated version of the story, something which is still an ongoing process; I have lost count of the number of revisions of the text.

An early illustration in the set establishing mood, style and characters
There were several trigger events that set me down this long path beginning in Christmas of 1992. The first was an encounter with an abbreviated and simplistic anthropomorphic picture book version I discovered in a Target discount bin. I glanced through it briefly and thought, "what a terrific idea". I didn't buy the book. Of course when I decided to go back and get a copy a few days later they were all gone. But already at that point I was thinking of something on a grander scale with historically accurate settings, costumes and lighting schemes told with my own animal characters as the central figures. What fired me even more was the appearance of Patrick Stewart one night on the Jay Leno show. Stewart, a trained Shakespearean actor known better as Captain Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek, was talking about his one man show version of "A Christmas Carol". Something clicked and I took my first steps towards illustrating the classic tale by doing the following cartoon illustrations for my Christmas card that year. Those of you who have been on my Christmas card mailing list for that long might remember this one.

1992 Christmas Card outside - pen and ink illustration

1992 Christmas card inside illustration

Next was my thorough immersion into the story. I dissected it for the language of Dickens' time, the use of certain expressions, the manners and the social codes of behavior in 1840's England, cross referencing images from the original 1843 first edition art by John Leech, costume books, films and the like. I eventually fell onto an annotated version of "A Christmas Carol" which was useful for dissecting such puzzling references to things like Fezziwig's "Welsh wig" (which was more of a knitted cap than an actual wig). I stumbled - with serendipity playing a huge part - on almost every sort of thing related to Dickens and his time, "A Christmas Carol" and the original inspiration for the story. [As a sidebar I include it here:  the origin is really quite astonishing considering that Dickens, at a low point in his life facing financial, critical and spiritual bankruptcy was seeking a project to revitalize his career. One night Dickens was taking a long walk in the gloomy backalleys of London to try and forget his troubles. He by chance came upon, "a bent and miserly looking dog of a man with red rimmed eyes", walking hunched over, all in black, carrying a cane, who gave Dickens a look of such disdain that he said that the story came rushing to him all at once. He wrote it in six weeks between October and December of 1843 and had it published a week before Christmas of that same year.]

After absorbing all this I started sketching page after page of thumbnails, a small sample of which I have included here. Some of these were directly made into the final illustrations without change and some were used merely as jumping off points. These inspirational sketches were done in a space of three weeks but the translation into larger full page layouts took about 3-4 months.

Next it was time to take the plunge and do an illustration in full color. I had recently been introduced to a new mixed media technique of wet color blocking followed by more detailed line work using colored pencils (Prismacolor art and Verithins). I had also stumbled across Koi brand watercolors by Sakkura, which I was told had the purest pigments of any brand. I fell in love with the results and have used nothing but since. The very first illustration of Scrooge and Marley's ghost was finished in May of 1993. Thorough and exhaustive research resulted in finding things like detailed photographs of Dutch tiles with Biblical scenes as described by Dickens edging Scrooge's fireplace, still in existence surrounding the fireplaces of preserved and restored American Colonial homes in New England.

Scrooge confronted by Marley's ghost
I had no idea when I started this work in 1993 that this would take so long:  I did not finish the last of 34 total illustrations until November of 2001. At about that same time I began illustrating children's picture books full time starting with "L is for Lone Star". There were other things that got in the way and slowed my progress:  a return to my former job in broadcast television and a stint at teaching art. Finally, I include here the poster style treatment and mockup I did for the cover of my version of "A Christmas Carol". This work still remains unpublished despite my having shopped this project around more than anything I have written and illustrated independently. Someday I hope you will hold a printed copy in your hands; in the meantime I hope you enjoy what is presented here.
             Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A look back 20 years

For this post I am taking a step backwards and looking at where I was 20 years ago with my artwork. I stumbled on the following pieces while looking for something else (which I still haven't found!), buried in a box of files with my teaching lessons from about 10 years ago. Perhaps the idea for this post was generated by the nostalgia of the end of the space shuttle era today. My dad was on the committees that chose the astronauts for the programs in the '60's and '70's. What really shocks me is that I remember doing this artwork as if it were yesterday, even though I had completely forgotten about this series. I had just finished re-reading Kipling's "The Jungle Book" perhaps after seeing film retreads of it from Disney, both animated and live action. I was inspired to do my own version of the classic tale, perhaps also looking for something to sink my teeth into as I became more and more serious about illustrating children's books. This is what resulted done with watercolor and markers on colored paper. As you can see I was hovering between cartoony or realistic for the treatment.

Shere Khan as he tries to escape the fire in the jungle

I never did anymore than what you see here, put everything in a file folder and moved on to other projects. It wasn't long after that, over the period of about a year, three things happened that changed my direction in illustrating and in my life. The first was a complete overhaul of my artistic style. I had been searching for a new and more dynamic style and had been exploring other techniques. Nothing I tried was working for me. But the old saying about operating in a vacuum is true: eventually you have to get out and mingle with the rest of the world. I met the artist Keith Birdsong at an open fantasy/sci fi art show in 1992, who did incredible covers for the Star Trek novels that were coming out all the time in the early 1990's. I had my own work hung next to his and felt like an ant next to a lion. He took a look at my work (and didn't throw up or scream) and described his technique of airbrush and colored pencil that revolutionized my thinking overnight. Next time I will showcase what resulted from that conversation. And the other two things? I'll reserve those for next time as well.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Breakdown of an Illustrated Book Part 2

In this post I will diagram some of the challenges in creating settings for a picture book. Once I receive the manuscript, do the layout of the pages (another whole sidebar series I will try to cover later on) and create the characters then the backgrounds need to be designed. In a fictional, completely fantastic story the artist can create and design a world utterly from scratch. This means interpreting the story according to the dictates of the artist's imagination. But since we are all much more comfortable with being able to identify everyday objects used in even a fantastic setting means basing at least some of those designs on our own everyday reality. Even Dr. Seuss had in his drawings identifiable rooms with what looked like functional doors and windows; furniture that appeared to be dressers, chairs, and beds.

My own exploration of Chinese art and landscapes c.1995

But even a fictional story with an actual historical setting requires a lot of research. For something like the "Kung Fu Panda" series of movies, the characters are anthropomorphic animals playing out their drama in a very believable medieval Chinese setting. I noticed in both movies that an extreme amount of attention was paid to making sure the color schemes, textiles, furniture, interiors, decorations and landscapes were based on traditional historic Chinese models. For "Ross the Reader and the Great Balloon Race" the story took place in 1885 America. Highlights were to include scenes depicting Washington, D.C., Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park and San Francisco.

Endpapers for "Ross the Reader and the Great Balloon Race"
For the initial introduction of the race, the heroes have made their way to Washington, D.C. on the mall in front of the U.S. Capitol building where President Grover Cleveland announces the rules for the contest. The elements I needed to pack in this one illustration were:  the balloons, the President and his retinue on the grandstand, the capitol building, and the large crowd of spectators in period dress. Obviously, to me, there is no way to "cheat" the look of the capitol building, so there was no other choice but to research it's look as thoroughly as possible and "build" it up like a layer cake. Besides that, it is the one icon of our government and Washington, D.C. that almost every American can recognize.
U.S. Capitol building illustration from sketch to final
In the finished illustration below you can see I have established the look of the main villains to center right and the hero characters at far right. You might also be interested to know that this was one of the first pieces that I completed for the book. As in most works like this there were very few if any changes in the clothing that the heroes and villains wore. There were only a few exceptions in order for the viewers to be more readily able to identify them visually throughout the book.
Next time, an even more detailed set of illustrations and the exhaustive research required in portraying San Francisco at the end of the 19th century.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Breakdown of an Illustrated Book Part I

Over the next month or so I will diagram and breakdown how I put together an illustrated book with sketches and descriptions of how the process evolves. For "Ross the Reader and the Great Balloon Race" the project began in March of 2010 when I was asked to illustrate this 3rd book for the Grand Prairie ISD by Belinda Jacks, then Director of Library Media Services for GPISD and her team (Carmen Galindo, Monica Dubiski, Kyla Schooling and Kathy Brundrett). After an initial meeting in which Belinda and her co-workers described the project I jotted some of the more notable impressions and concrete details of the story and settings:  a balloon race (obviously!) set in 1885 America and highlighting Washington D.C., Niagara Falls, Yellowstone National Park, San Francisco and of course Grand Prairie, Texas. So after reading the manuscript (which underwent some later text revisions without changing any of the concept, characters, scenarios or settings) here are some of the initial sketches I did almost immediately after that first meeting.

After that it was more a matter of re-designing/retooling the main characters who had already appeared in two previous books, illustrated by another artist, Ross Edgerley. It took a little bit of adjusting to his style but it was inevitable that I would add my own interpretation to the characters. Since I am a costume designer I had an overall concept of what clothes looked like in 1885. But for more specific detail I referred to several sources including Douglas Gorsline's "What People Wore" which has an extensive section on American costume of the Old West. Coloring was subject to interpretation as the drawings in Gorsline's book are in black and white but I knew what dyes were available then from descriptions and photos of existing costumes in many museum collections.

The villains were a particular joy to do as this trio of baddies had not appeared in the other books and so I had free reign other than chosing the names. The horse Parsnip was originally female (which somehow had escaped me in the first read) but after doing this sketch I insisted that the horse be male. They loved it. I have no idea why I added a bowler hat and monocle but besides wanting to make him a different color from the hero horse Scout, I wanted to give him a falsely snobbish identity as if to say he was better than any other horse by his prim accessories.

Next time:  building and recreating historically accurate settings and backgrounds.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Welcome to my blog

Since this is brand new as of today I am just letting you know I'm here. My latest book, "Ross the Reader and the Great Balloon Race" for which I did the illustrations, came out April 20th (available at the link below). As with most books and creative projects, it is always a journey in the process of creation. I ventured into new territory in that all of the artwork (with the exception of the sketches and dummy), page layouts and text setting were done in photoshop by me. I have done computer graphics for over 25 years but this was a new challenge. I invite you to comment on the pros and cons of doing work like this on a computer as we all embrace the changes that technology throws at us on a sometimes daily basis. Also, any comments or questions about my work are welcome. 

Below is a link to the paperback book listed through Amazon: