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.