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!!

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