Tomie, Take Two

Dec 14 2012

Last year I participated for the first time in the Tomie dePaola Award, the annual illustration contest hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

One winner receives a trip to NYC in January to collect their award, and meet the editors, publishers, and other talented artists and illustrators participating in the SCBWI Winter Conference. Besides a summer conference in Los Angeles and an international show in Bologna, Italy – this is one of the world’s biggest events for the children’s publishing industry.

My submission last year is located here.

This year’s assignment was to depict a passage from either The Yearling, Little Women or Tom Sawyer. The only other stipulation was that it must be in black and white.

Tomie diPaolo Contest entry
My earliest thumbnail concepts followed the fairly traditional layout, a two-page spread illustration with text on one side and the majority of the action on the other.

Knowing some phenomenal artists would be participating, I didn’t feel I stood a good chance at simply out-gunning them by talent alone. I wanted to create a layout that would shift the balance in my favor by being unique. Thus, I came up with text that changes sizes, two incongruent images being used together, and – since this is a fantasy assignment vs. something that will actually be published – disregarding where the gutter would be located in a traditional spread.

Armed with a unique layout, I set about choosing a scene from The Yearling, landing on a passage where the main character, a boy  who’d spotted a baby  fawn in the woods, comes back the following day to save the tiny orphan. Using charcoal and Conté crayons leftover from college… I drew the background, the two characters, and the little flowers and ferns separately on illustration board with the charcoal and/or pencil. Everything was scanned and brought into Photoshop, where it was tightened up, blended with around 50 different layers of shading and highlights, and adjusted until it matched what I’d aimed for in the thumbnail phase over the past couple weeks. Lastly, the selected text from the story and layout was inserted, and I was done.

At face value, the concept is fairly simple: boy finds deer in the woods. So my hope was to accomplish a few things that would elevate this basic idea. First, I hoped to create visual tension by using old and new media – smudgy, dark charcoal juxtaposed with sharp, digital lines in an avant-garde layout.

Next, I wanted to reveal more of the story than just the passage I chose. Without using thought balloons or comic book panels… I decided to add symbolic tension by using the post-Civil War era rifle silhouette as a framing tool. Hopefully it’s subtle, but unmistakable – providing not only weight to the composition by literally pressing down on the characters… but hinting at the unavoidable end to this still innocent, new friendship.

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Board of Trade

Oct 29 2012

I’ve been promising myself for years to do a series of Chicago-themed travel style posters. There are relatively few authentic ones that are known today; large, rare originals from the 1920’s were often part of the series commissioned for the South Shore Line and North Shore Line commuter trains and posted on railway platforms. Others were created for the 1933-1934 Century of Progress world’s fair. Today, originals sell selling for thousands of dollars – while cheap reproductions on glossy stock usually aren’t the strongest images from the period. And I don’t have much of an affinity for posters of the 60’s; they often have larger areas of typography and, in the case of TWA and other airlines, feature aircraft prominently.

So I’ve thought up and sketched dozens of ideas for new prints that harken back to the nostalgia and simplicity of that era. They range from napkin sketches to full-scale renderings: iconic views of a historic city, with a simplicity, a universal style and unique vantage points that I feel could appeal to more than just a midwest audience.

None of these ideas have made it as far as my current attempt before I’ve abandoned them. So I’m happy to post this particular project in its current phase (though still unfinished).

This is the second attempt at an image I’ve thought about attempting many times over the years. The Chicago Board of Trade has a symmetrical beauty – both individually, as well as its siting at the south end of La Salle Street. I feel it’s simultaneously unique… and familiar.

There’s something about buildings in Chicago, though, that make it a little different than in any other city I’ve been to. As late afternoon sun slices through cross streets, clipping the edges of buildings while plunging others into shadow… you can almost imagine you’re standing on the floor of a deep, water-carved canyon somewhere in Utah. Man-made mountain ranges.

The law firm my great-grandfather founded in the 1920’s is located at the end of the street to this day – last one on the right. He would have looked out his office window every day to a similar view. The magnificent – and long demolished – Chicago Stock Exchange by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, stood just behind the viewer in the 4 o’clock position.

There’s lots left to do with this image: the type is only a placeholder, and all these lines were created with Photoshop’s Lasso tool. It’s very much a “rough final”, you could say. But hopefully, as I refine it, it can be elevated beyond a modern rip-off of an older style, and ultimately stand alongside other illustrators’ visions of this city from the past hundred years.

Board of Trade (sketch)

Board of Trade (rough)

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How long did THAT take?

Oct 26 2012

The title isn’t a reference to the length of time between my blog posts, dear Abridgers. Haw haw.

No, it refers to the first question I’m asked by non-artists, upon seeing something I’ve drawn. It always makes me smile.

“Oh man. I’d need, like, a month to draw that! How long did it take you?”

I invariably imagine some poor soul who can barely hold a crayon, recreating the Mona Lisa at a glacial pace.

Suffice it to say, in my opinion speed and talent have nothing to do with one another. Sure, in theme park circles I suppose the pace at which you churn out caricatures is probably a handy skill. After all, who wants to pose three hours for a drawing of their head on a teeny body?

But even at Six Flags, sitting in front of the fastest guy is no indication you’ll get the best likeness. That’s because in art, it’s all about the ability to accurately depict the image in your mind. Some artists consistently land very accurate, concrete renditions; others wind up with stick figures. And since nobody imagines in stick figures… then a good drawing, dynamic dance or incredible musical performance – all things which must be imagined beforehand – must be the result of natural ability combined with practice.

Being exceptional in either of these areas – raw talent or having lots of experience – relieves you of lacking in the other department. A naturally good artist means you don’t need as much practice as others to be considered good. And those who lack artistic gifts can, of course, offset that deficiency (to a degree) by devoting more time to their craft.

I could depict this concept in a Venn diagram, but frankly I have neither the desire to draw one – or time to search for extant examples.

The bottom line is: I get a kick out of the notion that drawing slowly… makes a drawing better.


Book cover sketches

Speaking of time invested in a skill: here’s an example of how much non-drawing can be required when creating an illustration. I completed this piece last night. The digital painting itself took exactly one full day, but I spent at least that much time preparing for it. Broken into 20-40 minute segments during the past week and a half, I Googled dogs, animal carriers, children smiling, and phrases like “looking over shoulder,” “cat looking down,” and “dog looking up”.

I had to imagine how the entire thing would look assembled from these slivers of research. I needed to determine which style would yield professional-looking results, achieved in part by spending a couple hours looking at other illustrator’s online portfolios. I took photos of Melissa’s sister smiling over her shoulder, posing her hand, and holding a notebook. And of course I sketched a dozen or so thumbnails to accomplish the tightest compositional layout I could think up. Even then I had to arrange all the pieces in Photoshop; moving and scaling the sketches, so they weren’t blocking something important. Why work 12 hours on a piece if at the end you wish that dog had been a half  inch to the right?

The piece is a mock cover – part of  an illustration critique I’ll participate in next month. It will be moderated by an art director from Scholastic, Inc., and while there’s no prize for any of the submissions – likely two dozen or more illustrators are participating – it’s not lost on anyone that this woman plays a role in hiring illustrators who do real book covers. In other words, forget “imaginary assignment”. As far as I’m concerned, this is a job interview.

Book cover sketches

Book cover sketches

Finished book cover

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