On your stands now, in the current Rolling Stone (with John Oliver on the cover,), is an in-depth piece of journalism by Tim Dickinson on the Koch Brothers and their impressive (not in a positive sense) reach and grip on American politics and environmental policy.
I’ve done the Koch brothers before for various magazines. Interesting how just a few years ago, Google reference was quite limited. Not so, anymore. That said, the challenges facing a caricaturist remain the same. One brother, David, always had the more interesting horror movie mortician appearance, while the other, Charles, in actuality the real driving force behind the evil empire, facially bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the older Robert Redford. When RS art director Mark Maltais called me with the assignment it turned into another opportunity to study these mugs and, hopefully, create an image strong enough to complement the copy.
It’s funny, but these stories, like so many on politics and business, contain maze like plot lines and criss-crossing agendas. To try to cover all the elements of a complicated journalistic endeavor like this story sometimes requires less attention on the specifics in the article and more focus on a unifying theme in the image. Simpler sometimes is better, but simpler doesn’t necessarily mean less detail in the actual illustration, merely a solid core around which to work.
My sketches approached the article from several points of view. I thought of maybe creating a P.T. Barnum style circus poster with the brothers as ringmasters and all the various side shows revolving around them, including the contortionist politicians grabbing for money. I’ve always loved Caspar Friedrich’s “The Wanderer” and felt the figure standing on a mountaintop of money bags surveying not a magnificent landscape but an expanse of pollution would look cool except for the fact it is not a lone figure in the article but two. Portraying them as vultures seemed a possibility as well and no one portrayed corrupt individuals as vultures better than Thomas Nast. I had fun with those. Then there was a simple straight ahead option, involving caricatures of the brothers holding a diseased globe but smiling/laughing very contentedly. It certainly allowed for focus on caricaturing self satisfaction. When people are this rich you can criticize them till the cows come home and it won’t matter. They are well protected. Putin in Russia enjoys a similarly brazen, contemptuous attitude, being probably the richest man in that kleptocracy. Still we press on and keep firing them arrows.
The gang at RS went with the straight ahead approach. The faces are predominant as are the expressions. Exaggeration for exaggeration’s sake has become far less interesting to me over the years as much as trying to capture something in the character via that right expression. So these are less wild attacks of bravura distortion and more studied visual statements. As their business empire runs well past the borders of America to Russia (not surprising) and even Iran (Axis of Evil, anyone?) it felt perfectly right to spread the diseased skies and landscape all over the globe. Healthy blue was not a consideration; better the corrosive browns and umbers of shit in the air.
Less a direct lift from the original Nast and more an inspiration with the twist of forcing the Bald Eagle out of the nest.
Four For The Air Force- and then some
Once again, the Society of Illustrators will have its biannual exhibition in conjunction with the USAF Art Program beginning this September. The missions were very few these past two years a result of the sequester and government budget cuts. This year the Society will focus on exhibiting selected pieces from the USAF permanent collection. There will be some seriously stunning work highlighting the more than 60 years of working with the Air Force. There will also be a small showing of work from the one mission last summer at McGuire AFB/Fort Dix in New Jersey where Operation Eagle Flag training exercises were being held. A small group of Society illustrators were there documenting the event, and I'm happy to say I was part of that group. My sketchbooks were filled with plenty of false starts but enough visual information to create four finished pieces. All the drawings were dry-mounted to firmer board and then worked on with acrylics. Please check the Society's website for the dates of the exhibition. www.societyillustrators.org
A case in point. This drawing was nearly 80% of what is seen here when everything abruptly changed over and had I not taken some video and photos, would have remained in a sort of limbo. Carefully extracting the pages from the moleskine large sized pad (11x17") I hot press mounted it to 4 ply Strathmore paper to protect against buckling and proceeded with a careful application of acrylics. Watercolor rarely responds well to moleskine paper on initial application but acrylics so far have not met that resistance.
The hardest thing for me when working with color and paints is knowing when to stop. When enough has been said and anything else just turns the image into feeling like a rendering of a photo (as my mentor Bernie D'Andrea would caution me about). I stopped here. The focus was where I wanted it.
Nothing remained still. Even the soldier actually suffering from dehydration. This procedure surprisingly lasted longer than I had anticipated.
Similar situation. A fair amount of information sketched real fast trying to record an event moving quite fast. Probably the only people remaining relatively stationary during these few minutes were the members of the USAF unit who were training with the role players. Many of the role players are immigrants and bring a level of cultural authenticity to the exercises that hiring local actors could never match. Here, Lebanese actor/entrepreneur "Jimmy Smooth", as he was known to the troops, announces to the villagers that an agreement has been reach with the US forces.
One of the many sketches that went nowhere and was over before the camera could even be called into play to record the specifics. Another view of "Jimmy Smooth" who sounded like the Lebanese version of Rodney Dangerfield. He rarely broke character except when the exercise was specifically called into recess. Otherwise, he, as well as the others, kept their interactions with the troops as real villagers which allowed them to create challenges that required the military personnel to figure out the proper response. All this would be observed by trainers who kept score and graded how our forces carried themselves. The critiques would come later.
SoI member Stephen Gardner draws and takes notes on how to properly smoke a hookah. SoI Government Services chairman, John Witt works the camera. There were overlaps with British forces also in training.
Unfinished but I think I caught her Pip Pip sort of character. Never found out her name but Millicent or Penelope would not have surprised me.
The guy with the cigar was Air Force role playing as town constable. The rest were actors. I found myself wondering at times about what was going through these immigrants' minds, lives disrupted, separated from their homelands. I had the strong impression from some that they thought we had Hollywood level connections and could get them discovered. It was almost like they were auditioning for us at certain points.
A number of the actors were African. This gentleman who played the town religious leader apparently was in actuality a Muslim cleric. Very soft spoken and gentle of spirit.
Henry Bith. A break in the exercises and time to sit in a wooden shack away from the aggressive sun. I was into the drawing for a few minutes as Henry continued speaking to me when I realized he was talking about having been one of the "Lost Boys of the Sudan". His story was one of great suffering and loss- having witnessed the annihilation of his family- and I found myself lost at times trying to understand how he got to America. But he got here, and with his wife, is trying to make a new life in the States. Another reminder of what we take for granted and what so many in this world must struggle through on a day to day basis. http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/closboys.htm
Henry Bith's wife. I never was entirely sure how she was reacting to my drawing her. Sometimes seeming embarrassed, other times annoyed.
The crew. Stephen Gardner, Jim Consor, John Witt, Cpl. Agarn, and Dennis Dittrich.
Never looks good. No matter how practical it may feel steadying a drawing pad (in this case a hard cover Moleskine) on crossed legs while drawing, it always winds up looking effete.
A couple of drawings still needing a few tweaks that were offered as incentives for a recent Foundation Rwanda fundraiser. Prints are to be sent to donors who contributed a certain amount. Apparently the response was very good. I'll be busy this September printing and mailing and grateful for the Epson 4880 in the studio. The drawings are based on photos by FR co-founder and photographer extraordinaire Jonanthan Torgovnik.
A painting of my own based on sketches at the clinic last year in Rwanda.
Ending this with a drawing found while rearranging files int he barn/studio. Current SSGT Ben as he was at 2 1/2 years old.
It’s been too long since my last posting. Very easy to convince oneself that putting together something for Drawger, both images and text, can be put off till the next day. Before you know it, you have a long stretch of time and a lot of ground to cover.
A huge project, started in January and recently completed, for TED via the terrific team at Alexander Isley’s, occupied much of my thoughts and time. It marked the first time, finally, at 60, that this Luddite was able to comprehend, via very patient hands-on instruction, the mechanics of layering in Photoshop. Desperation is indeed a great motivator to learn when faced with a workload that would have been overwhelming. The event happens in September and I hope to post more detail and visuals then. It was a valuable learning experience and a quantum jump for me in many ways.
Running parallel with this project were other assignments. A good percentage of them fell into the classification of pro bono- the object being to raise money for good, no- great, causes. The payback is to the soul. The remainder have been classic old fashioned illustration. Get the copy, read it, come up with an idea, get it approved, get it done. And have some fun in the process.
When Robert Best, the art director for The Nation, called me to do a cover piece on California governor Jerry Brown, the challenge would be how to balance the feature story image; whether Brown or the state of California would be the focus. A stage show, some sort of hat trick (I think that was one of the proposed headlines), focusing on his-and the state’s- comeback was to factor into the image. I played with a number of magician ideas. All were humorous, but the vignettes had to conform to the layout of copy and headlines on the cover. What was finally selected was a good choice considering the restrictions, struck the right balance between focusing on Brown and the state, and turned out to be great fun taking to finish. I probably drew Brown many many years ago when he was first governor and running for president. I’d say most conservative friends still have him wrapped in the “Governor Moonbeam” phase, but it seems, considering the legislature he has to deal with (and I thought New York’s is a horror) he’s demonstrated the ability to be a pragmatist and not some freak. That he angers both conservatives and liberals makes me think he’s doing what he sees as best and not caring about ideologies. Brown is great fun to draw. He has sharp, almost raptor like features at this stage of his life, not a kid anymore, and what look like buck-ish teeth when he smiles- ever so slyly.
I’ve done a number of Will Shortz crossword and Sudoku book covers for Robert Grom at St. Martin’s Press. They have always involved a caricature of Shortz and a situation illustrating the book theme. Since the theme this time was about ‘mind melting’ Sudoku, it seemed only right to emphasize in a humorous way trying to keep the brain cool under the circumstances. Robert has a very relaxed attitude to art directing and once the idea and sketch was discussed- the only wait centering around waiting for the feedback from the editors- I was home free. The year before the theme was crossword puzzles for the whole year- hats representing the seasons was a perfect solution and worked real well with the cover type.
A nice fistful of illustrations for the ‘National Affairs’ section, my regular haunt. For a story on Obama trying to keep from getting embroiled in the nightmare that is Syria, I was reminded of rueful warning from General Colin Powell before Iraqi Freedom commenced, “You break it, you own it.” The cast of characters fighting in Syria is so confused and fraught with the danger of assisting your next Osama bin Laden. An early idea had Obama lighting a match to see himself surrounded by scorpions as various Moslem insurgents with no real good way out. But it did not address the issue that there were strong voices calling for US military involvement. Breaking and owning made me think of the bull in the china shop, very dangerous with serious potential to cause much damage. It seemed perfectly appropriate to portray Obama attempting to restrain the red, white, and blue bull with the horns shaped as gun barrels- a nod to an old Warner Brothers cartoon. As a matter of fact, the bull owes much to Looney Tunes. Art Director: Mark Maltais.
Big Carbon Beats Up on Kid Solar
The solar industry still comprises a small portion of America’s power supply. There are a number of reasons but one of them certainly is a result of the efforts of energy industries that rely on oil and coal to suppress the spread of the solar industry. There’s serious money here and competition for market dominance is rough. Not a story where much humor is to be found, and I definitely didn’t want to go all dark and symbolic in imagery. Ironically, that old Warner Brothers muse directed me to making the gesture the focus. The big polluting farmer, armed with weed killer, hulking over a couple of solar weeds. The idea was quickly approved by AD Mark Maltais.
Obama’s Last Chance at Any Climate Change Reform
Jeff Goodell writes much on the environment for RS and put together a piece on this year being Obama’s last opportunity to make some impact and bully pulpit legislation before he crosses into lame duck status. There wasn’t much positive news in the article, but in a series of mental quantum leaps, I saw this as a final take- Take 2014- in a Perils of Pauline style movie. Obama attempting to rescue Planet Earth tied to the tracks as a train approaches roaring from behind. Again, idea quickly approved and onto finish.
For years I’ve seen the work in the annual Frogfolio calendar, art directed by Jim Burke, featuring some of my favorite illustrators, and wondered if there was some special selection process. Then I got the call from Jim a few months ago. My first question was,
“Has anyone portrayed a frog as “The Frog”?”, referring to tenor sax great Ben Webster, who was also known as “The Brute”. Jim answered in the affirmative telling me that Joe Ciardiello had done a portrait of Ben. That was fine by me. I wasn’t looking to do a portrait of Webster as much as I wanted to anthropomorphize a frog as Webster. One of the great faces in Jazz; huge, dark, and puffy bug eyes, rotund of physique in his later years, the trademark hat looking a size or two too small, resting on his balding head. The real challenge was transferring the spontaneity in my sketch to the finish. When I’m excited about a project like this there’s always the danger that I will try to shoot for the moon and lose sight of what is already happening on the paper. Going for that gold medal image instead of enjoying the process of drawing and coloring. I nipped that counter productive attitude pretty early on. That said, there were still many fails until the right line quality, gesture, and attitude all fell into satisfying place. I was happy with the result and so was Jim.
I so wanted to have the California bear assistant in the image but space wouldn't permit it.
This was my second runner up. I liked the attitude and gag.
Too much about Jerry and not enough about California. What to do? What to do?
Take one from column A and add one from column B.
I can never be grateful enough to Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, McKimson and all the other brilliant minds behind Looney Tunes for all the joy and inspiration they've brought to my life from childhood to present.
Even as I worked this idea up the thought of repeating all those factories and oil drills had me wincing.
Interesting to think what this might have looked like as an old time B/W silent movie image.
Hmmm. Since 2008, my portrayals of Obama have gradually shifted from a confident, in control type of president, to someone expressing more hesitancy, lack of control, and even helplessness.
In any number of ways, for the writer, or the illustrator, or those who are really entrepreneurial and do both, children’s books are a lot like children. They are not children, in a similar way pets are not real children, but they have similarities. They require great exercises in patience, energy, perseverance, and faith, with the artist/writer on many an occasion retiring to a stressful, sleepless night filled with doubts, second guessing, replays of apparent wrong decisions and how things could have been handled better, and of course, apprehension for the outcome. What is this book going to turn out like? It’s really quite incredible how much of your conscious and unconsious life is consumed by a book. Even when you’re not working on the book, you’re thinking about it. Other projects get put off, set to the side; assignments, even fun ones, get turned down because of the commitment and the deadlines. With unnerving rapidity that year away deadline, which looked so comfortably distant, is right in front of you. Practically, viewed from a short term financial standpoint, children’s books are not very cost effective when all the time invested in research, sketching and re-sketching, and finally the finished art get added together and divided per page.
Speaking as the illustrator here and not as an author, the hopes and expectations one imagines for the artwork, may, uncannily like kids, head in directions not anticipated when confronted with the reality at the drawing board. All the prepping and research seems to have been turned on its head and what you are looking at half way through the project is not what you thought you’d see. Now what? This is not necessarily a negative provided you can get a grip on yourself, accept the possibility of a change in plans, and make the adjustments to successfully adapt. As the project unfolds we eventually arrive at working in a way that seems comfortable and right. There’s even a strong temptation to redo the first batch of finishes because they don’t match the quality- or vision- of the later ones. And sometimes that actually happens because you want to be proud of how that kid- er- book turns out.
So far, most of what I’ve pointed out sounds fairly dis-incentivizing. Someone reading this would rightfully ask, why take up such a challenge and spend a considerable amount of time behaving like a determined but sleep-deprived parent for a half year or so, much to the concern of your spouse? Well, one reason is faith that all the hard work will be worth it. And, as is so often the case with kids, it is. Ultimately, if you don’t love what you are doing you’re in a lot of trouble. And no matter how frustrating the going gets, you don't give up on the images and what you're putting together.
“Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic” is the seventh book I’ve illustrated for the wonderful folks at Sleeping Bear Press. My first collaboration, in 2004, with Elissa Grodin, titled “D is for Democracy” was the beginning of a truly unique relationship with editors and art directors at Sleeping Bear. We like each other. More important, the folks at Sleeping Bear ‘get it’. They have great trust in the illustrators they match with writers, provide minimal but smart editorial feedback, and consequently the attitude from their offices is always upbeat and positive. Whatever pressure I feel is self generated, a desire to match their enthusiasm with the best imagery that I can create.
The great irony about “Hot Dog!” is that we had signed the contracts and such a good six months before we found out that there was a movie being produced about the very same event. It was a charming flick, “Hyde Park on the Hudson” that starred Bill Murray as a very convincing Franklin D. Roosevelt. I had mixed reactions at first to the announcement of the movie hitting the theaters a good year before Hot Dog!'s publication but as time went on saw it not as a spoiler but as a complement to the book. No matter, I deliberately avoided seeing the movie until I was well into the project and feeling secure about the direction. It became a reference source for clothing colors and scenery in a few of the images. The actual picnic itself plays a small role in the flick.
Reference. I can’t think of any children’s book I’ve done for Sleeping Bear that didn’t involve some investment of time in reference hunting. More often than not, the research felt like 50% of the entire project. If the content is historical the need to get things right initially, before artistic license is allowed to enter, is crucial. Whether it is American history, the military, Greek mythology or the Roman Empire, having as solid a foundation in picture reference is a must. We can gripe about Google for any number of good reasons but the access to picture reference is inestimable. What would take many trips to libraries or picture reference outlets can be done from your studio. One of the side benefits to reference hunting on Google is the access to all sorts of tangential information in a matter of moments. A leads to B leads to G. It turns into a side obsession; to learn as much as possible related to the subject and the people involved so as to bring something extra to the images. Even when the illustrations are approached in a lighter, more humorous, caricature-like format, the information gathered from the research alows me to bring some insight into the characters of the subjects.
Google was great but extremely limited in visual reference pertaining to the barbeque, an event that was not really open to press photographers. Plan B. A goodly amount of time was spent at the Roosevelt Museum/Estate at Hyde Park, which has an extraordinary research library. How could it not? It’s also a beautiful set of estates to visit. You feel the history as you walk around. The staff was very helpful, if a bit business like, but as I looked around the library room it was apparent how many people were sitting at tables doing research. A lot. I was just one of many who journeyed in and out on a daily basis. It was here that, after explaining my mission to the staff, I was brought a number of folders from which a small grouping of photos from the barbeque emerged. The pictures seemed casual, not really professionally photographed. But they were there, and there was just enough to get an approximation for what I needed to portray, including the Native Americans who were invited to perform for the guests. As was the case I also searched for reference of as many angles of FDR and Eleanor from that period so as not to be locked to a few set facial shots. The King and Queen of England were also reasonably well represented. FDR’s customized auto was there as well which I had the opportunity to photograph. The treasure trove of photos of Eleanor created some fascinating observations. It’s very easy to think of her as an awkward ugly duckling sort of woman. But a number of pictures, especially from her youth portray a certain distinctive charm to the features. Her Uncle was Teddy (pronounced Teedy as I have come to learn from Edmund Morris’s bio).
The reference hunting actually never stopped. It went on till the very end. Some of my original sketches took drastic turns as I found photos that countered what I had envisioned. I also suspected the movie would make it difficult to just adlib details.
My original thoughts were to portray the event in a very loose, light manner, but once the actual transition to finishes happened they become more solid, atmospheric, whimsical balanced with some seriousness. It was somewhat disconcerting. At certain points I was not entirely sure which direction the images were heading, or if they even needed to stay strictly consistent in attitude. That’s not a comfortable question to ask. One assumes from a children’s book standard that consistency is very important. And, as mentioned earlier, as the book progressed and I got more comfortable with the characters I insisted on redoing some of my earlier pieces out of dissatisfaction with the original portrayals. In the end I was pretty satisfied with the finished entity. As is the case with a book of over 20 illustrations, some felt more successful than others. But the overall look was very pleasing. This is probably the first book that I’ve done for them that really felt like a kid’s book. All the others have been A-B-C’s, wonderful instructionals but following a certain design format specific to Sleeping Bear. This one not so. It has a more relaxed feel and the type complements the illustrations rather than acting as the counterpoint.
Many thanks to Felicia Macheske, who art directed, and Barbara McNally who edited, two women I've had great fun working with on previous books. Thanks to author Leslie Kimmelman, who couldn't have been nicer or more helpful providing me with historical data to add clarification to certain scenes when I was stuck.
A selection of illustrations that worked for me, some sketches, and sketches that got tossed.
Perfect example of reference adding that extra something to an image. FDR had very specific items on his desk. I couldn't include them all but didn't make anything up either.
Finding color reference for the clothes for a specific person from an era of black and white photography made for special challenges.
An interesting dilemma. When the gang saw my sketch there was concern about the serving staff being all African American. I had to point out that indeed that was the tradition up till JFK's time, a fact that I was unaware of till researching for the book. Still there was some worry and I lightened the tone of one of the servers.
Rumors of war. Trouble from overseas in the form of Hitler's speeches. By this point it was readily apparent that this was not going to be a purely light and humorous book, even for kids. An early sketch that we dropped in favor of focusing instead on Eleanor listening to the radio. In an interim sketch I had Hitler coming out of the radio in a mist, but it was eventually decided to drop his image entirely and just focus on Eleanor's reaction listening to the radio.
Fala is never really mentioned in the book, but I decided on including him as a sort of recurring image throughout the book. It was a hit with everyone.
A two page spread that was to illustrate the national reaction on finding out the Roosevelt's were serving hot dogs to the King and Queen. Early sketch. Still had it in mind that it would be more cartoony.
We dropped the image and instead decided to go with another sketch of mailmen delivering the loads of outraged mail.
The scene of FDR driving the Royal couple around the Hyde Park estate was portrayed very humorously in the movie. There was no Fala in that scene either.
A discarded sketch of the picnic entertainment itself. The visual information was so scarce that I thought I'd fake it some and take the vantage point from the back porch onto the yard.
However on a return visit to the Hyde Park research center I found other images from that day that gave me enough information to piece together a scene from the grass looking up at the back porch. The Royal guests were seated there.
Again, trying to find that balance between seriousness and whimsical in the same book.
A perfect example of not faking it. I liked this sketch and the vantage point, except that FDR would not be in the middle of the crowd. He would have been standing next to his car holding onto his assistant waving from the parking area toward the tracks.
It occurred to me that as the Royal couple were heading north to Canada the train would need to be facing in a specific direction as well. I settled for the passenger car. Enough reference was located to pretty much identify the kind of train cars they traveled in. The station is still there, obviously the parking area has changed. No real reference of the send off but enough bits and pieces of information to imagine the scene. I chose therefore not to focus on the train station building itself but just hint.
The first Royal bite. Apparently George enjoyed it greatly.
Original finish of the very uncomfortable Queen dealing with such a phallic object. She did choose to slice it, but only after she asked FDR how to eat it and he replied, "Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing till it is all gone."
Near the end of my work I found even more reference on the Queen from this period and had to admit I was not happy with my earlier portrayals. I insisted on doing this one over. Still and all, not a lot to go with especially where specific facial expressions are important. Even so, I was much happier with this version and Barbara and Felicia understood why a redo was important in my eyes.
When you work with people long enough you can screw around with them. I sent this under the premise as a serious choice for cover illustration. Must have been around the time the Kurtzman show was at the Society of Illustrators. We were tossing around who exactly should be portrayed on the cover. The Royals, kids, Royals and kids? FDR and all?