Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Much of illustration is making one thing look like something else. I see resemblances everywhere, and letterforms are so deeply imprinted it's no surprise that I see them in everyday things. To make a lettered title more interesting I'll sometimes substitute a thing for a letter, a palm tree for a T, a teepee for an A, in rebus-fashion. Turning men into semaphores is a challenge.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rural Landscape

I did this for my favorite aunt yesterday. Since I was a kid I've been a deep observer of the rural landscape. I've depicted it with small penwork and fat brushstrokes, fine and loose black line and more recently with pencil. I am not immune to influences. Edward Bawden, Eric Ravillious, Thomas Hart Benton, Wanda Gag, Garth Williams, Andrew Wyeth and others. This one is a bit more Matisse than Currie or Grant Wood.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Half Title

This cookbook for Chronicle was one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever worked on. This was the half title, which is the page before the title page, an appetizer, an opportunity to play with lettering a little. It added nothing to the book. Just decoration––decorative fun. Like radishes you carve into rosebuds.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I learned that less detail makes the remaining detail more noticeable. You look at the small inflections, subtle emotions and the larger pattern because I left out the hair, the ears, the lips.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


A painting from my spectrum series. I paint things differently for the page than for hanging on the wall. Illustration is about subject but a painting on the wall can be about anything or nothing, like this one. So why do I love looking at it and what am I seeing? A critic could probably explain it for me and I could paint an illustration of what he explained. By the way, I am still looking for a new gallery to sell my art.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Naked City

I remember riding the train into the city when I was a kid, thinking to myself that there were people inside all of those buildings. That there was something going on inside every window, between people I didn't know and would never meet.

Friday, March 19, 2010

There is no rhyme or reason

It would be interesting to put this in a frame on a wall and sit with a magazine nearby listening to what people thought it meant. Usually I reject juxtapositions that seem meaningful, unless the meaning is absurd or funny. Funny to me will usually not be funny to anyone else. Am I an obscurist at heart? Or is it just perverse?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Globe and Not a Globe

The nice thing about pencil line is it's unrehearsed. The thought comes right off the top of my head onto the paper. The roughness allows one thing to be another thing without making the viewer stretch too much. More simile than metaphor, maybe. Stories are written first in pencil.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Assorted Items

I've been drawing still lifes lately. Arranging items in a certain way says something. It implies a message even if there isn't one, a relationship or a causation you never intended. Why else are these things together? My book uses this same trick. Setting anecdotes and people next to each other strikes up a conversation between them.

This arrangement of toys and people was done for a paper promotion designed by Besser Joseph years ago. The items have a loose connection having to do with the initial letter L, and some other tropes I can't remember. As I look at it now I can almost make sense of it, but it's probably not the sense I intended when I painted it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Monday Warm-Up

To get the machinery started I like do a little random drawing. Things I see around me. Still lifes of kitchen items, fruits and vegetables, knives and forks. Forks are trickier than you think. Hands aren't easy either, as I've mentioned before. I used to hate drawing them, mostly because I was bad at it. (Interestingly, I saw a stock-house illustration in the paper yesterday that had the left hand at the end of the right arm, and vice versa. I don't think it was intentional.) I've gotten pretty good at hands since then. One thing I've discovered, though, is the more perfectly drawn they are the less they suggest. An awkward drawing always works better at conveying metaphor, probably because our eye stops and tries to make sense of it. The less distinct it is the more it might be something else.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Man on Bicycle

It's the first warm Monday of the year. Makes you want to take the day off and grab your bicycle.

Friday, March 12, 2010

City Maps II

I did this map in black line for Robert Valentine. It was Robert who did the colors and had it so beautifully letterpressed. The client was an important literary agent who was moving from the upper east side to midtown. In other words it was a moving announcement, but rather more glorified than such items usually are. Surprisingly enough it was singled out as one of the best printed pieces of the year by ID, the international design magazine. There was cleverness in the drawing, but it was the elegance of the execution that made it memorable. I like how I magnified the street grid slightly inside the magnifying glass. The glass was also my idea, as were the little jokes inserted around it. But it needed to be clear and eye-catching, and that was Robert's doing.

This map is a enormous departure, but does the same basic things. Just a map of a well known New York neighborhood, but with less persiflage. I drew it as someone would draw on a cocktail napkin. Rough, blunt, offhand. Pencil line has more candor to begin with and deserves to be used more. I did a San Francisco map for Random House once, for a book about the Beats. It was careful and clear, and I wish I'd done it carelessly and roughly, more like this. It would have contained the same information but would have suited the milieu it depicted.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

City Maps

I did this map for a corporate client sometime in the 90s. It's always been a favorite of mine. The art director was Megan Taylor. Since it was the centerfold of the publication, Megan had the clever idea of doing the title lettering in a pop-up, which was fun. It's exciting to see what art directors might do to take my art to another level.

A city map presents a whole different set of demands from a regional map. Which streets to show, which to leave out. Which landmarks to illustrate, and how to integrate these illustrated elements in a way that doesn't confuse the eye. I like to think of the street grid as a floor painting on which these illustrated elements are choreographed. Map illustration is more than a simple rendering of a place; it requires re-imagining it. I think it's important to have a rationale like this, a set of rules, so that the concept doesn't get muddled or too elaborate. After many years drawing maps, these rules and tricks have become second nature to me, shaping how I visualize a place. When I read about travel I always look for a map, always want one. I need to know where I am, and where the writer is leading me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Other Places

Today I'm painting a map for the Washington Post, so I thought I'd post a map. I've always loved maps, looking at them, drawing them, collecting them. A map is an entirely artificial construct, a mental image, in other words it's something a photographer can't do with a camera. It's cloudy and rainy out today, so here's a sunnier place to contemplate, with its various attractions painted large.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Drawings sometimes invent themselves. I put them down the way I take a message for my wife, assuming the information is self-explanatory. For instance, I don't know what the arrow means in this one, but I'm sure it makes perfect sense to you. Happy is a very fungible word, useful in any context. I could have put it next to a drawing of a frowning man and you would assume I meant it ironically. Actually, I drew this in an ironic mood. Maybe the arrow implies irony. Maybe irony is in the ear of the beholder.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Besides being the worst driver in American literary history, Nathanael West also etched an interestingly surreal portrait of Hollywood, the town where he spent his twilight years. The surrealism amounted to dead accuracy, of course. Scenes of cowboys and Indians seated at café counters and fairy tale cottages planted adjacent to miniature haciendas in the Hollywood Hills. When I finally arrived in L.A. I was disappointed to discover there wasn't actually an immense building spelling out "20th Century" like the one that preceded pictures by 20th Century Fox. There was the Hollywood sign, however. And this authentic chateau located on Sunset Boulevard. Where Jim Morrison used up the eighth of his nine lives and Helmut Newton and John Belushi died and F. Scott Fitzgerald nearly did, where Garbo and Montgomery Clift and James Dean and Hunter S. Thompson slept.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Baby You Can Drive My Car

I love toys. Not only are they a fun timewaster in the studio, they offer a useful metaphorical tool. Things not plausible in real life often make sense as a toy. This pencil style I've been playing around with has a different effect: pencil gives things a documentary feel, as if they've been seen and recorded. Pencils also come directly out of the artist's head, with none of the smoothing-out that a more finished medium adds. It's more off-the-cuff, more sincere, more suggestive. What does this drawing suggest? We use the phrase "remote control" in a disparaging way, so maybe it could add an ironic commentary to a story about a pol who's controlled by others. Just off the top of my head.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Experienced illustrators who have spent years honing their craft are capable of some amazing tricks. This is just one of them that I do when people stop by the studio. While balancing these items on my nose I was also able to put more hair on my head.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Purely Decorative

In our everyday lives there's no burning need for decorative borders, but they're nice. They're usually there for a reason. The elaborate baseboards at the foot of interior walls were put there to keep the mop from dinging the plaster. The leather hem on a car coat keeps the sleeve from fraying. In fashion, in the built landscape, in graphics, minor extras usually have a practical reason. Making them look nice is just a courtesy, which may be why designers are so polite. I did these decorative borders for Lisa Catalone, who was designing a neat mailer for a school back east. Besides the useful illustrations, I did lettering that she turned into a font, and these decorative borders which she used to make the individual cards look special, which is what made people linger over them and read what they said.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Global Warming: the snow shovel's perspective

With all of the snow falling back east I'm guessing millions of people think global warming was a figment of Al Gore's imagination. The scientific explanation takes too long for people to digest, but it sometimes helps to invent a visual that puts it in a nutshell. There's the snow-shovel, and the earth on it is melting. I did this drawing yesterday for the New York Times letters page; it appears there today.

As I understand it, the snow is a downwind effect of climate change. If it sounds illogical think of how Arabs drink hot coffee to cool off. Any massive shift in climatic conditions is bound to spin off contradictory effects in different places: droughts, floods, locusts, hurricanes. Which may explain why apocalyptic Christians are so delighted.

I started playing around with this pencil style about a week ago. This is its first appearance in print. Aviva Michaelov is the art director.