Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 7

...and finally the culmination of what we'd been hoping for.
What had been hinted at, which is what prophets do in a vague sort of way...
Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 6

...which becomes something surreal. This is what is called the transformation scene in the world of pantomime...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 3

...a curved line becomes a world, a puppet theatre, a bearded face becomes a boot and a boot becomes a peninsula in the Mediterranean.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 2

It's interesting how the shapes grow out of the painted line, almost like flowers growing out of the stem growing out of the ground, and how similar in silhouette a figure is to a flower or a leaf or a gondola to a continent.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bagatelle Story-frame 1

I like to paint these small silhouetted stories during December, which is a time of stories. I've been doing a few this week. These are from a few years ago and comprise a story, a kind of ballet, no dialogue, just shadows. This is frame one.

Friday, December 16, 2011

An Overused Word

A couple of years ago I did a lot of drawing for a retail client in New York. As usual it was more than they could ever use. Most never got past the pencil stage. Luckily I hang onto pencils. I ran across a few of them in a folder the other day and got to playing with them. How do you make a cliché like "SALE" fresh and new? How do you make it eye-catching? You play with it. Like a jazz artist playing variations on a familiar tune.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Winter Sports

I remember my dad taking us to a park years ago when I was four or five. I skated and my brother took his sled to the top of the enormous hill. Rink ice was hard if you fell, but you only fell from a couple of feet. Hills were for bigger kids and much scarier. It was a windy day and I remember later on my dad took the sled out on the rink. Standing on it with us at his feet he acted like a sail and we moved gracefully down the ice among the skaters, like some kind of strange buffalo among the flamingos. I may have been remembering that day when I painted this. There was a company in the town my dad grew up in that made ice boats. I don't know if he ever tried one out. I think the umbrella adaptation shown here would be worth experimenting with.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Balancing Act

I did this illustration several months ago for the Cornell Law School magazine, art directed by Robin Awes. The topic was the difficult balance between philosophy and pragmatism. It's something encountered in law and politics but also in everyday life, in our work, even something as trivial as drawing pictures. We're always being asked to find a balance between ideal and practical, between good and bad or perfect and less perfect. What happens when the client's idea of perfect is different than our own? I used the monkeywrench to depict the practical and a Greek column to stand in for the philosophical ideal. Notice that the Greek column is a fragment from a ruin. Even the perfect isn't perfect.

When I taught professional practice at the College of Art & Design I had a lecture about another kind of balancing act. I asked my students, who were a couple months from entering the professional world: "What qualities make a successful illustrator?" We compiled two lists, one under the heading GENIUS, the other under RELIABLE. It's the same tension between practical and ideal. Work is a matter of negotiating a balance between the two...with an emphasis on the practical side.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Life is a Road

I drew this for our Christmas card a few years ago. A brush and mars black on paper.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Debut in the New Republic

I did this double portrait of Bono for the New Republic that's on the newsstands now. I did about a dozen illustrations in all for the Lists Issue. Bono is on their list of "pseuds". Not having spoken with Bono recently, I can't say whether he's any phonier than other rock musicians who have political opinions. He does have nice eyewear though.

Here's another, this one depicting the overcoverage issue. Too much media attention about the usual non-topics. I've been an admirer of the design and the writing at the New Republic. The design is by the estimable Joe Heroun.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What's On Your Mind, Part II

I have an exercise I do sometimes, to get my brain moving, to get the ideas from my head to my hand to my pencil. I draw a face. I draw an oval, or I draw the arrangement of features. Why are they always arranged the same, like a place setting? There's no law about that, so I rearrange the furniture, put the ear where the nose usually is, or insert a spoon or an automobile in its place. What is it saying to me? Usually nothing, but it opens a door to resemblances that we train ourselves to ignore. Rule-breaking is the first rule of art. The world isn't two dimensional but the paper is. The offbeat equations we make don't need to be outright surreal to be interesting. The brain is who we are, so why not draw it into that space? Is he asleep, or thinking, or dead? Sometimes the best drawing is inconclusive.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pencil Line is Thought on Paper

I find that the simplest line usually conveys the most. If I'm trying to create a visual metaphor (a metaphor uses a concrete thing to embody something else, a concept or an abstraction) it's best to leave it unelaborated. The less specific detail the better. In this case the shape of the head becomes a kind of Venn Diagram. A more detailed drawing would beg for explanation: what's that other head doing there? In this simple context it justifies itself. Our eye explains it for us.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How Do You Draw Music?

I did this illustration for the Hartford Courant several years ago. Coming across it again reminded me how hard it is to visualize some things, like music or things heard and not seen. We resort to shorthand and code to explain music, which is what I did here. The story was about perfect pitch, who has it and who doesn't. Having it is easier to show than not having it. (It's hard to show something that's not there.)

After sketching around the idea for a while I decided to put one person right side up and the other upside down, to show they are hearing the same music differently. I had them identifying the musical pitch differently. Not just differently, though. What she identifies as "b" he says is "g" which works nicely because it's "b" upside down. Some things are simple to show but complicated to explain.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Tea Party

Compared to the space age equipment and the choreography, the whole apparatus of coffee-making, tea is simple. In Japan they have a ceremony, or so I've heard. My ritual is not ceremonious. I just try to get my tea ready at the same time as my toast, something any governor of Texas would be able to do without supervision.

This item is meant to hold the loose tea leaves together to steep, but even this is more high-tech than I usually am. Most mornings I resort to a tea bag. Liptons. (I used to use Twinings but I quit Twinings when they redesigned the little envelopes the bag comes in. I have a low tolerance for bad design.) Enough. My tea is getting cold.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I've always loved the smell of coffee. It's hard to find a cup of coffee that tastes as good as it smells. I enjoy a cup once in a while, but not when I have art to do; it makes my hand too impulsive, the movement too abrupt, a bit jittery. It would be interesting to do before and after drawings of the same thing, one before a cup of coffee and one after.

I learned to love coffee years ago when I was attending English Departmental meetings and that was low-bred percolator coffee, hardly better than church coffee, although I like church coffee too. Minnesota Lutheran church coffee. (I could write a serious article about it; it's seriously underappreciated. Presbyterian coffee is good too. I don't think I've ever tasted Methodist.)

Anyway, this is a drawing I did last night while waiting for dinner. I looked around the kitchen for something to draw and realized I'd never drawn this pot. Nice shape. Function and form.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Money Trees

I did these two illustrations for one of the financial magazines. Bloomberg, I think. The story was about how young marrieds can nurture their separate investments and build a future together. The idea of a money tree occurred to me and it worked well. It was my idea to have them dovetail into a dollar sign. There was nothing in the article about drought or locusts or what do do when aphids infest one portfolio but not the other. An illustration needs to avoid complications. I enforce the same discipline when I write an article or a commentary; it doesn't mean there are no complications or contradictions in life. We are living through one of those contradictions right now. One of those periods that occur occasionally, which used to recur frequently before FDR and Truman and Eisenhower moderated our economic impulses... there I go digressing into complication. An illustration is only as good as the general principles it illustrates and I suppose these two would seem oddly cheerful today. Invest, water regularly, and bingo: large green dollars. It'll probably be that way again. Trust me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Handbag?

The question in the subject line, as you all know, is a quote from Oscar Wilde. The inflection is key, but the handbag, the purse, the clutch, is laden with metaphor and meaning. "The public purse" sounds almost dirty. Before our minds wander too far, consider the simple lines, the elegant balance, the small detail. I may be biased, but I think the drawn line has more allure than a photograph. Like an innuendo, it gets in under the radar, and plants notions in your head. Amidst all the advertising clutter, a drawing gets remembered. Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What I Don't Carry to the Office

I have briefcase envy. Because my commute is between rooms in my house I don't get to outfit myself with a briefcase, so I tend to invest them with a kind of supernatural charm. They represent the "manning up" I've never been able to do. Whenever I see someone carrying a classic attaché case I can't help wondering if it contains a million dollars in unmarked bills or government secrets or just a bag lunch, a sandwich and a bag of Fritos. Bond's briefcases had cunning weaponry in them, thanks to Q. I don't carry a briefcase but I still get to draw them. I can't recall who this was for, possibly one of my department store clients, but this drawing was never used.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Education is Key

I came across this in my files, a cover illustration I did a couple of years ago for Ologie, the Columbus, Ohio design firm. I love how a deep rich color adds impact to line art. This was an Ologie publication about education, a topic that has always interested me.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Werewolf. There Wolf. There Castle.

I do a regular back page illustration for the Macalester College magazine, art directed by Brian Donahue. This essay by a Mac grad was about the author's penchant for writing werewolf novels. There was no other way I could possibly illustrate this, other than, perhaps, having the author turning into a wolf herself. But, in reality, it's always the husbands of authors who turn into werewolves at the full moon. Here's the preliminary sketch I did, which I also like a lot. Horror can be funny. Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I remember painting these several years ago. I was experimenting with negative imagery, painting the dark around a lit object, around a lit face or figure, landscapes at night, using a brush loaded up with Ivory Black. The subject inevitably came around to ghosts. Cutting the eyes out of a photograph does the same thing; we are suddenly looking at a dead thing.

I can remember films using this simple idea to arresting effect, no commentary needed. When the eyes are gone, the person isn't there anymore, or that is the intent, as if the eyes are the repository of the soul. (I wrote a short story around this idea recently. I love ghost stories.) These images and several others were published in The Believer a couple of years ago. The story hasn't been published yet, although half of my published stories do have ghosts of one kind or another in them. Mostly the ones I've had published in Australia for some reason. Happy Halloween. Enjoy your parties.

Friday, October 28, 2011


I find myself asking a recurring question these days: Where are our intellectuals? Where is the Einstein of economics, someone who could speak to people in the streets one night and influence Congress the next? Joseph Stiglitz has shown up at Zucotti Park, and Paul Krugman has been right about this economy for years in the New York Times, but nobody acts on what they say. I guess Nobel Prizes don't bring the influence they used to. Or maybe we just lack the critical mass. When Einstein said "time is curved!" millions of Americans didn't pray him down. I think our problem with economic science is that so many economists are wholly owned subsidiaries of hedge funds in Greenwich, Connecticut. Too many of our financial experts live in the large, nicely furnished pockets of the expensive suits worn by market billionaires. That, I think, is what I was illustrating here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Little Place in the Country

One of Winston Churchill's ancestors built this house to reward himself for winning a battle at a place called Blenheim. This was at a time when being a general could make you very rich. If you look at Eisenhower's modest house near Gettysburg you see that generaling has gotten less remunerative.

Blenheim Palace is larger than the house the Queen lives in. We visited Blenheim some years ago. The thing I remember is Winston's toy soldier collection which is displayed in a glass case in the hall. He was born there because his mother happened to be visiting at the time. Winston's people were poor relations. He wrote bestsellers for a living. He wasn't given huge sums or a palace for saving democracy. When he was P.M. he lived in a poky little house in a side street in Whitehall.

I classify people into two categories: cabin rich and cabin poor, depending on whether they have a place in the country. We do not have one, but I've been known to draw pictures in exchange for weekends. The Duke of Marlborough hasn't called to invite us yet.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bang Bang!

I suppose this image is about causality. The trigger is pulled, the talking head comes out and says Bang! What's so hard to understand? I drew this at a moment when Americans were confused about why triggers get pulled when they really should have wondered why so many guns were loaded and carried to begin with. But again the talking heads got themselves on TV and explained why our rights were more important than life itself. Why do we listen? Who pays them to talk? What would Abraham Lincoln have to say about the right to conceal and carry?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Irish Spirits

This my the latest "Untranslatable" illustration for, art directed and edited by Lucy Sisman and Tamara Glenny. There is a lot of the ineffable about these untranslatable expressions, which makes the drawing more fun. The topic was the Irish penchant for the no longer living but never really dead, "Neamhbeo." I won't even attempt the pronunciation. I tried first to think of some Irish iconography that didn't involve leprechauns or shamrocks. Guinness came to mind, not the strongest of Irish drinks, not really a spirit, but instantly evocative. The clay pipe offered a playful source for a voice balloon containing the ghostly eyes spoken of in the text. Allusiveness works better than concrete detail when describing the ineffable, the intangible, the spiritual. I added the crescent moon as a last touch, a bit of moonshine which is what the whole conversation is about. Sláinte! (pr. "slan-jah)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Every Day

"He that has and a little tiny wit--
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,--
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day."

This song from Shakespeare was running through my head while I was doing this bit of lettering and decorating it with leaves and flowers. It's from Lear (although I remember it better from the Richard Eyre film version of Twelfth Night.) Whatever: it will almost suffice for a present day that has very little philosophy in it. Do your work, every day, rain or fair weather. And enjoy it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I did this map for the contents page of the special Istanbul issue of Das Magazin in Zurich. The art direction was by Christian Haas at Raffinerie. It's interesting to do a map of a place I've never been to in a language I've never been able to read. But it turned out rather well, I think. I especially like the letterforms I created, and the varied size and heft of them. I'd still love to visit sometime. I've read about the place enough, I think I'd know my way around.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A New Bagatelle

I began doing these silhouetted images several years ago, inspired by the cut-paper art of Hans Christian Andersen (the fairy tale guy). I did one for our family Christmas card that year. I did several small narrative series for the New Yorker. I kept revising and perfecting them and inventing new ones for my art directors there. They were never used. But the form continues to intrigue me. I think they'd make a wonderful endpaper or book cover. Or scarf or area rug or wallpaper or dress fabric. This one was painted for my wife's birthday. I have no idea what it means or what the vignettes are about. A story seems to emerge as I paint, and it's always better unrehearsed, like a Rorschach seen in the patterns of the foliage outside a window.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tristesse, Squared

I did this illustration over the weekend for Lucy Sisman and Tamara Glenny, my editors at To get myself in the right frame of mind for a Brazilian term I listened to Jobim and Luis Bonfa and Joao Gilberto for a bit and thought to myself that it was getting warmer in Brazil right now as it's getting colder here. Then we sat down and watched a Brazilian film ("The Year My Parents Went On Vacation", which I highly recommend.) The trick of illustrating an untranslatable word involves the same difficulty as translating it: it's complex or ineffable or, more often, a case of "you had to be there"; or it's all three. You'll understand the word "saudade" better after reading this month's Untranslatable column. The illustration is almost as helpful as a few hours listening to Jobim.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Balance of Justice

Premeditated killing is a terrible crime. When it's done by the state, and with the distinct possibility that the verdict being carried out is mistaken, it's a tragedy and a stain on our national character. That's apart from the life that was stolen from both individuals, the convicted man and the original victim of the crime. This drawing was one of several sketches I did for a New York Times assignment after the Norwegian massacre this past summer. It wasn't the one they used, but it came to mind again today, after the execution last night in Georgia. Two lives are weighed in such a crime. Norway responded to murder with peace and mourning. The state of Georgia and our Supreme Court responded to murder with another murder.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Camera Setting

This drawing appeared in last month's issue of The Believer, art directed by Jason Polan. I recently did a whole series of these arrangements of familiar objects. I began with the familiar place setting, plate center, tableware left and right, glass at one o'clock, etc. When I named this one "camera setting" I realized its double meaning. But there is no meaning to it. No reason behind it. The arrangement is arbitrary. We organize our lives and our belongings along similar lines, with familiar protocols, like items at our desks or dinner tables. Likewise our computer desktops, which are intangible and fugitive. Order reassures us the world is going to function even when it won't.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I did this illustration a few years ago for a magazine called 5280. That's the elevation of Denver. Over the years, as a skier and writer for Skiing magazine, I've eaten quite a few sandwiches in Denver and its environs. Mountain air makes a person hungry.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Still Life With Pliers

This sketchbook drawing was one of several that were published in Five Dials, a literary magazine from Hamish Hamilton in London. It's edited and art directed by Craig Taylor.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Two Views, One Building

Elaborate architecture has always fascinated me, but it can be intimidating to draw it. All those elements. All that arrangement of detail. It was the relationship of one detail to another that made the building stand up, in every sense, or fall down. Drawing quickly helped. Simplifying. Sometimes I begin at the ground, as if I'm obeying gravity. Sometimes I start in midair. Sometimes I abandon perspective and lay the building flat. Different approaches make it a new building every time. I did the image of the tower years ago working on a Williams Sonoma project that never reached the retail stage. The quick view of the Houses of Parliament was done for an insurance association magazine. I like reminding art directors how much more interesting a page looks with a drawing on it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Drawing About Work

First of all, this is not me. I haven't the muscle to model this kind of drawing. I did this drawing earlier in the week. Typically, I was working on Labor Day. (My European client celebrated labor day on the first of May the way the rest of the world does.) There's a bit of homage here to Ben Shahn, but also to Studs Terkel and Woody Guthrie and Springsteen and to the real working men and women all over, lifting and hauling things I don't have the muscles for. Work is why we get up in the morning.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From Sunday's New York Times

For those of you who don't spend their Sunday relaxing with the New York Times, or in case you skip the Week in Review section to get to the Style section, here's the art I did Friday afternoon. The subject was The Return of Congress, and it had three topics up for debate, so the idea wasn't to illustrate any one of those topics but the return of the members. My idea was to show them herding back into the chamber. The horizontal format worked well for this. Initially I couldn't help but visualize elephants entering a circus with the trunk of each one holding the tail of the elephant in front, but this seemed too easy and too derisory. Better to show them entering in long frat-house conga lines, hands on shoulders, blindly following the guy in front of them. Although, to be fair, the teamwork on the right is more uniform and better drilled. The quick pencil does a good job of capturing the comic elements, I think.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Drawing for Labor Day 2011

(I'm observing Labor Day by working. I don't know how else to do it.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Quality Education

I did this illustration for the Oregon Education Association magazine, art directed by Deb Pang Davis. The story was about the effect environmental conditions in schools has on the learning success of the kids attending them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tasting Menu

This was the last illustration I did for Gourmet magazine. The article was about tasting menus at restaurants. The magazine had changed since I'd started doing art for it twenty years earlier. Looking back on it, most of the art I did was cartography, fun illustrated maps, because Gourmet was as much about places as it was about the food. But I'd also been a great fan of Marvin Friedman, a longtime contributor whose wonderful line illustrations captured the interior spaces where food was prepared and eaten. This image is very unlike his, more like Bemelmans, really, but it's an homage of a kind, a celebration of the kinds of places we like to spend time in.