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.