Explorations of the East

This is the first year in a decade that I haven’t gone to the almighty San Diego Comic Con. But it was a worthy sacrifice as Readercon was a fantastic experience and a top notch convention.* And let’s face it, I’m not even a small fish amid the whirl of SanDiego (more like a small but stubborn barnacle). But to be the only artist invited to a convention of great authors, editors and readers? Priceless.

Flying into Newark, we had the extremely exotic experience of being the only people seated in the entire row of seats. This meant that as the plane descended we were able to quickly move across the isle to be on the side of the plane with the view of New York City. This was Venetia’s first view of NYC, and my first sight of the new World Trade Center building. From the air it looks suspiciously like a Transformer. Which is a rather brilliant defense strategy and we are very happy that the Transformers are so clearly on our side.

Untransformed Transformer

We spent a few days in New Jersey with Jim and Rhymer where a rare gathering of distant friends and family occurred, and where all food comes from diners. Fritz kindly gave us a ride north into NYC to stay with the gracious (and very talented) Michael Kaluta. His apartment in the upper east side is filled to the brim with art, books, and all sorts of fun objects like fighter pilot masks from different eras (and a few historical gas masks.) Venetia felt quite at home among the books, but the best book of all was the one that Michael gave her: “Venetia” by Georgette Heyer. Within the space of just two weeks she discovered that she is the star of two stories! (More on the second story later.)

We headed uptown for lunch at a delicious Thai restaurant with man about town Jack Lechner, but first stopped at the Nicholas Roerich Museum. It is a small but elegant three-story apartment, each room filled with art. Venetia was enthralled and after lunch, we returned again (this time with Jack) to marvel at the colors and vibrancy of the art, which is sadly lost in reproduction. His works are mostly done on canvas in egg-tempera and come from the mountains of Tibet and India where Roerich painted them.

Jack aided our explorations of the Upper West by bringing us to the cathedral of Saint John’s the Unfinished. While properly imposing on the outside, it was even more stunning within, both in the grandeur of its high arches and stained glass windows and the fantastic detail of the individual alcoves. One of the greatest things about a mighty cathedral is that there’s no need for sameness. It’s bigger than any one builder and it’s only mete that the styles reflect the mass of humanity within and without.

Upon leaving the cathedral, we hopped on the subway and headed down to the Village for our dinner engagement. We were a little early so we walked down Christopher Street and wended our way to the fountain in the middle of Washington Square where Venetia cooled her feet. Dinner was sushi with Lindsay Ribar a colleague of Venetia’s whose first book The Art of Wishing is about to be published. Though not at all a business dinner, everyone at the table enjoyed their jobs enough to talk primarily of business-related topics, which in our line of work means books and art and the publishing world.

After our dinner on 3rd Street and we walked along through the canyons of Tisch and NYU a while before coming to Broadway. It was a hot night, but our guest quarters were only 80 blocks north and Venetia needed to see the city. It was a surprising walk for us both, Broadway has changed in extraordinary ways since I was last in New York. We passed an aluminum Andy Warhol north of Union Square and enjoyed the generous space given to pedestrians now that the street is no longer a traffic-jammed diagonal thoroughfare, but a curious one-way side-street. Times Square proved that even such a good idea could make for a splitting headache. Having crossed it once, Venetia is of the opinion that it would be worth going out of her way to avoid in the future. It is loud, full of flashing lights and tight crowds of people; altogether a stifling and dizzying experience. We noted the bleachers set about at intervals, wondering if they indicated particular events that required crowd seating but at the time of our visit, they seemed to hold nothing more than tired tourists taking a moment to sit down and gawk at one another. 80 blocks later we arrived at Michael’s aerie once more, pleasantly exhausted, filled with frozen yogurt and ready to fall immediately asleep after making quick plans for the morning.

Saturday was all about visiting with as many people as we could manage; beginning with the talented Tina Segovia and ending with a lovely dinner with Starstruck creator Elaine Lee and her brilliantly talented sons, Brennan and Griffin. Kickstarter and Starstruck were both discussed at some length. After dinner we went for a walk through Central Park with Tara Torre, a childhood friend of Venetia’s. We only walked through half of the park, not quite the same scope as the grand walking tour of New York the night before, but delightful nonetheless. Here, Venetia took here rightful place in Gotham’s Wonderland.

On Sunday, after a brief teaser of Sherlock and breakfast with the delightful Selena, we left the city. On our way out, we randomly stopped at a burger and milkshake joint for the best milkshake Venetia has had thus far. (We mentioned this to another New Yorker friend who immediately identified the name of the restaurant when we told her the location, so clearly we are not alone in this assertion of deliciousness.) Despite the wonderful start to the day, heading to Newark for our car rental we found what turned out to be the car rental from hell, though we were told at the counter that we should have expected nothing less at that price. Needless to say, this answer was not at all satisfactory and we were not happy with the deception of the Alamo car rental at Newark airport. In short: AVOID.

The ride up the Hudson was beautiful and green and we stopped frequently at the turnouts to admire the view of the city and river. We were additionally treated to a new view of the World Trade Center building and realized that it is not a transformer as we had previously believed, but in fact is the mounting space for a great, lidless eye, ever watching… Too soon? For dinner we had planned to stop at Mohonk Mountain House but after a remarkable trip to our nation’s great wonders in Glacier and Yellowstone, I forgot that the rich don’t much care for itinerant artists. We were turned away in the most snobbish and class-tastic fashion. So we stopped briefly in New Paltz and carried on.

We found our hosts, Stephen and Vicki Hickman, on their back porch enjoying a cool evening. They prepared us a delicious meal of chicken and corn on the cob. While I haven’t painted in Steve’s studio for years (not since we both lived in the Virginia suburbs), we stayed up well into the night discussing art and books and PG Wodehouse, and our curious industry.

View from the porch.

The next day was our excursion into Woodstock with Elaine Lee and her partner in crime Richmond Johnston – bagpiper extraordinaire. I’d been speaking with Richmond on and off for years, but this was my first chance to meet him. Woodstock did not live up to any possible expectations; we found it quaint, in its pipe and patchouli way. Upon our return, Steve took us on a tour of Red Hook, including a stop at the local ice cream shop where we split a giant milkshake. Venetia finished her namesake’s book while Steve and I got deep into the process of designing him a proper art book. Sobering to think that his last small folio is 2 decades old, and his new work is seldom seen (save for lucky collectors and those who commission his work). It was a long and productive night that included masses of show and tell (the sketches for upcoming paintings are simply spectacular). We left happily the next day, in possession of our own Stephen Hickman painting!

Before we left, we were given the helpful reminder that the Norman Rockwell Museum was in the area. After a tour of the New Barrington estate of Ethan Ham and his wife Janet (where V enjoyed some baby-toe-nibbling) we made the necessary detour to find the museum. The work is amazing. And Rockwell’s ambition was matched again and again by his results. We spent a good two hours admiring the Rockwells. And commenting on the heroification we observed in the descriptions of the paintings, the hagiography of Rockwell’s life, and the attitude of the hovering museum attendants. When so much truth can be found, when so much great work can be displayed, when so much actual scholarship exists, why dissemble? Why try to make a myth from a man? Who does it serve? I found it backward, unseemly and utterly unnecessary.

We were also surprised, but extremely gratified, to discover that the special exhibit this month was of Howard Pyle’s best paintings. While I had been a little sad to only have 2 weeks on the east coast, it was as though fate knew I couldn’t get to Delaware to see these old friends. And they had brought all the big guns: Stranded, The Flying Dutchman… glorious.

Interestingly, Rockwell’s entire studio had been transported to the grounds of the museum, which at first deceived us into thinking that he had actually painted in such a idyllic local. Too bad for him he didn’t. Too bad for context.

From the Rockwell Museum we headed into Belchertown, an apt name for the location of Jacob Lefton’s smithy. We received the grand tour of the forge and then of the charming town of Amherst, which of course included the local ice cream parlor. Travel in summer is difficult, and ice cream, it’s greatest reward.

As we settled in for the night at Jacob’s, various friends and roommates joined us for a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity, at which I eventually ruthlessly triumphed. In the morning we journeyed out by foot for fresh blueberries and cream-topped honey yogurt for breakfast. Given the lateness of the day by the time we left, we decided to drive straight to Boston, or more precisely, to the town of Melrose north of Boston. We had a wonderful family dinner with my old friends and hosts Scott and Rachel and their extended family. Scott débuted his new ice cream flavor: spicy apricot. There was much rejoicing.

The next day was our excursion into Boston proper. We took the T out to Davis Square and then walked via Harvard Square back to Cambridge out to the river which was teaming with beautiful boats. The extent to which there are less-that-perfect neighborhoods within blocks of MIT startled me. I would have thought that Boston’s horrific traffic might have led to more gentrification. Later, we met up with the lovely and formidable Sara and helped her make some fantastic dress choices at The Garment District. After another delicious home-cooked meal of steak tips, we ran off to Readercon for my first panel, a discussion of the visual media in relation to creating. Can one ever truly create without the undo influence of film? It seems that the panelists (including Elizabeth Hand and Caitlin Kiernan) could have joined me on the PR team for Blade Runner, should that need ever arise (Ridley, call us). Elizabeth’s points about the Sublime tallied well with my own, and with my recent trips to see the sublimity of the NW. At the end of the panel we joined Caitlin and other worthies for a rousing discussion of movies and literature in Caitlin’s room. Ed Wood was a particular point of admiration and disdain. Unsurprisingly, Caitlin and I were on the admiration side. Upon our return home we got a tour of Scott’s basement workshop, filled with even more exotic metals and ancient mechanical contraptions than the last time I’d stayed.

Friday, we enjoyed a leisurely morning before the whirlwind of the convention – I somehow ended up on a total of eight panels over the course of the weekend. After sharing the final kaffeklatch of the evening with the redoubtable Kyle Cassidy, we headed down to mingle with fellow attendees and happened to run into pretty much every person we needed or wanted to talk to, including Ty Franck to discuss a secret project and Michael Swanwick to get a book signed for Jacob. Michael was at first suspicious to see the book under Venetia’s arm, thinking it an unauthorized trade paperback edition but she quickly explained that it was an ARC, the very ARC in fact that I had read through in order to create the cover for Michael’s “Best Of.” Jacob was the current owner of the book, however, and he had insisted that Venetia borrow it for the weekend when he heard she had not read any Michael Swanwick. In return for the introduction to such an amazing body of work, Venetia got Michael’s signature in the book for Jacob. A happy ending to a happy story about a compendium of wildly impressive and not-always-happy stories. I love it when a plan comes together.

On the left, the renowned Boris paints a bull’s backside.
On the right, I paint a cover showing and hinting at the book’s actual contents.

My favorite panel of the convention was the “Book Covers Gone Wrong” with panelists Liz Gorinsky, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Daniel Abraham, Jacob Weisman, and Katherine MacLean. I led a lively discussion of bad book covers and the resulting sounds of the crowd’s appreciation managed to drown out any competing laughter from the neighboring “Bad Prose” battle. Victory!

The majority of my time at Readercon was spent on the multi-day panel: A Story from Scratch. The plan was for Elizabeth Bear and Michael Swanwick to create a story based on characters from the audience and props from the guests of honor. Kyle Cassidy would document the scenes from the book, and then I would create the book cover. Due to her lovely cheongsam, Venetia was chosen as the hero of the story – the proprietor of an Asian restaurant. After proposing to Eileen, the woman who would be her wife for the story, and, menaced by the evil Bracken and Tom Purdom (but really, they were both wonderful), she spent much of the subsequent panels in photoshoots with Kyle. I sat and sketched in the panel room as the story evolved, and Saturday afternoon I worked more closely with Kyle, directing a few shoots so that I’d have the grist for my cover. Much to my surprise, Bracken’s extraordinary tattoos supplanted the cheongsam as my background, and allowed me to show that he and Tom were the same person, decades apart. And really, could there anything more fun than tattooing Tom? Later Saturday, I began working on the cover in front of the panel audience. It took longer than the time allotted for the room, of course, but all was completed, including my choice of title, by the appointed hour on Sunday when Michael and Elizabeth read the story aloud while Kyle showed his photos. While the story itself is not yet available on the interwebs, here is the first viewing of the cover. When I asked the authors what they wanted me to call it, Michael told me I could call it whatsoever I desired. But that he and Bear would have veto rights. They didn’t veto it.

The panel finally ended on Sunday and after one last rowdy lunch with friends, we departed. We stopped to pick up the newly framed Steve Hickman painting and then headed out to a remarkable gallery opening of fantastic glass and electricity.

Monday was our last day in Boston and we spent it lounging about on couches in front of the electric fans (though we roused ourselves to head into Boston proper for a delicious Thai luncheon with the delightful Lindsay and Alex, creators of Baman Piderman.) Tuesday we drove back to Newark, stopping briefly in New York City for more Thai (our traveling food of choice) and the company of Allison Taylor, whose own Apple Core Theater Company I once had the pleasure of branding.

And thus we returned to Portland, to dive back in to the exciting new projects (soon to be announced) awaiting our homecoming.

* We were very pleased to read on Aug. 5th that the Readercon board resigned and the Readercon committee, many of whom we met and interacted with at the convention, had issued a public apology. We enjoyed Readercon as a convention a great deal and hope that it will not be ruined by the disrespect shown by its former governing board.

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The Elements of Illustration*

I critique hundreds of pieces every year. Not because I’m a Creative Director (although I have been), but because I (like you) am a consumer of art – of illustration, painting, comics, games, et alia. And the act of critique is one of the most helpful for enlarging one’s own understanding and formalizing concepts that might otherwise float away….

While the following list is by no means scientific (many of the elements listed below overlay others, and many great paintings use only a few) I made it for my own reference and I hope that you may find it useful food for thought. Please print it out and put it by your drafting table or computer if it’ll help.

Focus
Where do you want your viewer’s eye to go? What’s the heart of the piece, the crux of the biscuit?

Narrative
Is there a story here? A big idea? A paradigm, a parody, a pastiche? Has the sword been nicked in battle, has the dog been fed, has the sweater been patched? Norman Rockwell began his pictures thinking of a soldier under a light post and ran scenarios in his mind (often switching “lead” characters) until he found a painting.

A stunning piece from Swedish artist Anders Zorn

Composition and Design
Create a visual hierarchy – A path for the viewer to follow? Something fractal? Separate elements intended for book cover, spine and back cover? Consider the surface you’re working on, its aspect ratio and how that effects the harmonies and tensions of your piece. When working in a tall oval, or a wide ceiling, or a strange milled form, that’s pretty obvious. But it is just as important within a normal rectangle.

Palette
There are many good ones that great painters have applied over the years. Use one of theirs or make your own!

Value
Can your piece be reduced to black and white and still read correctly?
Sometimes good pieces work their value in terms of warm and cool colors, but most need strong tonal variety to read well.

A little-known satyric illustration by Kewpie Doll creator Rose O’Neill


Mass
Think Rodin, JC Leyendecker or Rose O’Neill.

Texture
It makes things and people seem real.

Symbolism
Personal, classical, mystical or cultural – words, numbers, objects, beings. There’s no shortage of sources or end to interpretation. While there was an entire movement of Symbolists (only some of whom were painters),  Michael Kaluta and Brian Despain are excellent modern examplars.

Synecdoche  (Micro defining Macro)
A small area of tight or implied detail will help define vast shapes – like the windows in a colossal building or the wrinkles on an elephant. One needs only a few wee bits to represent a larger whole.

Ornament
Whether it’s Mary Engelbreit‘s checkerboards, or Stephen Hickman‘s ornate orientalism, Ornament matters. Sometimes it’s a sort of texture, other times the whole raison d’etre.

Juxtaposition
Comparisons and contrasts of size, scope, meaning, characters… in our world of Zoroastrian black and white contrasts, this is often too-easy. Use discretion and variety

3 of Glen Orbik’s spectacular pulp covers

Stylization
Sometimes it’s fetishism for a type of brush-stroke or color scheme, sometimes caricature or anatomy. For example, the best pin-ups (by Gil Elvgren, Aly Fell, Glen Orbik, et alia) have similarly stylized elements, some of which might surprise you.
If you’re working on a pin-up, just crack their code and you’re off to the races.

Character
Have the characters lived real lives? Are they real beings with hopes and fears? Body language, gesture and costume are crucial here.

Tension
Gesture is important, but so is the feeling of tension. Sometimes it’s the most important part of a piece. Drama, high stakes, suspense. If you can enlist the viewer’s sympathy support or curiosity, you win.

Line
It’s quite obvious in the works of Franklin Booth, Aubrey Beardsley, and Mike Mignola – but don’t underestimate its importance for Drew Struzan, Arthur Rackham or John Jude Palencar.

Research/Reference
I know precious few people who draw brilliantly out of their heads, but those heads have absorbed the lessons their eyes have shown them for many years. Most of us have been nowhere near as observant, and while we may remember and be able to imagine many things, there are usually areas where we fall down. Bolster yourself and your work with reference. Don’t stick slavishly to it, but make it do your bidding.

Vignette
The play of shape (whether silhouette or fully rendered form) against a white, colour, or fully realized background is so important for keeping a viewer interested. It can be akin what designers call negative space.

Perspective
Each point in perspective applies to a single dimension (in 2 point perspective the points are nearly always width and depth). Get perspective right and you’ll be halfway home. Also, the more you keep you POV away from a normal grid as seen from a height of 6 feet, the more dynamic your piece is likely to be.

FUN!
A certain joie de vivre is key. It doesn’t matter if you paint supplely or with technical perfection – If you don’t bring some fun and adventure to your work, viewers can tell. They won’t always know what’s wrong, but they’ll get that something is…

To which list the delightful Kurt Huggins suggested:

Process: This is your way of managing and editing all of these different elements. Each step of your process should be about solidifying one more element of the image, building up to a final piece. There are many processes, and many ways to finish, but I think most processes start with idea or composition.

*And while I find that this list applies to my own artwork, I also find that much of it applies to my writing, sculpture, et al. Your mileage may vary.

© 2008 Lee Moyer.