Monday, August 02, 2010

Picking the Right Moment to Illustrate

Lately I've been trying to do some illustrations and I've been thinking a lot about the question: how do you pick which moments to illustrate?

I'm no expert on illustration or any of the artists mentioned below. Just some of my thoughts these days so forgive me if I come off like I'm trying to be an authority here.....I'm decidedly not.

Animators and story artists work hard to find their "Golden Poses" - the drawings that will tell the story in the most entertaining way and describe the characters and their personalities best. I'm used to thinking that way...but those disciplines are all about a series of images that you view in sequence and they add up to a very specific story. With illustration you have to pick one moment and one moment only.

Part of what motivated me to think about this was something that happened at Comic Con. I was visiting Bud Plant's book stall and they actually gave me a free book for spending a certain amount there. The book was the collected works of illustrator Norman Saunders...a giant hulking book chock full of his paintings and illustrations.

Norman Saunders painted a lot of different subject matters and seemed proficient in many styles. More than anything, though, he seems to have painted a lot of pulp covers. When you look at so many of them collected in one place, certain things become obvious. When you think about the purpose of the illustrations - which I assume was to sell the lurid, violent and titillating subject matter to people who were looking for that - you can see why they all share certain traits.

They're usually paintings that capture moments of extreme action - someone is about to get stabbed, or decapitated, or dropped into a vat of hot oil, and more often than not there's a gun going off.

It made me think about the work of other illustrators, artists like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. Their illustrations served a different purpose - they usually accompanied stories in magazines and were printed in illustrated novels, and they were trying to capture a different kind of feeling than the pulps, to encapsulate the different kind of literature they accompanied.

They sometimes painted scenes of action but more than anything they seemed to paint moments of stillness that were fraught with tension and drama - the potential for action instead of the capturing the actual moment of action.

To me there's much more to this second kind of illustration because it tells a story better. A painting of a person shooting a gun is really just about shooting a gun. It's such a dramatic and extreme moment that you can't add any other shading or subtext or secondary story. If you tried to, it would be overwhelmed by the powerful statement of the gun going off.

I'm not attacking pulp covers for being inferior or anything. This isn't an argument over who's a better painter or anything or what type of story or subject matter is superior. That comes down to a personal choice. And each type of art was for a specific and different purpose. However, speaking just for me, I really gravitate towards the way Pyle and Wyeth chose their moments. It invites me to look longer and harder at their work, looking at all the characters as I delve into the moment and experience the story through all of the different characters in the piece. With pulp you can get the whole story at a glance (that's the point) and they're all about being as pushed as they can be dramatically in order to catch your eye on a crowded bookshelf. There's no subtext and in all fairness there's not meant to be. With Wyeth and Pyle you can read their work at a glance but then I also find them intriguing and atmospheric enough that I get caught up in them, looking them over and finding more to them as I study them. I haven't read most of the stories that their paintings are supposed to accompany, of course, but their paintings are so great that they stand alone and are clear and dramatic without needing the accompanying text (which I've read they did purposely).

Here's an example from "Treasure Island" - a small action shown (attaching the British Flag to the improvised flagpole) that has very big dramatic meaning: they are raising the British Flag over their fort to defy the pirates who are laying siege to their fort.

Interesting that he chose this moment of small action that is a preparation for the big dramatic action to come. He could have painted the dramatic moment of raising the Union Jack in all of it's defiant glory...but he didn't. He chose this more weighty, pensive moment instead. One choice is more obvious, in-your-face drama, and the other creates more of a picture of the drama to come in your imagination. This choice seems to place more emphasis on their choice to raise the flag...rather than the actual raising of the flag. If that makes any sense.....

Pyle's famous illustration of a marooned pirate. Of course the stillness and emptiness are completely appropriate for the subject matter; being marooned is all about being completely alone. So a scene of action would make no sense. But a good example of how a "static" image can have lots of dramatic weight, and how composition palette and body language can all work in concert to tell a powerful story.

Below is another classic Pyle that tells a clear story with drama and tension. My impression is that the pirates have sacked the town and are questioning some official of the city to find out if there is more treasure hidden somewhere. Is he defiant? Has he already told them all that he can? Do they believe him? What will be his fate when they are done?

The composition of the pirates who are towering above the lone figure and surround him, as well as the heaps of treasure in the corners all add up well and - again - really make great use of body language, posture and composition to tell the story. We know at a glance who is in power and who is not.

Another good example. This one is by Wyeth and is called "Frontier Trapper".

More Wyeth...

Wyeth and Pyle sometimes did paint moments of violent conflict but I've never seen one that was portrayed in a lurid, gory, in-your-face way. In these examples they seem to consciously set the violence back away from the viewer and they pointedly don't exploit the kind of extreme and inherently dramatic camera angles that you might in a comic book or a pulp book cover. They don't use the typical "dramatic lighting" (by which I mean theatrical light - very contrasty light and dark) that a pulp cover usually does to achieve drama. There's a distinct lack of blood and gore and a careful treatment of the characters that seems much more restrained than on the pulp covers.

Here's a Wyeth...

...and a Pyle.

Also, of course, in general the palettes that Wyeth and Pyle use are much more muted and earth-bound that what you would find in most Pulp covers. So that gives their paintings a more muted and serious feel. Again, all of which is intentional...the Pulps are supposed to feel caricatured and stylized, just like the literature they accompany.

One of the Wyeth paintings for Cooper's writings...I'm not sure if this is from "Last of the Mohicans" or another book in the series. The action is painted in his usual style but this is the most cartoony painting of his I've seen. So, again, sometimes he did paint scenes of extreme action...but the treatment is far different from the pulp style of illustration. It still seems grounded in reality and, somehow, entirely possible physically.

On the Pulp covers, by contrast, there's always a real emphasis on the faces of the characters and their big expressions. The figures are usually posed to make sure that all the faces are turned towards the viewer so we can see their expressions. And their emotions are almost always very extreme ones: usually horror or terror (on the women) and usually grim determination on the men....

In the end it's interesting and informative to compare the two styles. A lot of times, the choice of moment in time we chose to capture, along with where we place the "camera" (or the viewer) to witness that moment can have an incredible effect on the viewer's emotional response to the final image. When people talk about illustration they talk a lot about the technical side because that's a huge part of working as an illustrator...but there hasn't been a lot of talk that I've ever seen about how to pick the moments to illustrate, and as I've been trying to tackle my own paintings, I've gotten a lot out of looking at different artists and what choices they made.


Nita said...

I am no analyst of illustration, but observe that the key pulp moment seems to be how to put the cleavage and/or bare legs front and center, then how to put action around the female lure.

Just sayin'

Daniel Caylor said...

Great post Mark, thanks for sharing. I must say I prefer Wyeth by far. Pyle's painted seem too muted or washed out for my tastes. I'll look for a good Wyeth volume to add to my library. :)

Cacodaemonia said...

This was a really great read! I guess I had never consciously realized how the different genres lend themselves to different illustrative approaches in that regard, but like you, I'm also drawn to the more restrained, pensive moments. Thanks for sharing!

ribbu said...

Interesting, thoughtful read. I've always been drawn to the quieter moments but never really put it into words. Thanks for doing the hard work for me!

Smurfswacker said...

I agree with your general observations. The big difference between the two approaches is that earlier magazine and book illustrations were intended to "last" a while. Perhaps they helped sell the issue, but it was also assumed that the owner would return to the pictures later and look at them more closely.

On the other hand the pulp cover was intended to last for a couple of seconds: just long enough to move the magazine from the newsstand into the buyer's pocket. Everything was compressed into a loud, desperate shout trying to be heard over the roar of other similar covers: "This one, Mac! Over here! More babes! More guns! More action!"

It's interesting how time changed art directors' tastes in magazine illustration. In "40 Illustrators and How They Work" Dean Cornwell shows how an AD had him illustrate an unimportant but dramatic scene from a story rather than a quieter, more significant scene. By that time (early 1940s) magazine illustrations were taking on some of the pulp cover's job of selling the issue. Scenes of big action, big romance, big drama were intended to catch the eye of someone flipping through the magazine and generate an impulse buy.

Brian Bowes said...

Wow Mark,

Thank you so much for this post. I really enjoyed reading it. You've made some really great observations and valid points in here.

Certainly both of these illustrations are "of their time," as we all tend to be. But I've also heard about Pyle teaching about the right moment to illustrate... and it's great to have your post to 'illustrate' his point!

Thank you!

Chris Boyd said...

Great post. And you chose some awesome images to help get your thoughts across. I love all that illustration. You are absolutely right, for their intended purpose, the pulp covers were great. They are fun to look at, and a lot of those guys could really draw and paint well. But Pyle and Wyeth and that whole group were on a whole other planet. Oh man I personally love Wyeth's work. The one with the kids on the beach seeing the giant in the Golden age of illustration is right.

Rob Davis said...

These types of illustration are serving different purposes and their relation to the 'moment' is defined by the purpose. In fact, moment is doesn't describe both types of image as the pulp images use compression of time to show the plot elements because these are covers. The Wyeth and Pyle illustrations are interior illustrations and aren't attempting to display the wider plot or sell the whole book.

The point of illustration is to illustrate - none of the Wyeth or Pyle images would make for good covers to pulp novels. They don't set out to engage with the passer by or display the plot at a glance, but instead sit comfortable with the already enthralled reader displaying one of many moments within the book.

Lovely images though.

David Clemons said...

"I'm not sure if this is from "Last of the Mohicans" or another book in the series."

It's a scene from Cooper's "The Deerslayer," chapter 19. It's a very visual moment in the scene but doesn't give much away, which is a key I think to picking what to illustrate. Support the story but let the words do most of the work.

Most of those pulp covers were not illustrating any actual story in the magazine. In fact, many of them would get reused over and over again on different magazines.

Alexis said...

Very vintage, I can't help but love it. You are a very talented artist who has a lot of potential going for yourself. Do you have patience when you work? It just seems like you have it with such perfection. This is really admirable. You should consider you can display your artwork just the same as you would a gallery, but there your art is viewed by thousands of art collectors and buyers around the world. Just a suggestion =]
Keep the amazing artwork and continue to blow other people away.

DmL said...

@Alexis- looks like spam.

@Nita- I try to convey the dramatic moments with the bare legs front a center... best of both worlds? : )

P.Petrilli said...

It's Interesting that you choose some of Howard Pyle's examples for this article, he was actually asked the very same question in an magazine interview at height of his career, of how he chose the right moments to capture his subjects in. His response was "I find that the terror before the murder or the remorse afterward is more interesting than the act itself".(the marooned pirate is a perfect example)
This piece of wisdom has improved my subject moments and the viewers response to my paintings immensely. The great Andrew Loomis also suggested that "the suspended moment at the height of an action". think of a horse in mid flight over a hedge or the famous bullet-time scene in The Matrix. Marvel comic artists are experts at using this idea.