Thursday, September 5, 2013

Findings Of The Arsegravy Historical Society.

A couple of months ago I was in my hometown, two thousand or so miles north in Queensland. The humidity up there is the kiss of death on anything made of paper, leaching out all the acids & setting in with rot faster than a Poppy Z Brite story. There's also a legion of tropical creepy crawlies sprung straight out of Temple of Doom who are always hungry for a tasty fix of illustration board or acrylic paint. With that in mind I figured it was time to do some preservation work. So I cleared away the cobwebs, vacuumed up the inches of daddy long legs shit and had a rummage through my old art cupboard. After a while spent dusting and washing away the fungus, it was nice to see a few salvageable bits & pieces floating to the top. Some of them went right back to high school, in the late 80's - surprising given that voracious climate. Here's a bunch I thought were just about worth sharing.

This would've been Year 9 or 10 of high school. I remember regularly trying to shoehorn art into subjects that had no real requirement for it - in English it'd be making a book cover to go with a review, in history spending far too much time on a political cartoon, or in a variety of other classes designing the "title page" (marking the beginning of a new unit of study) would maybe get a little more of my concentration than it should've. I actually did enjoy Biology.. but perhaps not quite as much as drawing a guy with a cross sectioned head.

Growing up I was obsessed with the long-running English TV show "Doctor Who". I'm not sure why I fastened onto it so firmly.. although the combination of its instant-satisfaction gothic pulpiness and the ABC's decade-long policy of hypnotic non-stop reruns probably contributed. I suppose most people have obsessive interests of one kind or another - football, music, cars, shoes, Star Wars.. whatever. This was mine. And it provided an endless supply of exactly what I was always after - subjects to draw.

These little pictures were cassette tape covers, about 10 by 6 centimetres in size. Now I look at them and envy the undiminished eyesight that allowed such tiny work unassisted! This was unintentional good training for an illustrator - making them taught me about concentrating on portions & shapes rather than the image as a whole, as well as layout, colour blending and how interesting it can be to draw with the reference upside down for greater objectivity.. Oh, and the cassette format came as a result of two things - our family's lack of a VCR in the early 80's, and the ABC's simulcasting of television audio on the FM band in regional Queensland. I often tape-recorded TV shows and listened back to them like audiobooks. Friends did this too. As an odd dividend I can occasionally remember large chunks of old-TV dialogue! Certainly feels a long way from the everything-on-demand digital world we're all in now..

There was also a bit of figure sculpting that came as a result of the enthusiasm for Dr Who. I would've been 16 when making this Patrick Troughton.. He'd be about 10 or 12 cm tall. I remember slaving to keep detail while the Modeline synthetic baking clay kept either squashing or crumbling. He's a little chunky, but I think he holds up OK. And photographing him up close really made me want to get back to doing some sculpting..

Now here's a few from Uni days. I did a Bachelor of Visual Arts at James Cook University, with an Illustration major. Recently I learned that Visual Arts studies at JCU, while operating out of a lovely new building, no longer include painting or sculpture. Another victim of "rationalisation" and the market-driven reforms at Australian universities in the last 20 years. I'm doubtful that broad, high-quality education is the winner.

This Gregory Peck was one of a few first-year projects designed to test our ability to reproduce faithfully from a photographic source. This one was a bit too hurried, and I ran out of time to finesse the little details.. A good lesson.

My acrylic and coloured pencil stab at Flagg's stony-faced Uncle Sam. Part of a series of six, metamorphosing from the statue of liberty. Not the greatest, but it was a good chance to - tentatively - test out mixing pencils and airbrush, for the background.

It was 1991, I was 18, and Terminator 2 was everywhere. To the present day me, T2 looks like a loud marketing exercise with fun special effects and some remarkably poor dialogue. To the 1991 me, it was irresistible. This picture was still a lesson - not so much in the fun to be had making an image out of dotting with a Rotring pen (arrg!) - but in not improvising details on the fly. The original photo had been taken from a paused video on our convex-screened cathode tube, and the mechanical details were hazy. I didn't work out an approach to dealing with this in advance, and by improvising as I went, those areas just ended up looking fake. Planning helps.

In 2006 McDonalds were still clearing rainforest in the Amazon to plant soya. I have no idea if they're still up to it, but I don't imagine I'm going to warm to them anytime soon regardless. This was still 1991, and the brief was to make a poster addressing environmental concerns using no more than 3 words to convey it's message. It's a mixed media combo of coloured pencil, airbrushed acrylic and crayons. The Crayolas were used for the soil and plants. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite that choice, and some figure-ratio & layout problems (he's on a hill OK?), I'm fond of this one.. Maybe it's the killer clown angle. Or maybe it's just fun to throw poo at a really rubbish company.

On this one the brief was a dummy magazine cover. Silence of the Lambs was a big, disturbing hit at the time, and I jumped at the chance to paint Hopkins wonderfully rumpled face. For the retro-airbrushing fans out there I was using a Paasche VL. Still occasionally use it to this day - really versatile piece of kit, (double action, suction-feed for faster colour switching & capable of very fine lines) and a much simpler, easier to use design than the Badger I recently tried. This was my first attempt at using a lot of hand-held masking to make an airbrushed image, and it probably suffers a bit on close inspection. But I'm still happy with the overall effect - and if the writing looks ever-so-slightly wonky, it's because it was all hand-cut masking, just a scalpel and frisket film. Must've taken ages. I think I've blocked out the trauma.

The madwoman was a last-minute (overnight!) job for our graduation exhibition guide in 93. Solidly into the airbrush years by now, I was experimenting with a spatter-effect, achieved by scratching the inside of an old Paasche tip with a compass to make it spit paint instead of atomise. This did make it prone to accumulating large drops of paint every so often, but regular daps with a cloth meant illustration disaster could be avoided. Just like Trust Your Doctor, she's a combination of loose masking cut from acetate & placed on the surface, and hand-held masks, kept away from the surface to soften the lines. It's a very simple piece, but I still think it was reasonably effective.

Yep, it was the 90's. Clapton was enjoying his resurgent fame as a result of the Unplugged album. I did like it, and yes, I do apologise. In my defence, I could at least tell - even then - that Tears In Heaven was a truly horrible song. Let's pretend I did it as a dedication to his work with the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers or Cream and move on.. This was a third year exercise - another test of observation & use of materials - requiring an illustration as similar as possible to it's photographic source. The original photo is by Albert Watson, and I loved it's dramatic light. The surface is a nice smooth Illustration Board and it was painted with a triple 0 brush using Winsor & Newton gouache. I wasn't a huge fan of gouache, but those were the rules for this project - and I wanted to skip the airbrush on this one, just to make sure I could still blend paint by hand! It probably took about 6 weeks on & off - looking at something that closely needed decent breaks for other work. A strange piece this one - I'm very pleased with it's technical side, but I've never felt the urge to hang it. The curse of this exercise is, if successful, you end with an exact copy of someone else's work.

To finish, one last bit of pop-pulp. I was really enjoying Anthony Hopkins face at this time. By 93 he'd been in Coppola's messy, operatic Dracula, doing his entertainingly hammy Van Helsing. He was almost enough to make you forget the travesty of Keanu & Winona. Almost. The frame was salvaged from a building site by my Dad - once the bottom right corner was restored with a bit of the same synthetic baking clay Patrick Troughton was made of, it was good to go. He was painted almost continuously over two and a half days, oil on canvas. I hadn't blended with oils before & couldn't get the effect I wanted quickly enough - the brushes were ditched and out of desperation I dipped cotton balls in the paint to get it the way I'd pictured. Used with the same kind of hand-held acetate masking I'd tried on the madwoman, it came up fine. Doesn't bear intense scrutiny - the stubble's a bit dodgy, as is the cravat/scarf thing - but for a two day quicky, I think he's fun.

That's all for the Arsegravy Ancient History Show N Tell. I do hope you've enjoyed checking out what was under the cobwebs and spider scat. I guess I should also do an update for the Wildlife Art years that came after today's selection - but that's a horror for another day.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Electile Dysfunction.

It's election time again in Australia and it's not pretty. Not for anyone with even vaguely progressive politics. Much like the UK and US, there are two major parties cornering the vote. One of them is pro free-trade, pro uranium exports, aggressively opposed to asylum-seekers arriving by boat, substantially responsible for the transition of tertiary education to a user-pays profit-making endeavour (and all for the expansion of programmes charging foreign students up-front fees to boost those profits), pushing to extend the powers of our spy agency ASIO, unchallenging of the monarchy, unquestioningly supportive of the US-style War On Drugs, keen to greatly expand the US military presence in northern Australia and unwilling to remove the recitation of the Lord's Prayer from the opening of parliamentary sittings in a secular state.

Their opponents are the conservative party.

And that conservative party - somewhat deceptively titled the Liberal Party - believes in all of the above, only more so, plus a wide range of environmentally destructive measures (cutting that pesky "green tape"), Trickle-Down Reaganomics, vilification of the gay population, demonising of indigenous Australians, the victimising of any unemployed seeking state assistance, workplace "flexibility" facilitating the poor treatment & easy disposal of unwanted employees and a massive prioritising of road projects over public transport. Oh, and they've got an itchy trigger-finger for public broadcasting. In short it represents rule by business for business. Really old school, short-sighted, two-fisted, big dirty business.

The presence of a host of smaller parties on the political scene seems mostly not to register with the electorate. This may be a product of the coverage given to them by our media. There isn't any. Meanwhile, the years of spin over substance in election campaigning have spilled into day-to-day politics - scant detail, a mantra of simple slogans or generalisations and high-visibility photo ops are the order of every day. Voter disengagement is widespread, and the barely distinguishable large parties now focus their concentration intensely on a handful of marginal electorates, obeying the "wisdom" of daily opinion polls and focus groups in reshaping policy, regardless of how far from their original ideals this process wrenches them. Whatever it takes to please the mighty marginals.

So if you do stick with the big boys it's become a choice between centre-right and far-right. At the moment the omnipresent polls are frowning on the Labor Party's grey, bureaucratic Kevin Rudd, and predicting a win for Liberal leader Tony Abbott, a conservative Catholic monarchist pugelist with a dubious reputation for his treatment of women and taste in swimwear.

It's a depressing prospect. Even attempting to follow the detail can be grinding. So it was nice to get a smile yesterday, even a wry one, from discovering this piece of street art in the city, which summed up my feelings perfectly.

Finger lickin quality from artist  Sitt Sitlakone.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Raiders Of A Lost Art.

When I was growing up, the movies made me want to make pictures. Not moving pictures. Posters. Just like the ones outside the cinema. All that lurid hyperbole was irresistible - often I just wanted to stand & examine the detail when friends were rushing inside. There was something really exciting about seeing the stylisation & flourish of the artist, knowing a person had drawn this. At that time the hand-illustrated movie poster was still widespread, with artists like Drew Struzan and Richard Amsel in high demand. They were easily able to lure my young self through the doors on the strength of their deluxe craftsmanship, even when the film was absolutely terrible - I remember happily queueing for my ticket to "Jewel of the Nile" (the justifiably unloved sequel to "Romancing The Stone"), in large part thanks to the giant Struzan poster in the lobby. In years that followed I also came to appreciate the previous generation of poster artists, like Saul Bass, Frank McCarthy, Bill Gold, Luigi Martinati and Robert McGinnis, to name a few.

That made it all the more disappointing when, in the years I was doing my Visual Arts degree, the rush of enthusiasm for the new tool of Photoshop led to a massive downturn in demand for traditionally illustrated posters. But it wasn't just the available tools that had changed - a reorganisation of the film business generally was underway, and the accountants were taking over. This was the beginning of the time when studio contracts would prevent any directorial involvement in cutting trailers. Classically these would be 1 to 2 minutes of sizzle - mellifluous narration (snappily written if you were lucky), a few choice moments to hook you in (or maybe something filmed specially), title, rating, done. Check out the original Alien trailer for a terrifically creepy, suspenseful tease. Once the focus-groups, PR guys and bean-counters had taken over it became very hard to see one without being shown the entire film. The plodding artlessness of this approach is hard to overstate. And the same dull mentality was at work on the posters, leeching the fun, personality - and most importantly the risk - out of everything. This period also saw an upswing in "foreign territories" like Australia not having access to the originally provided artwork. So even when something interesting did slip through, it was often replaced here by whatever could be cobbled together at short notice. Comparing the US-release poster for Soderburgh's "Out Of Sight" with it's Australian version makes a good example. The former is a beautiful retro-70's piece, giving you a strong indication of the film's mood & style. The latter is an indifferent still photo of the stars with a stock image of a revolver 'shopped in. Dispiriting.

But here's something of a happy ending. While the trailer situation may still be a giant black hole of suck, in the last 10 years huge leaps forward in digital design have coincided with a levelling-out of the hysterical pursuit of The New Tool To The Exclusion Of All Else. The dovetailing of traditional techniques with increasingly precise, speedy software is leading to a kind of a renaissance in great-looking, well-thought through mass-produced art. Comic books, rock band posters and even the occasional movie are enjoying the benefits. Lots of the resurgent film art is coming from the online world rather than the studios. Companies like Mondo and Phantom City Creative, along with countless individual artists are making movie-related images that are actually nice to look at. Maybe there's hope for illustrators yet.

Here's a few examples of the tiptop stuff floating around out there from the horror(ish) genre alone:

Phantom City Creative

By Martin Ansin, for Mondo.

By Matt Needle

By Brian Churilla

By Adam Rabalais

By Dirty Great Pixels

By Phantom City Creative (Andromeda Strain)

By Kevin Tong, for Mondo.

By Martin Ansin, for Mondo.

By Daniel Danger, for Mondo.

And one last - from a past master, drawn out of retirement by the good folk of Mondo on the promise of an open brief to make a poster for any film he chose...

By Drew Struzan, for Mondo.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Aliens Ate My Desk Set!

The library I work at can get pretty jam-packed at times. For a while they'd been noticing people leaving a few possessions on the jelly-bean desks in the morning to "reserve" them, and having planted the flag, wandering off for a good chunk of the day. With demand for space high, they wanted to get the message out that the resources needed to be shared. I was asked to draw something up on an A0 sized whiteboard - something eye-catching so as to get punters over & reading the fine print, and not too officious or tut-tutty. The tagline was "Don't Be A Space Invader", which left it pleasingly open to drawing some familiar big-brains, bug-eyes and killer 'bots. Here's the finished product.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

It's Scribblin' Time!

Here's a few more examples of the library quicky-cartoons I mentioned in the last entry. Perfection isn't the goal with these - usually it's just to draw something silly and keep my hand in. Drawing something - anything - every day really does help with shaping ideas and keeping and your skills up. Also it's fun, so why not? Some are scribbles left on the slips of paper meant to indicate which library campus a box of books is headed for, while others have been left on lonely whiteboards, abandoned in the digital scramble. An empty whiteboard is surely a terrible thing to waste.

Most of these date back to the time when we had a whole campus reserved for business-related studies. It's the reason we have books in the collection with titles like "Be Know Do", "Power Mentoring!", the touching "HR From The Heart" and most ludicrously, "Sun Tsu's Art of War for the Sales Warrior". To express a low opinion of the entire "business community" might appear to be a terrible sweeping generalisation - if "business" is taken to cover everything from the local fruiterer & bookstore, to film-making, music, restaurants and my very own illustration services inclusive. So just to be clear I'm not insulting everybody in the world here - the "business community" I'm talking about is everybody's favourite old cliche-because-it's-true Big Business, and it's commonly accompanying philosophy of the ethical vacuum, Whatever It Takes. In Australia I'm thinking of the Chambers Of Commerce, the Minerals Council, the Murdochs, the Packers, Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, Clive Palmer and well-paid industry PR hacks like the Institute of Public Affairs. The kind of people who refer to laws designed to protect the environment as "green tape" and keep the details of bent multi-billion dollar Public Private Partnerships a secret on the basis of Commercial In Confidence clauses. I'm also thinking of their army of facilitators, like the plethora of giant commercial consultancies, nourished partly as a consequence of 30 or more years of hamstrung "rationalised" universities desperate for funding & retooled as for-profit enterprises pumping out management graduates without specific expertise in the industries they go on be paid like gods to be  Executive Officers of and, not aware of or believing in the resource of knowledge & experience to be found within the organisations they run (and always keen to ensure buffers for later blame-shifting), calling in expensive, unnecessary external advisors. Basically an anti-egalitarian distillation of self-regard, bad faith, incompetence and corruption. As John C. Hall of King Missile would say, oh, don't get me started. Which reminds me of something else he said - "Life is hard, brutal, capricious and unfair. Sometimes there is a benefit to seeing it clearly and acknowledging it truthfully... and other times it is best to find something to laugh about, lest despair crush one completely." Here's some scribbles.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Supermatters Arising.

A quick follow up on the Big Blue project. First I just wanted to share one of the stupid scribbles from my other job working in a library. Every day we send boxloads of books back to the uni campuses they belong to. So the couriers will know which place to take them we leave a note on top of the box -usually they'e headed to Carlton, Bundoora East (pleasingly known as Beast) and in the past, to the (now-closed) Business campus. If I have 5 minutes to spare, or a teabreak when really keen, adding a cartoon to the note seems like the polite thing to do. The dumber the better. Working on Superman meant I'd become acquainted with this picture:

The cheeky chappies of Carlton are quality genre buffs, so it seemed like they really needed this:

Stay classy Metropolis.

I like this idiotic thing so much I'm tempted to turn it into a full colour print.

Lastly, this - discovered in the uni library collection while making my comic cover was a book charting the strange twists & turns of Joe Shuster's career. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster were the high school friends who together went on to create Superman. Disagreements with the publisher led to a contract-ending falling out, and the removal of their creator credit from the comics. The company held the rights, so with no royalties and little success creating another major character, Shuster had to pick up work wherever he could. His years illustrating spanky bondage comics with a yen for torture (knives & hot pokers seem to have been popular) were probably not his favourites. Then his eyesight started to fail. Later in life they did both end up with a settlement and restored credit for Superman, so at least the awfulness isn't completely unleavened. The whole tale of Shuster's "lost" years is told in this book by Craig Yoe:

It's great. The full story and the sometimes-funny, sometimes-nasty plates are a terrific piece of investigative art history/journalism. Tame but quaintly salacious sample:

The work itself reminds me of the parallel career of Archie artist Dan DeCarlo, in that it's obviously the same hand & almost exactly the same characters, now retasked to carry out all the closed-door fantasies often implied by their mainstream comics. The squeaky-cleaning imposed on most big publishing houses of the time certainly wasn't indicative of actual public taste or demand, so as you'd expect the things suppressed just hid away & intensified. This is a fantastic peek in the closet of pop culture. Highly recommended.

It's A Bird, It's A Plane... It's An Illustration Job!

About a year ago an old friend from high school approached me with an idea for an illustration - he had a major Superman fan in his life, and for a special birthday present he wanted to have her appear on a comic cover with the big boy in blue. It sounded like fun, but I was a little hesitant.. Despite being a comic book fan - and having obsessively traced and copied the covers & characters when I was very young - I'd never done anything in that style as a grown-up picture-maker. He asked me to think over some image concepts & get back to him. I then looked at A LOT of comic book covers, from every period of the character I could find, including some of the great Neal Adams work I grew up with. As a kid I was never big on Superman - he was usually the backup if Spiderman or Batman were unavailable. The Christopher Reeve movies gave him a boost when I was 5 or 6 years old, but by the time the horrifyingly mulleted "Nuclear Man" showed up looking like a rock-opera escapee in the awful fourth, my enthusiasm was fading. He always seemed a bit too clean cut & indestructible. Years later I was vaguely aware of him having been revamped with long new-age hair & amazingly it didn't inspire me to pick up an issue.


Absolutely not.

But the minute I was drawing the icon himself, none of that mattered. Sitting down at a drawing board featuring the Daily Planet, Lois Lane and that costume gave a definite thrill. Particularly at the colouring stage, adding those hyperbolic hues.. This surprises me still. Maybe some images are so connected to childhood excitement they're impervious to adult reason. As well as bullets.

Here's a quick run through the process. After looking at all the old covers, the original idea of um.. lets call the girl I was inserting into the picture Lana, for the sake of vestigial privacy.. Ok, so the original idea of Lana being substituted for Lois in Supes substantial arms, safely rescued and in flight, developed into the jokier idea of Lana rescuing him & speeding him away from a choice selection of super-baddies while Metropolis receded below. As Lana was to be dressed in her distinctive daily clothes (red hoodie, shorts & green sneakers), no extra costume design was needed. I was keen also to reference as much of the history of the comic as I could, this being for a fan and all, and a picture of a mid-rescue super-Lois became a central influence. 

All this & a Pulitzer too.

It was in the search for reference pics of women carrying men that I stumbled on the "Lift & Carry" fetish - muscular women hauling slim men about the place, sometimes clothed, sometimes not. Hey, to each their own - and one of those snaps became my major reference for the hands, legs & feet! 

Up and away..

For other elements, like clothes & light, friends kindly did a bit of posing, sans fetishy buzz. I think.


Metropolis was a straight steal of New York, as in the post-Shuster comic itself. In my Superman world, the Daily Planet has been so successful they've moved right into the Empire State Building and done a little remodelling on the roof. Drawing the Planet's famous rooftop globe was one of those jobs that you expect to be simple and quick, but which was actually kind of torture. Instead of making it up off the top of my head, I measured everything, designing it 3 dimensionally & endlessly drafting & redrafting. Pretty stupid, given the simple requirements of the finished work. Another live & learn experience. And a lesson in how sometimes a good guess can come out about the same as a painstaking calculation..

The job spilled over into time I was booked to be away from my studio set up, 2000 miles north in Queensland. This changed a few things - the choice of art supplies became the available acrylic, coloured pencil & Uniball pens, and the workspace was an improvised one.

My temporary folding-table studio, mid tropical summer..

This was the location in which everything finally came together. At drafting stage I tend to work on 60gsm tracing paper, to make easier the process of combining the various more usable bits of different drawings.. Here's a few of the early doodles & experiments. 

Lois ala Lift & Carry. Just figuring shapes at this stage.

Tricky hand types. Should look surprised, but not horrified..

Rough heads, hoodie body & that globe!

After a lot of this, there was finally a usable combination of faces, buildings, clothes and muscles. Lana's legs were a difficult one to sell - she was a combination of four completely different people - but at last it stopped looking like bride of Frankenstein & fitted nicely.

Starting to look like something..

This was also when the design was simplified to strike out the supervillians. Not only did that mean a lot less design & figure work, but a stronger idea emerging - Lana was now saving Superman from the daily grind of rescuing the ever-plummeting Lois. Leaving Lois to make her own way to the ground floor seemed to give the joke more bite - and it turned out Lana had never been much of a fan of Miss Lane.. Perfect. (Insert scheming laugh here.) I moved on to the inks. For some reason I was working at A4 size. Not sure why.. But to get a decent likeness I switched to A3. I decided this having already started to ink A4 size, so the plan was to leave out the faces, xerox the incomplete inked image onto 220gsm art paper, then finish the remaining inks & colours full size. Overcomplicated, but sometimes them's the breaks.

A4 inking in progress.

The A3 upgrade. Colour at last!

This really was an old school illustration - I just noticed the Magic Plus tape masking the white border around the work. Haven't had to do that in a long while. So, at this point the job was basically done - some earthy colours on the cityscape (a palette chosen so as not to let the figures disappear into the background) & finishing on the Daily Planet and bam.. or shazam.. or something.. but finito anyway. As a result of the circumstances of it's production the delivered work had a very handmade look that I was pleased with & might not otherwise have tried - that grainy, almost lumpy coloured pencil look made it something that couldn't be mistaken for the machine-printed sheen of a real comic book & spelled it out as a love-letter to one instead. Here's a slightly over-compressed version of it - 

The delivered work.

And the reason I've included a fairly low-res version is because there is one more - as time went by I couldn't resist going back & doing a little retouching. I liked the finished work, but couldn't help picturing it with one of those exclamation-prone story headlines below the figures, and maybe some whoosh lines under Lana to balance that up... I also took the opportunity to bring some grey into the sky area, like it's a smoggy Metropolis day they're getting up & out of. I'm happy with it now, (as much as you can ever be with a finished piece) & really glad to have had the chance to work on something that struck me at first as perhaps not the most exciting job. I need to offer my apologies to the man of steel on that front. Sorry Superman. You were really good fun.*



*Superman apology does not indicate change in personal preference for Spidey or Batman. Nice try Supes.