Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cartoon Maps

I do a lot of cartoon maps. As a child, I remember sitting in my pediatrician's waiting room seeing a huge cartoon map of Mother Goose Land on the wall. For a kid, it was an adventure to see how many nursery rhymes you could identify from the scenarios portrayed across the landscape.

Even today, I try to summon up that excitement when doing cartoon map projects for my clients, adding little mini dramas or fantasy elements to make them fun. The blog size can't do justice to the huge size of these maps, but here a few detail areas pulled out from the overall map above.

I'm getting requests these days from all over the world. One of the great things about the internet is how it has made the world your marketplace. I'm very grateful to be able to share with the world this type of fantasy and fun that I grew up with. To view this map in larger size on my website, as well as others, go to http://www.jptoonist.com/portfolio/MC.htm

Friday, July 25, 2008

Humor Conception 101

The best conceived gags involve the element of surprise. It's that act of being caught off guard that evokes laughter. Whether your style of presenting humor is verbal or visual, the objective is the same--to catch the audience off guard. In some ways it can be like a magic act. You're using redirection to lead the audience one way while pulling a rabbit out of the hat when they least expect it.

There are several devices that can accomplish this. But I'll focus on exaggeration/understatement for today. Exaggeration/understatement takes a concept and either overplays or underplays it for effect. The following is an example of exaggeration/understatement.

I've found this to be the easiest type of humor to use in illustrating serious subjects in a light manner. Simply take a fact from the article, and either exaggerate what is being said, or understate it in a way that drives the point home. Here is an illustration for a series I tied to the Atlanta Olympics. The concept of the series was "A Perfect 10 Olympic Trivia Facts." So each of the illustrations dealt with a sports fact related to the Olympics, exaggerated visually in each case. The item for this example was, "The first tandem rowing event in the Olympics was introduced by a team comprised of whalers."

illustrations copyright J.Pittman, 1994 and 1996

As an assignment, take a fact like, "No matter what your age, exercising can be beneficial." Think of an exaggerated or understated way of presenting the fact in a light and humorous way. It could be a workout gym scene in a retirement home, where a bunch of old codgers are preparing for a pole vault event with their canes, a lady with a walker is going at blurring speed on a treadmill, etc. The more elements like those that you add to the scene will heighten the absurdity of it all while still illustrating the fact of the benefits of exercise.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This is a question cartoonists are asked more than anything related to technique. That is a pretty revealing statistic. I think it points to the idea being more important than the execution. Not that an ability to draw isn't important, but a marginally drawn funny concept can fly where an exceptionally drawn unfunny idea will take a nosedive.

Some cartoonists think visually, so their idea session will involve multiple doodles. Others think verbally, so they may jot down words or phrases. Some, like myself, do a little of both.

For gags developed visually, the punchline is usually the drawing that first comes to mind. The following strip is an example of a visual punchline...

Verbally developed gags can begin with a word or phrase as the punchline... Then, some gags are a combination of the two approaches...all images copyright J.Pittman, 2004

More to come on the steps in creating humor...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Creative Friends

This is a late post because our monthly lunch of creative colleagues was today. We usually gather at Vic's Italian Ristorante and spend a few hours enjoying each other's company and hearing about what everyone's working on.

I'm very blessed by our creative group. In fact, MAD Magazine's editor, Nick Meglin, was just remarking to me afterwards what a joy it is to have such a great group of talented individuals to meet with regularly.

We have an editorial cartoonist, an animator, a sculptor, a graphic designer, a guitarist, a humor writer, my son, and myself. We also invite others from time to time, but the following are our core group:

Dwane Powell - editorial cartoonist at The News and Observer and nationally syndicated by the Creators Syndicate. We worked together at the paper for about a decade before I left to go free lance. He and I have the longest history together, and actually borrowed tips from one another as we were developing our craft.

Grey Blackwell - animator at The New and Observer. Grey was hired in the same job I used to have, but positioned himself to work in what really interests him--animation. Grey also has done work for MAD Magazine over the years. And Grey received a Best in Newspaper Illustration Award at the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Awards. Plus, everyone says we were separated at birth, even though he's really almost young enough to be my son. And those who say it still are either senile or myopic.

Joel Haas - sculptor. Joel and I used to be across-the-street neighbors for about 12 years. So we have had a lot of interesting philosophical conversations about the nature of being a creative free lancer. Joel grew up in a talented family as the son of the late novelist Ben Haas. And his mother owned her own theatrical costume shop for several decades before closing it to retire recently. His brother has won Grammy Awards as a classical music producer. Joel's sculpture is widely known and appreciated in private and commercial collections.

Walter Stanford - graphic designer. Walter drives all the way from Charlotte just to come to our meetings. He is exceptionally skilled in Photoshop and does most of his work digitally. But he is also an accomplished illustrator and fine artist in pastels.

Joe Albano - guitarist in Adjustyd Bluz, a band we play in together. Joe and Nick actually knew each other many years ago in NY as Joe recorded on a tune Nick had written the lyrics for. Joe's musical past is as diversified as my own, and he is a pleasure to include in our visual artists group. Here's Joe...

copyright J.Pittman, 2008

Nick Meglin - retired editor from MAD Magazine and current arts teacher, illustrator, author, and lyricist. Of course everyone remembers Nick as longtime writer and editor for MAD. What you may not know is Nick always wanted to be an illustrator and MAD was just a means for him to earn a living as he pursued art. But the sideline became his career, and he eventually came to realize his "bread-and-butter" work as humor writer and editor was his calling. After writing several books, and finally retiring from MAD to NC from NYC, Nick began teaching a creative workshop and is enjoying his first love, illustration, by doing portraits of composers for classical radio's monthly newsletter. Nick also is currently writing the lyrics to the musical stage adaptation of "Grumpy Old Men."

Jay Pittman - my son and illustrator of children's books. Jay, of course, grew up with a double dose of art in our family. He has assisted me, as have his other siblings, on numerous tv commercials and illustration assignments. And, to his own credit, has illustrated two children's books.

Me - well, you already know about me.

As I mentioned, it is a real blessing to meet with all of these creative talents every month-- one of the many things I am thankful for in my career and what makes the artist's life so interesting and rewarding.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

We're Looking for People Who Like to Draw.

Those words filled me with excitement when I was a child. I saw the familiar ads featuring the likes of illustrators Norman Rockwell and Albert Dorne, and envisioned the thrill of taking lessons authored by them.

My parents were encouraging--still are--and so when I was in the 7th grade, they arranged for me to take the adult version (not the children's version, mind you!) of the Famous Artists Schools Cartooning Course. I was in for a treat for invaluable lessons on humor strips from Al Capp ("Li'l Abner"), adventure strip lessons from Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon"), editorial cartooning from Rube Goldberg (our founding President of the National Cartoonists Society, and person for whom the Reuben Awards are named), and magazine gag panel lessons from Whitney Darrow, Jr., just to mention a few.

I learned so many things to help a budding cartoonist hone his skills and pursue a career with professionalism. About the same time, I also took a humor and gagwriting course via correspondence with Joseph Mahoney, a retired writer for Jackie Gleason and gagwriter for a host of magazine cartoonists.

Where would a young 7th grader in NC make such a NY connection? I had an insatiable desire to learn everything I could about cartooning. And, from multiple trips to my local library, scouring all trade journals on the field like Gag Re-Cap and Jack Markow's cartooning column in Writer's Digest, I found a few leads.

Eager to put my newly-learned skills to the test, I started submitting cartoons to The Saturday Evening Post, True, Esquire, Field and Stream, The New Yorker and waited with bated breath by the mailbox for all those checks to start rolling in. Of course, I amassed quite a collection of rejection slips instead, which were thrilling in themselves, as sometimes a kind cartoon editor would include a personal note of encouragement to go along with the form letter. And even the form letter said they hoped I would "consider them in the future." So, the door was still open!

But one of the first cartoon markets I approached before sending to the national publications was Carolina Country magazine. I sent a batch to them figuring I would have a better chance with a local market than hitting it big time with The New Yorker right off the bat! Alas, even my home state magazine sent the familiar, polite rejection slip.

Fast forward to the 1980's and 90's, after several years in journalistic illustration with Raleigh's News and Observer, I had finally gotten to the point where I was getting consistent calls for freelance work and left the paper to work from my home studio. Around 1994, I had a call from Carolina Country to do their cover for their corporate magazine. That cover, won me my first Best in Illustration award in the National Cartoonists Society's 50th Anniversary Reuben Awards.

cover for 1994 Carolina Country magazine
copyright, J.Pittman, 1994

It was a special victory for a kid who had persevered, despite being rejected by them and so many other publications years earlier.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Art Lesson from Music

When we think of those who helped shape who we are, I cannot omit my high school band director, Earl R. Braunhardt. He was a consummate disciplinarian. He expected absolute perfection in musical performance.

Nowadays it's fashionable to applaud mediocrity in performance, as though it's gentler and more respecting of persons. But I'm grateful I had a teacher who expected more of me.

I remember one particular concert as a freshman percussionist where I was to establish a ritard for the rest of the orchestra with a drum solo, and I just blew straight through in allegro fashion. I saw Mr. Braunhardt's pained expression as he tried to regain control with the conductor’s baton.

After that humiliating experience, I worked hard so that I'd never make the same mistake again. By the time I was a senior I was so disciplined that all he’d have to say was “ninety” or “one-forty” (beats per minute) and I could instantly hit the stride as though I had an internal metronome ticking away. It was a good learning experience to work on my shortcomings and gain his trust. And that discipline has affected my art today.

Never overlook the value in your failures—they will help shape your successes.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Commencing the Finished Art

I'm doing a new Plant Delights Nursery catalog cover this week. When starting the finished art, I like to do one area a little more finished, like the entire cover will be, to set the tone for where I'm going. This portion shows my sepia line sketch, lightened, so I can paint right over it.

I like this approach better than drawing the finished line work right away, because it helps the illustration look more like a watercolor painting rather than a line drawing that has been colored.

For the rest of the illustration, I'll apply light washes overall and gradually build the entire scene up to the level of finish of the completed face. Ideally, that will require less line work as a lot of the outlines will be defined by the washes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don't Try This at Home!

Over the years, I have frequently received requests from parents and schools to talk to talented young people about a career in illustration. I have a different approach to each presentation.

For schools, I typically stress the importance of being exposed to many fields and disciplines in the student's education in order to be able to communicate visually to the broadest audience possible. If the education is limited to illustration only, one can be a whiz at drawing but fail to effectively communicate to a wide range of people without heavy input from the writer or art director. Besides, from a practical standpoint, those who are not serious enough to persevere in their art may find through their broader studies another discipline for which they would be better suited.

For the parents who want me to talk to their children on a more personal level, I try to dispel the romantic notions they may have of an illustrator working from home with interesting people and projects, living the intellectual life, and waking up every day to do creative work with great passion. Instead, I present the more realistic aspects of being prepared for much rejection, long hours with little social life, clients expecting a miracle on a tight deadline, and then taking forever to pay for your hard work. I also stress the importance of being a self-starter when it's necessary to create work during the downside of the feast-and-famine cycle.

I figure those who are truly serious and passionate about their art will pursue their dream despite the discouragement. And those who are frightened away by the scary prospect of an insecure career do not have the perseverance it takes to succeed in this business anyhow.

Ever since I was a child, I had tunnel vision for what I do today. No one had to twist my arm to do this for a living. In fact, there were plenty of people telling me it was impossible unless I moved to New York City--and even then, I'd get eaten alive. When times have been lean at various stages during my career, I had plenty of second-guessers pointing out how foolish it was to pursue such a tenuous profession.

Art is something I must pursue. I realize it's also a journey to a destination where you never arrive. But, for me, the path has enough joy and fulfillment along the way to make the steep ledges worth the risk.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Digital Day Off

I got a day off yesterday as a paving truck yanked my utility line off at the street, so I was unable to email clients and go about my normal digital routine. This makes about 5 times in 8 years-- you'd think they would raise the utility pole after such an aggravation.

Being without the use of the computer reminded me how, not too many years ago, all of my work was executed in traditional media. I'm glad I can work both digitally and traditionally. I taught a college art class for several semesters a while back, and it was an eye-opener how dependent the students were on the computer to even think creatively. It was as if a whole area of creative options had just atrophied. I would encourage all digital artists to experiment with both approaches. If it's difficult to wean yourself away from the computer, I'll give you the name of a helpful trucker to pave the way...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Farewell to an Old Friend

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

The headlines in newspapers across the country today record the passing of an old friend of mine, Jesse Helms. The Senator from NC was either loved or hated by his political colleagues--there was no in-between. But one thing everyone could say was you knew where he stood on issues, and he didn't waffle like so many today. His brand of unyielding conservatism might have been scary to some, and certainly if left unchecked might be just as scary as unchecked liberalism. But it was a welcome and needed balance in the atmosphere of the 70's where family values got shoved aside by the "me" generation.

But this is a tribute to a man who meant a lot to me in a very difficult time of my career. It was around 1994-95, and the illustration industry had taken a nosedive. A lot of my colleagues who could not hang on through the drought were forced into other lines of work. Through no fault of our own, the telephone just stopped ringing for months and months. I was coming to the end of my ability to weather the storm as well.

I happened to see Sen. Helms on an evening news broadcast one night. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was being interviewed on an important world issue. I could see a faded newspaper cartoon framed in the background of his office. It was an old illustration of mine where I had drawn him in the familiar "American Gothic" pose from Grant Wood's famous painting. I figured if he cared enough to frame a yellowed newspaper clipping, I'd send him the autographed original with a personal note inscribed. Besides, if my career was going down the tubes, I might as well give away some art to someone who appreciated it.

One particular morning, a few days later, as I was trying to make some tough decisions, I had spent some time reflecting in my regular morning devotion period with an inspirational verse from Psalm 143:8-- "Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning, for in You do I trust; cause me to know the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to You." Within an hour, my phone rang! Was God opening His hand and sending a client my way?

I answered the phone and heard a female secretary's voice, "Is this Mr. Pittman, the cartoonist?,"
"Yes it is," I responded, expecting a request for a quote on a project.
"Hold on please. Senator Helms would like to speak to you."

Now, I'm thinking, "Oh sure, somebody's about to play a prank on me."
Then comes this voice on the line which I had heard many times on television editorials when I was a child.
"Hello, Jack, this is Jesse... Jesse Helms."

I think it was because I was caught so off-guard that all protocol to correctly address one of the most powerful and influential politicians of the time went out the window. And I responded, "Jesse! How are you?"

"Very well, thank you," he replied. "What I'm calling about is the cartoon you sent me. I really want to thank you for your generosity as that was a favorite of mine."

I told him I had seen a copy of it behind him during a news conference and thought he would like to have the original.

He went on, "Not only am I going to enjoy it, but it is going to be included in the archives of the Jesse Helms Foundation after I retire, so it will be an historic document for others to see in years to come." Then he added, "I do appreciate your kindness, but what I especially appreciate is the note you added to it."

I had inscribed something to the effect of "In appreciation for your courageous stand to help preserve traditional family values and our American way of life. Best regards, Jack."

Then we talked a bit of how we both had enjoyed a background in newspaper journalism with the same publication, albeit in different generations, and the challenges that went along with the field. He proceeded to invite me to his office in Washington for lunch, "show me around," and said if there was anything he could ever do for me to let him know. Then he finished our conversation with a phrase I'm sure countless politicians utter, but given my Bible verse that morning, one which had special meaning to me, "God bless you, Jack."

After reflecting a few days, I was teaching an adult Bible study at my church and shared the episode with my class. "I had come to the conclusion," I told them, "that the phone call was the demonstration of the lovingkindness and encouragement from God that morning which Psalm 143:8 had communicated to me. Why, it was almost as if God Himself had tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't worry. Everything's under control. I'm here and this is a reminder that I care.'"

To which one of my class members, an ardent critic of Sen. Helms replied, "I'm sure Jesse felt the same way!" Knowing his sense of humor toward his political enemies, I can't help but think he's having a laugh about that, too.

Postscript: Within a week of that call, my phone started ringing with more regularity again, I got what was at that time the largest assignment I'd ever received from a Park Avenue ad agency for Procter & Gamble, and also received what was to become the first of many Reuben Award nominations for Best in Advertising Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society.

Regardless of what many critics have to say against Jesse Helms for his political philosophy, he was used by God to offer the encouragement I needed that day, to persevere in my career, and trust I was going in the direction I needed to.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Don't Miss the Woods for the Trees

I just finished judging the magazine illustration categories for the Florida Magazine Association's 2008 Charlie Awards. I used their criteria for design, creativity, execution, etc., but also an important factor to me was how well the illustrations visually communicated the topic. That, after all, is the objective of magazine illustration.

My degree is in architecture, but a good part of my design school experience involved labs in visual communication. It's sometimes easy to get sidetracked from that objective when focusing too much on technique. Some of the entries I judged, while technically superior in rendering, did not communicate the essence of the article they were to illustrate.

I've found it helpful to allow a preliminary sketch to lie around for a day or so and then come back to it with a fresh eye to see if it conveys the message it's supposed to. A gag, particularly, can seem so logical to you when you're constructing it, because you know the visual punchline in advance. But sometimes a fresh look a day later can reveal that you've missed the proper set-up. What's really embarrassing is when you find out you not only missed the woods for the trees, but you weren't even in the forest!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Creative Inspiration

illustrations copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I got a little more time on the Christmas catalog cover as the publisher needed more time on their end. So, I think it might be nice to record the process from sketch to finish. The client is selling outdoor/wildlife gear. They still have to decide the actual items to feature on the cover so I've simply indicated generic packages and goods in the sketch for now. The concept, of course, recalls the familiar Santa scene from "A Christmas Story" with a wildlife slant, like having Santa in camouflage clothing. The challenge is to give just enough of an impression of the idea that inspired the illustration, but then take it another step to make it an alternate reality. In one of his children's books, Maurice Sendak once drew a chef who was patterned after Oliver Hardy. It's an interesting vehicle to give a surreal air to the story your illustration is conveying.

I enjoy the sketch phase of an illustration the most. It's the place where you can be director, actor, and cinematographer all in one. The close-up sketch shows a little more detail in the characters. That's my puppy, Artoo, as Santa's elf. I like to incorporate personal things like that for my own amusement. In illustrations over the years, I have included pets, friends, and family. I suppose that's a little like Hirschfeld including "Nina" in his drawings.

Speaking of Hirschfeld, I was fortunate enough to meet him before he passed away when I won my first Reuben division award in NYC in the mid-90's. We also presented him with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award that year. He was in his 90's at the time, had recently married again, and was just as sharp and bright as a 20-year-old. When we have our National Cartoonists Society meetings, it never ceases to amaze me how I can be talking to some of our members who are in their 80's and 90's, and it's like conversing with a kid fresh out of college. One of the nice things about our profession is the impact that creative work has on keeping your mind alert and youthful. It's a special blessing for which I'm thankful.