Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rough to Finished Art

I'm uploading this rough-to-finish sequence to show the development of an illustration. This was one in a series of pieces done for a Wildlife article on cockroaches.

In some ways, the sketch has a charm all its own that could serve as a piece of finished art. I think illustrators often like our sketches better than the finished art for their looseness and spontaneity.

Illustrations copyright J. Pittman, 2008

You can see the sketch, of course, is pencil, while the finished art is pen and ink. The color, in both cases, was done digitally in Corel Painter. The finished art's color was made a little more intense and using blue reflected light for more contrast. The background was changed to be more of a vignette. Either drawing would have probably worked, but the whole series was done with pen and ink with crosshatching to complement the color washes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Animated Sitcom That Never Was

Yowza, it's been some time since I blogged! Easy to get behind. I came across these images in my files recently of a treatment I worked on for an animated series that was pitched to Fox several years back when there were rumors "The Simpsons" was in its final season. This concept, "The Wasbands," was kind of an "Odd Couple-squared," featuring four middle-aged divorced guys who shared the same apartment. The foursome featured a shameless womanizing nightclub owner, a finicky Harvard professor, a good ol' boy redneck, and a neurotic marriage counselor who experienced a failed marriage himself.

The concept was interesting and had much potential for the humorous interaction among the lead characters--it's a shame it never got into production. But every venture is great practice, and you never know how the experience will be woven into your career to give you skills for a different project on down the road. For example, the years I produced a comic strip were helpful in giving me a good sense of sequencing and pacing necessary for the work I've done on storyboards for numerous TV commercials.

One of the great things about being self-employed is being able to create projects like this one that really interest you. Some fly and some don't, but the practice contributes to the advancement of your career.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid

You know, there's a lot of doom and gloom in the news economically. I emphatically believe, if people would turn off their tv's and radios to the doomsters, ignore the politicians who have an agenda to make you dependent on them to fix the economic mess they helped create, and just go about business as usual, thankful for the opportunities that abound and creatively seek where you have talents and goods to offer, the economy would fix itself.

So much of Wall Street is just plain guesswork, gambling on what may or may not be. Just the rumors of wars or shortages bring a decline. And it's not real-- it's a perception that causes the fluctuations.

Have faith in your talents and abilities. Be creative. Look for needs to fill and offer your services at a competitive rate. This is still the land of opportunity.

During the Great Depression, some businesses thrived. What were they? Entertainment that met a need for people to escape. Breakfast companies (who could do without Ovaltine and oatmeal?) that provided a good start to the day to tackle life's problems. And information sources that people scoured to find opportunities.

If I may be a little bit religious, the Bible says God knows your needs, even before you ask. Ask. Trust. In good faith, do.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cartoon Cavalcade

When I was a child, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Howard, gave me a cartoon anthology compiled by Thomas Craven called Cartoon Cavalcade. I still have it today, though the spine has long since worn off due to my numerous perusings over the years. It covers cartooning by the decade, starting with the late 1800's through the 1940's. It's a great overview of many of the early comic strips, gag panels, and even a few Disney stills are included.

I can still feel that rush of excitement that I had as a child whenever I open the book. It was my first exposure to early masters like Charles Dana Gibson, Gluyas Williams, Rube Goldberg, and Charles Addams. The idea that there were grown-ups in the world getting paid to draw funny pictures was a thrilling idea for a fourth grader. And it's still an amazing concept to me today.

It's hard to measure the impact that book had on my development as a cartoonist, and I am so grateful my teacher had the insight to give it to me. I notice the book is available on Amazon today from various used booksellers. I could probably get a fresher copy, but it's kind of like a badge of honor to have my worn-spine version. It's a reminder of how dedicated I was to learn my craft.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Glass is Half Full

A couple of cartoonist friends of mine got the bad news of being laid off at the newspaper where they've worked for many years. I started my career working at the same paper, but left there 25 years ago to free lance from my studio at home. I can imagine how distressed I'd be if I had stayed at the paper and given them so many years of my life, only to be let go.

I hope they find another employer soon. They're really quite talented, award-winners, both of them. Understandably, economic downswings require companies to look for ways to pare back expenses. But it's a shame that the management couldn't appreciate their value to growing and keeping readership, and do other things to pare back expenses rather than release such important assets. My prediction is the paper itself will eventually fold when it doesn't understand the very talents that helped it thrive.

Being self-employed for 25 years, I have seen many ups and downs in the economy. However, challenges like the ones my friends are facing can be catalysts to actually improve their careers. I think creative people have an advantage in transitional situations because they are forced to devise creative solutions to adapt to the change. One day, I hope they will be able to look back on this time and see it as a blessing that jump-started them to better opportunities.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Frank Frazetta Tribute

On Saturday, August 30, the NCS and friends, admirers, and colleagues of Frank Frazetta met at the private Frazetta Museum in East Stroudsburg, PA, to present Frank with a special Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. This event was moving on many levels. We had a touching overview of Frank’s life in art by longtime friend Nick Meglin, the actual presentation of the Milt Caniff Award by NCS President Jeff Keane received by a moist-eyed Frank Frazetta, and a presentation of the scrapbook by event organizer Jack Pittman containing art and congratulations from various cartoonists and artists honoring Frank. The celebration was attended by several NCS members, a few non-NCS cartoonists and illustrators, and even producer Edward Summer of “Conan the Barbarian.”

The setting of the private Frazetta Museum, with turret and tile roof, has a picturesque backdrop of a lake dug by Frank himself, and adorned with sculptures across the grounds. Upon entering the museum, one is immediately awed to view the numerous original works that are such familiar icons of illustration. The Death Dealer, Vampirella, Conan the Barbarian, and various other fantasy works illuminate the halls. As is typical for illustration, the details that you see in the originals are so much richer than the reproductions.

After viewing the works of art, the group met for an Italian catered lunch adjacent to the museum and lake. It was an inspiring landscape and easy to see how it would contribute to the creativity of such a master as Frazetta.

John Reiner with "Conan the Barbarian" Producer Ed Summer

Upon returning to the museum, the presentations were underway. Nick Meglin opened the ceremony with a talk on Frank’s career in art, and remarked how Frank was so gifted athletically, he could have easily been a professional baseball player which was one of his first loves. Lucky for us he chose art, for which he was equally if not more talented.

Longtime MAD Magazine Editor Nick Meglin speaks on Frank's career

National Cartoonists Society President Jeff Keane presents Frank
the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award

Next, Jeff Keane presented Frank with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, noting the few giants in our field who have been so recognized. Frank Frazetta is not one easily moved by accolades. For all of his illustration accomplishments, contributions to the imaginations of other illustrators and motion picture directors, and creation of images engraved in our psyches, he has always first and foremost considered himself to be a cartoonist. So this was a most cherished award by him, and it was telling in his tears.
Frank admiring his Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award

Finally, I presented Frank with a scrapbook collection of art and congratulations from the likes of former NCS President Frank Springer, John Reiner, Don Orehek, Bill Janocha, Mort Walker, Angelo Torres, Mike Grell, Adrian Sinnott, Mike Lynch, the Marcus Hamilton/Ron Ferdinand “Dennis the Menace” team, Michael Jantze, Jack Pittman, and 2008 Cartoonist of the Year Al Jaffee, to mention a few. Al’s art was so fitting in that it recognized Frank as “the best baseball player I ever saw.” The cover for the scrapbook was designed to look like a wizard’s tome, by motion picture art director Heather M. Morris with intricate gold-embossed heraldry icons and leather adorned with leaded embellishments.

I present the scrapbook to Frank

After a wonderful day of viewing Frank’s masterpieces, sharing a good time with one another, and seeing the master himself, this particular cartoonist couldn’t help but notice after all the guests had left, a smiling Frank Frazetta returning to his home with the face of one who at long last had realized what he wrote while in his thirties in a 1960’s NCS bio:
Ambition:Someday get just a wiff [sic] of the sweet smell of success.

Last but not least, I want to thank my children--Jay, Jon, and Joy--for helping with the lunch, contributing to the scrapbook, and being such gracious hosts to everyone. As my good friend Nick Meglin put it:
"I met the other Jack Pittman Saturday...This one not only pulled off a nightmare event at Frazetta Museum in East Stroudsburg, PA, he showed us all what a good father can be. His kids are terrific -- worked their tails off, pleasant as could be, no indication of anything other than we're here to help our dad do a ridiculously tough job and make it come out perfect. And that they did. Thanks, Jack. And thank your brood for all of us."

Yep, I'm proud of my kids.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More Cartoon Maps

illustrations copyright J.Pittman 2008

I just finished another waterpark cartoon map. I probably have an advantage in this genre in that my degree is in architecture. So, when clients supply reference for a project, I have experience in interpreting the architect's plans into 3D. Of course, I'm doing it in exaggerated fashion to make a fun presentation.

There is an incredible amount of detail that goes into these projects. Many cartoonists are accustomed to working in minimalist styles. It takes a special patience to do this type of work.

When clients furnish photos of an existing park for reference, it's funny how sometimes they will send me the exact opposite side of a view from what I'm drawing. I guess since they are so familiar with their park, they think the most common view from the sidewalk is what I need to work from. But if I have to draw the south side of a building and they've given me the north side, I can't just make up what the other side looks like! Same with rooftops. Lots of times I'm furnished with a pedestrian view of a building that doesn't show the roof. And I'm typically drawing a bird's eye view with these maps. So I have no idea what to indicate for the rooftop!

Thankfully, Google Earth is making my work easier these days with updated aerial photos of most places in the world. I can check out most of these places and, if the resolution is high enough, see a lot of the details the clients may not have on hand.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Finished Art

I thought I'd include a follow-up to my July 1 and July 14 entries since I showed the early stages of the work. Here are both finished art pieces.

And here are a couple of close-ups for detail.

Both of these clients are very generous in allowing me to have free rein with the art. And I've won Reuben awards for the work I've done with both of these clients. I think there's a connection-- when an artist is trusted and allowed to do what they do best, their best work results. I'm grateful for that trust.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Our "Usual Suspects" gathered for our monthly lunch this afternoon. We talked about how the print industry is rapidly dying as more and more publishers gravitate to the internet. Morning and evening newspapers in city editions have all but disappeared. News magazines contain cover stories the network and cable news ran last week.

It's a sad fact. For those of us who grew up in the heyday of print publishing, it's like watching an old friend with a terminal illness slide away. I imagine this is much the way veteran radio performers felt with the advent of television.

The good news is, there will still be a need for creative illustration on the web. Whether or not the form will change remains to be seen. With electronic publishing, you are no longer limited to a static image on a page. So my advice to young illustrators would be to learn animation and interactive publishing techniques as well.

Going back to the radio -to-tv analogy, those performers who not only survived, but thrived, were those who embraced the new technology and explored the new medium's potential as innovative pioneers.

Monday, August 4, 2008

I'm Getting Excited...

We're coming up on our National Cartoonists Society honoring Frank Frazetta's lifetime achievements in illustration. This was a pipe dream of mine a few years ago-- no one in our organization had given him an award, yet he was an icon in our craft-- and then I just took the bull by the horns and assumed role of organizing the event.

I always wanted to meet Frank. I admired his work as a child. The first piece of his I ever noticed was a "MAD Magazine" parody of the "Breck Girl" commercials, and it had a caricature of Ringo Starr as the "Breck model."

Later, I was to find out Frank ghosted the comic strip "Li'l Abner" for Al Capp during a 9-year stint. You can see the influence of drawing the Yokum clan in posters Frank did for a few Woody Allen and Peter Sellers movies. He also contributed to several installments of "Little Annie Fannie."

Of course, everyone knows him for his fabulous fantasy art depicting Conan the Barbarian, Vampirella, and others of that genre. I am very grateful this tribute is at long last coming to pass and I will be able to see Frank's work in person and meet the man who has inspired many of us by his excellence.

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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christmas in June

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I'm working on a Christmas catalog cover in June! I'm accustomed to working well ahead of holidays, but this particular client has a new printer who wants more lead time. So, to get myself psyched in 90-degree weather, I did this little warm-up sketch of Santa. It's absolutely nothing like the style or subject the cover will convey, but serves as a simple artistic calisthenic. I think I may also have to play some Bing Crosby and Mannheim Steamroller to get fully into the festive spirit. My cover is going to be influenced by the movie "A Christmas Story." So I have a few stills from the film I plan to use for inspiration. Now I'm in the mood for French toast. We always have French toast for Christmas breakfast. My puppy Artoo is barking. I think he heard my stomach growling...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Emulating traditional media on the Cintiq

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I've used my Cintiq for about two and a half years now, and a few observations are in order. It's a big relief that I don't have to do oversized illustrations on 30x40 illustration board any more. Digitally, you can just start drawing on the screen and keep adding to your "canvas" as needed. The fact that the Cintiq tilts like a drawing table and swivels like an animation board makes for the nearest thing to drawing on a sheet of paper and rotating the sheet as you draw to take advantage of your optimal swing of the wrist. The pen comes with three different nibs-- hard nylon, soft felt, and spring-loaded nylon. My personal preference is the felt nib as it adds a little drag to the surface, feeling more like pencil on a vellum-surfaced paper. The only problem with the felt nib is it wears out much faster than the nylon. I'm starting to horde felt replacement nibs like I used to horde Gillott nibs, in case they decide to stop making them one day.

I use Photoshop and Painter interchangeably with the Cintiq. Painter is much nicer emulating natural media. But I'm so accustomed to years of Photoshop, some things are just easier to accomplish with it. I've created a custom "crowquill" pen brush in Photoshop that works very similarly to a traditional steel nib pen. (see sample above which emulates pen & ink with watercolor)

Mostly I use Painter to emulate what I used to do traditionally with ink, watercolor, and colored pencil. I prefer the older digital watercolor over Painter's newer watercolor layer technique as I find I have more control with the digital watercolor brushes. One thing on my wish list for Painter would be some way to tilt-control the spread of the wash. Traditionally, I would put clear water on my sheet of watercolor paper in whatever portion of the illustration I wanted to work on. Then, just as the sheen was drying on the paper, I'd touch a loaded brush to it for that feathery-edged bleed effect I wanted. Then, for added control, I'd just lift the edge of my watercolor paper and control the bleed in whatever direction I tilted the paper. With Painter, you get a nice watercolor bleed in the line, but there are no controls yet to "tilt" your paper and let it run in one direction or another. The regular watercolor layers seem to have runny wash settings in some of the brushes, but I haven't figured out how to control their run. Another thing I liked about my traditional watercolor technique was in adding more dilute paint to an already wet darker area. It would yield some nice hard-edged wash passages when it dried as the dilute medium would send the darker pigment to the edges of the wash. Painter and Photoshop both have a hard-edged brush, but they seem to make each stroke hard-edged in whatever width brush you select, rather than making an entire passage into a pool with hard-edged borders. I feel like Painter must have a workaround to accomplish this as I remember reading about controlling the "wetness" of the paper somewhere, but I haven't discovered it yet.
I recently did some traditional watercolor illustrations just to reassure myself I hadn't atrophied from working mostly digital now. I was pleasantly surprised that I'm actually better with traditional media after experimenting digitally. It kind of impacts you in a way that you can visualize what you want to accomplish better, I think, and work more freely with the medium. I also find that my digital work will be better as well, when I switch back and forth, as the traditional work inspires me to emulate the effects digitally. I will say, traditional media is more fun, and there's just something in its directness that is very satisfying. But, no doubt about it, the digital work is way easier to modify and experiment with various color schemes while you work. I'm still much faster in traditional media than with digital, as I find I do more tweaking and retouching digitally where I know the exact effect I'll get traditionally before I touch brush to paper. In that sense, I think traditional media has a spontaneity about it that makes digital media look a bit overworked. The challenge is to capture that spontaneity, and as the digital brushes and effects improve, I think the differences between the two approaches will narrow.

How does one make a dime from internet exposure?

In the analogy to the music industry, you give away CD's or free downloads of your music. Kids play them, they share with their friends, and then you develop a huge following. So when you have a concert, it's a sellout. Music is made in the concerts and tours now-- not via record sales like in the old days. And strangely enough, when you have the concert, the kids who downloaded your free music still buy your CD at the concert as an impulse buy because they want to hang onto the moment or get an autographed copy.

For illustration, in the old days you beat the path to the art directors, making regular rounds to show your portfolio. If your work was good, they'd spend some time with you, maybe not giving you an assignment right away. But you had established a link with them face-to-face, and the next time you wanted to show your portfolio it would be easier. So you did this over time, and each time you'd get to know them more personally, perhaps sharing a few anecdotes and/or taking them out for coffee or lunch.

After some consistency in this, you might even have done a personal favor for the art director, doing a caricature for a friend of his or for his office at a small fee. What really got you your first job with him was the fact that you'd made a personal bond. Not that your work wasn't good, but more commerce happens between businesses because of friendships than talent or a great product, even though those things are important, too. All you needed was the opportunity to prove yourself, that you could produce on time and on budget, and execute well. But that opportunity only came because, 1) the art director felt like he would enjoy working with you, 2) you gave him something that showed you genuinely cared about him, and 3) you did actually have a good style that was suited for his needs.

Today, with a talented wrist being a dime a dozen, and the demise of far more print outlets to buy your work, the competition is even more fierce and time is precious with the few markets having to compete ever harder to stay alive. And the print markets themselves are gravitating to the internet in droves where the audience is greater, because they know if they don't retain a large audience, advertisers will take their dollars elsewhere, where they know they'll be seen. So the old-fashioned, concrete path to the art director's door is now a virtual electronic highway. How do you, then, establish the rapport in a less-personal era? You do it by making an online portfolio, and by blogging, where you can communicate a little of the personal side of your approach to your work, your philosophy, and maybe even a few personal anecdotes. How, in all of the sea of creative talent, do you get noticed or attract a following? It's basically old-fashioned word-of-mouth, giving people a few things for free that they can download and enjoy, and share with others who say, "How cool! Where did you get that? It was FREE?" You may even offer some free tutorials on how you put together a project, showing the art director your artistic approach, building their confidence in you. You write on a well-known blog where people are accustomed to going, and tie it in to your website with links, offer ways for those who are interested to subscribe to daily or weekly feeds, letting them know when your blog has a new entry. What you also accomplish is displaying a portfolio of your creative thought processes, which is not so much an over-saturated commodity as a talented wrist. So your base of subscribers consists of people who have found something they enjoy in your work and personality, and have taken the time to subscribe with their email address, so they can continue getting free offers and tips from you that might make their work easier. And even for those out there who do not know who you are yet, they may do a Google search with terms related to a project they are developing. And if it's a topic you have blogged about, your entry comes up in their search! What if an art director wants to put together a project with that good old-fashioned Gillott pen look, and you have written a blog entry about your passion for Gillott nibs? Voila! There's a connection!

Sure people can lift your work from your online portfolio for free like PerezHilton did with my illustration yesterday, unless you watermark it or keep the resolution so poor they would have limited use of it. But the kids who do that would not be your clients anyway. They might want to put your art on a t-shirt, or a notebook cover, or on their dorm wall. But you have established a link with future prospective clients in the same way McDonald's does by putting playgrounds in their restaurants. What is vastly more important is having your work seen and stand out in an ocean of talent.

In my particular field of advertising clients, ad agencies are more likely to think of me if I'm a household name over whether I'm talented or not. So the more people who are aware of me the better. Also, the reputable companies who visit my online portfolio are aware my work is copyrighted and are generally honest in asking how much a reprint use of a hi-rez file would be. We also have stock art competing with our wares today. So, it's good to have your portfolio do double-duty as a stock art market. If you sell a widget to one million people for $10 each, you do much better than selling to 100 people at $1000 each.

I have tried to tailor a lot of my high-end illustration today to markets where stock art is not an option, due to the specific needs of the client. Consequently, the better paying assignments I get come from those clients. At the same time, it's nice to have re-use fees from the other assignments where the subject matter is more generic and which might find a place with a client who couldn't afford my services. That doesn't take anything away from my high-end assignments, because the lower budget clients are not competing in the same market. It's simply expanded my outlets.