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High Drama on the Drawing Board

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Impending disaster is right where 7-year-old boys like to be. Liam draws these tableaux of airplanes flying into the sides of houses, while somebody in a hot-air balloon drops bombs; trains plunging off high trestles into shark-infested waters. In this one, note the closed eyes of the supplicants as they hail the king. I like the king's mustache.
I really like doing kids' magazine illustration. It's different from a lot of illustration jobs, in that there's much more storytelling in the pictures. Another trend is that there seems to be a lot of disaster. I'd never slam Steve Irwin, but he did usher in a trend in kids' nature TV that tends toward high peril and drama (usually manufactured). Well, he wasn't the first; he was about two decades after Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, where the point was always to dart and immobilize the animal. It was my favorite, mostly because it was the only animal show on TV. As if what the animals do in everyday life weren't interesting enough. I never watch Animal Planet anymore, but when Phoebe was small, I logged quite a few hours glancing at the screen to see what she was taking in.

That's how I came to love John Acorn's program, "The Nature Nut." I loved everything about it: the way he wrote and performed silly songs about the creatures he featured; the way he imparted such a solid idea of their natural history without ever resorting to pedantry or impending disaster; the way he empathized with animals. A pivotal episode was about a fathead minnow named Joe Snumm, who lived under a dock. There was a song to go with it, too. Go John. Probably the only fathead minnow ever to make it to network TV.

Much, much too gentle and wise for today's television. Now what we get are endless shows about animals that just might poison you or bite your leg off, and jittery khaki-clad hosts who court disaster. Standing back and watching quietly is so passe.

One of the last things I watched on AP was "Jane Goodall: Return to Gombe." I soak up anything I can about Jane. And sure enough, AP manufactured a thread story that involved a chimp that was old, and maybe sick, and missing. The chimp was off somewhere doing something else when Jane came back to her old research station. And every commercial break panted, "Will Jane find Fifi?" Please. Just let the camera run. Show us Jane, show us a troop of chimps doing what chimps do. That's way more than enough.

I got off on manufactured drama in television. Sorry. I guess it's because I've been grunting, cussing and sweating over a kids' magazine illustration for the past few days. I'll tell you about the other two paintings in another post. They were fun to do, no big deal.
But the third painting. There's this big forest fire, see? And the grebe is minding its own bidness out on the lake, and suddenly out of the sky comes a huge smoke bomber airplane, coming down to take on water to dump on the fire. Eeep! And the poor grebe almost gets slurped up in the intake, oh no! So somehow all these elements need to be incorporated on about half of an 8 x 11" page. All the while accommodating the text, which accounts for the strange L-shape of all three illustrations. Oh, my. I'd never painted a forest fire before. Google image search to the rescue. There were some killer forest fire images on the Web. Found a smoke bomber, too. Here's the initial drawing, all wet down. The plane and bird are masked with film and masking compound to keep the background washes from coloring where they will go. First, the fire orange. In watercolor, you paint lights first, darks later,over top of the lights. Lots of orange and yellow. I started shooting progress photos of the painting, but pretty soon the painting was sitting on me and threatening to smash me, and I quit. I had to save all my limited mental power just to grapple with it. At this stage, it's starting to get really hairy. Ugh. My sky is too livid. I've got to bring some smoke across it.So I wet the sky down with a spray bottle and touch a brush loaded with ivory black to the wet wash. There, that kind of looks like smoke, I think.

This is the point at which I'm unable to shoot more progress photos. I'm about to lose control of the painting. Dang, there are so many things going on here! The main thing I fight is that it keeps reading as a really pretty sunset, not an awful forest fire. So I paint in the actual flames, and put in a lot more smoke, and it starts to work. Then, the smoke bomber goes in. I'm not really done with it at this point, but I have wrestled it to the ground.

Don't get me wrong: I love doing stuff like this. But it isn't easy. It's a real challenge. I'm not faulting the magazine, the writer or the editors. They know what kids like to read, and I need the work. But this painting was a real bear to execute, and I'm glad to be on the other side of it. Definitely earned my pay on this one! That right there is about as much impending disaster as you'd want to pack into a 3 x 8 x 8" bird painting.


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