Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pleading Insanity

Here is an illustration created a few years ago for Phoenix Magazine. Unfortunately, as some jobs are, this one was killed for one reason or another. However, one of its results was this dark piece from my archives.

The story it accompanied had to do with prisoners and the potential abuse of the insanity plea. The client knew what they wanted, so it was just a matter of my translating their concept to the page.

As you see above, the intent was to depict a gruff-looking prisoner -- maybe qualified to plead insanity, maybe not -- with shadowy, dreamy figures flitting about, at least raising the possibility of the instability of his mind.

The textural quality of the charcoal on paper drawing lends itself to the cold mood and sense of uneasiness the client was looking to achieve. The harsh light, bisecting the guy's face, both creates drama and alludes to the decision between right and wrong (good and bad, light and dark) when it comes to the issue.

So, who is posing as the prisoner, you are probably asking. Since I tend to pose for my own illustrations, whenever possible, I can say, from the neck down, I am loosely represented.

But, as I'm such a non-threatening sort, my head just would not cut it.

Luckily, a friend, who taught a college-level life-drawing course at the time, happened to have a model who looked like he could have slipped through the barbed wire at the state facility.

It turns out he was a prince of a fellow, but had the mug of a least a prisoner in my illustration.

The end result worked out just perfectly.

Everyone was thrilled, which thrilled me, doubly.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays

Carl Crawford, of the Tampa Bay Rays, World Series runners-up, was the last of a number of baseball players I painted for the 2008 MLB Masterpieces baseball card series for The Upper Deck Company.

I had posted an earlier illustration of Jim Thome, where I document my challenge of dealing with out-of-focus crowds. At this point in the series, I felt like I had hit my stride, and figured out the formula for such crowds. In this particular image, I cooled the crowd back with blues and violets to allow the warmth of the foreground to further pop forward.

This was a terrific assignment in which to participate. The original 8" x 10" paintings are sold to collectors, and reproduced for the baseball cards on a high-quality, linen-style card stock. I recently received the cards, and was very impressed with how they turned out. If you are an illustration enthusiast, and a baseball fan, you should do yourself a favor and check them out -- not just because I participated in the project, but because they are really cool collectible art pieces.

The excellent communication throughout the assignment was a measure to its success, in my eyes.

I am often contacted by students and beginning illustrators, seeking advice for starting their careers on the right path. Building strong communication skills is one such way.

When evaluating my working relationships, communication is at the very top of my criteria. How much value does an illustrator place in communication? How much value does an art director place in communication? Communication makes the world go around, and it certainly drives our profession. An assignment can be made or broken by the level of communication displayed on both sides.

As an illustrator, one of the most valuable commodities you can possess is the power of timely and thoughtful communication. In an era of email and non-personal contact, it can be endlessly frustrating for an art director to contact an artist. Making yourself available and going the extra mile to make it easy for an art director to contact you, is a first impression that will pay dividends on your reputation and separate your services from other equally talented artists.

My policy is to respond to all emails, if only to acknowledge their receipt. I feel it bridges the lines of communication, facilitates a smooth workflow, and is just a matter of professional courtesy. All positive and considerate actions will spill over to the quality of the resulting art, I believe.

Transparent and conscientious communication builds trust. Trust is the cornerstone of a creative professional's reputation. As illustrators, we have nothing if not our reputations, right?

As evidenced in the United States' recent presidential campaign, communication is a vitally powerful tool, and always reflects beyond the speaker or author. I absolutely believe this can be said for everyone who considers themself a professional -- political, creative, or otherwise. In my opinion, an aspiring creative professional will be miles ahead, in both fostering their own career, and in bolstering the reputation of their peers (and their industry), by choosing to do everything within his or her power to make conscientious communication not just an unending priority, but one of their most stellar attributes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Sarah Palin Experience

Is Sarah Palin going rogue? Has she ever not been rogue? Isn't that the nature of mavericks?

This illustration was inspired by her latest rogue-like headlines combined with her tendency to, at least in weeks prior, perhaps be following a script, in both words and deeds -- like a puppet. I have also added a "wink" to the power of the story of her expensive wardrobe, with the glimmer in her earring.

While the face is composited from additional sources, her body comes from my own personal photographic reference. You see, I had the opportunity to attend a Sarah Palin rally. One week later, I had the opportunity to attend a Barack Obama rally.

What follows below is the recounting of my experiences at both.

Thursday October 23, 2008.

Clutching my Sarah Palin reference, I walk toward my studio to begin what I know will be one heckuva portrait of 1984's Miss Wasilla crown-holder and 2008's Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States. However, the phone, and its robo-call on the other end, interrupts my train of thought.


"Come and see Sarah Palin at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Missouri, tomorrow. Gates open at 9am."

How fortuitous and coincidental that I just happen to be in a Sarah frame-of-mind. Even though I'm a Barack Obama supporter, what good reason would I have to miss an opportunity to experience the spectacle that is a Sarah Palin rally? As a person who has found himself mainlining the political news for the past 2 years with an increasingly ravenous appetite, I would be doing a disservice to myself to miss out on such a tasty treat. My mind was made up.

At 6am, Friday morning, I wake to the radio station DJ telling me people have been camping in line to see Ms. Palin since 3:30am.

I'm out the door at 7am. The Ozark Mountains are especially picturesque this morning. Fog fills the valleys, the air is crisp, and the early-autumn sky is crystal clear and blue.

Shortly before 8am, my car is in park, and perfectly positioned between two yellow lines at the Bass Pro Shops parking lot, flanked on all sides by cars, vans, and trucks, many with bumper stickers screaming "McCain/Palin '08", with an occasional "Drill, Baby, Drill!" I could sense the heavy affection for Ms. Palin in the air.

The sunny, crisp day quickly turns to overcast. The brisk wind becomes a bone-chiller, as I come to the realization my light jacket over a t-shirt is not going to keep me comfortable.

I come upon 2 lines. One for ticket holders, and one for non-ticket holders. The rally was originally an invitation-only event. Supposedly, 4,000 tickets were sold out in short order, so the decision was made to move the rally to this larger public venue.

My line, for non-ticket holders, was already about 150 yards long, one hour before the gates were scheduled to open. The line eventually strung out several blocks.

The volunteers, wearing white t-shirts (over layers of clothing), screen-printed in red with "McCain/Palin," directed the steady stream of arriving people toward their proper line. Occasionally, a volunteer would walk by, informing us about the no signs policy -- some would be provided for us. Cameras were okay -- shoot as many photos as you'd like. And, they made sure we were all fired up to see Sarah!...Sarah!...Sarah! There was also a volunteer to see if line-standers would like to volunteer for the campaign -- work the phone banks, knock on doors, and so forth.

Then, there were the buttons. The first guy was selling for $5 per button.

"No, thanks," I said.

Luckily, I refused that guy, who was obviously trolling for suckers, since the next guy was selling for $3 each, and a discount for multiple buttons. Union-made, to-boot. What a deal!

"No, thanks," I said.

The buttons were printed with all sorts of slogans. Some were straight McCain/Palin, blue and white typeset badges, while others were more brash and all about Sarah -- usually with pink hearts, girl-power anthems, barracudas, pit bulls, lipstick, high heels, and even the stylishly-framed, glasses-wearing Vice Presidential hopeful.

Good Lord, it was cold. The wind would blow and erase all doubt, if someone had any. The lack of sun was the problem. 43 chilly, windy degrees fahrenheit, for what turned out to be five hours on my feet, with insufficient bundling, is bound to border on at least feeling cool-ish to even the heartiest of fellows. I asked myself, more than once, was it really worth it to see someone for whom I had no intention of voting? That's when my weight training experience kicked in and my somewhat-trained mind remembered how to endure beyond this minor discomfort. I would kick myself later, in warmer environs, for not sticking it out.

Aside from the air being thick with affection for Ms. Palin, it was also thick with neoconservativism, or at least some form of it. Subscribing to a "progressive" political agenda, I was apparently outnumbered. The people in front, behind, and just about everywhere I cared to look, reminded me, with enthusiastic conversations riddled with variations of the words, "socialism," or polite and not-so-polite ridicule of the smattering of sign-weilding protesters, this was McCain/Palin Country, or, at least, the McCain/Palin parking lot. I didn't want to get into a debate with anyone, and luckily I didn't. However, a reporter for the Springfield News-Leader, Missouri's third largest newspaper, just happened to approach the 65-year old, rain coat-clad woman in front of me, asking, "What brings you here?"

Looking out from under her hood, she launched into the popular talking points of the day. The family of multi-generational women behind me also had some thoughts on why they were here. Theirs were much more reasoned -- not against anyone, but rather for particular policies and how each thought the policies would best benefit their lives. Also, as women, Sarah provided many levels of inspiration to them, and their children.

While it would have made an interesting sidebar, I didn't offer my reasons for being there. I'm kind of kicking myself for not doing so.

Glacially, sometime between 9am and 10am, my line started moving. With my plastic American flag attached to a dowel rod that had been handed to me at some point, I inch forward, toward the gates, with the rest of my fellow non-ticket holders. Out come the contents of my pockets, as I step through the metal detector.

I'm clean.

Big and Rich is pumping through the huge concert speakers perched by the stage. The VIP section had bleacher seats directly next to the stage, which was set up "in-the-round."

"I'm Joe, too!" and "Sarah Barracuda" and "I (heart) Sarah," were three of the signs I spotted from the VIPs. Each was quaintly painted in red, blue, and pink on white cardboard -- certainly homemade by those holding them. However, my sources tell me even those signs were provided by the rally organizers. There were plenty of blue McCain/Palin signs. The crowd became a sea of blue during the applause moments as those signs rose and shook. Perhaps the most curious sign I saw was a white, handmade pig drawing, attached to a popsicle stick. The pig was wearing red lipstick and the wording read, "Can you hear me, now?"

I'm not the smartest guy, so I'm probably overlooking the obvious, but I still can't quite add that one up. Surely it's a reference to an unfortunate statement made by Mr. Obama during the early weeks of Ms. Palin's tenure as V.P. candidate. But, is that the best symbol of her candidacy? Is it a defiant symbol? Is it an ironic statement? I'll probably take those questions to my grave.

At this point, my focus turns to my job, which is shooting photographic reference. I park myself among the crowd -- about 35 yards from the podium with a face-on view of the speaker when she takes the stage. To my right is the press stand with photographers and news media personnel. To my left is a tent with organizers. Behind me is a growing crowd. By my estimate, it was maybe around 5,000 people. News reports estimated up to 20,000, but I would question that figure.

Pierce Arrow, a local band, sings a few songs to fire-up the crowd. Missouri's Republican candidate for Governor, Kenny Hulshof, acts as emcee, bringing down-ticket Republican candidates on-stage. Each gives a 5-minute spiel. Back comes the band to do a couple more songs. Then a couple more. It seems as if Sarah is hung up at the airport, so how about a couple more? "No," squeal a few of the impatient red-staters around me.

"Mama Judd is mad," Naomi Judd, one-half of the Judds, and introducer of Sarah, begins. Ms. Judd goes on to defend Sarah from the demonization she has perceived as taking place via the media. One thing was for sure. Mama Judd meant Sarah was only minutes from replacing her on the mic. The people around me were ready to get to the main attraction.

"There she is," remarked a father, on my immediate left, to the 4-year old sitting on his shoulders. After witnessing the angry mob-scenes on TV, I was expecting an eviscerating attack on the Democratic nominee. However, in my opinion, it was a fairly tame speech. There was no mention of "palling around with terrorists."

"Experimenting with socialism," and "spreading the wealth" were the buzz words of the day. It seemed like a well-orchestrated ceremonial event -- not meant to be substantive, but a forum to say some things, give the crowd a chance to cheer and boo at precise moments, and let people feel as if they might be leaving with more than they brought. She spoke well, was very charismatic, and came across as quite likable. She brought a rock star quality that people wanted to experience. I'll leave fact-checking to the non-illustration blogs.

Afterward, she descended the platform to the sounds of Shania Twain's, "She's Not Just a Pretty Face." Shaking hands and signing autographs with the crowd nearest her, she snaked her way around the stage, eventually exiting from where she came. The atmosphere was that of a celebrity walking the red carpet, with cameras hoisted above the crowd, following her every move. Also following her every move were the sharpshooters poised atop the nearby building. Faces all focused in her direction, craning their necks just hoping for a glimpse of her. I moved closer to the stage, investigating the area in hopes of maybe getting some more photos. James Brown belted out "Living in America," as I passed the speaker, which became the new home for my plastic American flag. I looked for a crowd opening in which to sneak.

No luck.

With low temperature-stiffened joints, I returned to my car around 2pm. I brought with me a first-hand experience of what is being analyzed by the best and brightest journalists, every day, in print, on TV, and in photographs and illustrations. My perspective is clearer, as, at least for this day, a piece of the political process was filtered through my mostly fair and often balanced eyes.

The Barack Obama Experience

Saturday November 1, 2008.

All the lonely people.

Lonely? Arguably, in a political sense.

Excited? No doubt about it. Standing 1 mile from the gates, at the end of the line to see Barack Obama speak, I knew there was something bigger present than the nearly 40,000-strong who showed up see the man talk.

It was a phenomenal sight for little ol' Springfield, Missouri. Employees at business along the line's route gathered outside to look for its end, marveling at its enormity. Cell phones, in the hands of both drivers and passengers of many slow-moving cars, snapped photos of the line. In one such car, a head, tightly wrapped in a faded red hoodie, looked out his passenger-side window. With the purest expression of bewilderment painted on his roughly 20-year old face, he scanned the seemingly endless line of people and asked, "What's this for?"

It's Obama, man.

Walking my mile toward the back of the line, I was cognizant of the crowd's diversity. Thinking back to the Sarah Palin rally, a week earlier, a far-reaching cross-section of people was not so apparent. While the crowd was enthusiastic to see Sarah, the atmosphere created by those to see Barack was festival-like. These people were here to see the Rolling Stones. Tonight, the magnitude and magnetism of the message of one man, reflected in the life's experiences and hopes of both the 18-year old, first-time voting college student, and the 80-year old African-American grandmother, was electric, and positively lit up the high school football stadium where that very man would soon take the stage.

Around 8pm, I made my way through the metal detector, and safely into the stadium. The stands with a clear view of the stage were packed to the gills. The other side of the stadium, partially blocked by the press stand in front of the stage, had people filling seats that provided any kind of view. I found my way onto the football field and picked a spot on the 40 yard line to call my own. The stage was situated in the end zone. Directly behind, was the VIP section, reserved for ticket-holders.

"CHANGE" in white block letters, positioned next to the familiar circular red, white, and blue Obama logo, on a big blue banner, provided the VIP backdrop. Looking to the left was a large American flag, and further to the left was a large Missouri flag, both hanging vertically. The same kinds of handmade signs peppered the Obama VIP section that were prevalent in the Palin VIP section.

"MO (heart) Obama" and "Show Me Change" were 2 such signs.

The rally began with a prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and a couple of inspirational songs from the Lennon brothers (remember the Lennon sisters?). Missouri Secretary of State, Robin Carnahan, took the stage and smartly spoke directly to young voters, giving them some dos and don'ts on election day. Jay Nixon, the Democratic candidate for Missouri Governor, gave an impassioned talk about the remainder of the Democratic ticket. Motown, rock, pop, and country tunes filled the air from the concert sound system in advance of the next speaker.

The beauty of attending events like this, in-person, are the details -- characteristics that make the event special, and something one could never know, otherwise.

Kool and the Gang whipped up the crowd with "Celebration," U2 told us what a "Beautiful Day" it was, and Earth, Wind, and Fire sang "Shining Star." The anticipation was enormous as, arguably, the most famous person in the country was soon to be standing in front of a wildly curious and fiercely adoring rural Missouri audience.

Every little cue from the crowd was scrutinized, as no one wanted to be out of the loop to any important goings-on.

Why are the VIPs turning around and looking behind them?

Why are all the people in the stands cheering?

These two questions were popping up from those around me after a rolling, and seemingly unprovoked, cheer erupted from those in the stands. Stands-people, unlike us on the field, had an aerial view of the road just a few yards away. Stands-people also knew something field-people didn't, as they were now facing the back of the field, gazing intently toward that street. Not to be scooped, I, along with many other fieldsters, turned to look.

It's about 9:30pm and obviously dark. I can't see the street, but I can see the darkened scoreboard at the back end of the field -- its shiny surface brilliantly reflecting the static white lights around the stadium. With its proximity, lights near the street's pavement also bounce off its shiny surface.

In a Jurassic Park moment, much like when the rippling liquid ominously foreshadows the impending dinosaurs...flashing red lights, bouncing off the bottom of the scoreboard, indicated something buzz-worthy going on below. A motorcade was making its way to the front of the stadium. He was arriving.

I must say, that was very cool. The cheering crowd, feeling the unspoken permeating wave of his imminent arrival, obviously thought so, too.

The music's sudden silence cued a tremendous roar from a rapt and knowing audience.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Senator Claire McCaskill!"

Obama surrogate, Claire McCaskill, gave a rousing talk in advance of her big introduction of the second to last speaker, and perhaps next First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama spoke for 15 minutes with charisma, intelligence, inspiration, and command of the audience's attention.

"We love you, Michelle!" squealed some fellow behind me.

After nearly 5 hours, it was time. "The next President of the United States," Michelle invoked..."Barack Obama!"

Arms, cameras, and media scissor-lifts raise as people crane on top of others' shoulders and on their own tip-toes to see Barack, his wife, and children, and maybe snap a picture or two or three. The identifiable sense of something larger filling the air, evident to me while in-line, drove an eruption for the man who was now striding vibrantly up the stairs, wearing a pale blue button-down shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow, waving graciously and flashing that Obama smile.

After hugging and kissing his family, Barack Obama, for the next hour, spoke in his familiar and commanding baritone voice, with a mixture of humor, inspiration, and impassioned urgency.

He spoke to the larger themes he's known for, and those to which many people hunger to hear and feel. The visceral feeling I had was of a thirsty and dry sponge of a crowd aching to soak every bit of what might flow from the oasis of a prophetic Obama spigot.

Setting aside policies and politics, in my opinion, there is valuable currency in one man's ability to inspire so many on such a deeply personal level. It obviously speaks to something special that people from Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas would trade travel time, plus 3 hours in a mile-plus line, on a Saturday night, for the opportunity to hear a single man speak.

As an illustrator, I was also there to do a job -- shoot photos for my reference library. I did my best, but raised, one-armed, tip-toed, nighttime shots often do not equal sharp photos for me. I didn't break that streak, tonight.

Obviously, I'm not stating anything that hasn't already been said many times by many people, but to experience this rally, first-hand, was an experience to bookmark.

With this post, and my Sarah Palin post, I hope to accomplish several things.

First, I want to chronicle 2 experiences, at least for myself, that will be part of our country's larger history.

Second, I want to relay, from one creative person's perspective, two experiences that don't happen every day, to other creatives who might find that perspective valuable.

Thirdly, I think both are good stories.

In my view, this complex and very interesting political season has been captivating theater and tremendous performance art. Illustrators around the country have capitalized on its ample material. I feel fortunate to have been able to participate in this tiny way.

Finally, and most importantly, no matter what prism you choose to view this ending political season, please don't forget to vote!