The final page of a sketchbook is a peculiar geography. . . read more ->
The summer is at an end. Or at least the American tradition of the start of school and Labor Day signify the end of summer. And so, my work at the oak grove office has also concluded.
From the shade of oak trees, I hand-lettered and hand-painted signs for a Renaissance Faire. An anachronistic skill for these highly digital, automated modern times.
“Sure,” he said, the mastermind and owner of the School of Combat. “I can get these signs printed somewhere. But this isn’t a… video game… This is real combat. Real armor. With real swords. The signs need to be real. Anything fake… and the magic is gone.”
When tasks around the grounds did not occupy his attention, he would take a pencil and sketch out a drawing of a crane or boar on a wooden shield. All the drawings were based on authentic heraldry. My job was to accurately paint the shields.
“Should only take a few hours,” he said after he assigned projects. “Depending on the details.”
All the shields were painted with a combination of six colors. Attention to detail and quickness of brush were essential to the painting of the shields and signs. Some mornings I would draw a double-headed rooster, unicorn or swan. Before noon, paint filled in the background. Red for the swan and unicorn. White for the double-headed rooster and the crow. Water was used to thin the acrylic paint for some techniques like shadows and highlights.
“I like it,” he said after he inspected my work on the wild boar shield. “You should see kids when they enter the ring. They’ll claim one of these shields… They’ll point at it or whack it with their foil. The painted animal or bestiary becomes their totem.”
He asked for my brush. Loaded it with some black. Mixed in some white. A little blue. Touched up a few details on the belly of the boar. I did not mind. Always yield to the master. Some of his crew have told me that other artists did not last past a day with him. Maybe they were untrainable.
“Yeah, this is great,” he said and handed me back the brush. “You don’t know how happy this makes me.”
He took a seat, smiled, slowly ran is hand over his nearly shaved head. I explained a couple details about the boar and the other shields I had worked on that day.
“You know,” he started. “This is spiritual… very spiritual…”
The fencing ring is violent, he conceded. But it is necessary, he added. America does not have a rite of passage for boys becoming men or girls becoming women. The ring provides a balance to the scales in some manner. Brothers settle festering scores with each other. Young men humiliated for their arrogance. Families learn about justice when they enter the ring of combat. Daughters win matches and glow with achievement. He told me all manner of stories about the ring.
Then he stood up, “No one has ever been injured in the ring. The armor prevents that. Well, maybe injury to their pride. The armor allows for that.”
He smiled his hallmark smile.
After I returned to the task of painting shields, meditation on his words continued. In that oak grove, there was no artificial broadcast of mechanically distributed musical entertainment. The rhythm of framers hammering out their progress on a building competed with bird song. Every so often a circular saw cuts through the hot summer afternoon.
Boys tend to gauge range first before striking, he told me earlier in the summer. Girls go straight for the prize. If you want to win, he told me. Strike first and fast. And don’t stop until someone pulls you off the target.
My brush paused at that thought. I gauged the next brush stroke. Cursed myself for lack of discipline, and applied the next stroke. And the one after that. On target and fast.
Do not stop until someone pulls you away. Until summer fades to autumn. Until the shields and signs are placed.
Two full moons ago, I shared a glimpse at my outdoor office. Yesterday, I asked the boss if I might share few details about the location and the unique job I enjoyed under the shade of red and white oak trees. And he said yes.
The adventure started with a phone call and brisk interview. It was a working interview. The interviewer wore a leather flat cap and showed me wooden shields and signs.
“Can you paint?” he said.
“Yes, I can,” I said. “I brought my own brushes. Should I have brought my own paint?”
He didn’t answer. He was sorting through a stack of shields piled on a wooden table. He explained that some shields required touch up work due to weathering and use while other shields need to be painted — originals, as he put it.
“If I like your work, I can keep you busy all summer,” he said as he produced cans of paint and assigned a place to work. “If I don’t like your work…” Well, suffice it to say he related that my working interview would be concluded and I should not return.
“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said and assigned two projects for me to complete. Then he got in his truck and drove down a service road to do something somewhere else on the property.
It took a few moments for me to gauge what to start with. I picked up each shield and sign and weighed where to start. After I opened a couple of paint cans, I searched for a water bucket or anything to keep the brushes clean and for mixing colors. I salvaged a water bottle for a trash bin and began to paint. Long story short, he liked the work I did and told me I should show up the next day. That routine continued for most of the summer.
One, of many, comments he shared with me continues to intrigue me. It involved the idea of hand-painted art versus computer-generated, printed signs.
“There is juju with these things,” he said inspecting one of the shields I painted. “People connect with this stuff, because it was created with human hands. Not some computer.”
I listened to him. I examined the source material that he shared with me. He sketched bestiary on a wood panel and I watched. He asked for my brush and corrected a shadow and I learned.
As I drew the typography of a sign for the ring, it became clear to me what he had been telling me and showing me this summer. The clean, manufactured sterility of our culture separates the element of human touch. When I painted the “y” from the word “only” it was similar but not an exact facsimile of the “y” in “beyond” on the line below. Yes. Precision could have improved the exactness of the two letters. My lettering and painting captures my technique as well as foibles.
During this summer, I read several books by Ryōkan and Bashō. The historical footnotes and commentary on the calligraphy of the poets were as exciting as the literary work itself. The fact that scholars continue to examine the brushstrokes hundreds of years after the poets passed from this earth testify to the essence of human connectivity. The falter of a stroke — a brush loaded with ink that lacks the energy to complete a long stroke remains a signature of the poet. Was it intentional? Or accidental?
As I examined a finished sign with him one afternoon, I said, “It’s not perfect.”
“Only God is perfect,” he said. “These are magic. When people see these signs, they will know that this is real. This is the real thing. Not a duplicate. This is OS. Original standard. Good stuff. See you tomorrow.”
Fear motivates. The paralyzing fear that if I mess up the coloring of this book cover art, I will have to start the whole process over again. And the completion date is fast approaching. But the task needs to be done. So, onward.
Watercolor washes begin the color process for the book cover illustration.
Paint to the edges and then let the colors bleed. The basic color palette had already been determined weeks prior to the final execution of the cover art. But once the water and pigment are activated on the surface of the paper, the color palette organically builds to its own organized spontaneity.
Details. There are always small details that many casual observers may not detect at first glance. For example, the color for the shotgun shell includes multiple wash layers of different pigments — each layer pulling or pushing color from previous layer.
Once the final art is approved, I finished the design with title bar and a map overlay to texture the collage art.
Nearly done with the back cover illustration. A brush is often forgotten in the process of keeping a clean drawing surface.
Detail of the back cover illustration — a catfish. I have to admit — besides the firewheel flower blossom on the front cover — drawing the catfish was a pleasure.
Front and back cover pen and ink collage drawing completed. Ready for the next phase — watercolor.
The foundation of a great painting is a solid drawing. At least that was my goal when I worked on this book cover illustration for Orison Books. The collage features a firewheel — sometimes called Indian blanket — blossom, shotgun shell and expansive Texas landscape.
Nearly completed pen and ink work on the cover.
Detail of the firewheel flower blossom.
The purpose of thumbnail sketches is to advance the concept of artist, art director and editor to a final product. It seems like a lot of busy work, but three elements are essential: brainstorming, mind-mapping and closing the gap. The following images illustrate the process of thumbnail sketches as it relates to a book cover illustration. Three thumbnail cover comps presented to the publisher a couple months back. Full-size book cover sketch to gauge color temperature and composition of elements.
The challenge with working outdoors is no internet connectivity and barely a mobile device signal. It makes checking emails and updating social media status and blog posts nearly impossible. But, really, the technological detox is quite rewarding. The contract job orders are … Continue reading
The office. Outdoors. Clear skies. For the last couple weeks I’ve been contracted to paint… well, I cannot disclose what I paint at this point. Not where. But it is a beautiful day to paint some art.
Last Friday night. Using natural light, I worked on an illustration until sunset. Without a formal art studio, the best place to draw with pen and ink and to paint with watercolor is at the east window. As the time grows close to the longest day of the year, this allowed for more time spent doing art work. But when the light fades it is time to switch tasks and clean brushes and pens.