This is a re-edited post from a number of years ago, with updated examples and discussion. In some respects I am speaking directly to students, as this blog has transitioned to being, above all, a teaching tool. But the more public dimension of this writing remains interesting to me, as the literature of writing about drawing (aside from the lingering Beaux-Arts tradition) remains more limited than might be ideal. How do we talk about image-making of symbolic or calligraphic varieties, or which rely on such ways of seeing?
I am teaching a methods course this fall to illustrators and cartoonists (once called Visual Worlds, about which I have written before here and here), now entitled–more concretely–Image and Story. The first portion of the class is, for lack of a better term, diagnostic.
Last week I handed out a set of four sheets, each of which included six boxes...
...making a total of 24 drawings to be required. When 13 students did the project, it produced 312 drawings, which is a decent data set for reflection. We looked at them yesterday. A significant variety, as one might expect: but also, shifting conventions and forms of visual logic within the same student's group of works. That was by design: I encouraged them to try different approaches.
A valuable question: is the group (or more locally, the subgroup) a meaningful set? Do the images cohere, visually and/or conceptually? The project was not couched in those terms: rather it was presented in a very matter-of-fact way: please fill in the boxes. The subjects range from objects to animals to people. There are a few wild cards thrown in, like "chemistry," which require rhetorical reasoning. Typically the range of responses extends from the purely symbolic to the rendered or modeled, with many steps in between.
One of the specified subjects was wagon. The Picture Lotto wagon (of which more presently) shown here might qualify as a Platonic wagon.
Another subject was devil. Lots of class discussion was devoted to the latter. As that discussion unfolded, I slowly remembered that I had made just such an emblematic devil some years back. I've shown him at right in context, with citation.
A third subject was owl. Owls have long been conventionalized in cartooning and illustration. They have also been beaten to death by the home decor industry over the past several years. Enough with the owls! some students complained. But they provide a useful problem: how to simplify and/or codify a form that already has a set of "rules" for depicting it?
Last spring I made an owl illustration, too. Said owl is connected to my undergraduate experience at Kenyon College in Ohio.
I created him to commemorate an a cappella group I sang in many years ago.
For a discussion of the limitations of logo/mascot drawing in the Age of Adobe Illustrator: Of Billikens and Plaid-Patterned Elephants.
Returning to the problem at hand for students: emblem-images like these do straightforward work, but they can be clunky or graceful; diffident or fresh. For a cultural (as well as professional) source of contemplation, consider a midcentury visual game, Picture Lotto.
The pink-field illustrations above at right are picture lotto cards, akin to bingo cards, used for collecting game pieces. The images in both cases are credited, incompletely, to one C. Clement, noted on the box cover (not shown). My friend and colleague Linda Solovic found them at a flea market this summer; she took the box and the game pieces, I got these. The game was produced by Samuel Gabriel and Sons Company, circa 1950.
Another version of the game was produced by the folks at Golden Funtime Punch-Out Books, a heavy-stock department at Golden Press, all part of the genius outfit of Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin. They made punch-out card things. As this scan shows, this game was manufactured in 1962.
The Golden Funtime version makes explicit what the Samuel Gabriel game leaves implicit: categories of things.
The collection cards for the former organize the material into groups: Travel, Pets, People, Toys and Things We Use.
I have added a few scans from a big stack of cards I picked up at a St. Louis antique dealer. These images are from an educational Uno deck published by Kenworthy Educational Service in Buffalo.
The illustrator(s) working on this project had widely variable days in quality. Some of these (like lady) are lovely; others are sturdily competent (like car). Street seems tossed off, even careless, and the logs for smoke are a bit indifferent. I'm rather fond of enjoy, however. Too bad the format serves the vertically-oriented images so poorly.
Back to the Picture Lotto sets from Golden Funtime and Samuel Gabriel. Here's evidence that people at these firms looked at each other's work. In both cases, the image for television features a console TV set with a puppet show playing.
The puppets in both cases suggest European Punch and Judy marionettes. And Howdy Doody was a marionette. But the most influential television show involving puppets from the time period was the brilliant Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which debuted in the late 1940s. Presumably the Punch and Judy profiles had more generic value to these illustrators in 1950, though by 1960 the same approach seems likely to have been a teeny bit dated.
KFO went off the air in 1957, but Fran Allison and her pals enjoyed a long career in varying formats after that. I remember seeing KFO reruns as a child.
Okay, students: Your project will now head for completion according to one of two approaches. In Option A, I want you to make your project a contemporary version of Picture Lotto: choose three of the given categories (Travel, Pets, People, Toys, Things We Use), with a sixth option included in your menu: Things We Fear.
You choose the items within the categories. I want to see 12 pieces, very nicely resolved with typography integrated into the solution. Keep the color to a limited palette: no more than three colors, plus white. Have a blast.
Option B is for those of you whose early efforts went with special relish to the people prompts: the milkmaid, the pirate, the waitress, etc. Your group of 12 will consist of two sets: 6 occupations, and 6 People from Other Times and/or Places. Costumes will probably be important, and provide a chance to explore the line-and-shape dialogue we talked about in class.
NOTE: It goes without saying that representations of Other in prior eras can be–well–complicated. For a discussion of same in the work of the husband-and-wife team of the Hollings, have a read here. The entry is focused on Lucille Webster Hollings, and is one of the entries in our Women Illustrators project, explained here.
Have at it.