Key Plates, Key Figures, Key Questions

Added on by Doug Dowd.

This post went up in 2010; I'm editing and republishing five years later because it remains relevant for students. I have been trying to get this post written for days. It's grown to sprawling size, but the content is is addressed to several audiences. It covers:
––the Beaux-Arts drawing hangover; 
––the relevance of printing as a way to look at the act of drawing; 
––questions of visual handling in figurative work. 

Recent efforts in the classroom have been focused on staging. My last post mentioned the problem of verbs; anybody who shows up in a narrative illustration had better have one. Energy has been devoted to "directing" the scene in question. Many thumbnails; many workups of those sketches into more informative drawings. It's striking how many students will try to freight such images with extra information or bonus complexity, when composing and executing a well-considered figurative group is hard enough, thank you very much. And deeply satisfying when brought off, too.

Below, one of Harry Beckhoff's legendarily teeny but shockingly informative thumbnails. Scan courtesy of Roger Reed at Illustration House in New York, where I once ogled a stack of these. Believe it or not, this drawing is about the size of large postage stamp. (It thrills me no end to say that in the intervening period the Modern Graphic HIstory Library acquired the Walt Reed Illustration Archive, and with it, approximately 100 of Beckhoff's thumbnails.)

But enough of the prepping; on to the problem of realizing those figures. Which brings us to a conversation about drawing. Once we've figured out what we want to make, how are we to make it? It might seem like a funny question. The issues in play matter a lot. At least to me. Three-plus (now eight-plus) years ago, in one of my first posts in this blog, I wrote:

I have taught a lot of beginning drawing in my career. One of the most basic precepts of Beaux-Arts drawing study involves close observation of the thing at hand, often a nude model. It is axiomatic that one draws what one sees in this setting, and for good reason—learning how to look at something for what it really is, not what one imagines or remembers it to be, requires perception-altering doggedness. As a byproduct, the student often retains an unspoken authoritarian dictum to obey a monocular point of view on all things. That is, 1) if I can’t see it from here, it must not exist, 2) if I can see it, I must draw it, and 3) all true drawings are made with charcoal or conte crayon.

These dicta often persist, as educational afterimages. They float before the composer and narrow her choices. So charcoal pops up as a likely media choice, because the student has experience with it, and also because it bears the imprimatur of an approved art material. In practice, charcoal means tonal drawing. Light. Volume. The simulated immanence of painting, delivered in monochrome. Which calls to mind images like this one, a Fredric Gruger illustration from 1930.

But arguably the signature element of drawing–tied to its ancient roots in symbolic communication and proto-writing–is line, not tone. The history of printing certainly captures the yes/no (mark/not mark) of drawing, heightened through technological transferrence. Woodcut and relief printing (see top of post) isolate this phenomenon, which is as old as pictograms and petroglyphs.

Printing provides a handy entry point to thinking about drawing in such contexts. In a color printing job (four-color process [CMYK] or multiplate spot color work) there is a thing known as the key plate. The key plate is printed black or the darkest color of a given palette. Before the key plate is printed, the image does not cohere: it's an indistinct mass. The last color pulls it all together and provides the visual structure.

Here's an example from a commercial printing manual published in 1922. The two color duotype features an orange pass and a black one, with the black exposure burned back a little to let the orange breathe through the finished print.

In drawn imagery the key plate comes from a key drawing. That is, the visual architecture is built from line and shape in black or other dark color. A particularly good place to isolate key drawings is in comics. Below, a daily strip of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates. As a daily, the strip had to succeed in black and white; only the Sunday strips were printed in color. Notice the heavy use of black shape to ground the sequence formally.

Below, a single frame taken from a Sunday strip of the same period. Still plenty of black. But the color adds a great deal, both to our spatial understanding and the narrative: the shadowed Japanese are close to us, in hiding, dark; the ambushed Yankees are walking through the light, fatally exposed. The flying hat is a nice touch. The killers get their comeuppance the following week, through an ingenious American ruse.

In comics, key drawings can be tyrannical. Their control of shape and color can be total. Consider the David Stone Martin album cover below.

Have a good look. Now, consider the image as juxtaposed with the Caniff panel.

The two images use the same palette: black, blue, yellow. Both aspire to capture light and shadow through the temperature of the palette. But the Caniff is dominated by the black (and owes something to film noir visual techniques). By contrast, the DSM feels bathed in light and space. But for the moment, the crucial passage that captures the play of light in the album cover is the direct access afforded yellow to blue in the shadowed head of the waiting trumpeter. That is, no black line has been asked to chaperone yellow and blue; their edges meet in an evocative transition. This only works because everywhere else, black line is used to establish contours. The passage is unique in the drawing (though repeated in the type ROY).

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a formalist geek. I can get huge satisfaction out of passages like the one I just pointed out, and the comparisons which can be made between one approach and another. I love how things look, and I get a thrill when a recognition of same is conveyed by simple graphic means. In this case, rough, knowing elegance.

We've established the relevance of a key drawing for work of this kind. If the key drawing provides a graphic container for visual contents, we are free to see the image in radically two-dimensional form. We need not be concerned with questions of volume or light unless they provide opportunities: illusion is less important than clarity of communication. Which takes me back to another bit from that early post at GT:

One must often take a plastic approach to spatial construction and the arrangement of form. (I am sometimes asked what I teach: the best, simplest answer I can give is “Advanced Pictionary.”) But it can take forever to retrain the mind to get past the Beaux-Arts drawing thing, even as the echo of that observational rigor retains its value. Making things up out of thin air typically produces maddening levels of vagueness (not ambiguity, a different thing altogether); dutifully rendering a subject generally yields a snoozeable result. But the integration of observation with a willingness to manipulate as required or desired offers real opportunity...

Which brings us directly to questions of style. Above and below I've posted details from a piece of concept art for the UPA feature The Four Poster, directed by John Hubley in 1952. The concept work was by Lew Keller, an unjustly obscure, excellent production designer. (Other work by Keller viewable here on the blog Cartoon Modern, in support of the wonderful book of the same name.) The drawing works to communicate character, setting and atmosphere. Its casual handling can mask just how informative the image is. Each character is sharply drawn, even when minimal. The drawing betrays knowledge of gesture, weight, mass, and volume, even as it abbreviates. It is exactly this abbreviation (e.g., the male dancer's feet, above) that characterizes the best cartooning. Such work amounts to a distillation of knowledge, which is greatly to be distinguished from vamping to fill its absence. Look at the woman with the shot glass below. Hers a precise characterization–girlish and haggard at once. The secondary tone is applied as a gestural support–not slavish, but not willful either.

Recently I mentioned the work of Lowell Hess, a cartoonist and illustrator who worked in a variety of contexts in the mid-twentieth century. For the two-color dimension of the work at hand (speaking to you, juniors), Hess uses a blend of key drawing and spot color to deliver his fundamental form. Hence the poison gun, hair ribbon and apron are all defined by an orange edge. Here too there is abbreviation and distillation.

Below, the endlessly stylish Harry Beckhoff, converting one of his microscopic thumbnails into a comic tableau for Collier's. Here again, style emerges from the distillation of knowledge, matched to an eye and hand and brain.

Another album cover by David Stone Martin, one of the great calligraphic draftsmen of all time. Look at the control of line weight, density, and flat black shapes! What character and rhythm. An essay on density. The only odd note being that goofy numeral 2 in the lower left corner. Would have preferred another typographic counterpoint, as in the JAM and SESSION at top.

Finally, a few samples from the work of Rea Irvin, the graphic sophisticate who gave us Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker magazine dandy. These are book illustrations from Snoot if You Must, a compilation of comic essays by Lucius Beebe. These drawings are supported by tonal passages of screentone dots, which create an optical gray value from black ink. We're close enough to this one to see the actual dots. The composition would not cohere without them.

And one more, with an atmospheric use of that screen tone.

All of the preceding images operate on the principle of a key drawing. None of them use "shading," a naive term for the application of value to show volume. All use drawing styles that tend toward simplification and abbreviation, in the manner of cartoons. And all of them would be acceptable approaches for realizing the given student illustration problem. Which is to say: the use of reference and the acquisition of knowledge do not determine approach. The needs of the picture and the goals and sensibilities of the maker do.

Mass of St. Gregory, hand-colored woodcut; South German, 1420-1430

Harry Beckhoff, Thumbnail Sketch, magazine illustration circa 1940

Frederic Gruger, Saturday Evening Post, December 13, 1930

Moab Man, Fremont Culture Petroglyph, circa 1000 CE, Moab, Utah, photograph by DB Dowd, 2008

Explanation of Duotype, Commercial Engraving and Printing; A Manual of Practical Instruction, by Charles Hackleman, published by Commercial Engraving Publishing Company, Indianapolis

Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates, daily comic strip, November 22, 1937

Caniff, Terry, single panel from Sunday strip published on September 10, 1944

David Stone Martin, Roy Eldridge Collates, album cover illustration, Mercury/Clef Records, 1952

Caniff, Terry, single panel from Sunday strip published on September 10, 1944

David Stone Martin, Roy Eldridge Collates, album cover illustration, Mercury/Clef Records, 1952

Lew Keller, Concept Art, The Four Poster, United Productions of America, directed by John Hubley, 1952

Lew Keller, Concept Art, The Four Poster, United Productions of America, directed by John Hubley, 1952

Lowell Hess, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bug! interior magazine spread illustration, Every Woman Magazine, 1961

Harry Beckhoff, Slowly the Clawlike Blades Closed Over the Package of Cigarettes, interior magazine illustration, Collier's, January 29, 1938

Martin, Jam Session #2, album cover illustration, Mercury/Clef Records, 1953 (?)

Rea Irvin, book illustrations from Snoot If You Must, by Lucius Beebe; D. Appleton-Century Company, New York. 1943