Defining the Territory II: Plasticity

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.

To the maker of functional images, these are nonsensical propositions. 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. 

The modernist drive to split representation from its subject (that is, to open up a space between them, at the very least) included the ransacking of pre-modern art historical conventions, often to excellent effect. Jim Flora’s 1945 magazine cover, above, draws on spot color printing and the use of spatial registers, a la Egyptian art, to deliver a strong graphic narrative with clarity and visual independence from, but knowledge of, its subject(s), e.g., boats.

Flora certainly drew on modernism, including the work of Stuart Davis, with whom he shared an interest in strong color contrast and elemental graphic forms. But while Flora worked (more or less) to elucidate his subjects, Davis worked to obscure them in puzzle-like configurations.The Paris Bit is a 1959 reinterpretation of a 1928 Parisian cityscape from Davis’ expatriate interlude in France. He retains the monocular point of view associated with landscape painting, but litters it with letterforms; more importantly, the color assignations challenge and frustrate our spatial perceptions. Davis called these procedures “Color Space Theory.” 

Many of these ideas can be traced to responses to modern graphic culture in its myriad forms, including package design, signage, and the like.

Plastic responses to form are especially important in typographic environments, and here is where the boundary between the picture and the letterform can break down, for both good and ill (usually ill, except in good hands). One such set of expert hands connected to an eye and a brain belonged to the type designer and illustrator Eric Gill, who constructs an unlikely but formally appropriate integration of a deposition scene with an uppercase A.

Even when a given pictorial space must be retained for the sake of continuity, a designerly approach to form can work. This frame from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samuari Jack shows a dramatic moment a fight scene. Jack has just sliced a creepy spider-crab robot in half; after a terrible pause, oil shoots out from the severed lubrication system, dousing Jack in mechanical “blood.” The composition is extremely dramatic. Behind Jack to the lower left is a mesa-like outcropping that helps to retain our understanding of where we are, previously established by wide shots. 

Illustrators and designers must learn to see pictorial form and space in plastic terms, or find themselves held hostage by other people’s rectangles.

Jim Flora, Columbia Records Publication Coda, August 1945



Stuart Davis, The Paris Bit, 1959, a reworking of Rue Lipp, a Parisian view from 1928.


Roadside signage, Beatrice, Nebraska, 2004


Eric Gill, deposition capital, The Four Gospels, Golden Cockerel Press, 1931

Still from Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack pilot, 2001