The Offhand Thing

I am teaching a new senior studio this fall. Visual Worlds: Image Development for Illustrators and Cartoonists represents an updated approach to the methodology course I have long taught to first-semester seniors. I’m extremely fond of this developmental slice in time, when many students begin to carve out a sense of their own visual signature (a term I use in contrast tostyle, an often problematic term). In the several years since I began to work on hashing out a taxonomic approach to looking at cartooning and illustration, I think I’ve become more sensitive to questions of self-identification. So I use the word cartoonist more often, as a pairing with illustrator, to build some space for belonging to one tribe versus another.

The most immediate questions are visual ones. What does my stuff look like? Or what might it look like? As a question of draftsmanship (and sometimes, spatial organization) elemental answers may be found in the casually but lovingly-made thing. We all make birthday cards and other purposive objects in which we find joy, and about which we are not all self-conscious.

Case in point: my planners. I dislike daily planners, in part because I dislike the regimentation of modern life and scheduling. But I have to live with it. In order to get myself to use a planner, I have come to discover that I must produce a hand-made calendar. I ignore the standard printed ones. Making my own gives me a chance to bond with the object; having done so I am much more likely to write in it. I have used moleskins, blank books, you name it. Below, several examples:

A moleskin cover.

Holy Week 2008, in which St. Patrick’s Day lined up with Jesus' return to Jerusalem. Emblematic notations for Palm Sunday, the Irish shindig, the Last Supper, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (He descended into hell...).

Evidence of the compulsive way in which I track my swimming yardage.

Marginalia, Thanksgiving

In my case, the tossed-off handmade thing points toward an emblematic approach to drawing; a linear urgency which veers toward crudity but gets the job done; a tendency to use contour line to build shape; theatricality; and the frequent integration of text and image. It helps me to look at these things, and to use them to pose questions of my professional work. I've recently been asking such questions, and have been wondering about combining the playful aspects of these things with the reportorial imperative I've been responding to in the last year or so. I intend to do so this fall as time permits. Fleshing out a visual project which lends itself to this approach.

At the top of this post, a pencil drawing which seems mildly relevant. Ripped out in a several-minute interlude while looking out an airplane window at Chicago's Midway airport.