Monday, May 16, 2011

They Really Are A Scream

Sometimes a better idea comes after I’ve turned in the final art. Other times the best idea arrives in the nick of time.

Take the Adams family. (No, not them.) My assignment for the New York Times Book Review (given on a Friday afternoon, I think, and due before noon Monday) was to illustrate Jeff Shesol's review of America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918 by Richard Brookhiser, in which “his subject is not one life but four - the favorite sons of successive generations of the Adams family” - i.e. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams and Henry Adams.

For better or worse, I’m drawn to American historical subjects: I love to research them, but often I get too caught up in all the details which, in turn, can get in the way of making an interesting picture. Editorial work, though, is (to me) less about making a well-researched or historically accurate depiction of a particular time, place, or person, and more about making something that catches the essence of the piece it illustrates - or, at least, catches the eye.

Despite my immediate attraction to the subject, I didn’t know how to handle it pictorially. One page of notes shows that I considered parodying (or parroting) The Flying Wallendas and The Brady Bunch...

“Clever” - but not very interesting. Nor was the “family gallery” approach I tried, or my half-baked variant of Norman Rockwell’s The Gossips...

Finally, while vainly attempting to capture the features of Charles Francis Adams, it dawned on me that most people probably wouldn’t pick be able to pick Charles Francis Adams (or even Henry Adams) out of a line up, so why bother with straightforward portraits? Why not focus on things they had in common besides their surname: their eyes, their ears, their bald heads? And why not take a more abstract, or less literal approach, which might be more effective in the end?

Maybe I pushed the similarities more than what was “true,” but I felt like I was on to something. And maybe I was paying unconscious homage to one early-to-mid-1960s album cover or another - was it Meet the Beatles!? I don’t know.

And since David McCullough’s John Adams came out not long before this review appeared, I figured the Times-reading masses would probably recognize the Adams on the jacket:

So I replaced John Adams’ understated hairstyle with the bushier variety. But that obscured the face of his son, John Quincy Adams, so I switched the order, tracing and cutting and pasting (with real-live scissors and tape)...

And then I made the final art in ink on scratchboard:

My chief reservation about this is that my pen and “scratching” work should have been less delicate: it gets fuzzy when reduced, or printed on newsprint. Even so, I still like this Adams Family. Neat, sweet, petite.

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