My very first editorial illustration class assignment at Parsons School of Design, from years gone by: Mario Cuomo imagining himself on the Supreme Court.
Sometimes I was intimidated by the topics I had to write about. Did I have any business writing about St. Francis, Martin Luther, or C. S. Lewis, when they were so much “deeper” than I was? And shouldn’t I be ashamed of my semi-erotic drawing of Martin Luther (who was very handsome, in my opinion)? The impression I got from academics was that, in order to know enough about something to express ideas about it responsibly, I had to be very serious and know a LOT. And once I was out of school, because I’d finished my BA but not my MA (after a year of grad school I left to work in publishing), I was haunted by the feeling that I’d never be a “real” scholar.
I was cured of these feelings at one of my New York editorial jobs that followed my higher education. In that job I wrote and edited material for elementary, middle, and high school textbooks. (Might sound boring to some people, but it wasn’t! In fact, it was a second chance for me to learn things I hadn’t when I was daydreaming in class long ago.) There was another writer/editor at our company who was more experienced that I was. She was a Columbia grad, so no one could sneeze at her academic cred. And she was the one who taught me the skill and value of what I call “short-order research”—that is, quickly getting the most pertinent facts about a subject in order to write a few paragraphs about it. Back then we didn’t have Internet access. She used sources I didn’t know were allowed, because I’d spent most of my college years with my nose in heavy tomes and academic periodicals. And her sources were visual as well as literary. I watched her photocopy pages from encyclopedias, travel guides, magazines, pamphlets she’d sent away for from U.S. government departments, even illustrated children’s books and short biographies for grade-school kids. Instead of having overblown ideas about what she needed to find to back up her ideas, she was keeping things light and brief. After all, we were supplying material that would be used for teaching kids, so light and brief was better. And if the material was lighter and briefer, all the easier to distill it into features for the textbooks. So we could get our work done more quickly—which was important, because we had tight deadlines.
While I had this job, I started taking a night class in editorial illustration at Parsons School of Design. For that class I had to draw caricatures of famous people and “illustrate” already published newspaper and magazine articles in ways that would allow imaginary readers to visualize the main idea of a given article. My first assignment was a caricature; I chose New York governor Mario Cuomo as my subject. Back then Cuomo was being considered as a nominee for the Supreme Court. I had a mild crush on him, and, like me, he opposed the death penalty. How, I wondered, would his position on the death penalty make him feel about joining the Supreme Court? Stream of consciousness kicked in, and I wondered who on the Supreme Court would have been on his side. How to find out? (Again, this was before Internet research was accessible to me.) At the New York Public Library, I found a reference book that listed recent Supreme Court justices and summarized their positions on important issues. About 20 minutes of perusing the book led me to Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, and William Brennan—all opponents of the death penalty. So, what was I going to do with these guys in my art assignment? I put a caricature of Mario in the center and surrounded him with Marshall, Blackmun, and Brennan as winged figures, like angels who were protecting his conscience. But I needed to tie in more clearly the issues of the death penalty and Cuomo’s uncertainty about the Supreme Court. So I needed to represent the Court and the death penalty in the drawing. I looked at lots of photos of the U.S. Supreme Court Building and methods of execution used in the U.S. In the end, I created a large silhouette to frame Cuomo and the justices. The top part of the silhouette was the courthouse with its two statues on either side. I had one statue holding a rope with a noose around the neck of a small man (a joke on the real statue, which actually holds the small man, representing humanity, in a protective way). I had the other statue hold a large ax. I thought the ominous statues would suggest that the Court would not always let Cuomo have his way with the death penalty. The bottom part of the silhouette showed the various contemporary methods of execution: the lethal injection, the gas chamber, the electric chair, the firing squad, and the scaffold and noose.
Learning about editorial illustration really helped me understand how art could effectively convey ideas. And a few years later, The New York Times carried an article about the Supreme Court and the death penalty. I was very gratified to see that they showed photos of the same three justices for their article that I’d chosen for my caricature: Marshall, Blackmun, and Brennan.
Before the Internet, the NYPL had a room with large alphabetically organized folders containing magazine and newspaper cutout pictures of famous people, places, and events. So the picture research was pretty easy. And, thanks to my day job, I knew I didn’t need to read volumes about the Supreme Court—just some quick facts about it. And I needed to trust my stream of consciousness: I had a main idea, naturally followed by another and another, and they filled out the illustration I was doing. Because I was researching only things that my mind was choosing to think about, the research was fun and easy.
That first illustration-class assignment helped me establish the guidelines I’ve used ever since to do research for my artwork. I’m going to share them with you here:
1) Don’t be a snob; it will only make you waste time. Wikipedia and Google Image are perfectly good places to start looking things up and getting ideas. And the DK Eyewitness book series, available to buy on Amazon.com and borrow from children’s libraries, is fantastic—each book covers a specific topic (some actual titles: Viking, Knight, Judaism, Dinosaur, Human Body, Ocean, Robot, Universe, Explorer, North American Indian) and contains loads of pictures and basic facts. Movies, shows on PBS and other TV networks, magazines, local museums, and children’s books are also very accessible visual and factual reference materials. Just make sure you double-check what you find with at least two other sources. And your own camera will also do just fine, if you’re lucky enough to take your own pictures of your subject.
2) Trust your stream of consciousness. As you read and look at pictures, your natural thought process and curiosity will lead you to ask yourself questions about what you’re researching. The answers to your own questions can lead to great original ideas. Allow yourself to be innocent and childlike in your enquiries and enjoy them.
3) Don’t research more than you really need to; that’s a time waster too. Have confidence in your own ability to see what’s most important, and don’t feel the need to read thick volumes unless you really want to. When I drew Frederick Douglass recently, I read a kids’-level book called “Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass” by Russell Freedman (it took me only 45 minutes to finish and it had great pictures), plus a couple of Internet articles, some short excerpts from Douglass’s writings, and some of his more famous quotes at places like BrainyQuote.com. I also looked at a range of about a dozen photos from his young adulthood to his old age, and that was enough for me to decide that I should draw him in 1850s attire and give him a book to hold in one hand. (I thought about drawing him at a podium, but I didn’t want the podium to dominate the portrait.) Sometime I’d like to read the collected works of Frederick Douglass and a lengthy biography, but for now I know enough to draw his portrait.
4) Don’t “save time” by tracing or outright copying other people’s art or photos. To a certain extent I think it’s okay to absorb smaller ideas if they contribute to a larger idea, or pay tribute to other people’s work, because that’s what creativity is partly about. But making an exact copy and acting like you made it up yourself is lame. I looked at several pictures of Frederick Douglass and drew my own from scratch. Regardless of whether or not the writer, photographer, or subject are dead and you can legally “get away with it,” simply taking someone else’s work means you aren’t doing your own. If you can’t do it yourself, maybe you should be doing something else instead.
5) Make art about things you find interesting, and it will look more interesting because you will infuse it with your own fascination. If you have to illustrate a topic you don’t think you care about, learn about different angles of the topic—you might find one that interests you, and your specific interest in a specific angle will make your finished piece unique.
Even if you have to do more research for some pieces than for others, there are ways to keep it easy without cutting corners. Hope you have as much fun doing your own art research as I do now! And, you know, sometime I might bring out my semi-erotic sketch of Martin Luther and make a painting of it. It’s definitely a different take on Luther than the portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder.