Saturday, December 20, 2008

Do Over

In the day-to-day operations of an illustration studio, there is rarely (if ever) an opportunity to re-execute a piece of final art. I've often thought this is one of the real joys of illustration- there is no time for second guessing and the ever pressing deadline reduces over-thinking your choices. But, the book I am working on right now, called John Brown- His Fight For Freedom has given me a chance to revaluate this conclusion.

A few years back, when the book looked dead in the water and before the amazing folks at Abrams picked it up, I wanted to draw two of my favorite images from the sketch dummy. Mostly so the work I put in wouldn't get lost forever...

Here is one of those images, as drawn in March 2006. It later appeared in the show "Dear Old Kansas" at Signs of Life Gallery in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time when I finished it, I really thought it was one of the best images I had made in many years.

But, it turned out the book was not dead. Finally, two and a half years later, that image was slated for pg 14-15, and needed some changes. The editors thought it was best to tone down his anger from 'seething rage' to 'passionate conviction.' Also, actually showing the sword used to commit the murders at Pottawatomie was too strong an image for children.

Also, I had to address the problem that no one seemed to like this drawing.

You see, I had entered the image into a truckload of shows in the uncommissioned category, expecting a landslide of acceptance letters. It did not do very well. My conclusion, after looking at the image many months later, was that the basic communication had broken down. What I mean is that the idea that John Brown was an angry tornado was not immediately clear. The enjoyment of investigating this image was interrupted by the trouble of working too hard to solve the complex space. There were two issues: shape and value. Let me demonstrate.

First, the classic tornado shape was broken and too wide at the top. His upper torso hid the edges of the funnel and the scroll that wrapped around obstructed the form. I would have to make it more narrow at the top and remove the scroll.

Secondly, and more importantly, the value difference between the scroll and the sky are too similar. The net result being that the scroll creates an ambiguous figure/field relationship. Said differently, it appears that the sky can be seen through the middle of the tornado, interrupting it's shape recognition.

The new version that will appear in the book is much clearer and therefore a much stronger image. Many problems in image making cannot be solved ahead of time, with cognitive analysis. The way I learn is much, much easier. You put the pen to the paper, and make a bunch of mistakes.


Kyle T. Webster said...

I always liked version 1.0 but 2.0 solves the problems you pointed out. Really nice, John.

Merry Christmas to you and the family. See you in '09 somewhere, I hope.

John Hendrix said...

Well, thanks for the encouragement, about both of them!

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Great insight into nature of your work. I think your editors were correct in their suggestion of modifying the angry sword-wielding Brown, although I personally like that illustration a lot. The one you're using is really great, although I'm curious as to why you put the Old Man in gloves. Nice touch, but just wondering.

Have a great Christ-mas with your family, especially the new bundle of joy. Receive our love from the Big Apple

John Hendrix said...

Hi Lou-

Hah... yes, the gloves. Well, I wanted it to seem like he was going to work. Doing a dirty job, so to speak. He was wearing gloves earlier on in the book when driving the wagon on the underground railroad spread. But, partly the choice is formal, they activate the space on the horizon and coverup an anatomical problem with his forearm being too short.

I agree that he needs to be less angry. I didn't realize how boiling hot he was until I drew him differently. The book is trying to paint him in a more human light, so their point is well taken. I've still got a J. Stewart Curry hangover.

They also took out the one of JB breathing fire into the gates of hell to release slaves from bondage. Probably a good choice.

logan said...

What a gorgeous drawing. As nice as #1 was, you really did drive it home with #2. Bravo sir!

And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

John Foster said...


I am really digging your blog. I just found it not long ago. It's wonderful that you choose to educate folks about your work and the art of illustration.

John Foster

Eric Orchard said...

Love the new version even more! Amazing work.

Tim Baron said...

Beautiful work: )

shliknik said...

Howdy John

I think I still like the first one better even though the problems you pointed out have been corrected.

I think I like Brown's expression and the drawing of the sword more even though I do agree the banner does seem to hide the tornado too much.

My favorite part of the 2nd version is the bottom where the tornado rips through the states. It seems that would get across the point of him being in a tornado.

Either way, both images are lovely. I got a chance to see the 1st in person in Lawrence, BTW.