For the last few weeks galley copies of THE EXPEDITIONERS have been out in the world in search of reviews. I imagine the books all huddled together, whispering and giggling through thick mailing envelopes, as they wait to be loved by a child or a blogger or read by someone from Kirkus. The books are just gorgeous (and they’re only galleys!) and Sarah and I couldn’t be more delighted. In anticipation of a wonderful review from Kirkus coming out today (THANK YOU, KIRKUS!) I thought I’d share a few design sketches for the final hardback book cover. It’s not often that illustrators get to draw tremendously cool double fold-out wrap-around covers—printing costs are too high for most publishers to splurge—but McSweeney’s is all about the book-as-art-object, and McSweeney’s McMullens for kids is no different!
As with any illustration project for me the cover began with concept sketches scribbled in a notebook. It needed to feature both the four main characters and a beautiful southwestern environment, so I started with a two different directions: one in a montage movie poster style and the other focused on a story moment at a waterfall:
After much deliberation with a trusted few we all agreed it would be best to combine the two ideas into one. One 30-second sketch later (see the lower right-hand corner of the black and white sketch above) I had the framework for the final drawing. Combined with editor Brian McMullen’s gorgeously designed logo font it suddenly felt like a real cover!
From there I did a simple sketch for the wrap-around outer cover: And then digitally drew on top of it to finalize the design:
This last image is very close to what the (front) cover will look like once the subtitle and credits are in place. The book is available for pre-order now from your favorite local bookstore or from Amazon.com. Nine weeks left to release! Whoo-eee!
Before working on BURIED I really didn’t know much about the Inca. I knew they lived in Peru, in the high mountains of the Andes, and I’d of course seen lots of dreamy photos of Macchu Picchu and llamas with tassles. Oh, and of course there’s that Disney movie. Kronk was surely based on a historical figure, right?
But after months of research there’s one thing I now know for sure: above all else it seems the Inca were big fans of rocks. Big rocks, round rocks, square rocks, little sissy rocks… pretty much any kind of rock. They dragged rocks over great distances to build their homes, they hauled rocks up steep mountains to build castles and temples, they carved rocks to match the silhouettes of mountains of celestial significance, and they did all of it–all of it!!– without iron tools, draught animals, the wheel, mortar, or a written language. Their rock building techniques are still something of a mystery to modern day archaeologists.
NOVA even put out a short documentary in 1997 called The Secrets of Lost Empires (Disc 3) that explores efforts to replicate Inca building methods by leading researchers in the field. According to the film, how did the ancient Inca carved 15 ton boulders? With a great deal of patience, human labor… and more rocks.
Inca 1: How are we going to carve this giant rock? All we’ve got is wood, bone, and rock.
Inca 2: Hey! I know! Let’s use this other rock!
The Inca were clearly doing something right; the walls that survived the Spanish conquistadors have withstood dozens of earthquakes in the last 500 years (while the colonial buildings on top of them have repeatedly collapsed. Ha! Take that, Spanish conquistadors!) Archaeologists have an idea of Cusco’s original layout, but, like the present-day city of Alexandria, there’s very little to show for its original splendor.
Now part of my job as the illustrator for BURIED is to do a spread that depicts ancient Cusco. And for someone who needs to draw a recreation of the original city, a simple archaeological map of scattered foundation lines isn’t all that much to go on. I thought that perhaps I might track down an ink sketch or two from an artistic conquistador’s journal, but the only source image of the city on record is this painting by a Spanish monk, completed after the earthquake of 1650 about 100 years after Pizarro conquered the Inca. In other words, this doesn’t look much like Cusco as the Inca knew it.
The only other illustration leads available to me were the existing foundations of the Temple of the Sun at the Coriancha. Plated in with hundreds of sheets of gold and home to Inca kings and priests, the Coriancha sat at the heart of Cusco and was of course Pizarro’s first place of pillage. Today the foundations of the Coriancha still stand and bear the weight of the Church of Santo Domingo, and (luckily for me!) is the site of ongoing restoration inside the walls of the Church. Between tourist photos online and an archaeologist’s recreated drawing, I could begin to conceive of what this small part Cusco might have originally looked like.
First I used the photos and the drawing above to make a quick clay model to draw from for my roughs (it’s terribly useful to turn a model in space, and it’s also a welcome break from sketching!) The drawings themselves were easy, but I was quickly frustrated by how un “city-like” the Coriancha appeared. The small handful of steeply sloped buildings felt terribly underwhelming compared to the vast expanse of Copan or Tenochtitlan. (In the case of Copan, the city was abadoned to the jungle, and in the case of Tenochtitlan there was indeed an artistic conquistador on the scene. No such luck with Cusco.)
In the end I chose to shift the angle of the drawing, focusing on the view of the Coriancha from below. A little wisp of smoke and some sun breaking through the clouds in the final drawing will help increase the drama of the scene, and I’m much happier with the city spanning the full width of the page spread. And look at all of that beautiful Inca rock that I get to draw for the book!
Last month was full of drawing, friends, family, and good food, and since we just got back from a quick trip to the Cape I thought I’d share a handful of visual inspirations from July. These images represent in some way the things currently knocking around in my brain:
I look forward to whatever it is that August holds. In the meantime back to my work on CITIES!
Lately as I work on the sketches for BURIED I’m struck by the sheer volume of sun-worship and sacrifice across cultures. Growing up going to Sunday school gave me a disconcerting familiarity to Judeo-Christian sacrifice—of course lambs and first born sons should be slaughtered on altars to appease [the sun] god!—but somehow it’s never really sunk in that this tradition is true for every other religion. Building by building, city by city, the Maya, Inca, Aztec and Mississippi peoples all oriented their architecture towards celestial events as places of sacrifice. The sun rises behind this temple, venus rises in front of that one, and in the case of the Mayan Kukulcan Temple in Chichen Itza, a hand clap directed towards the stairs will echo back as the call of the quetzal bird, the embodiment of Kukulcan himself:
For as long as there has been religion priests have used these kinds of special effects and hocus pocus to validate their tribute demands from their people. This application of astronomy and architecture doesn’t prove or disprove anything about the existence of god, of course, but what amazes me is just how similar the ideas are across all cultures around the world. Wrong or right, religion of any kind does make us feel part of a bigger picture, and if we link ourselves to things beyond our control then we have relief from and less responsibility for our own destiny. I know nothing has really changed—the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. lines up with the sunrise, too (implying a great deal about the religion of capitalism, no?)—but it seems like maybe once upon a time someone out there would have had different ideas.
Or maybe they just had that guy killed?
On a completely different note, a little update on SHARK: I’ve finally purchased plane tickets to fly out and do some first-hand research this fall! Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of several scientists and Farallon experts in the Bay Area, I will be spending several days on the water in early October to witness great white shark tagging and get a water tour around the islands. My foul-weather gear is ready, and Dramamine is at the top of my packing list; fingers-crossed that the sharks put in an appearance while I’m there!
Yesterday I spent a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by kids and tourists as I drifted from room to air-conditioned room. My goal was to do studies from battle scenes, to draw horses, peasants, and armor as illustration reference for my Mesoamerican BURIED BENEATH US book with Macmillan. But of course I love just being at the Met too; each and every object feels full of life and presence. Thousand year old jade combs and 18th century portraits of children. Someone wore this. Someone made this. This is what someone left behind.
The Aztec and Incan empires fell at the hands of Cortez and Pizarro, respectively, so before I left my apartment I looked through my roughs of page spreads that demand drawings of Spanish conquistadors to see what I needed. The museum’s European political paintings and various on-location works by the Impressionists were especially helpful in giving me ideas for poses, composition, and general stylistic approach. I’m not sure quite how this book will hang together yet–right now I’m trying to take each section at a time–but going to the Met gave me a much fuller sense of what is possible. I hope to pay many more visits over the rest of the summer.
Also I completely forgot to post this last month but I did this moose sketch while at the Museum of Natural History, too. I love the pose within this scene! So much emotion between the two animals. They’re fierce and majestic, fragile but strong… can’t wait to get back there again soon, too. I love living in New York!!
This Sunday found me at the Museum of Natural History in NYC drawing Mayan sculptures and pottery. After many days spent indoors working on my BURIED BENEATH US book I thought it would be fun and helpful to go get a look at some source material. At first glance the Central American wing is a little disappointing: it lacks the dioramas, reproduction clothing, educational videos and drawings curated for many of the other civilizations. But at closer look there’s much to see, and the time that I spent there gave me some new ideas for the book.
From the towering reproduction stelae (above) to the tiny figurines, the museum’s collection of Mayan figures wear a dizzying alphabet of marks and lines to describe their clothing, hair, and ornamentation. While this stylized short-hand doesn’t quite compute for modern viewers, it’s a terrific jumping off point for an illustrator. With my walnut ink washes and black line work I focused trying to draw “from the inside” of the figures, looking for gesture and anatomy within the different clay portraits:
My giant Moleskin gave me ample room to play, and I’m already looking forward to my return. In the meantime I may take a trip down to China Town to draw in the markets, the closest stand-in for village life that I can think of in New York City (but I’m open to suggestions!) In other news today I signed the gigantic beast that is my contract for SHARK. I’m a real author!! Huzzah for Macmillan!
Hello blog from our new New York apartment! I’m so sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks, but I’ve been desperately working away on the last touches on EXPEDITIONERS as I simultaneously unpack into our place and transition into the next book project. It turns out that fitting a two-bedroom life (complete with storage shed) into a one-bedroom life (without a storage shed) is quite the squeeze and many trips to Goodwill, but as the empty cardboard boxes get broken down a home is beginning to appear underneath. I’m delighted to say that the interior art on EXPEDITIONERS is done and the full fold-out cover near completion. I am super duper excited to hold the book this fall!
In the midst of all this I decided to take Saturday off to travel out to Montauk, Long Island with art teacher Jeff Fisher’s weekly location drawing class to sketch at the 26th Annual Star Island Shark Tournament. Like the late 19th-century French idea of drawing “en plein air,” location drawing forces an artist to solve content, composition, and color problems in the moment and directly from life. Class began in a nearby shipyard to warm up with fishing boats and pilings before heading to Star Island to claim front row spots around the judging area and settle in for an intense afternoon.
With over $500,000 in prize money at stake there were many dozen teams competing to catch the biggest sharks, and the crowd of families and tourists grew as boat after boat arrived to deliver the fish to the judges. Each shark was hoisted up, weighed, and photographed, then cut down, measured for length, and gutted. The carcass was then either cut up for use at a nearby research lab or trimmed into steaks for the team that caught it. The heads, tails, fins, and guts were tossed into the front of a construction loader for easy trips to the dumpster.
While watching dozens of sharks drop stomachs and lose heads isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, the fast pace of the tournament was quite the drawing challenge and gave me some on-the-ground context for our cultural obsession with these predators. Great white sharks are no longer hunted for tournaments, much to the disappointment of every small child present. Their endangered status keeps fisherman catching blues, makos, and threshers instead. Hammerheads are qualified too, though none were caught at this event.
It takes enormous endurance to draw all day in the midst of crowds and heat, but for me this guerrilla approach keeps me in shape for better and better work done in the studio. This trip was also the first time out with my new 11″ x 16″ Moleskin sketchbook; I loved having so much breathing room to collage and try out ideas (but next time I’ll be sure to put more sunscreen on my arms!). Keep an eye out for its filling pages throughout the summer on this blog. In the meantime, a few photos from the tournament: