The very first project I assigned my freshman 2D design class at the Art Institute of Boston was a “Bird Attack” in cut-out black paper against a white background, and I must say that they weren’t terribly thrilled with the idea. I could clearly see them thinking “aren’t we in college? what’s with the kindergarten assignment?” But the critique the following week built a foundation for all subsequent discussions. What does a horizontal line do? What does a vertical line symbolize? Which arrangements will create the most tension, depth, and speed? In other words… how can we use seemingly simple shapes to compose our content before we ever start to draw? In the projects that followed I was delighted to see that their ideas took leaps and bounds forward as they started to think about the picture plane in a whole new way. (For a fabulous introduction to this, be sure to pick up Molly Bang’s Picture This.)
Which, oddly enough, directly relates to THE EXPEDITIONERS, because while reading the manuscript I found that Sarah Stewart Taylor had given me just that assignment: to draw giant vultures attacking the four main characters as they travel downstream on a river. If only I’d made the assignment that much more complicated for my students!
I poked through the files of my brain trying to remember our in-class discussions. Diagonals create tension. Sharp shapes are perceived as threatening. I can use the oars and wings to tilt the movement of the composition. I went through countless versions of this drawing, trying not to completely disappoint myself after having forced my students to attempt the same problem. I also imposed upon my husband at least twice to pose as a terrified teenager. It turns out he’s quite good at imagining fictitious birds attacking him while sitting on a storage bench in a 10th floor New York apartment.
I finally came up with a solution I liked to use as the foundation for the final line art for the drawing. As for drawing the actual attacking birds, the turkey vulture proved to be the most helpful reference. Vultures are mostly scavenging birds, and turkey vultures have evolved bald heads and huge, unseparated nostrils as adaptions to stay clean and stay breathing while diving head first into the bloated bellies of dead animals. Turkey vultures also have a six foot wingspan (!!), not quite as large as these birds but certainly a good place to start. I’m quite relieved that facing-off with a vulture is not part of my foreseeable future!