Horses, Battles, and a Couple of Moose

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!!

Museum of Natural History

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!

Star Island Shark Tournament 2012

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:

Moving!

Sorry folks, no real blog post this week: Tim and I are officially moving to NYC! Yes, yes, we’ve been here for a while, but we finally found a place of our own on the upper east side. Whoot! Today I’m rather frantic trying to find and pack boxes, including not a few wine boxes from liquor stores, so we’re sure to look like alcoholics to our new neighbors. I’m also noticing that some boxes seem to follow us from move to move: our former printer’s box, for example, has lived with us in four states, and once upon a time twelve years ago my now-thumb-tack-box housed a wristwatch. That dingy little tin has literally seen every step of my career since life drawing day one of freshman year at RISD!

So far, the most eclectic box of stuff packed contains: 2 candles, a Christmas tree holder, a hair dryer with diffuser, an umbrella, a metal wire basket, hand sanitizer, spray fixative, gorilla glue, a vinyl repair kit, and a set of wind-up penguin salt and pepper shakers. Make of that what you will!

Statistics

Statistics for the week of Sunday, May 20th to Saturday May 26th:

Average waking time: 6:45am

Average getting-up time: 8:00am

Number of cups of coffee consumed: 10

Number of alcoholic beverages consumed: 6

Number of times I left the apartment: 3

Number of hours spent drawing: 60

Number of moving boxes packed: 0

Average number of daily emails sent: 7.3

Average bed time: midnight

Audiobooks completed: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Authur Conan Doyle.

Bird Attack!

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!

More Weekly Statistics

Statistics for the week of Sunday, May 6th to Saturday May 12th:

Average waking time: 6:40am

Average getting-up time: 8:10am

Number of cups of coffee consumed: 12

Number of alcoholic beverages consumed: 6

Number of times I left the apartment: 5

Number of hours spent drawing: 51.75

Amount of Motrin IB taken: 600mg

Average number of daily emails sent: 8.25

Average bed time: 11:45pm

iTunes song played the most number of times in a row: Beast of Burden by the Rolling Stones

 

Statistics for the week of Sunday, May 13th to Saturday May 19th:

Average waking time: 7:05am

Average getting-up time: 8:18am

Number of cups of coffee consumed: 12

Number of alcoholic beverages consumed: 9

Number of times I left the apartment: 4

Number of hours spent drawing: 48

Number of New York City landmarks visited with out-of-town family: 9

Average number of daily emails sent: 3.4

Average bed time: 11:45pm

Audiobooks completed: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

Diamond in the Roughs

The manuscript is in sections all over my studio, covered in notes and brightly colored page markers. A mug of lukewarm coffee is to my right, a silent inkjet printer is to my left, and directly in front of me is my computer, wacom tablet plugged in and ready. I’ve been sitting digitally drawing for days, and haven’t looked back at a single thing I’ve drawn. What am I doing? The Roughs!

The physical illustration process for almost any book begins with the “roughs,” an initial set of rough sketches that go along with the text. For myself I like to get through this stage as fast as I humanly can, because a blank piece of paper (or a blank screen) is one of my biggest fears, a world where every mark can become an instant, ugly scar. Without a break-neck pace I’ll endlessly revise and revisit drawings, resulting in zero progress and crushing self-doubt. It almost doesn’t matter what I draw or how bad it is in the first pass; the point is to get something completely done so that I have a place from which to start editing. In my first pass at the 36 to 40 rough scenes of interior art, how many times did I draw three West children pointing at maps? At least three (yuck!) but from there each scene could only improve. I’m happy to say that by now all of the “map pointing” has hit the cutting room floor.

One of the things that keeps me moving during the Roughs is an even more terrifying shape than a blank white rectangle: a black diagonal line keeping time on The Chart:

This metronome for progress is one of the most useful illustration tools I own. Back in February, when I learned that I would be illustrating Sarah Stewart Taylor’s THE EXPEDITIONERS, I also learned that I’ve only have 12-14 weeks to do the book from start to finish. The drawing experience would be a marathon, with some sprinting and high-jumping thrown in for good measure, and I needed a gun to get me sprinting from the start. The Chart was directly inspired by the ever-talented Alec Longstreth (Basewood), a former teacher from The Center for Cartoon Studies, who uses this tool to track progress on his own work. With an aggressive goal of reaching 40 interior drawings (vertical axis) in the time span of 8 days (horizontal axis), there was absolutely no time to be afraid of the blank page. The rest of my to-do list may have failed, but this angry line kept me on track at a pace of five rough digital drawings a day.

Of course, not everything drawn in the Roughs stage is bad, and sometimes I even hit on something terrific. A stellar composition! A character design that rings true in future drafts! Or even a concept can be relocated to work better earlier or later in the manuscript. The Roughs give me a foundation on which to build the book, and each successive pass gives the structure more definition.

In THE EXPEDITIONERS, one of my favorite drawing moments is when the eldest brother, Zander, discovers a new species of slug. Here’s the full sequence of drawings, from concept sketches to digital rough (above) to the final rough draft before it goes to final art. This reflects about four weeks of worth of change. Note that after the digital rough draft, I abandoned the idea of having the characters posing with the slug in favor of showing the slug alone, as if from the character’s point of view. The result is, I feel, a much stronger and more interesting compositon:

 [DIGITAL ROUGH GOES HERE]

 

I’d like to thank Art Nouveau, the Viennese Secessionists, Japanese postcards, and everyone who’s ever posted photos of cool slugs. More roughs and sketches from other scenes coming soon!

Adventures in Art & Story by Katherine Roy