DRAWINGS WITHOUT WORDS
They say “a picture is worth a thousand words”—well, is it?
There are some ideas that are hard to depict, but a picture sometimes does a much better job of describing a relationship or a process. Political cartoons are popular for the same reason as fables; both simplify or organize a complex idea into a form people can relate to—a story or a scene or a diagram. Illustrations do this differently from photographs. Photographs tend to slip in past our cynicism and our critical faculties. They used to say that a news story about something egregious the Reagan administration was up to—trading arms for hostages or crushing unions—was easily overwhelmed by the photograph of affable Ronnie smiling in front of a flag.
I love photography, but it can be sneaky. It gets right to our human feelings. A photograph is “reality”; note the quotation marks. Meaning: a photograph is an edited presentation of what was there, cropped, carefully selected, often stage-managed, photoshopped, airbrushed or, in the case of Reagan, acted. A photograph doesn’t show a thought process; it hides its process. It often displays pure emotion, and sometimes that emotion is phony. Illustration, on the other hand, is a complete fabrication, a manipulation, but it’s also thought through. The best illustration wears its politics or its motives on its sleeve. It isn’t staged, it’s created to show something, to say something. And there are many things photography cannot do—diagram a chain of command or a money trail, for instance. A photograph can capture the commission of a crime, but it doesn’t detail the relationships or the plan.
Most illustration is there to make the adjacent text look interesting. But it also serves to make the reader alert, and asks him to put his critical glasses on: “This is a complex idea, but if you can get your head around the drawing, you’ll understand the story.” Sometimes my illustration is supposed to lighten the atmosphere, the way academic lecturers begin with a joke. It serves as a bridge between the everyday world and the realm where we figure things out. That can be a disconcerting leap sometimes.
So let’s turn this to you. For instance, if you’re assigned an op-ed illustration for the New York Times, you’re given the text (are you?) and presumably have only hours to do it in. What’s the process?
Op-ed illustrations actually have a longer turnaround time than letters illustrations, those thumbnail-size images that liven up the letters page. They are assigned, conceived and finished very quickly. Usually between 11 in the morning and mid-afternoon. Small window of time, small space. There’s no elbow room to elaborate an idea or show small detail on large items. You have to nail the concept in as few lines as possible and use symbols that readers will quickly understand. At the same time, you want to avoid clichés. If you draw a donkey and an elephant they’d better be drawn in an interesting way. And no labeling. The New York Times does not publish cartoons. (It does print the week’s best from other newspapers in the Week in Review section on Sundays, but there’s no staff cartoonist.)
My method: sometimes I think first, try to visualize an idea. Free association is a fertile source of visual ideas. But sometimes the pencil thinks for itself; I start drawing with no clear idea and things emerge that hadn’t crossed my mind. Maybe my hand is ahead of my conscious thoughts. Either way, the proof is in the drawing. An idea isn’t a good one until I’m able to draw it.
One of my favorite letters drawings was an illustration of replies to an op-ed about psychologists. The writer had suggested that some therapists listen to the emotions in the session more than the words. So I did a drawing of a “psychologist type” scrutinizing a voice balloon full of blah blah blah (see illustration 1). I got a phone call from a psychologist in Boston who bought the drawing from me.
The eye tends to trust things that aren’t over-elaborated. I think people trust political drawings and cartoons more than they do political writing because drawings don’t seem as calculated. Rightly or not, lies are associated with words.
There’s also the idea that a drawing can make a complex subject understandable. “Do I need to draw you a picture?” Not really true. A drawing can simplify a complex subject. Sometimes a drawing, a diagram or a visual metaphor makes it easier to understand how something works, how the parts go round, which part is knocking up against which other part. But drawings can also oversimplify, like soundbites do. I think a great number of Americans vote Republican because they think elephants are cool and donkeys are not. So visual shorthand can cheat you.
When you say, “Maybe my hand is ahead of my conscious thoughts,” does that mean you can begin work with an empty head and a clean sheet of paper and just start, or are you doing it with half a thought and years of experience?
There is that. Experience is helpful. Sometimes when I start drawing I am trying to unremember the glib line, the facile line, the snappy, cartoony line. Sometimes that kind of snap and sparkle is what’s wanted, but I find a certain awkwardness works better conveying ideas, especially complicated ones. Snappy drawings are the soundbites of illustration; a bit like rehearsed aphorisms, sometimes too clever. So the first awkward expressions are sometimes more apt, more thoughtful. More sincere, anyway.
I actually had a half-hour tutorial I gave in my kids’ grade school every couple of years, teaching them the importance of drawing badly, of not making a horse look like a horse, of making a face unlike a face but like something else. I did this to subvert the very serious, formal approach of the art teacher. (A very nice man, whom I liked, but he is a bit formal.) I used Ludwig Bemelmans, Ben Shahn, Maira Kalman and Max Beckmann as examples, setting their work out and offering them as heroes. Perfect drawings could just as well be photographs, I think. It’s the imperfections that involve the eye and the thoughts of the onlooker.
And I also find that it’s a lot easier to cram an idea or a metaphor into an imperfect rendering. If it looks like a perfect elephant, people stop there; but if it’s only kind of like an elephant, maybe it’s something else. There’s room for suggestion. You can distort the shape a little more to make it into an idea. Also, with a simple, less rendered drawing, the eye completes the picture. There’s a spark across that gap.
Do you ever panic that an idea might not materialize?
Not often anymore. I like having a night’s sleep with the text in my head. And I do tend to think in metaphors. When I’m writing a story I have to throw a lot of them out. My floor is littered with them. What scares me is that my hand will forget how to draw, or won’t be as deft on a tight deadline. It’s probably a useful fear. But I can’t remember disappointing anyone. I’m not always completely satisfied. Luckily I work quickly, and I routinely draw or paint two or three versions before I’m happy. I want to be satisfied myself. The quickest drawing is often the best one.
I love what you say about trust, but it’s bizarre, isn’t it?. To get specific, your “psychologist type” has three fingers and a thumb; the lines are blobby and uneven; and yet neither unlifelike quality seems to matter. The drawing just shows a truth. Is there something about the immediacy of a simple-looking drawing that says “I am more transparent and felt” than something more considered and labored over? Is this “visual shorthand”?
The cover I did for John Waters’s memoir Role Models was done as a finished painting, mostly line, but painted—and John insisted on using the pencil sketch. I redrew it, because the sketch I’d sent was so messy, but he liked the messy one so that’s the one that the publisher, Farrar Straus, used (see illustration 2). Susan Mitchell, the art director, pushed the darkness a bit, giving it more texture and a charcoal feel. I’ve been doing a lot more finished illustrations in pencil since then. You could say that Susan Mitchell and John Waters really invented my new style.
But I think there’s something wonderful, more candid, more revealing about a pencil drawing. It’s the thought put directly on paper. I’ve been using pencil for op-ed art in the New York Times and L.A. Times and have developed some ways to add color to the pencil line. People think in pencil. People do their diagrams in pencil.
Don’t ask me what the next one (see illustration 3) means. I’m happy I decided to stray from normal skin tones. It adds a certain menace or melancholy. This is unpublished. I should figure out a way of printing them, because the color only exists in the computer and the original pencil drawing is much fainter than this.
I did a map of Greenwich Village and thought it looked like something drawn on a cocktail napkin, which might be the perfect look for some purposes (see illustration 4). Awkwardness is more sincere, less slick and therefore, at least subliminally speaking, more reliable.
I’ve sent reams of cartoons to Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, all carefully done in black gouache with a brush. No luck. Maybe if I hunted around on the floor of my studio and found the pencil versions, he’d like them better. Sincerity isn’t what cartoons need, but maybe pencil is wittier too. I should try that. They did ask me to paint one of my political diagrams into a cover, a suddenly timely idea, but by the time they showed it to David Remnick the next morning the story seemed old to him. Most of the ideas I send out are now in pencil.* An economic diagram I did in pencil will appear in the September issue of the Atlantic. One of those free-standing drawings that have no relation to the text. Some of my best ideas have nothing to do with an assignment. I get an idea and have to jot it down.
I’m happy the pencil has been promoted to finished art by some of my clients. I did this cover for POETRY magazine in pencil, with color added. It’s one frame from a continuous reel of drawings (Kerouac-style) following a road from the country into the city. But this one Winterhouse Design used for POETRY’s July/Aug 2011 cover is my favorite (see illustration 5).
[*Except for that very ascerbic and louche Valentine’s cover I’ve shown you. That one was painted. Not much chance for that image. Everybody wants the Valentine’s Day cover and there’s only one a year.]
What subjects do you find difficult to depict?
The hardest thing to illustrate is a negative, something not there. I remember being asked to illustrate someone who was five minutes late for an appointment. I had a difficult time explaining this problem to the art director. I can convey an absence of thought with an empty thought balloon or an empty head. You could, I guess, insert an empty silhouette of something into a fully painted image, but I tend to leave a lot of white space already so that seems problematic. (Working with digital color I am using fully colored backgrounds these days, so it’s easier to see this working.)
But illustration does allow you to show a lot of things photography cannot, because of the latitude an artist has to make bodies transparent, to show all sides of a thing simultaneously, to distort, enlarge, exaggerate, to make everything monochrome except the thing you want highlighted.
The other conundrum is what I call the large/small problem. Showing a tiny detail on an immense thing. This happens a lot with maps. And here again distortion helps. There’s usually a trick an illustrator can use. The challenge is making the trick seem easy and natural and logical. It’s a bit like magic when it works right.
Speaking of contrasts between large and small, here’s a political drawing I did at the time of the Iraq invasion. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was fired for insisting that more troops were needed to secure the country after the invasion. (He was proved right when our occupation collapsed.) To illustrate the idea, I drew a large man pulling a tiny cannon (see illustration 6). I couldn’t find anyone to publish it. Maybe it was wartime solidarity, or maybe it was too subtle. A number of art directors liked the drawing. I made a special point of aiming the cannon up the man’s backside. This image is still unpublished.
The only question I have left to ask you is to turn this idea on its head: is there anything that can be written but not illustrated?
I talked about using familiar items as metaphors. Sometimes the same items become metaphors for different things, and sometimes, often, I just start drawing the thing to see what it might represent. It’s as if in the back of my mind a story or a text or an issue makes me think of a chair, and I don’t know why, so I draw the chair, inviting the idea to come and use it. Maybe it’s a platform or an obstacle or part of a seating arrangement. So I spend a certain amount of my time just drawing things to see if they have anything to say, or want to inhabit or illustrate some larger idea (see illustration 7).
Is the man approaching the chair going to vault the chair or stumble over it? In the last picture (see illustration 8), is this man giving a speech or is he hanging himself? The less elaborated the drawing the more metaphor it will support. If I leave the drawing incomplete, the viewer will complete the idea. Unresolved dramas make a greater impression.—LUCY SISMAN