PUTTING ON THE DOG
Michael Wertz’s pictures look easy to do. The lines are simplified, the colour is flat, the style very graphic. But this is deceptive. In fact, they aren’t traditional drawings or paintings at all; they’re “drawn” on a computer—which doesn’t lessen the skill involved one bit. Wertz creates his drawings by building up multiple layers, using Photoshop; the lettering in them is all hand-done—hand-done, that is, on the computer, using rectangles of colour as starter shapes, which he then cuts into with a mouse. These non-paintings/drawings look as if they’ve been silkscreened, or possibly lino-cut, but they’re manipulated in such a way that they seem purposely sloppily printed. The blocks of colour have texture, as though they’d been rolled on with a dryish roller, and the register of the layers is just off enough to seem laid with ink. But Wertz’s “sloppiness” is very deliberate, and the work is painstakingly done.
Wertz has just produced the second poetry book for children that he’s done with writer Betsy Franco, entitled A Dazzling Display of Dogs. What particularly intrigues me about both books (the other is about cats) is not just the images of dogs, and the poems themselves, but that each letter in each word in each poem is hand-drawn. The images—words and pictures—are labours of love as well as joy.
The joy of silkscreen
Wertz fell in love with silkscreen early in his career, and he has made that look and style his own. It doesn’t matter that he no longer goes through the rather tedious and fiddly business of actual silkscreening; that old technique drives the look, and he couldn’t achieve that look without having previously got his hands dirty doing the real thing and becoming familiar with the process of printing. “The nice thing about Photoshop,” he says, “is that you can kind of approximate or cheat, and get a silkscreened look without having to go through all that stuff that takes so long and sometimes doesn’t go right anyway.”
In the early 1990s, fresh out of art school at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, Wertz began screen printing to get away from the difficulty of making the big pastel drawings—”this big!”—that he was producing for clients in his new career as a designer. “I couldn’t fix them,” he explains, “because if you fix a pastel drawing the bright colour goes away.” If he sent the oversized artworks through the mail, or if printers tried to drum-scan them, the drawings got ruined and the clients got furious. This was before home scanners and suchlike, of course, so he had to figure out a different approach. By chance, a friend with the wonderful name of Flower Frankenstein who had a shop, Little Frankenstein’s, in San Francisco where she made all her own silkscreened toys—“rather weird dolls and T-shirts”—introduced Wertz to silkscreening. Inadvertently, he had stumbled on a world he loved and wanted to be part of: a world of very do-it-yourself comic-book art. “Around that time Flower made a Jimbo doll for the artist Gary Panter,” he says, “who was already a hero of mine.” Panter was one of the creative directors on the campy children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran on American TV from 1986 to 1991. ”It was a huge influence on me,“ says Wertz. “It was really funny. Little kids could enjoy it, but it was subversive enough for weirdos like me to enjoy it, too.”
At Little Frankenstein’s two of Wertz’s obsessions came together: in 1998 he had his first show of dog silkscreens. “Learning to silkscreen was really what changed my style forever,“ says Wertz. “It produces these very light, bright colours that I’ve always loved. It kind of found me, but it also melded with my taste really perfectly.” Silkscreen colour, that is, the ink on paper, has a luminosity that is different from paint on paper. In part this is because it’s applied as a very thin coat, so that the white of the paper underneath shows through; an effect not unlike the one produced by the light behind the screen on which you’re reading this article. “It’s also because the ink is built to reproduce,” says Wertz. “When you’re working with silkscreen it’s always a thin coat of super-bright, saturated colour.” Silkscreen colour is richer than other pigments; the ink looks as if it’s wet, with a slight sheen. If you touch a silkscreen print, along the edge of the colour you can feel a little ridge that defines the layer of ink sitting on top of the paper.
Wertz can pretty much pinpoint where his love of silkscreen began: “It’s a pillowcase that belonged to a sheet set my mother bought me when I was a kid,” he says. “The sheets were dark blue, with stars and planets. I think that was a very early influence in terms of a flat, graphic style.” The image on the beloved pillowcase was by the American illustrator and graphic artist Peter Max, who famously helped define the counter-culture and psychedelic movement in graphic design in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Of course Max was doing all his work by hand,” says Wertz. “It must have been a really steady hand to make the black lines all the same width. What patience to make all those separations!” He feels that Peter Max’s design sense and style had such broad appeal that even his mum (who, he says, is “relatively normal”—meaning, not a hippie) really enjoyed his work: “When the pillowcases were too worn out to use anymore, my mother cut them apart, stapled them to a frame and hung them on a wall.” And, years later, when Wertz figured out that he too could use big blocks of colour to create images, he was simply enamoured of silkscreen and wanted to use that style in his own work.
Coming to art
Wertz came to illustration late, as it happens. “I kept a sketchbook in high school,” he says, “but I never really drew as a pastime.” He did his undergraduate degree, in French, at the University of California, Santa Cruz (class of 1990); though he took a few art classes for fun, his focus was on languages. “It was a lovely, lovely place to study and grow and discover yourself,” he says; it was also where he met his future husband—they both worked at the college radio station. “All the bands I loved then, I still love now,” says Wertz, who feels lucky to still be doing work for one of those bands, Camper Van Beethoven. “Then a friend of mine caught me sketching on a napkin in a restaurant and said, ‘You know, you should really look at that sketch and take this seriously and consider going to art school.’ So I went, and discovered that I was an illustrator, although I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time.”
He still wasn’t sure what kind of artist he wanted to be. “This isn’t the case anymore,” he says, “but for a lot of art schools at the time you could have glued macaroni to a piece of paper with Elmer’s and they would have accepted you as a student.” He began teaching himself from a book that he says he’s read cover to cover many times: Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which was published in 1979, stayed on the bestseller list for more than a year and has been in print ever since. “It’s basically a bunch of exercises to help you turn off the left side of your brain, the more analytic part, and turn on the more spatially directed part, in order to teach yourself to draw,” says Wertz. “It taught me to look at things differently, to think of objects in terms of how they reside in space, as well as about contour and shading. I still use the contour exercises when I draw in my sketchbook.” In life drawing, he says, students are often taught to draw objects in space from the “inside out”—to draw bones and muscle mass and gesture before worrying about outline and detail. “I prefer to go right for the outline, which I suppose is one of the reasons why my work is so graphic. I like to think of objects in space as being cut out of pieces of paper. That makes them easier for me to draw, because I’m so myopic.”
“I didn’t really have a portfolio when I applied,” he continues. “I just had a general interest in making art. I also didn’t know anything about running a business, and so much of illustration is really running your own business.” So he set about learning that, too, partly by mixing with people who were already in that world—his teachers, many of whom are still friends today: artists such as Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, Susan Gross and Bud Peen, all of whom are still working illustrators. Wertz isn’t reluctant to give credit to his influences: another was the artist (and his former teacher) Lynda Barry, whose writing class he took in both Madison, Wisconsin, and San Francisco. Her Poodle with Mohawk image was the first work of hers he ever saw. “It was so funny and weird, and I felt I could inhabit that space,“ he says. “That dog space.” Another big influence was Bonnie MacLean, who created many memorable music posters in the 1960s and early ’70s for the Fillmore Auditorium. “I like the loose design and lettering,” says Wertz—and he’s an expert in loose lettering. “Those posters were designed for a specific audience—if you’re a square, you’re less likely to spend the time and read what it says!” Not surprisingly. he admires her colour sense, too: “I love those eye-popping color combinations.”
The art of illustration
“Being an illustrator is really about collaboration,“ says Wertz, “It’s about making imagery in service to a larger project that may or may not be self-directed.” The lines between illustration and art are often blurry. ”You look at people like Gary Panter or Leigh Wells or Katherine Streeter or Vivienne Flesher—their work is very fine-art focused,“ says Wertz. “It’s lovely, it’s lyrical, it’s an area I like.” But he likes that collaboration with another person, too.
The work he’s done with writer Betsy Franco came about through an introduction from Franco’s editor, Abigail Samoun at Tricycle Press (now part of Random House), and has fitted in with Wertz’s increasing interest in more child-oriented imagery. After their first joint project, the highly visual “concrete poems” of A Curious Collection of Cats, published in 2009, they went on to A Dazzling Display of Dogs, which came out last year. They’re now working on a third book together. “We’re hoping to publish an undersea book,” says Wertz. “We did cats, we did dogs and now we’re hoping to do fish. I don’t think we have a home for it quite yet, but we’re working on it.”
Unusually, after finishing A Dazzling Display of Dogs, Wertz did another book about dogs—on his own. The project, Dog Dreams, had in fact been 10 years in the making, so it was more or less coincidence that it came about in the same year he finished the Franco book. “An opportunity arose to make it happen and it happened,” he says. “Dogs have long been an obsession of mine. Before I did either of these books, I did dog-a-day drawings that I posted on my website for a long time.” Dog Dreams is dedicated to his own dog, Miss Olive, a pitbull-cattledog mix who’s often the model for his work.
For the two Franco books, their editor, Samoun, acted as a go-between throughout. That was an important factor, Wertz feels: an author’s and an illustrator’s conceptions about how a book should look often differ, and this is particularly salient in works like Franco’s, where the author naturally has strong ideas about how the words should fit into a shape and how the pictures should communicate a poem’s feeling. Franco wrote her poems independently; while she made visual suggestions for each, Wertz was left free to ignore them if he felt that something else worked better. “The deal was, take what I suggest, do it if you want, but don’t if you don’t,” he says. “I think when she is in her creative mode, she is playing, and she wanted to allow me that same creative space.” While he was occasionally overruled, more often than not Franco let Wertz do his job. “She trusts my sense of design and line,” he says, “and she let me really work that angle.”
Making a book to make a book
Before any work began, Wertz actually went through another process. “I had a little trouble starting the dog book, so I took Lynda Barry’s advice,” he explains. “’To make a book, make a book’”—a scrapbook of all one’s ideas, so they exist in one place and there’s something tangible to hold. “Barry told me she once had trouble writing a book, so instead of sitting down at her computer and just struggling on, she felt it was helpful to make a book. Literally.” She’d take bits of paper, fold them in half to make a signature, staple them together and start writing her book that way. “In fact, for one of her books she used a Japanese brush pen,” says Wertz. “As she finished each page she’d buzz it dry with a hair dryer, turn the page and start the next. She wrote a whole book that way.”
Wertz did pretty much the same thing, minus the hair dryer. “Essentially, I put together lots of scrap,” he says. “I included all the imagery and ideas that eventually went into making the real book, and filled my scrapbook full of stuff.” He printed out the Word document of Franco’s manuscript and pasted it onto the first page, then added pictures from magazines, sketches and the photographs that his friends had sent him of their dogs—a lot of whom ended up in the book—as a way to start looking at shapes. “What’s that head tilt look like? A cocked ear? I just kind of let myself play.” He collected and drew doggy things—paw prints, tails wagging, dog bones, dogs chasing, dogs sleeping, dog shapes, dog poses, dog situations—until he had a complete vocabulary of dog details. The little detail of the bone on the dog’s collar in “Circling Poem II” (see the illustration at right), for instance, came from one of his research photographs. The tilted head and cocked ear from another photograph (also at right in the picture of the scrapbook) became the basis of the art for another poem, “The Words Waffle Hears.” Eventually Wertz had the pages bound together. “If I had another large kid’s book project to do,” he says, “I’d probably do this again.” It gave him confidence, he says, when he was trying to come up with a new idea, “plus, all your sketches are in one place at the end.” He takes it with him now when he visits schools to talk about his work.
After the scrapbook comes the drawing. For A Dazzling Display of Dogs, Wertz made a pencil sketch of each poem on paper or tissue—the latter’s texture takes pencil well, and allowed him to easily lay one preliminary sketch over another and see what should be changed here or there—and scanned them into the computer. “That method hasn’t changed for me since Pamela Hobbs at CCA taught me Photoshop,” he says. “At first I was concerned that using Photoshop would change my style, but Hobbs taught that Photoshop was just another tool to work with, and that your style could stay as it was.” Wertz always uses 2B, 3B or 4B pencils—you get a “nice, fat line,” he says, and it’s also easy to erase. He rejects electric pencil sharpeners for the small plastic hand type, and he always uses square erasers.
In the final pictures the pencil lines from the sketch have all but disappeared. “At some point I’m going to have to figure out how to incorporate that line again and just leave that as part of the drawing,” Wertz says. When he was an art student he says he saw the sketches as a kind of crutch, but now he’s starting to think that maybe incorporating that pencil line might be nice. “At some point I’ll revisit that,” he adds. “As if I don’t make things hard enough to begin with—now I have to come up with a whole new style!”
After scanning in the sketches, Wertz makes what he calls monoprints, using printing ink and a brayer, a hand roller that has a little bit of give to it. He lays ink down on a surface, runs the brayer over it and then applies the colour directly to a piece of paper—usually white, but he’ll sometimes use tinted paper for a more sophisticated palette; with an off-white sheet, for instance, everything takes on that hue. The application is purposely imperfect, so as to achieve a mottled effect—a bit like a house painter might do when painting one colour over another. Wertz scans in the pieces of paper with the texture, shrinks or enlarges them a little, then plays around with the colour. He can add them as a see-through layer (in Photoshop this is the Multiply function, under Effects) and place them wherever he wants a bit of interest. By introducing and building up texture and layers in this way, he gives his pictures dimension even though the shapes themselves are all linear. Some images in the book have between as many as seven or even fifteen layers.
Franco’s poem “Apollo at the Beach,” in A Dazzling Display of Dogs, is a good example of this method used in the service of collaboration between author and illustrator, as Wertz picks up on Franco’s suggestion of using the shapes of seagulls as vehicles for the words. He scans in his sketch and uses it as the base layer on which to build colour. You can see the monoprints at work on “Apollo at the Beach” in the sand under the little sailing boat or over the little dark cloud above it. As with the little bone on the dog’s collar, the details matter: it was Wertz’s idea to add the wings to Apollo’s shadow that subtly illustrate Franco’s line about “wishing he’d sprout wings.”
Wertz is aware that his Betsy Franco books are for children who are still learning to read, so he’s mindful to ensure that the words read as clearly as possible. Every letter of every poem is hand-drawn in Photoshop; these are not computer fonts. And the lettering is on its own layer, so if a comma or a period is out of place he can go in and fix it easily. When he’s building a letter, he begins by cutting it out of a large rectangle of colour. That’s also the way the masks he uses in Photoshop work, so he’s forming the letters by subtraction rather than addition, removing bits of coloured shape—sort of drawing backwards, by cutting out colour in a sculptural way. This also comes from the silkscreen influence, he says: “When you make a silkscreen, you’re using just those little pieces you want on the screen, and letting just those bits of ink show through.”
”Gwen In and Out”
In the poem “Gwen In and Out,” the monoprint texturing is somewhat different, with a discernible pattern that Wertz uses to suggest wallpaper. In fact—finding a way to get his hands dirty even with a Photoshop process—he finger-painted the pattern using wallpaper paste mixed with acrylic paint. This is a technique he came up with himself, but he’s seen other artists use it too. “Rex Ray makes all of his own handmade paper with textured patterns,” he says, “and then cuts them up with an X-Acto knife into those great shapes.”
This was one poem where Wertz diverged from Franco’s original typographic suggestion of using slash marks down the middle of the text to resemble a flap door, instead exploiting the vertical edge of the door as the central visual. “We used a cat flap in the cat book that went back and forth like the slash marks,” he explains, “and I didn’t want to repeat myself.” In yet another lovely detail here, the door knobs resemble a dog’s bone.
”Circling Poem II”
The sleeping dog in “Circling Poem II” is Miss Olive, Wertz’s own. “She’s actually the one plopped on the carpet,” he says. “She’s a good dog.” Here the texture seems less deliberate, except on the dog’s body, where it’s manipulated to suggest three dimensions and to give a little depth to the hindquarters. The effect is simultaneously random and precise. In his preliminary sketch of the lettering Wertz made numerous circles, inspired both by the idea of bees or flies buzzing around the dog and by a cartoonish sense of the movements the dog makes as she twitches in her sleep or circles to find a place to lie down. For the final picture, however, he simplified the path of the letterforms, which now look more like the design on the rug. And cleverly, he ends the poem right by Miss Olive’s ear, as if its sound ended with the sleeping dog blissfully unaware of the noise.
Though the cover is the first image the reader sees, it’s the part Wertz does last. “Ideas percolate while I’m making the inside images,” he says. “Then they wind their way and eventually show up in the cover.” It was his idea to let the lettering for the cover lead everything. In the preliminary sketch Wertz’s efforts to perfect the lowercase g are visible where it’s drawn twice: “I wanted to get that curve right,” he says. “I wanted it to have just the right amount of sloppy, you know?” Though they’re not cut out of paper, that’s how the letters look. Few people can draw letterforms so freely. It’s clear when Wertz uses a capital G at the end of “DazzlinG” that this isn’t a mistake. He could make everything line up, but he’s having fun, playing with inconsistency. Making a deliberately wrong thing look right is a skill he’s perfected in the course of shaping every letter. Really, he says, “it’s treating the letters like shapes, and having the shapes fit together like building blocks.” He randomly coloured the smaller letters below the title that make up his and Franco’s names, “kind of like the way little kids draw. It just doesn’t matter to them if it’s a consistent colour all the way through.”
This is where Wertz is no doubt turning off the left half of his brain. “With colour, if things are going well, I’m like a little kid with a crayon,” he continues. “I get into that playful head space where all this stuff just comes naturally. It’s about activating the side of your brain that’s interested in play, that doesn’t really age,” says Wertz. “I know I’m in my forties, but this could have been done by a four-year-old,” he says proudly. And that might sum up his entire approach.—LUCY SISMAN