Sunday, October 25, 2009

The art of mass production

Often when I'm invited to a birthday party or similar event, I feel compelled to make a card for the guest of honor. Usually this process involves carefully selecting paper, painstakingly cutting the paper to some specific dimensions that I've determined to be the exact right ones, then spending a couple of days glued to the project — agonizing over every little detail, finishing at the last minute, and inevitably wishing I had time to start the whole thing over from scratch.

This coming week presented a daunting challenge. I'm traveling to the Midwest for a birthday party for a woman who is getting married on the same day. Actually, the couple is already married, but they originally got married at city hall and now will be getting hitched in church.

So the first question was: which card is most important — birthday or wedding?

After going back and forth a bit, I decided it was the birthday card, and was therefore faced with a challenge. I actually don't know the recipient that well (I'm on the groom's side). Still, I did have one idea. She's from Dublin, and they are about to move home to Ireland after many years here in the States. So I thought a Dublin scene, drawn with my new Rapidograph pens, might work. I was pretty sure this would make a nice card.

Unfortunately, while having Greek food with a couple of co-workers, both of whom have been to Dublin, I mentioned this idea and got a less-than-enthusiastic response. "Sasha, Dublin really isn't that pretty," my co-worker Liam insisted.

But... what about "The Dead"? I always pictured that story as taking place in a neighborhood of stately brick row houses, with tall iron streetlamps gently casting light on the falling snow, while Gretta dreamt of her lost love and her husband's heart broke. In other words, a lot like Boston's Back Bay, but better because James Joyce lived there.

Well, after a frustrating afternoon with Google Images, I concluded that Dublin doesn't look too much like I thought it did. It was very disillusioning. My next idea, a sketch of an Irish country scene, started out OK, but I couldn't get inspired by it. After spending an afternoon on the illustration, I set it aside and couldn't get motivated to go back to it.

With my travel day (tomorrow) creeping up on me, yesterday I made myself go to the Paper Source to buy cards. However, I couldn't do it! The selection that day was crummy, and I figured that even if I do a half-assed rush job, the results would have to be better than any of those Paper Source cards.

So today I sat down and made two cards faster than any I have in my entire life. They are definitely not my best work, but I think they'll do.

I started with the wedding card: Both I and my friend Alex (the groom) have always preferred champagne "bows" to flutes, so I sketched two bows, and placed what I think of as art-deco rays of fabulousness behind them. I drew the glasses using my .18 Rapidograph and added accents with Prismacolors. For the champagne in the glasses, I sprinkled on flax- and gold-colored glitter.

The scanned version didn't come out great, partly because the USB cord was propping the scanner door open slightly (I'm such a pro!) and partly because you can't see the glitter, but I have added the image here anyway.

On the inside of the card, to the lower left of the message, I sketched a small bottle with glittery champagne spouting of it and, to the upper right of the message, a few jewel-like bubbles of the headache-inducing drink.

I made the card in about two hours — for me, that's break-neck speed, but it was nothing compared to how fast I did the birthday card. I'd promised myself I would be all done with the cards and packed for my trip before going out for Vietnamese food with my friend Steve, which we had planned to do for a while. When he phoned me 45 minutes before we were supposed to meet, I realized how behind I was. I kicked everything up a notch and very quickly began a sketch of a birthday cake on a pre-cut blue card. I did not actually finish before dinner, but I got most of the way through. I used my .18 Rapidograph on this one, too.

I actually like a lot of things about this cake, though the plate the cake is sitting on looks kind of goofy.

On the inside, to the left of the message, I sketched a slice of cake on a plate with a fork.

Someone asked me recently whether people appreciate the hours I pour into the cards I make. The answer is, often they do, though I guess not always. I think the worst case was a birthday card I made for someone who I don't think realized that I'd actually made the card. That was somewhat awful, because that card had been a lot of work. With that one, I had used an X-acto to cut out a genie lantern from gold origami paper (just obtaining that paper was an odyssey in itself). I'd then affixed the lantern to paper that was a medium-colored blue, a sort of dusty cerulean blue; the gold and blue together were very beautiful, I thought. The lantern sat at the bottom of a tall (probably about 10 inches tall) panel. To complete the image, I'd used several different shades of blue and gold glitter, along with varying shades of green and silver glitter, to create intertwining streams of magic that emanated from the lantern and flowed upward to the top of the card. To bind the illustrated panel to the second "page" of the card, I'd used a small amount of blue binding tape. I'd wrapped the whole thing in gold tissue paper and placed it in a box with a gift certificate to one of the birthday girl's favorite places. The recipient, a very nice person, didn't seem to notice the card but was thrilled with the gift certificate.

Sadly, I have no picture of that card. If you want to see it, first imagine that Dublin is the prettiest city on Earth, then imagine the card.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The two Republicans in Massachusetts

Since President Obama was in Boston today, staying at a hotel just a block away from my office, my co-workers and I chose a lunch spot that took us right past the "October White House," in hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama — or something presidential, anyway.

Sadly, we did not see the president, but we had a laugh at the sight of an endearingly small handful of protesters — or, as my co-worker Liam called them, "the two Republicans who live in Massachusetts." One of them carried a sign that said "Fox News and talk radio equals truth" and then some derogatory text about the president, though I can't recall exactly what that was, as my co-workers and I were too busy laughing about the Fox News statement to process the rest of the message.

I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm intolerant of conservative views. I really am not, but I think that Fox News is pretty much the definition of a joke.

After lunch, as we headed back to the office, there was a significantly larger crowd outside the Westin Copley (where Obama stayed), one that included both well-wishers and Fox News advocates. I was slightly tempted to hang out a bit and see if we could catch a glimpse of the motorcade, but it was my last afternoon at work before going on vacation for a week, plus my co-workers and I had been subjected to unbelieveably slow service at the Back Bay Fire and Ice. So I think we all wanted to get back to the office. For that reason we skirted the crowd and headed back to our tower by way of Boylston Street — normally the longer method, but not so today, with the Secret Service all around Huntington Ave.

The detour meant we had to do without any further insights on the right-wing media, which was rather sad, since, as Liam put it, "I was just trying to recall whether or not Fox News actually equals truth."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

One day in your life

On Sunday, I woke up with the idea that I should draw something to submit for possible inclusion in the Kraken Opus book on Michael Jackson. The deadline was the next day, so that meant I had to act quickly.

Most of the submissions, as you can see from the Flickr group devoted to the contest, are portraits of Michael. I get the impression that Kraken likes this sort of straightforward image — still, I wanted to do something slightly different. I've always loved drawing cityscapes, so I decided to draw something based on the fantasy scenery of the "Billie Jean" video.

You may remember from the video that there is a scene where Michael dances on an isolated sidewalk while two haughty models look down on him from a billboard. At first they are unaware of him; then they look at him; then they smile. None of their movements are presented in live action — they move in a series of stills, which makes their appearance more surreal.

Later in the video, Michael disappears down this same walkway — at this point, he is invisible, the only sign of him the stones that light up as his feet touch them. During this scene, the billboard is gone, replaced by Billie Jean's bed.

As I was thinking of a proper tribute to Michael, it occurred to me that the scene of him leaving this city was quite affecting. I decided to sketch this closing scene, but in doing so, remove the image of the bed and replace it with the billboard. Only now the models would have lost their haughty compusure and would instead be weeping at the thought of him leaving.

I'm not very good at drawing faces, so I started by drawing several sketches of the models. Then I looked for images of women crying and tried my hand at those. At first I had trouble finding the sort of facial expressions that I wanted, so I re-watched the memorial video of the MJ song "One Day In Your Life," which I first saw on one of my favorite blogs, MJ365: A year-long Michael Jackson online scrapbook project. Then I started trying to morph the two, giving the models the expressions of grief. Since I had only one day to do the whole thing, I did only a bare minimum of this exercise, then sat down to do the primary drawing of the walkway, distant cityscape, and billboard, onto which I imposed the models' faces.

The result was only passable, though as someone who has never been good at drawing faces, I was pleased that it came out at all recognizable.

My initial idea was that I would color the sketch in, but as soon as I started doing that, I regretted it, feeling that the pen-and-ink-only piece looked better. As soon as I realized this, I scanned the piece in and then painstakingly used SnagIt to erase the small amount of color I had added, with slightly degraded but acceptable results. Then, working on the original piece of paper, I colored in only those parts that I thought were critical to emphasize — the stones that Michael's feet were touching, the tears running down the models' faces, and the puddle formed by the models' tears.

In a slightly later version, I decided it would be a good idea to color in the puddle more.

I then did several additional versions that used more color. I have never been very good with color, and I generally liked these versions less. I'm not happy at all with how the models look colored in. However, the one thing I do like about some of these later versions is that, compositionally, the purple sky and distant buildings extend the path of the sidewalk up into the upper portion of the drawing, which I think makes for a nice line. Still, I prefer the spare look of the earlier versions.

I would be shocked if any of these drawings were chosen for the Opus, but I'm glad that the contest spurred me to work on it. If I had it to do over, I would spend more time working on the models' faces. I think that's the weakest part of the sketch, especially the one on the right. She came out better in some of my practice sketches. I also am not thrilled with the water circles in the puddle.

If I were to attempt using color again, I think it would be interesting to give the piece a darker feeling, perhaps with the use of more and bolder background color. The dark colors of the video suggest paint or an oil-based pastel (I used Prismacolors — all I had on hand).

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.