Evolution of an Idea
Because I have this very new thing -- new for me -- called a blog, I’m copying my original text for one of the paintings in this book, “Winsor McCay City.” I’m also putting in all the step-by-step illustrations in the book plus a couple more. Know that in the book the illustrations are much bigger, nicely reproduced and you really should buy it. Also, don’t tell Quarto I did this. They might not like it. Shhh!!
Evolution of an Idea:
I feel a tug of melancholy when I think about "Winsor McCay City" because it was done back in a past when it seemed I had plenty of time for my ambitious plans. It was made before computers were common in making art. Although my memory has faded some I’ve carefully retraced my steps. You’ll see how my ideas all came together. I don’t work this way anymore. Perhaps I should.
It all began (fill in mysterious music here, some blurring and fading around the corners, and picture me looking thoughtfully off into the distance) back one day in1986 when I went into New York City to deliver a book cover. I rode in on the bus, and as it went through the center of Manhattan I saw a 19th Century building called the Ansonia and I imagined an earlier New York and riding into the city, not in a bus, but an airship. When I got home I did what I call a mnemonic study. It didn’t look exactly like what I saw, but it was the germ of an idea (see ill. #1). It was one of many. You should know that all of this fits nicely into a story and a place that I’d imagined several years before. It’s called Gnemo and I’ve done hundreds of pictures for it now.
It’s not uncommon for me to start with a pretty small idea and expand and expand and expand. After this drawing I did several little thumbnails (small scribbles) and I ultimately came up with a composition I liked (see ill. #2). I believe that great illustrators are great because they make the right decisions as their work progresses. Here you will learn from my mistakes. As I did in those days I drew the entire picture to the full scale of the painting on tracing paper. This is a good way to work out the kinks in your drawing. Then I transferred the drawing to gessoed Masonite with carbon paper.
The full drawing in this case isn’t substantially different than my initial sketch, so I’m just showing a section of it (ill. # 3). Once I transferred over the drawing, I toned the surface with a wash of burnt sienna. This seals the drawing (doing this sometimes smears the drawing a little, but that’s not something to worry about; you can always refer back to the drawing on paper) and gives you a nice color to work over. Then I began painting. In short order I realized that I didn’t like it. It needed to be more spectacular. This painting should be an eighth wonder of the world experience.
I did a few thumbnails and chose one (see ill. #4). The basic idea was good. Like a castle I imagined that the main structure grew over time. My composition needed an even more important center of interest. It needed to be monumental, ridiculously so.
I pulled out a sheet of tracing paper and I put it over that drawing and I drew how I thought this structure would be added to and expand over time (see ill. #5). This painting would be my first real architectural piece, not to mention my second Gnemo painting. It took me a long time to work out just what I wanted. Once satisfied, I transferred over that drawing and started the painting anew.
From start to finish this painting took quite awhile. I did it between my regular illustration work and sometimes a couple of weeks went by before I could return to it. A friend of mine suggested I mix my colors ahead of time and submerge the pallet in water in-between to keep the paint wet. It worked, but I’ve never returned to that method. One advantage it gave me is that I basically laid in a texture, without form, into the shape of the buildings and added the shadows and form later in a series of translucent glazes. Then I could go back with the wet paint off my pallet to add, for example, the little filigrees in the windows. This also allowed me to skip doing a color sketch and work out the colors of the painting in a somewhat rough manner before proceeding to the time consuming details. I discovered that I could create a simple tonal shape and just keep building on that. These details should help illustrate a little of what I mean (ill. #6 thru #8). If you look very closely you can see how I first painted simple shapes and then added details on top of details.
Here is the finished painting (ill. #9). Note the difference between it and the next illustration (#10), you'll have to look real close. I decided the structure needed more wall on the left to balance out the building.
If I could go back and work on this painting I would put a sculpture in the foreground similar to the one you see in my sketch. I would also correct the design of the suspension bridge so that, if built, it would be a structurally stable design. Using my computer, one day I may just do all that.
Note: Illustrations #11 through #14 are just a few extra close-ups of my full drawing I traced over.