Picking the Right Moment to Illustrate

Lately I've been trying to do some illustrations and I've been thinking a lot about the question: how do you pick which moments to illustrate?

I'm no expert on illustration or any of the artists mentioned below. Just some of my thoughts these days so forgive me if I come off like I'm trying to be an authority here.....I'm decidedly not.

Animators and story artists work hard to find their "Golden Poses" - the drawings that will tell the story in the most entertaining way and describe the characters and their personalities best. I'm used to thinking that way...but those disciplines are all about a series of images that you view in sequence and they add up to a very specific story. With illustration you have to pick one moment and one moment only.

Part of what motivated me to think about this was something that happened at Comic Con. I was visiting Bud Plant's book stall and they actually gave me a free book for spending a certain amount there. The book was the collected works of illustrator Norman Saunders...a giant hulking book chock full of his paintings and illustrations.

Norman Saunders painted a lot of different subject matters and seemed proficient in many styles. More than anything, though, he seems to have painted a lot of pulp covers. When you look at so many of them collected in one place, certain things become obvious. When you think about the purpose of the illustrations - which I assume was to sell the lurid, violent and titillating subject matter to people who were looking for that - you can see why they all share certain traits.

They're usually paintings that capture moments of extreme action - someone is about to get stabbed, or decapitated, or dropped into a vat of hot oil, and more often than not there's a gun going off.

It made me think about the work of other illustrators, artists like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. Their illustrations served a different purpose - they usually accompanied stories in magazines and were printed in illustrated novels, and they were trying to capture a different kind of feeling than the pulps, to encapsulate the different kind of literature they accompanied.

They sometimes painted scenes of action but more than anything they seemed to paint moments of stillness that were fraught with tension and drama - the potential for action instead of the capturing the actual moment of action.

To me there's much more to this second kind of illustration because it tells a story better. A painting of a person shooting a gun is really just about shooting a gun. It's such a dramatic and extreme moment that you can't add any other shading or subtext or secondary story. If you tried to, it would be overwhelmed by the powerful statement of the gun going off.

I'm not attacking pulp covers for being inferior or anything. This isn't an argument over who's a better painter or anything or what type of story or subject matter is superior. That comes down to a personal choice. And each type of art was for a specific and different purpose. However, speaking just for me, I really gravitate towards the way Pyle and Wyeth chose their moments. It invites me to look longer and harder at their work, looking at all the characters as I delve into the moment and experience the story through all of the different characters in the piece. With pulp you can get the whole story at a glance (that's the point) and they're all about being as pushed as they can be dramatically in order to catch your eye on a crowded bookshelf. There's no subtext and in all fairness there's not meant to be. With Wyeth and Pyle you can read their work at a glance but then I also find them intriguing and atmospheric enough that I get caught up in them, looking them over and finding more to them as I study them. I haven't read most of the stories that their paintings are supposed to accompany, of course, but their paintings are so great that they stand alone and are clear and dramatic without needing the accompanying text (which I've read they did purposely).

Here's an example from "Treasure Island" - a small action shown (attaching the British Flag to the improvised flagpole) that has very big dramatic meaning: they are raising the British Flag over their fort to defy the pirates who are laying siege to their fort.

Interesting that he chose this moment of small action that is a preparation for the big dramatic action to come. He could have painted the dramatic moment of raising the Union Jack in all of it's defiant glory...but he didn't. He chose this more weighty, pensive moment instead. One choice is more obvious, in-your-face drama, and the other creates more of a picture of the drama to come in your imagination. This choice seems to place more emphasis on their choice to raise the flag...rather than the actual raising of the flag. If that makes any sense.....

Pyle's famous illustration of a marooned pirate. Of course the stillness and emptiness are completely appropriate for the subject matter; being marooned is all about being completely alone. So a scene of action would make no sense. But a good example of how a "static" image can have lots of dramatic weight, and how composition palette and body language can all work in concert to tell a powerful story.

Below is another classic Pyle that tells a clear story with drama and tension. My impression is that the pirates have sacked the town and are questioning some official of the city to find out if there is more treasure hidden somewhere. Is he defiant? Has he already told them all that he can? Do they believe him? What will be his fate when they are done?

The composition of the pirates who are towering above the lone figure and surround him, as well as the heaps of treasure in the corners all add up well and - again - really make great use of body language, posture and composition to tell the story. We know at a glance who is in power and who is not.

Another good example. This one is by Wyeth and is called "Frontier Trapper".

More Wyeth...

Wyeth and Pyle sometimes did paint moments of violent conflict but I've never seen one that was portrayed in a lurid, gory, in-your-face way. In these examples they seem to consciously set the violence back away from the viewer and they pointedly don't exploit the kind of extreme and inherently dramatic camera angles that you might in a comic book or a pulp book cover. They don't use the typical "dramatic lighting" (by which I mean theatrical light - very contrasty light and dark) that a pulp cover usually does to achieve drama. There's a distinct lack of blood and gore and a careful treatment of the characters that seems much more restrained than on the pulp covers.

Here's a Wyeth...

...and a Pyle.

Also, of course, in general the palettes that Wyeth and Pyle use are much more muted and earth-bound that what you would find in most Pulp covers. So that gives their paintings a more muted and serious feel. Again, all of which is intentional...the Pulps are supposed to feel caricatured and stylized, just like the literature they accompany.

One of the Wyeth paintings for Cooper's writings...I'm not sure if this is from "Last of the Mohicans" or another book in the series. The action is painted in his usual style but this is the most cartoony painting of his I've seen. So, again, sometimes he did paint scenes of extreme action...but the treatment is far different from the pulp style of illustration. It still seems grounded in reality and, somehow, entirely possible physically.

On the Pulp covers, by contrast, there's always a real emphasis on the faces of the characters and their big expressions. The figures are usually posed to make sure that all the faces are turned towards the viewer so we can see their expressions. And their emotions are almost always very extreme ones: usually horror or terror (on the women) and usually grim determination on the men....

In the end it's interesting and informative to compare the two styles. A lot of times, the choice of moment in time we chose to capture, along with where we place the "camera" (or the viewer) to witness that moment can have an incredible effect on the viewer's emotional response to the final image. When people talk about illustration they talk a lot about the technical side because that's a huge part of working as an illustrator...but there hasn't been a lot of talk that I've ever seen about how to pick the moments to illustrate, and as I've been trying to tackle my own paintings, I've gotten a lot out of looking at different artists and what choices they made.