Monday, February 21, 2011

Follow the signs: New work

Close-up on a stern-wheeler that churned only the Sacramento of my imagination.
I just wrapped up illustrations for new signs that will enhance visitors' time in Old Sacramento, the original center of the city, hard by the bank of the Sacramento River (and I mean hard by). The signs are designed to illuminate what visitors are seeing (beyond the touristy obligation of candy and T-shirt shops set in some old looking building or another), and are a small part of larger plans to connect visitors to the strange beginnings and tenacity of this town. Stop by and see 'em: They should be up by spring.
Actual size, almost six feet. (I'm stoked!) Mount Diablo peeks through the 19th century haze in back.
Smaller signs throw light on details about each Old Sacramento site.
It was a chance to work with Lisa Park of Oakland, whose specialty is environmental and exhibit signage, and with Sacramento historian Marcia Eymann and interpretive specialist Heather Downy. An adventurous journey and a blast, every minute of it.
First go, just to get the feel. I like the swoopy shape of steamboats.
Thanks to Mark Twain and John Hartford, I love steamboats in general.

Stern-end variation.
Here is the evolution of the first set, for Waterfront Park, which is the system of piers on Front Street where the Delta King, a stern-wheeled steamboat turned hotel and theater, resides (and where the Hornblower company runs smaller tour ships along the river). The larger sign, above, explains to visitors where they are, and the smaller ones focus on details about the place.

I'll post the evolution of the other two signs soon.

I wanted to picture a busy river in this variation. What goofy perspective, though.
The challenges with all the drawings were manifold:
  1. They should evoke the printing technology of the 19th century. The final art is a sort of hybrid of a woodcut kinda lithograph kinda engraving; in my ham-handed way, it required hundreds of tiny elements, all drawn righthanded with a mouse in Adobe Illustrator (I'm a lefty, and never have I desired an electronic tablet more than on this project).
  2. They should be less about art and more about documentation, as if the illustration was intended to record events of the time.  The final work should have a certain stiffness about it.
  3. The steamboat itself presented its unique challenges. What kind of steamboat, for example? The assignment was for something like the Delta King, but also not. Like its sister, the Delta Queen, the King was built in the 20th century and had a long and checkered service, including military transport during World War II. It's the iconic steamboat many people have in mind when they conjure riverboats, but it's huge and has more of a showboat feel. I wanted to picture more of an unsung workhorse of the river.
  4. The illustrations had to be flexible: The larger sign at each place had a deeper arch shape than the smaller fact-laden signs, so the artwork had to be wide enough to fit in the slightly different shapes but still read well and look like they fit organically.
Time to start paying attention to shape. Hey, nothing fits so well!
Steamboats on the Sacramento came in a variety of sizes and designs, and many appeared to be built strictly for utility and looks that only a mother ship could love. In the end, I created a hybrid of a beautiful brute, a composite of elements that adds up to no steamboat in particular. It has passenger berths but also spaces on the lower deck for farm goods and supplies.
Closer, but where's the gangplank?
It was also important to show Sacramento in its very early days, when ships would have run up to bare banks, long before piers and wharves.

I wanted badly to picture a side-wheeled steamboat, very popular on the Sacramento, and strangely elegant, like the Antelope, which carried the first Pony Express rider to San Francisco. But they seemed too exotic, since none run the river anymore.

The smokestacks are very tall, to keep the embers from landing on the stern and burning the ship, but they caused problems fitting into the arch, so I had to chop this smokestack, section by section, at the risk of inaccuracy.

By the way, Old Sacramento will soon be digging up its past for all to see. In my spare time I work as a tour guide in Sacramento's new Underground Tours, showing visitors how this city saved itself (from itself) by lifting itself above river level. An extreme case of shortsightedness, fueled by greed and gold fever, put Sacramento in danger in the first place, since it was founded right at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. It turns out (shocker!) those rivers tend to overflow their banks in the winter, which threatened to destroy the city when it wasn't being burned down or gutted by cholera. So existing buildings were eventually lifted an average of one story high over some 60 blocks, and the levees raised, to keep the river back.

Watch this space for the next sign illustrations!

No comments:

Post a Comment