Monday, February 28, 2011

Old Sacramento signs, part 2

Fresh delivery, straight from the Sacramento River.
How it'll look on display in Old Sacramento.
Here's another in a batch of new signs for which I illustrated scenes of life in 19th century Sacramento. Pioneer Park is a tranquil hole in the ground, accessible by a wide staircase or a slope of earth in a sloping alley. The bottom of the hole is the original level of the city. On a hot summer day, it's the place I'd spend my time in Old Sacramento, sheltered as it is by graceful, sweet smelling sycamores. Some people call the place Atlantis, because it's strewn with free-standing cast-iron pillars which once faced a nearby building, and huge granite door sills half-buried in the earth; the scene looks like  remnants of a lost civilization. The hole used to accommodate a succession of buildings which housed a bakery and a meat market, and these signs remind the leisure-seeking visitor (like me) that leisure was not the order of the day in those days.

Here's the evolution:
The angle's right, but too much action. This is supposed to look like a woodcut portrait.
Still too much action, and the wagon should look like it's coming from the right,
a block away from the Sacramento River.
What's the driver moving for? Don't I learn? A real-life carriage driver was helpful with
terms and details, if less than thrilled with my knowledge of horse flesh.

Now, to fit it to the actual arch shape …
Because the arch shapes differ between the big and little signs, I had to expand the delivery driver's world, creating generic period buildings, to allow designer Lisa Park to fit the art into each shape. It's just as well, because doing so forced me to be more faithful with the perspective.

Stay tuned for the next batch!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Haul of Wonders: Dancing watches haunt my dreams

Digging through another stratum of my life's work, I found dancing watches in color, so these must have been finished pieces for that Timcor 1031 Exchange Web site in which I had no idea what I was doing (except supplying anthropomorphic watches).

I was also drawing giant people and miniature buildings for the Web site. I don't know why.

And this file drawer. I think Web surfers would have been able to click on the label of each manila folder and go to some new page. A page of giant people and miniature buildings, no doubt.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's Tuesday: You need to laugh!

I supply the laughingstock: Footage of last spring's ICE Breaker 1-mile swim (not sure why it's spelled that way) on Folsom Lake near Sacramento, my first disorganized attempt to participate in an organized open-water swim. Turns out I got a lot of screen time; it's either inadvertent or the videographer was mesmerized by the vision of an upright sea elephant in DayGlo® hoodie.

Even amid the crowd of wet-suited swimmers in orange caps, I'm impossible to miss. That's me, testing the seams of my suit, my head the shape of a cartoon bullet, with a yellow stripe down the middle (Hm, ominous?). I'm square in the middle of the shot at the beginning, stretching like it would make any difference, scared out of my wits.

At about :58 you can see my wife, Nancy, shooting video of her own, left side of the screen. I'm oblivious to her and looking around nervously, certain that I had missed some crucial instruction; by that time I had been on site for an hour and a half, made the loooong walk to the shoreline and my car three times, introduced myself to the race director (Why? I don't know. Maybe so he can help ID me for the coroner.)

Nancy comes in again at 1:33, and then I give my half-hearted answer to the race director's call-and-repeat, "I love to swim!" I'm fairly sure at that moment that I don't love to swim, that my goggles will leak, or I left the burner on under the coffee pot, or I will drown.

Finally, notice how long it actually takes me to enter the water once the race starts. By the time the older, way more buff, gentleman appears without wet-suit, at 2:05, I'm past the point of being embarrassed and casually stroll in behind him, like I'm window shopping. I saunter along, and saunter some more … more sauntering … before eventually falling in and beginning my stroke (swim stroke, I mean), toward the right, at the end of the video.

The funniest part of the whole experience was when I returned my rented wet-suit and told the clerk that I had finished the mile much faster than I do in the pool. Out of anyone who could relate to this new outdoor adventure, the clerk would surely revel in my accomplishment, how the open water had freed me from the constraint of walls, how my spirited effort, buoyed by this freedom, had sped me to the finish line.

"Yeah," she said instead, "everybody goes faster in wet-suits." She did not get a tip.

I got back in the water this weekend, to get ready for a new season, and needed the wet-suit to keep my sanity in 47-degree water. Of course, that didn't stop one guy in our group from swimming a mile-and-a-half without a wet-suit. Somehow, he made the water colder.

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!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Monumental abuse

I have never been to Mount Rushmore, but have drawn it more times than any other landmark, and peopled it with the unlikeliest figures (though once with caricatures of the actual inhabitants). On the right is a voter promo piece (Whig? Republican? Democrat? Gee, really hard to tell …) featuring former California Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, former Rep. Vic Fazio of the Sacramento-Yolo counties region, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Brown makes it atop Rushmore once again in this version (left) long, long ago to plug a kind of political directory. Joining him are Gov. Jerry Brown, former Gov. George Deukmejian, and former Gov. and President Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 years old this month. I'm sure the folks who've wanted to carve Reagan's face into the real Rushmore will be out again banging their drum about it. Maybe it's best not to fan the passion.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A sordid past

Blissfully unawares at my node of the rabbit warren …
Once I worked as a reporter for an agricultural weekly newspaper published by the California Farm Bureau. Among my many mismatches in life and work, this reached the pinnacle (or the abyss?): Uninteresting work (for me, anyway; I think you have to be born into farming to really appreciate it, and I am an Air Force brat); horrible boss (pictured — he chose to rule by bullying, waiting until he had staff members around, like an unwitting — or half-witting — posse, to enumerate your flaws, personal and professional). The job was a placeholder until I launched my career as an editorial cartoonist. Eight years later (yeah, I know) I finally figured out how to move on, though not as an editorial cartoonist. A co-worker helped me, a mysterious stranger/friend who may or may not have been a foreign mercenary in his early life, who told me frankly, "If you don't get out of here, you will die here. Get going, or I'll kick your butt!" Hard to refuse the suggestion of a maybe mercenary.

Some evidence of my escape plan appears in this sketch, scribbled on the little pad I used to copy phone numbers: The Envision 20 poster tacked on the wall to the upper left referred to the graphic design conference that the Art Directors and Artists Club of Sacramento used to stage each year (I became president and an Envision co-chair the next year; it was my secret identity, because I certainly didn't let the newspaper staff know I had interests outside of cotton prices and star thistle eradication). "The Van" by Roddy Doyle, besides being a good book, kept me busy at the moment between assignments, which were as interesting as cotton prices and star thistle eradication.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

New stuff!

This is for the California Independent System Operator, which describes itself as the "air traffic controller" for the state's electricity flow. The agency's job is to keep the juice on by buying it at the best price and making sure supply matches demand.

Since electricity is pricey as demand grows and supply might not always be guaranteed, Cal ISO likes to encourage alternative sources of electricity. Hence these promotional exhibits for wave-powered energy generation (above) and a "green" house (below).

The hydrokinetic towers remind me of those cheerily earnest illustrations in Popular Mechanics that I saw as a kid, about gadgets that no one at the time expected would never come to be. Hydrokinetic power has potential, but hasn't worked out yet. These machines I drew are completely made up, and any mechanical mind will probably point out they're infeasible. I should have added a couple of people zooming overhead in their personal jetpacks.

The house is also made up, just a questionable experiment in perspective. The challenge with Cal ISO also is coming up with creative ways to harness the agency's tightly controlled color pallete.  It's a fun give-and-take with designer Stacy Gibbs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mom's birthday

Mom and Dad would hang this in front of their trailer at Moose campouts.
I made this for my parents' 25th anniversary, back when life centered around their travel trailer and where they could take it, back when my dad was healthy enough to do so. The likeness suited dad more, with his ever-present baseball cap and down vest. Mom was a plain spoken and smart woman, not nearly as delicate in the caricature here.

Today is my mom's birthday. She would have been 73; dad would have turned 82 this year. And this year will mark their 50th anniversary.

We were at Lake Tahoe 25 years ago, carefully choosing the shadiest bunch of trees at high noon to take a family picture. We were not the best photographic planners. Me, mom, dad and sister Tara.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Now for the real NFL showdown

How will the NFL Players' Union settle it out with management? Who cares? It's post-Super Bowl™®©, (or maybe I should call it the Big Game; don't want to get in trouble) so I might as well throw up. I mean, throw up some football art. Above is fundraising art for my kids' school, back when they were munchkins. A parent friend organized a dinner the night before the Super Bowl™®©, called it the Supper Bowl™®©, and threw out the feedbags. I supplied the scribble.

In my constant and often fruitless search to put texture in my art, I drew this as small as I possibly could to keep it legible, then blew it up a bunch of times at Kinko's (which is now FedEx Office? Wha …? I used to live at the Kinko's, pre-digital). I loved the way the pencil marks spread and weathered and cracked at grotesque enlargement.

Below, some pencil sketches I did for a guy who wanted a poster of his beloved Seattle Seahawks. Apparently his vision of the team is more literal than others.'

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Watch out for Axe Cop!

Axe Cop is one of the most brilliant ideas for a comic. It began about a year ago by the Nicolle brothers. Ethan Nicolle, 29 and a comic book creator with some chops, is the artist. His five-year-old brother, Malachai, is the writer. Yes, five years old. (See the creation story here. And a recent YouTube by the creators here. YouTube also has a number of animatics of Axe Cop episodes. Is there also a video game?)

Literally, it's most every little boy's dream come true, the beautifully rendered manifestations of a child's imagination with all its grand illogic, strange tangents and loopy solutions.

My words don't do it justice. Go visit, and then visit again. Be sure to spend time at "Ask Axe Cop," which are verbatim realizations of Malachai's answers to fans' questions.

Dark Horse Comics just published a first volume, so the creators are going places. Imagine these stories as Malachai grows up! It'll probably be all Ethan can do to keep up.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Haul of Wonders, Vague Notion wing

This was either for Comstock's Business Magazine, or for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau. My best guess is that it illustrates the Sacramento area's ability to stand in for other parts of the world (even Canada?) as a movie and TV location. Which is ironic, because other places usually stand in for Sacramento. The current TV series, "The Mentalist" is set in Sacramento but only nominally shot there, and the most famous of Sacramento shows, "Eight is Enough," looked more like Backlot Land, where Samantha and Darrin Stephens and the Bradys lived.