Time to step back in time...
I was playing Brain Salad Surgery by ELP the other day. I thought it would be fun to take a selfie with the cover over half my face. I posted it to social media and of course received many accolades, primarily in the form of "ELP ROCKS!". But, it was really a lot more to me than just a fun selfie.
The cover art* with its gatefold opening is very famous and I don't need to go into any great detail about the amazing artist H.R. Giger, best known for his concept designs for the original Alien movie, nor am I in anyway comparing myself to him. He was and always will be in a class all his own.
Four months before starting college as a freshman, I had undergone major facial reconstructive surgery. My jaw was broken, my chin pretty much removed and reshaped. To this day, I am quite conscious of this experience and have some regrets about it. It all came out well, but it was not without issues that persist to this day. I used to cover my face with my hand a lot when I was young. Here's a photo of me at my college drafting table. Ahh... the days of hand inking.
One of the first assignments for an Introductory Illustration class was to do a self portrait. It's a typical assignment, one I see a lot of. I think it may be a way for the teacher to get a fast glimpse into the mind of the student. I don't recall the exact details of the assignment, we may have had to incorporate some sort of personal element into the portrait. I went out and found an old lawn mower engine and lugged it back to my room. That's where most of the shapes in my self portrait came from. It's a small 8" x 10" acrylic painting. All monochrome. It was one of my first paintings and, despite its naïve approach, it has held up over time and I don't mind seeing it (unlike a lot of other earlier works of mine).
Throughout college I continued exploring mechanical and cubistic interpretations of faces and things for my fine art painting classes. Some of them quite large and typically of friends and other art students. Today, it's pretty obvious why I did this. But at the time I didn't really give it any more thought than "this would be an interesting thing to draw". I always thought I would continue this type of art, but the next thing you know, I'm illustrating for kids! That's another story.
Most of these paintings and drawings are gone now, a few sold, a couple commissioned, and most given away (if anyone reading this has one of my paintings, send me a photo, I'd love to see it! — and no, I don't want it back.), but most of them were destroyed. A couple that survived are more commercial illustrations — a pencil drawing of "Madona and Lizards" and "Good News" (an acrylic painting of George Harrison). I would have benefited from doing more research into mechanical parts, looking at Giger paintings, etc. — but, I tend to put my reference away and make things my own for good or for bad.
So, here they are. A few very old paintings from college days. I'm considering doing a new updated version of this self portrait. My painting has gotten a lot better since college. Maybe even the George Harrison painting? Quite a few of the ideas I had in college were good, I just had trouble pulling them off. I've always said and firmly believe that it's the idea that matters, not how slick something is rendered. Time to get painting. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!
* The ELP cover art by H.R. Giger was stolen at an exhibit in 2005 and is still missing.
Like every artist and illustrator, I have a wealth of unfinished work and unfulfilled visions of characters and worlds that might have been. Beyond commercial jobs that get "killed" mid stream or never make it into production, there's all the personal work that has sat in folders and boxes for years. I look back on some of this stuff and wonder why I abandoned them. So, here's a short-lived vision that only made it to the rough concept stages - Spy Guy.
About eighteen years ago, I had planned to do five toy boxes and two scene illustrations for a character called Spy Guy, but they never got past the preliminary tonal studies. I was watching a lot of Gerry Anderson puppet TV shows at the time (Captain Scarlet and Stingray). I was also collecting quite a few vintage 1970s G.I. JOE Adventure Team toys by Hasbro. The cool ones with the fuzzy hair and Kung-Fu Grip™! I was also thinking of them as science fiction book covers. But in any case, they were always meant to be concept work and a chance to try something different.
I posed myself and my brother John with trench coats and toy water guns. I worked out quite a few concepts, but only have one sketch and two tonal studies left. I think I threw the ones I didn't like away. I need to stop doing that! So, I get the art to this point but wasn't getting a lot of positive feedback on the idea and most people were confused as to why I wanted to even do this style of art. I was also busy with paid commercial work and, well, life gets in the way and my focus moved to something else.
The Spy Guy series is one of these personal projects I regret never completing. The lesson I learned is, stick to your vision no matter what anyone else says. I don't know if I will ever revisit this concept again as I have more than enough OTHER unfinished paintings to finish! I'll try to get them done soon.
BASIC: Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code created in 1964.
BEATLES: English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960.
“You are wasting your time, my time and the class's time. I want you out of this class.”
And so, my career as a digital artist was over and it hadn’t even begun! Now I have to tell my mom I got kicked out of my high school computer class for drawing pictures of the Beatles using advanced BASIC computer code. She wasn’t too happy about this, but she stuck up for me and went to see the principal the next day. Funny, how when a parent visits your school, things change. Seems, a student who is averaging an “A” in computer programming can’t be kicked out for “wasting his time”. In the teacher’s infinite wisdom, he made it very clear to me that computers are very serious machines that will never be used on frivolous endeavors such as art. I got back in class the next day, did only what I was supposed to do and and never drew any more pictures in the computer until many years later.
Pictured here is a young and optimistic Joe Lacey serving his time in high school as his dreams and ambitions are repressed and conformed to adapt to society's standards of acceptability.
To be honest, I first designed them by hand using pencils and graph paper. After all, it was a covert operation! I printed out a list of every number, letter and symbol that could be generated using BASIC code. I broke them up into a series of details and grey scales. Then, I filled in the graph paper blocks to make portraits of John Lennon and Paul McCartney from the Beatles' White Album.
I’ve kept the original printouts all these years. I no longer have the graph paper designs. I had George ready to go and Ringo was in the works, but, sadly, they never came to be. I think I’ll get back to work now and waste more of my time making art in the computer.
Early in my career, I did some editorial illustrations for magazines. This one was for Yankee Magazine which devoted it's pages to life in New England. The art director had seen my work on a series of Halloween illustrations and wanted three black flies that resembled vampires. Cool!
As a kid living near Upstate New York, I was more than familiar with the nuisance of little black gnats that would swarm around everyone's heads. Summer happiness was dictated by the outbreak or lack thereof of these horrible little monsters. Kids pretty much wore baseball caps all summer. The best solution, besides spraying yourself with insect repellent, was to burn punks. Punks were basically incense on long thin sticks that resembled pond water cattails. I used to light two or three of them and stick them on top of my baseball cap where they would burn and encircle my head with a fine smoky mist that created an impenetrable barrier against the flying gnat armies! I thought I looked pretty darn cool! But, then, I was just a dopey little kid. The only time I have ever seen them mentioned in print was in the autobiography Moe Howard & The Three Stooges. Moe talks about "burning punk" to keep away the gnats. Moe knew what he was doing.
Well, finally onto the art! It was commissioned as three small spot illustrations for a side article called "New England By The Numbers". The article listed numeric facts about the black fly population in New England. Seems they have a problem with gnats, too. Maybe they just need to burn some punk?
This is a product I designed and illustrated for Crayola quite a few years ago. It's one that I really like and had a lot of fun working on. Color and Stamp Mix-Up Monsters was small rackable set of eight high quality rubber stamps featuring zany monsters with interchangeable heads and bodies. The set also came with four washable markers and two background sheets for stamping.
Everything was hand illustrated. The box art above was done in gouache on bristol board. The inkings for the stamps were probably done on vellum with brush or maybe an art pen. I can't remember, and they don't appear to be in my possession anymore.
The set was always planned with four characters, but I designed five of them. Surprised I didn't have to design twelve! Depending upon the project, I either do one design or quite a few. All the extra concept work is used for market testing or simply to have a variety to pick from. And, of course, my favorite character, a burly-looking pig monster with horns and fur was not chosen. *Insert sad-faced emoji here. Oh, well, seems that's the way it goes! Most of the characters made it through with few changes. You can see the original sketches below. I also designed and illustrated a matching set called Color and Stamp Dinosaurs.
Don't confuse Crayola's Color and Stamp Mix-Up Monsters with Crayola's Monster Mix-Ups, a big rubbing plate kit. I designed that one too and will be posting it for Halloween.
To see more of my art, please visit my website.
I produce illustrations and creative idea solutions for toys, packaging, publishing and advertising. I'm also a writer and fine art painter.
• MFA, Syracuse University