I remember the day I received an email inquiring if I would be interested in taking on an assignment to illustrate a poster about "the dimensions of computational fluency". At first I thought, "What is this?" and then I thought, "There's no way I want to take this job!" But then I read further and discovered that the poster was going to be a circus tent with clowns, animals and performers! How cool! A chance to take a very serious and often dry subject such as math and make it visually appealing to grade school kids. Of course I accepted the job!
The poster is a 16" x 21" stapled pull-out inside a quarterly classroom magazine for the National Council Of Teachers Of Mathematics. The basic layout for the poster was supplied by the client and followed an established design for computational fluency. Sometimes, it's really nice to have a structure in place while working out the look of an illustration, especially when it involves technical issues. Other times, it can be challenging or even burdensome. In this case, it just made my work a lot easier, so I was grateful to have it.
I started with a very small thumbnail sketch just to get thinking about it. I often do more thinking than rough sketching and like to have a solid visual in my head before I start any serious sketching. Next I did a rough sketch on tracing paper in marker. Marker? It's one of the few times I ever did a rough sketch using marker. Not sure why, but there it is!
I sent the marker sketch to the Senior Designer at The Magazine Group in Washington, D.C. and it was approved with a few minor changes, primarily the banner at the top. I thought a big waving banner with the words FLEXIBILITY, ACCURACY, and EFFICIENCY would look neat being hit by the spot lights. This was nixed, for good reasons. The new layout with each word inside the light beams was a lot better! There were a few character changes, clowns were to be less "hobo" looking, and gender and racial representations were discussed. I was ready to work on the tight pencil sketch.
The tight pencil sketch went through with no changes that I can recall and I was ready to create the flat color layout in vector using Adobe Illustrator. I make flat vector art for two reasons: 1) It gives me a close to finished look in color and layout that I can send to the client for approval, prior to starting the painting. 2) I can create each piece of the illustration in layers and easily move or scale things as needed without any destruction of the images that can occur in Adobe Photoshop when painting with pixels. The final art was digitally rendered using Photoshop.
You can click through the gallery of images below to see the progression of the art.
I was really happy with the final production. The printing came out spot-on and the colors were incredibly accurate. The Dimensions Of Computational Fluency math poster was a big challenge, but a very rewarding project to work on and I'm not clowning around, either!
• Publisher: The Magazine Group of Washington, D.C. • Senior Designer: Janelle Welch.
• Poster front design: Janie Schielack and Tim Boerst. • Illustration: Joe Lacey.
On a side note, shortly after I had completed the poster, I was contacted by a music band in Spain called La Herejia asking if they could use one of my clowns for their new CD "Malabares". Since I owned the rights to the images, I agreed. Funny where things end up. A veces, la vida es un circo ambulante.
Harcourt Books Robot Illustrations
Each picture started out with rough thumbnail sketches. The book covers were 3/4 page wraps - a full cover with spine and about 1/3 of the art wrapping around the back of the book. This always adds a challenge, as I can't let important elements fall off the main page, I have to be aware of the title placement and the spine needs to be kept clean of detail.
When the thumbnails are approved, I draw tight pencil sketches. I like sketching by hand on paper. It's often quicker than trying to sketch on a digital tablet (although, depending upon the illustration, I sometimes do just that). The sketch is scanned and used as a guide to make the flat color vector art in Adobe Illustrator. I send a screenshot to the art director to see what the colors will be, but more importantly the positioning of the illustrated elements. Sometimes, there are unexpected changes in size or direction. It can be very easy to move or scale the vector art to correct these changes.
The final art is painted digitally using Adobe Photoshop. For these illustrations I used a WACOM digital tablet. It would be near impossible to this kind of art using a computer mouse, never mind the damage you will do to your hands and wrists! Today, I use an interactive pen display and "paint" directly on the screen.
Digital painting is a lot like traditional airbrush. I select areas to paint, adjust spray pressure, and manually apply the digital paint using a stylus. I try to avoid using too many preset textures and effects, trying to keep the art looking as hand painted as possible. The art is either sent of flat or with editable layers still intact, depending upon the client's needs.
Nothing beats a robot that looks like it was made out a tin can or three cardboard boxes! This is why so much of my inspiration comes form older toys, movies and TV shows. The trick is to make it look updated without being derivative.
My original vision for The Wacky What's-It Machine was inspired by Ideal's Mr. Machine with little alien helpers. I loved it! The art directors did not. I was sad. So, the second one was more of a Wizard Of Oz inspired robot with munchkin styled aliens. I loved it! They did not. Again, I was sad. OK, third time's the charm. Let's think Robbie The Robot from Forbidden Planet. Yay! That one worked! They loved it! Everyone was happy and I was able to go onto the finished painting.
The machine is a Dr. Seuss Meets The Wacky Races with a touch of Rube Goldberg sc-ifi tossed in for good measure. I wish this had been turned into a toy! Illustrating all these crazy and colorful gears and gadgets got me ready for the Crayola factory themed Maker Kits that I illustrated several years later.
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