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.
A few years back, I designed some rough concepts for the Dixie Cup Corporation. Dixie is now one of the brands owned by Georgia-Pacific, makers of Brawny, Sparkle, and numerous janitorial supplies. This is the only example I have of the work I made for Dixie. About 13 years ago, a major computer crash caused the loss of quite a bit of my digital art, my Fisher-Price work was hit the hardest. The crash even wiped out my back-up drive!
I believe I did three or four designs, two with characters and two without, all meant to be produced in full color. Because the work was conceptual, I simply did pencil sketches and some quick inkings by hand to show the basic ideas. The inkings were scanned, colored, and then mocked-up to took like cups. I wanted to do something that looked like a MAD Magazine comic book from the 1950s or novelty candy packaging from the 1970s. It kind of got there. Dixie never took these concepts any further, but I wish they had. I wanted it to be a series of five-ten cups with different genres of movies or decades. A silent movie cup, the 1950s, science fiction, and a bigger tub for popcorn or maybe some plates. Probably too much of a targeted subject for home purchase, but it would have been cool!
Shiverin' Scoops Game Cards
"We all scream for ice cream, especially when it's this much fun!" And... when it's a really fun project to work on! I designed and illustrated four place cards for Fisher-Price Games Shiverin' Scoops. The game included a motorized cone that shakes when you pick it up. Each player tries to add a scoop, balance the cone while placing it on the game card of the next player. The player who adds the last scoop wins!
The cards were to be one design with the only change being the color of the floor, and that would be done with an overlay. But the art department wanted to see four concepts in order to pick from one. I submitted my designs using the two kids shown on the red card. They liked them all, and instead of illustrating one card, I got to illustrate four cards and add a few more kids to the scenes.
I don't recall any major problems working on these illustrations. For once, the airbrush didn't accidentally spatter paint all over the board and there were no re-dos. This is one of the last physical airbrush pieces illustrated prior to going all digital. There really isn't a major difference in the look of my later airbrush paintings and my early digital paintings.
The best advice I received concerning digital paintings came from an art director at Mattel. He said
"Avoid using Photoshop filters unless you have to. Make your art look hand painted."
It's advice I still use to this day. Despite the fact that I like seeing the original art and holding it in my hands, I'm really happy that today all my airbrushing is digital! Package designs, product art... it all changes so quickly. The ability to easily edit the artwork is something I've grown fondly accustomed to.
I've illustrated and worked on quite a few games from Fisher-Price, including: Spin-Yo, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Animal 2x2, Saucer Scramble, just to name a few. All of it now, of course, digital. Much of this work is in product development and interactive animations, which is why Fisher-Price seems a bit under represented in my portfolio. So many games and toys that never made it out into the world. But, I plan on posting a lot more of my work for Fisher-Price on this blog soon.
Cadaco Cluster Puzzles of the 1960s and 1970s
I never owned a Cluster Puzzle when I was kid, but it was carved into my memory as strongly as Mad Magazine and Wacky Packages. My best friend's family had one that they kept in a corner hutch in their kitchen. The two things I remember the most from those days, besides his mom's good cooking, was playing the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Game (those skeletons and that coffin were so cool!) and putting together this very strange picture puzzle illustrated with all kinds of bizarre characters.
About fifteen years later I'm at an outdoor antique market filled with hundreds of vendors displaying goods in a huge field. I looked down at one display and saw a small blue plastic box with a clear lid. I picked up the box. "I know you!" It was the Cadaco Cluster Puzzle No. 4 - "Make-Up". It's funny how things stay shoved in the back of your head and then get pushed right back up front again. It was even the same puzzle! I started collecting them online and today, I have a fairly complete collection with a couple rare items, variations, and all six from the original series. But who was the master-mind behind these great puzzles?
Alex D. Palmer, engineering tool designer and technical artist, first conceived of his puzzles in 1964. The puzzles were similar to the interlocking artwork of M.C. Escher and tessellation art. Produced under the name Jumble-Fits, Palmer sold and manufactured the puzzles through his own corporation, Tek Method Company in Chicago, Illinois. He started out by going from store to store, contacting catalog distributors, and even enlisting his son Kelvin to sell them door-to-door. The business was very small with packaging and office functions all happening out of Palmer's home.
In 1966, he approached Cadaco, Inc., in Chicago about licensing his puzzles. Cadaco manufactured a wide variety of board games and puzzles. Palmer negotiated a distribution and royalty deal and, in 1966, Cadaco released Cluster Puzzles to the world with the original line-up of six puzzles: No. 1 - "Animals", No. 2 - "Figments", No. 3 - "Sports", No. 4 - "Make-Up", No.5 - "Doodles", and No. 6 - "Whimsies".
Each puzzle came with a humorous Hint Card that would help the puzzle-challenged individual figure out each scene. The Hint Cards were every bit as fun as the puzzles themselves! With wacky character names such as Alec Zandimer Plerp, Lumpy Long Dog, Erpfrog, Hairspray Harriet, Shmonster, and Mr. Lemonsuck, Alex Palmer created an entire world, not just a puzzle. These weren't puzzles that you put together and said, "That was fun. I'm done." No, once done, you looked at them again and again, studying each character and relishing all the details.
Throughout the remainder of the sixties up to 1988, Cadaco continued to produce and sell various incarnations of Palmer's Cluster Puzzles. Cadaco, like many other big toy companies, eventually was sold, subdued and now forever gone. There's a really good in-depth article about the history of Cadaco here.
Alex D. Palmer passed away at the age of 92 in 2013. His son Kelvin Palmer runs The A. Z. Plerp Company, a website devoted to the collecting and historical information of Cluster Puzzles. You can learn a lot there. He also offers for sale, a very informative and fully illustrated book, "The Collector's Guide To Cluster Puzzles of the 1960s and 1970s". If you want to learn more about these unique puzzles, see some original sketches and more, then pick up a copy of the book!
And remember, "intelligent adults can assemble the pieces in 30 minutes. Children 5 years old or more need only 15 minutes." Thank you, Alex D. Palmer, for putting some whimsy in the world.
Here's one from the vault that has always held a sentimental place in my heart - a full page spread that appeared in Sesame Street Magazine entitled S Family's Spring Day for Children's Television Workshop.
I had just begun work as a regular contributor to Crayola Kids Magazine and had a few jobs under my belt. Around this time, the magazine stands at bookstores and grocery stores were filled with kids magazines. With a pen in hand, I jotted down the names and addresses of the art directors from the magazines I liked.
Next, I did what every illustrator is told NOT to do. I went home, folded an 8.5" x 11" color photocopy of an activity page I had done for another magazine and stuffed it into a white envelope with nothing more than the addresses on the outside and my name on the inside. When doing promotional mailers, artists should, for the most part, always send postcards. Art directors don't want to waist time opening envelopes. Most of the time they never even look at your post cards!
One week later, I get a phone call from the art director at Sesame Street Magazine in New York City. I was expecting to be commissioned for a small spot illustration or some supporting art, not a full two-page spread. Not a bad return on investment for a stamp and envelope! My contract arrived with the most whimsical cover letter:
"Sesame Street Magazine is guaranteed to be a smash hit now that you've agreed to do an illustration for it!"
There were little to no changes to the art, but there were some changes to the content as the sketches evolved. Since it's an educational magazine, the games and activities are developed and reviewed long before they reach my desk. I received a very detailed list of what to include in the illustration and how the overall feel of the page should be presented. Beyond that, the characters and style were up to me. The art was hand-painted with airbrush and gouache on bristol board. At this time, I was transitioning into digital art, but still producing a fair number of illustrations in traditional mediums. It's cute little illustration, and I hope it made the kids happy.
Original hand-painted art and the printed page as it appeared in the magazine.
Pencil sketch stages.
Redesigning An American Classic
This was my first major toy packaging commission. Until then, I was doing a lot of product rendering, concept boards, and a lot of line art. To tell this story properly, I need to start with a brief history of Silly Putty packaging.
Binney & Smith (Crayola, LLC.) acquired Silly Putty in 1977. The look pretty much stayed the way it was originally introduced in 1951, retaining it's iconic television frame and two blonde haired kids. Up until 1989, they were still producing Silly putty with this packaging. The nineties were rolling in and it was time for an update. I couldn't believe I was going to be the the guy who got to take this on! Granted, there were several attempts in the '70s at updated packaging, Silly Putty Man featured a Marvel-esque superhero fighting off space pirates and limited run holiday packaging from the early '80s. But they never radically changed the packaging for the original Silly Putty until 1992. I had just finished my studies at Syracuse University and was ready to go full-time into the world of freelancing. I had an interview for a full-time job at an ad agency in Harrisburg, PA, then the phone rang.
"Hey Joe, you wanna work on the rebranding for Silly Putty?"
"Sure!", I said. "When does it start?"
"We need the art in a couple months, gotta redesign the characters... Come in on Thursday, we'll talk about it."
"I'll be there."
I hung up the phone and cancelled my job interview. I couldn't pass this up!
Silly Putty Packaging
The first round of the redesign was Original Silly Putty, Fluorescent Silly Putty, and Glow-In-The Dark Silly Putty. The main focus was on Original Silly Putty, as it would dictate how the others were to be handled. The kids were still blonde, striped shirt, baseball cap and sun dress. I decided to make the kids' heads look like a ball of egg-shaped Silly Putty. A pattern of boomerangs was used as a nod to the 1950s origins of Silly Putty. The back was b&w line art where I was able to include my name. A year later I illustrated the packaging for Glitter Silly Putty and a stocking shaped holiday four-pack of metallic putty.
When the newly designed Silly Putty was released in 1992, I was told David Letterman held up the The Original Silly Putty package I had illustrated during one of his skits about funny warning labels, proclaiming, "Use of this product may cause extreme silliness", or something like that. I never saw the episode, so if anyone out there knows where I can see it, PLEASE LET ME KNOW!
For you collectors out there, these packages appear to be extremely rare. I have searched the internet for several years and have yet to see them posted anywhere. I've never even seen them for sale on ebay! I have quite a few of them and even some huge press sheets of uncut boards given to me by the art director at Binney & Smith. I had planned to wallpaper a room with them. Maybe someday, I will.
In 1997 the packaging was again re-designed with new characters of which I was not involved. Silly Putty continues to go through many package revisions and was inducted into the National Toy Hall Of Fame in 2001.
In 2002 I worked on some concept art for yet another redesign of Silly Putty. Three pencil sketches of rubbery aliens, goofy birds, and a dog and cat named Stretch and Bounce, never made it past the drawing board, but it was fun to work on Silly Putty again.
I hope this article gets you in the mood to go out and buy some Silly Putty. Like the package says, it's for kids aged "Four to forever". There's nothing else quite like it!
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.
Let's Go Digital!
Print magazines were having a digital revival in the '90s. Crayola Kids Magazine, published bi-monthly by Meredith Corporation, offered a variety of art styles, games and stories for young readers. It was my first foray into this type of publication and I absolutely loved it! Every couple months, I worked on anywhere from one to three activities, spot illustrations or promotional web items.
It was also my first step into the world of digital art. I remember the day I walked into the Crayola offices and saw all the drafting tables, drafting arms and markers being pulled out and replaced with computers. I was very young and out of school, but thought, "Uh, oh... this looks like trouble." I asked everyone I worked with, "Would you like it if I got a computer and started going digital?" Crayola said "YES!", Fisher-Price said, "YES!" I thought about it and then Bob Riley, the art director at Crayola Kids called.
My phone conversation with him went something like this, "You can do the art any way you want, as long as it looks good, but we'd prefer digital if you can do it, and we need it in one month." I said, "Sure! I can do it digitally." I hung up the phone and went out and bought a Macintosh Quadra 605 computer, Photoshop, Freehand and Adobe Streamline. I had one month to figure all this out.
The game was What's Different? to be included in the upcoming dinosaur issue. Hand inked on vellum, scanned and converted to vector. The art was very simplistic compared to the art I am doing today, but at the time, there were so many obstacles, beyond frequent computer crashes, tube-styled monitors and using a mouse. On top of this, I couldn't email the file and the file had to fit on a 1.4MB floppy disc (Syquest and ZIP Drives were still out of reach). And these limitations went on for quite a few years. It was a golden age for FedEx. The job got done, I figured out how to make an illustration in the computer, I sent off my invoice, and more digital work rolled in soon after.
Bigger And Better Things!
I worked on the magazine for about five years, writing and illustrating games. Multiple computers and programs later, the illustrations were getting more complex. Some being built entirely in the computer. Many, still being hand-inked, scanned and added on from there. The ROW, ROW, ROW series as we referred to them, were some of my favorites. I became the "go-to-guy" for these, writing and illustrating about twelve in all. Here's one I always liked, 9 Shipmates In A Row.
Eventually, I began getting commissions from Sesame Street Magazine, Kid City, Scholastic, Better Homes & Gardens, and even Esquire to write and create children's magazine activities. It became the stepping stone for my future work with corporate promotional books and kids restaurant menus.
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