Monday, June 15, 2009

Out of a Tunnel

So, one of the nicer moments in old movies is a conversation between Jean Arthur ("Clarissa Saunders") and Jimmy Stewart (new U.S. Senator "Jefferson Smith") in which one says to the other that one should always live as if "you just came out of a tunnel." Many an old movie has flickered away on my video hearth, keeping me company while I've illustrated an awful lot of books & greeting cards over the years. It was as an illustrator that I found my way into books and to this moment, writing these words.
The television is silent now, of course. Can't be writing - or drawing, for that matter - with the TV yammering. God knows I've tried.
In preparing to write about how I research, draw, and paint my pictures, how I came to write and illustrate nonfiction (because my first two books, The Windchild and The Queen With Bees in her Hair, published by Holt back in the day, were fiction, looked at by hardly anybody), I got surprised with a fresh realization of how tunnel-visioned a person can get, meaning me. I wanted to tell you about visiting Plimoth Plantation years ago, when I was doing my first historic picture book, Three Young Pilgrims (Bradbury Press then, Aladdin Paperbacks now. Sheesh.). Heaven bless living history museums, the re-enactors, and the photographers who capture their daily moments. Some winter afternoon when you're right in the middle of a drawing, you might not have the wherewithal to get a model to pose with a yoke of oxen.
I wanted to tell you about the dog-eared, raggedy Dover books lined up on my studio bookshelf. They're stuffed with good, clear copyright-free drawings: Grist for my imagination + education (research) deal I've got going on here. I don't have a time-machine. (If someone does, please contact me. Discreetly. We don't want everybody wrecking and changing everything. I mean, I've read Jack Finney's Time & Again.) I can't even tell you when my Dover Horses book was published because I've used clear packing tape to cover every spare space (including copyright info) with more horse images torn from magazines, etc. If you're going to be an illustrator, you need reference material, a.k.a. scrap. Much of the tape just keeps the pages from falling out. Could I be looking at real horses? Hey, I'm on a deadline! And look, I'm not a great artist, but I can draw two eyes and four legs and make it look like something you can ride.
Essential is good reference material such as the books written and illustrated by the brilliant Edwin Tunis, which brings me back to the tunnel. In Googling for a quick notion of the life of this spendid researcher/muralist, I was led to a posting re: Mr. Tunis, here on I.N.K. by Don Brown who posted his "Last Post" shortly before Jan Greenburg made me aware of this cyber-conversation when we were at the UCM Children's LIterature Festival in Warrensburg, MO. last March. So there you go. In talking to you, I was introduced, far-too0belatedly, to the work of one of our comrades. It's like I just came out of a tunnel.


Anonymous said...
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Cheryl Harness said...

Curious am I about the removed comment. Worried and chagrined, too. Should I have left out my habit of old movies keeping me company while I paint? Possibly. Still, they do come in handy sometimes. Once, needing people to pose aboard a 17th century vessel, I freeze-framed a scene in a rather dreadful MGM film about the voyage of the Mayflower. Then, drawing freehand, I created new passengers and 'moved' them about the deck.
Should I have written more about the process of illustrating nonfiction? Certainly. To that end, I can only say that my shelves are weighed down with visual reference books such as Roger Butterfield's The American Past (Simon & Schuster, 1947), What People Wore, by Douglas Gorsline (Bonanza Books, 1952), and Visiting Our Past (National Geographic, 1986).
From all manner of photographs and old engravings I can find, for instance, how the hands go on a churn dasher. How the legs should be drawn on a trotting horse. From poring over historic costume books, I'll know enough about a typical frock coat in the early 19th century to be able to draw a fellow carrying a kitten in his pocket. Because reference material is only the beginning. The main thing is representing historic people and their animals as alive and authentic, as vital and various as they certainly were, moving about in places that may or may not still exist; as clearly as I can possibly know and imagine, from my vantage point up here in their unimaginable future.