Wednesday, November 25, 2015


These days we are blessed with many new and wonderful tools that enhance our expressive powers. We can employ digital high def 3D animation to create persuasive flying dragons or pink worlds with green skies.  We can animate huge armies of marching trolls that would've been virtually impossible to draw by hand.

Where Dr. Seuss once penned an ink line to suggest a field of flowers, today his field is projected on a movie screen in high rez with colorful flowers that sway in the breeze:

Similarly, animators have given new life to the simple drawings of Charles Schulz... adding what the studios call "a richness of technique."

In some ways these new tools unleash our imaginations; they free us from practical constraints that imprisoned previous generations.  But as G.K. Chesterton warned, "You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes."
It's easier to persuade viewers that they're seeing miracles when you depict miraculous subjects using miraculous tools. But the best artists, and the ones who are truly blessed, are the ones who can recognize the miracles in everyday life. There are miracles in the blades of grass at our feet, and we don't need digital tools to present them.

The great illustrator Richard Thompson lives in a small, ordinary suburban town but through his eyes it becomes a world of mystery.  He finds enchantment in the commonplace things that you and I ignore every day.  I've previously written about one of my favorite pieces, his Neighborhood of Mystery:

We've all seen plastic shopping bags lying in the gutter or caught in a bush somewhere. We do our best to ignore them. But here’s what Thompson thinks about:

Or, you walk by your neighbor’s house where they’ve left their garbage at the curb.  You've trained your mind not to think about it, but Thompson's mind recognizes the potential:

Now that we can animate pixie wings and magic dust so persuasively, we no longer have to work hard to see enchantment. We've certainly stopped looking for it in places like a pile of garbage left at the curb. But so often, what we find depends on what we're looking for.
In Thompson's neighborhood, construction workers mark up the street just like they do in your neighborhood.  When did you ever pause to consider the possible ramifications?

Thompson's Neighborhood of Mystery represents a world of mystery and it all begins with his imagination. I admire the way he keeps his eyes open and finds enchantment in the ordinary.
Another wonderful example is Thompson's series on local restaurants that have violated health  ordinances.  One day Thompson saw a notice in the town newspaper that a diner had been closed by the Board of Health.  This spurred a years-long acid trip in which Thompson mused about the kinds of restaurants that might be shut down and the reasons why:

These may seem like humble little jokes because there are no Thunder Gods fighting alien lizards to a Dolby soundtrack.  The drawings make no use of the wonderful tools described above.  But Thompson's fantasies gain strength and relevance and even truth from the fact that they are rooted in a human nature that we can all recognize.  They represent a different kind of miracle than the type found in fabricated digital universes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Frank Frazetta's painting of the Egyptian Queen...

...inspired the famous Princess Leia slave costume from Star Wars:

The costume designers originally specified 25 yards of fabric to create a long, flowing harem skirt similar to the one in Frazetta's painting.

Costume designed by Aggie Guerard Rodgers and Nilo Rodis-Jamero
However, they quickly found that Frazetta's concept made no sense.  That long blue drape looks great in the painting but in real life "the costume department could not make the concept work."   You don't realize how ridiculous it is until you try to translate it from image to reality.

In this next picture, Frazetta paints a demon about to strike a blow...

...except the blow could never land because his horns are blocking the way.  Part of Frazetta's brilliance was that he was able to portray imaginary characters as solid, muscular beings who lived in a real world governed by laws of physics.  But Frazetta often broke those laws for visual effect.

In this third example,  note that Frazetta has planted the archer's foot firmly on thin air.


This was not a mistake.  The painting would not have looked nearly as powerful if Frazetta had changed that stance to place the foot on something solid.

Such liberties are not uncommon in Frazetta's paintings, but somehow they don't keep his work from looking realistic.  In fact, his paintings are far more convincing than the work of his imitators who meticulously follow the laws of gravity, lighting, anatomy, etc.

Part of Frazetta's art was that he understood when the laws of appearances take priority over the laws of physics.