Friday, February 1, 2008

Fables and Rhymes, Pictured 1

Our students in Word & Image 2 are hard at work on an illustrated fable project, requiring the composer to create three images which capture the narrative of a given fable. There are 5 options; each student selects one to illustrate.

Example: The Dog and the Wolf
A gaunt Wolf was almost dead with hunger when he happened to meet a House-dog who was passing by.

"Ah, Cousin," said the Dog. "I knew how it would be; your irregular life will soon be the ruin of you. Why do you not work steadily as I do, and get your food regularly given to you?"

"I would have no objection," said the Wolf, "if I could only get a place."

"I will easily arrange that for you," said the Dog; "come with me to my master and you shall share my work."

So the Wolf and the Dog went towards the town together. On the way there the Wolf noticed that the hair on a certain part of the Dog's neck was very much worn away, so he asked him how that had come about.

"Oh, it is nothing," said the Dog. "That is only the place where the collar is put on at night to keep me chained up; it chafes a bit, but one soon gets used to it."

"Is that all?" said the Wolf. "Then good-bye to you, Master Dog."

"Better starve free than be a well-fed slave."

Okay then.

These are tricky problems for several reasons. If you must compose to the expectation that the viewer will not have the text handy to interpret (a given here), some editorial adjustment will be required. That is, it will prove difficult to show the wolf noticing the collar-mark, since the ultimate recognition requires a cognitive leap we cannot show from an absence. [bald spot = collar = slavery] Thus, we’d probably need to show the collar and chain to bring home the idea of servitude sans language.

For students—especially those trained in a Beaux-Arts drawing model—the big challenge requires escape from a fill-up-the-rectangle mentality of observational drawing. In this case the elements must be selected and designed into an economical arrangement of two-dimensional form such that the content may be speedily deciphered.

Today we pulled out some examples from the history of children’s book illustration to suggest what on earth we might be talking about when we say “think like a designer.” I’ve thrown in a little Parrish to round it out.

Most importantly: scale and placement relationships must be controlled to create the right emphasis. This means, especially, that the vestigial 2nd grader theory of the visual world—horizontal page; green stripe of earth; all objects placed precisely on green horizon as if it were a tightrope; negative “air” with suspended yellow ball; blue stripe of sky—must be discarded. Rather we require the two-dimensional arrangement, a clear visual hierarchy, and intelligible nouns and verbs.

Frederick Richardson shows his three wise men of Gotham in a bowl, as required by the verse; the swelling waves and tipping vessel do the rest. The environmental information is minimal and atmospheric beyond the foreground. He manages the modifier “wise” through magician’s costumes.

FR’s Wee Willie Winkie occupies a relatively small amount of the frame. But the complex pinwheeling shape and the high contrast figure ground relationship call attention to him, and set him against the lower contrast interlocking architectural elements.

NC Wyeth focuses on character action and creates suspense with anticipation. The figures dominate the screen; again, the settings are minimal beyond the most basic information: water in the distance beyond the ship rigging, a roughed-in outcropping of the island to show we’re in port. We’re focused on what we need to see. Everything else pitches in or gets cut.

A certain ruthlessness is required. Even in the hundred-acre wood, or thereabouts.

Indeed, narrative focus can be achieved through various media. The barest linear rough can deliver the goods in the right context. Shepard lent a great deal of charm to Milne’s Pooh work and related poetry projects. Here is a perfectly charming page of three spots that heighten our experience of the verbal lilt and wit of the poems.

And another, slightly more involved spread:

Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books, prone as they are to charges of bald-faced imperialist goofiness and worse, nonetheless provide wittily arranged visual forms and child-friendly narratives.

What matters especially to our audience of student composers is what’s left out. We get the advancing elephant, his perch on a modest ridge, and a provincial town below. Economy economy economy.

I’ll be back with a part 2 to this, with citations to boot.

UPDATE: Images: Maxfield Parrish, Alarums and Excursions, a wash drawing from The Golden Age, 1899; Parrish, Ferry's Seeds advertisement, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, 1921. Subsequent images are all book illustrations, with bibliographical information available here.

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