I was recently approached for an unusual assignment: Redo illustrations for two books I originally illustrated back in the early 90′s.
The art director wrote:
The books are almost 20 years old, so we are looking to update the art to give them a fresh, modern look. Since you are the creator of these characters, I want to ask if you might be interested in giving them a makeover. You can keep the concepts as is. I just want art to be in digital format, so we have more flexibility to use the art.
The job was described as a “re-fresh”, but it was, in reality, a complete “re-do”.
I did the original illustrations in 1994, in pen & ink and Dr. Martin’s concentrated watercolors.
The publisher wanted the art to be redone digitally.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been using a bold line with a flat color treatment.
I sent the art director this recent sample and asked her if the style would work.
I think this style will be OK.
The work “think” should have made me pause.
Instead, I interpreted it as a green light to do the line art.
So, I happily proceeded to complete all the line art, for all 24 illustrations, in that bold style.
They were returned with comments.
It seemed the art director held a pow-wow with her colleagues and her “OK” was not the majority opinion. Some felt the line used in the original art was more appropriate, and my new line quality was “too thick and busy looking.”
The moral of this story? ”Don’t be bold. Be shaky. Like you once were.”
An assignment like this is somewhat confusing. Here’s why.
The illustrator is asked to revisit his past, yet utilize tools that are, in some ways, foreign to the look and feel of the original. As people making creative work, we evolve and change. Revisiting old stuff is an odd experience. I found myself struggling with how much of the new me was willing to be the old me.
But I had accepted the project. Now it was time to figure out how to solve this visual problem, satisfy the client, and try to enjoy the process.
Here’s a sample of the original book I illustrated in pen and watercolor.
They didn’t like bold line in my first redo.
I did a second version using a thinner line with this more nervous quality. The line starts and stops and has little tic marks. I changed some the characters slightly, but tried to retain the personality of the originals.
The digitally created color was somewhere between flat and a wash. Using the WACOM pen and tablet, I laid the color on its own separate layer, under the line art.
So, here is what it looks like when you merge the two layers. The background is on a third layer. This gives the publisher flexibility to use this background or not.
Attempting to duplicate something in a different format is a conundrum.
Same, but different? It is an imprecise matter of degrees. How far do I depart from the original?
And it’s tough to beat the spontaneity of a watercolor brush on a sheet of paper.
The computer has been both a blessing and a curse for illustration. I have to laugh to myself when I pick up a “paintbrush tool” and do some “airbrushing” on the iMac.
Those of us who have actually used a Paasche airbrush, recall the smell of rubber cement and rubylith, have a collection of sable brushes and dried out bottles of Dr. Martin’s Watercolors — we sometimes have to shake our heads and wonder, “What in the hell just happened?”
Progress is inevitable, but is it always an improvement? I think this is a valid question we all need to ask ourselves.
Here are a few more back-to-back THEN and NOW illustrations: