Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ripple Effect

If, in May 2010, I was working on an illustration about the beauty of Gulf Coast beaches, say, or the benefits of offshore drilling, I’d fully expect the recent BP oil spill calamity to change the nature of the illustration.

But in May 2010, I was working on an illustration about something entirely different: China’s leading role in the rising Asian economy. And still, the BP oil spill calamity changed the nature of the illustration.

It’s an interesting study of the power of iconography, of how universal meanings can become attached to certain images. And that can affect an illustration assignment. Iconography can be useful as a visual shorthand, but it can also be disruptive, as when unintended visual associations interfere with or obscure the artist’s intent. Take, for example, the movies that were edited in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. These included Lilo and Stitch, in which a scene of Stitch taking a 747 on a joyride and swerving through buildings was deleted (it was replaced with a spaceship swerving through mountains). The combination of planes and buildings had become synonymous with 9/11.

I was about to discover that the combination of aquatic birds and open seas was to become synonymous with the BP disaster unfolding in the Gulf.

The art director was looking for a simple image to represent China, and after a bit of back-and-forth we decided on an image of a crane rising in flight, with a couple of additional cranes trailing behind to suggest the idea of “leadership.” Since those additional cranes would be positioned against a deep blue sky — right where a list of feature articles ran — I opted, for the sake of typographic legibility, to show them in silhouette. In other words, black.

But then the second-guessing began.

Were those cranes silhouetted, or were they black? Were those distinctive tail feathers and dark legs a crane’s natural markings, or was its lower half blackened by oil? And could the pattern in the water, although blue, be seen as oil? As the illustration developed, it was hard not to be reminded of the heart-wrenching images of oil-soaked pelicans and other Gulf Coast wildlife — the by-then ubiquitous face of the ecological disaster. I thought, “maybe it’s just my imagination,” but it wasn’t: the client called with the very same concerns. And some last minute changes.

Those changes included eliminating the water at the bottom and replacing it with marsh grasses; eliminating the black portions of the cranes; and changing the silhouetted birds to more fully rendered ones.

I understood the reasons for the changes they were requesting, but simply altering what was already there wasn’t necessarily the most effective, or esthetic approach. The goal was to create a scene that was unmistakably Asian, and emphatically not Gulf Coast. Adding visual cues was just as beneficial as eliminating ambiguous ones. To me, replacing water with marsh grasses only traded one problem for another, since the marshes, as much as anything, were severely damaged by the oil and were the subject of much discussion. So I split the difference, adding some marshland but keeping the water, and adding a landform and trees on the horizon —all in a style inspired by the landscapes depicted in classic Asian woodblock prints of artists like Utagawa Hiroshige.

But my biggest concern was that by eliminating the dark areas of the crane, we no longer had a crane but a white bird shaped like a crane. And that defeated the entire point of the illustration. I noted that by showing a standing crane, his body above the surface of the water, the viewer “gets” that the dark areas are cranes’ natural markings.

With those changes, and the elimination of the silhouetted birds, the feel of the image changed dramatically. The changes accomplished what we set out to do, without compromising the underlying concept. While I like the simplicity of the original artwork, the revised image — which the client loved — solved not only our BP dilemma, it strengthened the underlying concept.

The two versions, side by side:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

100 Heads for Haiti

This is a piece I created for the 100 Heads for Haiti exhibition, a benefit sponsored by fellow illustrator Dave Plunkert. 100 illustrators were invited to create an original piece of art, with the proceeds from all sales going to the Doctors Without Borders relief effort in Haiti.

The April 8th opening, at Spur Gallery in Baltimore, was packed with a crowd of illustration lovers taking in the 100 Heads neatly lining the walls (photos below). By evening's end, brisk sales had left the walls nearly empty. Also for sale at the opening were posters featuring all 100 heads, which are also available online.

While it wasn't a requirement, I wanted my artwork to reflect the situation in Haiti, and I wanted to focus on the resilience of people when faced with tragedy. With one leaf forming the eye, a connection is made between the victim's outlook and the possibilities of regeneration and growth.

The "red" version was my original vision of the artwork, with all of the energy and emotional connotations that attach to red. But for the 100 Heads for Haiti show, the head needed to be floating on white, to work with the poster design. In fact, that, and size, were about the only requirements. So the piece that hung in the show is the one you see at right. Even more of the background was removed for the poster.

It was tremendously gratifying to be able to use my artwork in a way that benefitted others. And it was an honor to be included in a group show with these illustrators — an amazing range of styles and experience.

This piece was a last-minute submission to the Illustrators Club of Washington, Maryland and Virginia's biannual juried exhibition. As luck would have it, it won Best of Show. The show's jurors were illustrators Greg Manchess, Chris Payne, Jack Unruh and Keith Kasnot, and designers Chris Sloan, Mary K. Baumann and Will Hopkins.

The Illustrators Club of Washington, Maryland and Virginia is the third largest illustrators organization in the country, behind the Society of Illustrators (NYC) and Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. The show opens May 13th, 6-8:30 pm, at the Edison Place Gallery in Washington, DC.

Here are some pictures from the 100 Heads for Haiti opening:

Friday, August 21, 2009

1 = 8

Not long ago I discovered a way to magically turn an assignment for one illustration into eight. No miracles involved, no smoke and mirrors, no Photoshop clone tool. All it took was failing to see what, in hindsight, should have been obvious: proposing an illustration that incorporates lots of "found" travel stickers before finding out that the “found” travel stickers I already own wouldn’t do the trick.
The story:
I was hired by a wind energy company to do a series of illustrations to be used, among other things, for advertising and trade show displays. The first image in the series was to illustrate the theme, “Travel is for people, not parts.”

Because many of the parts in question (precision gears, wind towers, etc.) are large and require specialized processes in their manufacturing, they are shipped by sea, going from country to country before the fabrication is completed and the final product delivered. This, the client noted, is costly, time consuming, and not necessarily in the best interest of the American workforce. 

For the art, I suggested the idea of “parts” going on an ocean voyage. My thought was to recall the look and feel of a travel poster. The key to the concept would be travel stickers on the suitcase, suggesting that the parts had traveled to many countries. (Sketch is at left.)

One of the techniques I often employ in my art is to mix painted imagery with found objects. For this illustration, I would use actual machine parts like gears and hardware. And vintage travel stickers. Luckily, I had a collection of them.

Well, the client — with whom, by the way, I have a very friendly relationship — loved the concept, but had some “minor” changes. The gear needed to be more in keeping with an actual wind tower gear, the ship needed be a freighter and not a cruise ship, and lastly, seven specific countries need to be depicted on the travel stickers.

While I thought the first two changes weakened the aesthetics (the gear and hardware) and the overall concept (ocean voyage) somewhat, I understood the client's point. They were not arbitrary changes, and the client's point was well taken, even though my feeling is that artistic license can, and should trump technical accuracy, up to a point.

The third change was the most valid and understandable, but also the stickiest. I didn’t have travel stickers for the seven countries in question (surprise!), and short of getting incredibly lucky on eBay or making a quick sprint around the globe, there was only one way around it: create them. And they couldn’t be mere suggestions of travel stickers; they needed to be detailed since the artwork for the trade show would run so large. No fudging. That meant not only creating seven pieces of art (they were created as roughly full-page illustrations), it meant doing research on the countries, travel sticker design, and typography.

That was fine. In fact, it would be fun. But there was a catch: because various deadlines for the various uses had been discussed at various times by various parties — the client, the PR firm, the design firm, the trade booth fabricator, the trade magazines — the actual deadline for artwork had gotten buried in a blizzard of emails. The trade show was months away. But the ad was due to the printer in three days.

For some reason, this didn’t seem to faze my client, who, to my amazement, was not in a panic.

I, on the other hand, was fazed. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that when there’s no possible way you can meet a deadline, you always somehow meet it anyway (panic has a way of focusing the mind). And like most illustrators I know, I love working under this kind of pressure.

Here are the seven travel sticker illustrations, followed by the final art.

And here is the final art:

See more of my illustration portfolio at www.michaelgibbs.com

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

biting the hand that feeds...

I was recently approached by a National Labor Group (I’ll call it the NLG*) to do a pro-bono illustration for a calendar they produce each year in which they explain aspects of their mission with a dozen illustrated essays. It's a project I've participated in twice before, having done illustrations about Farm Workers' Rights and Health Care Reform in previous years.

I'm happy to do pro-bono work for causes in which I believe, and helping disenfranchised and underprivileged workers — a major part of the NLG's mission — is a cause I can get behind. In recent months I've created artwork in support of the Obama campaign and the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and for Habitat for Humanity. Doing such work is personally fulfilling and the gratitude I receive is rewarding.

So when the National Labor Group came calling, I once again accepted.

But then I unaccepted.

In past years, my participation was by way of a gentleman's agreement of sorts... I'd create the artwork, and they could use it as they saw fit. I don't necessarily like those terms, but I didn't want to hamper the efforts of a worthy cause.

But this year I received an "Illustrator's Agreement," and its terms seemed to express more contempt than gratitude. Some sample clauses:

1. The illustrator... agrees to donate all copyrights to the artwork to... NLG for no remuneration. The art will be [used in the] calendar and for subsequent... use in leaflets, posters, newsletters and other printed publicity distributed by NLG consituent entities.

2. The illustrator will donate the original art. The illustrator agrees to not modify and sell the digital image of the still recognizable work of art for commercial or any other use.

5. In case [the NLG] needs to make changes to the artwork...

6. [The NLG] retains the right not to print the illustration in its calendar...

7. The illustrator will receive 2 copies of the Calendar in which [his] artwork appears.

8. The illustrator may request use of the image for self-promotional purposes...

It was, in other words, work-for-hire in a thin disguise.

In work-for-hire, the artist relinquishes copyright. In doing so, the employer (or entity that hired the creator of the work) becomes the legal author, effectively stripping the artist of any rights to use or license the artwork, or even to use modified versions. Such contracts are anathema for those of us in this business. While not technically a WFH contract (because it does not contain the words "work for hire"), the terms and conditions of the NLG's Illustrator's Agreement amount to roughly the same thing in spirit.

It was shocking and disappointing that an organization that purports to stand up for workers' rights would, when it comes to their own needs, take such an overtly oppressive stance, subordinating the illustrator to the position of a worker forced to relinquish valuable rights. It seemed immoral. And dazzlingly hypocritical.

The irony could hardly be more striking. With one of the NLG's goals being to "organize workers excluded from collective bargaining protections under U.S. labor law", it is incomprehensible that it should seek to further its mission in part by exploiting illustrators. You see, freelance illustrators are excluded from collective bargaining protections under U.S. labor law. We may be lone artists working out of spare bedrooms in homes across the country, but each of us is considered a "company" under U.S. law, and we are forbidden from organizing or from discussing fees under provisions of anti-trust laws. Getting together to discuss business is considered collusion.

And so as a freelance illustrator concerned about illustrators' rights and the erosion thereof -- both in business trends and copyright law -- I felt it was not in my best interest to affiliate with an organization that would take advantage of the good intentions of artists by way of such an oppressive, one-sided contract. I was willing, after all, to allow them virtually unrestricted use of the art, for free. And I was willing to allow them exclusive use of the artwork for a reasonable period of time, say a year, perhaps more. In fact, the excessive rights grab and absolute restrictions would not have benefited the NLG beyond what I was willing to give them. They served only to overload their already full plate at the expense of my rights.

And somehow, after demanding so much for so little, after responding to generosity and enthusiasm with hubris and greed, an offer of two calendars in exchange feels more like a slap in the face than a pat on the back.

So with great disappointment — as I admire the stated goals of the NLG — I'll save my pro-bono work for someone else, someone with a less avaricious legal team and a better sense of fairness.

*NLG is not the organization's real name, which I’ll refrain from mentioning.


HIS POSTER, American Worker, was selected for the ManifestHope:DC exhibition, a high-profile gallery event which was part of the festivities commemorating the inauguration of Barack Obama. Depicting a worker on a steel beam against a blue field, and accompanied by a quote by Abraham Lincoln, the artwork addresses the role workers play in building the American dream and the need to continue valuing those workers.

American Worker, was one of 15 works of art selected from more than 1000 submissions in a juried competition whose aim was to illustrate one of three themes: Health Care Reform, Workers' Rights, and The Green Economy. The winning pieces, selected by a panel of eight high-profile jurors*, were chosen not only for artistic merit, impact, and originality, but for achieving the goal of using positive messaging to convey the urgency and importance of those three key issues. These 15 works of art joined more than 100 others to form the exhibition, ManifestHope:DC.

ManifestHope celebrates the role that art and artists have played in the national grass-roots movement that carried Barack Obama to the presidency. It gathers together a diverse array of the nation's most talented visual artists under one roof to mark this monumental achievement in our nation's history and encourages artists and activists to maintain the momentum to bring about true change in the United States.

ManifestHope:DC, working with Shepard Fairey's Obey Giant group, MoveOn.org and EMG (Evolutionary Media Group), represents a visual call-to-action, encouraging a focusing of public energy on true reform in three key areas: Health Care, Workers' Rights and The Green Economy.

Manifest Hope: DC was on display for the three days preceding the Inauguration. The ManifestHope:DC gallery, managed by DC's Irvine Contemporary, was in the heart of historic Georgetown, one block from Key Bridge. An estimated 15,000 people visited the gallery, including many celebrities, from musicians Michael Stipe and Moby to actor Tim Robbins and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Manifest Hope:DC was a historic inaugural event to match this extraordinary moment in our nation's history.

ManifestHope features the work of more than 100 artists, including Aaron Foster, Aaron Axelrod, Aaron Allen, Amy Martin, Andrew Bannecker, Andy Howell, Andy Powell, APAK, Bask, Billi Kid, Billy Colbert, Blue Lucy, BLACKBOOKS, Brian McCarty, Casey Ryder, Chad Mize, Charlie Becker, Chris Stain, Chris Pastras, Christopher Tucker, Damon Locks, Dan Monick, Dan Funderburgh, David Choe, Decoy, Deroy Peraza, Derek Gores, Eddie, El MAC, Erneston Yerena, Esperanza Macias, Estevan Oriol, Felix Jackson Jr., Frederic Terral, George Vlosich, Ginger Che, Guillermo Bert, HAZE, Herb Williams, House Industries, HVW8, Ian Simmons, James Widener, Jason Hardy, Jason Dietrick, Jermaine Rogers, JK5, Johnathan Stein, Jon Wippich, Jorge Arrieta, Jovi Schnell, Jude Buffum, Judy North, Julie Adler, Julianne Walther, Justin Hampton, Justin Kemerling, Justin ÒDemoÓ Fines, Karen Wippich, Karla Mickens, Kate Crosgrove, Katherine Kendall, KDU, Keetra Dean Dixon, Kelly Towles, Kenji Hirata, Kofie, Kwaku Alston, Larissa Marantz, Lichiban, Lisa Marie Thalhammer, Luba Lukova, Lukas Ketner, Marc Petrovic, Margaret Coble, Margaret Cusack, Mark Jenkins, Mason Fetzer, Maya Hayuk, Mel Kadel, Michael Cuffe, Michael Glenwood Gibbs, Mike Murphy, Mike Jacob, Mike Pare, Mike Perry, Mingering Mike, Munk One, Nick Dewar, One9, Patrick Martinez, Paul Roden & Valerie Lueth, Rafael Lopez, Ray Noland, Regan Rosburg, Robert Indiana, Robbie Conal, Ron English, Rostarr, Sage Vaughn, Sam Flores, Sarah Hoskins, Scot LeFavor, Scotlund Haisley, Scott Hansen, Scott Siedman, Sebastian Martorana, Shannon Moore, Sharee Taylor, Shel Starkman, Shepard Fairey, Sol Sender, Stenzskull, Tanya Mikaela, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Tes One, The Protist, Tim Conlon, Tim Tate, Tina Rodas, Tom Slaughter, Travis Lampe, Travis Millard, Trish Moreno, Tristan Eaton, Van Taylor Monroe, Yvonne Boogaerts and Zoltron.

*The jurors included Anne Ellegood, Curator of Contemporary Art at Hirshhorn Museum, Shepard Fairey, Spike Lee, Laura Dawn (an artist as well as MoveOn.org's Creative & Cultural Director), Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, author/activist Van Jones, artist Robbie Conal, and David Rolf of ManifestHope:DC co-sponsor SEIU.

For some pictures I took at the gallery, click here.

More artwork by Michael Glenwood can be seen on his website, www.mglenwood.com.

More artwork by Michael Gibbs can be seen on his website, www.michaelgibbs.com

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

an evening with Al Farrow

Al Farrow (left) and me

In October, I had the privilege of hearing Al Farrow speak at the Corcoran, along the Shepard Fairey.

Al has been a sculptor for many years and has explored a number of themes, but the evening's talk focused on his "Reliquary" series, which was one-third of a 3-man show at Irvine Contemporary in October/November (along with Fairey and Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky) called "Regime Change".

Al's "Reliquary" pieces are powerful statements on the historical link between organized religion and war. The sculptures, which weigh hundreds of pounds each, are fashioned mostly from guns, bullets, artillery shells and human bone. Assembled into architectural models of cathedrals, synagogues and mosques, they evoke strong feelings of violence and death, modern warfare and ancient crusades, evil and reverence. They're creepy and beautiful. His passion for the subject was evident in his talk, but the evening wasn't entirely somber; he also offered funny tales about buying guns and ammo, which he found shockingly easy to do.

It was great to meet him afterward and discuss our similar views on art and politics, a conversation that could have gone on, but was cut short by other commitments. Thanks, Al, for an evening of insight and entertainment. And inspiration.

Above: a sample of Al Farrow's work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


"The kids in D.C. are smarter than we give them credit."

In this morning's Washington Post (12.18.08), accompanying an article about a "Festivus" board in Adams Morgan, where people jot down their complaints. This was one of the complaints that was posted.

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin, The Washington Post

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

a monument to self

[abandoned gas station, Merrifield, VA.]

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Group Show of DC Illustrators

The annual Members' Exhibition of the Illustrators Club of Washington, Maryland and Virginia opens this Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008 in Rosslyn. It's always a great show, so stop by and check out the artwork, have some wine and cheese and meet the illustrators.

It's an honor to have my artwork chosen for the invitation postcard and exhibition poster. The illustration was part of a series of five illos done for Germany's Stern Magazine, on the subject of the heart as it relates to emotions. This piece refers to the German phrase "Herzkaspar" which has no English equivalent but translates literally to "Heart Jester."

1820 N. Fort Myer Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22209
SHOW DATES December 8, 2008 - January 9, 2009
OPENING RECEPTION & HOLIDAY PARTY Thursday, December 11, 2008, 6:00-8:00pm

The Illustrators Club website can be found here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Handmade Book Show

"Turning The Page," a gallery show featuring Illustrated Books, Handmade Artists Books and original artwork opens this Thursday, Dec. 8, 2008 at the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts gallery in Rockville MD. Among the books and original artwork on display are my handmade book "Occam's Razor" and the accompanying artwork. The book is a flag book, which opens up and expands into three long illustrations, and also features a sculptural box containing a sliced up explanation of Occam's Razor as well as an antique shaving razor. Exhibition and gallery information follow the artist's statement.

Artist Statement

As an illustrator, I've created thousands of images, mostly for magazines, and while creating art for others’ manu-scripts may allow for a little personal expression, it’s not enough. So I began exploring handmade books as an outlet to fill the void, enrolling in a Book Arts class at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. My interest in taking the class was not only to find a means of personal expression; it was also an exploration of book construction, both unique and ordinary, as well an exploration of the relationship between image, text, structure and expression.

Midway through the semester the instructor introduced flag books to the class, and showed us examples. A unique feature of flag books is the unfolding of interlocking “pages”— the flags — as the book is opened. My initial reaction was that the construction was fascinating and entertaining, but... ultimately a little gimmicky and maybe even a little pointless. I felt there needed to be a reason for making a book a particular way, a balance of form and function, and I couldn’t find much of a rationale for most flag books beyond being flag books for flag-book’s sake. To me, it was overly complicated as a means of conveying a thought or telling a story.

But, that was the assignment, and I’m always up for a challenge. After giving it some thought, I decided that if the content was going to reflect the structure, then the book should relate to the theme of complexity. So I opted to make a book about “Occam’s Razor,” a philosophical maxim credited to the 14th century philosopher William of Occam that argues for simplicity over complexity. These days the maxim is often reduced to the bite-size “keep it simple,” but it’s more nuanced than that. The “razor” refers to the act of shaving away unnecessary parts of an argument, reducing it to its simplest, and therefore most logical form: Don’t favor a complicated explanation when a simple one will do. In design, it is taken to mean simple design is preferable to complex design.

Being a big fan of irony, I thought a complex book on the virtues of keeping it simple was a worthwhile conceptual approach. Yet the real irony may be that the book, while complex to make, is, in the end, exceedingly simple.

The text, which is limited to the two inside covers, gives an overview William of Occam and his maxim, and describes three different examples. Those three examples are illustrated, with each illustration sliced into seven pieces, or “flags,” which fan out to form the completed image when the book is fully opened. It also features a second, very lengthy (2,884 words) explanation of Occam’s Razor, which I hand-sliced into hundreds of pieces and glued piece by piece, along with an antique straight razor, into a handmade box that is set inside the book.

Three of those 2,884 words are reserved for the cover, where they are inlaid into the front label to form the book’s subtitle (and central message), “Keep It Simple.”

The illustrations depict three examples of Occam’s Razor:

Crop Circles: Crop circles began appearing in England in the late 1970s. Many people claimed they were created by aliens. But, following the principles of Occam’s Razor, it would be more reasonable to conclude that humans rather than aliens made crop circles, because the alien theory is too complicated and makes too many unproven assumptions. Occam was proven right when two men subsequently came forward and admitted to creating them after evenings spent at a local pub.

If You Hear Hoofbeats, Think Horses, Not Zebras:
This phrase, often used in medical schools to explain to doctors how to diagnose multiple symptoms in a single patient, means, simply, go with the obvious. If a patient has five symptoms, it’s probably one malady, not five.

The Solar System: Copernicus used Occam’s thinking to explain that the Sun — not the Earth — was the center of the solar system, which made heavenly observations easier to explain and eliminated many convoluted 17th century theories. Copernicus was, of course, correct.

One of the unexpected pleasures of creating the illustrations for this book was the opportunity to break out of my usual 8.5" x 11" magazine-illustrator format. Because the images fan out the way they do, they needed to be decidedly horizontal, and it seemed the longer they were, the more effective they — and the book — became. And so the book grew from five flags to seven. These illustrations have, for me, always been book illustrations, and I’m used to seeing them book-size — and sliced. As such, this exhibition holds a bit of a surprise for me since until now I had never seen the artwork printed larger than what the book called for.

The book: The overall size of the book is 9-1/2" x 12", 1/2" thick. The covers are bookboard covered in black book cloth. The illustrations are printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag paper using an Epson 2200 printer with archival inks. The box inside is handmade, wrapped in handmade paper, and the antique straight razor is glued in with epoxy. The sliced text inside the box is a very lengthy explanation (2,884 words) of Occam’s Razor, printed on handmade paper which was then sliced and glued in piece by piece, giving it the appearance of being randomly tossed into the box. The subtitle on the cover, [keep it simple] is from this same text, inlaid into the label, which is handmade paper.

The prints: The giclée prints are 5-1/2" x 36" images printed on 6-1/2" x 40" Museo Max 100% cotton heavy watercolor paper using archival inks. The artwork was drawn by hand in Photoshop, working dark to light in a manner similar to mezzotint.

"Turning the Page" opens December 4, 2008 and runs through February 21, 2009. The Metropolitan Center For the Visual Arts is located at 155 Gibbs Street in Rockville MD, 20850. Some of the featured illustrators and bookmakers are Kinuko Craft, Leo & Diane Dillon, Sally Wern Comport, Alex Bostic, Lynn Sures, Helen Frederick and Kerry McAleer Keeler. For more information on VisArts, click here.

More info and details on the book, including more pictures, can be found on the handmade books section of my website. Click here.