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:

No comments: