Feeling a little La-la

santa-monica-cacti

I have been holding on to my jet lag quite well while here in LA; getting up early and going to sleep most nights before ten. Still my internal clock has slowly drifted west a little more each day; I’m probably somewhere over Oklahoma today, rising at 6:30 and feeling rested (last week it was 4:30). It’s been great to get up at dawn and have a couple of hours to myself. I usually walk along the beach for forty five minutes; to the Santa Monica Pier and back before breakfast, passing the homeless people still in their sleeping bags under the palm trees.
After breakfast, I work on my book. I am able to dart on to my computer several times a day to make adjustments to the work in progress, rewriting, redesigning, lettering and drawing elements to insert into the layout. Last night, while waiting for a final meeting on casting, I finished my final read through and am pretty much satisfied. The book is 208 pages long; each with a unique design, rimming with drawing and colors and thoughts and weird lettering. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I feel deeply satisfied by it. I could go on tweaking forever and yet it also feels quite complete, organically whole. I will look at it on the plane again tonight and then send it off to my editor.
I’ve spent most of my days over the past week and a half working on the campaign we are set to start shooting next week. We’ve figured out every shot and transition, pulling the spots apart and reassembling them, challenging them to their basic premises and seeing how we can plus them. We have dozens of roles to cast across the campaign and each day look at DVDs full of actors in LA and New York. Last night was our last round of callbacks and we are in pretty good shape. This afternoon we will take our clients through all of the decisions we make and on Tuesday the cameras will start to roll. We have tested so-called ‘animatics’ (basically cartoon versions of the spots that let us see how people respond to the basic plots of the spots) with consumers and they have all done exceptionally well, hitting historic highs for communication, persuasion and likeability, so we are hoping that our clients will be filly on board with all of the subsequent decisions we’ve been making. But, of course, one never knows. Our director has just finished shooting a movie and every day must meet with the studio and discuss the edit; he says it is a horrible experience and one he won’t repeat any time soon.
This evening, I’ll be on the red-eye back to New York. I’ll get to spend a few days with my family (who I miss terribly) and to duck into my office and straighten out some things on the other parts of my account. We are in the midst of launching a huge print campaign too and have photographers to hire and many, many details to work out.
It has been a very stressful experience because so much is riding on our efforts both at the clients and at the agency. Hopefully things will all go smoothly and the tension will subside.
My book is keeping me sane, quite honestly. It is like a quiet lagoon I can dive in to when all around me is chaos. It’s not just the fact that it’s a real project that has been met with so much good energy so far. It’s also that it’s mine; a little world of my own making that reflects nothing but my own experience of reality. It’s also something I hope will be very positive for those who share it and will help them to embrace their own creativity and make lagoons of their own. Drawing has always brought me such peace and happiness and the further I wander into the Valley of Darkness, the more important a beacon it becomes.
Sure, my book is going to be published — but that’s not it; all of the books that precede it, the 38 volumes of drawings I have filled in the past few years, have all brought me this satisfaction, helping me see the world as it truly is, not a tangle of subjectivity and judgment and tensions and ego, but a place of peace and great beauty, even in the smallest things.
That said, I’ve finished my breakfast now. I’m going to go and do a little drawing in the sunshine before my day takes off.

Aliens

jellyfishLast night we went to a preview for James
Cameron’s new movie, Aliens of the Deep. It was pretty spectacular in
3-D Imax, all shot on the bottom of the ocean with extraordinary
critters and lunar landscapes. Cameron chatted with us just before the
screening and told us he much preferred these personal efforts to
Hollywood fare and would be continuing down this path. Here’s a guy who
made many of the biggest blockbuster movies ever (Alien, Terminator,
Titanic, etc) and won Oscars (Top of the World, Ma!) and instead of
making more and more crap full of explosions and mayhem has
increasingly devoted his creative energies and resources to these
little underwater documentaries aimed at schools and scientists.
As I mentioned a couple of days, I am thinking these days about the
balance between creativity for one’s pleasure versus creativity for
hire. With the exception of the few Damien Hirsts and Richard Serras
making big bucks, art is a business done mainly for its spiritual
rather than financial rewards. As an illustrator, one can make an okay
living, probably about the same as an experienced postal worker. One
has a certain amount of liberty in the way in which one works but, by
and large, you are executing other people’s ideas or at best creating a
drawing to accompany a story someone else has created. If you work for
publications, you’ll have decent freedom to interpret the assignment
and most of your drawings will be accepted pretty much as you draw
them. If you get one of the rare advertising illustration assignments
still left around, you’ll make a lot more money but have to redo your
work many times to fit the exact visions of the art director, creative
director and client.
Advertising is one of the most lucrative businesses for creative
people. We make double what designers do but generally get half as much
respect from our clients (most of whom make far less than we do). Our
ideas have to go through many layers of approval and then rounds of
testing but millions are spent to share them with the world.
Make no mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the work we
do for ourselves and almost anything we do for hire. Art is an
exploration, an unfolding of things that are deeply rooted in who the
creator is. It is not meant to fit an agenda or even express a message
(though much art is decoded for its ‘messages’, an aspect of the work
that is usually a byproduct of the artist’s process and not its true
purpose). Creativity that is commercial is always restricted by its
purpose. It may seem very free and loose and personal but it isn’t.
Even if one uses a song or an image that were created for personal
reasons and one puts it into advertising or design, one changes its
spirit forever. You can’t help but deform it by changing its content.
The song may sound lovely in the commercial but it is twisted to fit a
different agenda and thus loses it true beauty, a bird in a gilded cage
At the highest end of the advertising and design world, it appears that
top creative people have enormous control and freedom but I know many
such folks and though they are freer than their peers, compared with
the freedom of true fine artists they are crippled slaves.
Making the transition from one world to another is awfully hard.
I have hired artists to make ads for the first time and they are
horrible at it. I have hired movie directors to make their first
commercials and they struggle with the whole notion of shooting
something to time, to fitting a story into 30 seconds. Even Martin
Scorcese balked at it and produced mediocrity compared to directors who
are used to fitting their skills to the task. Composers, photographers,
painters, actors, all have trouble making the transition to the narrow
confines of commercial creativity.
The inverse is equally true. When I first started working with
publishers, I completely misunderstood the relationship. I thought my
editor was my client and assumed I had to follow their suggestions to
the letter. My agent disavowed me of this, pointing out that I
was the client, I was the goose laying the golden eggs, the producer of
the product that everyone else was profiting from ( which is equally
true in advertising but that value equation is rarely acknowledged as
if one’s salary was a lump-sum deal that expunges any rights of
ownership). Sure, the relationship was one of business partnership but
my vision was what my publisher wanted. That was a tough one to get
used to but enormously satisfying and liberating. IWhen I write a book
(and it becomes increasingly so with each book I do), I am out to
express myself and to find the best possible way to do so. Others’
functions is simply to help me understand how clear and engaging I have
been in doing so but the direction and responsibility are mine. That
feels a lot more like art to me. The check one cashes in such a case
may do less for one’s bank account but much more for one’s heart.

These thoughts on the value of creativity are rudimentary and a little
conflicted. I’ll keep working on them and share them as they are
polished.

John Hancock

jacks-noteWhen you’re designing a book that will be entirely handwritten, you have two choices. You can be as patient as Frederick Franck and get a bunch of pens and set to work, writer’s cramp be damned. If you are as inconsistent and sloppy as I am, better to follow SARK’s example and have a font created based on your handwriting. So when I made Everyday Matters, I worked with Alexander Walter to turn my vaguely cursive upper/lower case writing into a font.
The font worked well for the book but I was troubled by the fact that the point size is set by the height of the tallest letter, including descenders and ascenders. That meant I was also ways having to scale up the letters and that if I cranked down my leading, I would have letters from different lines bumping heads and tails.
Recently I decided to try a new one, based on my other style of handwriting, a printed uppercase face with slightly larger letters for caps. I wrote out the alphabet and all the punctuation and numbers, then copied out many surreal sentences like “You hope havoc and chaos will ebb when you tattoo a kiwi at the zoo” and “A yoga guru will hew the yucca with a hacksaw.” I made a high res scan of all this palaver and emailed it to Alexander and a couple of weeks later, he sent me a link so I could download the font. Alexander also gave me a macro that runs in Microsoft Word to randomize my text. This useful feature takes all of the variations on a given letter that I have printed and randomly substitutes them in to my text. Instead of the same exact Y, for instance, it will insert one with a longer tail, an angled shaft, uneven tines, etc. This helps to give the font the little bit of chaos that makes for verisimilitude.
Jack immediately asked if I would load it onto his computer. I wonder why.
PS: About 50% of Everyday Matters, captions, some of the nuttier pages, is handlettered.

Inspirational Journal: Muriel Foster

This is one of my prized possessions. In fact, I prize it so much I repeatedly give it away and then go hunt for a new copy.
Muriel Foster(1884-1963) started keeping this diary in 1913 whenever she went fishing and, for the next thirty-five years, filled it with sketches, watercolors, observations and poetry. While she was a professional artist, this little diary was just for her and never intended to be shown. Her grand niece released it for publication as a facsimile decades after her death and it is the work for which she’ll always be known (if I have anything to do with it). You can find a copy or two of the book on abebooks.com but act quickly — I may snap it up first.