Monday, April 30, 2012

Inking Erik Satie

Deadlines and travel have conspired to make this posting a second-grade fresh re-posting instead of the usual steaming hot virginal Snarkery you've come to expect, ie., your hopes are dashed but read on anyway, especially if you're at work …and BTW, I do plan to continue with the Moebius critiques … I need time, more time — whose golden thighs uphold the flowery earth …

In our economically blighted times, when the very mention of Brokers and their fiscal ilk makes even the staunchest of capitalists wobble somewhat at the knees, it behooves us to remember that Lewis Carroll thought it prudent to include a Broker amongst the Fellowship of the Snark. We see a picture of the Broker above, in the midst of some menacing spade-work in Fit the Fourth.

The Broker’s job description is minimal : he is charged with valuing the B-Boyz goods. Beyond that, the Admirable Carroll can add little else and nor should he, since the Research Department here at The Hunting of the Snark is perfectly capable of adding it all up on their own.

The Broker’s resemblance to the French musical gadfly, Erik Satie, is compelling evidence of something or the other. The Assamese nautch girl in charge of the investigation managed to curtail her lascivious gyrations long enough to unearth further details of Satie’s involvement in late Victorian financial nonsense …

« … if memory serves, Satie enjoyed creating miniscule models of houses shaped out of lead, which he kept in a cabinet in his home. He would periodically advertise these houses in the local newspaper — making no mention of their actual size — and would take great delight in ushering the prospective home-purchaser into his parlor, and there solemnly presenting him with the unexpected lilliputian house. »

This crackalackin’ summation of the essential nature of the global financial industry was then collated and cross-referenced with additional information concerning the mysterious Monsieur Satie which had been slipped anonymously into the go-go boots of the above-mentioned Assamese nautch girl in a rare, stationary moment …

Item : Erik Satie … this mysterious person who founded his own religion, The Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus, Leader.

Item : Erik Satie … who took up smoking to give his physician extra income.

Item : Erik Satie … whose 14-hour long solo piano masterpiece, Vexations, (which Gavin Bryars described as a sort of "Ring des Nibelungen des pauvres"), initiated the modern use of boredom as an artistic strategy.

Conclusion? Don’t be fooled by the sloppily inked moustache and glasses, nor even by the phony, Brad-Pitt-style French accent — Erik Satie was a dangerous character and unsafe in elevators and department stores, with or without Muzak. His appearance in this version of the Snark as the Broker is a shocking reminder of the grim human cost of applying Carrollian Nonsense to global financial strategies. In a world where millionaires weep, we all weep!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Occupy Snark!

I apologize to my readers, but the press of deadlines this week has been so great that I must post a re-run of an earlier posting, a stanzel from my GN Snark. It's outfitted with the usual blathery commentary and barely concealed ridicule …

"But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
In a moment (of this I am sure),
I shall softly and suddenly vanish away —
And the notion I cannot endure!"

The last, fateful words of the Baker-cum-Lewis-Carroll before he is smothered by the inky depths of the night, suffocated by the relentless Amorous Gigantism of Inanimate Things, transfixed by the icy glare of the Snark-Is-Eye lurking in the wardrobe — obliterated, in short, by his memories of the future!

This whole Boojum business is what literary boffins like to call Catharsis, a purging and expelling of unsettling emotions, a process which results in a post-Boojum state of relaxation, mental ease, gleaming white teeth and little or no underarm perspiration. In this state of enlightenment all of one’s troubles softly and suddenly vanish away and one is left with only the minty fresh after-taste of … Boojum-Orientalism!

Boojum-Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Boojum because the Boojum is weaker than the Baker, a doctrine which elides the Boojum’s difference with its weakness. . . . as a cultural apparatus Boojum-Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge … the whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Boojumistic essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting …

All hail the postsemiotic Second-Grade-Fresh-New-World-Order! Aided only by my trusty giant power-packed pen and buckets of thick, reheated cafeteria-style ink, I have deconstructed a Boojum-ridden, prostrate Baker into a resurgent postcolonial Boojum reasserting his alienated Snarkhood and casting aside the dehumanizing typology of the oppressive Victorian bourgeois Snark Hunter … (pauses for breath)

… until that time when that fickle Wheel of Fate turns again and allows a resurgent postcolonial Baker to reassert his alienated manhood and cast aside the dehumanizing typology of the oppressive Victorian bourgeois Boojum … (dabs brow with gin-soaked compresses)

… hurrah for the disappearance of the Author-Function! Hurrah for the justified tyranny of the Reader-Boojum! Hurrah for everybody!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Moebius & The Airtight Garage: No. 4 … Ink lightly into that dark night

Inking is a physical performance in which the extreme polarity of the marks being made allows little room for fuzzy thinking or clumsy action. One must be precise and accurate whether one's moves are bold or delicate, and in the latter mode, Moebius was the undisputed champion. Not many inkers can keep things so quiet yet energetic, as Moebius did when he was in the mood.

Here’s page 30 of The Airtight Garage and after 34 years, it still makes this inker seethe with a happy envy. It is a performance governed by a simple rule (in addition to the 3 Prime Directives of camera-ready, eye-pleasing black & white line art):

4. Toujours délicat — always delicate!

This page is an homage to the expressive powers of a crowquill nib handled with care. Each panel retreats backwards in point-of-view, shedding detail but always staying crisp and balanced and detailed at the precise level needed to maintain continuity and attract the eye further. The breakup of white space is completely interlocked with the lines, the spotting is perfect — in fact, there is little one can express with words to do justice to this performance.

Note the petillance in panel 2; the woman’s hair is an optical eye-sink which perfectly balances the spotting above her. Also note that on this page, Moebius tackles one of the great technical challenges of any inker: realistically rendering disparate textures in the same page. In panel 1 we have the delicate flesh of a woman (more about that in a moment), the short-napped fur of her jacket collar, the rougher masculine flesh of the hand pointing to her, the burned edges of paper and even the brass screen of a hash pipe with ashes in it. In the next panels we have hair, pearls,, shiny fabrics, a puff ball of sorts and even smoke.

Nothing makes an inker sweat harder than tackling lots of different textures in one rendering, it requires careful choices in choosing one's marking system so that the entire assembly makes sense in the end. If, for example, one over-renders the female’s face, then everything else usually needs more rendering to stay in tune and this may skew the tonal design. If the cigarette smoke had been crosshatched (as Moebius does on other pages of the AG) then the fabric it floats over may need more rendering to keep up visually.

In other words, when rendering disparate textures, the decisions made with the lighter textures set the tone for everything else and when one then considers lighting and modeling (which Moebius ignores here, the scamp!), things can get tricky.

The delicate touch of this page smites this inker’s heart mostly keenly in panel 1, which we see blown up here. It is a bible for crosshatching in the first quarter-tones of the grey scale.

I mentioned that Jerry Cornelius’ face is rendered in the feminine style, ie. when inking women, always maintain a lighter touch and avoid modeling. Supposedly, Moebius used Patti Smith as photo reference for this face, I don’t know if this is true but no matter, he rendered her perfectly. The hatching describes the spherical volumes in the classic Moebius “stabby” short pattern with the classic Moebius 90-degree crosshatching in judicious passages.

Two additional points: first, Moebius has broken one of the Prime Directives here, the linework is dropping out slightly. I’ve seen several different print runs of this page and they are not quite up to snuff. He made the dots and lines of this passage too delicate and they are dropping ever so slightly. This is the danger of delicate crowquill work and this is why most fastidious, delicate cross-hatchers work at same size or very close to it. No reduction minimizes the dangers of sloppy pre-press, digital or photo-neg. It also reduces the sheer amount of labor required in covering the page with obsessive marks.

I know that Moebius had a fetish for inking bigger and bigger at one time in his career; I do not know the original size of this page and if any readers do, please let us know. My gut feeling is that this page was reduced too much — not that it was subjected to sloppy prepress.

The other point is one that seems to perplex some younger illustrators & comix lovers. Using photo reference is a perfectly healthy and useful practice for the illustrator, it is not cheating or “faking”. Before the camera came along, professional artists (ie. illustrators in modern parlance) used models and drew from life, often keeping these drawings in collections which were used as reference by other artists in the studio. When photography came along, they began collecting photographs of appropriate subject matter and continue to do so even now.

The danger of photos lies in their over-use by developing draftsmen, who unwittingly learn to copy the distortions and omissions of the photographic process and thus stunt their growth. Photos always lie in subtle ways and the experienced draftsman learns to correct them without conscious thought, simply by using his good eye.

In any case, despite the dropping of lines, panel 1 is an amazing performance. A delicate mood is maintained despite the wide span of tones and textures being rendered. The crosshatching on the face is classic, it demonstrates the natural evolutionary growth of stippling to hatching to crosshatching.

The delicate touch is a learned touch, it requires the hand to perform at the very edge of its physicality. Moebius mastered it after years of practice and used it to great effect in The Airtight Garage and elsewhere.

Let’s see an example of Albrecht "Big Daddy" Dürer in the same mode, a detail from his Fall of Man engraving. This sample has been blown up considerably and shows a consummate mastery of the stipple-hatch-crosshatch progression executed with the most demanding — and expressive — linear tool ever devised, the engraving burin.

I urge students of inking to visit the site that I got this sample from, it’s a massive blow-up of the engraving from Google and the MOFA-Boston. 75% of everything you need to know about classical, long-line spherical crosshatching is in this engraving. It's all in the hands, baby.

Moebius performed with pen and ink and paper, Dürer performed with steel and copper and engraver’s ink but the song remains the same — a woman’s face, a brass screen, a fur collar — it's all the same melodic, physically-inflected line. If it feels good (to your hand), it's good.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Moebius & The Airtight Garage: No. 3 … I ink the body electric

The Airtight Garage started off as a bit of a larkish bagatelle but as the book progressed, Moebius employed more and more stylistic & technical variations: fast vs. slow, chicken-fat vs. clear-line, etc. But it’s in the very first section, the Major Fatal prologue, that he really played his hand, as we gambling inkers say.

I have to confess that page 10 is one of my favorite pages in the entire AG. It’s a classic example of direct inking, where the penciling is minimal and the inking is mostly improvised on the fly. Such a strategy compels the inker’s hand to show its stuff without resorting to any stylistic subterfuge and is not for the weak-hearted and handed.

The rule of this page (and yes, the first three rules of black & white camera-ready art that pleases the eye are still in force) is zen-like in its simplicity:

4. Ink to reveal the hand, not just the objects being rendered

It’s all about the hand, its presence on this page is overwhelming, much more so than in most commercial work Moebius (and other illustrators) did. Until several years ago, most book & high-end magazine work preferred a crisp, slick surface. The hand was usually hidden behind a Potemkin village of polished, impenetrable marks and on the whole, readers seemed to prefer it that way.

The Major Fatal prologue was a bit of a reaction to this. On page 10, the hand shows itself everywhere — but never clumsily. And it’s not just the obvious scribbling on the man’s face in panel 1 or the nervous foliage in panel 3. The entire pattern created by the hand’s movement leaps forward to create a nervous tension on all levels.

Panel 2 is exquisitely well-inked and deserves careful study. The background has vanished and we’re left with a brilliant, fast passage of contour drawing on horse & rider. It is so fast that we can see the delicate marks of the half-lifted nib whenever it changes heading. The nib is omnidirectional, it’s rounded enough to move spontaneously in all directions, unlike more precise nibs which catch and “sneeze” ink when moving too fast.

This gives the hand free rein to manoeuver and also allows the physical liquidity of the ink to flavor the rendering. That is to say, the ink blobs and crawls a bit (and each brand of ink behaves differently) whenever the hand’s impetus overwhelms the nib’s inertia.

The movements are economical, the nib leaves the paper as little as often, note the liquid parsimony of the man’s splayed hand. The description of the horse’s head perfectly breaks up the positive & negative spaces and then the pen goes down the neck, first hatching from 1 o’clock to 7 o’clock, then squiggling nervously and executing a half-spiral before exiting that passage.

Here’s an overlay explaining this. It also shows the same rapid, automatic movement of the hand that has rendered the man’s face in panel 1. The whiskers are grizzled with nervous scribbling while the eyes & nose are perfectly described with furious hatching.

This sort of fast, unthinking and rhythmic angling of a nib around a spherical volume not only describes an object; it’s also provides an immense, somatic pleasure to the inker’s hand. It feels right. The pleasure of movement is the key. The experienced hand’s muscle memory renders such angling passages with gusto. And as I've mentioned before, this "stabby" spherical movement was the foundation of Moebius' crosshatching technique, a technique which we'll analyze in a later posting.

I mentioned the stylistic Potemkin village before. The inker’s hand is often hidden behind one and to be honest, it’s not such a bad thing after all. This writer, in his own inking, has deeply immured himself in a byzantine, utterly impenetrable Potemkin village of inking. Perhaps one day I’ll venture out and mingle with the local mujiks but for now, I prefer my hand to remain hidden. The somatic pleasure of intricate crosshatching has its own peculiar intensity, in particular when rendering the long serpentine arcs of deeply spherical volumes at obsessive length.

It’s important for modern inkers to remember that not only are they entertaining eyes but that they are doing so by making a unique hand-made object. Electronically shuffling numbers and facts in the digital Potemkin village of virtual reality pays better but the mental and physical pleasure of highly skilled manual labor has its own rewards. The mass reproduction of these objects is a subject unto itself but for now, the point is understanding how Moebius built his success upon his hand, upon the specific marks and general patterns that its movement made upon the page.

His performance was not only conceptually stimulating, it was also physically grounded in the reality of muscle and nerve and steel and paper and ink. The Airtight Garage was a mental and physical performance on all levels.

Finally, here’s two examples of pen work which show the hand. I apologize for the da Sesto’s quality, my main reference library is 600 miles away and I must rely on the internet for these drawings.

Albrecht Dürer, pen & ink

Cesare da Sesto, pen & ink

These are pen and ink performances from the early Renaissance, one in the Italian style and one in the German style. I usually choose mechanically reproduced examples (to match the three rules of The Airtight Garage) but this time I wanted to show the naked hand, so to speak.

We artists work in a world obsessed with creating perfectly commodified virtual realities which disdain the ethos of the skilled hand — for both commercial and conceptual reasons, I fear. But the airtight performances of Moebius — they dance elegant rings around the clumsy shambles of these latest re-inventions of our human reality.

The rhetoric of the hand, it's a resurgence of the Baroque aesthetic, in essence, and it re-affirms the power — and utility — of drawing happily. Ecce homo faber!

NB. One other thought has occurred to me regarding the stylistic display of the hand in inking: the use of Rapidographs & felt-tip markers. There are many inkers who do excellent work with the latter tools but this curmudgeon must confess that he harbors the sneaking suspicion that these artists' work would be even better with dip pens … the mono-width nib doesn't really show how one's hand has pushed and pulled and scrabbled about on the paper with the nib. The convenience is outweighed by the reduction in stylistic options. Crosshatching is deadened, the hand-heavy style is restrained and as for clear line with Rapidograph — the horror, the horror!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Moebius & The Airtight Garage: No. 2 … on a clear-line day, you can see forever

Last week’s look at page 36 of The Airtight Garage was such jolly fun with its talk of constrained rules and Goldberg Variations, I’m determined to carry on in the same inky vein with a look at page 77 of Moebius' Garage.

I mentioned then that Moebius went through a clear-line phase before returning to his (cross)hatching habits but I should have been more precise: he went to a relatively orthodox clear-line phase, for he already had a modified clear-line "house" style of his own which he used with great effect, especially in the AG. He had several variations of the style and on page 77 we see an excellent sample of one of them. The first specific rule of this page (always bearing in mind the first Three Rules: keep it black & white, camera-ready and pleasing to the eye) is:

4. Use supple, relatively fast lines to render contour and explanatory texture.

This is the fundamental principle of the clear-line style, as practiced by such masters as Hergé, Joost Swaarte, Ted Benoît, etc. Its commercial appeal is obvious although it has one catch: it requires thorough draftsmanship to execute well. Needless to say, Moebius had no problems in that department and his clear-line, both in the AG and his later “minimalist” phase, was eye-popping.

His hand — never forget the physical testimony of the hand! — moves fast on contour then speeds up and down on detail, lightly varying pressure upon the nib to create swell. The whole page looks all-nib, with some lines twice inked to reinforce the rule of thicker towards the foreground & edges, thinner towards the back and centers.

Even when the smaller lines look mono-width, they are not. Look carefully and you’ll see the ceaseless, minute waxing and waning that a dip pen gives to the line. Inkers who use Rapidographs lose much in line energy, much more than they gain in convenience. They are often forced to keep lines shorter so as to not betray the spindliness of extended passages.
The line breathes when one uses a flexible nib, and when the hand is fast and confident, the result is lively to the eye.

This is a conversational page, talking about shape and texture at a brisk (but not hasty) pace. The pen flirts at times with calligraphy but moderates the ratio of line thickness to white space just enough to avoid the brush & ink corporate American comix look. The latter style, which is often a clear-line style, tends to flex the line severely with mixed results.

The problem with hard-core clear-line, especially black & white clear-line, is that the lack of detail often bores the eye after a while. This is a violation of Rule Three (always make the page attractive to the viewer) but Moebius was a law-abiding inkster. To keep the eye happy, he modifies the clear-line by:

5. Rendering lots of detail with anything but explanatory hatching

There is far more detail rendering here than in any page by Hergé or Benoît. Yes, there is slight hatching to indicate a few shadows but generally, the pen is in a bas-relief mode of thinking. Volumes are indicated by rendering around their outer edges or even leaving them blank and rendering the space behind them to make them pop. The rendering itself is mostly texture and sub-contour and the former is often a sub-species of the latter.

The background of tier 2 is technically brilliant. Note that it's optically registering as a minimal 20-30% on the grey scale, ie., the classic Moebius high-keyed look but sans spotting & shadows. Note also the faces of all the figures in all the panels. Clear-line usually symbolizes faces (at the expense of realistic backgrounds) but Moebius has taken care to make each face spare but precise, using the language of figure drawing, not cartooning. The difference is subtle but essential.

By normal clear-line standards, the entire page — and the backgrounds in particular — is over-inked. But look carefully. All the marks are still contour, they are all explanatory, they are all well integrated into the white. There is no risk of confusing the eye, in fact, the opposite is happening, our eyes are enjoying the visual patterns of obsessive detail because they are firmly grounded in optical reality.
Our eye loves realistic contour even more than the convenience of orthodox page navigation — confusion is attractive if it is done just so.

The total effect is a pleasing optical confusion of foreground and background such as we saw on page 36. Rule 5 (which operates to satisfy Rule 3, the satisfaction of the eye) has been further modified to:

5a. Make everything precise and dreamlike at once by maintaining an infinite depth of field through obsessive detailing.

Note also the lettering scheme of the last 2 tiers. The lettering is so muscular and supple (and with a brush, the show-off!) but without balloons the morphology of the writing melts back into the semiotic ooze of marks which spawned it. I guess even the words are not really there, either.

This drive to detail, this French-fried chicken-fat, was one of Moebius' deepest impulses. When he went orthodox clear-line, he also made several statements in print about wanting to shed these obsessions but in the end, he went right back to them. The horror vacui was a basic element of his style, even in clear-line, and style is an expression of personality. Moebius was an honest stylist. The Airtight Garage is a
genuine self-performance.

The game of art is the game of personality and obsession and desire. Aesthetic and structural rules encourage the deeply seated, collective human language of picture-making to speak clearly through the trained hand, without useless visual solipsism.

On a more practical level, if you're clear-minded about yourself and your obsessive goals, your style will sort itself it out. Above all, avoid passing fads and short-cuts, they encourage character weaknesses and will literally stunt your growth.

The clear-line style is ancient in commercial illustration, it dates back to Greek vase painting and East Asian block-printing. Let's take a look at one of its first appearances in mass-produced Western commercial book illustration, the
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Here's several page spreads by an anonymous artist, along with some sharp type-setting by Aldus Manutius, that old slicky-boy of the composing room. Note that all three of the basic rules are in full form here, in both type and ill0s.

The clear-line of these illos is not as over-rendered as Moebius' baroque variations but it is equally effective. The general aim is still the same: dazzle the reader with a stripped down but compelling approximation of optical reality. There's more about the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili here and guess what? It was constructed according to various obscure constraints of a symbolic and allegorical nature, rather like The Garage.

Constraints and rules! They are the inker's friends, not their chains! Accept the hermetically sealed confines of your own airtight garage and feed your head!