Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Every Day, Turner, Turner, Turner

Several months ago, I was sitting around in a state of existential despair, as is my usual pastime, when I was contacted by John Miller at Turner Classic Movies. He had an interesting suggestion: Instead of my usual illustration process of creating one or two caricature portraits and going back to bed until the next illo assignment limped along, how would I like to go without sleep for several weeks while feverishly trying to finish thirty-one portraits by the end of June?

How could I refuse? After all, being a classic movie fan, TCM would likely be the only network I could stomach if I had a television. Dealing with long-dead film stars would mean I had caricature subjects I didn't have to Google first to find out who they are.

And so began my nerve-wracking journey. For those of you wondering why I've been mostly incommunicado in recent months, it's because I've been staying up all night, repeatedly watching Bringing Up Baby to capture the stitching on Cary Grant's pajamas. The result of my labors is this month's TCM presentation of Summer Under the Stars, thirty-one days of movie marathons, featuring my thirty-one portraits of classic film stars.

To give you an idea of what this anxiety-fueled process was like, I present here some of the stages of my Judy Garland portrait - a cautionary tale about working really hard instead of working really smart.

Step one is to produce a lot of really hideous doodles in ballpoint pen, based on the photo reference of Judy I've gotten through Google Images and other sources. Most of this reference is useless - glamour shots of young Garland in which all her distinctive features have been airbrushed into oblivion. But I search for anything in the face I can capitalize upon and shape into designerly whatnot.

Why sketch in ballpoint pen? Why not use a pencil, with which I could safely make corrections and careful sketch development? There are deeply-rooted psychological reasons for this my therapist and I have yet to ferret out. I'm sure it's something to do with breastfeeding.

So of course I'm trying to pin down "cute Judy," since she's being featured in her youthful role in Meet Me in St. Louis. But Judy Garland, as all gay men know, lived a brilliantly tragic life of alcoholism that wrecked her appearance as she aged, providing very tempting facial information for the dastardly caricaturist. It was difficult to know when to pull back on the aging Judy's facial quirks to keep her looking relatively young. 

Plus the portrait needs to be finished within a day or two or I'll fall behind schedule. And since I'm a complete fraud with no real talent and everyone hates me and I'm going to die of humiliation when the true limits of my artistry are exposed, I'm under a little pressure at this point.

Once I have the face in a sort-kinda likeness, I start working on the overall composition of the piece. Meet Me in St. Louis is one of the few films on the portrait list I've never seen, so I'm feeling somewhat desperate here to drain what few film stills I have of all their referential value. I figure if I cram enough costuming and background detail into the artwork, people will recognize what film we're talking about. Also, there is apparently lots of singing in the movie, hence my attempts to draw Judy with her bellowing maw agape in song.

And once I've assembled the sketch elements on the computer, I decide to further over-complicate the piece with this ridiculous "period" wallpaper, which I've stolen from the generous internet. Because I am a brainless lummox with only a minimal understanding of the digital realm, I intend to reproduce this wallpaper texture by hand for the final art, further slowing the process on this tight and very hectic schedule. There's some seething self-hatred at work here that really needs examining.
And so the sketch is inked on a light table, producing this schematic, which will be scanned and manipulated in my graphics software. What sophisticated software do I use? Here's a hint: Toddlers enjoy using it to make colored squiggles with a mouse.
And as they say in Tahiti, viola! A painstakingly over-rendered image of a (mostly) young Judy Garland, belting out a musical number I've never heard from a film classic I've never seen. Geez Louise, what's with that wonky banister? I've been watching too many old UPA cartoons, I suppose.

Once TCM distributes these images as part of their online promotional campaign, the sweet reward of all my blood, sweat and pixels is in comments from fans such as this:

"I find these 'caricature' illustrations to be really annoying, unappealing, and unattractive of (sic) the actors in general. Boo TCM! Will we have to look at these all month?"

She could have at least had some kind words for the wallpaper.

Follow the rest of the annoying, unappealing portraits I drew on Facebook here.


  1. I took on a similar job back in May/June...30 portraits of hockey players for The Hockey News. I'm sure my best likeness is a shade or two worse than your worst.