One thing that I’ve never done a lot of, in spite of its obvious educational merit, is copying. I draw so slowly that I always feel guilt ridden if I’m not doing something maximally creative. The drive to make a name, make money, and most of all, make something new has usually left me too anxious to draw merely as a means of seeing/understanding other work, or even the potential of the medium. Those were lessons, I figured, that I would have to learn incidentally, as a reader/viewer. This was a hinderance, but one I figured I’d have to deal with, given the relative shortness of life and the geological pace of my art-making.
Today, though, wanting to avoid another rerun, but too tired to conceive of something new, I thought I’d try my hand at imitation and see what, if anything, it did for me. I settled on a simple panel of David B’s, an artist with whom I feel an affinity, given his love of historical subject matter and scrawny, stylized figures. The panel I settled on comes from his and Jean-Pierre Filiu’s excellent Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations.* Specifically, the panel depicts an American assault on a Barbary Coast fort in the early 19th century. You can see the original panel and my color copy below:
I picked this panel because of its simple and powerful composition. I loved the central column of smoke and was eager to see how it might work in color. In adapting the panel, I abandoned David B’s hatching in exchange for my own particular method of applying fields of flat color. As a result, the pillar of smoke is less scratchy and more soft, smooth, and full. It’s definitely an asthetic that I’m drawn to, that I default to, even, but I see how, putting the panels side by side, it’s one that costs me a certain energy and dynamism. In the original drawing, the smoke seams to swirl more, both because the hatching stands in so well for rippling and billowing, but also because its subtle gradients better depict the gradual thinning of smoke as it wafts away from its source. In the same way, the slightly jagged character of his horizon line makes for a simple, but plausibly choppy sea, where as my crisp boarder is goofily inert. If I had to do it again, I’d go with stylized waves like I did in my Lady Liberty or Loch Ness Monster drawings. Still, I’ve got a compulsive commitment to simple shapes and solid fields, so I’ll live with all this.
One particular challenge of trying to render this panel in color** was the assignment of values to various composition elements. In the original, virtually everything is white and a few signal elements (the smoke, the ship) are black. In my rendition, I tried to use different colors and values to differentiate the different elements. Things stayed generally intelligible, I’m proud to say, but there are a few weak points here. The explosion, for instance, loses some of its pop since it is not a great deal lighter than the smoke nor darker than the sky. The cannon, too, is harder to discern. It blends too well with the purple of the smoke and its internal shapes don’t stand out against each other. I tried to use a wider spectrum of values to color the cannon, but that meant using too many pale shades that made it look lighter and sillier, more like rubber than plastic. Finally, the ship’s sails blend a little too well into the sky. Below is a black and white version of the image, highlighting the different values:
Over all, I think this was a pretty exacting copy, at least compositionally. Obviously, the difference in line quality and the addition of color have changed the feel of the piece, but, generally, everything in the panel is pretty much where David B left it. The only exception, I think, is the unlucky airborne Arab. Without meaning to, I really changed the position of his head, arms, and legs. I also drew him completely out of scale. I wasn’t aware of doing any of that, but it makes sense that I did. Loose limbs aren’t my specialty. Most of my characters come out pretty stiff, so even copying a (slightly more) realistically splayed body didn’t work out too well for me. What I was aware of doing, though, was moving the character up and to the left, getting him off of the smoke and the explosion. I also did something similar with the cannon-cleaning/loading Q-tip looking thing (tired, no time for research!). I’m not sure it all worked out. Even with heavy haloing and overlapping, David B’s drawing doesn’t feel cramped. Mine meanwhile, seems a little too stiff and clean. Also, the guard’s foot makes for a pretty rough tangent, as it curves so neatly with the swell of smoke behind it.
No matter the strengths and weaknesses of the copy job, this was a pretty fun exercise that really deepened my thinking about compositions and the sources of energy/movement in a panel. I might be doing some more of these in the next few weeks, so look out for the Swartzification of any number of other artists!
* I picked this book up at MoCCA last year and can’t recommend it enough.
** Why add color? There’s a story I like, whether it’s apocryphal or not, about the Yiddish theater. There was allegedly a Yiddish-language edition of “King Lear” that bore the legend “Translated and improved by…” I love that. No matter how strictly you’re trying to copy something, and no matter how perfect that thing might be, it’s just impossible not to tinker with it. The addition of color is my attempt to translate and improve this picture, I guess.