Category Archives: illustration career

Built-in bookshelves

My driving, unrelenting, over-arching motivation is to get stuff off the floor. I’ve had books sitting in cardboard boxes in the hallway for way too long. My dad uses a walker to get around, so floorspace needs to be opened up!

I had these bookshelf units in my studio for years. They’re even painted. I never had an opportunity to install them until now. These photos show the process of mounting them to the wall and trimming them. I live in an old farmhouse and I like everything I build to look like it’s always been there. I used wood from other parts of the house that I either tore down or renovated. The trim here is a little bit beat-up.

We’ll be right back!

Yup, there’s been a big interruption in blog posts. There’s been a lot going on. We sustained some heavy losses here at Western Civ World Headquarters: my beloved pets Lizzie and Gus passed on in the last few months (Lord help me, I’m still a mess). Also, I moved from Syracuse, NY back to my house in Franklin, PA and my dad lives with me here now. I’ve been busy making the place accessible for him. I apologize for the lapse. Life happens.

For the past year-and-a half I’d been able to take advantage of the almighty worldwide plague to post regularly. Much of the information had already been researched, so it was kind of easy to crank out paragraphs every weekday morning while we were all locked down.

In the end, though, it’s unhealthy to be glued to one’s desk, writing about stuff I already know.

While reorganizing my work-space I unearthed my library of books that had been in cardboard boxes for a long time. One of my interests is plagues. I own a handful of books about rats and lice and bacilli (I’m a nerd. You know this already). I mention it because these books tell me humankind has been through pandemics dozens of times. We always react the same way: like idiots.

Johns Hopkins released a study this past week that says the lockdown was unproductive and caused more harm than good. It shows that there was little discernible curtailing of COVID by keeping everyone in their homes. I’ll go further than that. The lockdown was a giant squashing of creativity.

There’s a big exciting world out there, but you and I were discouraged—prohibited—from experiencing it. That kept us from growing. How? Well, I used to be a graphic design instructor at Pittsburgh Technical Institute. PTI’s president, Jack McCartan, was fond of saying at faculty meetings that ‘the answers aren’t in here.’ He meant that there’s only so much a teacher can bring to the classroom. You need to go outside the school’s walls to find what you’re looking for. I took that message to heart and helped organize field trips to New York City and Chicago where we met some bigshots of the graphic design world (Seymour Chwast, you guys). Listening to successful designers and art directors, those students got more education in an afternoon than I could ever hope to give them in an entire quarter. To learn, to stretch yourself, you need to go outside.

Gang, get out there and live your lives. Wash your hands, keep your fingers away from your faces, don’t lick any doorknobs. We only get this one life and it’s a pretty short run. Make the most of it.

We’re coming up to the grand finale of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing. Posts will resume soon.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

The Divine Comedy

Abbandonate ogni speranza, voi che entrate!
Abandon every hope, ye who enter!
—posted above the entrance to Hell

Dante Alighieri

Okay, amici—next up is Dante Alighieri’s (DAHN-tay ah-li-GYAIR-ee) masterwork, La Divina Commedia (lah di-VEEN-ah ko-MADE-yah), The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote it in Tuscan-Italian during his exile from Florence in 1308-1321. The word ‘comedy’ is used in its old sense—this time, it all turns out all right—there aren’t a lot of laughs in this poem. On the other hand, it’s chock-full of mind-boggling imagery. Dante glommed onto mediæval Christian dogma and wrung every last drop of inspiration from it. You and I think of Hell being devils with pitchforks. Dante gives us 9 levels of Inferno, each for the severity of a particular sin. What’s Purgatory like? Dante imagines it as a series of challenges souls need to work through. Heaven, too, has a hierarchy of levels with the Trinity at the tippy-top. Along the way Dante meets people from history, condemned souls frozen in ice, an enormous Lucifer chewing on sinners, sinners drowning in a sea of poison, sinners with their heads twisted backwards as punishment for blasphemously predicting the future (punishments are aptly just—they fit the sin)…it’s the stuff of nightmares. Dante has to be one of the most creative writers ever.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Dante is both the narrator and the main character. He is spiritually lost & confused. Politics forced him to leave his hometown and exile is getting to him. Dante is magically whisked away to the 3 realms of afterlife: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante’s hero, the Roman poet Virgil, is his guide through Inferno and Purgatory. In Paradise, Dante’s lost love Beatrice (Bay-a-TREET-chay) takes over as guide (she died when they were both young). Virgil shows Dante the horrible eternal punishments for sinners in Hell. When they get to Purgatory, Dante doesn’t just go through and look around like he’s on a ride at Disneyland. He joins in with the other souls to work through his spiritual shortcomings. That way, he’s allowed to see Heaven. Dante’s soul is refreshed and renewed. This is known in writing circles as character arc.

The whole adventure takes place over Easter weekend in ad 1300.* Dante wrote it in his own Tuscan dialect which became standard Italian because of La Commedia’s popularity. Just like The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy enjoyed a huge audience thanks to the printing press.

Stuck nipple-high in a frozen lake

I’m an illustrator so I gotta tell you about this. Five centuries after Dante, Gustave Doré was France’s highest-paid illustrator (he could make his mortgage payments on time nearly every month) and he decided to illustrate La Commedia. He wanted to publish a deluxe edition. His publisher said, “Meh, not interested,” so Doré invested his own money and printed up just Inferno. Inferno was an instant blockbuster, his publisher said, “I’m an ass!” and together they produced Purgatorio and Paradiso. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself. Doré was a supremely talented artist. If you’ve never seen Doré’s stuff, you’re in for a treat. His images are every bit as inspired as Dante’s words.
https://www.openculture.com/2013/10/gustave-dores-dramatic-illustrations-of-dantes-divine-comedy.html
WARNING! There are paintings of nekkid people in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO1JTVuhymg
https://www.openculture.com/2015/04/artists-illustrate-dantes-divine-comedy-through-the-ages.html

https://essaypro.com/blog/divine-comedy-summary
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dante-Alighieri/Legacy-and-influence
https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-divine-comedy-by-dante-summary-analysis-quiz.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Comedy
https://context.reverso.net/translation/italian-english/Lasciate+ogni+speranza
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comedy

* Just like Ebeneezer Scrooge met 3 ghosts over Christmas Eve night.
http://through-a-glass-brightly.blogspot.com/2013/12/kindred-spirits-juxtaposition-of-dante.html

Pirates, Ahoy!

Many thanks to my hosts at the Children’s Literature Centre at Frostburg, Maryland for inviting me to present at their annual Pirates In The Park festival. I had a fantastic time! I read from Eve Bunting’s P Is For Pirate. The kids had me paint a parrot who is a pirate on a treasure chest in a pirate ship reading a treasure map. Whew! https://www.frostburg.edu/childrens-literature-centre/pirates.php

You can still buy an autographed copy of P Is For Pirate at Main Street Books. I signed copies of some other titles, too. https://www.downtownfrostburg.com/business/main-street-books/

My baby sister made me this pirate rig in one afternoon!

My clever audience came up with their own Pirate ABC! They told me the A, B & C pirate words to draw.

Dr Ornstein took all the great photos shown here. Thanks, Barbara!

And more Goth

Lately Goth is become a fashion adopted by art students: pale skin and dyed-black hair, heavy on the eye liner and black lipstick, black leather jackets and black skinny jeans.

My pal Chuck Dillon is an illustrator and art teacher. You’ve seen his work in Highlights magazine. He let me include his drawing of a typical Goth art student in today’s post.


If you think that’s funny, he has a whole book of art student types he’s taught over the years. It’s titled ‘Which Art Student Are You?’ and you can get your own copy here.

https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gothic-romance
https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3w0hye

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Guest blogger: Ilene Winn-Lederer

It would be madness to cover the Hebrew alphabet without asking my pal (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregular) Ilene Winn-Lederer to contribute some thoughts and a few examples of her fantastic calligraphy using Hebrew letterforms. Click on the links to view more of her work. Thanks, Ilene!



John: Since you will likely cover the technical origins of Hebrew from its Paleo-Aramaic roots to modern usage, here are my personal thoughts on my use of the language in my work.

First, I find the old and new forms of the alefbet fascinating for the following reasons:

I did not grow up in a religious home nor experience a formal Hebrew school education. Coming at the Hebrew culture/language from a mostly outsiders’ perspective, I did not speak it at all but learned to read it gradually through native speakers and informal classes through the years. Ironically, because my grandparents generation came to the US from Eastern Europe, Yiddish was my first language as a child. Anyway, I viewed Hebrew letters as simply beautiful art forms with great design potential. My mystical understanding of the alefbet also came from personal informal studies/classes.

Rimmonim means pomegranate

On that note, here are thoughts from my ‘Alchymy of Alphabets’ collection at my web gallery:
While there have been myriad renditions of the Hebrew alphabet throughout history on stone, carved in wood, crafted in metal, drawn in manuscripts, books, art and calligraphy, I’ve rarely seen any that explore these beautiful letterforms outside the box of their traditional appearance. In 2008, for my portfolio with PaperRoad Art Licensing LLC, I designed a group of illustrated English alphabets whose theme defined the shape of each letter. This year, I’ve decided to work that concept into the Hebrew alphabet. With identification in Hebrew and English, Abundance weaves some of the abundant flora of Israel into the letters that brought all into being.

Finally, here are links to prints available from that gallery: http://www.magiceyegallery.com/GalleryPage.aspx?id=11

Also, my Hebrew calligraphy appears on a collection of holiday greeting cards at: https://m.greetingcarduniverse.com/search/go?w=Ilene%20winn%20lederer&ts=m

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

How my sketches evolve

Probably my best tool for convincing an art director to hire me is my ability to sketch. I like my drawings to look like they came together without much effort. That’s an illusion, of course. To make something look easy you need to put in a bit of work.

Here are the stages of the Hannibal drawing I did for the last post:

1) A rough thumbnail sketch of the idea. Believe it or not, I drew it 10 years ago when I first started planning this book. I like the carelessness of this drawing.

2) I grabbed reference for Hannibal’s elephants and drew this sketch by tracing over the thumbnail and refining it. I added a guy behind the elephant for some drama. I think it looks way overworked, like I’m trying too hard.

3) So I traced over the tracing. This one feels light and fun, like the thumbnail. But, I overlooked one thing…

4) …that howdah needs to be drooping further back on the elephant. That change makes the elephant look even less in control—the balance has shifted—there’s tension because he could go tumbling at any moment. I didn’t redraw the whole sketch, just the howdah.

If I use this image in the printed version of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing, I will paint it traditionally. I will concentrate on keeping it light and fun.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Fit for a Pirate Queen

I sold a painting through my Etsy shop! My take on Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley—from Eve Bunting’s P Is For Piratehas found the perfect home. My patron and his girlfriend are pirate history aficionadoes whose house they transformed into a pirate museum, Musee Libertalia. “It’s named after Captain Mission’s fabled pirate paradise—Libertalia, on the Island of Saint Marie off Madagascar.”

She looks right at home.

I’m so happy. What an honor!

Post scriptum—If ye’ve a mind, shape a course in this direction for a fantastic reading of Treasure Island.

Au revoir, Albert Uderzo

One of my heroes passed on—the amazingly talented Albert Uderzo, who drew the French comic book Asterix the Gaul.

https://www.deseret.com/entertainment/2020/3/24/21192692/albert-uderzo-asterix-french-comics-hero-dies-obituary

A while back I wrote about Asterix and his co-creator here: https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2009/08/24/asterix-le-gaulois-is-50-years-old/

Rest in peace. May the sky never fall on your head.

Happy Fat Tuesday!

I used to make up these puzzles for my Sunday school class. Apologies to the JUMBLE® guys: Henri Arnold, David L. Hoyt and Jeff Knurek!

Speaking of libraries, I’ll be at the Grove City Community Library this Friday (2/28/20) evening 6:00-7:00 to talk about illustrating kids’ books. If you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by!