It’s been a busy week. So… this is a post I published here way back in 2012 – the early days of Books Around the Table. It amazes me that it has been seven years already.
. . .
I chose this post because I am moving away from being a printmaking purist and into the freedom of working with gouache paints and brushes. Nonetheless, I cut stencils to use as a base for my painting, so I guess I still prefer to work within the safety of limitations.
Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901
I have been thinking about limitations lately.
Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.
Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.
Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938
Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.
When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.
Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937
The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.
Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.
Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939
When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.
James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961
So how does all this inform my work?
“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine
Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.
Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.
Cartoonist Amy Hwang
I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.
We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.
You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.
You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.
Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon. Oh, and you need to be able to read.
For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.
That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.
That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.
And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry; what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite get from other writing.
Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.
Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.
Just when I’ve decided I’m a Luddite, allergic to new technology, and just when I’m thinking it would be nice to be unplugged and unconnected and off every grid imaginable, and just when I believe that if I had a magic wand I would eliminate my iPad and my Internet connection (and eliminate cell phones – please, somebody, give me an old-fashioned phone I can dial number-by-number, how I loved the sound of that dial) – just when all the above happens, I’m left stunned and delighted by something wonderful that comes to me via the aforementioned Evil Internet. Usually it’s something I would have missed entirely if I were off the grid.
A glossary of happiness? Yes, it exists. Last week the New Yorker emailed me a link to an article about a psychologist named Tim Lomas who has been compiling an “online lexicography of untranslatable words” dealing with happiness. Lomas, a lecturer in applied positive psychology at the University of East London, put together 216 words from 49 languages. Each word on his list fits the bill – we lack a suitable single word which translates it into English. Since he published the list, the number of words has grown to over 400.
What takes Lomas’s list into deeper territory is the theory that the words which different cultures come up with speak to ““things that they value, or their traditions, or their aesthetic ideals, or their ways of constructing happiness, or the things that they recognize as being important and worth noting.”
I’m not sure we often think of happiness as something that is “constructed.” But in a culture where many people teach their children that being happy involves status, winning, and wealth, it’s worth wondering why we don’t have a word like “gumusservi” which is Turkish for moonlight shining across water, or like “boketto,” a Japanese word for someone who is gazing vacantly – somewhat stupefied – into the sky.
If you’re interested in other links to untranslatable words try this list at Mental Floss (which offers you “iktsaurpok,” an Inuit word for “the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet”) and at Rocket Languages (including “sobremesa,” the time spent after a meal when you sit contentedly and talk with friends around the table.) Also, these books looks great:
Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders
Other-Wordly by Yee-Lum Mak
Words do matter. As writers, we know that the right words, in the right order, make for great writing, writing that stirs up emotional reactions from our readers. Lomas thinks it’s possible that if we share this glossary of happiness, we might come up with ways to articulate states of being and feelings that – put simply – make us happier. “If you just put them out there and people are aware of them, then—almost like linguistic natural selection—people will find ones that appeal to them, and they might start using them.”
“Linguistic natural selection” – I love the sound of that. I’m going to go exploring for words. And maybe I should invent a word for the happiness I felt when I dialed a telephone number and heard the sound of the dial returning to its resting place – if you’re old enough, you know that sound. I don’t have a word for it. Not yet.
Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.
“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.
“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011
“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview
“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir
Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.