Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Illustrator Who Turns Heads

Lorna Landvik is a well-known writer of fiction in these parts, so it wasn't surprising that the Star Tribune asked her for a holiday-themed short story to run in today's paper. It tells of a girl who receives a doll almost as big as she is, and how she takes it to school after Christmas for show and tell.

I probably wouldn't have read the story if it weren't for the illustration that accompanied it. Not because it attracted me to the story -- rather, I couldn't figure out what was going on in the picture, and so had to read the story to get a clue. Sort of the opposite of the usual purpose of illustration.

illustration with girl carrying doll on her back, with girl's head turned unnaturally around so it looks like she's walking backwards
The girl (she's the slightly larger of the two figures, in case you can't tell) is walking toward the viewer's right, as indicated by the direction of her feet. But her head is turned beyond the point a human neck allows, so it looks like she's walking toward the left with her feet on backwards.

The way her shoulders and arms are drawn doesn't help clarify -- she has no elbow and her lower arm has disappeared, somehow. Try covering up her lower body at the pocket of her coat. She looks perfectly correct for a left-facing posture.

The bad execution isn't the end of the problem, though. Looking at this picture, I got the impression the girl was perfectly happy walking down the street, a la Linda Blair in The Exorcist, with her doll on her back/front. But that's not what the story says at all. In fact, the whole point of the story is how hard it was for the girl to get the doll to school. The illustration is meant to render this bit of the text into imagery:

 ... I turned both her and myself around so that we were back to back,  my arms behind me and clasped around her waist. With my head down and hunched against the pelting snow, I trudged blindly ahead, a Sherpa struggling to get a disabled climber back to base camp.
She finally arrives at school "perilously close" to tears.

The illustrator, Tyson Smith, doesn't work for the Star Tribune; this piece was specially commissioned for the story, I assume. That's relatively unusual in the newspaper world, since they have people on staff who usually illustrate stories; hiring an outsider costs extra money.

Smith is a freelancer with a professional representative who sells his work. From looking at his portfolio, he does a fair number of commissions. But if this Strib illustration is any indication, he's not adept at capturing the meaning of the story and he doesn't draw well enough to represent reality, even cartoonishly. I wonder how that fit into the Strib's design budget?

No comments: