Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ellen Raskin: Illustrator

Ellen Raskin is best known these days as the writer of the Newbery-Award-winning middle-grade book The Westing Game. Altogether, she published four novels over seven years, wrote and illustrated 12 picture books over 10 years, and illustrated a couple dozen picture books by other writers in about 15 years.

But before all of that, she was a graphic designer and illustrator in the New York market. I imagine most of her work has been lost in the sea of ephemera (though a couple of well-known pieces are the covers of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas). The Kerlan collection includes a few gems to represent this part of Raskin's career.

There's a whole box of illustrations she did for the New York Times in the early 1960s. The Times used to do a tourist calendar, it appears, and Raskin was hired several times to provide spot illustrations for hundreds of holidays and places. It's overwhelming to look at them all, but here are just a few. (As always, you can click to enlarge the images.)

The art often includes hand-written production notes. In this case, mortise means that the text would be placed to run around the tops of these illustrations.

I love this hooded guy... standing between a pair of ice skates and an ox cart. I'm not sure what culture he's supposed to be from. I assume it's not the Klan.

Likewise this woman -- I'm not sure what she represents, but she's a bit spooky.

Raskin's lettering is under-appreciated, in my opinion. She fits well within the era's Cartoon Modern vibe.

These trees are just wonderful....

...as are all of these different house styles. Imagine the work that went into finding visual reference to be able to draw these.

I especially love this mashup of European building styles.

This piece is also a good example one part of Raskin's technique. The art is generally inked on some lower-quality paper, and I think it has been waxed on the back as an adhesive, though it might be rubber cement. Whichever, it has browned the paper, except in the spots where Raskin touched up with white paint. There you can see how the art would have originally looked against the formerly white background.

How about those guys with the feathers on their heads? It looks like the one on the right is sneaking up on the one on the left, ready to stab him with the sword.

This piece includes a note, written in red China marker, to indicate the Times engraving department should make each piece into a separate block for printing. (Though they make a nice composition as is, in my opinion.)

The collection also holds a few covers Raskin did for others' books.

The 1968 illustrations for We Alcotts presage the look of the art in Raskin's 1971 novel The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon, I'd say.

This hand-painted mock-up of the cover for a book called People in Palestine...

...is paired with a printed version, where the color has been shifted away from magenta to red in some of the figures.

An original black and white painting of people laboring in a field of crops...

...is paired with the printed, tone-on-tone version, where the people pop out of the background because the teal ink overprints the plants, leaving the people in clear, single colors.

Finally, this proposed cover illustration for Elizabeth George Speare's 1962 Newbery-winner The Bronze Bow:

I'm not sure if this is an ink illustration or if Raskin did, perhaps, a linoleum cut. (This is a general question I have about many of her illustrations, given the textures in the solid black areas.)

She then took that illustration and mocked up this cover wrapper on brown craft paper, casting the people in shades of red and adding in inked lettering to represent the proposed typesetting. She also painted white spears into each soldier's hands.

I don't know why the publisher didn't use Raskin's cover (going with this work by Gilbert Riswold instead). But the collection does include a 1975 note from someone at Houghton Mifflin to Raskin:

Aside from some social pleasantries, it includes these words from editor Walter Lorraine:

As a coincidence we have been cleaning out our art file here and discovered an old, old drawing you did for another Newbery book called THE BRONZE BOW. What's that saying about dead horses rising to the surface. Oh well, it is a nice piece of art even though it wasn't used and I thought you would like to have it back.
That note is a glimpse of the life of an illustrator: you put in a bunch of work and then the piece doesn't get used. You (hopefully) get paid what's called a "kill fee," and you move on.

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