Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

29 MAY, 2015

Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations of Owls and Ospreys

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The science of the familiar “owl-face” and the art of its varied permutations.

In his glorious meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman writes beautifully of finding transcendent experiences in our quotidian existence — experiences like his life-altering half-second encounter with two baby ospreys. Indeed, birds of prey like ospreys, owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons have long possessed the human imagination. A fixture of fables and fairy tales — in other words, a symbolic centerpiece of our civilizational proclivity for thinking with animals — they have continued to enchant storytellers and scientists alike.

Nowhere does the transcendent magnificence of this avian family come more fully alive than in the fourth volume the the six-volume masterwork The Royal Natural History (public library | public domain) by English naturalist, geologist, and writer Richard Lydekker, originally published in 1893.

The fifth chapter of the volume explores owls and ospreys, with engravings at once scientifically scrupulous and wonderfully expressive, emanating a warm celebration of the splendid biodiversity of our world.

Barn-owls

Snowy owl and Lapp owl

Ural owl

The beautiful art, of course, is but a complement to the scintillating science:

[The] characteristic “owl-face” is due, firstly, to the forward direction of the eyes; and, secondly, to a circular disc of radiating feathers, more or less distinctly developed round each eye, and which may be bounded by a ruff of closely-set feathers. In common with many diurnal birds of prey, the owls have a short, stout beak, of which the upper ridge is strongly curved, and the tip deflected in a perpendicular direction ; at its base is a cere, usually covered with stiff bristles concealing the nostrils. The feet are furnished with strong, curved, and sharp claws, and have the fourth toe reversible.

Short-eared owl

Scops owl and long-eared owl

Little owl

Hawk-owl

Tengmalm's owl and pigmy owl

Tawny owl

Eagle-owl

Indian fish-owl

Burrowing owl

Osprey and young

Complement Lydekker’s The Royal Natural History with this showcase of some of the rarest and most beautiful natural history illustrations of the past 500 years.

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25 MAY, 2015

The Brothers Grimm in Three Transcendent Dimensions: Shaun Tan’s Breathtaking Sculptural Illustrations for the Beloved Tales

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Hauntingly beautiful visual vignettes in paper and clay.

In his magnificent meditation on fairy tales and the psychology of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — something that has since been echoed by C.S. Lewis, who admonished against considering children a special species, E.B. White, who insisted that one should write up to children rather than down, and Neil Gaiman, who believes that we do a disservice to children by shielding them from darker elements. Hardly any other form of storytelling honors children’s inherent intelligence more than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which have been extending a luminous invitation into the dark for more than two centuries.

Perhaps because they bewitch the ageless dimension of the human imagination, a range of celebrated artists have reimagined these beloved tales over the years: Maurice Sendak for a spectacular 150th-anniversary edition, David Hockney for an unusual vintage volume, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, and Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman. But one of the most uncommon and imaginative comes from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan, creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival.

In 2012, shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Tan about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

Godfather Death

Faithful John

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

Complement Tan’s beguiling Grimms Märchen with the decidedly different but no less important early-twentieth-century illustrations by artist and diarist Wanda Gág, who influenced creative legends like Maurice Sendak, then revisit Sendak’s own remarkable vintage Grimm illustrations.

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21 MAY, 2015

Project 1 in 4: Drawings Illuminating the Everyday Realities of Life with Mental Illness

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A revelatory reality check and a clarion call for life-saving compassion.

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The great Dutch painter endures as one of the key figures we’ve enlisted in perpetuating the perilous “tortured genius” myth — a travesty of the the actual relationship between creativity and mental illness and among the many symptoms of our culture’s pathological delusions about what it’s really like to live with a mind that continually and uncompromisingly antagonizes, sabotages, and corrupts one’s wellbeing.

Project 1 in 4 by School of Visual Arts student Marissa Betley explores the everyday realities of life with mental illness — which affects one in four people in America and adds up to a societal cost of $300 billion per year — through a series of drawings based on the experiences, struggles, and coping strategies of people Betley interviewed, who had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a range of other disorders.

With elegant directness, she exposes the stigmas and misconceptions to which we continue to cling as we oscillate between the equally perilous poles of romanticizing and invalidating psychoemotional anguish. Beneath the mere relaying of these experiences, however revelatory in and of itself, is a deeper call for compassion — a reminder that, as Betley puts it, “love and support makes all the difference.”

Reminiscent in spirit of artist Bobby Baker’s courageous visual diary of mental illness and the breath-stopping Drawing Autism project, but substantially different in style, Betley’s deliberately unelaborate drawings capture the concrete and acute suffering that mental illness engenders — a piercing counterpoint to the epidemic of mistaken beliefs that mental illness amounts to something as vague as a sense or as light as a mood.

Project 1 in 4 is part of the annual 100 Days Project initiative by the SVA Masters in Branding program, which assigns students the task of envisioning a creative operation, performing it for one hundred consecutive days, and documenting the ongoing process publicly. It has previously sprouted such wonderful efforts as Randy Gregory’s 100 Ways to Improve the NYC Subway and Jennifer Beatty’s 100 Hoopties, and was originally inspired by legendary graphic designer Michael Bierut’s assignment to his students at the Yale School of Art.

Betley’s project is part public service, part private inquiry — a beautiful embodiment of Aristotle’s famous proclamation that one’s greatest potential for purposeful contribution lies at the intersection of one’s passions and the world’s needs. When I spoke with her about the project, she shared the personal motivation behind the dry statistics of mental illness:

I’ve seen firsthand how serious and debilitating these illnesses can be. They can be remarkably devastating. While professional help is key, what’s equally important is unwavering support from family and friends. I thought, if I could just find a real human way to raise greater awareness then maybe I could help break down the stigmas surrounding mental illness that are preventing people from getting the help they need. Maybe the project could even save lives.

See more on the project site, complement it with the fascinating research on the relationship between REM sleep and depression, and heed positive psychology founding father Martin Seligman’s simple exercise for bolstering mental health.

For some pause-giving perspective, revisit the story of how trailblazing journalist Nellie Bly forever changed our treatment of mental illness.

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15 MAY, 2015

Ralph Steadman’s Rare and Rapturous Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

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“Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

Something decidedly magical happens when a great visual artist interprets a literary classic, translating a beloved text into image. Take, for instance, William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maurice Sendak’s etchings for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” Delacroix’s illustrations for Goethe, R. Crumb’s twist on Kafka, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

Among the most rewarding such reimaginings are those by the great British cartoonist Ralph Steadman (b. May 15, 1936), who has illustrated Orwell’s Animal Farm, created one of history’s greatest visual interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, and remains best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

In 2003, Steadman turned his talent to one of the most important books ever written and illustrated a gorgeous 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (public library) — Ray Bradbury’s celebrated dystopian novel, titled after “the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns” and originally published when Bradbury was only thirty-three.

Exactly 451 copies were printed, each signed by both Steadman and Bradbury.

In his magnificent 2013 monograph, Proud Too Be Weirrd (public library), Steadman admits to having grown jaded with illustrating other people’s prose — “not much more than shameless self-indulgence” — but writes of having gladly completed the Bradbury project due to its “vitally important theme — the burning of all books.” He reflects on the significance of Bradbury’s masterwork:

As someone once said, I think it was me: There is nothing so dangerous as an idea. Particularly one whose time has come…

And who can forget the ever-timely ideas emanating from Bradbury’s glorious lines? “Stuff your eyes with wonder… live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” Here was a rare integrated man — even in his fiction, he channeled the wholehearted truths by which he lived his life.

Hard though it may be to find, this uncommonly bewitching edition of Fahrenheit 451 is well worth the hunt. Complement it with Steadman’s illustrated biography of Leonardo, then explode with Bradbury on emotion vs. the intellect and the secret of work, life, and love.

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