A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Serendipity rears its head in some awfully strange places. If you provide lettering for comic books, you get used to a lot of funky situations which call for sound effects. Planes crash. Jaws get broken. A man was hung at the end of a graphic novel and the writer, much against my own inclinations, insisted that i provide the sound of the condemned man’s bowels and bladder evacuating. You get used to it all.

But I’ll never forget lettering a strip some 16 years ago called “Adventures in the Rifle Brigade”. I think writer Garth Ennis got a little tired of the renewed appreciation for The Greatest Generation which came around the turn of the new millennium, celebrated by Tom Brokaw’s book, and of course Spielburg’s Saving Private Ryan. The Rifle Brigade was Ennis’ antidote to the Baby Boomer Generation’s recognition that our parents pretty much saved mankind. Nothing was sacred to Garth. The Rifle Brigade was a top secret team of commandos, reserved for only the most dangerous missions, invariably behind enemy lines. There was Hank the Yank, a taciturn American. There was Milk, a commando who managed to make it into the Brigade despite his penchant for the love that dare not say its name. There was the brigade leader, a stalwart super soldier with a stiff upper lip, but endearingly blind to the fact that Milk wanted to take their relationship to the next level. And there was the brigade’s secret weapon: The Piper, a surly Scotsman armed only with a set of bagpipes. I guess Garth didn’t like bagpipes. When the chips are down, The Piper is called into action. He need only play his bagpipes and the enemy goes into brain hemorrhage.

When this happened at the climax of the final issue and one of the Gestapo men surrounding our heroes yanked off his own head, I knew that it was unlikely that i’d ever again have an opportunity like this:

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Looking back, I could do without the rather uninspired KLANG on the final panel. but that RRRTCHH was very important to me. I played with several ways of doing it, and finally settled on the old cliche of the sound effect itself getting ripped in half. i’ll try that one maybe once every five years. When it all went digital, I designed a sound effects font that would make the trick easy. But what you see here was all hand lettered.

I didn’t know until this morning that we’d lost artist Carlos Ezquerra a few months back. In addition to Rifle Brigade, I’d lettered various other projects illustrated by Carlos, most notably a Preacher graphic novel called “The Good Old Boys”, also written by Garth Ennis. I never got to meet Carlos, but he was a consummate pro, and it was always a privilege to get to work on his artwork. I think all of the projects, including Rifle Brigade, were done for DC’s horror imprint Vertigo. This was the Golden Age of Vertigo. It was all terrifically written stuff, if occasionally unnecessarily vulgar. It was always fun.

But it was this yank-off-your-head fight sequence that pretty defined the high point of the experience. My only regret here is that i wish the colorist had allowed the RRRTCHH to pop a little more clearly.

A lot of people have spent a lot of years lettering a lot of sound effects for a lot of comic books. But I may be the only one whose shoulders were touched for this particular motif. The moral of the story is watch out for opportunities when they knock. And if you know what’s good for you, stay the hell away from bagpipes.

The Phthalocyanine Trap

The phthalocyanine family of pigments were first experimented with in the early part of the twentieth century. There are phthalo greens, blues, violets and others. What they all have in common is their intensity, and their almost incredibly powerful tinting strength.

This would be no problem, except that no other pigments i’ve ever heard of can match them. Alizarin crimson is pretty powerful too, but the phthalo pigments blow it off the map. No red or orange or yellow can rival phthalocyanine.

Exactly why this is problematic is that if no other hue can compete with the phthalo pigments, then your palette will be weighted toward your phthalos. do you really want your greens and blues to be punchier than your reds and yellows?

A recent oil sketch which illustrates the trouble a little bit of phthalocyanine blue can bring.

A recent oil sketch which illustrates the trouble a little bit of phthalocyanine blue can bring.

I haven’t used pure phthalo blue in years, but i’ve got a mixture of phthalo blue and white on my palette. it goes by the name Sevres Blue. It’s a lovely hue, and is particularly useful for the lower portions of the sky, where blues tend to veer toward green.

On the other hand, Sevres will dominate the sky, and often the whole picture, if you’re not careful with it. The effect sneaks up on me. All of the sky painted above contains at least a little bit of Sevres blue. Particularly the middle area of the sky. It’s overwhelming, and it does not match what I saw and was trying to record. Worse still, the problem too often doesn’t make itself apparent to me while i’m working.

I will not make the claim that a photograph is an accurate record of hue and value, but here’s a snapshot i took after completing the sketch. Its notes are not accurate, but they’re far more accurate than my sketch.

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The phthalocyanine pigment in the Sevres blue completely overwhelms the painted sky. What actually attracted me to this motif were the pale violet cloud shadows hovering over the horizon, and the pink lights of those clouds. All of this is lost in the oil sketch, because these delicate little passages have to compete against the explosive phthalocyanine pigments.

Sevres on your palette is like someone doing Primal Scream Therapy in your local encounter group. Maybe it’s a decent way to get your head together, but nobody else is going to get much out of the experience.

The rise of Sevres blue corresponds to the fall of Cerulean blue, which is the pigment which Sevres was almost certainly designed to replace. Cerulean has perennially been the go-to color for the lower regions of the sky. The problem is that for some reason, in recent years Cerulean has become garbage. It looks nice when you squeeze it from the tube, but mix a little bit of white in it and the stuff becomes a chalky gray. Rembrandt, which is generally a dependable mid-level manufacturer, sells their 40 ml tube of Cerulean for $47.55. It’s currently on special at Jerry’s Artarama for only $28.53. Maybe it tastes good on a Ritz cracker, but it’s unusable for painting skies, or much of anything else. For the truly budget-conscious, Jerry’s offers Gamblin’s 37ml tube of Cerulean Blue Hue for $7.95. Rod Serling would have found a way to use the stuff as a punchline. Remember Burgess Meredith’s bookworm character, the sole survivor of nuclear catastrophe? At last he’s got enough time to read. Then his glasses break. Today Meredith would be a landscape painter, but instead of breaking his glasses, the only blue he’s got is Gamblin’s Cerulean Blue Hue. In fact, the word “hue” in the name of any paint at all is a red flag.

Blick offers Old Holland Cerulean at $247.50 for a 150ml tube. That corresponds to $61.05 for a 37ml tube. It’s doubtless far better than the Rembrandt version. Other high-end manufacturers offer Cerulean at prices ranging from $49.21 for Michael Harding to $30.87 for Williamsburg. These are not outrageous prices, if the stuff will do the job. I’ve tried the Williamsburg, and am not much impressed. Somebody call Consumer’s Union.

A solution might be to simply reduce the intensity of Sevres before allowing it on one’s palette. I should experiment with this. Maybe mixing it with a bit of Burnt Sienna, more or less Sevres’ complement, could get the job done. I’ve got some time today, maybe I’ll try it.

I've Been Working on the Railroad

I should be planning and preparing monumental pictures, but sometimes I come up dry in trying to do this. In the meantime, it’s the middle of autumn, and one wants to record the panoply of light and color which falls on the eye. And on top of that, I’m still a full time commercial artist. Which sometimes means one must do less ambitious work, just to keep some skin in the game.

Some time ago I blundered across this rail yard, barely two miles from our home. It always interested me, but when I’d stop and make sketches, I couldn’t find a composition emerging, like David did from Michelangelo’s block of marble. Hell, not even like a prize emerging from a box of Crackerjack. But a week ago I had some time and some nice weather and decided to bring out a stack of small canvas panels.

The sun wasn’t positioned where I thought it might best serve my purposes, and wouldn’t be for an hour or so, so I decided to chase after the autumn sky:

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It is never a waste of time to try painting the sky, unless of course you’re hoping to exchange your work for dollars. But heck, each one of these things yields a bit more understanding of the sky, and that can’t be minimized. By the time I’d gotten this far, the sky was where I wanted for my rail yard.

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Anyone who says you can’t paint a rail yard with large brushes on an 11x14” panel is probably wrong. Anybody who says you can’t do any particular thing is probably wrong. But those were the rules of the game i set for myself: large and medium size brushes, a small panel, and train tracks.

I snapped this picture of a man adjusting the track, thinking he’d be beneficial to the picture. I ended up taping this image to my paintbox and copying it in the various incarnations of the painting. For the record, he is called a Switchman. His job is to route each train where it needs to go. Additionally, he can derail the train if he needs to do so. As it happens, this yard is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Norwood. If a train came loose, it had better be derailed, or else it’ll come crashing down on the city.

I snapped this picture of a man adjusting the track, thinking he’d be beneficial to the picture. I ended up taping this image to my paintbox and copying it in the various incarnations of the painting. For the record, he is called a Switchman. His job is to route each train where it needs to go. Additionally, he can derail the train if he needs to do so. As it happens, this yard is perched on a hill overlooking the city of Norwood. If a train came loose, it had better be derailed, or else it’ll come crashing down on the city.

So this was as far as I took the picture on its first day.

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A very wise man looked at the second day’s work on this and suggested that it was really two pictures. In one, the focal point was the distant shed. In the other, it was the switch man. That sort of thing seemed both correct and insurmountable. I decided to try again on a fresh panel.

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This was a second shot at the motif. I tried my best to preserve some unity, that the picture would be about just one thing, not two. I also stood further away, attempting to flatten space a bit.

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And here’s this afternoon’s take. What’s it all prove? Not much. Sketching’s good for you, if it’s balanced with more ambitious work. Maybe the distant trains are a little more believable. I have many plans for this winter. One is to squirrel myself in a corner of the attic for an hour each day and practice painting complicated subjects in oil, from photographs or from sketches like these. Maybe it’ll build a certain facility in my hand, which I couldn’t mind acquiring. Anyway, that was my week in the train yard. All the live-long day.