I was born in the early 1950s and cannot remember a time when I wasn’t swooning over cartoons. The ones that my generation grew up with were crafted by Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, Disney, and Hanna-Barbera. These were our versions of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street. Rather than learning manners and inclusion, we were fed a steady diet of pratfalls, stolen acorns, balloon mallets, and cliff dives. While we laughed at the antics of these beloved characters, we were also bathed in some of the finest classical music and extraordinary graphic design that, in my case, became part of my DNA.
A few decades ago I began studying vintage Disney graphics in earnest. Not the animation itself, but instead the backgrounds. One of my investments at the time was the colossal 5.5 lb. book called “Walt Disney Animation Studios Archive Series #4: Layout and Background”.
I also bought a collection of postcards called “The Art of Disney: The Golden Age (1937-1961).”
I fell in love with the hitherto unpublished pencil sketches, line-and-wash tonal studies, and close-ups of well-known scenes from the best films of this wonder-filled era. As you may know already, sketches and sketchbooks are my thing really; from Rembrandt to Monet to Disney, I enjoy seeing their sketchbooks, the thinking processes, as much as the finished images.
Something haunted me about those finished images as well though. There seems to be a subtle difference between illustration and ‘fine art’ (or as I call it, ‘art-art’), and I’m still not quite sure what it is. When in doubt though, dive in, right? Since I lived in a picturesque village at the time, I decided to use the buildings nearby as subjects for my own cartoon background practices. Here are some of the results.
[An aside: As I worked along, my cartoon brain engaged again, about the same time a blizzard arrived, so I documented this scene showing the back of my home and what was left to see of the storm door. It’s called, “It Snowed Last Night”.]
So as I was saying, there really is an subtle yet unmistakable difference between an image that evokes the feeling of a story, and an image that is “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
So what makes the magical difference?
The answer is complicated I’m sure, but I do know one watercolor technique that has the power to instantly alter the mood of a picture. It is called glazing. (Here comes your watercolor lesson, get ready…) This technique has the power to transform a painting from the facts to a feeling. It is simple enough to do, and only requires patience and a bit of materials knowledge. First to the patience. Complete a simple watercolor, being sure that any ink lines are done with permanent ink, not water-soluble. Allow the sketch to dry completely, I mean bone dry.
Then mix up a mild solution of a very transparent watercolor pigment such as quinacridone gold, or perhaps raw sienna, or a bit of rose madder. With the least abrasion possible, use your brush to glide a thin layer of your ‘tint’ over a few select areas of your painting, any places that might be kissed by the sun, especially late afternoon sun. No fiddling allowed, or you run the risk of lifting the watercolor layers beneath your layer of tint. Let it dry, and be amazed.
It takes a bit of practice, and of course a few failures, but in the end, any painting/sketch that is ‘okay’ but looks a bit dull can suddenly come to life via glazing. There is a glow where there used to be ‘just facts’. There is atmosphere where there used to be air. Suddenly you are inviting your viewer into the picture, to visit your art as a storybook illustration. Your viewer begins to create a story all their own, of course. That is magic.
Animation cartoonists of the early-to-mid-20th century had a technique similar to glazing. They could use tinted sheets of celluloid (called ‘cels’) as overlays to create a rosy glow in the morning, or the blue-grey cast of twilight, without disturbing the detailed original image beneath. To portray the animation itself, the characters were drawn and painted separately, directly on clear layers of celluloid. Then these mostly-transparent cels were placed on top of the highly-detailed background art so that a series of dashing dwarves could run everywhere without disturbing the beautiful images below.
You use glazes and cels too. All the time.
Bet you didn’t know that, did you. Metaphors abound in my art supply collection, and this is a big one. The thing that is so magical about a raw sienna glaze is that you can’t see it, but you can feel it. The magic of tinted cellophane is that without even touching an image, it changes its appearance entirely. And like those glazes and tints, we too look out through eyes that are glazed, all the time, and we don’t even know it. It is the human experience for all of us, every moment of every day, whether we know it or not. When I am humming a sad song, it colors my experience of the day. When I need a grey sheet of cellophane to look through, in order to validate my Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy attitude, it is instantly available. Our minds and hearts and souls are overflowing with cels of every hue and they color our moment-to-moment experience of life. If I act Pollyanna, it is because I chose my rose madder lens through which to view my day, just for now.
My point is, we all have images (events and circumstances) that are the real deal, ‘the facts, ma’am, just the facts’ of our lives at the moment. It behooves me, though, to remember I am also, at every moment in time, adding my own glaze, my own tint, my own spin to the facts, in order to create a compelling story. There is no denying there is a picture underneath it all. But equally important there is a tint.
Choose your tints carefully. They are the filters through which we see everything.