Power Pens: The Art of Politics

Power Pens: The Art of Politics There is nothing like a history-making presidential campaign to bring out the insight, outrage and humor in publishing's top illustrators and visual journalists. Curated by Edel Rodriguez, The Society of Illustrators is presenting the original work of twenty five top illustrators and their contributions to the campaign season including Barry Blitt's controversial New Yorker cover of Barack and Michele Obama. The show opens at the carriage house on 63rd St. in New York October 4th and I made a campaign stop with Philip Burke, Steve Brodner, Dan Adel and Victor Juhasz


I can't think of another presidential campaign that has been so unpredictable, full of interesting characters and big issues. One candidate is a moose hunter! How much fun has the last year been?

Phil Burke: After 30 years of caricaturing presidential hopefuls - it has been an unexpected treat to do a heroic portrait of Obama. Who'da thunk? I've caricatured Hillary so many times over the past few years that I really started to have fun - almost as much fun as Reagan in the 80s.
Victor Juhasz: Great fun. All my pieces in this exhibit are from Rolling Stone magazine and the opportunity to work so successfully with RS has made the experience particularly great fun. Their editorial juices have been bubbling like mad and the magazine has been turning out hard hitting, outraged, oft times funny, features and columns on politics. Makes me feel like I'm in my 20's again.
Dan Adel: Doesn't get much better than the Crypt Keeper vs The Kid. Now that Wilma Flintstone has been thrown into the mix, it can only get better. Or is she Lara Croft...

Though I do miss the family squabbles between Barack and Hillary.

I guess since they just met we can hope for some entertaining friction between Sarah and Jumpin' Johnny. I'm definitely enjoying the show, but if we hear any more "Yup's" from her, McCain will start wishing he'd picked Michael Palin.
Steve Brodner: Fun? Well, I don't want to admit to having fun, while our country is burning up, flooding out, killing people, getting foreclosed on. What do you think, we're a bunch of ink-stained opportunists, waiting around for things to go wrong so we can criticize and mock, just for its own sake, without responsibility, sensitivity or scruples? (pause) Ahem. It's a colorful bunch all right, but the whole thing is that way, I feel, because of what Bush has done to the country. Failing that, this election would have been between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. And how much fun was that going to be? So what am I saying, thank you Bush?


How do you approach an assignment? Do you worry more about the concepts or the visuals?

PB: my concepts are visual - specifically having to do with face and posture. I've finally gotten to the point where I'm not worrying about an assignment - just doing it.
VJ: As far as I'm concerned, the concept and visual are so intertwined as to be inseparable. As long as we know the general direction of where the article is going, as the finished copy often arrives in the 12th hour, there is ample concept space to work within and a visual well that runs deep. My only real concern is in creating an image that is too complicated. A strong, concise, pointed, hopefully humorous, image is worth 20 visuals of Sistine Chapel complication.
DA: In the case of the piece I did for the show there was a bit more concept talk than usual since we were working in the wake of Hurricane Barry over at New Yorker. Speigel also wanted to do a positive piece and was inclined to get Lady Liberty in there. I was concerned that in trying to link Obama to that particular symbol of the best of America that we would run the risk of making him less statesmanlike than silly. Not to mention the risk of feminizing him -- not a great favor in a race against a war hero. Good intentions can be a dangerous thing...
SB: The idea comes first always. Illustration is about storytelling. The pictures must care about where the idea wants to go and arrange for it to get there, not the other way around. The great illustrators can make art so beautiful and compelling that you can't imagine the idea came first. But it did.


How much do you enjoy working with art directors and editors? Are they an impediment to greatness?

PB: It depends upon the A.D.... I like working with you, for example!
The pleasure is mine!
PB: The only opportunity I have to work directly with an editor is with Peter Kaplan at the Observer. I've always been frank with him over the many years we've worked together and we've become quite close - like brothers.

Of course my best work has always been done for an A.D. that enjoys giving me total freedom. Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone in the 90s was the best so far!
VJ: Limiting this answer to political features, my experiences with Rolling Stone, and with Peter Kaplan of The New York Observer, have been very productive, exciting, and enjoyable. And quite crazy at times.  I'm pretty sure that I'm assigned illustrations not just for my hands but for my head, and therefore do my best to come up with a great visual idea. I also don't bring an ego into the picture, preferring teamwork instead, because, frankly, that's the reality. Since becoming an illustrator in the mid 70's, I've seen the relationship of editorial and art departments intertwine significantly, and often for the worse, because the fact is, most editors don't get it. That's why it's a blessing to work for Rolling Stone or the New York Observer, because they understand illustration. They get it. There is quite a bit of give and take, bouncing ideas and sketches back and forth, shooting for the best image possible image. Sometimes a concept of mine is given the go ahead on the first sketch. More often than not, we'll tweak it over a couple of rounds. It's rare, but it does happen, where editorial has a particular idea decided upon without need of input from me. On occasion my preferred sketch is overruled in favor of a sketch that I feel isn't as much fun or interesting. That's where you gamble when submitting multiple sketches. Like I said, leave the ego far behind.
DA: In all but the rarest of cases I've always enjoyed the collaborative aspect of illustration. As a rule, two brains are better than one and most AD's know not to go too far and try to grab the brushes.
SB: It's a mixed bag. They usually get it, but are straightjacketed by pressures by advertisers or their own fearful self-censorship. My series of films at The New Yorker had very little editorial input.  I suspect that's because magazines don't take the web as seriously . . . yet.


Deadlines are faster than ever; how much time do you get for an assignment these days?

PB: usually a few days to a week - but occasionally overnight!
VJ: There's never enough time. Almost always the feeling is, "Oh, if I only had another day or two...".  Truth is, those 12th hour, overnight, crash assignments or rethinks produce surprisingly strong results, maybe even better than if there was time to protract the preparation period. I don't advocate it. It wrecks havoc on the body, especially when you're 54 and not 24. It also probably encourages bad behavior from those assigning work especially if it turns out real well.
DA: It varies, but monthlies still usually have a few weeks. And weeklies a couple of days. You know, just like in the days of Maxfield Parrish..
SB: Under a week mostly. A week is now a luxury. Why can't art be assigned when the piece is? Then you'd have a very strong collaboration. Amid?


On the weeklies, and also at Rolling Stone, I usually had to make an assignment based on the writer's three sentence pitch for a story that had not been written two days before deadline. Stories are getting chewed up so fast online, the trick is to think about what is still going to be relevant next week. But I think everything is being produced faster. A photo shoot with a candidate and their new veep choice was eight minutes at most. I think it is amazing what you all can create in several days.


Are these candidate's faces the most interesting ever? What do you look for in a face?

PB: No...we always get a pretty interesting batch - although I must say that Bush Jr. was at once a boring and tedious subject.
I look closely - extremely closely - from every available angle - to familiarize myself with each face as much as possible before starting to distort and stretch. The more I study the surface, the further inside I can go...to find my subject.
VJ: Not necessarily. The longer I do this work the more I realize that a real good caricature is not any easier now than it might have been 20/30 years ago. Technically we get better ( I hope) but the challenge remains the same. What small essence of truth are you bringing to the subject of your portrayal.  I can't just do a facile rendering. There has to be some opinion or observation to the caricature. Some kind of story. It's always a blessing to have some time to absorb a person, especially if they are new to the scene. The more you get to know them in an intuitive way the better the portrayal. What do you look for in a face? Hopefully it will have a distinguishing characteristic (DC) to act as the foundation from where to build upon. I try to find the contradiction or tell in the expression that provides an insight to the person's character. For this purpose, in finding the unscripted expression, Google has become incalculably valuable. If there is no DC then you've got to just be a pro and make something happen. I fear this with Biden right now. From a purely selfish standpoint, I find myself rooting for candidates based on their fun visual potential. It's one reason I wanted Hillary to lose, because she was, still is, so very difficult to caricature to satisfaction. I can think of only a few really successful portrayals of her by my contemporaries. She's so tough to draw, in my humble opinion, because, referring to a previous point, she's so hard to peg. There's no one Hillary. She morphs in photo reference as she morphs politically to fit the circumstance. Kind of scary. One of the few people I've drawn that becomes a different person with just the slightest, and I mean slightest, shift in angle and adjustment of expression.
DA: As a frustrated orthodontist I'm obviously enjoying Barack's hollywood smile, though it would be easier if there was something obviously off other than those ears. McCain's neck alone is worthy of a whole show. And I think he's hiding something in those cheeks. Between his combover and Biden's plugs we're having quite a hair day.
SB: Obama's and McCain's very interesting. I look for how the face can tell the story of what is under the surface.  The face becomes a symbol, a marker for the personality, the history, the character and maybe even the fate of the person. If you're lucky you can find those things in the design of the features.


Political art and visual commentary is enjoying a renaissance, yes?


PB: I hope so!
VJ: Maybe. There's certainly an awful lot to be outraged about. But there are very few mainstream media publications that seem to permit the artist the opportunity to go for the throat, to be real acidic if necessary. There is a lot of caricature nowadays, but so much of it is decorative and space filling. That's where the dangers of editorial oversight and second guessing that I mentioned before have manifested themselves. Somebody in the big office is much too concerned over who will be offended, who will cut access to reporters, who will punish and who will reward over an unflattering image. We've seen what happened when a really great concept made the cover of The New Yorker recently. That makes other mainstreamers think. Again, I say hats off to RS and The NYO for keeping it fun.
DA: Too far from home to confirm that one, but happy to hear it.
SB: YES!!! Absolutely (if we all say it enough, it will come true!!!)

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