When drawing on location, in the heart of the action, the artist is fully present in the moment as an active observer in the trenches, documenting life as it is happening and adapting to the unexpected at every twist and turn. All of the senses are heightened and a feeling of truly being alive and part of something bigger is ever-present. Excitement and anticipation build while the hand feverishly works to capture the moment that will tell the entire story. This is the practice of reportage illustration.
When it comes to visual communications, firsthand knowledge and engagement with the world offer a unique and fresh perspective. They capture the spirit of what has transpired in a way that is passionate, emotionally driven and vividly compelling. “I love reporting on the scene, getting the backstory and being a witness to the truth,” shares illustrator Lynn Pauley. “You are capturing the moment that makes the ordinary extraordinary.” Drawing in the midst of the action establishes a direct sensory connection with a subject, event, situation or place—one that cannot be replicated using reference photography. “When you sit on location drawing a subject for two to three hours, there are things that affect the final art. There is a certain spontaneity to the work that just isn’t possible with a photo,” admits illustrator Mark McMahon. “When your hand-eye coordination is running lean and mean, you can get some really interesting work.”
Hall of Fame illustrator Franklin McMahon, who did his first reportage drawings as a prisoner in a WWII POW camp in Germany, adds, “An artist can pull out of a subject something that the photographer cannot. The artist can walk around a subject and take with him a cubist idea of looking from all sides, showing many facets in the same picture. He can heighten the reality, making it sharper than what can be experienced in any other way. He can heighten the color and he can carry with him the action painter’s concept of motion where the action comes from the brain, through the arm and out the end of the brush. But, more important than the action is the interaction of the artist with a meaningful subject.”1 When an artist works on location, he or she is woven into the culture, making pictures of an experience, not just slice-of-life scenes.
Without overt concerns for stylistic interpretation or decoration, the artist’s unique experience naturally comes through in the way the hand translates what is being observed. “You can’t help but be affected by all the feelings a place gives you—the way it looks, the way it sounds and the way it smells,” observes illustrator Veronica Lawlor of Studio 1482. “When I made drawings in downtown New York City during the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, I was running, crying and in shock as I was working. My hands were shaking, naturally affecting my line quality and mark making. All of my emotions came through in the drawings. I believe that people who look at reportage illustration empathize with and experience all of the same sensations as the artist. It’s direct communication without the interference of the artist’s studio or a preconceived method of working.”
With hard work, dedication and commitment, there is a visual language, a signature way of talking through drawing that evolves. Over time, one is able to speak the language uently. “Like signing your name, it’s an immediate reaction,” Pauley adds. Because of the immediacy of the reportage experience, the artist can’t afford to lose focus or get caught up in rendering details that are not of the moment. On location, decisions must be made without hesitation. “You go to a site, pick what you want to draw and you edit ruthlessly,” remarks Pauley. “There’s just no time for anything else.” To combat the unknown, the artist always enters the scene prepared: pencils sharp, paper in tow and an assortment of brushes and pens. Some will even premix their paints and tone their paper, accelerating the process before they arrive. “When I’m on a job, I wear a big old jacket that I’ve had for a million years. It’s loaded with pockets and covered with stains. I’ll put my ink in one pocket, my water jar in another and my watercolor set and brushes in yet another. I also wear shirts that can double as rags in case of spills,” Lawlor details. “My hair usually goes up in a bun so that I have a good place to store my pens and pencils when I’m not using them. Sometimes, I clip an inkwell to my board, an old piece of Masonite that I attach different kinds of paper to. I’m like a one-woman band. On location, everything has to be mobile!”
Having a game plan or schedule, searching out the best places to draw ahead of time and having some background knowledge of the subject are also helpful. “Before I go out, I try to get as much of the story as I can. But sometimes all you get is the title, because they haven’t written anything yet,” offers Pauley. “What they want is your vision, your take and your personal point of view.” Many artists have also written articles to go along with their drawings, selling them to publishers who bite. They scribble detailed accounts of what has transpired onto the edges of their drawings and later rewrite, in a more legible fashion, what they witnessed.
Capturing life and all its dynamic eccentricities is incredibly challenging, even if the locale, subject or event is one that is familiar or visited often. There are always surprises, and certainly never a dull moment. Over years of experience, the reportage artist becomes an expert
at reading body language, translating personalities on paper, capturing people in motion, dealing with distraction and chaos, handling extreme weather and being able to work in tight, confined or uncomfortable situations. “People don’t have any clue how difficult working on location is,” says Pauley. “It is so much harder than being in a studio and drinking coffee in your pajamas. On site, it rains, you lose the light or you can’t find the place. I once had a car run over my pack with all my gear in it. I’ve been spit on! I even got mugged on the train coming home from a late
night assignment. It takes a lot of guts and courage.” With diligent practice and sheer determination, the reportage artist gains the confidence to do anything, anywhere and at anytime.
When Pauley first started working, she freelanced for three years for the New York Times doing The Metro Section. It was a time she remembers as the best apprenticeship that she could’ve ever had. “You arrive on site with about 45 minutes to do the drawing. There’s no time for corrections because the piece needs to be printed the next day. You’re in a zone, you block everything out and the craft kicks in,” notes Pauley. “You learn quickly what works and what doesn’t. I got really good at design and knowing what reproduced well. It has led to a strong work ethic.” The experience also taught Pauley about being assertive. “The Times had access to everything and they were ballsy,” explains the artist. “I could walk into any establishment and say ‘I’m here from the Times. Today, I still fearlessly walk into any location.”
Reportage illustration, a discipline that requires an inquisitive, almost childlike curiosity, consummate drawing skills and a certain willingness to being truly open—mind, body and soul— to whatever an experience may bring, has been around for centuries. The legacy has been passed down through generations of artists that have honed and mastered the art form. The fine art works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Sargent and Goya and, through their work and their teaching, the commercial works of Feliks Topolski, Robert Weaver and David J. Passalacqua, to name a few, have carried the mindset of visual reporting to many of today’s contemporary artists. “While I was in graduate school at SVA (School of Visual Arts), I took a class with Robert Weaver,” recalls Pauley. “He would bring in models that would move, juggle, swallow swords, tap dance or sit and talk. One guy came in and for three hours put on his reman’s uniform. We had to get at least one good drawing.” Lawlor shares her experience, “David J. Passalacqua inspired me to become a reportage artist. More than any other teacher, he de nitely taught me how to draw, how to think on my feet and to be honest in my work, somehow making a contribution.”
Today, we live in a culture that discourages active, one-on-one interaction, especially through the proliferation of e-mail, video conferencing, text messaging and the Internet. Our desire for convenience has left us passive and dissociative, eclipsing our perception and understanding of the world around us. More than ever, artists need to reject complacency. To create work that is genuine, honest and truly reflective of our time, they need to get out of their studios, travel, look around and become more actively involved with their subjects. For it is only then that art will mirror life. ca
© 2007 Lisa L. Cyr
1 Franklin McMahon, The Artist as a Reporter, distributed by Phoenix Films (spliced from talks at: The Chicago Public Library, The Artists Guild of Chicago, and the Art Directors Clubs of Des Moines, Pittsburgh and St Louis), produced by AGS & R Studios and directed by Bill Hare, 1977.