Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Chicago Bears and Me

When I was two years old, my family moved to a Chicago suburb, Addison, Illinois. It was during those tender formative years that I was introduced to what would be become a lifetime passion, the Chicago Bears.

I loved the Bears. My room was adorned with Bears posters. Bears linens kept my bed warm through those bitter Chicago winters. Bears t-shirts, sweatshirts and coats covered my body throughout the seasons. Finding a Chicago Bear hidden in a package of football cards was always an electric thrill. My younger brother and I regularly played football in the backyard wearing makeshift Bears uniforms.

The Bears weren't very good back then, but they had some incredible football players. A running back named Gale Sayers could run like the wind. The owner, George Halas, had invented professional football. And I was convinced that a linebacker named Dick Butkus was the strongest man in the world.

On Christmas Eve when I was five years old, I was also introduced to Bears' greatest rival, the Green Bay Packers. Even now, I vividly remember sitting around the dinner table listening to a radio report tracking the progress of Santa Claus with my family. The radio announcer had said that his radar lost sight of Santa over Green Bay. My father, ever the teaser, proceeded to tell my brother and I that Santa was probably abducted by the villainous Green Bay Packers. Dad also warned us that we might not be getting presents that year. Fortunately, Santa escaped and our presents were delivered, but my brother and I learned to beware the evil team that wore green and gold.

We moved from Addison in 1970, but my love for the Bears was packed up and brought with me wherever I went. The remainder of my childhood was split between Roanoke (Virginia), Cheshire (Connecticut), Rock Hill (South Carolina) and Southington (Connecticut). In these other places, I stood out as the only kid wearing Chicago Bears apparel and was often ridiculed for my allegiance to a team that rarely won. During this time, the Bears seemed to be preparing me for life's many future disappointments.

After years of unrequited love, a magical thing happened in 1975. The Chicago Bears drafted a running back named Walter Payton. Although he wasn't the biggest, strongest or fastest, Payton quickly became the best running back in professional football. The Bears rarely won early in Payton's career, but the running back stood out for his talent and heart. After years of embarrassment, I finally had something to be proud of.

I read about Payton's brutal training regime in my father's Bear Report newspaper, and saw that his success was a direct result of hard work and effort. This had a profound impact on me, and I tried to apply Payton's example in my own life. When I was running track and cross-country in high school, I often thought about Payton during my workouts. His example motivated to push even harder when I was completely exhausted and strive to reach my full potential. As a result, I was fortunate to set a couple of school records and receive a few all-conference awards.

In a high school art class, I had drawn a picture of Walter Payton. I had worked very hard on it, and to that point, it was the best drawing that I had ever done. Later that summer, my parents decided to take a family trip back to Chicago that would include a visit to the Chicago Bears training camp. I decided to bring the drawing and give it to Walter Payton. After the inspiration that he gave me, giving him my very best drawing was something that I was excited to do.

I went to the camp at Lake Forest College armed with my drawing and high hopes. However, at the Bear's camp it was very crowded. When Walter Payton walked off the field after the morning practice, I ran towards him but couldn't even get near him. He was at center of a moving mass of humanity, about 30 people deep on all sides of him. Disappointed, I walked over to a rookie wide receiver named Ricky Watts. Regularly reading my father's Bear Report, I knew all the players and told Watts how excited I was that he was on the team. I handed him my Walter Payton drawing and asked him to please give it to him. I wanted Payton to have the drawing, even if I couldn't give it to him myself.

My brothers and I stood near the player's entrance as the crowd dispersed. A few moments later, the door opened and Walter Payton walked out, asking who did the drawing. Then he thanked me and posed for a photo with my younger brother, Robbie, and me.

I was thrilled! Meeting your hero is great, but when he turns out to be a nice guy, it's even better. 

Sadly, Walter Payton passed away in 1999 of cancer at the young age of 46. Although his life was far too short, it was a life notable for his tremendous athletic accomplishments and his impact on other people- including a kid from Connecticut. After his death, the NFL renamed their Man Of The Year Award in Walter Payton's honor. I later made the following painting in remembrance of my childhood hero.

 The Chicago Bears have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Through all the joys and all the heartache, they have enriched my life and I will always proud to be a fan. GO BEARS!!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The new year brings a new book for me. The following is a description of my creative process for  Soccer Hour, an upcoming book that I worked on for about a year and completed in August of 2010.

After receiving Carol Nevius's story from my publisher, Marshall Cavendish, I began by creating thumbnail sketches for the entire book. The rhyming story centers on activities that take place during a typical hour-long soccer practice. The title page, dedication page spread and end page eventually changed, but these were my original thumbnail sketches. The text was slightly tweaked later as well, but the original story that I received is dropped in below the thumbnails.

The spread from page 20/21 (later selected to also be used as the cover image) will be the focus of this process demonstration. Notice that nothing important is located in the middle of the image since that is where the book will fold (known as the "gutter"). I also left "dead space" in the upper right for the placement of the text.

I began by shooting reference photos of a variety of children. One of my models was my nephew, Matt, who happens to be a soccer star in Indiana. Rather than have Matt dive a couple of hundred times while I shot photos, laying him on a picnic table gave me enough visual information to draw a convincing dive and was easier on him. His legs also appeared on other children for all of the kicking illustrations in the book. 

Since none of my children are soccer players, Matt was also a great resource for soccer information for me. Additionally, I watched numerous soccer videos and spoke with soccer coaches to have a firm understanding of the correct body positions that I would be representing. I selected different photos that contained individual elements that I really liked. 

Next, I shot reference for a ball and goal, making sure that the light source and perspective was consistent on all the shots.

Looking at the best parts from all my reference photos, I created a detailed pencil drawing, playing with the scale of the various elements to create one dynamic diving figure. I also added an extra inch of art on all sides (called bleed) that will be trimmed when the art is published. Then I transferred my drawing onto a piece of Hot Press Crescent Watercolor Board and sprayed it with Krylon Workable fixative. I also decided to flop the image so the action of the image would read from left to right. Originally, I had no idea that my publisher would later want this as the cover image, but my nephew was very excited to appear on the cover. 

Next, I created a mixture of gesso, yellow ochre and black acrylic paint, and mixed with water to a milky consistency. I painted the entire drawing with a wash of this base color to remove all the white areas and provide a warm gray ground to paint on. On top of this, I began laying in some of the dark values with a mixture of black, yellow ochre and burnt umber acrylic paint. Although the image will be largely monochromatic, I wanted the shades of grey to be somewhat warm and more rich than diluted black. I rarely use colors staright out of the tube and like to create my own mixtures.

Then I painted over the entire surface with a mixture of lamp black, yellow ochre and burnt sienna oil paint mixed to a watery consistency with mineral spirits. After allowing to dry to the touch, I began erasing out the areas of light with a kneaded eraser.

This adds base mid-tone values, and more importantly, a wonderful subtle texture to the entire board. One of my goals for Soccer Hour was create illustrations that had a little more texture than my previous books- to play with the balance between rough somewhat abstract textures and tightly rendered forms.

Then I painted over the entire surface again with a mixture of black, yellow ochre and burnt umber acrylic paint. I use the paint very thin and slowly build up washes to their final values. I also masked off the ground and splattered the surface with a toothbrush to add additional texture. I did this on all the grass throughout the book. 

In Soccer Hour, the balls are emphasized as the focal point with color. Additionally, the practice jerseys also needed to have color accents to remain consistent with the text. I tried to keep the use of color more understated on the jerseys so the brighter ball would remain the focus. These colors were also acrylic paint.

And finally, I went over everything one last time using Prismacolor Colored pencils. This brought out the highlights and added further polish to the finish. I always do color tests, and French Grey pencils blended well with the warm grey acrylic tones that I had previously painted.

And here is the entire image as published on the cover:

Soccer Hour is scheduled for release in February of 2011 and will be available at booksellers everywhere.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Best Art Piece of My Life

I always tell my illustration students to try to make every assignment be "the best art piece of your life". I'm sure that my constant prodding sounds a bit like a broken record at times, but that is how I always approach my own work. For me, selecting my best artistic piece is an easy choice. I consider a brochure that I created with my wife, Diann, to be my very best work. Although my creativity, concept and finished technique have been better on hundreds of my other paintings, I'll never illustrate anything that means as much to me.

To understand why, I have to provide some background information first. Our eldest son, Billy, was born in 1994 with a cleft lip and palette. There was no indication of a birth defect prior to his birth, so this came as a complete shock to Diann and me. A cleft lip and palette is essentially an opening extending through the lip and roof of the mouth that failed to fuse during development of the fetus. The physical appearance of babies with this birth defect is somewhat startlingly.

Since we had no prior knowledge or family history of this condition, Diann and I were extremely concerned for our son. We learned that the lip and palette could be "corrected" through surgery and we were given a stack of medical literature. Although we had been extremely careful about every aspect of Diann's pregnancy, our initial reaction was to think that this was a result of something we did wrong and to wonder how this could have happened to us and our baby. However, we quickly realized that this was not at all about us, but rather all about Billy. God made us his parents for a reason. To be good parents to him, we would have to accept him (and his condition) just as he was and put all of our focus on helping him.

That night, I went home from the hospital and read everything the doctors gave us several times. While the information educated me to the medical facts of my son's condition, it did little to ease my concerns about his future. In the following days and weeks, we met with doctors from the University of Connecticut Craniofacial Team that would perform Billy's surgeries. We also met parents of other children born with a cleft lip and palette. We learned that Billy would need two surgeries in the first year of his life- one at three months to close his lip and another later that year to repair his palette. At eight years of age, he would also need a bone graft to reconstruct his gum line. While understanding the surgical procedures was helpful, hearing from other parents with children that had undergone similar surgeries truly gave us hope and comfort.

From the beginning, our experience with a newborn was much different that what we had prepared for. Since babies with a cleft can't form a seal to suck on a bottle, we had to learn how to feed Billy with special bottles. He had to learn to gulp the formula as we squeezed it out, often gagging in the process. After significant practice and patience, Billy was eating well and gaining weight. When we took him out in public, people would sometimes gawk or make inconsiderate remarks about his appearance. I have always believed that God doesn't give us more than we can handle, so we just took everything one day at a time. Initially, I couldn't wait for Billy to have the surgery, but by the time it was scheduled, I loved his little face just the way it was. I really hated that he would have to go through the ordeal of surgery at such a young age. The first year of Billy's life was a whirlwind of doctors visits and surgeries.

A year later, Billy had successfully undergone both surgeries and was doing great. We had been extremely fortunate to have wonderful craniofacial doctors working in our area and they did a tremendous job. After our life had shifted to a "more typical" parental experience, Diann and I began to wonder what we could do to help other families with babies born with clefts. We remembered that first day and how scared we were. We also remembered the informative materials that the hospital had given us immediately after Billy's birth. Since Diann is a graphic designer and I am an illustrator, we decided to produce a brochure for parents.

Rather than just providing medical facts, this brochure would be written from a parent's perspective. Much like the encouragement that other parents had given us, we hoped that telling Billy's story could provide hope and reassurance to families with cleft palette babies. Diann and I wrote it together and I created illustrations to accompany the text. Then Diann did the design work and her printing friends were kind enough to donate the printing costs. We gave the brochures to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, and for the next ten years, the brochures were distributed to families of newborn babies born with a cleft. In the years that followed, numerous families contacted us and told us that the brochure helped them through a difficult time, so I consider this to be the most meaningful thing my wife and I have ever done with our talents.

Life often presents us with unexpected challenges, and we should place our trust in God to give us strength and comfort through difficult times. If you know anyone with a baby that was born with a cleft palette, please feel free to share this brochure with them.