Except for when it isn’t.
Yes, it’s important to take your art seriously, regardless of the domain in which it can be found. But it’s just as important to remember that being serious about your art all the time will stifle the creativity that makes your art unique.
Recently I was commissioned to create ten illustrations for an anthology of pulp fiction short stories. It’s being edited by award-winning British-Canadian journalist, novelist, screenwriter and producer, Joel Mark Harris. And yes, I’m taking this commission seriously. Ten short stories. Ten illustrations. Ten authors to please.
The first illustration was for a short story written by Thomas D. Taylor. His main requirements were that the illustration have a cabin cruiser that was big enough for accommodate a small group of people comfortably, tied to a dock on a dark and stormy night, with a gaudy, Art Deco home somewhere on the island.
The second illustration was for a short story by Glenn Muller. His main requirements were that the illustration have a Beretta F compact style revolver, an envelope with an official document inside, and a tropical drink … perhaps with a little umbrella tossed in for good measure.
Next came an illustration for a short story by Jorge Avalos. His main requirements were that the illustration have a car that was similar to a Chevy Malibu and an 18-wheeler. With that, I created this illustration.
This takes me to the fourth illustration, with this one being for Allison Cosgrove. Her main requirement was that the illustration be seen through the dead person’s eyes, lying at the bottom of a set of stairs.
As you can tell, pulp fiction murder-mystery is serious business. There’s nothing funny about it. Something terribly sinister happens and before you know it, there’s murder, mystery, and mayhem all over the place! But in the midst of all that, I found a humorous nugget.
I sent a quick note to the editor, letting him know that the next illustration would be black.
Top to bottom, and side to side.
Before I go on, I have to admit that the editor and I have built a good working relationship with each other, and it’s this good working relationship that allowed me to share the humor with him. I may have refrained from sharing my ‘vision‘ if the editor was a different editor and our working relationship was a different working relationship. However, Joel has a great sense of humor himself and I knew that, while my comment might throw him at first, he would get it.
So, having shared my ‘vision‘ for the fourth illustration, I quickly pointed out that taken literally, this is what Allison had requested. You see, when someone is dead (dead as dead can be as they are in pulp fiction style stories), they don’t see anything.
I know that in Jules Verne’s book “The Kip Brothers” published in 1902, it included the wildly popular belief of the time that the image of the last thing seen at the moment of death remained imprinted upon the retina of the eye. In fact, in the final chapter, Jules Verne wrote:
For some time now it has been known — as a result of various interesting ophthamological experiments done by certain ingenious scientists, authoritative observers that they are — that the image of exterior objects imprinted upon the retina of the eye are conserved there indefinitely. The organ of vision contains a particular substance, retinal purple, on which is imprinted in their exact form these images. They have even been perfectly reconstituted when the eye, after death, is removed and soaked in an alum bath.
It was such a widely held belief that it was used in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Scotland Yard hoped that they might be able to solve the case this way, and engaged a professional photographer to assist them. The results were recorded thusly:
In an attempt to be scientific, the police pried open Annie Chapman’s dead eyes and photographed them, in the hope that the retinas had retained an image of the last thing she saw. But no images were found.
Keeping this in mind (and knowing that the science had long been debunked), literally speaking, the illustration would have to be completely black, top to bottom, side to side, to be factually correct. I also knew that figuratively speaking, this isn’t what the author (or the editor) wanted.
But pranking the editor with such an exact illustration was irresistible, and so I sent my ‘vision‘ along to him. The message was received in the same light-hearted manner in which it was sent, and after a good chuckle together, I have begun work on the fourth illustration which will have several other colors aside from the aforementioned black.
While being creative is serious business, always remember to set aside some time to be less serious. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll return to your work with renewed vigor, energy, and creativity.
Wait. Is that a noise I hear outside my office window? Who’s out there?