Wonder Woman: Adrienne Rich

An inspiring poet, essayist, and feminist

This Tuesday, Adrienne Rich passed away. I remember first reading her work as an undergraduate and realizing that poetry could be aesthetic and evocative while still being political and transgressive. This seems like such an obvious thing to me now but back then, it felt like a revolutionary concept. I was a fine arts major after all, and while I knew of plenty of visual artists creating this kind of work, my background in contemporary literature was sorely lacking. Rich was my introduction to poetry’s feminist voice.

Others soon followed: Plath, Angelou, Bishop, Stein, Moore—all the usual suspects. But Rich was the first. So when I heard of her death, it affected me with surprising intensity. I think that since I discovered her at such a key time in my development as an artist, she loomed large in my writer heart, right up there with Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, and Marge Piercy—all women I look to as guides in how to produce smart, funny, brilliant, and powerful work.

One of my favorite Adrienne Rich poems is “Planetarium“. You can hear her reading it on YouTube (starts at around the 5:00 mark). I like this poem because it celebrates Caroline Herschel, one of the first women of astronomy. I love space! In my next life, I will be an astrophysicist.

Art is not dessert!

Anyway, I think her death also struck me because lately, it seems as though U.S. politics has been hijacked with some kind of anti-woman agenda. The assaults against Planned Parenthood; the ridiculous personal attacks on Sandra Fluke; the sudden popularity of transvaginal ultrasound laws; Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett’s insultingly absurd comments; and so much more. It feels like another culture war is emerging to pull back on hard-won, basic rights that women have fought decades to achieve. Losing such a powerful crusader who spoke eloquently for the rights of women, gays, and all oppressed groups felt like just another blow.

Anyway, instead of simply ranting, I thought a more positive use of my blog would be to jump-start a project I’ve been thinking about for a while: the Wonder Women Project. What I’d like to do is showcase stories of inspiring and wonderful women and, naturally, draw some portraits! The group will include recognizable names, like Rich, but also some overlooked historical figures and everyday ladies with stories of overcoming adversity, creating great art, showing incredible leadership, and/or just being inspiring role models for everyone.

To start, I have two very excellent candidates to follow Adrienne Rich, but I’ll soon need some help with suggestions. . . I’ll be announcing another contest for ideas soon, and winning commenters will get free portrait. So stay tuned!


Drawing without the lines

My first funeral scene!

I had a really great portrait in mind to draw last week, but I got caught up in revisions on my novel. So for today, I’ll discuss a recent illustration I did for a flash fiction piece called “Everyone Continued to Sing” by Josh Denslow, which appeared in Issue 35 of SmokeLong Quarterly.

It’s a great story, but what stood out to me is a scene at the end where the narrator spies a cockroach at a funeral. I’ve always had a thing for juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane, so  I knew that the roach would feature prominently in the illustration.

My first impulse was simply to draw the insect in pencil and digitally hand-color it like the images in some of my first posts. But lately, I’ve been trying to break out of my literalism and figured this would be a chance to try something different. In the story, the character’s good friend is bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat—a brutal death that jumps out of the story as much as the roach. So I challenged myself to incorporate a hint of violence into the image while still constructing an otherwise somber scene.

This was a nice exercise to move beyond what’s merely described and get into the emotions of the piece itself. While it was tough to push past my usual crutch of cartoon outlines and garish colors, I’m glad I did. I feel I finally created an image that moves at least a bit beyond the obvious–one that poses questions to invite the viewer into a story.


Apparently, this is as abstract as I get.

It was recently pointed out to me that my work is exceptionally literal. I took this as a mild insult though I knew it was impossible to dispute.

I suppose it bothers me because I learned to draw by copying cartoons, and I feel as though I can never quite shake their flat simplicity. Everything I draw has clear, black outlines and garish color, and even when I try different modeling and lighting to add depth, a cartoony, one-dimensionality pervades. Life would be so much easier if I could just accept that this is my style and I should revel in it, rather than repudiating it. Yet being the over-critical perfectionist that I am, I prefer to see it as a problem.

So this week I thought I’d try illustrating something abstract. I recently attended a fantastic Radiohead concert and figured that would be a good subject to tackle. Music is, after all, a non-visual thing, so I challenged myself to try and evoke the spirit of the concert—to create images that could capture the sound and power of the music, combined with my own enthusiasm as a die-hard fan.

I failed.

Well, okay. I did start out on a somewhat promising note with this first image. I wanted to capture the moment the band broke into one of my favorite songs, “The National Anthem,” which begins with a killer bass line that shook the entire venue. As news transmissions and scraps of radio noise filled the arena, Johnny Greenwood, the band’s mad-genius, multi-instrumentalist virtuoso, messed around with an old radio onstage. At one point, he turned it upside-down, and the sight of his silhouette against the spectacular light show burned into my memory as a starting point for the first image.

I realize the image isn’t very abstract, but it’s more expressionist than what I usually come up with. So that was a start.

Once the cartoon lines make their way in, it's over.

Downhill from there. As fan-girl enthusiasm took over, I completely forgot my artistic objective and just started drawing scenes from the show.

Thom sings "Give Up the Ghost" as my abstractionist drive gives up the ghost.

Fan-girl wins.


Ah, well. Maybe next time I’ll try working with some experimental language poetry. Or Bach.

Or I’ll finally accept that I like drawing tangible, recognizable things, especially people. Especially people outlined in black contours and colored with bright, saturated hues.

Portrait process

Warning: This blog may be hazardous to your health

Many of my favorite illustration blogs do more than show cool pictures—they actually walk through the steps of how a particular image is made. I’ve picked up a ton of great ideas from these posts, so I figured it’s time I made my own.

For this particular task, I recruited a volunteer subject: the intrepid Ms. Trixie Pants, who offered a suggestion on my Famous Faces challenge several weeks ago and, as a result, won a free portrait. Of course, she didn’t realize that in winning this portrait she would be a victim on my blog. But given that Ms. Pants is a fearless investigative reporter and editor of an groundbreaking blog about how all the animals on the planet are planning to annihilate the human species, I figured she’d be up to the challenge. And she was!

Every portrait starts with a photo. I suspect this one was taken when Ms. Pants realized her identity would be revealed to the world.

The famous muckracker, Ms. Trixie Pants!

Generally, I’ll jump right onto the computer and digitally trace the image with brushes and paths. This results in a very smooth, perfect line quality (like the David Foster Wallace portrait in the last post), which is infinitely editable. My control-freak side loves working digitally as I can erase and manipulate my lines to my little heart’s obsessive-compulsive content. However, in this case, I decided I’d go the old-fashioned route and start with pencil and ink, largely to see if my hand skills are still what they used to be.

So I printed out the photo and did a graphite transfer into my sketchbook. With a few pencil touch-ups, I had a simple line drawing.

Any six-year-old can do a graphite transfer

One thing Ms. Pants requested was that the portrait reveal the hazards she encounters during her day-to-day tasks of informing the world about the mortal threat of animals, a danger summed up by her blog pseudonym, a north pacific giant octopus is going to kill me. Given my own fondness for cephalopods, I had no problem incorporating a giant octopus.

Ask for tentacles and you shall receive

Next up is inking. I was surprised to find some old, serviceable brushes, though my India Ink made a weird rattling noise when I shook the bottle. Clearly, I’d been drawing digitally for too long. A splash of water solved the problem so I could give the drawing some substance.

I actually love inking

This reminded me of that scene in Chasing Amy when Banksy makes a compelling case for inking. While pencil lays in the basic form and composition, ink gives a drawing shape and body. Tell ’em, Banksy! Inking is where it’s at.

At this point, I finally scan the image into Photoshop and lay in color.

This is the cartoon stage

This is the most tedious part. I really need to hire a gang of monkeys to handle this stuff. The colors are easy to change, so I just select random hues from the default palette.

Once the flat color is laid in, I start playing around. The composition felt too static, so I rotated everything, which required a little redrawing. Bummer I didn’t think about this during the pencil stage, as I could have made her hair swirl around. Too late now. I convince myself it doesn’t look too bad, then I change the line color and start thinking about the background.

Now it's getting interesting!

At this point, I discover that the North Pacific Giant Octopus is a lovely scarlet color. Its skin also has a beautiful, velvety texture.

That is one badass octopus

Image source: ARKive

Nearly finished! Now it’s just a matter of few more color tweaks, a bit of lighting and shadow, some masking, a few color overlays, custom brushwork, more modeling, more gradients, additional effects, a touch more color mixing, a hint of chiaroscuro, additional line hues, new highlights, masked texture, size adjustments, and layer merging. And boom! Thirty-five layers later, you’re done.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to do a portrait. I can also work from several photos and/or a flesh-and-blood sitting to generate an original composition. But that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish I’ll have to save for another post.