There are certain artists who remain true to their vision throughout a career, who explore and grow without calculation, and in the process keep their voice and maintain their ideals. For me, Neil Young is one of those artists: people either love or hate the sound, but very few are indifferent to it, and everyone knows at least a few of the iconic songs he's written and performed. Helpless, Old Man, Needle and the Damage Done, Ohio, the Campaigner, Like a Hurricane—the list is seemingly endless, and embodies a generation's anger and hopes.
So when Matt Cooley at Rolling Stone contacted me to create a portrait of Young for their review of his latest album, "The Monsanto Years", I was thrilled. I've seen him play many times over the years (and learned a fair amount of what I know about the guitar from playing along with his songs), so a portrait felt like a way of honoring someone who left some marks on my own life as well. I was also a little intimidated, as there are some wonderful portraits of Young already, including one by Tim O'Brien for Rolling Stone just a few years ago.
I happened to have been traveling to meet up with some old friends when Matt contacted me, so I took advantage of a long train ride to do some sketches. Riding through rolling farmland and listening to Young's music on my headphones, it dawned on me how uniquely American his music is and how tied to the land, in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. I decided to keep this portrait simple and straightforward, and to echo those bonds.
The last few weeks have shown how much America has changed, and how many things still need changing. I grew up in the South, and though Young was Canadian by birth, his music seemed to connect with a lot of folks down there that hoped for changes, too, and who found expression through his music. Among the many songs that ran through my head this week, this one from Young seemed loudest. Let's hope it really has come at last.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Zach Gilyard at Popular Science about a project that I jumped at the opportunity to work on: the burgeoning market for insects. As food. For people.
I love eating—it's one of life's great pleasures, and I've always considered myself a daring culinary explorer when it comes to trying new dishes. But bugs have never really had that much... personal appeal. I guess everyone has their limitations. But as a subject for painting, insects are terrific—few things are as fantastic in form—and bridging the cultural divide regarding their edible allure was too tempting to pass up.
After a little online research, I dug up some appropriate historical prototypes for the image: nothing says food to a Texan like cow! With a quick sketch approval, I got busy turning this crunchy little guy into, well, something you could imagine biting in to.
No sooner did I send the final off than I hopped on a plane for a two week trip across Thailand for a little R&R. And on my sixth day into the trip—one for each leg, appropriately enough—I came across this at a street fair in Chiang Mai:
The Age of the Unicorn | acrylic & oil on panel | 10" x 13"
The unicorn has existed—if only in the imagination—through most of written history and in almost every culture, and as a symbol it's been associated with everything from virginity to Jesus Christ. So it's no surprise that in our modern world the unicorn continues to symbolize rare and mythic things (no offense to virgins everywhere).
So when I got the call from Mike Solita at Fortune to illustrate an article title "The Age of Unicorns", about highly valued startup companies that are supposedly rare but may be indicative of a new tech bubble, I jumped at the chance to work with this historic character.
The inspiration for my approach was the final panel of the stunning Unicorn Tapestries located in the Cloisters, one of my favorite collections of medieval art. With only a few days to turn around the piece, I quickly did a rough to show the composition and give a feel for direction; this was a bit looser than my usual approach, but given that we had a relatively clear point of reference, it was enough to sign off for finish. A few days later, the creature in my imagination came to life on the pages of Fortune's latest issue.
The Age of the Unicorn, detail
I love the use of historic imagery to convey ideas about the modern world we live in, and to give a sense of timelessness to subjects that we confront in our everyday lives. I'm often called on to "quote" images like the tapestries to trigger associations viewers have with that historical language, but I also use the technical device to imbue a piece with a broader sense of history, and even myth. I'll be in NYC next week for the opening of the Society of Illustrators 57th Annual, so it seemed like the right time to post some examples of the range of possibilities historical archetypes provide me by previewing the six pieces I'm honored to have in this year's exhibition. I look forward to seeing many of you there.
Friday, February 6, 2015
The Museum of American Illustration
Society of Illustrators
128 East 63rd Street New York, NY 10065
Begins at 6pm | Awards Presentation 7:00pm
Folk music legend Guy Clark for Oxford American | AD: Tom Martin | SI57 Editorial
New York Times Book Review cover | AD: Rex Bonomelli | SI57 Editorial