Making Something From Nothing-Creating the Illustration for “The Cure for Death”
Sixth in this blog series of illustrations for my book, This Side of Center, is the illustration for “The Cure for Death,” a short story inspired by a crappy camera, a dream, three television shows, society’s need for consuming and mortality. Hmm, did I miss anything?
Rewind your VHS decks to 1985. There, on the small screen, right before your eyes, is an amazing TV show written and produced by an amazing man named Steven Spielberg, with amazing big screen actors performing brilliantly in that little box on a show called, you guessed it, Amazing Stories. The series lasted only two seasons and I recorded every one of those episodes on my VHS deck. Actually, giving credit where credit is due, my ex-wife recorded them for me because I was, at that time of their broadcast, performing music on a stage in a rock club or concert hall somewhere in the United States. But her efforts did not go unnoticed, and I routinely watched the shows when I returned home from the road, with repeat viewings over the years.
The inspiration for the stories I wrote for This Side of Center, was due largely in part to Rod Serling’s creation, The Twilight Zone and my continuing fascination for it and Mr. Serling’s wise use of the broadcast medium of television for commenting on social issues of the time. I learned that lesson well, and applied those same principles to the content in my book. With that background in place, I will say that Amazing Stories (1985-1987) did pick up for me, where the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and its short-lived successors of the same name, one in 1985-89 then another in 2002-2003, left off. (I must confess that I followed the 1980’s series, but I have not yet seen the more recent incarnation) A nightly re-watching of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” (2001-2005) most definitely factored into the inspiration for “The Cure for Death” as well, in the form of a bizarre dream I had at that time.
Some of Amazing Stories’ episodes presented themselves as just plain fun and goofy, along with their intended moral message. The Zone had none of that, that I recall. All those stories were basically morality plays wrapped in social commentary about racism, superstition, war, politics and conformity, and a nice big heavy twist at the end, applied to film in the most artistic of ways. One such memorable episode of Amazing Stories combined the two elements of message and fun. “Gather Ye Acorns,” utilized the fresh acting talents of a young Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame). That particular episode is the axis on which this writing rotates.
Now, fast forward that VHS player to the present. Enter Netflix and another enjoyable viewing of “Gather Ye Acorns”.
In the episode, Mark Hamill plays a boy growing up in the 1930’s, who is a dreamer. He is also one who plays with (and keeps) every childhood toy, gift and object he ever owned, “clinging to the child within him for as long as he can”-- advice given to him by a troll only he can see. Throughout his childhood and young life, his overbearing but well meaning parents, goad him into “making something of himself” by going to college to be a doctor -- a fate not suited to the plans he had for his own future. One of those plans includes spending all his hard-earned money working at a mill on an automobile, a 1932 Auburn (GREAT choice!). That decision was the final straw for his parents and subsequently got him and all his boyhood possessions thrown out of the house and into the real world. That world was unforgiving, leaving him to suffer greatly throughout the years. On the advice of his constant lifelong invisible troll companion, he never let his mother throw out the things he loved, nor did he part with anything over the decades, toting it around the country in his classic, worn out car. Amazingly, there is a happy ending. But I will let you discover how that happens for yourself – as you gather your own acorns along the way. It's all tucked away in a well-told twenty-five minutes without commercials.
The point to this particular reference is that Mark Hamill’s character, Jonathan Quick, had treasures - because he never threw anything away. I heeded that warning on my own over the years (without the advice of a troll) and have an eBay store, Needful Things, to prove it. That, and thanks to my family’s genetic trait, of “collecting” – everything.
I applied that same miserly attitude to creating art, shooting photos and rendering images, as well.
1. Never throw away anything until you have utilized all your talents to make something out of what may seem to be a “bad” image.
2. Take what the image gives you and make it more of what it is.
3. Create something from “nothing”. Maybe, it will work. Maybe not. But you will learn along the way.
Please note: I am talking about creative imagery here, not commercial ad or portrait photography. That is a whole other set of “perfect” image values, beautiful images that they are, which is not in my field of endeavor, nor is the equipment needed for that type of industry in my budget.
Skip to 2013 and the digital realm. The image that was used for “The Cure for Death” was a “bad” image, an experiment. It began as a camera trial for my (then) new Smartphone. And like most artists who have an empty studio or office and an inadequate supply of models waiting at your door to work for free, you can create either a still life of a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, a scene out the window or do a self-portrait. That day I opted for the portrait because it was raining and dreary, and I did not relish the thought of a wet nature walk.
The photo was taken as a reflection in a streaky, old antique mirror. The only light source was a 19” x 22” skylight about eight feet away and at my eleven o’clock, high. (It’s a pilot thing, look it up.) I was testing low light conditions and this particular phone failed miserably. The initial result was an underexposed color image that looked terrible, pixely, grainy, crap. But, and that is an important “but,” it had a certain mysterious, smoky and dire look and feel to it. (I seem to project that façade sometimes without ever knowing it, dismal creature that I am.)
After desaturating the color, I worked the brightness to a minimum, just barely highlighting the facial features, and boosted the contrast in PhotoShop, in essence, painting a new picture with the pixels I had to work with. I applied various black, neutral and white tones positively and negatively until I got an even more dismal look than I started with (see what I did there?). Finally, I stroked a tremendous amount of Blur over the face, concentrating heavily on the edges. That took away the smoky look and gave it an overall waxy and distant appearance, and causing it to look like the face was emerging from the blackness behind it.
At the time of the rendering, it was just an image to be filed away. I had no use for it. To me, it just looked cool and I didn’t even think of it as “me”. Someone told me it reminded them of Eric Clapton. I can kind of see that. Only a month or so later did I realize that it was the illustration for my story, because I hadn’t started writing it yet when I took the photo.
Because of its overall dark and deathly look, I have no doubt that this previously “delete-able”, bad crappy image, combined with the above-mentioned broadcast inspirations, played a major part in creating "The Cure for Death" in the first place. ~ JW