Stephen Huneck: A Dog’s Life

Folk artist and children’s book author, Stephen Huneck, recently passed away. A very talented woodworker, Stephen enjoyed using a woodblock printing technique to illustrate his books, which were always about his favorite subject: dogs! Just a little while ago, I wrote a mini-review of his book, Sally Goes to the Vet.

Here are a few prints of his which I found online:

Yes, Stephen Huneck REALLY loved dogs. Still don’t believe me? What if I told you that he built a Dog Chapel? (See a picture of Stephen in his Dog Chapel and read more about his death here.) You can tell from his work that Stephen Huneck was a good and gentle man. Sadly, health issues, financial troubles, and depression caused him to take his life.

…and I was kinda hoping writing children’s books would help make the demons go away…

At any rate, if you know any dog lovers out there, I encourage you to purchase a book or some artwork created by Stephen at www.dogmt.com. Not only is his work excellent, but you’ll feel good knowing that you’re helping out Stephen’s wife and family during this difficult time.

Edit 1/11/10: Here is a slideshow which highlights the outside of the dog chapel and some more interior views. Beautiful place. I love the sign outside:

Welcome
All Creeds
All Breeds
No Dogmas
Allowed

Basis for a Boy

Hey, I’ve just had an epiphany! Since this blog purports to be about art, maybe I should post some!

Okay, I’ve been doodling children lately… err… wait… that doesn’t sound right. Let me start again…

Well, as you may know, I’ve been working on concepts for a children’s book, so lately I’ve been drawing children, especially boys, since a little boy will be the protagonist of my first book. There are so many different ways to draw a child, and it’s taken a lot of experimentation to find a character I feel happy with. A few weeks ago I was at work, when I rather absentmindedly drew him:

I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I love this drawing! Of the hundreds of little doodles I’ve made, this one stands apart. I find this boy visually striking (yet simple) and filled with personality.

“Personality?” you ask.

“Yes, personality,” I say.

“But he’s just standing there with a blank look,” you say.

“IDIOT!!” I scream!

It’s easy to draw an over-the-top character with some big, dumb smile; it’s an art to portray more nuanced emotions like indifference, world-weariness, or silent wonder. And this expression fits my character – it is my character – because he is the observer in a strange and wonderful world. The quiet witness of a bizarre cast of characters. He may look rather unassuming, but to me he’s alive.

The above drawing is my basis for a boy. He may change and evolve over time, but don’t we all? Just yesterday I got another favorable image of him (didn’t have paper handy, so he’s on the back of a greeting card), and already he’s changed. The main difference here is his nose. It’s more rounded and less crooked. I think I like it a little bit crooked. I’ll be working on this aspect.

The biggest challenge for me right now is learning to draw him consistently. Just because you draw a character once doesn’t mean you can replicate it with it’s original spirit. It becomes especially difficult when the character is in action poses or viewed from alternative angles.

How many ways to draw a dog?

I volunteer with the Austin Public Library reading books to children. Once a week I receive a new themed “storytime kit” which includes several picture books, some puppets, and maybe even a song or two. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community while learning what children enjoy in their books.

The theme of this week’s kit was Dogs and I became interested in the wide variety of ways our illustrators drew a dog, so I thought I’d do a little critique. Of course, nothing is more subjective than taste, so disagree with me if you’d like, but it’s a fact that I have better taste than you.

Our first dog comes from a book called Pillow Pup, illustrated by Mireille D’Allance.

This was my least favorite artwork mainly because I enjoy line, and as you can see here, the line is very soft and not distinctive. I’m also not a big fan of cute art, and I’m afraid this puppy is much too cute. However, to the illustrator’s credit, the book is about a puppy who steals pillows, so perhaps the soft & cute art works to the story’s advantage. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the story either.

Our next book is called Sit, Truman! and was illustrated by Cara & Barry Moser.

Here the artwork is vastly different from the last book, but I found it only slightly more enjoyable. Clearly the artists are exceptionally gifted at producing realism via watercolor, but I guess realism isn’t important to me when it comes to children’s illustration. As I read this book it felt like I was looking at photographs or viewing a “fine artist’s” work in a gallery. Once the “wow, this looks real” factor wore off, the illustration was a tad boring. But here again, the artwork may have lent itself to the story: the chronicle of a normal, non-fantastical dog’s misbehavior.

Then we have A Dog Needs a Bone, by Audrey Wood.

In this book, unlike the previous two, the dog has human emotions and even the ability to talk (to itself, anyway), therefore giving the character much more personality. Although not a technically skilled artist like Cara & Barry Moser, Audrey Wood’s drawings are expressive and have a certain lovable quality reminiscent of naive art. Even the medium is rather unique: crayon on brown paper bags. The children enjoyed this neurotic dog with it’s silly expressions.

Next we have Sally Goes to the Vet, by Stephen Huneck.

I enjoyed this artwork a lot. It was clear, concise, strong, and folk-arty. It was made using carved woodblocks pressed in colored ink, and the effect is pretty captivating. If the story was a little more exciting, we’d have a real winner.

Speaking of winners, have you heard of Jules Feiffer? Perhaps not, but he has a long and distinguished career as a cartoonist, noted for his contributions to Playboy Magazine, The New Yorker, and for having illustrated many books including The Phantom Tollbooth. I like him because he is very good with line. Just take a look at his picture book Bark, George.

Even though his drawings are clear, they also have a pleasant amount of messiness and uncertainty to them. I’m also amazed by the amount of movement he is able to capture; even though they are perhaps the most simply drawn, his characters come to life more than any of the previous books. The story was enjoyable and the kids went wild at the downright ridiculousness of it.

My only complaint is probably minor to most folks but kind of a big deal to me. Jules Feiffer is a master of line – he doesn’t work in color. The color in this book was done with computer, and even though it doesn’t say who did it, I think it’s a safe bet to assume Jules didn’t. I’ll make another assumption and bet the publisher wanted it in color (because it sells), whereas Jules would have been perfectly happy to leave it in black & white. Personally, I think color is a distraction from masterful line work. A single B&W drawing was included on the front of the hardcover, hidden underneath the colorized dust jacket. Compare.