Friday, November 12, 2010

A Graphic Story

by Drew Martin

ome of my earliest and most complete childhood-peer memories were playdates at my friend Jason's house. Unlike the more carefree playdates with other boys, Jason and I got down to business and made books: he wrote the stories and I illustrated them. It was a healthy, working friendship that set the tone for my life-long interest with the relationship between image and text.

For the past 12 years I have been employed in various marketing positions for an international company based in New York. The work includes and has included branding, advertising, presentations, proposals and website development so I feel at home immersed in graphics and writing.

My path to this position has been quite interesting. I had always been busy drawing and was recognized early on for certain artistic talents. By the time I was a senior in high school I was savvy enough to focus my resources on the arts. I reasoned with my school that as a long distance runner it was unnecessary for me to have a gym class so I was allowed to take an additional art class in lieu of physical education, which meant I had two art classes per semester; a fine arts class and a graphic arts class.

In college (University of California at Santa Barbara), I was in the art studio honors program and I also contributed to our school newspaper, which meant I was creating daily cartoons for three years and doing the editorial cartoon every day for a couple years. The latter was an interesting process: I met with the editor-in-chief every afternoon and we discussed the article for which I was to develop a drawing. Then I would read the piece a couple times to get the right visual idea. I drew the drawings with a pencil, then went over the lines with a black-ink pen and finally I shaded them with dilutions of black India ink. This was very different than how I approached my cartoon strips, which I typically did in batches, in seclusion and which simply flowed from my imagination.

A chunk of the newspaper staff, which had graduated a year before me, picked up and moved from California to Europe and ended up in Prague, which led to the creation of the weekly Prognosis, and later to the spin off, The Prague Post. I tried a couple cartoons for the former and ended up contributing a few articles to both of these papers, which allowed for a nice bundling of my writing, drawing and photography. At the same time, I was making artwork for dance clubs and tea rooms in Prague, which consumed most of my time. These jobs all stemmed from one British club owner who saw a painting of a fish I had done on a friend's guitar case, which I  had painted on one of my first days in Prague while I was sitting in a gallery for a young American artist.

Eventually I got into teaching, which would seem to be simply a way with words but found myself drawing a lot. I drew pictures on the chalkboard and the students would eagerly talk about them with their new English words. A typical sketch might simply be of a man walking down a road. The students would talk about where he was going or where he was coming from. I was amazed by how a few squiggly lines stimulated the language centers of their brains more than any of the prescribed "text" books.

When I was in Prague, I made one attempt to get into a graphics job. I went to an ad agency and they asked me to recreate a logo of a stylized lizard with Adobe Illustrator. Although, I was good at drawing, I had never used any kind of computer graphics program. I did not even know what a bezier curve was and trying to make one was like pushing a rope. I was simply at a loss. So after a couple minutes I got up and apologized for wasting the staff's time and left. It was humiliating but they were encouraging and said that I should learn some graphics programs and come back to reapply. I searched around Prague but the only school at the time (1996) that offered a class in Adobe Illustrator had closed.

When I came back to the States, I had a series of temp jobs. One agency sent me to BMW North America Headquarters, in the town where I was raised. I interviewed with the Technical Training group where they needed someone to work on the graphics and layout for technical training manuals: it was a job making books! With this position dangling before me, I took a one-day crash course in Adobe Illustrator in New York for $100. I was amazed by the number of places that taught computer skills and was really happy to be back in the New York area where such things were so accessible.

At the same time, I went for an interview at a music company in New Jersey. The job was to create CD labels and cover art for unknown bands cutting their first albums. I still had not explored Adobe Photoshop, which the job required, so I had a flashback to Prague when they asked me to show them what I could do. I did a little bit better this time. I was given tiffs of duo rappers (NOCOAST) for the test. For the front image, I used the lasso tool and broke up two guys and then I inverted the dude in the background so he had an X-ray look. For the back image I used the same tool, highlighted one of the rappers and gave him a motion blur and then I added the name of the band, album and songs. It was my first thing I worked on in Photoshop and had no clue what I was doing. The owner was uncomfortable with what I had done because I was rendering one person unrecognizable in each image and she said he might take offense to that. The sample was also reviewed by the lead graphic artist who thought it was really cool. They ended up offering me the job but I would have to accept it prior to my second interview with BMW so I declined.

I did not even have a portfolio for BMW position so with nothing to show at my interview that would express my technical side, I dug up a hand drawing I made when I was in high school. It was of an artificial leg I designed for runners, entitled: Figure 5 - The Breakdown of My Design of the Artificial Leg. Not only did I design it but I drew it in an exploded view and labeled it with words pressed letter-by-letter from the old sheets of rub-on letters, which required scratching off/transferring each character, one-by-one.

The employee who interviewed me liked that I had been visually thinking that way since I was a kid so he hired me on the spot and told me he would teach me how to use CorelDraw (the only other thing close to Adobe Illustrator at the time). It was looked down upon by graphic artists but I liked using it because it seemed more intuitive for a technical illustrator.

Culturally, the job was quite interesting. BMW Headquarters in Munich had already created the manuals and translated them into English but the format was too dry and the diagrams were too stiff. There is a big difference between the German and the American mechanic. The German probably learned his trade methodically in a clean technical high school in an orderly city. The American probably started underneath an oily Trans Am on a gravel driveway in a small town in Pennsylvania. He would typically have a lot more hands-on experience, tinkering and experimenting, and less exposure to manuals. The German-style manuals are simply too academic and too assuming. We did not dumb down the materials, instead, we brought them closer to the actual experience, with more specific photographs and technical illustrations that were less flat.

My main job was layout: recreating the books in Quark (this was before Adobe InDesign and the only thing Adobe had to offer for layout was their embarrassing product Adobe PageMaker, which one graphic artist I knew from that time best summed up as being fine to create church bulletins but not much else). In Quark, I integrated the new texts by the technical writers with photographs we took and illustrations we made.

Originally I only did the less complicated tasks but then my boss was absent for a day or two. One of the technical writers came to me with a car part (a Motor Driven Throttle Valve, pictured here) and a screw driver and asked me to take it apart and try to explain it visually. He showed me the German drawing of it and asked me if I could do better. It was my first time really drawing anything on a computer but I approached it as I would a classical drawing. I showed it to the writer when I was finished..."Like this?" He was speechless. My boss' jaw dropped when he returned.

I had set off for college to be a medical illustrator. I started off in the premed program but then switched to the arts, completely. Although I was addressing cars at BMW and not organic bodies, the work was not a stretch. The throttle valve and my drawing of it were sent to all the training centers around the country and I was later told that none of the technicians took the valve apart because I had explained it so well. I was still only 27 and quite proud of this, especially because I knew nothing about cars, but I could figure them out when I got into how their systems worked and thought of them as living organisms.

While I was at BMW, I was also moonlighting for a marketing company that provided materials to BMW and I started doing graveyard shifts in New York as a graphic artist working on presentations for banks. This meant I would work three shifts, back-to-back: a full day at BMW in New Jersey, an evening in a financial institute in Manhattan and then a full day back at BMW, without any sleep. Eventually I got an interview with the company I have been with for the past 12 years.
When I was little and thought about the lives of painters, I was most attracted to the Spanish court painters because they were individual talents but also part of something bigger, which is how I have felt the past 14 years working in engineering firms.