12. The Road to Ten Unknowns

Originally published December 2, 2010, this is the final column in this series.

In this last column of the series, I will show you the process of conceptual thinking, sketching, research photos, painting and lettering that led to a finished theater poster, in this case one for Jon Robin Baitz's play "Ten Unknowns," which was presented at Lincoln Center Theater in 2001.

Nearly all the steps in creating the poster involved drawing.

In "Ten Unknowns," Malcolm Raphelson, the central character played by Donald Sutherland, is a figurative artist who had a period of New York success in the late 1940s, just before the rise of Abstract Expressionism as the dominant painting style.

As the play begins, it is now the 1990s, and Malcolm has retreated to a remote Mexican town, dispirited and contemptuous of the current art world. His art dealer, trying to encourage him to exhibit again, has sent him a young man to assist him in his work. Crassly oversimplifying a plot that has two other characters and many dramatic interweaving tensions, the central crux of the story is that Malcolm is in a state of deep creative anxiety, so incapacitating, questions arise regarding recent paintings in the studio. Did Malcolm actually paint the pictures? Or are they the work of the young assistant?

Although this mystery involving the paintings and the relationship between the assistant and Malcolm was intriguing, I felt it was too complicated to represent visually, so I chose to use the more fundamental dilemma of the artist facing painter's block as the conceptual theme of my poster.

James McMullan

The idea of facing an imaginative void made me think about an actual void, the empty canvas, or an empty sheet of paper, and how that moment of beginning is loaded with possibility and fear. In these first sketches, I am playing with a straightforward depiction of the artist facing the blank canvas, an artist becoming a canvas, an artist painting in the wrong direction and an artist seen through a transparent canvas. Any of these ideas might, with some inspired painting, have been turned into a poster, yet none felt right. There's a theory about writing that applies - that, when you reach a serious sticking point, the key to moving on successfully is to throw out the element that you had been hanging on to because it is your favorite thing. My favorite thing here had been the canvas, and in a moment of clarity I realized that if I got rid of the canvas I'd be left with an empty easel, a much more powerful and poignant way of expressing the painter's sense of creative emptiness.

Besides, an easel might become a kind of skeletal structure that the painter could hold onto in some emotionally charged way and through which we could see him - as though looking at a man through prison bars.

James McMullan

This small pencil sketch gave me the basic idea. Now, I had to create a real ambiance for the elements in the image and had to make some decisions about the figure himself. Heat, light and a certain mood of exhaustion were in my head as I started my color sketch. I imagined the painter hanging onto the easel almost as though he needed it for support. He would be bare-chested to emphasize the tropical heat of the Mexican locale and also to suggest his state of vulnerability. I imagined the light flooding in from an open door behind this tableau of artist and easel.

James McMullan

As the little painting developed, I made the easel quite dark as a kind of anchor for the whole image and as a strong centered shape through which we see the artist posed slightly off-center and with his face partly obscured. I made the edges of the doorway soft and indeterminate to give more sense of the light pouring in and also to let the hard shape of the easel dominate. I added a canvas leaning on the floor and a table with art supplies. I decided on very straightforward lettering that slightly disappeared as the letters crossed into the darker areas, perhaps suggesting the idea of the "unknown."

I was satisfied enough with this sketch to show it to Bernard Gersten, the executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, and he and his creative team agreed that the concept worked and that I should proceed with the finished art.

Because I work on the poster many weeks before play rehearsals start, the actors are often not available for me to photograph as research. Pre-existing photographs of the actors or head shots are useless to me since my images depend entirely on the nuances of the gesture I am imagining, so I don't do portraits of actors unless I can photograph them myself. Lincoln Center Theater is usually satisfied to have the character in the poster portrayed as a type rather than a specific actor, so I went ahead and persuaded a good friend, Mirko Ilic, to pose as the painter. He is considerably younger than both the character in the play and Donald Sutherland, but I was fairly sure that Mirko could give me the information I needed for my painting.

James McMullan

I did five fairly elaborate paintings, partly because the light effect in the background wash had to be done quickly and didn't turn out quite right, or the figure became overworked. But I also kept painting because the image really intrigued me and I wanted to do it again and again to see what else would happen. Below are two of these preliminary paintings, one in which the figure looks too young and one in which I went overboard with the wrinkles.

James McMullan

Finally, I produced a version I liked. It had the sense of light I wanted and the figure looked haggard yet interesting in the right way. I did lettering that was not quite as simple as my original sketch but that suited the density of this particular painting. I sent it over to the theater.

James McMullan

By this time, however, I had used up four weeks and the play was in rehearsal, so the reaction to my art became colored by the fact that the star was on the premises. For the producers, it was now paramount that my poster show a likeness of Donald Sutherland. Whatever disappointment I felt about my art being rejected was balanced by the great opportunity of photographing Sutherland and then making a poster out of those shots.

I took the easel over to the theater and showed Sutherland my sketch. He said that he understood my idea and would give me a couple of variations. His variations were so full of a great actor's physical imagination and sense of what his face and body could project that I knew, watching his changes through my camera's viewfinder, that he was giving me the basis for a whole new kind of image. In place of the somewhat generalized melancholy of the figure in my sketch he was giving me a specific man, a heroic figure saddened by circumstance.

James McMullan

James McMullan

As I did the sketch on the left, I became convinced that it wasn't the pose I should use - Sutherland seemed almost too concealed by the easel. In the right-hand sketch, parts of his figure emerge in an intriguing way from behind the easel and the angles of his arms contrast with the straightness of the easel frame. The composition needed an element in the foreground, so I added the corner of a table and a can of brushes. Also in this sketch, I conceived the beginnings of my idea for the type, which was to play the lettering against and around the easel.

James McMullan

In this study I am still hanging on to the background idea and the general color mood from my previous sketches, but allowing the easel to touch the top edge of the poster rectangle gave me the idea of a tighter, flatter composition that would be much more designed to its borders. Also, because the easel is lighter here, I saw how interesting the shape of the black pants became. Even though the effect of this watercolor is too gloomy and graphically too even-toned, it was a necessary step in moving me from the first idea of the poster into the possibilities that the Donald Sutherland photographs had opened up.

There was a big jump in my thinking at this point. I realized that the light atmosphere that I had hung onto through all the previous versions was wrong for the information in the new photos. This insight led me to make the basic drawing in a flatter way, forgoing a deeper sense of depth and playing all the shapes as a pattern within the border rectangle. I then painted a simple orange background fading at the bottom to a darker hue. Now there was no suggestion of a door or light coming from behind.

At this point I saw that leaving the shirt white was a dramatic graphic element. The white shirt and the orange background set up a brighter, higher color key and led me to make the easel much more subtle and to allow the contrasts of the shirt, the pants and the skin tones to dominate the image.

I wasn't bound by the things I had learned from the earlier sketches - this felt like a piece of art that was making its own rules. It was one of those happy experiences where I made the painting in a state of complete focus and in the space of three or four hours. I designed the lettering to continue the game of playing elements against the border and against edges within the composition. When I was finished, I was fairly sure I had created the piece of art that would become the printed poster, and, fortunately, everyone at Lincoln Center Theater agreed.

James McMullan

The emotional center of the poster was now the face of the painter, because the photographs of Donald Sutherland had given me an intensity and a specificity to work with that was far beyond any way I could have imagined the figure or achieved from using a stand-in.

This column brings to a close this 12-part series. It has been absorbing for me and a great pleasure to write these columns, and to revisit aspects of drawing I haven't thought about analytically for some time and to find new ways to articulate my deep interest in drawing the human figure. I am grateful to all of you who have followed the series. To those of you who have taken the time to have written comments in response to the columns, you have made it incredibly interesting and rewarding for me.

Thank you, all.

This is the last article in our series.

Start at the beginning, with "Getting Back to the Phantom Skill."


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