Category Archives: Rubylith

Look What I Found: The Fairest One of All

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With 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney took a gamble that audiences would sit still for a feature-length animated film – he won, magnificently. What showed up on screen as a sweet, pleasant fairy tale involved massive amounts of labor, second-guessing, fine-tuning, and pruning away of excess story. All of this is detailed by Disney historian J. B. Kaufman in his 2012 book The Fairest One of All, which satisfies as both a thorough production history and a lovely, large-format tribute to this still-influential animated icon.

Snow White certainly had a huge impact on my young mind when I saw a reissue screening in the ’70s (maybe the earliest movie I remember seeing?). In that darkened theater, I swooned to Snow White’s untouched beauty, cowered in terror at the Wicked Witch, and laughed along with Dopey and the other dwarfs. Being a little kid, when it was over I wanted more. Later on, my mother indulged me with the Disney storybook record album (the one with the purple cover), which got heavy play on the family turntable. To this day, the sound of Adriana Caselotti’s trilling makes me smile. The movie pretty much turned me into an artist, an old movie buff, and a full-on Disney freak – three in one!

Since Snow is so personally dear to me, I had extremely high expectations for The Fairest One of All. Surprisingly, the book ended up outdoing those high expectations – Kaufman truly knows his Snow White history, and it’s efficiently laid out in this beautifully designed volume. After a few chapters detailing the history of the Grimm Brothers’ source tale and the various pre-Disney stage and film renditions, Kaufman comprehensively goes through the film, scene-by-scene, explaining how they came to be. As a straightforward chronological history, having it arranged in the order the story is told reveals a ton of fascinating episodes which might have been lost the other way. It may even be too detailed for all but die-hard Snow White buffs. Kaufman’s research is so incredible, however, and it’s written in an accessible style. I devoured sections discussing scenes that were significantly tweaked (such as the prince’s introduction), painstakingly re-animated (the dwarfs coming home from the mine), or eliminated entirely (scenes with the dwarfs eating soup and building a bed for Snow White; a dream sequence meant to accompany “Someday My Prince Will Come”). Every single frame in this film got analyzed to a degree that’s never been attempted before or since. If anything, this book is a tribute to Walt Disney’s high standards and attention to detail.

J. B. Kaufman recently published another, similar comprehensive history on Disney’s follow-up film, Pinocchio. You can bet it’s on my wish list. The Fairest One of All was published by the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press in 2012. It can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

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Look What I Found: Sing for America (1944)

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Early this year, I resolved to buy myself a fascinating older book full of nice illustrations, a la James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book or The Fireside Book of Children’s Songs, in an effort to expand my library within an affordable price range. Five months in, I’ve broken the $15-a-pop ceiling a few times and even bought some newer (yet beautifully illustrated) books. I thought vaguely of combining every monthly book into one long, huge post at the end of the year, but my sensible spouse encouraged me to write about them one at a time. Good thinking. So, I’m now presenting the acquisition for May — Sing for America, a patriotic 1944 songs-and-history volume with artwork by the great Swedish artist Gustaf Tenggren.

Sing for America came out during a transitional period for Tenggren, when he was moving from traditional, fairy tale-inspired styles to a modern, color-saturated sensibility. This was a book meant for young people to appreciate America’s developing musical heritage, with Wheeler’s silly, fictionalized text alongside sheet music for songs like “My Old Kentucky Home.” A few of the illustrations delve into Politically Incorrect territory, but being Tenggren they are all fantastically done – with a stylized zest that conveys this Swedish immigrant’s fascination with Americana (the artist lived in the U.S. for twenty-plus years at this point, and would remain here until his death in 1970). Coming immediately after his stint as a concept artist for the Disney studios, one can see the Disney influence rubbing off on these pieces (along with the vintage Little Golden Books feel used on projects like Tenggren’s The Poky Little Puppy). In 127 pages, Tenggren contributes everything from lavish, beautifully composed full-pages in living color, to stylish, Deco-ish spot illustrations, to the whimsical endpapers with American children of various races and historical periods.

Sing for America was published by E. P. Dutton & Co. in 1944, apparently in a single edition. It’s out of print, but copies can be obtained pretty affordably at sites like AbeBooks.com.

"The Old Oaken Bucket"

“The Old Oaken Bucket”


"America the Beautiful"

“America the Beautiful”


"Jingle Bells"

“Jingle Bells”


"Sing for America" title page spread.

“Sing for America” title page spread.


"Home on the Range"

“Home on the Range”


"Sing for America" endpaper detail.

“Sing for America” endpaper detail.

Introducing Whimsy, Inc.

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Last Christmas, my spouse gave me a nice new Wacom drawing tablet. Regrettably, I hadn’t been using it very much. Just like physical exercise, however, artists need to draw and create on a regular basis to keep their skills strong. Besides, here I was hitting my late ’40s with not much to show for my decade-plus efforts at becoming a bona fide illustrator. In order to do that, I need to illustrate – even if it’s solely for my own enjoyment. With all that in mind, I started a Tumblr blog called Whimsy, Inc.. The premise is simple: setting aside an hour or so each week, I draw something – an animal, a cartoon, or perhaps a portrait of an actor I saw in a movie.

It’s funny – I’m getting to the point where I routinely become very jealous and bitter every time I see or hear about a successful illustrator. Wallowing in regret does more harm than good, however. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of failed experiments, a lot of promotion, and a lot of dedication behind every individual who manages to carve out a name for themselves in this highly competitive field. Anyone who can actually make a living off that earns my highest admiration. Real illustrators don’t sit around and whine… real illustrators do stuff.

Eight weeks into Whimsy, Inc., I find that I’m using a variety of materials but generally I’m sticking with improving my digital drawing skills, composition and color. In addition to the Wacom tablet (which I still haven’t gotten the hang of), I downloaded a set of Photoshop gouache brushes which have been a lot of fun to use.

"Wiggle" digital drawing for Illustration Friday.

“Wiggle” digital drawing for Illustration Friday.


Portrait of Merle Oberon in Lydia (1941).

Portrait of Merle Oberon in Lydia (1941).


Backyard scene of our dog, using colors from an Eyvind Earle study.

Backyard scene of our dog, using colors from an Eyvind Earle study.


Portrait of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

Portrait of Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972).

Scrap Happy PAP-py

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Consider this post a shout-out to publishers who still make gorgeous, paper-bound books to hold in your hands and cherish. With that in mind, let’s salute the folks at Princeton Architectural Press, who have passed along a few of their products that bear mentioning here. PAP is primarily known for its architecture-oriented titles, of course, but in recent years they’ve branched out into a dizzying array of other subjects (The Ghost Army of World War II, coming out later this month, is one such intriguing project). In the interest of full disclosure, all of these items were sent to Scrubbles.net headquarters through PAP’s generosity – I’m happy to cover them here, however, since they fit my particular tastes so well.

With the imposing, primary-colored Inside the Rainbow, editors Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya have done a comprehensive, fun survey on an overlooked side of Russia’s history – its kiddie books. In focusing on the visually dazzling work put out in turbulent post-Communist Revolution years of 1920-35, the volume earns its subtitle Beautiful Books, Terrible Times. Divided into thematic chapters such as “How the World Works” and “Let’s Study, Study and Study,” insightful essays and page spreads from dozens of different books demonstrate how the Communist message was distilled for its youngest members. Obviously, you get a lot of striking, modern Russian Constructivist design from El Lizzitsky and the like here, but what struck me was the variety of illustration styles throughout these pages. Lots of images have a uniquely Russian folklorist feel, yet they could also fit in the pages of American kids’ books of the era (my favorite section, in terms of purely gorgeous imagery, is the chapter on animals). Accented with poetry and text excerpts, this book accurately reflects the “cheery-on-the-outside, oppressed-on-the-inside” outlook of the time.

Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press, 2013) front cover.

Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press, 2013) front cover.

Spread of illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin for the book Babies of the Zoo, c. 1935.

Spread of illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin for the book Babies of the Zoo, c. 1935.

Spread from Where Does Crockery Come From? by Nikolai Smirnov, 1924.

Spread from Where Does Crockery Come From? by Nikolai Smirnov, 1924.

Vladimir Gryuntal and G. Yablonksy designs and photographs from What Is This? by Mikhail Gershenzon, 1932.

Vladimir Gryuntal and G. Yablonksy designs and photographs from What Is This? by Mikhail Gershenzon, 1932.

Another arrival from PAP was Myopia, the career-spanning retrospective for DEVO co-founder and all-around Renaissance Man Mark Mothersbaugh. For those who only know Mothersbaugh from DEVO and his scores for video games and films like The Lego Movie, the sheer amount of info in this 256-page survey will come as an eye-opener. Like fellow intellectual rocker David Byrne, Mothersbaugh is a talented visual artist in his own right, and it’s proven in this book with colorful, absurdist imagery from a period of more than 40 years. I always found it amazing that something as subversive and weird as DEVO emerged from mid-’70s Ohio – this book helps put that into context and shows Mothersbaugh’s (considerable) role in the emergence of punk and alt-culture. Roughly the first third is long-form essays and an interview, well-illustrated with photos, collages, sketches and other mementos. The rest showcases Mothersbaugh’s art projects such as Beautiful Mutants (mirror-image transmogrifications of stagy old photos of children) and Rugs (creepy-crawly pen and ink drawings rendered in latch-hook rugs). A final section displays (along with an appreciative write-up) a bewildering array of hand-drawn postcards – hundreds of illustrated missives from one twisted mind.

Mark Mothersbaugh Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Mark Mothersbaugh Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).

Selections from Mothersbaugh's "Beautiful Mutants" series in Myopia.

Selections from Mothersbaugh’s “Beautiful Mutants” series in Myopia.

Mark Mothersbaugh - La Psiocologia del Dessio, 2003 poster.

Mark Mothersbaugh – La Psiocologia del Dessio, 2003 poster.

Selections from Mothersbaugh's "Rugs" series, 2004.

Selections from Mothersbaugh’s “Rugs” series, 2004.

Our last item is just for fun – a deck of colorful playing cards from Fredericks & Mae. I’ve never heard of the Brooklyn-based designing duo before, but prior to this card deck Fredericks & Mae were renowned for whimsically designed darts, bocce balls, arrows and exquisitely decorated kites. Knowing my attraction for ephemeral items in all the colors of the rainbow, this hit the spot. The cards come arranged in suit/number order, each one a different solid hue. While the numbered cards were done with a variant on the standard design we all know well, the face cards forgo images of kings, queens and jacks in favor of abstract designs involving stars, laurel wreaths and targets (a recurring motif in their work, apparently). A small booklet included with the cards contains instructions for other, less traditional games.

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Inspiration: Atari Game Packaging, 1977-1982

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari_SpaceInvadersWhen I was a kid, the Atari 2600 home video game ruled our household. Back then, we just called it “Atari” and all our peers knew what it meant. The primitive graphics may look laughable now, but the very concept of playing video games on your television set kept us enthralled for hours on end. While games like Adventure and Pitfall made excellent use of the small-sized memory and rudimentary 8-bit graphics the unit offered, for me Atari’s attraction went beyond the games and into the cartridge packaging. Yes, I’m talking about those rainbow-colored boxes that got tossed soon after the games were purchased. Unexpectedly, these candy-hued pieces of folded paperboard had a profound influence on me wanting to become a designer. Only recently, I’ve found out that I wasn’t alone!

The marketing folks at Atari were canny. Knowing that they couldn’t rely solely on boxy pixels to sell these games, they decided to entice buyers with boxes sporting a consistent framework design that showcased some of the most evocative illustration of that period. I loved the colors, the funky, curvy font, the tantalizing number that indicated how many games were on the cartridge (112 Space Invaders games – drool!). Mostly what captured my imagination was that artwork, done in styles ranging from cartoony to impressionist. Even when looking at those über-’70s illustrations from today’s perspective, one can tell it was a rare marriage of an open-minded company seeking wild, beautiful images and artists rising to the challenge to meet it. In pieces like Steve Hendricks’ rendering of the game “Defender” from the p.o.v. of people fleeing a city under attack by alien aircraft, you can see they went with an “out of the box” approach and ran with it. The format made even the dullest of games (Pac Man, anyone?) look alluring.

When the home video gaming boom went bust in 1982-83, the golden age of Atari’s box designs followed the same route. The need to compete for home gamers’ ever-dwindling dollars prompted Atari to change its packaging to an impersonal red-and-silver motif which made the games look like bland “home office” software. A bad move, although the writing was on the wall at that point. From then on, old-style Atari became the stuff of geek-nostalgia and in-jokes like the Venture Bros. DVD package shown below.

In researching this post, I’ve actually found out that a coffee table book of this imagery is currently in the works. While The Art of Atari: From Pixels to Paintbrush was slated for publication in 2014, hopefully its delay is due to creator Tim Lapetino ensuring that the final volume is as perfect as the subject demands.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Dodge 'Em box detail, 1980.

Dodge ‘Em box detail, 1980.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Swordquest: Fireworld Atari box with redesigned format, 1982.

Swordquest: FireWorld Atari box with redesigned format, 1983.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

Windup, Pitch and Go

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One of my favorite publishers, Chronicle, is looking for creative Tumblr users to supply book ideas for them. I decided to use The Great Tumblr Book Search to pitch an proposal for them to publish a book version of my daily weblog of Western-kitsch found imagery, 4 Color Cowboy. The full text of the pitch can be seen here. Wish me several horseshoe’s worth of luck.

Although many of the posts at 4 Color Cowboy rely on copyrighted imagery, I think a project like this could be pulled off pretty easily. My pitch envisions it as a small-format book with a simple design that incorporates one image to a page. One of the inspirations behind the pitch is a book coincidentally published by Chronicle back in 2002 – Black & White by Stephen Guarnaccia and Susan Hochbaum. This out-of-print gem compared and contrasted monochromatic images of skeletons, dice, penguins, nuns and other typically black and white subjects in surprising, fascinating ways. Used copies are well worth seeking out.