What, you probably asked yourself after reading the first of this three-part interview, is Robin Enrico’s favorite piece of Jamie Tanner’s work? Why a surfing whale, of course. The design apparently wins based on the sheer absurdity of the act it portrays. For Tanner, there’s more to it than that, of course. The piece was conceived as the design for an article of baby clothing, the artist’s line of work for a number of years.
It represents something artistically, too–simplicity. Something oft eschewed for Tanner’s passion for ornate design. It’s all a delicate balance, to be certain, the polarizing tendencies toward detail and streamlining. In terms of current convictions, the two artists interviewed below represent polarized ends of the spectrum. Tanner for his part, is looking to lessen the clutter. Enrico is preaching the value of including defining background details to students who often prefer the comfort of a setting a scene in a stark white room.
The grass, as they say, is always greener on the other side.
Robin Enrico: My favorite part is the work of Jamie’s that only a few people have seen. When I met him a couple of years ago, you were doing these kids’ book illustration–
Jamie Tanner: Actually, children’s clothing illustrations. Not even children’s books.
JT: Yeah, it was for baby clothes. I did that for many years. I did illustration for baby clothes—it was an industry that I didn’t even know existed, but I made a living at it, for a number of years.
Everything that’s manufactured has to get made by someone.
JT: That’s true, that’s true.
RE: He sent me this graphic of a surfing whale, and it’s my favorite drawing of all time. Why is the whale surfing? It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s awesome.
JT: That’s strange that you even remember that.
Did your boss walk up to you and say, “I need a surfing whale by tomorrow”?
JT: I wish I could remember the specifics of that one. I drew so many things like that.
Were you picking out the subject matter?
JT: It was rarely my deciding what to draw, so it probably was someone say, “something with whales and surfing.”
Was it at all stylistically similar to what you’re doing now?
JT: No, not at all. It has been a benefit to me, though, in terms of simplifying my own drawing style. It tends to be convoluted. I do a lot of cross hatching and a lot of unnecessary detail. Drawing the stuff for kids where it has to be as cute as possible and you’re drawing every single line—
The Charles Schulz syndrome.
JT: Yeah, exactly. It has to print on fabric, so it has to be as simple as possible. So that might have helped my comics.
Has it helped that much? Your work is still quite detailed.
JT: It’s still convoluted. I’m still ridiculously complicated about line work, but I think the overall compositions and shapes—I’m trying to make them simpler. I may just be failing.
Is it a matter of the amount of time you’re spending on a page?
JT: No—god, I wish I thought in that way. But I’m just kind of drawn to simplifying things. I don’t know why. But it will never look that way on the surface, by the time I’m done with it.
[To Enrico] Do you need to complicate things?
RE: Oh, god, yeah. you can look at my work and say, “this is very simple. His work is not great, his anatomy is shaky,” but this is one of the lessons I go over with my students, and I always want to slap ‘em—is there ever a white hall? Is your story taking place in a white room with no windows? There’s detail on everything. For me, I always want to layer things, over and over. Even if it’s abstracted to an extreme, there’s always something there. There’s always a level where, even if it’s rough, there should be trees there, or there should be sound effects. I there’s a sky, why aren’t there clouds and a sun?
If you’re both making and teaching comics, you’ve got to abide by your own lessons, to some degree. Do you feel yourself making your comics more consciously detailed so you don’t look like a hypocrite?
RE: No, I’m just an obsessive person. You don’t want the page to be mud, you don’t want it to be black, but if you don’t fill it, you’re lazy. I know that sounds totally like I’m an asshole, but I know people read it for a second, but you think about movies—think about the amount of detail that goes into every prop, every costume, every setting. To not do that in your comic just shows that you don’t care.
That’s an interesting analogy. I heard an interview with Wes Anderson recently. He was discussing The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
JT: Talk about filling a frame.
Exactly. He was saying, “when I’m making a live action movie, we scout a location. It exists. We just have to fill it in from there. “Doing stop-motion animation is similar to comics, in sense.
JT: I feel like he’s almost being disingenuous with that comment, because his movies are so well thought out.
Yeah, but you’re starting from a foundation, at least. The movie analogy is a bit tricky, because in comics, you’re starting with a blank page.
RE: Yeah, but if you think about dressing a set, how do you make it look like someone has lived there, their whole life?
But again, there’s never going to be just a white wall in real life.
RE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s cracks in it, there’s dimples in it, there’s dirt on it. Maybe someone tacked up a crappy poster, every little detail reveals something. I do a lesson with my students—really think about how your characters are dressed. It’s visual shorthand. Not everybody wears a t-shirt and jeans. Maybe in reality that’s true, but you’re making stuff up. It is like Fantastic Mr. Fox. If you can make up the world, make it to your will. Reveal something about your characters in how they dress, what does the scene take place?
[Concluded in Part Three.]