How Barron Storey’s Monkey Changed the Way I Make Pictures

Monkey - Pyragraph

One of the most influential teachers I ever had was Barron Storey. Professionally, he’s done everything from Time magazine covers, to theater, to postage stamps. Dave Mckean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kent Williams and a number of other great illustrators and cartoonists acknowledge his influence.

For someone who, for the most part, doesn’t make comics, he’s been a big influence on comics, likely because of his sketchbooks: mixed media journals that detail his day-to-day life and experiences with images and stream-of-consciousness writings. These, like comics, are stories told with pictures. But then, all illustration is just that: stories told with pictures in some way or another, either in a single image, or in sequence. It’s not venue or commerce but storytelling that makes illustration unique, and is why I’ve always wanted to do it for a living.

He peeled off a monkey. He peeled it right off the picture.

But the most important lesson that Barron had to teach didn’t really click for me until the monkey.

One day in class Barron brought in this enormous illustration he did for National Geographic. It always amazed me how little he took care of this stuff—like a lot of his originals, it looked like it was falling apart. He used everything from traditional media like watercolor and colored pencil to ballpoint pens and highlighters, so it wasn’t exactly archival. And like many he did, it was intricately detailed. It contained hundreds of animals arranged in an elaborate pictorial diagram. Or that’s how I remember it. Maybe it was only 50. But it was a lot. And it looked complicated and impossible and intimidating. I’d never be able to do anything like that.

Then he did a shocking thing. He peeled off a monkey. He peeled it right off the picture. There was an audible gasp from the classroom. He explained that the monkey was drawn on a piece of tracing paper. Then he proceeded to drench the monkey with a generous and noxious amount of spray fixative (he always had a hacking cough from both smoking and god knows what else he’d inhaled over the years) and stuck it right back onto the picture. The edges of the tracing paper disappeared and you’d never have guessed that the monkey hadn’t been drawn right on the surface of the illustration board.

And then I got it. It wasn’t about mixed media or collage. It was about this. There was more than one way to skin a cat (or a monkey). There are a million solutions for every problem.  And you can make up for anything you lack—or think you lack—by approaching the problem in a completely novel way.

Barron always claimed not to know how to paint. He’s a line guy. But he’s made hundreds of images that you would swear were paintings. Look up close, and you’ll see that one way or another, line is involved—pens or colored pencils or painted hash marks. Method and media will always be an intrinsic part of what you do, but how you choose to use them and what shape they take is up to you. And this goes for anything—drawing, painting, sculpting, storytelling. There’s never any one way to achieve a given end.

So it turns out that I am also a line guy. But I don’t make pictures the way Barron makes pictures. My objectives are very different than his. Part of learning how to get to where you’re trying to go is identifying your strengths. Just as important is identifying your weaknesses. With a lot of frustration and effort, I can paint reasonably well. But it’s not my strength. With a lot of frustration and effort, I can draw realistically, though there are a lot of very talented people who can do this a lot better than me (Barron included).  But what I do with line and brush has its own unique character that doesn’t look quite like anyone else.

For my professional work, I play to my strengths.

One of the lessons I learned from Barron’s monkey was very practical. I wanted to do pictures with a lot of characters and action and detail, but trying to organize complex compositions directly on the page was daunting. So I found a way to compose my images in pieces. Like Barron and his monkey, I draw my figures separate from my backgrounds (which for Barron, was only one of many approaches). Then I scan and compose them on the computer. With the computer, I also have the advantage of being spared all that fixative (and respiratory illnesses—please Barron, stay in good health).

Since painting is also daunting to me, I scan in watercolor textures and watercolor overlays. While most of what I do is with wet media, I use the computer as a compositional tool and to add color to my textures. On the computer I have more control. I can use layers as I might use washes with paint, and can push the color further than I could otherwise.

Do I wish I was better at painting and drawing realistically? Definitely. And I haven’t given up on it. I just do it on the side. Stretching outside your limits only makes you better at everything else you do. But for my professional work, I play to my strengths.

The point isn’t that I compose my images on the computer or in pieces. It’s that I found a method that is uniquely mine, and have overcome my weaknesses through experimentation and discovery. That by exploiting my strengths, I’ve found something uniquely my own, not by emulating Barron or anyone else, but by finding my own way.

Photo by Robertpollai.

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