Robert Rodriguez fineartprintsca

The art and interests of Robert Rodriguez

I NEVER WON A GRAMMY AWARD. SAD.

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But two years out of art school, I did become one of the eight finalists for the best album cover art for 1972!  That was pretty cool, but even then I knew it wasn’t exactly because my art work was so amazing.  Those were the years of the concept album covers.  And mine was one of those.  Ernie Cefalu, one of the owners of Pacific Eye & Ear, an album design studio, asked me to do the cover for a band called Five Dollar Shoes.

I don’t mean to be too modest, but I really don’t even know if Ernie asked for me.  I was working for Peter Palombi at the time, and Peter was probably busy, so he passed it over to me.  Drew Struzan was the staff artist at PE&E, and I remember when I went over to pick up the project, Drew was sitting there working on his “Sabbath bloody Sabbath” cover for Black Sabbath.  I suppose that was why they passed the Shoes album over to our studio.  Besides, Five Dollar Shoes only had that one album, and not many people ever heard of them before or after.  They were a little bit Glam, and this wasn’t a very important album.  But Ernie had this idea to make the album like a tin of vintage shoe polish, to tie in with the band’s name.  We were going to make it round, but I think it was Grand Funk Railroad who had a round album that same year, so Ernie decided on a square format with rounded corners.

The front cover was the lid of the shoe polish tin, you open it up and you see the inside of the lid, and the actual polish with spit on it for lubrication.  Pull the sleeve out and you see the shoe polish almost gone, and the back cover is the bottom of the tin.  And once Ernie gave me the concept, he left me completely alone.  Great art director.  I did the whole thing, logo design, illustration…it was such an exciting project.

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Also a shock to get the nomination.  When the notice came in the mail, I thought it was a prank.   Nobody told me what to do, except I got four tickets to the awards ceremony.  My roommate, Bob Krogle and I, rented a limo and took our girlfriends.  We sat at a table with Bruce Botnick who I didn’t know, but he and his wife were very encouraging to me.  He was a record producer for the Doors, Love, and many other bands and albums.  I felt like he was much older, but I just looked him up and he was only two years older than me.  Anyway, no one told me what to do if I won.  I didn’t know if I was supposed to go up on stage and say anything.  So it was sort of a relief to not win, I would have been terrified.

Almost better than the nomination (oh yeah, just being recognized is an honor in itself, I almost forgot to say that) was that I became a member of the recording academy and got to vote for album covers every year after that.  I also got to order record albums for $1.50 every month or so.  I have a fantastic collection of albums because I would order records by people I never even heard of, just because their names sounded interesting.  At $1.50, you can’t go too far wrong.  I gave a lot of album presents on Christmas and birthdays.

A year later, Ernie asked me to do the cover for George Carlin: Occupation Foole.  Drew had done a beautiful prismacolor sketch for it of Carlin wearing a court jester’s hat, and I painted his design in a Leyendecker style.  But Carlin said that his comedy was using his whole body, so they wound up using photography of him in silly poses.  I had Drew’s sketch in my scrap file for years, but I think someone swiped it.  That sketch was probably worth $20,000 or so nowadays!  Ernie was selling the Five Dollar Shoes artwork for $80,000 or more a few years ago.

Sorry the Five Dollar Shoes scans are so poor.  I only found them online, and this is the best I could do.

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WHAT’S NEXT….UNICORNS?

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Well, I guess so.

I actually did a whole book of unicorn paintings, for The Unicorn Sonata by Peter S. Beagle, but this is the only image from the book that I can find right now.  If I can find any more of the illustrations, I will publish them on a later blog.  Peter Beagle was the author of The Last Unicorn.

This was a very interesting project, and I always loved the cover, even with the title plopped into the center.  The rest of the illustrations were generally successful, some more than others.  But I will explain in more detail if I can find some other examples of the work.

ARE CLOWN PAINTINGS AUTOMATICALLY CREEPY?

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Coulrophobia is the official psychological term given to the irrational fear of clowns.  When did clowns become scary?  I believe there was a time, before 1950 maybe, when clowns were funny and lovable.  But since then, they have acquired a bad reputation.  I bet they scare more little kids than any shopping mall Santa Claus ever did.

And if clowns are frightening, clown paintings are even more so.  They always creep me out.  Red Skelton clown paintings, John Wayne Gacy clown paintings, outsider art clown paintings…all of ‘em.  Diane Keaton even published a book of clown paintings that were swapmeet purchases.  Picasso did a lot clown paintings, and he might be one of the few that I can accept.

So why have I done so many of them myself?  I saw a movie once where Italian clowns were performing on a gaslight stage, and the colors were so beautiful, that inspired me.  And of course Cappiello, the poster artist often used clowns in his work.  Maybe clowns are okay as long as they aren’t painted realistically?  Like maybe there is something automatically out of whack with painting an unrealistic character in a realistic way.

But the classical clowns from the Italian Commedia dell’arte are wonderful characters in traditional costumes that have been handed down from the late 1500’s.  There was a lot of interconnection with the French, so the names of the characters are sometimes more familiar in French, like Harlequin, Scaramouche, Pierrot, Columbine.  And these classical clowns are the ones I love to do.

Of course I have no such excuse for illustrating mimes.  What’s next, Unicorns?

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VERY UNSCIENTIFIC THOUGHTS ON LEFT-HANDEDNESS

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I found this book online.  It wasn’t all that long ago that left-handed children were the victims of attempts to “cure” them in their early years.  They were punished for using the wrong hand.  I don’t believe many, or any, of them continued to write with their right hand, once the pressure was lifted, but it couldn’t have been easy.  Nowadays there are products made for lefties, even stores that specialize in things like left-handed corkscrews, and left-handed can openers.  Even language is biased with words like gauche in French meaning both “left”  and “awkward” or “clumsy” and right  in English meaning both the direction and “correct” or “proper”.

But because of the division of the brain hemispheres,  it seems that left-handers’ brains are structured in such a way that benefits their language skills, and allows them to handle spatial relationships and emotions in more diverse and creative ways.  Which brings me to my own very unscientific survey that I have developed over the years as an illustrator.  Most illustrators I’ve known are right-handed, but a predominant number of designers are left-handed.  I always wondered if there was something about the preferred hand, that made the designers see patterns and shapes more clearly than right-handers.  It couldn’t be all that much of a difference, but enough that lefties gravitated toward design, and righties went with drawing.

I looked up pictures of Saul Bass, Raymond Lowey, and Charles and Ray Eames on Google.  And though it is difficult to tell, it appears that all of them were right-handed.  Does that blow my theory out of the water?  Not really, because like I said, most designers I’ve known were lefties.  And after all, I did say this wasn’t scientific.

IT WAS ONLY A PAPER MOON

I LIKE THE HIGH LIFE

Paper Moon Graphics, what a great place to work.   Almost complete freedom to do the art the way you wanted it.  I remember you would go in there sometimes with a sketchbook and show them your ideas and they would pick one and tell you to finish it up.  And it worked that way from the beginning, when I started with them.  Linda Barton, Robert Fitch, and Roger Carpenter all went with what worked, and it was a ground-breaking company.  They did often commission you to paint their ideas as well, but they trusted the artists to interpret everything and didn’t over direct.  Artwork is always so much better when the designer and the illustrator work together, rather than the art director telling you exactly how to handle every brushstroke.

I wasn’t in on why it ended, but I have an idea that it was because they were so good, that everyone copied them.  Of course the imitations were never as good, but they were probably cheaper to produce, and cheaper to buy.  But for anyone who worked for Paper Moon, it was something you will never forget.

I just remember, until Paper Moon cards, I used to buy these cartoony cards for whatever occasion, or make my own.  I was never really happy with what I used.  But once I saw the kind of cards Paper Moon was doing, I never bought anything else.  And Paper Moon was more expensive, but it didn’t matter.  It wasn’t even a consideration because the art was so superior, and the attitude was so cool.

COWBOY BOB

LUNCH COUNTER

On the extreme left (mostly cropped off) is a self-portrait.  I am also listed on the menu for $1.10.

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The bartender, the diner, and the adult motel were all originally done for Oui Magazine.

ESPECIALLY FOR YOU

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Poor Santa, I somehow forgot one of his fingers.  A horrible toy-making accident, I suppose.

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This image was originally an ad for Schwinn BMX bicycles.

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REINDEER CROSSING

Robert Rodriguez is represented by Lindgren & Smith (212.397.7330)

STEVE COMES THROUGH

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Steven Chorney is the wonderful movie poster artist and illustrator who did the concept sketches for The Two Jakes in the very beginning.  I remember there were five of us who took these and developed them as comps, and even came up with other designs too.  I was assigned the first one he laid out.

I asked him if he still had the comps, and this morning he sent them along so I could post them.  I think Thomas Blackshear did a comp using a variation of the second design, which Steven said was his favorite concept because of the tension in Nicholson’s face.

Steven said he was thinking about the Scarface movie poster in his design.  Based on his days doing illustrations for TV Guide, he felt there was something missing from his sketch.  We needed the girl!  “…we need 2 guys, a girl, and a gun!”  He must have mentioned that to the art director, because by the time I got the job, they were asking for me to add the girl in there.

This was done back before color xeroxes were very accurate.  Steven had done the grey background version, but they had made a color copy for me, and it had turned a sort of acid yellow.  I loved it, so I  tried to match the color.  It reminded me of that Van Gogh painting of the pool hall interior with the  yellow lights and the green felt.  Van Gogh wrote “In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime.” 

But even though they liked my Two Jakes art, they wanted to go with the grey of Steven’s original version (which I had never seen).  They had me hide Meg Tilly’s face with her hat, make Nicholson larger, and make his coat and lapels oversized.

The only bad experience with the whole project was the reference they gave me for Jack Nicholson’s face.   It was a blurry, two inch tall, b&w photo from The Witches of Eastwick.  I kept asking, “Seriously?  Jack Nicholson, and this is the best reference you have?”  I think I painted his head about 9″ tall on my poster.  And as it turned out, his face was the only problem anyone had with my image. (see my blog post, July 2013, for that story)

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ROUGHS, COMPS, AND FINISHES

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On illustration projects, the normal process is for the art director to either send me a very rough sketch or at least a description of what they want their painting to contain.  I thought it might be interesting to show the way it all comes about.  My roughs are usually so rough that I don’t even intend to show them to any client.  They are just for my own use to work out concepts and designs.  People often wonder how I can tell anything from the scribbles I do, but they really contain enough that I know if that direction is something I can develop or not.  I might fill pages with roughs like this, before I hit on one that works.  Nowadays, I do them digitally, but the idea is still to develop a sketch that shows promise.  I really don’t want to spend time making a good drawing.  I want to crank out as many ideas as possible, so I work very quickly.

It is interesting to me that when I hit on one decent direction, the pressure is off.  I know that I can always use the first good one if I can’t think of anything else.  But once that one is in the bag, I am free to really try other ways to approach the job, without worrying about results.  And it is usually one of the later sketches that I wind up going with, because they are a lot freer, and more adventurous.

Then I have to tighten things up a little so the art director and the client can understand what I have in mind.  This would be the comp stage.  I often do my comps in color, which sometimes isn’t a good idea, but it really helps me to think about what the finished art will look like.  But it also gets me in trouble because a client might perseverate on some color choice I’ve made, when I have always intended to adjust that in the final painting.  Also, sometimes a client falls in love with something that I may want to change in the finish, but they love it, so I can’t.  Even after all these years, I haven’t come up with a completely satisfactory way to present my sketches or comps.

I remember one project where the client said, “Don’t use any green.”  No explanation, just don’t do it.  Of course that is like telling someone, “Whatever you do, don’t dream about monkeys.”  That night, it is almost guaranteed that monkeys will be in every dream you have.  I remember struggling to do my painting with no green at all, and then breaking down because I just had to use green in one spot.  The art director loved the painting, and when I apologized for the little touch of green he said, “Oh, that wasn’t really important.  I just don’t particularly like green so that was a suggestion only.”  I spent hours trying to avoid that color, and it made no difference at all.

I hope  you can see how a rough sketch develops into the finish.  Each step takes me closer, and the design is finessed, and the colors are brought together.  Doing the finished art is a lot more involved than just getting the drawing tighter.  I’ve heard of artists that can see the finish in their heads before the start.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?  That’s not me.  It is a step-by-step process, and every mark, requires another mark to tie in with it, until there is nothing else needed.  Then it is finished.

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The drum majorette was for the 60th anniversary of 3M electrical tape.  The first sketch was the art director’s rough, showing me what he wanted, then my rough to develop a direction, then my comp for him to approve, then my finish.

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LAWYER SKETCH

The two panels above show my rough for myself, then the comp for the art director and client approval, and then my finish.

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Movie posters were an entirely different thing.  Basically the comps were almost finished art.  This was my comp for The Two Jakes, and my finish.  I am going to post these two again sometime soon, because I want to include the sketch that Steve Chorney did that inspired this approach.  But I don’t have it right now.

ANDY GOLDSWORTHY: RIVERS AND TIDES

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Do you know his work?  There are very few abstract artists I like, and even fewer conceptual artists.  Conceptual art is a form of art where the idea is more important than the finished art itself.  I would have originally categorized Goldsworthy in that group, but that isn’t a valid description.  It is the process as well as the finished art that counts with his work.  He works with natural materials, and usually natural tools.  He works with ice, leaves, flowers, dirt, rocks, grasses, and his work is photographed as it is being created, when it is finished, and as it deteriorates.  All of this is an essential part of the artwork.  Amazingly beautiful work.

In the documentary film, Rivers and Tides, there is a scene where he is creating a screen of reeds held together with thorns, and hanging from a tree branch.  He is on the home stretch when a slight breeze comes up the hillside.  Goldsworthy holds up his hands to steady the screen, and just when it seems that everything might be okay, the whole thing collapses.  He sits there for a few seconds with his eyes closed,  he sighs, and then he picks up the reeds and begins again.  I think the narrator says it is the third time that has happened on the project.

His work is very organic and rooted in the natural world, as is his approach to it.  I want to try to develop the meditative quality he has to his art.  Maybe you won’t hear me scream anymore when things go wrong.

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CIRCUS BOY

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When I was a little kid, there was a TV show called Circus Boy starring Mickey Dolenz, later of the Monkees.  He played an orphan who was adopted by the circus after his parents died in a fall during their trapeze performance.  I always dreamed of living that life, and running off to join the circus, but never expected them to actually come looking for me.  When they asked me to do the program cover and poster for 1981, it was a childhood fantasy come true.  I wound up doing 5 posters for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus over the years.  Four were the actual posters, one was used as an insert in the program to promote one of their starring acts.

They would give me loads of photos and slides to use as reference, and a list of the acts they wanted to see on the poster.  Other than that, I pretty much had complete freedom.  Now I hear that the circus will be closing in May, after 146 years of operation.  Falling attendance, high operating costs, and the loss of the elephants due to protests from animal rights groups, were the main causes.  Kids just don’t dream of running away to join the circus nowadays.  So the circus is leaving town, but what a history they leave behind.

I wish I had better images to post, but these were all I could find online, and my programs are all in storage.

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CARAN D’ACHE CRAYONS

kd-lang-grammy-copyI also used Caran d’Ache Crayons on my work.  They were a waxy crayon that went on very smoothly and opaquely if you wanted them to.  You could blend them with your fingers and they would dry to the touch and not smear after they dried.  The same company made an oil pastel, but it never seemed to really dry.  I would use them quite a bit for background textures .  One day I had finished a job, and it was  leaning up against my flat files, ready for me to flap it and ship it that night.

My 5-year-old son poked his head in my door and laughed as he squirted me with his water pistol.  I laughed too until I noticed that the overspray had hit the painting, and when I tried to dab it up, it only removed the colors where the water drops were.  At first I was furious, and wondered why these things always seem to happen within hours of deadline?  But as I dabbed at it, I realized that I could never really fix it.  So instead, I splattered more water on it and dabbed off more color.  It was a major improvement to the work, and I began to use it on many pieces from then on.

I just looked them up and they are still manufactured.  Called Caran D’ache Neocolor II Artists’ Crayons, they are water soluble.  Their strong pigmentation allows light colors to cover dark colors and vise-versa.  They are soft enough to blend with your fingertip, yet much firmer than oil pastels.  Yep, that’s the way I remember them!

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