Friday, October 19, 2012

"Three Cats and a Rat"

In this month's Appleseeds magazine I was given a fun opportunity to illustrate an old folktale where a swordsman and his friend try to employ cats to catch a pesky rat, though the first two cats turn out to be more high maintenance than they are skilled. The third cat, a plain tabby, uses patience rather than an aggressive approach to finally catch the rodent who upon release promises to never return.

The story mentions a swordsman and the art director suggested maybe a Spaniard, so right off the bat I channelled what I knew of old European painting as inspiration, especially in terms of using dramatic chiaroscuro, multiple figures in complex angled poses, and setting everything in a ambiguous, darkened, rural space. Then from there I tried to combine it all into a more modern palette and look. (AD and Layout: Joshua Banks)

In my first rough sketch for the big splash image, I thought it was important to focus on a high maintenance persian cat and emphasize that by showing the swordsman rushing over with a bowl of milk to appease it. The little blobs up top were supposed to be kittens holding a "Fight of the Century" sign as mentioned in the story, to build up the hype even more. After stepping back and looking at the sketch I felt it just showed a jerk of a cat but didn't tell anything about the relationship between the swordsman and the cat.

I decided I really needed to include a mouse hole to show the reason that the swordsman is cajoling the cat. But at the same time the mouse hole alone wasn't enough to show the gravity of the situation - that was where the friend from the story came in handy. I placed him waiting to pounce by the entrance, thereby suggesting that there was something actually pesky inside that hole that the cat wouldn't even attend to until fully fed. Perfect...except for the fact that the composition became incredibly left-heavy at that point.

With some tweaking of the figure I changed him to better fit my needs there, which were to 1) balance the composition and 2) support the narrative. This arrangement also had a unexpected benefit too, which was how the shape of the cat now looked like it was literally stepping on him, as if he was a slave to that cat. I thought it helped to subconsciously push that idea that this was really one high maintenance animal. Plus I already had a composition comprised of many "U" shapes in varying sizes and curves, so putting the friend in a big "U" helped to hold everything together and perpetuate the rhythm.

chris hsu illustration
Voila! Now I felt like I had a composition of dynamic implied lines and shapes that helped to tell the specific narrative, and I could finally move forward confidently with the rest of the character design, drawing, and painting. Below are the other two smaller illustrated spots that accompanied the story. I already decided early on that the rat was going to appear in both of those, which is why I never included it in the initial sketch for the splash image.

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