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Pablo Ferro

It has been a rough couple of weeks. Over the weekend, news came out that Pablo Ferro passed away.

He spoke at the MFA Houston a few years ago and I had the good fortune to meet him. Kind, humble, generous and still passionate about his work after all these years.

I swear an ad he did for Burlington Mills back in the mid 60s, that was still airing a decade later, had a huge impact on me. It was so striking, so different from everything else on TV at the time – the actual programming or the adverts – that 40 years later it still resonates with me.

I was able to speak with Mr Ferro for a few minutes after his presentation and told him how his work had had such an lasting effect on me. Made him smile.

God rest your beautiful soul, Mr Ferro.

And then there was light

Last weekend I built a light box. Over years I’ve talked about building one to photograph and catalog my portfolio. After a few decades in the business you end up with tons of samples, and they take up an awful lot of space in your house. In my never-ending quest to minimize my life, I’m finally taking care of this stuff.

The set-up is simple. I used an old moving box that has been in the rafters in the garage for years as the walls. To diffuse the light, I cut up an old piece of plastic, also from the garage. Using the kids’ lamps and bright soft white bulbs, the light box created a pleasing glow.

I shot pictures for almost 3 hours on Saturday. There’s still a ton of Photoshopping to be done, of course, because unlike my photographer friends, I cannot create the in-camera magic the way they can. That’s what separates us ordinary folks from the professionals.

The Rich Visual Feast

Printmaking was why I got into design in the first place. Drawing was cool, but you did one drawing and that was it. I have always been fascinated by mass producing images.

I learned to silkscreen in Mrs. Hopkins’ 10th grade art class. We exposed the screens in the storage closet at the back of the room.

The first thing I printed was my interruption of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. I had seen the movie, loved it and created my own version of it as a one color print with lots of contrasting white spaces and dark shadows to create these forms that became a scene from Rick’s American Cafe.

I took two semesters of printing once I got to college. One was a silkscreening class taught by Lynwood Kreneck, and the other was a lithography class with Terry Morrow the head of the art department. I loved both those classes in very different ways.

I also had Kreneck for a freshman drawing class, which I think the university made him teach. The thing is, he only wanted to work with students who were committed to making art, not the kids who were there just to get a humanities credit, or worse, there to find a husband. He could be cruel to say the least.

One thing Kreneck said to the class one day has always stuck with me to this very day. “Mr Ratcliff, always strive to create the rich, visual feast”. Make something so compelling that you cannot take your eyes off it. So interesting that you can see something new in it every time you look at it. If you’re going to all the trouble to make art, make it interesting.

Just look at all the glorious detail. The pea green cabinets in the background with the red plates popping in the front with little red accents scattered throughout. This was deliberate and exceptionally well-designed. Chapeau to the Art Director.

I was watching FX’s series “Better Things”, with Pam Adlon, a funny and poignant show about a single mom raising three daughters. I swear my wife and oldest daughter have had some of the same arguments I’ve seen on the show.

Beside the stories, the best thing about “Better Things” is the art direction. It is the most beautifully shot show on television. Even the simplest of shots are cinematic and break-taking in scope. With the sound turned down, the show is beautiful to watch. The backgrounds are colorful and deep. You see into their world, understand a little better about who these women are.

The rich visual feast.

I cannot take my eyes off the show even though some of the stories can be hard to sit through. The visuals and so stunning, so evocative, so captivating, I can sit perfectly still for 30 minutes and drink it all in.

Kreneck was right. When you make something so rich and interesting, you cannot help but make the world a better place in the process.

Everything I know about art direction & hiring I learned from DJ Stout

That’s DJ on the right.

I met DJ Stout in 1988, about a year after he had taken over art directing Texas Monthly. His first cover (above) became the biggest selling issue of the magazine to date. His second issue was the worst selling issue to date. There’s a lesson there, too. Maybe in another post.

He was invited to speak to the students in the Design Comm program at Texas Tech, his alma mater, by our guru, Frank Cheatham. DJ was very inspiring, sparking the imaginations of young and impressional students. A great guy, very generous with his time and insights. Had beers with him later that evening after the talk at 14th Street.

I met DJ again a couple of years later when he spoke at the Art Director’s Club of Houston. (Let’s be clear… we’re not fiends, or even acquaintances. I’m pretty sure if asked he could not pick me out of a police line-up.)

By this time DJ had already won a number of national and international awards for his work at Texas Monthly. Someone in the crowd asked him how he got to be such a great art director. He said:

Hire the best people possible and let them do their thing.

Simple advice. It is hard to argue his methods when you look at his track record.

But isn’t this good advice for hiring in general as well? And managing people, too. Work with the best people you can find and give them the space to be their best.