Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – pages 004 and 006

I feel that my greatest artistic shortcoming is my absolute inability to render a convincing human figure. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the first Moby-Dick film as well as the exquisite Rockwell Kent illustrations. In each of those iterations, great care was taken to put forth convincing, unique, visually distinct representations of each of the characters. I didn’t think I would be able to pull that off, especially over 552 pages, and I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to. This was primarily because I wasn’t interested in creating a simple visual narrative, a linear A to B journey through the book via paintings and drawings. I wanted to dig much deeper, get to the meat of things, and show the book as I saw it in my own inner theater. One of the many things which has always astounded me about the novel and the men behind the harpoons is the staggering willpower involved in choosing such a path. I’ve already alluded to this, but the idea of leaving home for years and years at sea, for little money, living on a tiny wooden island, and setting out on the unknown watery deep to stab to death the most massive and often savage creatures to ever see the sun…well, I find that almost inconceivable. So before beginning the illustration for page 004, the first time  in this project that I would have to depict a seaman, I spent some time thinking about just who these men were. What drove them. What inner architecture supported these brave deeds. Gradually, these men began, in my mind, to resemble ships. The very ships they sailed on or the ironclads of the Civil War. In some ways, part machine, part tool, part man. That was quite honestly the only way I could even begin to rationalize the choice to endure such deprivation, such isolation, such wandering, all for the sake of a few barrels of whale oil and a handful of dollars.

The line I chose, from a much more poetic paragraph, is Ishmael wondering “What of it, if some old hunks of a sea captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?” In a way, this quick piece was a good warm-up for what I knew would be many many more seamen and captains, Ahab and otherwise, throughout the book.

A simple, prow-like head. A band of some kind of optical devices. The anchor, (for me) the universal symbol of naval authority, radiating from his forehead almost aggressively. The booming voice bellowing commands. And again, an illustrated word. Words have shown up in many of these illustrations so far, and they have always seemed inseparable from my vision of the text itself.

These stylistic choices would repeat themselves many times until reaching their apotheosis in my vision of the mad Captain Ahab. But that’s a tale for another day.

Page 006 also represented a first in that it was my first opportunity to explore the whale as a visual symbol. In a bit of foreshadowing, Ishmael describes one of his most powerful reasons for choosing a life at sea as “Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.” Knowing that I would be exploring the meaning of the whiteness of the whale at great length later, I chose instead to focus quite literally on Ishmael’s motive, “the great whale himself.” The meaning of the whale, as embodied by the whale. The proto-whale. The avatar of the whale.

Nothing but mass. Sheer, terrifying size, rising from the horizon. Something so huge that it cannot possibly be seen in its entirety at once, with one set of eyes. It must be broken into pieces, here by the borders of the paper, to even be comprehensible. An idol of the great leviathan. And an almost perfect fusion of power and simplicity. I was deliriously happy with this piece, and although many of the later images of whales would become a great deal more dynamic, detailed, fiddly, surreal, fantastical, and more, this to me is still the epitome of the great whale himself.

On Tuesday, I will introduce you to everybody’s favorite cannibal Queequeg.

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