Earlier this year I interviewed Al Forster at The Sea Ranch Lodge. This is the second part of that interview.
O. I have an age old question that artists are asked – How do you know you are done?
A. I couldn’t tell you but I know when I’m done. I know now to put the brush down or the pencil down sooner than I used to know. I used to overwork things but now there is a certain point, I guess every artist knows that you do that last thing and you know it’s the last thing you need to do. Now if I have a drawing hanging around for a while I’ll come back the next day and fuss around…nothing big or bold usually, just little refinements…except in case of that sky! It’s something you can’t put your finger on but you know – you’d better know…
O. Tell me something about not only water color, but color pencil, pastel, charcoal- these days there are very limited mediums used in architectural illustration but there are many mediums that could and have been used as you look back through time. Any comments about pastel or charcoal?
A. There are some illustrators that still use pastel and charcoal and they tend to be a lot more suggestive, expressive, and less detailed, less technical; - they tend to be used in cases where you’re trying to make a gestural drawing but they’re not the right components for a drawing that needs to have detail to it. Now colored pencil is a different story – colored pencil has a firm enough point and is usually used in conjunction with graphite pencils so you can usually get that detail.
O. You use Prismacolor almost entirely, but why don’t you use Verithin which seems like it would be handy for some of the small details.
A. When I need sharp point I can get it with Prismacolor – just using my electric eraser and flattening it out – shaping it on a piece of paper.
O. Shaping what?
A. A good point.
O. I’ve never heard of such a thing.
A. Yeah, I roll the pencil on a piece of paper and get a sharper edge or use a chisel edge – it’s easier for me to just stick with one brand, one style of pencil, and make that work. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, I know the colors, I know how they work – I know when to sharpen and I know when not to. I like the slightly waxier feel of the Prismacolor pencils.
O. To what degree are you working by feel versus a predetermined, more systematic approach? It’s a combination of the two I assume.
A. Yeah, it is a combination of the two – the systematic is probably like 75% and seat of the pants is more like 25%, but it’s a very important 25%. There are a series of processes and steps I go through when I’m doing a rendering – they have different applications for each drawing, but essentially you do the same thing over and over again. Then you reach that point where the steps are done and you’re off on your own making decisions piece by piece, and that’s the 25% that’s really important. Adding darks is hugely important. I’ll work a drawing for a while, but then you have to establish the darks because these are the things that really make a drawing successful.
O. Do you tend to add darks later than sooner – some people might work just the opposite and start off with the darks.
A. If you start off with darks it is highly likely that they won’t be nearly dark enough, or as dark as you hoped they would be as the drawing begins to develop. The white of the watercolor paper is a given so you start from there as white and start to establish the light to medium range. That will begin to tell you how to establish your darks. I start off with the mediums and lights knowing full well that many will disappear so I have to start darker than I thought I was going to, but at some point fairly soon I’ll start to introduce some darks because I need to establish both ends of the scale. And I may even go back and darken some of those darker, but at least it gives me a range, a setting.
O. I can’t help but introduce history. Why did people like Carlos Diniz come on with such a flourish and then seem to go away – and what about black and white?
A. I think people like Carlos Diniz – and who are the other renders I’m trying to think of who used a lot of zipatone and like drawings…
A. Helmut Jacoby – the drawing style of the time was tempra – the tempra rendering was something that was being done over and over again and along came these guys at the right time and I think people were ready to see some line detail, some fuzziness and looseness that you just didn’t have is those old tempra renderings and it was just the right place at the right time – it was just that historical moment that allowed a couple of people to strike out and say this is what we want to do and people warmed up to it and liked it and everybody else started to play catch up. J. Henderson Barr came along with a style that was more controlled pencil and he sent people in a direction too – he spun off a whole series of renderers who did that sort of style – one of the things that happened to me – I was doing colored pencil on mylar in my early rendering days and there was a big competition – the Escondito City Hall Competition – there must have been 150 entrants and I did one firm’s presentation and the winning firm was named Papa and they got a guy that did wonderful watercolors with just enough detail and his drawings just blew everybody away – they were in another league – I went to the presentation and I was embarrassed to see mine in front of all these other drawings – and I looked at his I said this is what everybody is going to want – I’d better get off the dime – I hadn’t done it in a long time so I started to do watercolor again and that was the starting point for me and it was just one of those situations when it was the right time and watercolor renderings started to take off - Dave Purcell was his name – Purcell is the renderings.
O. Do you remember seeing hardline drawings made for Kawneer advertisements by Angelikis and Bailey.
A. I don’t know the name, I might know the imagery if I saw them…
O. Do you think hand rendering is all but gone – it would seem so?
A. I think its days are numbered, yeah. I belong to a group called The American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI) and every year we have competition submittals of work we’ve done over the last year or two and there is a selected group for a traveling exhibit and then awards are given – there are 50 or 60 out of 400 or 500 entries and there is a Hugh Ferris Award which is the top award, then each judge gives an award for their favorite – there is a sketch award, a digital award – but of these 50 or 60 there is a catalog that comes out every year with all these entrants - it used to be that 80% were hand drawn when I joined in 1996 and now in 2015 there are just a handful of hand drawn renderings – a few of the digital renderers are people that have a real painterly quality – Dennis Allain is one that comes to mind – a real creative guy – several of the newcomers use computers in a very painterly way – that’s nice to see – it’s not as tight and technical as it used to be – the shift has been almost a complete turn around – maybe 80% are digital now – and since there are so few of us that do hand drawings anymore it has to be on its way out.
O. Does anything in particular come to mind about illustrators or your other work that I haven’t touched upon?
A. I go through my office door and I come alive – I love doing what I do although it’s frustrating most of the time. But I keep doing renderings because I keep hoping to do the perfect rendering and it never comes but if I don’t start the next one I’ll never get there so that’s one thing that drives me. I keep opening that door every morning and hoping that this will be the day and it never comes and it probably never will.
O. I thank you very much.