Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 020
Queequeg stressed me out. A lot. I was enormously surprised, and continue to be so, at how much attention the Moby-Dick illustration project got very early on. It has generally been pretty wonderful to share the art with so many people, many of whom are total strangers. But something that I think even the most disciplined and focused artists experience is the weight of other’s expectations. While I think very few readers are likely to form a specific visual impression of Ishmael, which freed me to create that strange whale-like mask as his totem, many readers are either familiar with how Queequeg has been depicted in the various illustrated editions and films, or have in mind some kind of strange amalgam of a South Sea islander, tattoos, and shrunken heads. When trying to visualize Queequeg, I kept running aground on my fear of others expectations, and that froze me up for days. True artist block, for the first time on this project and one of the first times in my life.
In keeping with my initial focus on a reductionist approach to the art, I began stripping away what I knew I wouldn’t need. The body, the lean and athletic anatomy of a professional harpooneer was not important. Queequeg could just be a shape, like all of the other characters thus far. I had begun developing a sort of visual vocabulary that functioned as an easily readable catalog of symbols, each of which reflected a character’s role. The non-sailors, which I affectionately termed “landlubbers” on the blog, were all almost perfectly cylindrical, beak-nosed, wide-eyed toy-like shapes. The seamen and captains were all to resemble ships in some way, although, anachronistically, they generally looked more metallic and robotic. These forms have held up throughout the project so far. The harpooneers, of which Queequeg was the first, were different though. I’ve always thought of them as predators, or living weapons, beings frightfully perfect in their ability to battle and destroy monsters. For some time I thought of giving them all bird heads, but that seemed too obvious and, in a strange way, too consistent. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are so alike and yet so vastly different and I didn’t want to be confined to a certain character type for each one of them. So for the harpooneers, the only consistency I wanted was inconsistency.
That didn’t get me much farther though in figuring just how I wanted Queequeg, that terrifying tattooed savage, to look. Back to the act of reducing, after discarding anatomy, clothing and accoutrements were next. I kept coming back to what I think each of us remembers when it comes to Queequeg. His friendliness and his tattoos. I quickly decided that rendering them too realistically would be pointless. We remember what our impressions of things are, not what they really are. Queequeg, like Ishmael, and like the captains and landlubbers, needed to be a living symbol. A mask that came to stand in for him, represent him, epitomize him.
Thoughts of his South Sea island home called to mind the bright turquoise blue of the ocean water in what I imagined would be his lagoons and beaches, so I began with that. A simple scalloped pattern, repeated over and over, built itself into a lushly but simply patterned face. For his eyes, the silhouette was a compassionate almond, but the eyes radiated red to remind the viewer that this man is indeed a killer of whales and an eater of men. All that remained was to cloak him simply in his woven poncho, equip him with his trusty harpoon, and give him a simple topknot. And of course, recalling the hilarious scene aboard the Pequod when Queequeg first signs on with Bildad and Peleg, I couldn’t resist including “his mark.”
Ultimately, I was quite pleased with this even though it has been one of the hardest of all the images to create. What has been fascinating is the way in which this color blue and this pattern have come to stand in for Queequeg. It’s been incredibly gratifying that some who visit the blog regularly even comment for that. It must have been a powerful image indeed for viewers to be able to connect these things so closely and so specifically with a single character.
Queequeg is still one of my favorites to draw. Besides whales, of course. When I finally finish, sometime next spring, I imagine I will create a more elaborate portrait of the man simply to frame and hang on my well. He always seemed like such a likeable cannibal, and I should like to get to know him better myself.