Cover Artist Gallery: Ross MacDonald

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s January/February 2011 cover
January/February 2011

SubjectsThe Lost Canadians” by Grant Stoddard, “The Morgentaler Effect” by Wayne Sumner, “Madam Premier” by Lisa Gregoire, and “Meet You at the Door” by Lawrence Hill
Artist ’s portfolioRoss MacDonald

There is an element of unpredictability to the making of a magazine cover. Because the editorial process is often still in motion when we begin talking to artists, directions can shift in the course of our conversations with them. This is normal, even desirable. The dynamic nature of the editorial environment is integral to the finished product. Too much instability can hinder a publication, but thank the good Lord merciful we aren’t turning the cranks on one of Orwell’s dystopic novel-writing machines.

In this and many other respects, it’s good we were talking to Ross MacDonald for this issue.

I had wanted to work with Ross for a long time, but waited for the perfect story to present itself. Finally, Grant Stoddard’s visit to an American town surrounded by Canadian waters (“The Lost Canadians”) seemed right: who better than an expat to expound on the complicated relationship we have with our cousins on the other side of the border? And, I surmised, Ross’s sense of humour would keep the tone on a neighbourly keel.

In the end, however, Grant’s story seemed much too specific to make the right cover for us. The Walrus’s editor, John Macfarlane, suggested a text-only treatment instead, one that would extol more of the issue’s riches. We had, after all, a really great piece of fiction by Larry Hill, a fantastic appreciation of Coronation Street, and an amazing profile of Eva Aariak, the premier of Nunavut. Why not, we reasoned, show them all? Here, Ross was a double boon: he’s a great illustrator with a long-standing love of antique wood type.

Before 1946, type — the letters you read now — was created in only two ways: it was drawn or written by hand or it was created by metal or wood types impressed onto paper. Maybe this type was created by a Linotype machine, or maybe it was photographed and then printed via offset lithography, but the basic technology that Gutenberg developed in the mid-1400s was still in use, albeit with many modifications.

In the nineteenth century, the processes of modernity and industrialization that brought us things like root beer and modern warfare also, in the guise of the pantographic cutter, enabled the birth and proliferation of hitherto unknown letter shapes (the sans serif, for example) and enormous typefaces that any small-town printer could use to scream things like “Lincoln Assassinated!” or “Harry Houdini at the Palace Theatre, one week only!”

It turns out that Ross has a lot of these beautiful things in his print shop, and he is, by virtue of long practise, able to do amazing things with them. To our jaded, post-digital eyes, type set on a curve is a commonplace (though seldom done particularly well). Ross, however, does this effect the old way (see his production photos below, or this issue’s downloadable wallpaper), which is not easy. But the results are uncommonly beautiful.

So thank goodness for editorial change, and thank goodness for Ross MacDonald.

TYPE2TYPE4TYPE5Photographs by Ross MacDonaldClick images to enlarge

Brian Morgan: After we first spoke about this commission, what were your thoughts regarding Grant Stoddard’s story?

Ross MacDonald: I love the idea of Angle Township; I’m glad there are places like it in the world. But before I read the piece, I thought, “They should let those people secede and be absorbed into Canada — it’s crazy.” As I read the story, I realized it’s a lot more complicated than that. While the people of Angle Township have to go through a lot of convolutions to remain so, they are still proud to be American citizens and they still cling to that against what may appear to be (to Canadians especially) all reason. As someone who was born and raised in Canada, but who has lived almost half his life in America as a Canadian citizen, I guess I can relate.

Brian Morgan: What is your typical process for generating ideas?

Ross MacDonald: Basically, my creative process is simple: sitting in a chair and staring at a blank sheet of paper. Although sometimes I find myself writhing on the floor, clutching my head and moaning. It’s that and doodling. Sometimes it takes lots of doodles; sometimes I get lucky and get it on the first try.

Brian Morgan: You also created artwork to accompany the Angle Township story inside the magazine. How did you arrive at this image?

Ross MacDonald: Because the piece starts off with fishing, I fooled around with ideas about fish staring at lures with different flags on them, like they don’t care what national symbols are on the lures. It sort of worked, but it seemed to say other things unrelated to the story. It also seemed too specific in some ways. In the end I went with something that seems both very literal and very symbolic at the same time — a little star surrounded by large maple leaves.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Ross MacDonald: For illustration, I usually work on very small sketches — usually only an inch or two big — no matter how large the piece will eventually run. It helps me focus on what’s important — composition, gesture, action, readability — and not let my eye get seduced by some tiny detail that may blind me to those other factors. When I get a sketch I like, I blow it up and trace it, making lots of little adjustments and filling in the details. Then I retrace that onto “good” paper and paint the final art with watercolor. Then I scan it and adjust the levels. I almost never do illustrations digitally or do corrections and touchups in Photoshop. I did thousands of illustrations during the days when we didn’t have those options.

When I do a letterpress piece or design with wood and metal type, I often do thumbnail sketches as well, especially for pieces with curved lines. It’s a lot easier to visualize and sketch pleasing curves, and it’s good to have a rough roadmap when you are trying to create curves on the bed of the press. Otherwise it’s hit and miss, and you keep having to take it apart and fiddle with it. My letterpress design sketches are tiny and very rough, and I often change typefaces and make adjustments — lots of them — when I’m setting the piece up on the bed. Most of the design process takes place on the bed of the press. You keep trying things and pulling proofs until you start to see something passable appear.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Ross MacDonald: My influences are the stuff I’ve absorbed over the years — cartoons, comics, magazine and book illustrations, whatever. And I do mean absorbed — as a young kid of seven, I was confined to a hospital bed twice. The first time for six months, the second time for two months. I was unable to walk; I was alone in a featureless hospital room; I had very few visits and minimal contact with staff. There was no TV or radio, so I spent all day re-reading the same few books and comics over and over again, to the point where I was studying single comics panels for hours. It sounds like horrible deprivation, but I never felt that way — there was enough visual richness in those Classics Illustrated comics to keep me going. I think that time was the reason why I’m an illustrator, and the single biggest influence on my style.

I don’t have any formal education — I’m a high school dropout — so I didn’t ever have anyone teaching me how to draw and paint. I figured it out the hard way — by closely scrutinizing things I liked and trying to figure out how they were made. I’m not recommending that approach, I’m just saying that’s how I got here.

Brian Morgan: I understand you have worked at or been a part of several letterpress shops. What started you on that path, and what keeps you on it?

Ross MacDonald: As a teenager in the early ’70s I worked at Coach House Press, and then at a small letterpress printing-publishing shop that I started with a small group of people including my older brother Robert. We called it Dreadnaught Press. At both of those places there were always people hanging out — artists, writers, designers, poets. We also spent a lot of time searching out type and equipment from letterpress shops all over Ontario. It was a gas. By the mid-’80s I had slowly moved away from letterpress printing and into book and magazine illustration. By the mid-’90s, after living in New York for ten years, I started to miss the smell of printing ink and started to gather type and equipment again.

Brian Morgan: That’s quite a journey. Finally, what was your inspiration for this cover’s ultimate treatment?

Ross MacDonald: I draw a lot of inspiration from 19th-century posters and ephemera. I guess that’s natural given that I do much of my design work using fonts of 19th-century type. I have over 400 fonts of wood type alone, and probably twice that amount of lead type. I don’t try to do a slavish copy or a slick interpretation of 19th-century posters, but I think the fact that I’m using the same type and equipment as those anonymous printer/designers means that the 19th-century style is a natural jump-off point. I also try to add a modern feel, without trying to force it too hard. Swooping, curvy lines of type are not seen much in 19th-century letterpress work because they’re not easy to do. In this case, there was something about the cover line “winter issue” that made me think of curving lines of blue type. When you’ve lived through as many Saskatchewan winters as I have, you start to see twisting lines of windblown snow every time someone says “winter” — it’s like a PTSD reaction.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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