Our May issue celebrates the sesquicentennial of Prescott, a town with a history as unique as any in Arizona. For the cover of that issue (which you saw in Monday’s sneak preview), we turned to an equally unique illustrator, Douglas Smith.
Smith’s medium is scratchboard, a painstaking and labor-intensive art form that involves scratching away darkness to reveal light beneath. We thought Smith’s style would be perfect for the May cover, which depicts Prescott’s Gurley Street as it might have appeared in the late 1800s.
Smith spoke with us from his home on Maine’s Peaks Island about the process of bringing this vision to life.
Q: Take us through how this project came together. What kind of guidance did you get from us before you started?
A: Robert [Stieve, editor] provided a historical photograph, which is the same scene as in the illustration, but with some notable differences. It’s not very clear and doesn’t exactly look appealing; it looks kind of dark and dingy, and there’s not one wagon or human being or horse to be seen. The other difference is that there’s no sky — it’s just a flat gray.
The only direction from Barbara [Glynn Denney, creative director] was for me to add “life” to the scene.
Q: Besides the historical photo, did you use anything else for reference?
A: I used a previous magazine cover, as well as a previous illustration of Prescott, but not of that street. I also did research on what sorts of vehicles would be appropriate for that time period.
Q: You mentioned previously that the scratchboard process is somewhat labor-intensive. Other than that, did you run into any challenges?
A: I had a lot of trouble deciphering the deep shadows that were totally cloaking a lot of the buildings. Finally, I said, “I just have to make some of it up,” which Barbara said was fine, as long as the general scene was captured.
Also, the photograph showed a somewhat unpleasant-looking area on the left, near the white fence. It looked like there was some construction going on there, and everything in front of the courthouse area was kind of a mess — it looked like a drainage ditch or something. So I made that into a path and put a couple of wagons near there.
There was a very humorous element that Barbara had noticed, too: a set of stairs, which looked like a wedge of cheese, put up against the white fence, but not quite as high as the fence. I said, “Barbara, should I draw that?” It looked like they had forgotten to build a place to get through, so they put those stairs there so people could climb up and jump over. Who knows what they were supposed to do from the other side of the fence. (Editor’s note: If you’ve got any idea what’s going on with those stairs, let us know in the comments.)
Q: In the May issue, we include an excerpt from a story that ran in a 1938 issue of the magazine — a fanciful imagining of what life was like in Wild West-era Prescott around the time this illustration depicts. Did you think about including any gunfights or passed-out drunks in the illustration?
A: I didn’t get any direction to do that, so I assumed that wasn’t desired. Being a lifelong Easterner, I would have just been showing my ignorance. I didn’t want to Hollywood-ize the illustration. Barbara said to add some “life,” not some “life or death.” (Laughs.)
Q: We love the illustration. Were you satisfied with the final product?
A: Pretty much so. There are certainly things, and this is not unusual for me — you have to be a little obsessive-compulsive to do what I do. There are endless little things where I could say, “Let me just go and refine that and touch it up.” That could apply to any line in the piece. and then I might decide later that I should leave it as is.
I wonder whether I should have put more light and fewer ruts in the road, but I think the ruts add a lot of character — like there’s a lot of activity going on. I’m always fooling around with the clouds — should they be lighter, more dramatic underneath?
It’s never-ending with me. It’s a weird life that I live because of this technique. There are scratchboard artists who don’t take as long as I do, but I think I tend to pack my things with more detail than other artists do. I make trouble for myself that way.
For more information about Douglas Smith, visit his portfolio page or pick up a copy of our May issue, which exclusively features Smith on the Contributors page.