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The Art of the Landscape

Chip Sullivan’s Cartooning the Landscape brings the comic strip and the study of our landscape together in one dazzling book. A professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, Sullivan stresses artistic rendering as a path to understanding our landscapes. This encompasses fine art but also the uniquely flexible medium of the comic strip. On top of his strikingly original visual approach, Sullivan is a spellbinding storyteller, offering tales ranging from a reimagining of Hadrian’s Elysian Fields to an inside look at the creation of the model landscapes of King Kong. We had plenty of questions after reading Chip’s book, and he was kind enough to provide some answers in the following interview.

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Q: Some of these strips were originally published as a part of a regular series in Landscape Architecture magazine. Can you tell us something about that strip—when and how long did it run, and what was the readers’ response to the strip? 

Sullivan: “The Landscape Imagineer,” my first comic published in the magazine, was initially roughed out for a proposed children’s book in which landscape architects would describe what influenced them as youngsters to become landscape architects. Unfortunately, the book never came to fruition. However, I was very excited about what I had produced, and decided I would take a chance and send the unfinished layouts to Bill Thompson, then editor of Landscape Architecture magazine. Much to my surprise he wrote back immediately telling me to finish it and they would publish it. The three-page comic got such a positive response that Bill proposed I do a series on "Creative Learning." This was a dream come true for me!

The "Creative Learning" series ran periodically from 2006 to 2012, and was very popular. I still get emails and see blog posts from readers who say they were inspired by the strips and have the comics pinned up at their desks.

I always hoped that the series would someday be published as a collection. Each of the three-page comics I did was designed so they could be expanded into five- to seven-page features. When the series concluded, I had about 12 comics, which came to about 75 pages. When I started Cartooning the Landscape I thought I was about one-third done, but boy, was I wrong. It took almost two years to complete the 216 pages of the final text.

Q: Your book’s trailer describes an encounter with a bookstore owner who instructed you in drawing and, as you put it, how to SEE. You were working a pretty normal job at the time, I take it, and this changed your focus dramatically?

Sullivan: I was working at a nine-to-five job in Coral Gables, Florida, for a large corporate design firm, but also trying to find my own creative path. One afternoon while walking on my lunch break I was drawn to a dusty bookstore in Little Havana. During my first encounter with the owner I was very perplexed. I thought he was an odd, crazy old man talking nonsense. But he gave me a book to read called The Plant Between Sun & Earth, and that was the beginning of my apprenticeship. This “teacher” forced me to take a hard look at what I really wanted to accomplish. He did not provide traditional instruction, but through conversation, he taught me how to ‘“see,” how to really look at the environment, and launched me on my personal creative journey. This philosophy still guides me.

Q: People probably are too enamored of the photograph, thinking it is “reality” although it only captures one freeze-frame aspect of its subject rather than the way we actually experience it. What can people discover about landscapes by looking at drawings rather than photographs—or, going one step further, drawing the landscape themselves?

Sullivan: The main problem with the photograph is that it doesn’t capture the true impression of a place. When we look at a photograph of a landscape we visited, it flattens out space and looks nothing like reality at all. A photo documents only one instance and not the entirety of an experience. Drawings can eliminate the distractions and the overabundance of detail and information that we find in photographs. Drawing forces us to observe a space. Once you’ve drawn a landscape, that visual impression will stay with you and you will probably never forget it. A photo of a scene will dissolve and fade from memory. We don’t really see the landscape until we draw it.

Q: What are the particular challenges to the artist of drawing landscapes as opposed to other things?

Sullivan: My advice is to simplify your style to capture the most pertinent information and then don’t be afraid to exaggerate to make a strong visual impression. Emphasize what you want the memory of the image to be and how you would want the viewer to remember it. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to draw the landscape exactly as it looked, and began drawing what I felt, that I made my greatest improvement and found my true style.

Q: What are some of your favorite landscape stories depicted in the book?

Sullivan: I already mentioned my first feature comic strip, “Landscape Imagineer,” for which I mined my wonderful childhood memories of my parents and my grandfather. Drawing its model railroads and their miniature landscapes was one of my favorite subjects. “The Forests of Fontainebleau” illustrates a personal epiphany about the border between the rational world and the creative subconscious—of the wild mysterious forest where the muses dwell. “Our World” explores the potential of the garden to reverse the environmental degradation that is engulfing the world. It develops the contrasting scenes of environmental destruction with positive effects of healing landscapes reaffirmed my belief that we can change our ecologically destructive habits.

One of the subtle aspects of Cartooning the Landscape is that it is a tribute to all of my comic book heroes and mentors. Throughout the book there are references to the influences of Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby and how I learned visual storytelling from these pioneering giants of comics. One of the most insightful compliments I received about the book was from a student who commented, “This is about everything but drawing!”

Cartooning the Landscape is available now. You may watch the book's trailer here.


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