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July 24, 2007 > Painting big

Painting big

In a scene of the 1993 movie, "Dave," Kevin Kline who plays the role of Dave, a stand-in for an ailing president of the United States visits a factory where, in harness, he stretches gigantic robotic arms with a span of at least 20 feet and proclaims, "I once caught a fish this big!" Now, if he wasn't exaggerating too much, it would take a special person to be able to accurately illustrate this feat in full scale. While many artists excel at bringing a sweeping landscape or immense objects to a smaller canvas, few move in the opposite direction.

While the advent of computer art has allowed small scale drawings to increase in size, a profession that has dwindled over the years, illustrated such large concepts and drawings through artistic talent alone. Examples have been readily apparent on billboards and in murals drawn by hand without the aid of computer graphics and acrylic film.

Local resident artist Leon Carter has spent many hours perched on the scaffolding of immense billboards or next to building surfaces of a variety of textures with marker or brush in one hand and a conceptual picture in the other. In harsh conditions, heat that invited collapse and wind that defied secure footing, illustrations that seemed to leap from two dimensions to the space beyond emerged from this talented artist.

Some think that size mitigates the need for detail, but Leon's work concentrates not only on the overall effect, but the detail that captures and ensures attention from a busy, moving audience.

A product of an active mind and body, Leon grew up in the Almaden area of San Jose and remembers, "I worked in the dry yards with the prunes and apricots. I was a farm boy. It was a lot of fun." Highly inquisitive and enthralled by many disciplines, he notes, "I enjoyed sports, chemistry, physics and art." As an admitted "rowdy" kid, he was kept in line by those who recognized his artistic talent. Talented artists who incorporate animate objects are often fascinated by anatomy and the science of motion. Leon was no exception to this and notes, "Science has always been a part of my life. I liked to read Scientific American and Science Digest. And I kept up on all of that."

An aunt served as an artistic role model and at Campbell High School, an art teacher quickly noticed his talent making sure Leon developed the discipline necessary for future studies. With a background in fine arts and a college degree in commercial art, Carter joined the army and was soon billeted to create and illustrate pamphlets, earning high praise and recognition service-wide awards. While stationed in Germany, Leon, who quickly learned to speak German, would often travel to small towns when on leave and draw crowds as he sketched people and places.

Following his army career, Leon returned for additional college courses in graphic design and although he contemplated a career in education, found work with a design firm in Palo Alto where his talent for translating concepts into designs was in demand. Although many egos might be inflated by the ability to create logos and illustrations from bare outlines, Leon's attitude has never changed." I had basic design experience, good artistry background and good teachers. It all helped. I admired other artists and have never had the attitude, "I'm better than them. I learned something from them."

A background in commercial art brings style and elements of composition to a practical level. Leon says, "In commercial art, when you design something, it either works or doesn't work. For example, take a logo. Often design artists copy or stylize an existing symbol. The original worked perfectly for a particular company and others would try to make it work for their company. An example would be the world symbol. Any time a company desired an international theme in the logo, they would request a world symbol" When Carter was asked to design a logo for South Core International, a broker at Armed Forces Exchanges, he used a new approach. "I took the curve of the S and it came out like a beak. I outlined the curve of an eagle's head in black and put "South Core" at the top and "International" at the bottom in black, blue and red. It made more sense to me. Although I also drew a lot of world symbols in different shapes, I finally convinced my client of the eagle symbol and he was so happy about it. I know it was more effective."

Small and large illustrations have garnered Carter with many awards, some international. He kept thinking to himself that it was time to strike out on his own and finally did. His versatility and quest for knowledge had expanded his services and in the days of specialized typography, Carter even built a camera to create high contrast "stats." With the advent of computer technology, many turned to new production methods and assumed illustrated art would simply become an extension of it. However, much of the art world springs from original thought.

As an artist, Leon makes a detailed study of the chosen subject matter and uses that knowledge to present an accurate portrayal, or at least understand where artistic deviation is used and why. Commenting on the pop art culture, he notes that his favorite artist is Norman Rockwell who illustrated positive aspects of our culture which tell a story. Illustration is a high art form and Carter defends it against those who view it differently. "Some people claim that illustration is just not a true art. It's just the opposite. We may paint a billboard or a pictorial often in a very short time frame such as three days or less, but I put all the detail in there." Leon's wife, Elena, says, "When he starts painting, his face changes. I know it sounds trite but it's true."


A veteran illustrator needs more than pure drawing skills. Taking another person's idea from the conceptual stage to a completed illustration is gift shared by few. Leon says, "Sometimes, you go into it blind. If you can get the person to talk and see some things that he presents with samples of things that he likes, then you can get a pretty good idea. And then you start visualizing. One of the things that I was really good at, was that I see things in my mind and then I can put it down on paper." He had done this for many different and diverse companies and organizations through the years including several breweries, Nike and Stanford University. His illustrations have spanned the commercial world and private commission work including a collage of Howard Hughes and the infamous Sinatra "Rat Pack."

A recently commissioned large-scale painting (7' x 10') of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona was not done lightly. Historical accuracy was achieved through extensive study of documents and eyewitness accounts as well as a personal trip to the site of the famous shootout where Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Virgil and Morgan Earp fought the Clantons and McLaurys on October 26, 1881. The result was achieve through stages of at least three drawings since the scene was drawn from a particular sight line and some alterations were necessary for balance and composition and he was asked to include representations of actors who had been associated with film recreations of the incident (and John Wayne who did not). Carter even researched facial characteristics of all who were involved including lesser known participants where scant photographic evidence is available. If you ask, Carter can explain why all elements, participants (including the horses) and eyewitnesses are in certain locations including details of when and where someone was shot, the consequence in the fight and even the effect of weather at the time. The resulting large and dramatic mural is well designed and based in that deep knowledge.

Leon admits his calling is a difficult profession, but it is a personal passion and he feels a close connection with others who share it. "My feeling about other artists is that they're going through the same thing, either working a part-time job or whatever to support their love of art. I want to share my experiences and give artists exposure, myself included. We have wonderful artists in our area. Some are not well known, but they still have excellent talent. There are a lot of good artists out there."

Leon Carter is available for commercial and private commissions. He can be contacted at (510) 449-9617.




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