Exercise: Writing a Brief


Not for the first time this exercise has stumped me. I’m like the horse that doesn’t leave the starting stall when al the doors spring open (Happiness is a cigar called Hamelt?).

The problem is this… in my imagination I think of a brief being written that says something like this…

Create an illustration for the news article entitled “Spoils of War” which deals with the knock-on effects of war for countries adjacent to those which are actually at war. The illustration can visually demonstrate any of the topics in the piece. The readership is assumed to be inquiring and intelligent. The image will be heading the article so should lead the reader to want to know more details.

…which is fine. Then I think “but this doesn’t tell me anything about the actual content of the image… that’s the skill in the creation of the illustration, to research (read the article and read around the subject) and compose a suitable image.

So… if my logic holds… reverse engineering this – starting with the image – results in a brief with an awful lot of details missing… the details that came from the research. So my block then is that I feel my answer to the question will be almost unconnected to the ‘inspiring’ picture.

Putting my worries aside then let me try it:

Rosie the Riveter

Norman Rockwell is an all time favourite illustrator and Painter of mine. I enjoy both the expression of his brush – the vivid lifelike toning – and the information content of his works. The expressions he puts on peoples’ faces are wonderful.

Recent biographers have revealed that he worked from photographs of models in order to achieve some of his most famous work, probably including this image for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

I don’t know the real story behind this image – why it was procured – but ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was like the wartime women’s equivalent of ‘Uncle Sam’ –  Rockwell’s work is well-know for its attention to detail… well above and beyond those provided by the photographic references, although those photographs themselves were posed by the artist and so may have gone a long way to providing the end results in terms of setting things up in the photo that could then be include in the final image.

A brief from, say, the Post’s Art editor, might have requested the following:

A cover for the Post, May 29 1943, depicting the known character-concept “Rosie the Riveter”. It must be clear who she is and the illustration must uphold all of the expectations that the public might have about her character: Strongly patriotic, pride in herself and her work, a capable worker for the war effort. Rosie is a role model for women of working age and so she should appeal to them on terms that they will relate to.

And so I imagine that this brief was sufficient for Norman Rockwell to produce the work that he did. I also imagine that there could have been many subsequent discussions about the work before is was completed that enabled some of the details to be established. For example, Rosie is of a mysterious beauty – neither conventionally glamorous-looking (by today’s fashions) but far from looking rugged and ‘leather skinned’ as we might expect her male counterpart to appear after working in the hash conditions of his trade. I expect the model for this image was most carefully considered to ensure that she represented everywoman rather than acquiring the look of an un-attainable ‘pin-up’.

From here I can imagine that Rockwell started to compose the image introducing numerous details as he went…

  • The woman’s pose… pausing before taking even the first bite from her lunch, perhaps she thanks god for what she is about to receive and spares a thought for the service men and women that she is working in support of. She looks confident and intelligent because of this ‘pause’
  • Red lipstick and fashionable hair – an essential trade-mark of the wartime woman – brought with her into the job. These things that represent a woman are not left at the gates, they come to work with her. She does not have to become a man to be a riveter.
  • Red White and Blue: the colours of Patriotism, blatantly in the flag behind Rosie, are also repeated through her own image: Red is the hair, lips, socks and the nose and hose of the riveter; blue denim (itself a US symbol) and work shirt; white in the pale skin, badges and highlights.
  •  “ROSIE” on the lunch tin. This style of lunch tin is a symbol of the working man in US, now co-opted for the woman. At the time children also used lunch boxes such as these in emulation of their fathers. This becomes quite a deep symbol – perhaps Rosie is also using the lunch box to emulate here fellow “working man” – US servicemen?
  • If I could read the badges in the picture I’m sure they would all represent organisations of relevance. To her contemporaries these tiny representations depicted on Rosie probably were recognisable and associated with the war effort in some way. The Red Cross seems to be immediately visible.
  • The cloth on her lap seems casual and might be dismissed… but it might also hint at the shape of a skirt…?
  • The turn-ups at the ends of the trousers serve both to reveal the red socks and to suggest oversized clothing. A woman in a man’s clothing, doing a “man’s” work. [as we know… Flashdance later reveals that woman can weld just as well as a man 😉 but that they can also dance!]
  • Finally… this woman-next-door wielding a riveting weapon has put up her feet to have lunch on a copy of Mein Kampf, and seems to be making a bit of a mess of it. This pose, in black leather shoes, also suggests the ‘shoe shine’ and, at a stretch, might be implying that Hitler is only good enough to shine her shoes. Are her legs in a ‘V’ shape for Victory?

Altogether it can be seen that this image as been thought about in great detail and even details that might be just ‘part of the picture’ have been composed with deliberation and forethought both for the actual image and the implied meanings. The picture is painted in oils which would have taken a long time to do due to the nature of the paint so planning is also important in this medium.

The following web page: Penny Colman – On writing Rosie the Riveter, reveals a few more details – such as the inclusion of a lady’s hankecheif and powder compact in Rosie’s pocket. It also reveals the origin of the concept as being a song “Rosie the Riveter” released in Jan 1943 – the lyrics describe Rosie as doing her bit and having an absent Beau at the front line and would have been the bulk of the material used to create her appearance.

So here’s another hypothesis about how this commission might have gone… and how the ‘brief’ may have been this conversation:

[phone rings – Norman Rockwell answers]

NORMAN ROCKWELL: Hello, the Rockwell Residence, who’s calling please?

BEN HIBBS (on phone): Hello Norman, it’s Ben at the POST, how are you all?

NR: Ben! We’re all well thank you. How’s the news this week?

BH: That’s what I’m calling you about… it’s all a bit sensitive so we’ve got to be careful what we print – could you come up with a cover for the May 23 issue? Something popular that doesn’t ignore the war but also doesn’t suggest anything strategic – we wouldn’t want to unwittingly predict an invasion or something.

NR: Why, sure Ben, I’ve got just the thing… have you heard the new song that’s all the rage… you know… the one about Rosie the Riveter?

BH: Yes, of course, it’s being played everywhere. Why?

NR: Well how about I paint her? Rosie the Riveter?

BH: Hey! Norman! That’s a great idea… but… you’d best be careful about copyright – we can’t actually use the phrase ‘Rosie the Riveter’.

NR: Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered. I even know someone who looks the part – works at the telephone exchange. She’s practically perfect as a model.

BH: OK, Norman. I’ll leave it with you.

In my fictional account of this commission (Norman paints Rosie the screenplay) I’m projecting some of the confidence of Norman’s painting back into his persona, suggesting that his obvious talent and composition skills were respected enough for the editor of the POST to leave the whole thing in his hands. I don’t think it happens like that at the start of a career and, in our modern world where collaborations are born and burnt very quickly perhaps most commissions are now newly-forged alliances that have to stipulate a lot more detail than I’ve suggested in either scenario above.

Also… as with many ‘famous’ inspiring practicioners, they may be hired for the style that they do… so telling them how to do that might be redundant.

Un Stumped?

I might have now completed this exercise. What do you think?

The phrase that perhaps stumped me was “right a brief that would have led to the creation of the image”.

I think this should be read as “right a brief that might have led…”. The illustrator will have to work within their inspiration so different illustrators would produce very different work. This idea is exemplified by the range of responses produced to design competitions.

The time in which the brief is written is crucial – if the first brief above had been given today (even as a retrospective to the 1930s) I think she would have been depicted differently. Apart from the obvious technology, fashion and clothing differences we may have expected her to have more authority – a managing or directing role would be appropriate, as would a white-collar worker… perhaps even a man working in childcare…!?





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