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Behind the scenes: John Steinbeck Doodle

The doodle started out simple enough: Illustrate my favorite book, Travels With Charley. For those who haven't read it, John Steinbeck takes a truck camper and his standard poodle Charley, and drives around America. 

caption courtesy of Nicolette Wood


That could have been the whole doodle right there (and of course there is a lot more to the story itself), but you can't really do a doodle for John Steinbeck and not feature something as monumental as The Grapes of Wrath. 2014 also marks the 75th anniversary of Grapes' publication, so that pretty much sealed it. My solution was to feature both, as well as a few other well-known books, with one letter in each title coming forward to spell Google. 

I thought these initial spot illustrations could act as a row of book spines, and clicking on them would open up into full-bleed book-cover-style illustrations with light animations. I explored this idea in many sketches. Here are some of the readable ones:

I also thought it might be cool to have quotes pop up depending on where you clicked the illustration. Kind of like the blurbs on the back of books, only more interactive. This was a bit confusing during test runs though, and our brilliant UX designer, Noah Levin, came up with the continuous parallax scroll concept as an alternative.


Below is one of the first sketches I drew for my initial pitch. You can see that I was shooting for more of a book cover format originally. 

The final did not change too much, even after I read the whole book to find possibly better scenes and quotes.


On top of reading all of these books (the Penguin audiobooks are amazing, btw), part of my research included revisiting my hometown area of Monterey and Salinas. A few friends and colleagues came along (including the engineering mastermind behind the doodle, Kris Hom). Fun fact: the four of us from the trip are represented as frogs in the Cannery Row illustration:


I really enjoyed the parallels between Doc's study of marine biology and how Steinbeck observes the characters within Cannery Row. The bums, prostitutes, store clerk, Doc, etc, all relied on each other in some strange unspoken way; its own ecosystem. Placing one of the iconic cannery bridges in the reflection of a pothole pond was a subtle way of illustrating this parallel.


I have a newfound appreciation for this book, having only read it before in high school. What struck me most this time around was the struggle between reality and longing.

The first illustration poses a question on that premise: Are the two men walking toward the physical farm to start a real job, or is this a walk through their imaginary "fat of the land"?

You may also spot some influence from Ben Shahn, specifically his work, Beautitudes. He has a tonal sensibility (both artistic and social) that goes hand in hand with Steinbeck's words, and hopefully some of it trickled its way into these illustrations. He has definitely played a big part in my growth as an artist recently and this seemed like the right time to thank him for it.

The quote above is taken slightly out of context from the moment it occurs in the story and this, to me, was a small victory – when illustration is more than just drawing the text. You're providing another viewpoint to the story without changing it, but creating more intrigue instead. One of the things I wish I did a better job on was identifying more of these unexpected moments throughout the series.


I chose The Pearl because it is my dad's favorite (he's the one that got me into Steinbeck years ago). In the above sketch, I drew the shape of The Pearl enclosed by the village, as Kino's discovery of the Pearl brings the entire town upon him and his family. The sea image became the final concept for the cover, but the village scene comes back to haunt us.


This book was eventually cut out, but I intended it to be another homage to one of Steinbeck's biggest inspirations and closest friend, Ed Ricketts. You can see how elements of the sketch ended up in the Pearl, and thankfully, there was a chance to draw Ed in the form of Doc in Cannery Row


Coming back to Charley, I guess one question people might ask is why not end GooglE with the obvious East of Eden? That's totally valid (and has been asked), but I wanted to end this doodle on a somewhat lighthearted note. It's also an autobiographical book, and serves nicely as an About the Author section at the end of this doodle. Still, I think the message in Travels of observing ourselves and our country is an important one. Things do get a little heavy toward the end of the trip, and even in escapism we are forced to confront those things. 

...but not always

John Steinbeck did write that his great mission was "to help people understand each other." And it's amazing how often, despite being published fifty to seventy-five years ago, he amazes me with advice that we as individuals and as a society could benefit from today.

Thanks for the journey, Mr. Steinbeck.


America in Search of John Steinbeck

I've wanted to create a tribute to my favorite writer, John Steinbeck, for some time now. I finally got the chance this year in the form of a "doodle" and hope you'll visit the Google homepage for a look: www.google.com 

Look for the follow-up Making Of post tomorrow, with plenty of behind the scenes sketches. It was a journey in itself.



Dian Fossey

One of the most amazing humans ever to have lived: Dian Fossey. I was incredibly honored to create a Google Doodle for her today.

Here's a fun fact though: I used to think her name was spelled Diane Fossy. It was an honest mistake, misplacing one little "e". Similarly, many of our doodles start out with us knowing very little about the subject matter. And it's understandable to a degree, considering we create doodles for figures all around the world. But I knew Dian was someone for whom I really needed to do my homework, so after correcting my spelling error and reading through her Wikipedia page, I ordered a copy of Gorillas in the Mist and dug in.

The Bigger Story

I thought I was in for a dry, scientific journal, full of charts, data, and the inevitable bits of Latin. There's some of all of those things to be sure, but it is perfectly woven into an engaging story, with the same range of emotional ups and downs of a novel. I laughed. I cried. I became angry. I was filled with hope. I cried some more. I was almost immediately drawn not just to the basis of her field work, but her greater cause to save the critically endangered mountain gorilla. 

I also engaged The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for their guidance. It never hurts to get the real experts involved. Dr. Erika Archibald provided some invaluable bits of advice, and by the end of our phone call, I had a pretty firm grasp on what to illustrate. The challenge was focusing on the importance of her work while managing to weave a narrative thread throughout the piece.


Breaking down the Google Letters

The big 'g' is based on the first time Fossey was flown over the Virunga mountains. At the time, there were only something like 200 mountain gorillas, all living in one mountain range, so this image juxtaposes the idea of a wide-open space with what is actually a very limited area for an entire species.

The double 'o's show the family structure of the gorillas, which was something Fossey really focused on: The family dynamic, how the group interacted with each other ... I really wanted to build that sense of family, so here you see juvenile gorillas, mature females, one with infant, and a silverback male." 

The lowercase 'g' is based on the first time she actually saw a mountain gorilla face-to-face – she could barely see it peering through the foliage. Although the moment wasn't an encounter with Digit, the gorilla that Fossey's most famously known for being attached to – I chose to make the gorilla resemble him, a nod to one of her dearest friends.

The 'l' is the moment where a gorilla reached out and touched her hair. It may not have been the first or only moment of contact – she writes in the book about how one actually snatched her field notes away at one point – after a particularly good day of note-taking no less, plus the gorilla decided to eat a few pages – but it's an iconic moment captured on film and demonstrates her effectiveness in "habituating" with mountain gorillas. That is, being accepted into their group and to be able to roam among them.

I wanted to leave the 'e' a little more spacious and open-ended, because first of all, there's already a lot going on in the illustration, but also because there's a lot of ambiguity left in the tale of the mountain gorilla. Their future at best continues to be uncertain. So you can look at it from a place of hope or worry. If 'e' were to stand for something, it could stand for 'endangered,' or it could stand for 'enduring.' It's up to us to place the right 'E' in the right place. 


Iverness, Point Reyes

Happy New Year, everyone! I haven't sketched much on account of the holidays, but I managed to go out with a few friends up to Point Reyes just before 2013 came to a close. 

I won't ignore how grateful I am for the pleasant winter we've had so far, though the drought situation is looking bad. At any rate, I hope you're also managing to enjoy some nice weather, and if not, I hope you're at least staying warm.


Making of the Veterans Day Google logo

This is my third year illustrating the Google doodle for Veterans Day. It has become a tradition I look forward to each year, one that is challenging yet greatly rewarding. Here is a look at the first two followed by the story of making the third.

I enjoy these older doodles for their quietness. Veterans also enjoy them, but were quick to point out that Veterans Day is a more festive occasion (with Memorial Day being the more somber counterpart). It's a day to put on their old hats, sometimes along with the parts of their uniform that still fit, though often times street clothes will do, gather with old friends and share stories over a pint or two. Younger veterans might put on their sporting attire and run a benefit race. It's also a day for recognizing family and loved ones, who contribute a valuable service in their own right, and are often significantly impacted as well.

I was not yet born and thus did not directly experience anything while my dad served in Vietnam. The only real "significant impact" I experienced was being born a few years later thanks to him surviving the war! I did grow up hearing his stories, and have always had a deep appreciation and respect for not only his time in Vietnam, but his 20+ years in the military.

So I thought a fun idea to explore this year would be something I did experience while growing up – a small town parade. Townsfolk, veterans, and veterans' loved ones all participate or observe the festivities.

Although it was fun to try and figure out a way to involve the whole town (I really wanted those shriners in there!), I ultimately decided it needed to be more about the vets, so I narrowed it down to one float featuring several generations of veterans.

Once the concept was approved, I got going on the actual making of the illustration. I drew everything as individual components on a stage, cut them out and scanned them in.

And then did a digital painting to establish overall mood and color.

I was answering a lot of questions for myself in these early stages, while realizing a few things were not working, on both technical and contextual levels. Technically, I knew the background was going to have to get pushed way back. There were a ton of competing lines and values and a simple monochromatic light alone wasn't going to solve this. Also, I just wasn't digging the digital paint route. It seemed like all the fun stopped after I scanned in those cutout shapes. I didn't like the feeling that I was just coloring in a line drawing. I wanted the painting to have some of the spontaneity as the original drawing.

On the contextual side, an early draft was shown to a few veterans who work at Google. This is always a very important step for me, to get feedback from actual veterans besides my dad to make sure what I'm doing is appropriate. And yes, the obvious pun is I vet my ideas through vets. The key takeways this time around was that the star had to go (I thought it made a good first O in Google, but it did seem obtrusive), that the younger post-911 vets would most likely not be in dress uniform, and finally, even with a parade of vets, they typically still have family on board. 

So with all of that in mind, I went to work transferring an edited drawing onto paper and painting it in watercolor (obviously leaving out the truck that should be pulling the float, as I knew the crowd would be mostly blocking it anyhow).

I did the same thing for the foreground crowd, then layered it on top in Photoshop. After a few digital edits and a looksee with the fresh eyes of a teammate, I had three options.

I generally liked the third the most, which was a halfway point between background and no background. Of course, now it felt as though the watercolor stage had taken me away from the look I wanted for this piece, which was something more crisp and somewhat graphic, at least in how the shapes are treated. The colors were also looking a little polarized in contrast between warm left, and purply cool right. And finally, the crowd, while not meant to draw attention, felt a bit like an afterthought. In conclusion, I decided to touch everything up once I got home...

...Only to find that I had not saved a highres version of my working file into my cloud storage. SO, I repainted everything you see between the watercolor stage and the digital edits that evening. The silver lining was that I had "rehearsed" everything that went into making the illustration the first time. The second time around ended up flowing much more quickly, and as a result I think I managed to capture that spontaneous lighthanded feel, while addressing the things I originally wanted to touch up and then some. The remaining Google letters are meant to look like arranged float confetti and are taken from the float painting itself.

And there you have it. Thanks for reading, Happy Veterans Day!