Joys of sight

Our eyes see, look, observe, discover, appreciate, notice, spot, glimpse, perceive, repair, examine, recognise, distinguish, survey, contemplate, snoop, pry, watch, discern, advert, spy, stalk… A person with a healthy set of eyes should never be bored. Even with one eye you can have a blast. The mechanism of a juice squeezer, a minister slipping on ice, a swimmer calling for help, a fly crashing against a glass, an air hostess showing how to use a life vest, two gorillas kissing, and so on, are things worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.

Illustrators have a special way of looking at the world. Illustrators see, look, observe, discover, appreciate, notice, spot, glimpse, perceive, repair, examine, recognise, distinguish, survey, contemplate, snoop, pry, watch, discern, advert, spy, stalk, etc; in short, they subject nature and all its creatures to a meticulous scrutiny. They do all that with a single gesture. And after seeing, looking, observing, discovering, appreciating, noticing, spotting, glimpsing, perceiving, repairing, examining, recognising, distinguishing, surveying, contemplating, snooping, prying, watching, discerning, adverting, spying, and stalking, they make everything up! This is their job: to reconstruct the world to help us see; illustrators remove the cobwebs from our eyes and hold a magnifying glass before us. Under the magnifying glass there is no straight line: the most perfect ruler is nothing but a saw as sharp as the Himalayas. Under the magnifying glass, the pin’s head turns out to be the head of Emperor Charles V wearing a hunting hat; and using the magnifying glass again, the Emperor’s head is a pepper.

For those who are not used to looking, a flower is always the same flower and a house the same house, the smoke from that house is always the same, and the inevitable winding trail is always the same winding trail. But alert illustrators never draw the same stone twice, never! They might look similar or identically traced, indistinguishable, but they will most likely differ in their geological composition. This is because illustrators are creators who do un undo at their whim, and take and give according to their eyes, which are the lighthouses that guide their hands and heads. Feeding the light of the eye, learning to see, is a lifelong occupation. Between stone 1 and stone 1,000,000 there are aerolites and sugarcoated almonds, countless empty ink bottles and many more sketches: what some would call a rich experience.

Illustrators resemble fishermen because of their capacity to observe and their mastery of a difficult technique. They handle the rod and release the line onto a surface as fragile and slippery, as willing to crack, as water. With patience and the skill and agility that comes with practice, illustrators unwind the skein and in a certain order arrange dots and lines, the minimal elements with which they carry out their work. Then, they leave the rod stuck in between two stones, sit down under a willow, and start to contemplate the evolution of clouds, the swimmer calling for help, the two kissing gorillas, and think about extraordinary things while their drawings capture distracted readers.

Arnal Ballester baits his hook with the fly of humour, needless to say. Just as that humour is a particular way of looking that is practiced with the utmost seriousness, and which, by the way, not all illustrators have. Saul Steinberg, George Grosz, Roland, Nicolás Topor, and Eduardo Arroyo also fished in those waters. Arnal Ballester, with an exquisite dedication, makes his drawings on paper napkins, pieces of cardboard, notebooks wet by the rain, and newspaper’s margins. His source of inspiration is this absurdity we call the real world, and the result of that inspiration is another minuscule world that has everything and nothing to do with the bigger one. The characters and settings of the play, as will be seen, belong to the beginning or the end of some mysterious story, or meet suddenly in the middle of the adventure on minute 37 of the show. This is a world made up of tiny fragments, which appears easy to comprehend, but that must be looked at with a magnifying glass.

Illustrators, and us with them, throw their lines and spirals, perhaps following the path traced by a fly’s flight in the air, and amuse themselves thinking about how they would draw this fly if they could train it, if they could coat its legs in ink, if they could tie a pot of paint to its wings, etc. Meanwhile, the fly, the great friend of humourists, is only winning some time; it confidently glances at its watch, waiting for the fatal moment to come and have the opportunity to eat a corpse.

Until that happens, and let us hope it does not come any time soon, the only thing we can do is open our point of light and see, look, observe, and so on and so forth, until our eyes burst from exhaustion.

Herrín Hidalgo

Text published as the prologue (?) of Arnal Ballester’s Vista Cansada (Tired Sight) (Sins entido Editions, 2000). The drawings reproduced above the text, which form part of the book, are titled as the following: (from left to right and from top to bottom) Eslovaca con vaca; Hasta mañana, amigos; Java des Comptoirs; El repartidor de pizzas; Homenaje a Celia Gámez; Fin de carrera; Alcohólico anónimo; Jazz; Popota; Giraffe de poche.