Inspired by the warm response to our mini-series on the origins of Artiphany, and John’s own artistic odyssey, we are launching a new series today that dabbles in a bit of Artiphany-inspired ekphrasis. In each installment of The Tantalizing Void, we will dissect John’s most popular illustrations and characters, peeling back the paint to expose the story behind the sketch. So, let’s get at it!
As it has proved the inspiration for the informal motto of our little business ( “Live Life Off Leash”), I thought we’d kickstart The Tantalizing Void with an image that is pure, raw Artiphany. Quintessential John Littleboy down to the minute sparkles on the doggy scarf that flies high above the pack of feverish paws—that is, the off leash sketch, which adorns three of our products and is planned for many more. One of the most versatile, and most hungrily sought after images in the whole Artiphany universe.
Off leash is an energetic image. Even contained in the strict confines of greeting card, mug or towel, the image seems to sprawl uncontrollably, with vigor and a veritable cloud of stinky dog breath. The dogs in the image hail from across the canine spectrum, big and large and scrawny and brawny and everything in between. And, most importantly, they are unrestrained by human hands.
John’s first rendition of the off leash sketch was executed for a greeting card. He based the image, self-explanatorily, off the two words “Off Leash,” which, he explains, “people use to indicate that they’re free or they’re not working or that it’s the weekend.” In short, “’Off Leash’ means to be free,” he says. From here, John drew on his own experiences as a dog owner, and admirer, and adapted the term for an Artiphany context. “The depiction of an ‘Off Leash’ moment comes from what I remember seeing at the dog park,” he explains. “These dogs running around, leaping, jumping, chasing each other. This joyous expression of seeing your friends and being without restrictions, able to do whatever you like.”
Joyous expression. If there are two words apt enough to capture the spirit of John’s off leash image (besides, of course, Off and Leash), they are these. Joyous, in those flailing feet and lolling tongues; expression, bursting in those wild eyes, those grinning jowls, those tensed limbs. And even despite the different temperaments present in the image—implied by the diverse range of breeds—this ‘joyous expression’ is universal. “They are all enthusiastic about the moment,” John observes. “They’ve found their freedom restored.”
“It’s a celebratory image,” he adds, “of what it means to be without anyone at the other end of your leash, controlling you.”
To capture this joie de vivre John used a few notable tricks and techniques. One is the perspective. We see the dogs in full—not how we might see this energetic pack as they run towards us, but rather as if we were standing on a park bench, observing the chaos from an elevated, and safe, distance. John, however, has a secret motivation behind this effect. “The view from above—although it mimics the point of view of a person about, watching the dogs running—is adopted more to allow me to show all the dogs at once.” Entertainment value and efficiency all in one: sneeky Mr. Littleboy, indeed!
The core action that drives this image forward is, of course, the pace of the dogs’ panting pace. But wait. Hang on. Step back for a second: why do we trust that these dogs are running? Upon a closer, more critical look, we see that the dogs are not quite mimicking the motions faithfully. They look—and this is achieved partially through that elevated perspective—more as if they are freefalling, legs splayed, from midair. But this is no mistake on the part of the artist: John is aware, was purposeful, about this incongruity. Frankly, because he knew it wouldn’t matter. “I did a little bit of research, to see how dogs move when they’re running, but having been to the dog park often enough, the image found a place in my memory and I could then access and use it for the purposes of making a picture.” As such, these are not exact copycats of either the dog breeds or the scene itself. They are stylized images of dogs running, which, as John explains, means as long as the images depict a movement close enough to the pattern of a dog’s stride, people will believe the action. And wait…hang on…did you ever doubt it?
Not too long ago, John made an amendment to the off leash image. Near the far right end of the image, at the top, there used to be a scruffy pink dog. Now, in his place, prances a frou-frou pink poodle, all glam and Parisian dog bones. This type of modification, however, is not unique to the off leash image; every image in the Artiphany arsenal is forever up for review, always open to new interpretations courtesy of the hand that created it. John is not only an artist; he’s a perfectionist.
“Inevitably, when I revisit a drawing that I’ve done, I can always see how I might do it different or how I might include or change one of the dogs because its not quite as good as it should be,” he admits. “I liked the brevity and the scratchiness of [the pink dog] but then the idea popped into my head of a poodle, a coiffed poodle that’s all groomed and perfect, so I substituted the pink dog for this perfectly groomed dog.”
Why? You may ask. Well: “Because whenever I see a dog that’s so perfectly groomed, it sort of belies the fact that he doesn’t really care what he looks like,” John explains. “It’s mostly to please his master. And if you give him the chance, no matter how much money you’ve spent grooming your dog, no matter how perfect he looks, you let him off the leash and he sees some other dogs, he’s going to run and run and run and forget all about the tortuous experience he’s had at the groomers.” He is, in short, finally fully and truly Off Leash.
Now....get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!
Love and dog bones,