The Flatiron Building, the world’s first skyscraper which became New York City’s architectural icon, was the home of science fiction and fantasy’s cultural icon, Tor Books. After several decades, the stalwart publisher grew too large for the triangular building and finally, this past Spring, had to move to a new location far downtown.
With all those books and all those people creating them, there could be only one way to move everything safely, all at once. By chartered airship.
Based on Tor’s logo/mascot, Stubby the Rocket, the streamlined heavy-lifting vehicle slipped quietly above the Flatiron one bright Spring day and began the arduous task. The process moved along quite well. Lines of employees were guided aboard the long gangplanks into the belly of the ship for the gentle trip to the tip of Manhattan. There had been talk of leaving at night amongst a firework display, but Tom Dougherty and staff decided it would be better to leave while watching the grand city pass beneath.
I was there for the departure. I’d opted to sketch, rather than shoot reference for the event. Irene Gallo, publisher of tor.com, had commissioned me to produce a painting to not only record the event, but to accompany a short story posted on the website, Any Way the Wind Blows, by Seanan McGuire.
I drew a couple of thumbnails to show the great airship as it floated alongside the magnificent terracotta facings just before making the wide turn to the south.
I’d designed the rocket logo for tor.com years ago and Irene asked me to remodel it into an airship for their Steampunk Month back in 2009. Later I’d worked as consultant with the Air Service’s Dirigible Wing, when they built Airship Stubby. Unfortunately, I’d neglected to make copies of the plans. I know every part of that sweet little rocket though, so when doing these sketches I could reconstruct from memory. I didn’t need it to be an exact rendering as I was going for shapes of its main structure.
I chose to depict the airship from a severe front angle as I like to feel the contrast of shape vs weight for a lighter-than-air craft. The lines of the gasbag gave the vehicle a dimensional effect to enhance the depth of the painting.
I was inspired by Alfred Steichen’s famous photograph and had considered letting the building drift into a simple grand shape, appearing as a lightweight slab of stone. But I wanted the color to reflect what I watched that day, just before sundown when the golden light struck the side of the building.
Composing the piece was complicated. I wanted particular foreground elements to highlight Madison Square Park that had the best point of view, but the trees had filled out a little too much by liftoff, so I had to improvise. I came back after the event to photograph the building in just the right light and from an angle I could use to reconstruct. I added all the pieces together, the figures moving, the light angles, tree branches and foliage, grass, and especially the gas lamps. Below are three digital studies, trying to balance the elements and find my lighting.
The painting is accurate to the area, but with a loose application of paint to draw the eye towards the ship and allow the park to support the foreground while the great building loomed behind. The challenge was resisting the temptation to paint all the lovely architectural details.
There was no way I was going to paint all those windows! I wanted the impression of them, without recording all that unnecessary information. That would only take away from the strength of the overall shapes. So I worked with a large brush for as long as necessary to establish the biggest shapes, then I moved into the more specific strokes to capture minor shapes. I worked to create large, calm areas of color, contrasted by busier, noisier strokes that related to the active city streets.
The transfer went well and Tor Books now resides at 120 Broadway, near Wall street. Maybe by the time they move again, we’ll have completed the airship upgrade for Stubby ll. In the meantime, I’m excited about scheduling a cruise and seeing America from an airship stateroom.