National Geographic cover

Why am I so lucky?

Back in the spring, Bill Marr, a senior editor at National Geographic, (and an old friend of mine) called and wanted to kick around some ideas for a cover story about the teenage brain.

My early sketches centered around risk taking and rash behavior, which, according to new scientific studies, is perfectly normal for teens. Their brains are still developing and adapting.

After a couple of back-and-forths, I threw out an idea over the phone: “How about a silhouette of a teenage boy, with a vivid, random, Pollack-esque splatter of watercolor in his head?” I thought it got at the organic, natural, sloppy, exciting, crazy aspect of adolescence…

The sketch I sent him the following day is in the upper left.

“I like it,” he said, “Let’s go for it.” Or something like that. It probably took him a bit of explaining and cajoling to get a green light from his editors.

I thought it would be a cake walk. I’d splatter some paint on paper, scan it into my Mac, get a friend’s 17-yr-old son to pose for a silhouette, layer it all in Photoshop and voila!

I was wrong, of course. In the end, I had over 30 layers, some with only one or two splats – each and every splat individually tweaked and analyzed.

Bill was very patient, helpful and meticulous in his direction – he improved and intensified the splatter, describing it like “popcorn bubbling out from his head” – and you can see how the cover changed over a month or so: raised the hair in front, no splatter in the yellow border (damn), the addition of a word balloon.

I was reminded during this process of a scene in the film, “Pollack,” in which Ed Harris as the abstract expressionist, answers a question from a Life magazine writer (“Isn’t this paint splatter just accidental?”), “I deny the accident!”

If Pollack only knew!