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Curbside dining in New York
"The term ‘hot Chinatown garbage’ rings a pungent bell with any New Yorker who’s had the privilege of stepping through puddles of putrid trash water in July."
The above cartoon appeared out of thick air last month while I was stalking the now-vacant streets of the Flatiron District. Here’s my process for the cartoon from conception ( ooer ) to completion. ( oo-er! )
August 7, 2020
New York, NY
Phase 3: Eat outside.
When outdoor dining was allowed as part of the Phase 3 reopening of New York, some neighbourhoods were filled with empty chairs being glared at by waiters slumped in their doorway, tapping an anxious pencil against their order pad. Many were still fearful that going out to dine is just too big a risk.
Others, like the recent-millennial accumulation in my neighbourhood, lept gleefully from their walk-ups and filled the sidewalks. Occasionally they were a little too comfortable returning to the sidewalks and were given a stern talking-to by Governor Cuomo. (I’m looking at you, St Marks Place).'
The neighbourhoods like Flatiron, Kipps Bay, Gramercy, Murray Hill and similar were a little more timid. But eventually, people were lured to the curbside tables and chairs with the notion that they were helping financially-stricken small businesses stay afloat, if just for the summer.
Sophie and I had become friends with several of our local small business owners who own restaurants in the area like Plado, Book Club Bar, Post, Cornerstone Café and Root & Bone. One of the drawbacks of this new normal was dining alongside a phenomenon that New Yorkers just tolerate as a part of life on a daily basis:
Mountains of hot trash, thrice weekly.
Where I was raised in suburban Western Australia, we had ‘Bin Day’ once a week.
It was my job to wheel the bins out to the end of the driveway and have the garbage trucks come by with their hilarious metal arm and do their thing. You could often find me sprinting down the driveway barefoot with two wheelie bins in tow screaming “WaaAAAAAaait!” because I’d forgotten to put them out the night before.
In New York, “Bin Day” is every second day.
The sheer volume of waste that is accumulated on a daily basis in Manhattan alone is astonishing, but you don’t even notice the bags on the sidewalk after a while…unless it’s Summer.
Then the term ‘hot Chinatown garbage’ rings a pungent bell with anyone who’s had the privilege of stepping through puddles of stinky bin water in July. This unmistakable fish waft can interrupt the best of dining experiences; hence the spark of an idea that struck me as I passed these restaurants.
My older sister is a sommelier and despite her best efforts, has yet to teach me good wine etiquette.
She visited New York right before the pandemic, dining in various restaurants around the five boroughs and was probably one of the only people I’d trust with that little ritual the waiter plays when opening a $14 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
The other 99.9% of people—myself included— are really just playing a small pantomime of “I definitely know what I’m doing.” to impress whomever they’re sharing a table with.
It always strikes me as such a funny, bullshit ritual. I think I’ve seen a grand total of one bottle sent back to the kitchen in my whole life, and that was because the wine was ‘corked’. (Which is ironically only discoverable once it is uncorked.)
I wanted to draw this little ritual in that restaurant setting above.
The setting is a lone couple on a date, the waiter playing out the little wine ritual, and the guy really getting into the ‘impress my dining partner’ performance, with a gigantic pile of wet, hot, fly-ridden summer trash behind him.
I’ve been drawing up little New York scenes for myself lately and figured I’d give this one the same treatment with a bit less detail.
I jumped on the Wacom tablet with a number of photo references and sketched out the scene in three or four thumbnails.
One of the iterations was with the woman in the foreground with her back to us, on the left of frame, the man smelling the wine in focus in the centre, with the waiter to his left, and the stack of garbage to his right in the background.
It read nicely left-to-right, but it looked a bit too ‘movie-scene’—ish and contrived. I looked back at my reference photo and figured it might be a little more natural to just have the bare-bones scene play out exactly as one might see it, walking past on the other side of the street.
It was wider than I usually do gag cartoons; this composition wouldn’t do too great on a smartphone or as a pocket cartoon but might look nice if run across the bottom of a page.
I added a fire hydrant to the left of the composition to balance out the frame. (I’ll have you know I walked down four flights of stairs to take a photo of the hydrant in front of my apartment building rather than googling it, such is my dedication to my art. *sniffs wine* )
The last thought I had on the wider composition was a note I learned in the Pixar Masterclass back in 2013. They said:
“Comedy always happens on a flat plane.”
The horizon can tilt when there is an action shot or an emotional shift, but generally speaking, funny moments happen at ‘horizontal.’ I didn’t really understand it at first, but the more I started watching comedies through this prism, I saw what they meant. It sets things up more normally to allow for the ‘funny’ thing to seem more out of place.
I drew the initial composition with the different elements in 3 colours to separate the focus in my brain, and to delete lines that weren’t needed in each. Then I made a darkened photocopy of the whole thing to start light boxing over the pencils with a dip pen and some India ink. (Using a crow quill nib).
I’m a terrible pen-squeezer, so I have to wrap my nib holder in gauze and tape so my wrist doesn’t seize up when I’m inking. What an idiot.
Once the inks were done, I wanted to add some background detail, but I didn’t want to do it on the same page. I wanted to add it as an additional layer in pencil that I could control as a separate ‘layer’ if I needed to.
I overlaid some tracing paper onto the inks and did the background detail in 2B pencil. I like to separate out foreground from the background with either a lighter line or a thinner line, depending on what the cartoon needs. It’s a trial-and-error thing I think.
Once I had the background generally drawn up, I started sloshing some Doctor Martens dyes around the background of the image. I set them on the window sill to dry and took the dog downstairs to pee on the fire hydrant.
Once the ink was dry, I heaved myself back into the chair to finish inking the foreground details. I used Dr. Martens synchromatic transparent watercolor (Burnt Sienna) and added a few small finishing touches to the main characters.
Once that was done, I scanned in this page, and the background page on the tracing paper took them back onto the Wacom tablet and laid them over each other in Photoshop.
Once I sat with it for a minute (ie. drank more wine) I noticed one distinct and important detail missing…
The characters aren’t wearing masks.
Lest I make them both Karens, I decided it would be best to give the waiter and the two diners masks to make sure the context rang true and also set a decent example for anyone reading. (Okay, that last part is wishful thinking, but whatever.)
Once I added the masks, I shot it off to the New Yorker. The wonderful Cartoon Editor loved it and took it to the Editor in Chief, who rubbed his chin and, as has often been the case with my cartoons lately, said he didn’t really find it very funny.
The original art is for sale over at Cartoon Collections.
This post would usually be behind the paywall, but I thought you mike like a cheeky peek at what you could get as a paid subscriber for only $1.25 p/week.
If you want to learn more about my process of doing New Yorker-style cartoons, you can read more here. It’s only my process, not the process.)
This is now permanently closed after decades of service.
This is also now permanently closed. A fellow Perth-born Aussie used to run this place. They’re sadly now in Florida.