Wednesday, August 29, 2018

WPA Illustration Process for Modern Money Network

Illustration by Mark Montgomery for the Modern Money Network
This is a recent advertising commission I did for a non-profit known as the Modern Money Network. The illustration is meant to be used for a website banner and print collateral for a nationwide event across university campuses to drum up support for recently proposed legislation for a Federal Job Guarantee. 

They found me through my Hire an Illustrator portfolio when I was a featured member about a month ago. Their thought was to have an illustration style that "blends the seriousness of Constructivism (think Soviet '20s and abstract New Deal art) and the hyperbolic playfulness of present superhero aesthetics like X-Men. The idea is to conjure a sense of great meaning and purpose w/o lapsing into plain nostalgia or socialistic earnestness."

Oddly those art movements have inspired my artistic development ever since growing up studying Thomas Hart Benton (of Missouri) and falling in love with the angles of Russian Constructivism propaganda posters in design school from the likes of professors from Poland, Russia and Sarajevo. 

The Modern Money Network (MMN) wanted the banner to show "diverse persons (race, class, gender, ability) and diverse professions (infrastructure workers, care takers, artists, etc.)" in a horizontal format.

I had this in mind when visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art on my birthday this summer. Looking for inspiration, I found a Nordic bowl that had scenes of life and work cast into wide, narrow strips wrapping around the bowl:

Nordic Bowl, Minneapolis Institute of Art

To get started sketching I also researched the murals of Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton. I also pulled from some retro super hero aesthetics from X-Men to The Incredibles. Originally my contact person with the MMN wanted the banner in shades of green to match the MMN logo, so I mocked up three pencil sketches in that color:

It felt a lot like designing a WPA mural. I had several different possible government jobs (with a modern twist if possible) to try to work into the design, including librarian/archivist, doctor, artist, National Parks employee, scientist/researcher and possibly childcare worker. They liked the third sketch but wanted the tree planter in the center. They also thought the artist painting in VR goggles was too abstract or gimmicky  So I rearranged the characters and came up with a final sketch. 

Montgomery MMN final sketch
They asked for a couple more specifics which I added into the final. One request was to have the Parks worker hold the baby tree up above her head in a heroic pose – as I had shown the librarian previously. They also decided monochrome green was not inspiring enough for a younger generation and really wanted me to go crazy with color, referencing the jazz posters I have on my site. Here's an example at

I decided to hire a few models for some reference in pose and lighting. I didn't need them to be the exact race I was depicting, but I wanted to have some specific info so I could choose to squish or exaggerate shapes in a way that made sense. Here's an example of the scientist model, Wesley in my dining room.

Model and final rendering -Montgomery

 Here are a few other closeups of the final characters.

The response from the committee has been very positive. From the client: "The contemporary visual culture surrounding full employment politics is narrow and impoverished. Case in point: even pro-Job Guarantee articles tend to only feature pictures of white men in hard hats or nostalgic images from the WPA. Montgomery's banner, by contrast, conjures myriad types of persons and professions, while pointing to multiple forms of socially useful work."

I don't get into politics, but I love people enough to hate the effects of poverty. I enjoyed the work on this project, as it was right up my alley of aesthetics. I love Americana and history so any time I get to research and combine WPA and retro comics in the same project, I'm in heaven. The final image is fresh, energetic and heroic which I feel make it inspiring. The symmetrical composition keeps it balanced, while the color and variety keep the eye moving. I think it would make a cool mural after all. What do you think?