I have seldom been able to work on the kinds of productions that allow designers time to do many presentation sketches of ideas for the sets. It has just not been the way it has turned out in my career. And I have always been wary of giving directors too much hard clarity about what they could look forward to. That can often end up backfiring on you. When they see the set based on the sketch, they remember something from the drawing that isn’t there, or that you could not afford to do, or in looking at the drawing ahead of construction time, the group starts to focus on the wrong things, and pick away at the color, the furniture, the unimportant details that the drawing could never hope to convey. So I have always wanted to give my team as much wiggle room as possible. I never want to be pinned down until it’s almost too late. That’s why I like to keep things lose and, well, sketchy.
My set watercolors are pretty much like the watercolors I have always done for myself - little reminders from quiet moments of observation - plants, flowers, landscapes - what’s around me that I am attracted to, that my eyes have caressed. Almost meditative. All my life I have wished that I could make watercolors like Charles Demuth - the greatest of all American watercolorists in my opinion. Carefully observed and carefully controlled. And most important: His hand knew what it could leave out. When I see set sketches by the best - Dante Ferretti comes to mind, or Ken Adam - I feel ashamed of mine. They seem so primitive, so simple, so utterly untutored by comparison. But they’re mine. I’m not Dante. I’m just me. I work with what I have, what I know, what I have learned. I consider myself an enlightened amateur when it comes to production design. I am professional, sure, but I like to maintain in my work something a little naive, something a little unpredictable. Something that says something about who I am. And I am not the consummate production designer. So the set drawings are never an end in themselves, just as the sets are never an end in themselves, but an ephemeral means to telling a visual story. They take on an independent life of their own only after the fact.
The watercolor of the Soda Shop for Pleasantville doesn’t really have much information in it. It’s alone, not nestled among the other buildings on its street. But you can sense something of the color scheme - burgundy and cream. You can sense that the building will have an angle on it that is not flat on. You can see there will be small trees near it. You can get some idea about the type style of the signage, and get a hint about the story from the slightly comedic ice cream cone that hangs over the entry. You can tell that the idea was to cover the facade with flat regular panels of color, not to stucco the entire surface, and that the windows and door would probably be aluminum or steel or chrome. The proportions are in no way precise and the underlying pencil work is primitive. I like to write notes on the drawings - to add a bit more information for myself or for anyone who might look. Makes them seem less precious to me somehow. More like just another piece of art department information. Not important in itself - just another means to an end.
Similar things are true about the Ridgewood house for Seabiscuit. We had to build a traditional white wood fence, put down a gravel drive to it, line the drive with white stones, add some small trees because the house would otherwise be naked in a grassy field. You can see that the house will be symmetrical, surrounding a central verandah area. You can see that the building will be white, with a dark red roof and shutters. And you can see that it is set in a mountainous backdrop. I chose the angle on the house that I liked best. Though I’m not at all sure that the camera ever bothered to shoot that angle.
The LA Confidential Victory Motel watercolor looks pretty much the way the motel ended up looking. I took a photo during the very early stages of construction, and built the watercolor on that photo. You can see the color scheme - dirty, aged yellow ochre and brown. You can see the importance of the sign to the place. It announces a post WWII victory where there is none any longer visible. Everything about the place is dying - the bushes are struggling, the roof is sagging, and yet it pulls you into itself with a kind of awkward one-armed embrace. You can’t see it in the drawing, but to the left, through the trees, there is a cliff, with oil wells beyond and behind. I did the watercolor purely as an exercise for myself. I sold no one with the thing. It was a way to spend a happy afternoon outdoors in the Stocker Oil Fields, making sure I knew what I was doing by giving what was in my mind a small physical manifestation. It made me happy. I wish I could find the time on every project to do the same. But, sadly, I know I won’t.