The Way Macaulay Thinks
In his talk at RISD, author/illustrator David Macaulay BArch 69 showed how he thinks through drawing.
“It’s such a pleasure for me to come back to RISD. I don’t do it enough,” said David Macaulay BArch 69, speaking to a crowd of students and other admirers in the RISD Auditorium as the exhibition The Way Macaulay Works was wrapping up its month-long run. Throughout his hour-long talk on Wednesday, September 22, the bestselling author/illustrator spoke about his creative trajectory with the same mix of humor, insight and wonder that infuses such classics as Cathedral (1973), Castle (1977), The Way Things Work (1988), the Caldecott Medal-winner Black and White (1991), Mosque (2003) and The Way Things Work Now (2016), an updated edition of his original classic that was released in the US in October.
As he followed the forward arc of his nearly 50 years as a professional illuminator, Macaulay also moved backward through individual works and the extraordinary thinking that makes each one so memorable and uniquely entertaining. In other words, the artist candidly showed the way he thinks.
In introducing him, Illustration Department Head Susan Doyle 81 IL/MFA 98 PT/PR commended the MacArthur Fellow’s “holistic approach to thinking and making”—one that has been drawing crowds of curious viewers to the ISB Gallery since mid August. After reflecting on the “richness” of his experience at RISD in the 1960s—and quipping that the misspelling of his surname on his RISD diploma “freed” him from “actually ever having to practice architecture”—Macaulay recalled how he failed at his first attempts to get a Maurice Sendak-inspired tale about a gargoyle beauty contest published. When the editor who reviewed and rejected his proposal encouraged him to explore the story’s gothic setting instead, Macaulay made a beeline to the RISD library and started to pore over books on gothic construction. After the success of Cathedral, it served as a blueprint for a subsequent series of book projects that visually explicate the wonders of architecture.
“But that’s the trap,” Macaulay warned students. Once a formula for success becomes clear, it can sap an artist’s ongoing hunger for exploration and creative innovation. He happened to avoid the trap by opting instead to move on to totally unknown territory—exploring everything from the physics of how machines work to the complex biology behind how the human body functions in subsequent books.
In speaking about the visual storytelling in The Way We Work (2008), Macaulay noted that “one of the most important things an illustrator has to be able to do is to be wherever you need to be to effectively communicate the thing you’re trying to show. If you start from where the cameraman would have to stand, then you're already at a disadvantage.”
During a Q+A session following his talk, Macaulay said that although he never practiced as an architect he would still recommend studying architecture “to anybody who wants to be a better problem solver without being told what problems you have to solve.” At RISD, he recalled, “I realized around junior year that we weren’t really given problems. We were just given a starting point, and it was up to us to figure out what the problem was—to actually design the problem, and in designing the problem we were already halfway to the solution. Maybe more than halfway.”
In closing, Macaulay emphasized how important it is for artists to consistently draw, sketch and create work about their observations of everyday life. “If you stop looking at the world around you,” he cautioned, “you’re never going to be able to make a difference because you won’t notice when it changes. If you want to have some control over the world in which you live, you have to pay attention to it.”
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