Gosh, I love this illustration by NC Wyeth. I really believe this is one of the finest examples of storytelling in illustration, taken from none other than Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. Let me give you a dissection of this brilliant illustration by one of America’s greatest illustrators.
Before you read on, take a moment to look at this illustration.
On its face, Wyeth resolves the issue of communicating the concept of blindness with a blindfold. Naturally, a blind man wouldn’t need a blindfold, but both the blindfold and a cane clearly make the statement the man is blind. It’s important to understand the visual language your audience knows, and use that visual language to communicate ideas to them. Also, this image takes place in the dark, but darkness is inconsequential to blindness. This is for the viewer; we see the darkness and understand what it is like to be blind.
Here we see Old Pew, a blind man, lost and groping in the darkness; searching for his lost hat, and his way back home. If you look carefully you’ll see that NC Wyeth moved the shadow twice, and eventually placed the shadow of the cane over the hat…it was a stoke of genius. I don’t think this was his original intent — as the painting seems to indicate — but it’s a worthwhile reminder to keep ourselves engaged after the initial preliminary idea has been resolved. As Wyeth was painting this image he was still thinking on his feet, able to internalize the character and the moment in order to find better ways to tell this story. He was continually making adjustments.
Now, the illustration brilliantly captures a moment in the story of Treasure Island, but also finds an eternal truth that all of us can relate to. That’s what all great storytellers do. The illustration is about Treasure Island, but NC Wyeth is making a statement about the human condition. He’s talking about you and me! In this way, Wyeth is not only saying something about the character in the story, but also engaging with the audience at an emotional level. We relate to the character Old Pew, and as a result we’re drawn into this story.
In metaphor, Wyeth is saying we are like Old Pew. In our quest to understand the world around us, we venture out and get lost in the darkness of the unknown, and can’t find our way back home. We lose our way, and in doing so we lose bits of ourselves (hat). And this frightens us. We’re left groping around like a blind man, reaching into the darkness … yet feeling nothing. His fingers reach out in to the sky (breaking the horizon line); but even the stars are just out of reach.
We probe the darkness with our cane (the shadow of the cane touches the hat), but it is of no avail. We unknowingly come close to discovering the truth as we poke and prod, but are completely unaware of how close to the truth we actually come. The cane that supports us, now fails us. The hat remains out of reach.
Curiously, Old Pew is enveloped in his cloak, but the darkness of the cloak is swallowing him up, just as the darkness swallows him. He is a frightened man being devoured by darkness!
The house is home, and it is the lightest part of this image (the vanishing points lead us to the home), yet Pew faces away from the house, ergo facing outside the borders of the illustration. He’s reaching out into our world, begging us to help him!
Cleverly, Wyeth positions Pew’s silhouette over the home, telling us Pew may believe himself to be lost but he never really left…he’s still connected to the home. Various paths, lead us back to the house, but Pew can’t find them. Even the shadow of his silhouette points directly to the path back home.
This is a tragic illustration by NC Wyeth, pointing to our own folly as we fumble in the darkness of the unknown. Old Pew is forever trapped in this moment, just as we’re trapped, lost and fearful. As we relate to the character of Old Pew at an emotional level, NC Wyeth draws us deeper into the story.