About halfway through my time at Art Center College of Design work from the new Entertainment Design major started showing up in the student gallery. The stuff they were doing in those classes blew my mind, and I thought, “I’ve got to get in on this.” One instructor’s name kept popping up again and again: Norm Schureman.
I went to meet him to see if he’d let me take one of his classes. He was teaching in another department and at a higher level, so I needed his permission before I could get my name on the list. He was skeptical. Advertising majors were notoriously bad at drawing, sometimes willfully so. It’s a whole attitude. “We do concepts. We can always hire a wrist to make a pretty picture.” Arrogant, annoying, and just plain wrong. How can you compose a great song if you’re not in command of your instrument? Don’t get me started.
At any rate, Norm had doubts, but he recognized my enthusiasm. He asked me to show him some drawings. I went away and gathered what I had. I also made a whole new board for him—a drawing of a spaceship I had built out of a half gallon milk bottle, wings from a 1950’s hood ornament, and a fake strawberry, for my “Intro to Film” class. It wasn’t the greatest illustration in the world, but it was different, and I think Norm saw that I was serious about learning from him. He let me take his VisCom 6 class. (That’s Visual Communication 6 to you, but nobody calls it that.)
The USS “What Was I thinking?”—I can’t imagine that the runes don’t mean something. Was it Klingon?
VisCom is a series of mandatory classes aimed at product and entertainment designers. Some segments of the class will emphasize certain subjects or techniques, but it’s basically drawing, drawing, drawing, and more drawing. By the time students advance to VisCom 6 they tend to be pretty cocky about their skills, and rightfully so: What they know to draw, they draw beautifully!
But there’s more to learn, of course, and Norm knew how to make everybody realize that they weren’t as hot as they thought. For the entire first session he would call on one person after another. He’d name an object or an animal, and we had to draw it on the blackboard. If all you ever do is draw in your tidy little sketchbook, try drawing something in chalk on a vertical surface in front of a room full of people. It makes you feel very small very quickly. (I had to draw a rocking chair.)
The first of the original hybrid animals from 1996. Note Norm’s assignment in the top right corner, and the slightly wonky perspective on the back horn. A problem that still pops up in my drawings today.
Of course, Norm was an absolute demon on the blackboard! After he’d put all of us through our paces, he went up and showed us how it’s done. It was a little like playing your version of “Kashmir” for Jimmy Page, before he gives you a little demo himself.
On the board and on paper Norm’s drawings came effortlessly, gracefully, and at almost demoralizing speed. Which was very sexy to watch. The Daily Monsters live in time-lapse because of Norm. I wanted to simulate, at least, what he’d do naturally.
The Letahrgic Horn Shark, another of the original six.
From then on in I just had a blast. Norm’s attitude to creative assignments was totally different from what I had been exposed to in my advertising and design classes. There it was all about putting your head in a vise for three months in search of the perfect idea. Here the idea was just an excuse to start. Once you got drawing more ideas would always come. And if they were fun ideas, so much the better. Strap some rockets to the side of that plane. Makes it go faster. Faster is better.
In the course of the class Norm took us on the road every other week. We went to amusement parks to redesign the rides, and went to a workshop that carved giant statues for Las Vegas casinos. For our final session he took us to fly in glider planes in the Mojave desert. Which sounds benign, but you’d be surprised by the maneuvers a glider can do.
The Giant Honkerbird isn’t smiling at you. That’s one of his two giant nostrils. Just wanted to clarify that.
About halfway into the term, he took us to draw animals at the zoo. I was starting to get the hang of drawing, but I was having a rough term otherwise. I had worked myself to a crisp, and was also clashing with a few of the instructors and students in the advertising department. Norm took me aside and just hung out with me for a while. Just to check in. Just to see if he could help.
This was a thing he did. He wanted to make sure you were OK. I was very confused by this at first. It wasn’t what I was used to from teachers. What was his angle? But there really wasn’t one. Norm just enjoyed hanging out with other people who loved drawing. I’ve never met anybody who enjoyed his work and his life so thoroughly, and was so generous about sharing that joy.
There is something meditative about drawing. It forces you to be present in the moment, and if you commit to it, drawing puts you in a zone where you forget everything but the line in front of you. I know I’m a much happier person on days where I set aside time to draw. And Norm drew—all—the—time. No wonder he was happy.
The Warthen—Norm saw it, liked it, and said, “Needs an egg, doesn’t it?”
I was always surprised when I heard from people that didn’t get along with him. A fair number of students complained that he was a hardass who played favorites. As far as I could tell, that was true. He gave his time most freely to those who wanted to be taught, and he had no patience for laziness. I loved his class. When you’ve taken years of crap for being too serious about work, it’s the best thing ever to find yourself in a room full of people who are just like you.
My favorite assignment was designing hybrid animals. It was really my first time designing characters, but I had grown up drawing cartoon characters, so it felt natural. Another benefit is that creatures tend to be a bit more forgiving of perspective errors than, say, rocking chairs. I created the first six characters the night before the assignment was due. The pressure cooker of school is a fantastic motivator. I kept making more as the class went on, and in the years to come, but never again at that pace.
The little pun about there being no ants in the antarctic would’ve worked much better if I had crossed the penguin with an ANTEATER, but the words didn’t combine into something fun. Ant-Eatuin? Penguant-eater? It just didn’t read well. But did I let go of the joke as I should’ve? No. No, of course I didn’t.
For years and years I’ve been thinking about making enough these drawings to publish a book. The original six characters I did in one night. One night! 50 should’ve taken two weeks at most. I made a push for it in 1997, but my grant application got rejected. I tried again in 2000, after visiting Norm’s class and drawing the Warthen, the Pengvark, and the Moosetrich, but I got sidetracked by other work.
In 2005 I made another attempt, adding the Bullrus, the Anteagle, and the Moosetrich. As you can see, I experimented with going black and white, so I could cut down on production cost for the book.
Friendly fella, the bullrus, but really doesn’t do well on airplanes. Or with feeding himself. He can open the can himself, but the tusks get in the way of everything else.
The Ant-Eagle is a fine example of working a drawing to death. Way too much going on in those wings. And he’s a bit stiff overall, but maybe that’s how he is in life, too, the Ant-Eagle.
Everything was zooming along until I tried putting an elephant head on a gorilla body. I just couldn’t make it happen, and eventually I got frustrated and threw up my hands. A year later, I started making Monsters, and that fulfilled the same need in my life as the animals had. In an odd twist my good friend John Waters—the first person I met in line to register at Art Center in January of 1994—remembered these guys and used them in a banner campaign for Honda’s line of hybrid vehicles. The headline was “Hybrids that make sense.” Yes, he was talking about the cars, but I see it as a clarion call for genetic researchers.