Walter Molino (1915-97) was an illustrator of the worst possible circumstances. In image after image, and in precise frozen detail, he pictured mayhem and madness, and desperation and destruction. His illustrations are so extreme that they’re hard to look at, never mind think about. Most are examples of gratuitous violence, serving no purpose but for lurid entertainment. However, whether you love them or hate them, they are very successful in their intent—to shock. They are effective designs of gasping awe. By examining some of his less extreme images (believe it or not), we can learn from his strategies for success.
First comes concept—always. Molino had a vivid imagination. His stories he creates connect with viewers at a sensory level. Viewers identify with the subjects and situations, even though they were so over-the-top.
Molino’s style and substance match perfectly. His very realistic style and his cinematic way of picturing things are well connected with the storytelling. The flawless anatomy, extreme foreshortening, and difficult perspectives are masterfully done and are far more effective than a cartoony, or less vivid alternative.
The images present a clash of the ordinary and the extraordinary— of fact and fiction. In an ordinary town, on an ordinary day, a truly terrible or dramatic thing happens. This is not sci-fi or fantasy. We recognize these to be of our world, as we see it and fear it.
Finally, these are very illustrative. They speak to the power of drawing and painting. An illustrator should always be offering an alternative to photography and these “realistic” images do just that. The pictures are created from scratch and designed for maximum effect. The images are extreme reality. While Norman Rockwell created heightened “realistic” images of warmth and sentiment, Walter Molino created them for drama and destruction. Comparing their concepts, colors, and compositions can teach you a lot about illustration.
Often, I recommend that my students avoid placing their main characters in the center of the picture because it creates a dull image. Molina reminds us that no rule is universal. He centers things often and very effectively—by exploding the action from the middle of the picture with lots of diagonals.
This final image is an exception and more in line with my teachings. The artist hangs the sympathetic character from the top of the page, and we feel the space below by anticipating the fall. Viewers read all pages from left to right and but from top to bottom, and in this case the read is designed to heighten drama. We travel with our eyes from the balconey in the top left, down to the recuers in the bottom right.
Finally, notice too, that there is more than one kind of perspective at work here. In addition to traditional perspective, Molino uses “atmospheric perspective,” too. The forground character (the boy) has darker and lighter tones than the rescuers below. That helps our brain to understand that the boy is closer to us (and not simply a giant), and that those below are further away (rather than tiny people). The atmosphere has that effect on our perception, and replicating it in a picture helps communicate distances clearly.