Great pictures work because they are designed to work. They don’t just happen by luck or by accident. In this Working Pictures series, elements and decisions of picture design are closely examined to better understand how images are made to “work.”
-Subtlety. A strength of this picture is that it looks innocent at first glance. It turns a conventional autumnal scene on its head by adding a small, surprising, creepy element… the carving of one pumpkin from the inside out! The idea however, is very small in the picture, and very quiet too.
-Wonder. “Wondrous Strange” was the theme and title of an important exhibition of works by the Wyeths (N.C., Andrew and Jamie) and Howard Pyle (N.C.’s mentor). The term was used to describe a quality of mystery the artists aimed for in their images. This picture by Charles Addams could certainly be described as “wondrous strange” too. The image not only amuses us, but provokes us. It asks us questions and gives us no answers. What is going on here? Who’s in that pumpkin? How could they fit in there? And how could that knife get in there? This picture fills us with suspense as well, which is essentially a heightened form of wonder.
-Connections. Misplacement is a common tool for the illustrator. Putting something where it doesn’t belong calls attention from the viewer. The most effective misplacements for communication purposes are not random, they are associative. They build on pre-existing understandings. They connect things that are aleady in our minds. There are many things that would be unusual to place in that pumpkin patch, like, a martian, or a armchair or a penguin. But, we know that pumpins are carved with knives, so combining pumpkin carving with pumpkin growing makes this image, even as strange as it is… natural. The two pieces of pumpkin knowledge, are combined for the first time, or in a new way, and form one seemlessly connected visual concept.
-This concept could actually be considered of the “horror” genre, but this picture is not created in a horror style (usually, high contrast, ultra-realism). Instead, this painting has the sweet, cartoony feel of a humor piece or children’s book image, featuring simplified forms and gentle watercolor washes. This mix of style and substance makes for a rich viewer experience and is common in the dark humor of Charles Addam’s artwork.
These are just a few of the elements that make this picture work. Future “Working Pictures” entries will explore successful pictures and their reasons for being so.
Another classic Charles Addams cartoon with a less creepy concept: