Douglas Crets


Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

Noli Novak: Illustrator, Wall Street Journal

Today Douglas Crets interviewed a Wall Street Journal Illustrator, Noli Novak, and asked about her job, her training and the meaning of the stipple art “hedcuts” found in the paper and online editions.

You are familiar with the Wall Street Journal, founded July 8, 1889 by reporters Charles Dow, Edward Jones and Charles Bergstresser and recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch for US$5bln.

social media web murdoch online learning journalism

photos courtesy WSJ through a Google Image search

According to Wikipedia:

The Journal is the largest newspaper in the United States, by circulation. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, it has a circulation of 2.1 million copies (including 400,000 online paid subscriptions), as of March 2010, compared to USA Today’s 1.8 million. Its main rival, in the business newspaper sector, is the London-based Financial Times, which also publishes several international editions.

Take a look at the famous dot portraits that run in the print edition of the newspaper every day. These are different than photograph portraits. They have an intimacy to them. You can tell that they are art, and because they are art, you feel a closeness to them that is more abstract, maybe more emotional, and certainly interpretive. But who does them? Why do they do them? And how did they start?

It turns out that there are not that many illustrators in the Wall Street Journal, and the work of an illustrator on these specific kinds of drawings, is the result of years of training and apprenticeship delivered by illustrators working for the paper to new illustrators.

I called up one of them, Noli Novak, and she agreed to answer some questions about her work, her illustrator education and what makes the illustrations so special. Turns out, she is mostly self-trained in the stipple art process, but she has benefited from exposure to other master illustrators who have taught her the secrets of the trade.

DouglasI know I had said we weren’t going to talk to you specifically as a spokesperson for the Wall Street Journal or as an employee, but just in terms of understanding the role of illustrator, can you tell us what it’s like to do this kind of work, or can you describe what happens in this job?

Noli NovakI’m a staff illustrator. Currently, we have three full time and one part time and two freelance illustrators. The reason we have staff at the paper, is because when the Journal was first published, it hired artists to draw portraits for them. Back then, I think they were charcoal drawings. It was the only art in the whole paper. It was like that until the late nineties when photos started appearing in the paper. Artists have been there since day one.

We used to be at the office, we had our desk like everyone else. Since 9/11, the illustrators work from home, our offices were in front of the World Trade Center.

In the morning, I have to sign into work and our hours are 11 to 7, and we have a person at the office who is in charge of daily happenings, requesting photos, compiling requests. She distributes work to us at home. I get a photograph from her every morning, and I have to — if it’s for the next day paper, which is called a live head — I have to be done by 5.30 at the latest, that’s my deadline.

For future heads [work that is going in a later paper] I have a couple of more hours. I sign in and do my work, scan it and send it back.

DouglasHow did you get into this role? Were you discovered, or did you apply for the position? How did that happen?

Noli NovakI came to the States from Europe in 1984 and I was searching for art and music careers, [figuring out] what to do. I happen to know someone working at the Journal at the graphics department. He told me that there are artists there that draw portraits. I tried to imitate it on my own, and I had never tried it before. When I had something very similar to what they were doing, he showed it to [the head of the art department] and it so happened they were looking for more illustrators to train at the time.

There was a group of illustrators working there. You can’t take classes. It was started at the Journal and it was passed on from one illustrator to the other. Back then, they didn’t want the drawings to look that different from each other. They really want us to hold our styles close together. This is how we would pass on the secrets of doing this from one illustrator to the other. Down the line, I actually became the person training other illustrators.

DouglasSo it’s kind of an apprenticeship, there are secrets to the trade.

Noli NovakIt’s really something that you are not going to get until one of us trains you. There are so many quirks and things we learn over the years. It’s really a really exclusive little club.

DouglasIt seems that when I look at stipple art, the face is a bit more human, or that the person being depicted seems more approachable and open. Why does this happen? Can you explain what you are trying to capture in these pieces and what makes them different from other types of newspaper art?

Noli NovakThis style is supposed to look like old fashioned engravings. If you look at currencies you are looking at something that has a very distinct business look to it. Same thing with stocks; that engraving style is very business like. It has this warm feel to it and it makes it look dignified.

We can’t engrave obviously, because we have to sometimes knock out portraits in a couple of hours. We work at a live paper. I think personally [that art look happens] because we don’t use any solid black areas, everything is made of dots or lines or dashes. It’s not abrasive and not very contrasty. I think that’s what it is. That’s why a lot of corporations and companies want this style for their annual reports.

DouglasDo you think this kind of art is one of the things that brings people to the paper, and gives it a familiar feel to them?

Noli NovakI don’t know and I can’t really tell. I know when I get feedback from people who see my art online, they say, “OH, I am a long time subscriber and I always look forward to the heads!”

I am not sure if it’s people who like art to begin with, and they like to see the art in the paper. I really don’t know. Whoever talks to me about it, they always say the same thing, “I love to read the paper, and why aren’t there more of them?” In today’s world, it’s very difficult.

DouglasWhen it comes to presenting the art, what kind of information are you trying to get across?

Noli NovakI don’t see many of them displayed online as well as I would like them to be. I think you can’t see the style as nice and as sharp.

I want the style to be seen. When the person is displayed too small, you don’t’ see the dots. It just looks like a pencil drawing. What is the point of working on it for hours, if you are not going to see the detail?

It’s the likness which is always number one, and number two is the style. At the paper, there are five or six of us and I can tell immediately who did which drawing. To me that is really important to see.

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2 Responses

  1. finious says:

    Lucky… I love Noli and can tell her hedcuts. She is the best portrait artist since Sargeant.

  2. […] serigraphs of work done by other color artists. He comes to the site recommended by his fiancée, Noli Novak, who we interviewed earlier last month. Before we get started with the questions, George Cornwell wanted to make this clear: A big factor […]

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