Technique: Small Canvases, Big Challenges

0703isko1_464x600Artist Joel Iskowitz tells stories using the smallest of images when he creates coins and stamps. Here, he explains how he fits worlds of epic scope in the palm of his hand.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Deng Xiapeng, Chinese
Paramount Leader 

1997, colored pencil,
28 x 20. Private collection.

Coin and stamp designer Joel Iskowitz uses the smallest canvases to create work that makes a big statement. As one of the world's preeminent philatelic artists and a Master Designer for the United States Mint, he designs stamps and coins that reflect history, politics, and cultural beliefs. Surprisingly, the confines of his work–from the government-mandated narratives to the size of his canvas–don't inhibit his creativity. "The harder the strictures placed on you, the more your creativity is challenged," says Iskowitz. Combining his love for a challenge with his use of modern technology, he creates public art that travels the world.

Although Iskowitz is attracted to the limits inherent in philatelic and numismatic art, he has also produced work ranging from book covers to airport murals. In fact, it is this diverse background that enables him to face the challenge of a small image. "The scale of something certainly creates a certain amount of parameters that you stay within," he reasons. "But content-wise, you can put a world of epic scope in an inch and you can put the level of detail and subtlety of a stamp in a mural." These are wise words from an artist who can say he has designed a mural fifteen feet long and put the Grand Canyon on the back of a quarter.

Because his coin and stamp work is often commissioned by the government or another large organization, Iskowitz does not begin with just his imagination. He is given a narrative or theme that he uses as an impetus for his drawings. The coins are designed for U.S. Mint commissions after Congress first passes a law approving the creation. Then designers are given a choice of submitting one or four designs for a given narrative. Iskowitz's classical training and diverse skills free him to focus on subject matter rather than technique. Whether it is a historical figure, world event, or much broader theme such as "the law," Iskowitz spends more time researching his topic than putting his pencil to paper. The results of his research often influence the media used. With historical and governmental work, he tends to "go into a quasi-official, governmental style that harkens back to techniques used in old coins and stamps." For older subjects, he employs sepia and warm tones and uses traditional printing methods, which can be seen in his stamps of historical figures such as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Gandhi.

The Legislative Muse
2006, American Eagle
platinum proof and uncirculated,
reverse graphite on paper,
8 inch diameter.  Courtesy
The United States Mint,
Washington, DC.

Even with a preference for older styles, Iskowitz readily incorporates modern-day technology into his work, which allow him greater freedom and the chance to take risks. When he first began designing stamps in 1978, he would create a large image (often using paint), then photograph it and scale it down to fit the parameters of a country's postage. Now, he works on a space four times larger than the average stamp. He is painting less, instead scanning drawings into Photoshop imaging software where he can use several layers of color, experiment, and resize the image himself. "The choices are amazing," Iskowitz marvels. "I can have 34 or 134 different layers of color–and my pants stay much cleaner!" After modifying an image, he prints it again and draws and/or paints into it. He repeats this process of scanning, adjusting, and printing until he is satisfied. This process of creating multiple states derives from his printmaking experiences in etching and engraving.

Photoshop is also utilized in his work with the U.S. Mint, although drawing is still the foundation for his work. Iskowitz admits that the limitations with coins aren't always easy to work with. "Coins are more restrictive. An artist's inclination is to depict light and shadow to create depth–but you can't do this with coins. You're creating a road map for a sculptor-engraver; you can't be at all vague." For The Legislative Muse, his first coin put into circulation by the Mint, Iskowitz used a graphite pencil to create an allegorical figure to personify the legislative process. After re-reading the Constitution, he incorporated eagles and Corinthian columns into his interpretation of this branch of government, designing the image in the round of the coin, and later adding the typography. Such detailed work, especially along the edge of the coin, is part of the new technological innovations that have resulted from efforts of the Mint's master sculptors, engravers, and technicians, as well as from the designers of the artistic infusion program.

2000, colored pencil
and transparent watercolor,
20 x 30. Private collection.

For those interested in this field, the program recently added six Student Designer positions to the group, allowing young artists to learn from the inside. To qualify, one must be currently enrolled in a visual-arts education program at the college or graduate level. Participation in the program includes a three-week internship program at the Mint, as well as the opportunity to submit designs for coins. The small scale may seem intimidating, but Iskowitz says the solution is mental, not material–he does not advise particular brushes, pencils. Instead, he stresses the importance of one's approach to the subject. "Don't think small, just because your format is in miniature," says Iskowitz. "The story you must tell will be your mentor and your guide; study it fully and let it dictate your technique and stylistic approach."

About the Artist
Joel Iskowitz received his B.F.A. degree from Hunter College, in New York City, and has been a prolific artist ever since. He has been involved in all phases of illustration since 1977, and is also an active Air Force artist with a number of paintings in the U.S. Air Force Art Program and NASA's permanent collections. In 2005, Iskowitz was designated as a Master Designer for the U.S. Mint. He has created over 2,000 stamps for 40 nations.

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