As we go further into the Oz series, there comes a point where we finally see John R. Neill's iconic style fully blossom, free at last of all the constraints imposed by the standard set in the first book. This, in my opinion, is that point. Whereas in Ozma of Oz, we saw Neill's true style just beginning to show itself while still faintly clinging to his imitation of Denslow's line work, here we see Neill give a big half-peace-sign to Denslow's precedent and go his own way. The result, as we'll explore in this article, is nothing short of magnificent!
10.) Chapter 9 Tailpiece: Although it's a tad disappointing that Neill didn't draw as many illustrations for this book as he did for the previous two, he evidently makes up for it by the use of detail, technical excellence, expression, and subtle humor that is so characteristic of his work. Here is an example of all four of these elements.
9.) Chapter 5 Tailpiece: In this image, we can see Neill's brilliant use of light and shadow to emphasize the figure in the center of the drawing. His use of line and contrast brings the figure front and center, while almost giving it the appearance of a woodcut.
8.) Chapter 7 Tailpiece: This is possibly the most bizarre drawing in the whole book because it appears to contain a hidden meaning. The rocks on the right side of the opening through which the buggy is disappearing look almost like two silhouetted human faces stacked one on top of the other. Besides this, in the bottom right hand corner, we see what looks for all the world like the number 94. Is this some kind of coded message? I don't think we'll ever know.
Aside from the head-scratching elements of this image, there can be no denying Neill's dramatic use of light and shadow. With the light coming from the back, and the characters receding towards it, he clearly conveys a sense of freedom and relief. We are finally coming out of the darkness.
7.) "Jim Stood Trembling Like a Leaf" (from Chapter 16, "Jim, the Cab Horse"): As it happens, Neill didn't just draw illustrations for this book with pen and ink. He also painted some exquisite color plates with watercolor. It can be very difficult to achieve this level of detail and precision with watercolors, but Neill does a superb job of retaining a sense of form and definition while using an inherently wet and inconsistent medium. This color plate is especially well done because he sticks with a mostly warm color palette, as well as a sensational depiction of exotic animals which almost gives it the appearance of a Barnum and Bailey circus poster.
6.) Chapter 1 Tailpiece: At this point in the story, Dorothy, Jim the cab horse, and Zeb the farm boy, have been swallowed up by an earthquake in California. (Yep, it seems us Californians have always had to live in fear of such things... *sigh*) Neill's mastery of expression is evident here, as we can plainly see the look of sheer terror on Dorothy's face as she plummets down into the abyss. That, and his quick but masterful use of broken, irregular lines, give this drawing a very fluid and fast-paced appearance. We can't help but want to continue on to Chapter 2 to see if she and her companions survive the fall.
5.) "Through the Black Pit" (from Chapter 7, "Into the Black Pit and Out Again"): It's never easy to convincingly draw a dimly lit tunnel, and yet Neill pulls it off, dark shadows and all. But what's especially interesting about this image is his flair for the whimsical. He has included little goblins hiding in the stone, (and as far as I can remember, Baum makes absolutely no mention of these one way or the other,) which, besides being funny looking, also give a sense of wonder to the image. Given that he does this often, is it any wonder that his drawings have remained popular among readers of the Oz books?
4.) Chapter 14 Tailpiece: At this point, Dorothy and her companions have finally reached the Emerald City, and this drawing clearly and effectively evokes the sense of utter relief that many readers doubtlessly feel when they reach this part. It's also interesting to note that, as L. Frank Baum was living in Coronado at the time this book was being published, the palm tree and the breezy sky appears to be a kind of homage to Coronado. As far as I'm aware, Neill was only in California once, at a much later time, and of course he did his illustrations independently of any tight-fisted instructions from the author, yet it's nice to see something of Coronado island referenced in this refreshing illustration.
3.) "The Cloud Fairies" (From Chapter 10, "The Braided Man of Pyramid Mountain"): Here we see, once again, Neill's proficiency with those slippery watercolor paints. He not only shows a rich sheme of contrasting dark and light colors, (which takes a lot of layering and a lot of patience to get right with watercolors,) but he keeps things loose and airy enough to where we know we are in the clouds. Interestingly, in spite of keeping things so fluffy, his depiction of the clouds is also scientifically accurate, since they are surprisingly wet for being so buoyant. (I remember someone telling me, when I was a kid, that if you were to fall through a cloud, you would be just as drenched as if you were swimming in a lake.) Here we see what looks like the deep blue sea at the bottom, when really it's part of the clouds.
2.) This Book Belongs To: Here we see Neill's fluid use of line, which gives this drawing a very refreshing feel, but we also see that he uses bolder, more controlled lines where necessary, (i.e. in the foreground elements.) The greatest emphasis, however, is on the hand-lettering at the bottom, which, as we've seen in many other examples in the Oz series so far, he does proficiently and beautifully.
1.) "Portrait of the Wizard of Oz" (From Chapter 18, "The Trial of Eureka the Kitten"): "I wouldn't try copying that one just yet." I was told back when I first began studying art by copying Neill's drawings from the Oz books, and, given that I was just a beginner, this advice was both well-meaning and pretty much spot on. The meticulous and painstaking use of crosshatching and detail shows a level of mastery that can only be attained by long, hard practice. Evidently, Neill has put in the time to practice that much, as we can see in this drawing, which is clearly his piece de resistance. Besides this, it's so divergent from Denslow's style that it almost looks like Neill's Declaration of Independence. Vive la Liberte!!
Do you agree with this list? Which of these illustrations was your favorite? Please let me know in the comments section below.
As always, I look forward to our chat.
Have a good week!