The face is rendered exact in soft graphite. The girl’s face is pensive, a gentle arch at the hood of the eyes and a subtle pout of the mouth. Illustrator Jennifer Dionisio‘s drawings of Judy Garland in her landmark role as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz are full on magic. The fact that these pieces are done in pencil and are not photographs is an incredible feat. Dionisio’s duet of The Wizard of Oz posters published by Mondo are expertly crafted examples of what a large format screenprinted poster can achieve.
In each piece, Dionisio takes the viewer directly into her subject’s face, where the narrative unfolds. In her poster for Disney’s WandaVision, the anxiety and desire for a sense of normalcy are present in Wanda’s eyes and in the tension set around her mouth. This is Dionisio’s gift, the ability to convey the slightest of emotion on a large scale.
CJ: A face has very few elements to it — nose, eyes, mouth, etc., and any misstep in the drawing can make for an inaccurate likeness. Are you starting with any distinctive features to nail first, or are looking at the face as a whole?
JD: I try and work left to right to limit smudging, but I do like starting with the eyes. While drawing I get very close to the paper, and I also prop it up and stand back and look from far away.
Someone like Humphrey Bogart has a very distinct face and your artwork for High Sierra perfectly captures him. It’s also a high-contrast piece, Ida Lupino is wonderfully blown out with light. Are you adjusting your lighting schemes to better reveal the features, or is that just an element from the film that worked too well to not use?
I was given a collection of stills from the film and worked with those as well as screenshots. The ones I used for reference for Ida’s face were quite washed out. It’s always easier for me to take away shading then add it, so I made Bogart match by lightening some of the shading on his face as compared to the references. The characters needed to look like they existed in the same space and the high contrast worked well for cohesion and feels true to the era and the film.
Your style is very crisp and clean — the pencil work is so sharp and perfect. Looking at Wanda in your WandaVision poster, there’s quite a bit of white from the paper showing through with the softest of shapes at the cheekbones and eyes. What’s your approach to really locking in those shapes so the drawings reads “Wanda” up close and from far away? Does your approach change knowing that the poster would be printed at 24” x 36”?
When you took on WandaVision, did you know how you were going to bring in the alternate world Wanda was creating? Did you start with the portrait and build from that?
I think the ’50s – ’60s imagery from the earlier episodes are the perfect juxtaposition to Wanda’s depth of despair. The happy suburban life that never actually existed in the way it was sold on TV. It was always a dream. It’s a perfect allegory in the context of the show, as well as in real life. So that’s the angle. Show the vintage setting in all its picturesque idealism and then show it dissolving and disintegrating. It’s as beautiful as you wish it was, but it’s not real. So that’s why it felt right to have a central portrait of Wanda, so that the world could fall away around her.
In your cover for Jack White’s Fear of the Dawn album, you have quite stylized shapes going on around Jack, yet he is as crisp and perfectly “Jack.” It’s a wonderful balance of shapes and also a pretty dark piece. How closely were Jack and Rob Jones working with you to ensure the likeness is correct and also all other elements tell the story he is trying to tell?
We worked closely and went back and forth; it was very collaborative. Before I created a draft Rob gave me some very good descriptors. I created a rough of Jack’s likeness based on those and then we all fined tuned it together.
You captured two wonderfully subtle Judy Garland expressions for your duet of Wizard of Oz prints. How many rounds of drafts are you doing to get the right look? Were you given approved reference images, or were you able to move freely through the film to find what suited you? Judy has a very distinct nose, and you drew it from two different angles — was one version of her easier to capture than the other?
I admire your James Iha portrait. He’s not someone that I think of as having a very distinctive face, but you perfectly captured him. It made me realize that there is a lot of “him” in this posture and hairline. Compare Iha to Glenn Close who has a very identifiable face (that nose!) and I find myself looking at your Iha portrait in awe of your ability to capture all the small subtleties of his face that make him “him.” What’s your approach when tasked with drawing someone who may not have any distinct features?
Are there any faces you’ve struggled with capturing? Is there a common element to those?
One that stands out is Winona Ryder. She has a way of opening her eyes just a little more than you might expect. This can be difficult for an illustration where you want a subtle facial expression, but that’s probably a reference problem. Otherwise, it tends to be people who look quite different depending on the angle and film. Riley Keough is someone I struggled with a little for that reason.
I was talking with another illustrator friend and he mentioned that he found a specific celebrity difficult to capture because drawing him accurately wasn’t necessarily to make him attractive, and the client wanted an accurate likeness and make him attractive. You tend to only draw naturally attractive people, but I was curious if you’re more focused on an accurate likeness or an overall great drawing. Are you thinking in terms of photo-real or heightened realism in your portraits?
I think both – I want to create an accurate likeness, but I also want the image to be an interesting composition and aesthetically pleasing. I’m not striving for photo-realism, so I guess heightened realism would be more accurate. I change things all the time and make aesthetic choices based on what I want the piece to say. But I always want the subjects to look like themselves – that’s important to me.
In some of your early work, like your Ziegfeld Girl piece, City Noir, and Daydreaming, there are more pencil marks than in your current work. Was that a conscious change or a gradual evolution to a “less is more” drawing style?
It’s a gradual change. It’s just the way my lines and style have evolved over time. Also, I have a method for my treatment of the pencil in Photoshop now and I think I hadn’t settled on my preferred pencils and paper then either.
Doing research to find the best reference material seems to be a large part of your process. What are you looking for in reference images? Lighting? Expression? High resolution?
Yes, research is an important part of my process for likenesses. Generally, I’m looking for good resolution and particular facial expressions in reference images.