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ILLUSTRATION ART





Updated: 2018-01-18T18:25:04.063-05:00

 



SOME THINGS I LIKE ABOUT H. J. MOWAT

2018-01-04T14:39:52.958-05:00

At the end of last year I offered one lovely drawing by an illustrator you've never heard of, H. J. Mowat.   Mowat has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the loose, scribbly fashion of the day.  But I think he was really good.To give him a fair chance, I promised some commenters I'd show a broader range of his work.  Mowat's pictures may seem a little fuzzy compared to today's sharper, hard edge fashions.  But plenty of mediocre illustrators can make sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts.  It's harder to create successful fuzzy pictures of sharp concepts.  Take for example the drawing, "She used to come into the Petrovski barracks and empty her pistols into the poor devils who wouldn't bend."I think this is a well staged picture, with selective use of lights and contrasts to direct your eye.  The figures are well posed and integrated to show how the professional soldiers are queasy about the bloodthirsty woman.  But most importantly, Mowat has made some highly unusual but smart choices: the "poor devil" has no face yet Mowat chose to emphasize his cowlick (which conveys his rumpled condition).  Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears.Just as Mowat drew rumpled hair, the man's clothing is one big wrinkle.  He has a defiant tilt to his head combine with a posture of resignation waiting for the bullet.  Mowat did not focus on the facial expression, which would preoccupy a more obvious illustrator.  For me, this is excellent, subtle drawing.Note how, in 1927, ordinary Saturday Evening Post readers were presumed to be cultured enough to know the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." Mowat used a bag of tricks to compensate for the cheap paper and primitive black and white printing of his era.  His medium would not permit him to display a blushing cheek or a steely glint in the eye, but he seemed to make maximum use of a tilt of the head.  Many of the illustrators of the 1920s are best forgotten, but I think H. J. Mowat is one worth remembering.[...]



THE END OF 2017

2017-12-29T18:54:09.132-05:00

When I was a boy, there was something about Playboy's comic strip, Little Annie Fanny, that mesmerized me.I first discovered the strip in old issues of Playboy that I'd smuggled into my room.  Before I'd heard the names Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis or Frank Frazetta, I studied the pictures so intently, they're still burned into my consciousness today.     Revisiting the strip, I see that its message remains relevant.  Fifty years ago, the brilliant Harvey Kurtzman wrote an episode with an island where the population became bored by conventional politicians so they elected a vulgar brute to shake things up. Kurtzman offers us his view of "populism" at work:We've elected an ape, indeed.The character Annie was simple minded, yet Kurtzman always managed to put words of wisdom in her mouth:"When people are so mean and selfish, they deserve to be led by an ape."Wishing you all a 2018 that is a little less mean and a little less selfish.[...]



ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 55

2017-12-26T22:50:30.234-05:00

You've never heard of the illustrator H. J. Mowat (1879-1949).   He was lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the style of the famous Henry Raleigh.Thousands of popular magazines of the era featured loose pencil illustrations shaded with charcoal or blocks of wash.  It was an appealing style because it was fast and helped conceal a multitude of artistic weaknesses.But if you flip through those illustrations, it's easy to spot the few artists with genuine talent. It shows in the selected moments of tight focus or restraint, in the staging, in the imaginative solutions.  Mowat wasn't one of the illustrators hiding behind this soft style, he used it from a position of strength.Consider the two ursine figures on the left.  Mowat doesn't neglect their faces out of laziness or uncertainty; those blurred faces are part of a carefully orchestrated effect with bulky bodies, small heads, stooped posture and thick limbs.  These are lumpenproletariat, and sharply defined facial features would only distract from the effect Mowat wants.Next, in the figure leaning over the bed, all Mowat needs is one strong, carefully placed jaw line and a few rounded strokes on that arm to define the figure: Mowat has proven he knows anatomy; that leaves him free to go wild with the rest of the figure.Or consider the focal point of the picture, the figure dying on the bed.  All you see is a tiny head-- a minuscule part of the picture's real estate, but it occupies a choice location right in the center; the shadow of the window on the wall serves as a spotlight directing our gaze; and the shadow on the right side creates one of the highest contrast spots in the picture.Who needs details such as eyelashes or lips when you can achieve your result with such a broad range of other tools?Among the glut of mediocre pencil illustrations in the first decades of the 20th century, some genuinely lovely drawings stand out.[...]



IT'S WAY PAST TIME TO TALK ABOUT SAUL TEPPER

2017-12-22T05:29:25.335-05:00

When I started this blog, my plan was to publicize my favorite works by great illustrators of the past.  I had a long list, starting with illustrators such as Leyendecker, Rockwell and Cornwell-- and figured I would soon get to the talented Saul Tepper.Then 12 years went by.I fear that many people share my mistake of treating Tepper as an afterthought: he's an important artist that we'll get to eventually.   One reason may be that people rarely see high rez images of his rich, dramatic paintings.Whatever the reason, he deserves better. Tepper (1899-1987) was one of the last great "painterly" illustrators who worked in oils on canvas to achieve a thick, buttery effect.  The following lovely example is from the Kelly Collection of American Illustration:The variegated textures and rich colors of Tepper's originals rarely showed up in the final published versions:By the latter part of Tepper's career, illustration had moved on to smaller, faster, water based paintings on cardboard that were better suited to the demands and timetable of modern publishers.  By the 1950s he was working for second tier magazines such as Argosy and True.  He found work as a photographer, teacher and musical composer.But before he migrated away from illustration, Tepper spent a solid 30 years painting in the classical style, creating remarkable paintings that are worthy of our attention.[...]



TOMER HANUKA'S PRELIMINARY SKETCHES

2017-12-03T04:24:38.380-05:00

This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major new retrospective of the work of David Hockney,  described as "one of the most notable painters of the 20th century."  The BBC tells us that Hockney's "greatest subject [was] private swimming pools," where he captures "something as impossible to fix as light on water."Personally, I think illustrator Tomer Hanuka did a better job of capturing light on a swimming pool in this preliminary sketch for a movie poster:Note how Hanuka's loose, quicksilver line suggests the essence of his subject:Until the Metropolitan Museum of Art announces its major retrospective of Hanuka's work, I'll use this space to share a few things.At the recent CTN animation expo in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting Hanuka and hearing his excellent talk about his series of posters for classic movies.  For example, he re-invented the poster for Hitchcock's Psycho......with this powerful composition:As stark as this composition is, it contains numerous subtle touches that contribute to its potency.  For example, Hanuka's keen eye picked up on the dripping tile wall, still wet from the interrupted shower.Other smart touches include the keyhole perspective, the shower curtain tangled around the woman's ankles, and the confined space, all of which give the poster a chilling intimacy.  Compare its eroticism to the original poster, where a plain photo of Janet Leigh in a bra once passed for titillation.  What a difference good design can make!Here is the final version:Hanuka reinvented the poster for Dr. Strangelove, from this:... to this:Here is an interim version...and here's the final:In many of these pictures, I prefer Hanuka's preliminary sketches to the final versions.  They show off the muscle power and the sparkle of the original ideas, before he tightens them up and begins to layer them with complex shapes, details and afterthoughts.  The great illustrator Robert Fawcett wrote, "A design started tentatively rarely gains in vigor later.  In anticipation of the dilution which I knew would later take place, the first draft was put down with an almost savage intensity...."Hanuka's preliminary sketches are so strong, they help glue together final images that could easily fragment.PreliminaryFinalPreliminaryFinalIt was a treat to see these earlier drafts at the CTN expo and hear Hanuka discuss his approach.[...]



TIME AND CHANCE HAPPENETH TO THEM ALL, part 2

2017-11-27T13:30:23.823-05:00

Walter Appleton Clark was one of the most promising young talents in the illustration field in 1900.  He painted this beautiful and subtle watercolor at the age of 23.   Note how he mastered the values in what might have been a muddy scene.  The light source creates a sharp contrast against that profile, and the structure of the whole picture flows from there.Clark is judicious with his use of those orange highlights.Clark reduces the contrast for the husband playing the fiddle in the shadows-- the husband is literally designed to be a second fiddle in this picture.  Yet he is painted with just as much structural integrity as if he were in the spotlight.And I love Clark's soft, feathery treatment of his subject.This painting won the Silver Medal at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900.Clark never shrank from a challenge.  He would do it the hard way if it meant a more effective picture...At the same time, he would take the simplest subjects (such as an old doorway or two people sitting across the table from each other) and find challenging angles or treatments that would make them complex and interesting:A beautifully designed drawing of a doorClark was prolific and hard working.  His career gained momentum just as the illustration market gained momentum:  printing quality was improving, full color was becoming reliable, and the market for quality illustration was exploding.  Conditions were ripe for Clark to make the most of his potential.Then, as quickly as his career began, it was over.   Shortly after he turned 30, Clark caught typhoid fever and died.  He had spent his short time well, and left behind a small but beautiful legacy of work.But who knows what he might have accomplished with another forty years to paint?None of us has a guarantee that we will live long enough to realize our artistic ambitions. We should remember the lesson of Walter Appleton Clark  as we evaluate each day's work.  [...]



LECTURE ON THE ART OF BERNIE FUCHS

2017-12-10T10:49:34.647-05:00



For those of you who will be in the Los Angeles area this Sunday, the nice folks at the CTN Animation Expo have kindly invited me to  talk about my latest book, The Life and Art of Bernie Fuchs.  I'm looking forward to it. If you're there, please come up and say hello.

The full schedule for the expo can be found here.  Other speakers at the event (many of whom I've featured on this blog before) will include the artists Peter de Seve, Greg Manchess, Carter Goodrich, Nathan Fowkes, Pete Docter, Nick Galifianakis and Dice Tsutsumi.



INSPIRING WORDS FROM CF PAYNE

2017-11-06T22:35:17.575-05:00

CF Payne has long been renowned for his beautifully crafted pictures.A generation of adoring art students studied his technique.  But more important than technique,  a new documentary about Payne's life gives us insight into the attitude responsible for motivating such work.  The film is available on vimeo on demand and is well worth seeing.  In the film, Payne is quite candid about his early "tough times," describing how he had to scrounge for quarters because he didn't have enough money in his bank account to buy his son a happy meal at McDonald's. Yet, Payne persevered because of his love of art.  (He claims he originally wanted to become a professional ball player but watching this film, it's clear Payne was a born artist). Payne drew all the time, and continues to draw obsessively today.He urges in the film, "Every day get better. Get better. You never get good enough." He talks about how he adapted his style so he could continue drawing on long bumpy bus rides, using quick, jotting lines instead of long, smooth strokes. This is not an "art technique" film in the usual sense of the word, unless you consider footage of Payne mowing the lawn of his studio with a push mower a lesson in art technique  (which, if you think about it, it is).The documentary helps to reveal what distinguishes Payne from a thousand other technically skillful artists.  He was never content with a mere likeness: "By the time I got to college my drawings were pretty good... but they didn't come from any place of meaning or understanding, they were just drawings by a mind that was pretty blank." I found Payne's dedication to continued growth uplifting. I also found it interesting that someone who is known for his paintings rather than his drawings had the proper perspective on drawing: That's the thing that stands out in who you are as an artist: the way you draw.  The purity of who you are as an artist comes through most in your drawings. [...]



COUNTING HAIRS

2017-10-22T20:29:22.276-04:00

The Renaissance brought fresh excitement about the physical world.  Art awoke from its long medieval fixation on the afterlife, and began to study the details of nature with an almost fanatical obsession. Durer (detail)Centuries later there are still artists who find meaning painting individual hairs with a fine brush.Julie BellThe Bible says "the very hairs of your head are numbered" but that doesn't mean artists must count each one. It's interesting to see how differently artists have summarized and abstracted fur, taking a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach.  Here are some artists I admire:J.C. Leyendecker: J.C. LeyendeckerRather than paint individual hairs, Leyendecker uses his trademark diagonal slashing brush strokes. Mort Drucker: Rather than draw individual hairs, Drucker uses his trademark bouncing line: George McManus: Rather than trace individual hairs,  MacManus stylized different furs with his art deco designs:Ronald Searle:Searle uses a field of watercolor as a substitute for painting individual fine hairs, which allows him to  give greater emphasis to a few scraggly hairs with an ink pen.Leonard Starr:Mindful of the smaller size and lesser reproduction quality of newspaper comic strips, Leonard Starr creates a darker fur, feathering the hairs with drybrush Andre Francois:There was a time during the Renaissance when following individual hairs from follicle to tip could be an exciting part of understanding the natural world.  No one had done what Durer did.  However, today I find the artistic interpretations of fur far more interesting and rewarding.  [...]



PIONEERS OF GERMAN GRAPHIC DESIGN

2017-10-17T09:56:05.352-04:00

"The early twentieth century was the most significant period of all in the development of modern design....  The design profession was born, and with it came the beginnings of corporate and graphic design as we know it today."                                          -- Jens Müller,  Pioneers of German Graphic Design                                                                          The first few decades in 20th century Germany were tumultuous years, a veritable Cambrian explosion of innovation which shaped the world of visual communication that we now take for granted.For example, they introduced the "object poster" which filled public spaces with large colorful images for the first time. They were fun and eye-catching, persuasive and entertaining.  Most of all, they were visually easy for strolling crowds to read.  The poor man's art museum, they transformed public boulevards into art galleries and revolutionized the worlds of advertising and design that followed. Then there was the new use of design to embody corporate identity, including the invention of the modern corporate logo. Modern typography was invented and the rapidly developing science of photography was applied in new ways, such as photomontages.I've previously written on this blog about German designer Peter Behrens, the visionary who met the industrial revolution with comprehensive designs for the new man made environments. But I never appreciated the cumulative role that Behrens and his contemporaries in Germany played in transforming modern visual communication until I read the admirable new book by Jens Müller, Pioneers of German Graphic Design. (Callisto Publishers, 2017).The 1,000+ high quality illustrations in this encyclopedic book speak for themselves, and make a highly persuasive argument.This 1925 car ad could easily appear in a magazine today, nearly 100 years later.But beyond the images, Müller's text is a well-written, thoughtful analysis of the ingredients that gave rise to an era of such artistic ferment.  He writes: "To trace the history of modern visual communications and explore why such major innovations came from Germany requires a detailed understanding of the social and economic circumstances of the Epoque and order to identify the developments generated demand for modern commercial design in the first place."Müller's exploration centers on fourteen pioneers of design, most of whom were previously unknown to me but all of whom I found deserving of attention.  I was particularly impressed by the work of Julius Klinger and Wilhelm Deffke.He tracks how the industrial age changed production, transportation and distribution of goods, which contributed to vast social and economic change (and sharp divisions between social groups).  The new accessibility of printing helped to evade the constraints of previous far reaching government censorship of printed materials. These and other elements fused to transform advertising form and content, and amplify the role of graphic design.  Müller's expertise in discussing these issues is truly impressive.Many of the readers of this blog are already familiar with the brilliant German graphic art publications of the era, Jugend and Simplicissimus, which were so influential on American illustrators.  Pioneers of German Graphic Design shows that those two publications were just the tip of the iceberg, and how German innovations in design later transformed the field. [...]



FOUR THINGS THAT RALPH BARTON KNEW

2017-10-15T10:02:38.215-04:00

Ralph Barton was one of the most prominent illustrators of the 1920s.  Most of his illustrations were done with a simple line, yet if you paid attention it soon became clear that Barton knew a few things.  Here are four of them: 1.  Sometimes the best way to exaggerate legs is to contrast them with a normal arm: Those high-stepping legs seem even crazier because Barton gave us a baseline for normalcy.  By showing us he understands the bones and muscles of that arm; he emphasizes that he has detached the bones and added more joints to those legs.  That wonderful flowing tunic is like a magician's cape, concealing how he has sawed a lady in half.2.  Sometimes the best way to draw a big subject is to obscure it in a small corner.There were plenty of dramatic ways to draw the 1927 death of Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer whose trademark-- an enormous, flamboyant scarf-- became wrapped around the axle of her brand new convertible.  Duncan was pulled from her car and choked to death as she was dragged along a cobblestone road in France.  An artist could hardly ask for a more visual spectacle.  Yet, this is the wonderful, controlled way that Barton depicted it:        I love Gertrude Stein's stoic reaction when she read the news of Duncan's death:  “Affectations can be dangerous." 3.  A mediocre subject can still be redeemed by a strong image.The joke on this cover of Puck is not particularly funny or creative:but man oh man, it is redeemed by Barton's strong graphic treatment.  He didn't get discouraged by his text, he redeemed it.Today the practice is largely the opposite.  The dominant assumption is that crappy drawing will be redeemed by profound or moving content.4.  Don't accept standard templates if you have a better idea.Barton decided that the regular logo for Puck would not go very well with his cover drawing.  Rather than compromise his drawing or accept , Barton took the initiative to letter a whole new title and offer it to his client: It appears from Barton's note that Puck neither requested nor paid for this extra effort.  It was something Barton volunteered because he cared about the least details surrounding his art and was not afraid to work.[...]



HEINRICH KLEY FEEDS POMEGRANATE SEEDS TO THE MUSE

2017-09-26T09:12:35.777-04:00

If a man wishes to be worthy of the best that a woman has to offer, he must have the patience to feed her a pomegranate, one seed at a time. -- Ancient Persian ProverbBefore the muse gifted Heinrich Kley with this idea about racing snails...... he explored snails with lovely little studies such as these:By working at a snail's pace, Kley learned how to make them race at breakneck speed.[...]



STAYING EASY IN YOUR HARNESS

2017-09-16T00:54:42.236-04:00

The poet Robert Frost understood that freedom is not the absence of constraints.  "You have freedom," he said, "when you're easy in your harness."The illustrator Mort Kunstler used to work for men's adventure magazines such as Stag or For Men Only.Illustration for the Men magazine article, "Get to Comrade Zoltan with Girls." (1959). The article says that when all other interrogation tactics failed, "There was no choice but to summon the 'passion troops.'"Cheap and lurid, these magazines were printed on a low budget. They couldn't afford full color reproduction on every page.  In the double page illustration above, Kunstler was told he could use full color on the right side, but only two colors (red and black) on the left side.Didn't notice Kunstler's sleight of hand, did you?  OK, look again to see how he finessed it: The Russian soldiers were painted in two colors... ...and so was "comrade Zoltan..."... but Kunstler subtly camouflaged the transition to full color with this red headed temptress:The real trick was how Kunstler used the artificial light in the room to disguise his color limitation. Kunstler was faced with unreasonable constraints, but he knew enough about color and staging so that the restrictions didn't chafe or pinch his painting.  He planned around them. He was easy in his harness. And Kunstler wasn't the only one. In earlier days, technical and economic limitations on the printing process created all kinds of obstacles for artists but if they were good enough and imaginative enough, the viewer never knew.Look at how the illustrator Henry Raleigh dealt with the same problem that Kunstler handled: Raleigh staged the drawing to take advantage of the blue ink on the right side to convey a dour, obsequious man......and used the warm color on the left to create this radiant creature:Today artists are blessed with unlimited rainbows of color, in cmyk or rgb variations.  The computer monitor permits us to use full color on both the left and the right side at no extra charge.  Nor does the internet constrain the number of copies created.  One might argue that with all these technical advantages artists have finally achieved true freedom.  But that's not genuine freedom, genuine freedom is being easy in your harness. [...]



ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 54

2017-09-10T11:11:55.788-04:00

You probably don't know the work of illustrator Charles Sarka but you probably should. Sarka (1879-1960) started out as an apprentice to an engraver and became a staff artist for newspapers (first for the Chicago Record and then for the New York Herald). He did some lovely pen and ink work for Collier's, Cosmopolitan and Harpers in the era of pen and ink greats: Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, Orson Lowell and James Montgomery Flagg.  In my view, his excellent pen and ink work belongs in that esteemed company.However, unlike his peers Sarka had wanderlust. Rather than sit by his drawing board he traveled extensively to South Pacific Islands, Africa and other remote locations where he recorded his travels in watercolors. His paintings of the hill tribes of Morocco, of the natives of Tahiti and the markets of Egypt took him far from the normal career path of a typical American illustrator, so his name is not as well known. Still, I think his early ink work is excellent. Note in this detail how Sarka not only understands hands, but toys with different comic possibilities for presenting them.  He uses a strong, vigorous line to add some excitement to that solid coat and the folds in those pants, but he also appreciates the value of using a variety of effects, such as the spatters on that tire: In the following detail, his lines shaping those trees are quite muscular, but Sarka knows when to back off, contrasting them with a single lacy line to convey that cigarette smoke; he even adds a few little tweety birds flying through it:Note how Sarka gives the trees density, weight and movement by giving them heavy shadows and curling them over, (as contrasted with that cigarette smoke which wafts upward on an errant breeze-- one set of lines has to fight gravity and the other one doesn't).   And speaking of lacy, Sarka applies the same lesson to these two charming ladies. They are clearly earthbound creatures, as we can tell from the volume and density in their dresses and coiffure, but that scarf wafts upward, contrary to gravity, with a different line just like the cigarette smoke.Two li'l dollinks somewhere between heaven and earthI like that Sarka put so much personality and energy in his line.  I like that he understood perspective and anatomy but used them only as starting points. I like the sense of humor in his drawing. If he'd stayed home and created a substantial body of work in pen and ink, I feel certain he'd be in the pantheon today. [...]



ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

2017-08-28T14:44:31.472-04:00

This is the cover of yesterday's New York Times magazine:The NYT explained its goal for the cover:  "Like all great athletes, Roger Federer makes the impossible look easy.  So we decided to go with an action shot that captures his grace and dynamism."My dictionary doesn't recognize these uses of the terms, "action" and "dynamism." To me the freeze frame photo of Federer hovering in air looks inert and static.  There is no suggestion of speed, and in fact the strangely meandering word "wonder" (in random type faces in miscellaneous sizes) dominates the figure and neutralizes any semblance of movement or direction or thrust.  The visual emphasis placed on an outstretched hand releasing a ball seems to be the antithesis of "dynamism."A few years ago on this blog I wrote about how sports illustration in the 1950s tended to rely on frozen, stop-motion images that looked hopelessly stolid.Then in the 1960s, imaginative illustrators developed fresh ways to capture speed.  They learned from action painting and abstract expressionism in the fine art world; they learned from movies, by blurring or repeating images rather than carefully capturing a single Muybridge snapshot; they learned from impressionism and expressionism (going back to J.M.W. Turner's revolutionary masterpiece, Rain, Steam and Speed);  they learned from Einstein's special theory of relativity that spacetime bends as velocity increases toward the speed of light. The following examples are from Bernie Fuchs' brilliant illustrations for Sports Illustrated in 1961.Note the figure in the foreground starting to stretch to the right with Einstein's spacetime.He used slashing lines and rapid brush strokes to create sensations of speed. DetailHe captured figures in truly dynamic poses with traction and thrust, not merely floating in air.  He selectively used sharp focus or blur to convey motion and emphasis.  These are among the tools of a sophisticated artist.If the goal of yesterday's NYT Magazine cover was "action" and "dynamism," I think by comparison these 1960s examples make the cover look sick.  How much we have forgotten!The concept of "progress" applies in science but not so much in art.  In science, each new generation can build on the objective discoveries of the generation before.  But in art, prehistoric cave paintings may be just as beautiful and sensitive as a picture made yesterday. It's not unusual for art to take one step forward and two steps back.  But if we are aware of our history and work in good conscience, it's at least possible to take two steps forward and only one step back.[...]



NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 4

2017-08-21T09:28:34.485-04:00

In the last few posts we discussed combat art from World War I.  In the comments, a lot seemed to depend on the fact that these artists, whether illustrators or "fine" artists, were first-hand witnesses to the trauma of war.  The personal ordeals of these artists seemed to give their work an authenticity.  In some cases, it pushed the artist to abandon traditional artistic techniques and flail around for new methods of communication. How does this art compare with work by artists who did not participate in the war?  How were the results different for artists who merely imagined the war from a great distance?In my view, the best contemporary artist to be inspired by World War I is George Pratt.  Here is some of his work, which I find quite striking:Pratt uses a powerful composition to strengthen an already powerful subject.Some of Pratt's subjects are similar to the subjects chosen by Dix, but Pratt kept his wits about him. His first graphic novel about World War I was the highly regarded Enemy Ace: War Idyll.Pratt worked a safe distance from the terror, in both time and space.   Yet his imagination and talent enabled him to close some of that distance and give his pictures strength, insight and veracity.[...]



NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 3

2017-08-13T05:46:04.961-04:00

For me, the work of Harry Townsend was among the most impressive art in the Smithsonian's exhibition of World War I art.  Townsend wrote in his war diary, "Only those near to it all can know what endurance and suffering that was."  He was thankful to be there in the battles of the Marne, and of St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne,  for the "impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record." Here is Townsend's powerful charcoal drawing, "The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918."It shows two red cross wagons racing to the front in response to an emergency call.  Townsend chose not to detail the mangled bodies they would encounter there, although he certainly saw plenty of bloodshed and wrote about it in his diary.  His approach is more symbolic.  His dread is more abstract.  Whatever his reasons for restraint, I find this to be a formidable drawing, both in form and content.A number of commenters to my previous post praised the work of fine artist Otto Dix, who graphically showed the mangled bodies and distorted them:It has been suggested that fine artists such as Dix responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.  He abandoned conventional western realism and clawed out drawings that seem like a howl of despair.  I find Dix's drawing powerful too, but a large part of that is due to shock value. In one of Townsend's paintings, he captured the vertiginous experience of air combat-- something new in the history of war:In his diary, Townsend described his first experience with flight:Higher and higher we went.  What a cubist painting below, and cubist paintings would appeal, if only they could catch some of the beauty of color and design of all those lovely patches on the canvas beneath us.... It was beautiful beyond wild dreams.  Here and there one caught the earth way down there between the clouds, struck now by the sunlight and thrown into a wondrous high key of light, citrons and greens and lavender.  And here and there thrown into shadow by the clouds, one saw it in rich, low tones like music, close and melodious, purples and low greens and earth that were like bass to the high tenor of the sun.As soon as he landed, he promptly vomited into the gunner's cockpit where he was sitting.No matter what horrors he had witnessed, Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature. And he gave (in my opinion better than Dix) "a convincing pictorial record" that conveyed both the "spiritual and the material" ramifications of air warfare.  In his drawing of air warfare, Dix again focuses on the mangled bodies left behind...Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle.  For example, compare this war picture by Dix......with this Jimbo comic book illustration by Gary Panter:I guarantee you, Panter had no first hand experience with, or special insights into, war.  Yet, he finds it easy to simulate the horror that Dix experienced first hand.  In my opinion neither of them could do what Townsend did.The argument seems to be that illustrators, harnessed to a commercial function or purpose (or as Kev Ferrara put it, "faith") are not as sensitive to the true horror of War.  But here we see a hand drawn and lettered poster by Townsend, who was sufficiently sensitive to the horror of starvation to try use art to do something about it:I suppose a nihilist would argue that such "purposeful" [...]



NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 2

2017-08-09T03:25:34.228-04:00

Did fine artists and illustrators react differently to World War I?Many historians believe that World War I changed the path of fine art.  In the years leading up to the war, art had already begun to explore modernism and the industrial age.  But no one was prepared for the way scientific progress changed the nature of war: the invention of the tank, air warfare, the development of poison gas, and mass killings that didn't discriminate between combatant and civilian-- these were just the tip of the iceberg.  More ominously, modern mass communications, mass transportation and other fruits of scientific progress which once appeared to hold such promise turned out to escalate and accelerate the worst of humanity.  They revealed a yawning existential void beneath a thin veneer of civilization. As a result of the World War,  nihilism seemed to spread throughout the fine art world.  For example, Dada represented a negation of everything that reason had once taught us.Surrealism (a term invented by soldier Guillaume Apollinaire) represented another assault on common sense and social order.Similarly, futurism urged in violent language the overthrow of the old values and order.  And the "New Objectivism" of George Grosz and Otto Dix cast aside traditional artistic images and values to show how the great war had shattered lives beyond any rational explanation. As art critic Reed Johnson wrote:World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is.…. In visual art, surrealists and expressionists devised wobbly, chopped up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.Even as modernism severed its ties with the traditions of fine art, the illustrators of the AEF kept their faith.  These eight artists worked on the front lines and witnessed as much horror as anyone.  Their art contained as much drama and pain.  We can't assume that they were any less sensitive or talented than their fine art counterparts.  Yet, the illustrators didn't forsake their roots in rationality, or their belief that realism had something worthwhile to say.  They created powerful, beautifully designed, meaningful images in response to the same stresses that contorted fine art.HardingHardingAylwardTownsendWhy did the illustrators respond differently than the fine artists?Perhaps the illustrators didn't succumb to nihilism because, unlike fine art, their art continued to be braced by a purpose (or to put it more crassly, a mission).   Nihilism is purposelessness, but illustration-- for better or worse-- by its nature has a purpose or function. In this case it is reportorial art, the art of witness.Everyone is quick to point out that illustration's "function" imposes constraints and limitations that don't apply to fine art.  At the same time, I think a function or purpose has its advantages as well.  The reactions of the AEF illustrators to the horrors of war were moderated and tethered to coherence by the need to communicate with an audience.  These artists had to keep their wits about them.DunnHarvey Dunn, The SentryHarvey Dunn, The FlareIt's important to emphasize that the AEF illustrators did not retreat to jingoistic propaganda (the opposite side of the spectrum from fine art).  The illustrators were not blind to the harsh realities of the front.  In fact, the US military staff was disappointed that the illustrations had no propaganda value.  A report concluded, "[...]



NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 1

2017-07-31T19:13:12.589-04:00

One of the rich and remarkable stories of American illustration has remained buried in museum vaults for many decades. It's the story of the eight illustrators who were selected in 1917 to accompany American troops into battle in World War I. The illustrators were selected by Charles Dana Gibson's "Pictorial Publicity Committee," under the auspices of the wartime "Committee on Public Information." They were:Harvey DunnWilliam James AylwardWalter Jack DuncanGeorge Matthews HardingWallace MorganErnest Clifford Peixotto J. André SmithHarry Everett TownsendThere have been some articles and even a book written about these artists, but their artwork was exhibited at the Smithsonian in the 1920s, then placed in storage where it has remained hidden from public view. There are some 700 works in this extraordinary collection.Now, to commemorate the anniversary of America's intervention in World War I, the Smithsonian Institution has unearthed this art and placed 65 works on exhibition. The show is a collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. It will remain on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC until November 2018.Going through the exhibit, I was struck by both the talent and the resourcefulness of the artists.  Here for example is Harvey Dunn's metal sketchbox which he designed so he could store long rolls of paper inside, safe from the elements, and still have a flat surface on which to draw:Over the next few days, I'm going to show and comment on some of my favorite pictures from the collection and offer some thoughts about the significance of the exhibition. [...]



THE WALL OF PRESIDENTS AT THE SOCIETY OF ILLUSTRATORS, part 2

2017-12-07T20:34:17.954-05:00

In February I wrote about the wall of portraits at the Society of Illustrators in New York, where each president of the Society was drawn by a prominent illustrator of the day.   Unlike typical portraits which are designed to flatter subjects who know little about art, the portraits on the walls at the Society were pictures of working artists, done by working artists, to be displayed in front of a judgmental audience of working artists.Here is another assortment of drawings worth considering from the wall. Which are your favorites? Personally, I'm crazy about Victor Juhasz's lively, observant drawing of Dennis Dittrich:Dennis Dittrich portrayed by Victor JuhaszJuhasz drew his subject from life.  Compare the vitality of his drawing with Norman Rockwell's cautious portrait of Wesley McKeown.Wesley McKeown by Norman RockwellRockwell lent technical mastery to everything he touched, yet I think this portrait lacks the spirit of Juhasz's drawing.Bob Peak's drawing below also strives for vitality, but I find his racing stripes an artificial way of achieving it (unlike Juhasz's drawing where every "loose" line serves a purpose). Walter Hortens by Bob PeakI'm guessing that Diane Dillon's portrait by her husband and partner Leo is unadventuresome because he likes her just fine the way she is, and can't see that any experimentation or distortion is warranted.Diane Dillon by Leo DillonThe talented Greg Manchess employed charcoal for these drawings of Berenson and Schultz:Richard J. Berenson by Gregg Manchess Eileen Hedy Schultz by Greg Manchess Master of the pencil Paul Calle manages to combine sharp realism with a brisk look:Doug Cramer by Paul CalleLast, here is a drawing of Shannon Stirnweiss by Dean Ellis:Shannon Stirnweis by Dean Ellis What do you think?[...]



MORT DRUCKER WEEK!

2017-06-21T22:03:13.561-04:00

This week the great Mort Drucker is being inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. There will be a dinner and a reception at the Society in New York on June 22, 2017-- about 25 years late, as far as I'm concerned, but I'm still glad to see the 88 year old artist recognized that way.At the same time, I'm pleased to announce that the new issue of Illustrators Quarterly, a superb international journal of illustration art, features a cover story (written by yours truly) about Drucker.It features 32 pages of his marvelous drawings reproduced directly from the original art.For the article, I was able to interview Drucker in his home and learn about his life and career. Drucker's wedding picture with his wife BarbaraDrucker worked for his entire career on this same battered portable drawing board. It was a real treat for me, and I hope for readers.  This issue is a keeper.  It can be purchased from the publisher in the U.K. or from distributors in the US. [...]



ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 53

2017-06-15T16:54:58.984-04:00

Illustrator Joe Ciardello is well known for his excellent series of drawings of jazz musicians.   My favorite is this marvelous depiction of James  Oscar Smith, who worked magic on the electric organ.Ciardiello's picture is an art form somewhere between drawing and music. Vesalius would not recognize the bones in those hands, but their fluidity perfectly captures Smith's music. A higher and more insightful level of drawing than mere accuracy.Similarly, those arms are a graphic equivalent of jazz:Contrast the light touch of Ciardiello's sprightly linework with the dense black background and you have a powerful composition.  But Ciardiello doesn't end it there.  He energizes the solid black with little jolts of color.......which, combined with those glowing blue shadows...... makes the entire picture as electric as Jimmy Smith's organ.Ciardiello does a lot of literary and cultural figures but he seems to have a special affinity for musicians.  Check out his brilliant drawings of B.B. King and Rahsaan, both of them lovely (but I can't reproduce them here because this series is about one lovely drawing).[...]



MY FAVORITE LIGHTNING

2017-06-05T23:34:06.164-04:00

From the perspective of a cartoonist:If a lightning bolt's trousers came unbuckled and it slipped on a banana peel, it would look like George Herriman's marvelous, loopy version.  Plus, his black cloud and raindrops put Robert Motherwell to shame. From the perspective of a graphic designer:This brilliant design is not only visually powerful but substantively strong as well: for a column about "judgement day" it effectively conveys the crack of doom.From the perspective of a conceptual artist:Saul Steinberg tugs a loose thread on the fabric of reality, and pulls that lightning bolt straight.  From the perspective of an animator:The beautiful pastoral sequence in Walt Disney's Fantasia animates the full story of lightning, beginning when Zeus appears in the clouds  during a storm.  The preliminary drawing is above, the final screenshot is below: A concept painting shows lightning from the fingertips of Zeus.......but the final film shows Vulcan hammering out lightning on his celestial anvil for Zeus, with showers of sparks......and captures the motion of Zeus hurling his lightning bolts down on targets below.From the perspective of an earthwork artist:Spending the night in Walter DeMaria's Lightning Field , a network of gleaming lightning rods in a remote corner of the high desert of western New Mexico is a deeply moving aesthetic experience.I find each of these versions of lightning brilliant in its own way,  the casual scribble in the Sunday comics as well as the epic metal sculpture luring real lightning down from the sky.   As the great Walt Whitman said:I do not call one greater and one smaller,That which fills its period and place is equal to any.Like lightning, originality only strikes once.  Or as the slightly less great Willie Tyler said:The reason lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn't there the second time.[...]



THE OLD HOUSE ON TANGLEWOOD LANE, chapter 5

2017-06-02T00:07:59.643-04:00

One night Bernie Fuchs awoke to noises in his studio on Tanglewood Lane.  He found his friend, the great illustrator Robert Fawcett, highly inebriated.  It was not uncommon for illustrators who were working late to get together to paint and drink and talk about the art business.  Fawcett had stopped in for a chat (the door to the studio was always unlocked) and tipped over a chair.  Fuchs gave Fawcett coffee and sent him home in a cab. The following morning Fuchs discovered that Fawcett had come across Fuchs's checkbook lying out on a table and written himself a check on Bernie's account.Fawcett drunkenly signed Bernie's name to the check, then left it behind.Fuchs was so delighted he pinned the check to his bulletin board next to his easel.  It remained there for the rest of his life.  "Bob," he recalled fondly, "Was the first great illustrator I met when I moved to Westport."Some nights the royalty of American illustration-- artists such as Mark English and Bob Heindel-- would sit around that Tanglewood studio, talking and working.  Heindel recalled,  "I liked hanging out with those guys.  The better your competition was, the better your own work was going to be."  He continued,  "Any time you worked on something and you knew that Bernie was involved, you knew that you had to do the very best you could possibly do. He brought that out in people.  And if you ever competed with Bernie, you knew going into it that he was going to beat the shit out of you.  But we never let the competition get in the way.  We are truly good friends."For long years that generation of talented illustrators worked to do exciting and new things.  They got together, commented on each other's work, discussed how artists were mistreated and how to improve their profession. They transformed the direction of American illustration and changed the rights of artists for the generations that followed. Today the studio is empty, stripped bare in preparation for the bulldozers.  Nothing left but the ghosts of what took place here. The local newspaper, Westport Now, considers it nothing more than "the Teardown of the Day."But important and remarkable things happened here once.The poet Isabel Allende urged, "write it down before it is erased by the wind."  My hope in writing down the story of Fuchs and his art is to prevent it from being erased by the wind.  A final view of the window of Bernie Fuchs' studio, courtesy of the Westport blog, 06880[...]



THE OLD HOUSE ON TANGLEWOOD LANE, chapter 4

2017-06-02T00:11:41.464-04:00

As years went by, more houses were built on Tanglewood Lane.  The residents decided they merited a street sign at the entrance.   Because it was a private street, the residents would normally have to pay for their own sign. But Bernie Fuchs volunteered to paint one.He took a board, painted it white and hand lettered the words, "Tanglewood Lane."Fuchs' artwork may look free and spontaneous, but he started his training in the rigorous world of car illustration where he had to master technical drawing and lettering.Fuchs' pictures had to satisfy committees of automotive engineers who inspected every hubcap and headlight to make sure they conformed to specifications.  Long after he graduated from illustrating car brochures, the skills remained and Fuchs could summon them up whenever his neighbors needed a street sign.The only time I ever saw Fuchs look smug was when I asked who did the very impressive lettering on one of his illustrations.  He gave me a look that was downright cocky.   Fuchs was a humble man and never mentioned his many honors and awards but he was clearly proud that he had paid his dues and knew how to do his own lettering.Today, illustrators using Photoshop Text have no need for such skills.  But it mattered that Fuchs was able to experiment from a position of strength.  He knew enough about mechanical drawing, perspective, realistic painting, lettering and other skills so that he could choose what to abandon and what to retain, rather than developing a style around his inadequacies.For decades, visitors to Tanglewood Lane didn't realize they were driving past an original Bernie Fuchs painting.  Recently the new residents decided to replace their sign with a new, mechanically produced version.[...]