Wednesday, March 25, 2015

EXTREME CARICATURE

Even the harshest caricature requires balance.  Artists with strong opinions may try extreme exaggerations, only to discover that their caricatures lose strength rather than gaining it.  Illustrator Ralph Steadman offered one reason why caricaturists can't afford to get too carried away:
Distortion ultimately loses its potency as it departs too dramatically from authentic human or bestial form
Artists with the talent to maintain control at the extremes-- who can approach the limits, but retain the hair-line judgment to know when to stop-- those are the masters who are able to devise some truly devastating images.   (I'm not talking here about mere likenesses.  The drawings I'm describing are in a different category from anything Al Hirschfeld or David Levine or Mort Drucker ever dreamed up.)

The following are examples of such caricature from artists I admire.  First is Steve Brodner's depiction of Ted Cruz:

Fairly conventional caricatures surround Brodner's vicious treatment of Cruz
Brodner's unerring eye located the reptilian elements in Cruz's DNA and brought them to the fore

Tom Fluharty's devastating treatment of Hilary Clinton won attention-- and laughs-- from both sides of the aisle.

 

Here, Fluharty-- who is really a very nice person in real life-- contorts Obama's face to the limits of recognizability.

Fluharty's expertise as a portrait painter enables him to take great liberties with the bones and muscles of the face, without losing control
In the following picture, John Cuneo literally strips bare a rogue's gallery of saggy old (mostly white) guys:

 

No limits: Dick Cheney's shriveled penis draped on the coffin of the war dead

Steadman believed that "The very dark primeval spur of all drawing [is] the deep desire to wield a supernatural power over a victim, the subject of the portrayal." 

As you try to erase these horrifying images from your mind, you can feel that power at work. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

WALT REED'S TRIUMPH




My good friend Walt Reed passed away this morning at age 97.

Illustrator Tom Lovell once said: "It was Walt Reed that single-handedly preserved illustration as art." Walt was the founding father of the study of American illustration.  Also its chief archivist and its patron saint.  There was never anyone who loved illustration more, or with greater purity.

Through his many excellent books and articles, and his founding of the Illustration House gallery, Walt built a platform for everyone who followed.  

 As illustration art-- once scorned in "legitimate" art circles-- became more accepted it attracted a different breed of dealer-- sharpsters and profiteers who lacked Walt's expertise, ethics or taste but who smelled an opportunity for profit.  They produced glossy books with inferior scholarship.  They scooped up Walt's inventory and resold it at inflated prices to unwary Hollywood celebrities. One opened a glittering palace of illustration in Rhode Island, modeled after Versailles.  Another ran an illustration empire from Miami.

Walt remained unfazed as the art market heated up around him.  Humble, plodding, steadfast and scrupulously honest, he focused on the art he loved, rather than aggressive marketing.  In 97 years, he never did learn to squeeze the maximum profit from selling originals, but he always found time to talk to students like me who didn't have two nickels to rub together.

I thought about this recently when I visited Walt in his small, sparse home.  All of the big oil paintings by Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth that Walt once sold for a pittance had long ago passed on to other hands, and on his wall remained one lone ink drawing by Edwin Austin Abbey.  It seemed unjust that aggressive marketers had monetized Walt's early vision and were now living in luxury, while Walt remained behind in a threadbare sweater.  But it turned out that Walt had one more lesson to teach me, perhaps the most important lesson of all

He insisted on showing me something in the drawing on his wall.  He scared the hell out of me as he struggled to his feet and teetered on wobbly legs.  I stood ready to catch him at any second, but he made it to the wall, took the drawing down and (with much effort) carried it to the window so we could admire the penwork together.  Once there, he pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed on my own.  He talked with such excitement and enthusiasm about the drawing, it was clear he was still thrilled by the beauty of the art.  I never heard his prosperous competitors talk with such excitement about anything except a commercial transaction.

And I realized Walt's threadbare sweater didn't matter a damn.  He had triumphed over all of them. He understood and appreciated the beauty of this slender drawing in a way that his carnivorous competition  never would.  And in doing so, he gained the best of what art has to offer.  As I think and write about this kind of art, I do my best to remember the nature of Walt's great victory and to follow that path myself.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

NELSON SHANKS



Over the last two weeks we've discussed the "unschooled" style of drawing, where artists abandon technical skill in favor of a naive, primitive look.   We debated the continuing relevance of "skill" in art, and the challenge of distinguishing admirable "loose and spontaneous" art from inferior "sloppy and lazy" art.

A number of commenters reminded us that "skill" has its own pitfalls-- art can be technically skillful yet hollow and insubstantial.

That's probably a good opening to talk about Nelson Shanks, who has been in the news lately. 


Shanks is one of the most sought after portrait painters in the world, as he will readily tell you.  (His web site describes him as a "world-renowned painter, art historian, art teacher, connoisseur and collector [with a] lifelong... devotion to fine arts." )  He is the darling of the Art Renewal Center which, in the overheated rhetoric of its Chairman, blames the success of unskilled art on a "conspiracy... to malign and degrade the reputations" of traditional artists using "pathetic lies and distortions."  

I don't think anyone would question Shanks' technical virtuosity, but I confess I find much of his work uninspiring.   


Shanks is one of the most literal painters around today.  There doesn't seem to be a square inch of ambiguity in his work.  Any mystery comes from his arrangement of odd objects and symbols, which  all seem to be painted realistically in the same fanatical detail.



Even a camera seems to do more prioritizing than Shanks.  A photograph's depth of field at least puts some elements in sharper focus than others.  But in these paintings by Shanks, every element has the same high definition sharpness, right down to the complex patterns on fabric.  Shanks is undiscriminating; the elements which might play a supporting role receive the same explicit treatment as elements which should be given priority.  And don't look for economy in these paintings.  Don't look for suggestion or openness or playfulness or vitality either.   


Personally, I find more art (and more humanity) in the work of other traditional realists such as Burt SilvermanJeremy Lipking or Adrian Gottlieb.
 
Shanks fans tout the symbolism in his paintings.  For example, in this portrait of Princess Diana, the composition is supposed to symbolize her isolation and loneliness. 

 
To me, this level of symbolism places Shanks in the same category as romance cover painter Elaine Duillo, who shares Shanks' technical skill but got paid a lot less due to class and gender biases.

Last week Shanks created a stir by revealing to the press that in his 2006 portrait of President Clinton for the National Portrait Gallery he hid the shadow of the Monica Lewinsky scandal:


Shanks said, "It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there. It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him." Shanks called Clinton "the most famous liar of all time."

If Shanks had turned down a prestigious presidential assignment because Shanks disapproved of the President, he would've been a profile in courage.  Or if Shanks had warned the National Portrait Gallery that he was not painting the statesman-like image they wanted, he would have been an artist of principle.  Even if he had kept his hidden symbols secret, he would've just been a rascal like other artists before him.  But he did none of these things. 

When Shanks auditioned for the job, he lied: "I need to be fairly straightforward. I'll just try to paint the man, his intelligence, his amiability and his stature, maybe paint him fairly close to humor and try to get it just right."  He won the commission by traveling to Washington and presenting his portfolio of respectful portraits to Clinton.  After winning the first phase, he was required to present a preliminary sketch for approval.  (His sketch obviously did not include the now infamous shadow).  He did not reveal what he was up to until the painting had been unveiled to the public and was hanging prominently in the National Portrait Gallery. Then, Shanks went to the press to brag about how he had duped his client.  Later, he had the temerity to complain that his painting was not getting enough exhibition time, probably  due to pressure from the Clintons.
 
As far as I'm concerned, the example of Nelson Shanks offers us not one but two lessons about technical skill: 
  1.  Dazzling skill is no guarantee of artistic quality
  2. Dazzling skill is no guarantee that an artist is not a jackass
  3.  
     



Saturday, February 28, 2015

REMOVING THE APPEARANCE OF LABOR


Following up on last week, here are some loose drawings I enjoy:

George Booth: "This meeting was called in order to discuss the meat. It has been pointed out that there is no more meat.  A motion has been made to fight over the bones."

R.O. Blechman

Lichty

Robert Weber

Observe how each drawing appears light and spontaneous... but look closer and you'll see that each artist  carefully fine tuned their drawing to achieve that "spontaneous" look:

Booth re-drew the faces on two of the cave men

Blechman shaved 1/16 of an inch off the nose to make it funnier


Lichty made those slapdash brush strokes funnier by going back and tapering them with white paint


Weber's simplified yet insightful line (look at the great profile on the woman!) came at a price.  He came back with white paint to simplify and clarify his picture. 

I'm not pointing out these refinements to reveal a magician's tricks or to find fault with these excellent artists.  Rather, I'm trying to demonstrate that many of the best "spontaneous" drawings you see are carefully drawn to an artist's exacting standard. Variations as small as 1/16 of an inch were considered important.

I fear that some young artists see the free looking result and develop unrealistic expectations.  They believe casual drawing can be taken casually.  Their eyes no longer see the difference.  

The great political cartoonist David Low once said, "making a cartoon occupied usually about three days: two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."





Saturday, February 21, 2015

WHEN DRAFTSMANSHIP IS IMPORTANT


When is good draftsmanship important to an illustration?

That question occurred to me when I saw the current cover of The New Yorker magazine:



The subject of the cover was challenging to draw: a packed theater audience captured from an angle that also shows the events taking place on stage.  In the past, such an assignment might've demanded the full tool kit of draftsmanship-- perspective, anatomy, foreshortening, etc.

Observe how those skills enhanced the same subject in the past:

Walter Appleton Clark showed the stage over the shoulders of an audience: a marvelous piece of draftsmanship.  And while the treatment may at first seem like antiquated realism, notice how Clark made an abstract design from the backs of heads and the arrangements of the bodies.

Gluyas Williams simplified the complexities of our subject with clear lines and geometric shapes, but always on a rock solid foundation
An engineering feat: capturing the faces of the audience and the act on stage at the same time.


Caldecott award winning illustrator Paul Zelinsky put a magic spin on the subject.  Note how he simplified the audience into small circles and ghostly profiles to avoid getting trapped in unimportant detail.  He achieved depth with those marvelous silhouettes, and managed to get both the stage and the audience into the picture by bending the time space continuum.  These are the judgments of a mature artistic talent

Mort Drucker was famous for his crowd scenes which he could rotate to any angle with uncanny agility.

Drucker always managed to have great fun with individual faces in the audience while still maintaining control over the larger sweep of the picture
Franklin McMahon (above and below) drew stylized pictures on site at political conventions

For me,  it's a pleasure to watch such great skill in action.  I think these illustrations were successful in part because the artists had the drawing ability to solve sophisticated problems of structure and organization and emphasis and coherence. 

Of course, some pictures don't require technical drawing skills.  For example James Thurber, William Steig and other illustrators made excellent pictures with flat, naive looking figures drawn simply on blank backgrounds.

Steig

Thurber

The trick, then, is to figure out when draftsmanship is important for the picture and when it isn't. Ultimately draftsmanship is only a means to an end.  It's a tool for delivering a concept more persuasively, or elegantly, or effectively, or economically, or powerfully, as the individual artist sees fit.

In the theater pictures above, good draftsmanship enabled artists to undertake a wider range of solutions. But you'd never find Thurber attempting such a complex composition.  He just didn't have the skill, and he knew it.   Illustrator Seymour Chwast said that he avoids attempting pictures “that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability I do not have.”  Illustrator Elwood Smith said that his inability to draw the scenes he imagines forces him to find other alternatives: “if I can’t draw it, I struggle to come up with a different idea that’s invariably more original." 

Returning to The New Yorker cover that launched us on this quest,  drawing skills were put aside in favor of a naive, unschooled look:






 
This unschooled style has become increasingly fashionable.  It is found on the cover of The New Yorker but also in graphic novels and mainstream magazines.  It is applied more indiscriminately, even to concepts that are not particularly elevated by such an approach.  Why?
  
One reason seems to be a general disillusionment with draftsmanship.  Audiences have noticed that some artists with impeccable technical skills never get around to addressing concepts of significance.  Also, some artists achieve the appearance of technical proficiency through suspicious mechanical means.  This could help explain why so many artists now seek authenticity in spontaneity.

On the other hand, another reason for the popularity of this look-- especially when applied to less suitable concepts-- may be that today's audiences have become more ignorant and less patient, and art directors have become better at catering to those traits.

If the desensitized readers of graphic novels or popular magazines can no longer recognize the difference, it doesn't behoove a publisher to work hard to stay on the right side of that divide.  But an artist who hopes his or her work will outlive our current fashions will need to make independent choices about what an artistic concept requires, and when draftsmanship is important, and when it isn't.
  






Saturday, February 14, 2015

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!










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Saturday, February 07, 2015

CHANGING A GAS INTO A SOLID: A LESSON IN THE PHYSICS OF ART

Smoke has no shape.  Scientists describe it as "matter in a gaseous state" because its atoms move freely and dissipate into the shape of whatever container it happens to occupy.  

So why is art nouveau smoke shaped differently than art deco smoke?

Art nouveau smoke (by Rene Bull)

Art deco smoke (by Leslie Ragan)

And while we're at it, why is Japanese smoke shaped differently than Italian smoke?


Japanese smoke (by Uttagawa Sadahide)

Italian smoke (15th century)
Clearly there are mysteries about smoke that science has yet to explain.

Of course, it's not all the fault of science.  Some artists must've slept through physics class because they don't remember the difference between a gas and a solid:


 Mud slide smoke (by Frazetta)

Even worse, some mistake a gas for a liquid:


Daniel Schwartz

This is all very confusing.  Smoke is supposed to have no shape, yet here we see all these strong opinions about the shape of smoke, and none of them match.

And if that weren't bad enough, along comes that smart alec Richard Thompson and picks "all of the above" for the shape of smoke:

Explosion in a shape factory (by Richard Thompson)


There are artists who love to paint billowing smoke with rich, blended colors:


Attila Hejja

Ashley Wood
 And there are artists who illuminate smoke from behind with a golden glow, and make you think "this is truly the way to paint smoke." 

N.C. Wyeth

 Yet there are other artists who can make equally astute observations about smoke merely by scrubbing a dry brush with one color:

Noel Sickles
At this point, I'm so baffled I can't even remember what I started out to say about smoke.  My idea is gone in a puff of I don't know what.

So let's just end this way:  when artists set out to affix a shape to something that has no fixed shape, they are really transforming a gas into a solid.  This task gives artists a broader license than they'd have when transforming one solid into another (for example, capturing a face on canvas).  It can provide a Rorschach test for artists who choose to take it.  

As you can see from the pictures above, artists who make full use of their broader license, rather than relying on conventional symbols for smoke, can achieve some pretty interesting results.