Saturday, March 09, 2019


Before he became an illustrator, Harold Von Schmidt was a cowboy.  

He loved the old west: "I had a chance to be with the Indians, to take part in trail drives and get to know cattle and horses."  He also had long, long days to study the immense clouds hovering over the western landscape.  

Here are two very different ways he looked at those clouds: 

The first view used traditional tools of accurate painting, such as light, color and perspective to capture a likeness.

Illustration for the Saturday Evening Post

The second view forced every element of the landscape into either black or white.  No compromises.

Illustration of a goat herder watching a distant storm in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop
You can bet when Von Schmidt was riding the range, he never saw clouds with thick black outlines. Here he has created a strange binary world by pushing the contrasts in the landscape to the far end of the spectrum.  Like the hot desert sun, he bleached out the nuances of color and shading.  He annihilated any fine lines that might be used to create the crutch of a half tone.  You'll find no wrinkles or folds shading that goat herder's cloak:

The drawing was done big and bold, with thick lines on a large illustration board nearly 28" wide.  Who draws like that anymore?

Both views of clouds capture their immense scale and majesty. The painting achieves it primarily through a likeness but the drawing achieves it more through abstraction. Welcome to the wonderful world of drawing. 

Abstract art is nothing new; the first abstract art was created when our first human ancestor drew the first line in the dirt with a stick.

Sunday, February 24, 2019


I love this drawing by the great Austin Briggs:

I love its marvelous, fresh take on the running figure, partially obscured by the design of the flapping coat.

Notice how Briggs was not enslaved by the coiled telephone wire; notice the way he added vigor to what could have been the boring color of the policeman's uniform.  Briggs seized these elements and boldly made them into what he needed for the picture:

Does it look like Briggs had trouble with the anatomy of hands?  Guess again.  Briggs spent decades painting highly realistic figures for advertisements for companies such as American Airlines, Bell Telephone and Chevrolet before he became brave enough to draw pictures like this.  

You might get further insight into the special qualities of this drawing by looking at a few other drawings from the same article about the gangster, John Dillinger.

Briggs could not draw in this simple way if he didn't already fully understand the role of the extensor muscles or the radius bone at the wrist or the structure of the human face.

Great stuff from an era when Look magazine would commission four illustrations by a talent such as  Briggs for an internal article.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


The art of illustration has conquered many forms of stigma on the bumpy road to legitimacy.

It was once faulted as "too commercial" but with the passage of time, the malodor of capitalism has largely dissipated.  Most of the products and corporations that sponsored the great illustrations no longer exist, while "fine" art has revealed itself as so ruthlessly commercial, honest illustration could scarcely keep up.

Illustration was also neglected as "economically insignificant."  But as the Wall Street Journal noted last year, Norman Rockwell "now leads the charge in American art... Rockwell's top price at auction now exceeds top prices paid for works by Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe and Andrew Wyeth." 

Critics once dismissed illustration as "too accessible."  But as the schism between fine art and the popular arts widened, fine art-- untethered from the role of communication with a demotic audience-- often became inaccessible to the point of incoherence.  Its shrinking relevance, and the questionable reasons for that relevance, have caused some to reconsider whether accessibility is the crime it was once believed to be.

In this shifting landscape, I've sometimes felt that the only barrier remaining between illustration and cultural legitimacy was the absence of a serious scholarly treatment that would pass muster in any university around the world.

In The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow fretted that he had no brain but the Wizard explained that all he lacked was scholarly credentials:
Back where I come from we have universities - seats of great learning - where men [and women] go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have.  But they have one thing you haven't got -- a diploma!  Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.... that's Dr. of Thinkology
That's why I'm pleased that three smart and accomplished (not to mention indefatigable) editors, Susan Doyle, Jaleen Grove and Whitney Sherman have applied themselves to creating the definitive text book on the history of illustration: a serious, peer-reviewed baseline for education of audiences worldwide.

The field of illustration has more than its share of pretty picture books with sparse or negligible text.  This book includes plenty of excellent pictures, from the familiar to the arcane...

...but at least 73 pounds of its ponderous weight are attributable to scholarly essays on a cross section of important issues from the history of illustration.  The editors have enlisted a veritable who's who from the illustration field-- authors such as  Alice Carter, D.B. Dowd, Kev Ferrara (a name familiar to the readers of this blog), Mary Holahan, Stephanie Plunkett, Roger Reed and many, many others.  The editors themselves have contributed several of the essays.

The book contains an ambitious 14 page glossary and an equally ambitious timeline of the history of illustration-- both of which are extremely handy, and both of which bring to mind Hercules restoring order to the Augean stables.

One of my favorite kinds of books are those that alert me to my own ignorance.  The international sections (on illustrative traditions from around the world) and some of the historical treatments in particular alerted me to gaps in my knowledge that I didn't know existed.  Of course I found things to disagree with in this book, but there were many revelatory passages.  History of Illustration is proving to be an excellent resource and I am grateful to the editors for the service they have performed for the field.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


I recently made some unkind remarks about portraits in the New York Times Magazine.  I asked, "Is there a shortage of under employed, hard working, innovative illustrators out there?"

It might be a better use of this blog to show some young talent that I think is superior to the selections in the New York Times

I really like the work of Lindsey Lively, a 31 year old illustrator and fine artist working in North Carolina.

Lively originally trained to be a sculptor.  This seems to have paid off for her because her paintings have a structural strength absent from so many other artists today.

After graduating from college, she learned about faces by drawing live caricatures on the Vegas strip.  Customers lined up on the sidewalk behind her to watch her work, eager to take the place of her most recent subject as soon as a caricature was finished.  She also paid her dues drawing caricatures at Star Trek conventions and comic conventions.

For the most part, Lively has taught herself to paint-- very impressive when you consider her appreciation  for color and for the importance of brush strokes.  She's an observant and hard working artist who currently makes most of her income selling her work through Instagram .  I think the New York Times  would've been much better served if it had turned to an artist such as Lively.

Thursday, January 17, 2019


For many years car manufacturers hired illustrators to paint photo-realistic pictures of cars in brilliant, eye-catching colors.

by the famous team of Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick

These pictures were designed to radiate power.  Their perspective was deliberately distorted and the cars were stretched to make the cars appear more muscular.  The colors were enhanced to shine like the sun.  The chrome was intensified.  These ads, which typically employed little text or white space, were masterpieces of propagandistic art.

But when cars were first invented, illustrators didn't have such tools.  They had no access to sharp, accurate color printing, photo projection or some of the other devices of later car illustrations.  They painted small, black and white pictures for text-heavy ads reproduced on inferior, uncoated paper.  These limits called for a different aesthetic but the illustrators made it work.  Here is an ad campaign for Packard from the early 20s:

Rather than show a photographic full view of the car, these artists selected an important detail-- a front grill or a tire or a silhouette-- to imply power and class.  Without a full color palette they relied upon the advantage of black and white art: stronger compositions.  Here are other illustrations from the same series.

There was one painting for each new ad.  They were done by different talented illustrators (such as the great Andrew Loomis) but in a similar style. 

What interests me is how, even without the tools that later illustrators employed to convey horsepower, these illustrations still conveyed their own strength.  There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs.


Sunday, January 06, 2019


Many people who saw the New York Times Magazine last week asked themselves this question privately.  Here at the Illustration Art blog, we dare to consider such questions openly.

At the end of every year the New York Times Magazine runs a special issue devoted to noteworthy lives that ended that year.  In this year's issue they included seven full page portraits by contemporary artists. I think they are, for the most part, astonishingly bad.

Why?  The magazine is an important forum with substantial resources and an intelligent art director who has had a good track record, at least for typography and design.  What accounts for this series of choices?

To investigate, let's start with this awful cover of the great Aretha Franklin.

This unflattering portrait is certainly no likeness.  The strange highlights and the apparently broken neck seem closer to the artistic tradition of depicting flayed meats than the tradition of portraiture.   

The facial expression could've come from Mantegna's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian  and the design seems clumsy and amateurish.  Still, these alone would not be fatal.  (Naive art has its place, and heaven knows most of the contemporary art world ceased caring about design long ago).   

No, what bothers me the most is the utter lack of observation and insight about the subject matter. The artist certainly talks a good game:
When you think of her, you think of this unabashedly free voice.  She really went for the things she wanted, artistically and personally-- and very much a black woman in all of that.  Her black womanhood informed and inspired her process and was the catalyst for so many explorations in the world she created for herself.
But there is little correlation between these words and their visual execution.  When it comes to translating concepts into an image, the effort fails badly. 

This seems to be a common malady in what we might call the "post-visual" era of art: artists spin out ideas in their head but draw with their eyes closed.  And that I find harder to forgive.

Another example of this same phenomenon might be found in this ungainly portrait of Stan Lee:


The drawing simulates honest observation by including numerous random squiggles. 

Their dishonesty is revealed by the confusion they create (as with that neck).

Similarly, what is achieved by devoting so much effort to individual unruly hairs?  

So my objection to the Lee portrait is essentially the same as my objection to the Franklin portrait.  Neither picture offers the kind of insights I'd expect from honest observation and consideration of visual experience; neither picture pays the dues that come with the hard work of form-creating activity.  Instead, we are witnessing dialogues that artists have within their own heads, largely disconnected from hand and eye, for indiscriminate audiences who are primarily interested in words and concepts. 

Which brings me to "internationally acclaimed" artist Raymond Pettibon's portrait of Anthony Bourdain.  I'm a big fan of crude drawing with a rough edge; I believe that an insightful drawing could be made with a cigar butt.  However, I've always had a tough slog finding insights in Pettibon's drawings.  Like Gary Panter, his popularity seems to stem from his concepts-- his back story, his irony, his political views- rather than anything about his visual forms.  Like the previous two portraits, his powers of observation are more verbal than visual.  

Worse, he seems to be an artist more in what radio technicians call the "transmit" mode than the "reception" mode.  Which is why it seems so odd that his written explanation says he "wanted to get the smile right."  I confess I don't understand what Pettibon means by the word "right."

Most of the other portraits in the series seem similarly undistinguished for a forum such as the New York Times.  

The photo collage of Linda Brown is, of course, in a different category and should be considered as such.

There is a well designed, conventional portrait of Tom Wolfe in Milton Glaser's trademark style.  (Is there a shortage of under employed, hard working, innovative illustrators out there?)  But my general complaint remains that so many of these pictures, in keeping with the current disappointing fashion, are primarily about the concepts expressed in accompanying words.  

Matisse once said that artists should have their tongues cut out so they won't be tempted to explain their pictures.  Most of these artists could easier put out their eyes. Without their verbal concepts, so many pictures in our conceptual, "post-visual" era would mean nothing.  

The NYT is a forum that should do better.