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.

Monday, December 31, 2018


The year 2018 gave us important discoveries about the origins of art.

Archaeologists have known for some time that our ancestors developed crude weapons (hammerstones and cutting tools) as far back as 2.6 million years ago. After achieving that milestone, it took almost another million years for us to develop more sophisticated weapons, such as stone axes.  Those date back 1.76 million years.  We continued to develop and refine our arsenal, so that 1.3 million years later, in 400,000 BCE, we had invented throwing spears with sharp points.

In September of this year, archaeologists announced that they had discovered the earliest known drawings by homo sapiens:  a 73,000 year old cross hatched pattern found in a cave in Africa.

As reported in the journal Nature, researchers used both microscopic and chemical analysis to establish that the marks were intentionally made by a human hand using a pointed crayon fashioned from red ocher clay.

In other words, as far as we know 2,527,000 years elapsed between the first weapon and the first art.

In spite of all the ingenuity, effort and trial that went into the development of weapons, we were still 2.5 million years away from the urge to make abstract designs on a surface.

Not only that, but November 2018 also brought news of the discovery of the first known figurative drawing by a human, dating back 40,000 years:

The drawing was discovered in a limestone cave in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  Its age was confirmed by chemical analyses of natural deposits that had formed on top of the drawing.

So as far as we know it took us 33,000 years to progress from cross hatching to figurative drawing.  That's four times longer than the time from the founding of the ancient Egyptian Empire until today.

Why did it take so much longer for art to arrive on the scene than weapons? Was the urge to make  designs really millions of years harder than the urge to kill?  And did it really require another 40,000 years to go from making abstract designs to making marks that resemble something in the world?

Your guess is as good as mine, but perhaps it took that long before our ancestors felt the need for a more subtle and profound vocabulary, the kind used for communicating more advanced concepts such as love and pain, hope and beauty.  When our emotional range was limited to fear and hunger we may have had no need for the language of art.  But when we finally had a more complex range of feelings and more complicated emotions to communicate,  I'm guessing a hammerstone just wouldn't do. 

It might've taken  2,527,000 additional years for us to experience subtler shades of meaning and then develop a voice capable of shaping and  expressing them.

Whatever the reason, as you start out to make art in 2019, reflect on why it took our ancestors an additional 2.53 million years to invent art, and try to make something worthy of that long incubation.

Happy new year to all!

Monday, November 26, 2018


George Lichty is an important data point for those trying to chart the line between loose drawing and drawing like a careless slob.

Not everyone cares about that line. This may be due to the Great Acceleration: internet audiences with unlimited content and shorter attention spans, less patience for pictures that don't move, a coarsening of taste. It may also be due to a lack of interest in the kinds of pleasures that excellent drawing can provide.

Or, it could be the result of increasing shamelessness on the part of certain artists.  Andy Warhol was not much of a draftsman but said that "art has to transcend mere drawing" and replaced it with photomechanical reproduction.  This week Holland Carter of the New York Times pronounced Warhol  "the most important American artist of the second half of the 20th century."

Whatever the reason, many artists, illustrators and cartoonists don't seem to take drawing seriously, and settle for rudimentary linework.

George Lichty's style was famously loose and slapdash, yet maintained genuine quality.

Yet, if you take a close look you can see there's a whole lot of shrewd observation in those hasty lines.  Just look at Lichty's assortment of descriptive hands holding cigars, holding note pads, or clasped in natural poses.

These hands have the ease of random squiggles, but they are not.

Beautiful brushwork, like a zen master.

Lichty knew exactly how to draw a hand clasping a cigar before he reverted to this shorthand version.
Other telltale signs of quality in his drawing: note how the pipes and cigars set to the side in those mouths and the character of the smoke.

Here's a book with character

And a lumpy tree with sparse, scraggly leaves-- just enough for background atmosphere, and no more.

Lichty is a good reminder that drawing can be light and breezy, yet still be a vehicle for imagination and intelligence.