Sunday, June 23, 2019


When ancient Rome needed guidance on crucial issues such as whether to go to war or whether crops would fail, a priest called an augur was summoned to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds.

The augur would look for omens in the direction that birds were flying, whether they flew in groups or alone, and the noises they made as they flew. These observations required great skill and inspiration.

If you think about it, this system would make no sense if the augur tried to watch the entire sky: he might spot one bird or a thousand depending on where he looked or how long he remained. The behavior of the birds could appear to signal good omens or bad depending on whether the augur happened to view them from the right or left.  Such a system would be completely arbitrary.

That's why the whole key to the augur's art was choosing the right portion of the sky to observe. The augur used a stick called a lituus to mark out the sacred part of the sky.

Lituus held by an augur
The passage of birds through the selected space determined the life-or-death outcome.

Like an augur, an artist's decision to draw a perimeter around a selected space in an otherwise  seamless  universe may be the single most important decision in the creation of a work of art.

Just as the sky has no obvious boundaries, the world around us can be seen as either infinite or infinitely divisible.  The artist's decision to select some of the features from that world, choosing  what to include, what to exclude, and how to crop it, determines where the rest of the world ends and the art begins.

The great illustrator Al Parker would've made a dandy augur.  Look at the portions of the world he has chosen to frame here:

Parker chops away the entire background, silhouetting his subject against a plain white background.  Then he chases his dramatic content off the edge of the page, using that big chunk of nothing to push our eyes right to the crisis in the upper right hand corner.

Despite the fact that Parker has excluded a background, look at the odd items he has chosen to include in the foreground: a cuckoo clock and an old fashioned phone.

Their content may have little significance, and they may even seem counter-intuitive because they distract from the high emotion of the scene.  But visually these items are crucial to the composition, scooping up our eyes and leading them along the floor and up to that upper right corner.
When Parker used his lituus to cordon off a meaningful part of the universe, some of his selections were for purposes of telling the story and some of them were for purposes of composition.  Some of them were patterns and colors for purposes of design. You can see him thinking through some of his choices in this prelim:

Parker got rid of that attention-getting pattern on the rug,
so it wouldn't slow down the movement of your eye upward and to the right.

Parker was good with anatomy and perspective and color, but so much of the strength of this image comes from his threshold decisions about what to include in the frame and what to leave out.

Monday, June 10, 2019


Very few artists have been stirred by the challenges presented by a vacuum cleaner. 

Here are two:

Jeff Koons

Phil Hale

The mountebank Koons, mayor of Niflheim, offers the unremarkable insight that industrial design does, in fact, incorporate "design." His marketing genius can be observed at work in this presentation:

Renowned herpetologist Graham Peck has observed a comparable technique at work in the snake kingdom:  
There Is a certain power to fascinate in a snake's eyes and movements.... I saw a ground squirrel fascinated by a black gopher snake. The forked tongue darted out of the snake's mouth almost as regularly and rapidly as the needle of a sewing machine rises and falls. The squirrel seemed to watch it spellbound... I believe implicitly that all snakes have a certain degree of power to fascinate their victims to death. 
In contrast to Koons, Phil Hale uses a vacuum cleaner-- a routine object from daily life that you or I might step around-- as an opening to the unknown. His beautiful painting is reminiscent of the lines from poet Peter Viereck:
So many dark things are not night at all:The cupboard where the cakes and poisons are.... 
Hale's vacuum cleaner is a potent original vision. His powers of observation are transferred to us through his strong personal choices and probing brushwork.

Koons too wants to elevate our attention to a vacuum cleaner but he does so by placing someone else's design in a lucite showcase and shining a spotlight on it. This antiseptic presentation offers no original opinions in the form of composition or palette, creative distortion or expressive energy, angle or design. In fact, any contribution that wasn't stolen from the original designer comes solely from Koons' accompanying jabber.

Artists love to paint flowers and landscapes and nudes but they've been remarkably silent on the subject of vacuum cleaners. As Hale proves, there is meaningful content even there. As Koons proves, even if you come up with nothing meaningful there are still a nice couple of bucks to be made.

Saturday, June 01, 2019


Young artists are impatient to find a distinctive voice or style.   They distort what they see, not out of any expressive need but rather to develop a trademark "brand."  To accomplish this they often try borrowing eccentricities from mature artists.  Unfortunately, unearned and imitative styles often look inauthentic and unpersuasive.

The comic book artists in the golden age were not concerned with developing a personal style, they were concerned with drawing so they didn't starve.  Jules Feiffer fondly recalled cranking out pictures fast enough to survive:
Artists sat humped in crowded rooms, knocking it out for the page rate.  Penciling, inking, lettering in the balloons for $10.00 a page, sometime less.... Working blind but furiously, working from the advice of others who drew better because they were in the business two-weeks longer...
Reading old crime and horror comics, I was struck by the strange, interesting drawings that emerged not from a self-conscious search for a "style," but from untrained artists working in a pressure cooker.

I've previously quoted a friend who said, "Bad drawing, even bad bad drawing, almost always has character.... the vision has a weird purity you kind of have to admire, no matter what."

Quickly drawn faces by unskilled, underpaid artists ...

...sometimes resemble the studied, careful distortions in the mature styles of fine artists:

Saul Steinberg 

Seymour Chwast 
Even without trying to build a brand or a trademark style, many of these crude comic drawings have undeniable power that makes them the envy of "high class" artists.

Returning to the memories of Jules Feiffer, the early comic book artists didn't acquire that power, or improve their drawing, by searching for a distinctive trademark "look."  They did it by drawing all the time:

[O]ne suddenly learned how to draw. It happened in spurts.  Nothing for a while: not being able to catch on, not being able to foreshorten correctly, or get perspectives straight or get the blacks to look right.  Then suddenly: a breakthrough. One morning you can draw forty percent better than you could when you quit the night before.  Then, again you coast.  Your critical abilities improve but your talent won't.  Nothing works.  Despair.  Then another breakthrough.  Magically, it keeps happening.  Soon it stops being magic,  just becomes education.

Thursday, May 23, 2019


I've previously written of my admiration for the art of Joe Ciardiello.

Ciardiello achieves drama in his drawings by balancing extremes.  He contrasts a light, lacy line with dense, powerful black accents.  He contrasts black and white drawings with spots of vivid color strategically placed.  He contrasts liquid pools of watercolor with a raspy drybrush.

An elegant line contrasted with a thick black brush

A black and white drawing contrasted with jolts of color (detail)

Liquid pools contrasted with scratchy drybrush (detail)

Ciardiello's balance of extremes is delicate surgery in a small space, but when the elements interact well the result is potent images.  Over the years he has produced many excellent pictures in his distinctive style.

Now Ciardiello deserves credit for a different kind of achievement: rather than wait for paying clients to offer him suitable and meaningful assignments in today's parched illustration market, he set out to create his own book of work he could be proud of.  Between other assignments over the past five years he has composed a new book, A Fistful of Drawings.  It is a rare opportunity to see a mature illustrator, unfiltered by art directors and clients, creating images answerable only to himself.

The book is a "graphic journal," a personal memoir about his life and the popular culture he admires.  His pictures include everyone from the Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley to Bettie Page and Al Capone, but he saves his most loving treatments for the movies and movie makers of his youth.  His text is integrated into the pictures as his own handwriting, which is a cross between drawing and lettering.

Here are some of my favorites from the book:

I think this is an extraordinarily beautiful page,  a sophisticated and unorthodox design in which opposite extremes create a healthy tension.  

Some of Ciardiello's pen and ink caricatures are reminiscent of David Levine but unlike Levine Ciardiello uses strong black elements to transform his compositions.

Ciardiello's mix of sensitive descriptive line and abstract design

I think the following double page spread is a real stunner, one of those pieces where the line between illustration and fine art seems to disappear.

The following detail shows how abstract color splatters help loosen and expand the scope of a representational drawing.

Ciardiello's book is for sale from Fantagraphics.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


Over the years countless illustrators have been tasked with making countless illustrations of a woman sitting in a chair.

For example, the following pictures are all from a 1932 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.  

Each is a conventional, respectable depiction of the human form sitting. Each is by a competent artist searching for a fresh approach.  Yet, there is a sameness to these drawings.

But there was one illustrator in the magazine whose approach stood out from the rest.  John La Gatta  received the same old assignment: draw a seated woman.  But rather than follow the standard conventions for pictures of sitting women, he pushed for something more:  

La Gatta's version of a woman sitting down. She seems to have anfractuous vertebrae and her arms stretch outward like welcoming tendrils.
For other assignments La Gatta would return again and again to the subject of women seated on (or draped sensually over) chairs.  Each new illustration was imaginative, yet truthful:

His pictures remind us of Jane Heap's sly and happy observation:  "Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings...."

The point is not that La Gatta invented a gimmick of using supine postures for women.  The point is that he brought creativity and flexibility to his assignments.   He did not take for granted that seated figures are always perpendicular to the ground.  He did not rest with the predictable rules of anatomy.

And later when it came time for him to draw a woman with perfect posture,  La Gatta's powers of observation provided other ways to make his figures distinctive.  Note here how he exaggerates and plays up her straight bearing, rather than her slouch:


La Gatta became hugely successful in the 1920s and 30s by continuing to look hard at his subject matter after his competitors had stopped looking.  He further supplemented his images with his personal attitudes toward glamour and sensuality.  Together they gave his pictures "that certain something."                                                                                                                                                                   

Sunday, May 05, 2019


[The forthcoming book about the art of Austin Briggs, from Auad Publishing, is now at the printer.  Unfortunately, there was not enough room in the book for many great images.  Rather than return them to obscurity, I've decided to show several outtakes on this blog between now and the publication date.]

I love Austin Briggs' preliminary drawing of five girls marching in a line through a bar. 

Drawing courtesy of Roger Reed at Illustration House
Note how Briggs uses  the angles of their hats to show their individual characters.  The eldest girl is prim and decorous but by the time we get to the pile up at the end, all decorum is gone:

Briggs adopted a similar approach for the little girls greeting their daddy in the following ad for Douglas Airliners.  Even with his rough, sketchy technique and their backs turned to the viewer, each of these girls has a distinctive personality:

The shy one hides behind her mother, the excitable one leaps in the air, and the middle one wobbles indecisively. 
The drawing is intended to look spontaneous but Briggs did at least a dozen preliminary sketches, trying to tie a hair ribbon on a bouncing ping pong ball. 

This large sketch (19" x 25") and others were tossed on the floor of Briggs' studio as he worked.  That's Briggs' shoe print in the upper right corner.

When Briggs captured touches he liked, he incorporated them in the final drawing.

Briggs' experience shows up in that hand

Before he turned to his charcoal illustrations, Briggs made his reputation doing fully painted illustrations.  Here he paints frisky children in an ad for dog food

He employed a lively brush technique to keep his painting active:

Still, at some point in his career he seems to have realized that the medium of paint unavoidably civilized his pictures.  If he wanted to convey the indecorum of little girls, a crayon or vine charcoal was a more suitable medium.

Despite the seeming crudeness of this line, note how sensitively Briggs depicts the curiosity and lack of coordination in those young fingers.

In an era of slick, full color illustration Briggs was a pioneer in making these basic drawing tools fashionable again.

Monday, April 29, 2019


The creative team of Jeff Koons and Louis Vuitton have combined their talents to give us "a novel way to experience the old masters."

They have reproduced old master paintings on the side of $4,000 Louis Vuitton handbags.  According to the creators, this "invites viewers to consider these works anew, opening the museum to the world."

Jeff Koons further explains, "When somebody walks down the street with this bag, or sits in a cafe with this bag, it's communicating a love of humanism."

Each handbag has been "emblazoned with the name of the original artist spelled out in gold letters." This feature is not even available on the original painting in the museum!

The creators also improved on the painting by attaching Louis Vuitton's signature flower symbols and  Monogram logo, then went the extra mile by creating a new version of the Vuitton logo incorporating Jeff Koons' initials.

As if these advances weren't enough, the restless creative minds of Koons and Vuitton have added "a tag in the silhouette of one of Koons' best-known artworks, the inflatable Rabbit sculpture."

While I am thrilled beyond measure by these new inspirations, still I must question whether the effect of these handbags is truly "novel."  I believe you can create the exact same impression by wearing one of these: