Thursday, September 18, 2014


Our society encourages artists to exaggerate their eccentricities.  Musicians, writers and graphic artists compete to distinguish themselves by dressing and behaving outlandishly. There are a nice couple of bucks to be made from appearing as kinky and outrageous as possible.

Such poseurs are different from genuine eccentrics-- the ones who risk everything because they just can't help what they are.  The difference can be seen in the authenticity of their work.

Wanda Gag (1893-1946) the illustrator and author of important children's books, was one of the true eccentrics in American illustration.


The strong willed daughter of a Bohemian artist, Gag grew up in a remote corner of rural Minnesota.  Her  parents died when she was young, leaving her impoverished and responsible for her six younger siblings.  She fought to keep her family together, rejecting efforts to divide the children into foster homes.

Relying on just $8 per month from the county, Wanda scratched for pennies.  She sold little knicknacks and pictures to feed her young siblings.  She trained in St. Paul to become a professional illustrator but found the lessons too confining:
I cannot bear to think of following in the footsteps of others.  And this is what they are teaching us to do here in Illustration.  We are doing covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and everyone has a Leyendecker cover at their side which they consult and worship while working at their own sketch.
Wanda was intent on developing her own style, one that combined art and real life, so after providing for her siblings Wanda left Minnesota in 1917 to become an artist in New York City.  An early feminist and suffragist, Wanda was politically radical and artistically uncompromising.  She practiced "free love," believing that an active sex life was a wellspring for artistic creativity.  She developed a series of odd theories about nature, aesthetics and fertility. She designed and made her own clothes for an "artistic" look.

Shortly after her arrival in New York Wanda started doing illustrations for the communist newspaper, New Masses.

She began receiving steady commercial assignments but found them unfulfilling so she cut her commercial ties and rented a ramshackle home in the country (which she named Tumble Timbers). There she could work on her fine art without distraction.  (Also without heat, running water or bathrooms.  She ate food from her garden and cooked on a kerosene stove.  Her lean years in Minnesota had made her fearless about poverty.)

Wanda's drawing of Tumble Timbers

Wanda's drawing of her bed at Tumble Timbers, inscribed to her lover Carl

Her younger sister wrote a song poking fun at Wanda ("If she thinks its funny that you work for money / Don't blame her-- 'cause she's an artist!")

The stairway at Macy's


In 1928 Wanda hit it big with her first children's book, Millions of Cats, a deeply odd story about an elderly couple inundated with "millions and billions and trillions of cats."  They are ultimately saved when (spoiler alert) the cats kill each other over who is the prettiest.  The drawings and hand lettered text are in Wanda's distinctive voice, very unusual for the period.

My favorite book by Gag is her even more peculiar story, "The Funny Thing," in which a strange dragon-like "aminal" eats the dolls of little children until a weird baby faced man named Bobo (who lives in a cave) persuades the aminal to eat "jum-jills" (a food that Bobo invented from seed puddings and nut cakes) instead.  The aminal likes them because they make his tail grow longer (see illustration below, in which Jum-jills are rolled into balls and fed to him by birds).


If Wanda had any commercial sense she probably would have written sweet, condescending books for children but that was not in her DNA.   She said, "I aim to make the illustrations for children's books as much a work of art as anything I would send to an art exhibition."  Lo and behold, children recognized her authenticity so her books have remained classics for over 80 years.

With her success, Wanda was able to move from Tumble Timbers to a new home she called "All Creation" but her fortune did not change her personality.  In 1941 she confided to her diary, 
I often think, "what if my readers and various people who apparently think highly of me, what if they knew that I can feel love for more than one man at the same time, that for years there have been three men on my love-horizon, that I indulge in bizarre and esoteric love rites with my lovers! Would they, knowing this, consider me less good?"
In her extensive private diaries Wanda spoke of sex joyfully but in euphemisms, calling it "treetops" or "experiences of a non-Euclidean variety."   
Wanda with two of her lovers, Earle Humphreys and Adolph Dehn.  Apparently, her strong personality persuaded men to agree to these sharing  arrangements.
Compare Wanda's secret diaries, and the price she paid for her nature, to the easy license for today's art celebrities such as Currin or Koons.  Artists are coaxed and coddled to strive for eccentricity now.  They have become fabulously wealthy flaunting the kind of weirdness that helped keep Wanda impoverished.  
Gag's drawings can't compete with the slick production values or technical skill of today's art impresarios but I find her genuine eccentricity a far more rewarding human experience. 

Thursday, September 04, 2014



The ancient Greeks lived in a world of danger and unrest that make our own exciting headlines look tame by comparison.  They created artistic masterpieces in the midst of prolonged wars and invasions, plague, political chaos, coups, and the scheming of scoundrels.  No wonder Thucydides wrote, "You could sum up Athens by saying they were born never to live in peace and quiet."

The Greeks were forced to become warrior-poets; their ideals of beauty and virtue had to withstand almost daily bloodshed and death.  Yet they set a world standard for sophisticated, delicate beauty.   They were the first to dream there was such a thing as "perfect" beauty out there waiting to be achieved.

Which brings me to the lovely drawing on the urn above.  (Actually, the "one" drawing has two sides):

There are tugboats full of scholarship about Greek vase painting-- its evolution, its subject matter, its historical significance, its master painters, etc. .  People have strong feelings on the subject (as became obvious in the comments to last week's post about the Provensens).  I won't try to deal with that material here, but perhaps there's room to say one small and pure thing about this small and pure drawing.

There are urns with complex and violent drawings of mythological figures or wild animals. Many are cluttered with layers of decorative geometric patterns.  But personally I prefer the serenity and simplicity of this exquisite design. 


Look at what the artist did with just two colors: that black slip negative space makes the glowing abstract shape of the figure dominate, far beyond what those descriptive lines contribute.  The artist also had to unify the flat drawing with the rounded vase design, and did so with grace, restraint and confidence.

For me, this is the real heroism of Greek drawing-- not pictures of Achilles bashing his enemies.  In a violent world, the Greeks explored proportion and balance and composition looking for "ideal" beauty.  They groped their way toward the "golden ratio" and built classical archetypes for us.

The renowned scholar Herbert Read makes a respectable case that the ancient Greek synthesis of  human activity with formal beauty first introduced humanism to the world.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I am a big fan of the work of children's book illustrators Martin and Alice Provensen.


I especially love their beautifully designed books, The Iliad and The Odyssey and Myths and Legends.


It's difficult to imagine how  a creative team could have been any closer than the Provensens.  The two came from very similar backgrounds: both born in Chicago, Martin and Alice each moved to California when they were twelve.  There they attended high school and college, then went to work for Hollywood studios (Martin at Disney and Alice at Walter Lantz).  During World War II, they met and got married, then moved to Washington where they both held jobs supporting the war effort.  


In 1950 the Provensens purchased an abandoned farm in upstate New York, far from city life.   They moved two drawing tables into a barn and started working together, back to back.  Their excellent book, A Year at Maple Hill Farm,  describes their sweet life on the farm. Their styles blended together and for nearly 40 years  the couple worked so closely that no one could distinguish who had contributed what.  In response to persistent questions Alice simply said, “we were a true collaboration. Martin and I really were one artist.” No one ever saw their works in process.



Living and working together in one room there was very little space for privacy or egos.  The two seemed to share everything,  completing each other's thoughts and brush strokes.


Yet, I was charmed to read that there was one small part of their process that the Provensens decided to keep private from each other.  When they were just beginning to come up with an idea, they would sometimes tie a string across the room and hang a sheet or blanket between their two tables.  As Alice recalled, "Once in a while one of us may have had an idea we were just developing that we didn't want the other person to see just yet....We would string a curtain up between our desks."

Even though the barrier was purely symbolic-- a flimsy drapery that could easily be breached at any time-- it still had psychological importance.

In those first fragile moments of the creative process, when you are trying to coax an idea into existence, words and voices-- or even a second set of eyes-- might scare it off.   The premature constraints imposed by an existing vocabulary could rob the idea of its potential.  

People share all kinds of things.  You might work together all day in the studio, as nekkid as Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and never blush once.  But the nakedness of a new idea-- that's a little too personal, and sometimes needs to be kept concealed.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Neal Adams was probably the most technically skillful comic artist of his generation. He was justly famous for his ability to squeeze fine lines and complex poses into densely packed panels:

But skilled fingers don't always know when to quit.  They itch to add more and more of those beautiful lines, and sometimes overwork a picture.

 Consider this disastrous reverse profile from an Adams illustration for Playboy:

Adams couldn't stand to be confined to the smooth plane of a cheek; he needed more to draw, so he reached clear around to the other side of the face and clawed the chin, nose and other features into view.  The result is an overworked, exaggerated mess.

A subtler artist might have exercised restraint and implied what was on the far side of that face.  The truth is, it often requires more talent to draw a simple contour than to fill in supporting details.

With one crayon stroke, Austin Briggs brilliantly captures the reverse profile of a balding man

In the following drawing, Kathe Kollwitz buries all of Adams' details in a shadow.  Yet, there is more honest observation in the contour of the silhouette than in the hundred lines Adams drew.


 For Robert Fawcett, being a master of details included knowing when to stop.  As the head turns and facial features go out of the viewer's sight...

...Fawcett knew enough to let them go for the sake of the picture:

 I've previously expressed my admiration for this drawing by John Cuneo, who was able to use just a few skittering marks along the circumference of a circle to convey a face turning away:

Here are a couple of other examples of Cuneo's sensitive line giving us far more information through judicious restraint:

Last, another favorite I've shown on this blog before-- Richard Thompson's delightful drawing of Santa's spokesman walking away:

All it took was something as delicate as the perspective on the elf eyeglasses (behind the cheek, in front of the nose) to show us the position of his head. There's nothing heavy handed in Thompson's work.

I'm a big admirer of Neal Adams' draftsmanship but sometimes his technical skill seems to run away with the picture.  He seems to have drawn the reverse profile above like the man who searched for his car keys under the streetlight, despite losing them down the block, because "the light is better here."  Adams forced details where they did not belong because that was the only space he had. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Comic-Con, like modern theoretical physics, can be observed on two levels: 
  • the rules of relativity which account for the behavior of large objects (such as galaxies or the Warner Brothers exhibition booth);  and 
  • quantum mechanics which account for tiny objects (such as subatomic particles or the following drawings by Harry Beckhoff). 

Beckhoff (1901-1979) was famous for his tiny preliminary sketches that were dense with information.  

Even at this miniature scale, Beckhoff captures gesture, body language and even the style of chairs

Beckhoff's sketches weren't much bigger than a penny on the floor of the Comic-Con exhibition hall, and received about as much attention, but they are marvelous little jewels.  They served as comprehensive blueprints for  finished illustrations that were ten times larger.

Friday, August 08, 2014



Several readers have expressed concern that corporate art-- big institutional projects from major studios and multinational software companies-- will swallow up individual creative voices at Comic-Con.  But each year I encounter artists who are indigestible and irreducible stones in the belly of the dragon.  They refuse to compromise their creative vision (or perhaps they're just incapable of reining in their personal eccentricities).

I encountered Bill Plympton, the famously independent animator and illustrator, sitting at one of the few tables without a ten foot full color banner of semi-nude space nymphettes.  If his booth had a Dolby soundtrack, it was out of commission during my visit.  If Plympton brought a funny barbarian hat, it was nowhere in sight.

What Plympton's booth offered instead was Plympton, sitting on his ass and drawing with a plain old ball point pen,  surrounded by piles of original animation drawings and books about his work. 

Plympton has become justly famous for his offbeat, highly personal, subversive animation:

From Santa: The Fascist Years (2008)




Plympton maintains such control over his art, he is one of the few artists in the history of animation who insists on doing every single drawing himself.

You'd think with that much drawing, his fingers would be worn to little nubs.  Yet, as we compared notes on illustrators we both admired, he picked up a pad and drew my portrait with his ball point pen. He is apparently inexhaustible.

Here are scans of his original drawings:   

 There is an excellent book about Plympton's life and career.  His description of Disney's lucrative  contract offer rivals Faust's meeting with Mephistopheles:

I was hoping that I could work on the Disney projects during the week and during my off-hours and weekends I could work on my own weird offbeat projects.  "Sure," the lawyer said.  "That's fine, and you have our permission but we'll own whatever you create."

"What about if I tell someone a funny story?" I rebutted.

"We own that," he said.

"What if I have a dream?"

"That's ours too." 

Plympton walked away from a lot of money in order to save his work from the corporate de-flavorizing machine. He has made good use of his expensive freedom.

I think Plympton is the real McCoy, with a distinctive individual voice.  I would never have had an opportunity to chat with him and look at his originals up close, if not for Comic-Con.  

Life drawing

Sunday, August 03, 2014


I was pleased to see the talented Nathan Fowkes giving practical demonstrations on painting backgrounds at Comic-Con.  

Fowkes is a concept artist for animation studios such as DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Disney.  He is also a highly regarded teacher of drawing, painting, color and design.

Here are a few of his recent paintings for the film, Rio 2:

His finished backgrounds are gorgeous, rich and colorful

...and they benefit from the insights recorded in his hundreds of quick sketches from nature.

Fowkes described the time that he and his new bride had to abandon their first home because it was in the path of a California wildfire.  He stopped and turned around to take pictures of the illuminated orange sky over his home, saying "well, yes... my house is about to burn down but this is great reference."  He is a truly dedicated artist, and his dedication pays off.

Fowkes offered the following wise advice for his audience:
Creating an environment is not just showing our viewer a place, it is creating an experience for them.

False dramatizing is no longer enough for a background.  There are 100,000 concept artists out there who have learned to fake it by putting some dramatic [Photoshop] filter over an image.  We have to do better.

If you want to make an extreme statement, you have to push further and further into what the image is about.

I'm a big admirer of his deft brushwork.

To see more of Fowkes' landscape paintings, visit his excellent land sketch blog.