Thursday, January 17, 2019

SELLING CARS IN BLACK AND WHITE

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

WHY ARE THESE ILLUSTRATIONS SO BAD?

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 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 seems to be little correlation between these words and visual execution.  When it comes to translating concepts into an image, the effort seems to fail. 

This seems to be a common malady in what you 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 the insights in Pettibon's drawings.  Like Gary Panter, his popularity seems largely tied to his concepts-- his back story, his irony, his political views- rather than anything about his visual execution.  Like the previous two portraits, his powers of observation seem to me 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 the verbal concepts, so many pictures in our conceptual, "post-visual" era would mean nothing.  

I've always thought of the NYT as a forum that could do better.




Monday, December 31, 2018

ART WORTHY OF 2,527,000 EXTRA YEARS

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


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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

JOHN KASCHT KNOWS WHEN TO LEAVE OUT AN EYE

There's plenty to admire about John Kascht's caricature of Keith Richards.




I like the way Kascht seized control of the shape of the head; that receding chin, those marvelous lips.  I like how he captured the dissolute look of an aging rock star-- the deep wrinkles, the scraggly hair, the sallow complexion.  These are all examples of the talent that makes Kascht one of the country's leading caricaturists. 

But then he takes it a step farther and omits one eye-- an inspired way to visualize human disintegration.  It's as if a few of Richards' jigsaw puzzle pieces fell out of the box and got lost over the years.

You don't make unexpected choices like that with talent alone.  You need the muse whispering in your ear.

The ancient Norse myth of Odin tells how Odin wandered the world in search of wisdom. When he finally located the well of wisdom, its owner demanded a terrible price for a drink: Odin had to pluck out one of his own eyes in exchange.  Sometimes we have to go beyond what we see on the surface in order to understand the true nature of things.

Unfortunately, Kascht's client never read that myth.  When they received his caricature they asked him to "finish it" by painting in that second eye.


After the picture was published, he painted the eye out again.  I only know about the original because I was fortunate enough to see the traveling exhibition of Kascht's paintings, currently making its way around the country.


Michael Eisner, printed version (above) and photo from the original (below).




Charles Mingus, printed version (above) and detail from original (below).



Kascht has several paintings in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  You've seen his work in all of the top publications, including the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Esquire.

The Smithsonian institution filmed a documentary about Kascht which explains his working methods. It's well worth seeing.




Tuesday, October 16, 2018

MY CANDIDATE FOR THE NEXT X-MAN

If Professor X ever goes looking for a super powered mutant with control over color, I recommend he make a beeline for Nathan Fowkes.

For years I've admired Fowkes' astonishing facility with color.





 This recent painting of a rainy London street knocked my socks off:



That jagged lightning bolt of color may look spontaneous, but it has at least ten kinds of smart in it:  



Contrast the color of the reflected light on the sidewalk with the warm light from the traffic headlights behind it, and then the bright light from the clearing skies behind that.  Note how the soft peaked roof of the purple building in the distance is halfway between an urban silhouette and a cloud; it supports, but doesn't compete with, the focal stripe of the painting.  Notice how the pedestrian in the foreground, while high contrast, is reduced to an abstract design which again supports the total painting.  Fowkes doesn't waste our time painting shoe laces (or even feet). 

Each individual pedestrian in the crowd scene is a separate creative invention-- understated, but still worth an appreciative look:

the shadows, too...

 And the glue that holds all the elements together: a great sense of design.


How does Fowkes go about orchestrating a painting like this?  He was kind enough to share his process photos: 

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

 That's the kind of painting that should get you magna cum laude at Professor X's school.

 Josef Albers (1888-1976) worked at Yale University rather than the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.  At Yale he reigned as a leading 20th century authority on color.  His treatise, The Interaction of Color (1963) is internationally famous, as are the hundreds of paintings and prints in his color series, Homage to the Square
  
 Image result for albers


These pictures, some of which have sold for millions of dollars, were carefully designed by Albers to explore what he called "chromatic interactions."

In my view, Albers' tedious explorations under laboratory conditions can't begin to compete with the crackling electricity of Fowkes' paintings.  Albers listens in while his color swatches do all the work. Fowkes, on the other hand, employs color with a spirited, nimble brush.  For Fowkes, color is a means to an end, integrated into real life rather than a laboratory test.  

Fowkes also seems to have a superior appreciation for the role of value.  Look at what he has accomplished with value alone in this marvelous sketch of a tree:

A big, wet, sloppy brush wielded with exquisite control
The "homage to a square" spares Albers from some of the the hardest tests of color--  tests of prioritization, tests of contrast, tests of motion.
 


Rather than paint 27,489 palm fronds, Fowkes selects a few fronds he wants to prioritize, highlighting them against a high contrast background and alters their color accordingly. 

Mighty fine work.