Friday, June 22, 2018

ART, TRUTH AND ACCURACY

Not accurately drawn, but true:

That phase of a relationship where nothing fits and everything gets in the way and your feet are just too darn big.

On the other hand, accurately drawn but not true:

Artist Jon McNaughton uses realism to portray lies

Water, drawn as accurately as anyone could:

William Motta


Yet, Monet's treatment of water required the artist to look beyond accuracy, and seems even more true:




Two illustrations of foreboding houses.  It's obvious which one is more accurate, but which feels more true?

             


Art is no place to get lazy.

Meaningful truth in art is not a solid, and sometimes not even a liquid.

A picture's resemblance to what you see when you look out the window, or even into a mirror, can be a good starting place but it is only a starting place.



Thursday, June 14, 2018

THE SECOND COMING OF FLOWERS

In his essay, How Flowers Changed the World, famed anthropologist Loren Eisley described the first coming of flowers, 100 million years ago:
Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.... only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.
Alice Hargrave
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the age of reptiles, there occurred a soundless violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms--the flowering plants.... Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know--even man himself--would never have existed. 
Eisley explains that, in addition to covering the world with beautiful colors, the seeds from flowering plants created superior sources of energy which fueled new species with faster metabolisms and higher functioning brains: 
The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. That was the first coming of flowers. 
 Once upon a time people lived without pictures in their daily lives.  Yes, there were a few select murals and paintings in palaces and temples, but people had no posters, prints, calendars, illustrated books or other pictures in their homes or workplaces or on their streets. From the beginning of the world until a few hundred years ago, people lived essentially without images.  

Then slowly another "soundless, violent explosion" occurred. The industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the second half of the 18th century and it brought new methods of paper-making and reproduction techniques that made volume printing possible. Signs, billboards and posters began to pop up on public streets.

Henry Sumner Watson 
Bigger and faster steam-powered presses, lithography, new systems of distribution, color reproduction, etc. combined with new prosperity from mass audiences to spread images around the earth.  Just as flowers transformed the plant world with colors and shapes, pictures transformed the human made world.

Harry Grant Dart
This transformation of our environment with bits of aesthetic meaning took place in what geologists would consider a blink of an eye.

 

The trasformation is far from complete.  Today images continue to proliferate at an increasing rate.  Hundreds of web sites such as pinterest, flickr and deviantart are dense with pictures accessible to anyone in high rez form with the push of a button.  Now images not only move, they're interactive and created by artificial intelligence.

The significance of these two great transformations is more than merely aesthetic.  Just as flowering plants provided concentrated fuel that helped brains advance, I suspect the democratization of pictures  affects minds with content, nuance, imagination and diversity in more digestible forms than words could do. Just as modern graphic design proved successful in stimulating new forms of consumer demand, images can stimulate a wide range of activity.

In view of what happened last time, who can say where it will lead?

Saturday, June 02, 2018

NICK MEGLIN (1935-2018)

My dear friend, Nick Meglin, died this morning.  For nearly 50 years Nick was the loving heart of MAD magazine and a tireless advocate for its astonishing stable of talent.  The following are some of Nick's classic cover ideas for MAD.





But Nick led a much broader life, full of professional accomplishment in varied areas (he was member of the Dramatist Guild, ASCAP, the Writers Guild of America, and the National Cartoonist Society).

The best way to summarize Nick may be with this story:

Last week Nick took me to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. With all the knowledge and sophistication of an experienced museum curator, he escorted me from piece to piece, explaining what made Rodin great, citing details from Rodin's life and pointing out subtle features of his bronze casting technique.  Then, as we were leaving he spotted Rodin's The Burghers of Calais  across the Courtyard.  With all the knowledge and sophistication of an 8 week old puppy, he went over to pose pretending to return a rude hand gesture from one of the Burghers.

"Meh"
As his sweetheart (and the most patient woman in the world) Linda Maloof snapped his photo, Nick explained that wherever he encountered The Burghers of Calais around the world, he had to get a picture of himself responding to that Burgher.  The joke never got tired for him.

I say that Nick was my friend, but Nick was everybody's friend.  If you ever read a copy of MAD Magazine or one of Nick's many books or if you ever took one of his art classes at the School of Visual Arts or if you ever went to one of his musical plays, or even if you just believed in decency and humility and kindness, or appreciated a good insult, you were a friend of Nick's.   He was a joyful and remarkable man, warm, funny and expansive.  Everyone gravitated to him.

Nick (far right), Sergio Aragones and Sam Viviano cracking each other up on a panel last week at the National Cartoonists Society convention.
Nick was generous teaching me about illustrators.  He seemed to know personally every illustrator of the past 60 years and he worked with many excellent artists at MAD; his memory was extraordinary and his taste was impeccable.

In recent years he began passing along to me his dusty files of tearsheets and clippings, like a relay racer passing a baton to the next generation.  He knew he wouldn't have time to write all of the books and articles that remained within him, and he expected me to do my share to honor and preserve the talent we both admired.

I told him several times I wanted to sit down and tape record him for two weeks, but he always had something more pressing-- and funnier-- to do.  It would have been a great service to the history of illustration and comic art.  Now I'll never have that chance.  Farewell, my friend.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE FACES OF TIME




Time magazine-- which was for decades the dominant news magazine in the world-- seems to be limping  toward its end.  It was purchased last year for a fraction of its former value and the new owners are  dismantling and selling off the assets.

The cover of Time was the showcase for thousands of remarkable portraits painted by talented artists such as Boris Chaliapin and Ernest Hamlin Baker.    

Time wanted its covers to convey an accurate, lucid magazine; it wasn't advertising creativity or imagination.  So it commissioned careful illustrations that inspired confidence and integrity. 



Week after week, decade after decade, these artists painted cover portraits with great integrity, sometimes on a 48 hour deadline.  (Baker reported "permitting himself only two hours sleep out of the forty eight allowed for the job." Sometimes they worked to the last minute, cutting it so close they had to race in their car to meet a delivery date.) 

The originals were about twice the size of the printed version.  Here you can see how Baker achieved those subtle skin tones: over a light wash base, he applied highly diluted tempera paint, built up gradually with a thousand delicate brush strokes.

Baker went back with white paint to separate eyelashes he thought were too close together





How in the world did Baker learn the face of his subject well enough to employ this approach?  He'd take the reference photos supplied by the magazine-- perhaps a dozen random pictures from different angles-- and study them with a magnifying glass to compile a composite map of the topography of the face.


Baker would then use his topographic map as his guide when painting the lines and crevasses and warts of the face.  That's a lot of work. 




I would not say these covers are works of inspired genius.  I've seen more beautiful designs.  But in my opinion they are consistently works of excellence, and opportunities to be excellent are rare enough in this world that they should not be taken for granted.



If there was a shortcut that could've achieved the same result, I'm sure these artists would've  been happy to take it, and to get back all those hours of their lives.  For example, decades later computers could've saved these guys time.  But regardless, I think artists should take comfort from the fact that time spent in pursuit of excellence is never wasted.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A TALE OF THREE LANDSCAPES

Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?


George Inness

Sean Lynch

Well, the pink version is actually a photograph, taken with film which reveals near-infrared light.  We don't normally see near-infrared light because our puny eyes are limited to the spectrum of light waves between 400-720 nm long. But near-infrared light is always there, part of the richness of nature bathing every landscape.

So I'll ask again:  Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?

Many painters take great pride in their accuracy, but their work is not "realistic" in a scientific sense.  It is faithful only to a distorted appearance of nature that we see through the limited filter of our eyes.

As long as we're content to accept such a subjective definition of reality,  that should open up the conversation.

Here's another landscape, this one by the great Jean Dubuffet, called "Ecstasy in the Sky."




 Like the landscape by George Inness above, the Dubuffet landscape offers only a limited slice of reality, clearly filtered by the artist's perception.  But is it less real?

Friday, May 11, 2018

PAINTING FOR THE ANGELS

The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.                                                                                                 -- Thomas Merton

This little paint box was used by an Egyptian artist 3,300 years ago:


The artist had seven colors:  blue, white, ochre, hematite (dark red), hematite mixed with calcium carbonate (lighter red), and two grades of charcoal black.  


According to the hieroglyphs on the label, these colors only came in CMYK. (RGB was apparently unavailable with this model.)  I couldn't find the USB port for connecting with the Wacom Cintiq Pro (it must've broken off around 1,000 BCE).  And heaven only knows what obsolete version of animation software this thing ran.

The artist fashioned a little tray to hold water and a brush. The sliding lid is decorated with a genet (a small rodent-like mammal that lived in the papyrus thickets along the ancient Nile).  The artist even painted the lid to look like papyrus. 




What could anyone accomplish with such a primitive tool?  These crummy colors would embarrass any self-respecting kindergarten class today.

According to the RISD Museum (where I found this paint box) "Painters used these same pigments to decorate statuary and the walls of temples and tombs." So here are a few samples:



                                                                                        
These artists lacked what we would consider the most fundamental tools necessary for making a  decent picture-- for example, electric light for painting the walls of a dark, underground tomb-- yet they created works of astonishing beauty that still give us chills thousands of years later:

How many works of art created today will evoke a similar response in 3,000 years?

The first two lessons from the tiny paint box are obvious:  

1.) Art does not "progress" the way other human enterprises do; an ancient drawing in a prehistoric cave may be more beautiful and sensitive than a work of art by today's most "advanced" artist. 
2.) Fancy and expensive tools don't necessarily result in a better work of art; a drawing scratched on a prison wall with a bed spring may be artistically superior to the latest Pixar high tech multi-million dollar extravaganza.

Everybody already understands those first two rules.  This week I'd like to propose a third lesson: 
3.) the power latent in a tiny paint box can be unleashed in part by the beliefs of the painter.  
In an age of faith, when true believers devote their talents to honoring their gods (or their pharaohs, or their one true love) that higher purpose sometimes imbues their art with larger and more important qualities.  Today's artists who are motivated by the press reviews for their next gallery opening or their copyright contract or their royalty fees may produce brilliant, complex material. It may be dazzling in its presentation and clever (although often snarky) in its tone.  But that work often seems thinner and more transitory than the work of artists who, working with the humblest tools, are motivated by fear and dread of their gods...  


...or by the radiance of divine bliss...


...or by the soul flying from our body at the hour of our fate.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 57

I love this very cool drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex by Ike, age 6.


I spotted it at an art exhibition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

In response to my most recent post of a drawing by Ronald Searle, various commenters wrote:
I think that is the most important in any drawing, draw what we feel instead of what we see, connections and relationship instead of objects
 [B]rilliant! He draws the way the old man FEELS rather than the way he LOOKS.    
Ike may not be an experienced professional artist like Searle, yet he has done a wonderful job of drawing what he feels.  Get a load of those teeth! Unlike the standard "lightning bolt" line most people use as a shortcut for drawing teeth, Ike has lovingly outlined each tooth separately.  Each tooth has its own unique, scary shape.

Ike couldn't fit this many teeth in his picture if he was constrained like an adult by the conventional proportions of a T-Rex.  Because his patterns of perception haven't hardened yet, he was able to unhinge the jaw and expand the mouth to make it as big as the entire rest of the dinosaur.  It appears that when he wanted still more teeth,  he added a third row above the dinosaur's head.  Ike is a creative artist with strong priorities.

And it doesn't end there. Not content to draw the dinosaur's body with a simple contour line the way many people would, Ike intuitively draws a jagged body like the roar of a thunder lizard shown on an oscilloscope (or the shock to your nervous system when you see a dinosaur coming toward you).



Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject.  There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art.