Thursday, September 04, 2008


The great French impressionists did not have plastic raincoats, so when Monet or Renoir wanted to study the reflections of light on translucent surfaces, they had to visit La Grenouillere, a local riverside spot, and paint the surface of the water.

By the 1950s, plastic had been invented and clear plastic raincoats became a fashion trend. Many illustrators were drawn to the challenge of capturing light reflecting on this new, translucent material:

Austin Briggs

Al Parker

Robert Fawcett

Monet brilliantly captured the essence of light on water by using bold daubs of fresh paint, rather than painstakingly blending and smoothing the colors.

Briggs brilliantly captured the essence of light on plastic using the same bold approach.

Briggs and Monet each realized that carefully blending with smooth brush strokes would have stripped the painting of its vitality without improving its accuracy. You have to be very, very good to get away with painting this loosely.

One other point about the illustrators who chose to paint translucent raincoats when it would have been far easier to paint a nice wool overcoat: Artists who produce art in exchange for food and shelter always develop tricks to be more efficient, save time, and (most of all) conceal any gaps or shortcomings in their skills. For example, artists who are not good at drawing hands tend to draw people holding their hands behind their backs. Artists who have trouble with perspective tend to draw pictures with a narrow depth of field. And of course, heavy shadows have long been a favorite technique for concealing a multitude of artistic weaknesses.

So I have special admiration for artists who, while working under a deadline, look for tough and interesting new artistic challenges. The centerpiece of the Al Parker illustration above is clearly the plastic raincoat. The same with the Austin Briggs illustration. These were not commercial choices, they were aesthetic decisions motivated by the same artistic ambition, pride and curiosity about the world that motivated Monet.


Jack Ruttan said...

I thought Gustave Caillebotte (took a little searching to find that spelling) totally nailed a rainy day. No plastic raincoats in there, but a good one in the film "Quai des Brumes."

Anonymous said...

Great post!

That Briggs is great (as is the Monet, of course.)

I think, for people who consume storytelling pictures, the quality of the storytelling is a big part of what sells the work. So the better the storytelling, the more sales garnered.

The other side of it is that good design looks beautiful. Good storytelling is the result of good design. And good design is inherently decorative. Shiny fabric looks beautiful. Beautiful things sell.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, for a storytelling artist, aesthetic decisions are commercial decisions. To put the girl in a shiny coat says something about the girl, AND differentiates her from everything else in the picture, AND is fashionable, AND looks purdy.

I almost feel like saying, how could they not put the girl in a shiny raincoat! Even if she's sitting in a diner!


JD said...

are you an artist too? i stumbled upon your blog while surfing. will keep coming back.

JDCanales said...

I'm a long time subscriptor of your blog, but this is my first comment. As an art fan, I only would like to thank you for such a wise post you always write.

Best regards


illustrationISM.... said...

THANX! This gives me an idea!!
i'm off.. . . .
.. . .. . . .
mark jaquette @
illustrationism &
bammgraphics !

David Apatoff said...

Jack, I have seen that painting up close and personal and agree with you (although I could not have named the artist if my life depended on it-- thanks!)

Kev, that's an interesting take on things (as usual). You are right, these aesthetic decisions are in some ways commercial decisions, but ultimately it would be hard to identify a "non-commercial" decision in the fine art world. When Rembrandt or Goya were painting portraits and made the subject's nose just a little more flattering, that was a commercial decision as well!

Livingonanisland, I guess you could say that, like everybody else, I am lots of things.

Juan, thank you so much for such a nice note! I really appreciate it.

Illustrationism, I hope you will share a jpg of your idea when you are done

ces said...

I don't know. The non-Monet paintings are good, but none of them can hold a candle to Monet.

David Apatoff said...

ces, this may surprise you but I view the Fawcett illustration as an interesting flop. I think Fawcett was a better draftsman than Monet, but he was also color blind and could never compete with Monet in the area of color. I included it only as an example of an artist struggling to find the best way to depict a new material, and because I was impressed with him for unnecessarily taking on a tough challenge.

The Briggs is a closer call. This Monet is probably my favorite Monet so I agree with your judgment, but Monet also produced a lot of mediocre work (and I have seen many pictures by Briggs that I consider superior to those works).

In the end we'll never know how Monet would have painted a clear plastic raincoat. I just wanted to have a little fun connecting the ambitions of those artists a century apart.

Anonymous said...

David, I would say any aesthetic decision that results in an aesthetic effect that would displease your target consumer, is a non-commercial decision.

This is what makes artistic control essential to an artist becoming great and/or famous.

Also, any aesthetic decision that has no target or is "without clue" would also be non-commercial. There are many "art for art's sake" artists who simply paint for themselves or their politics. And clueless artists constantly make non-commercial aesthetic decisions.

Possibly I misunderstood what you meant?

kev ferrara

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I guess I would say that there are many different ways that Austin Briggs could have clothed that young lady that would have pleased his audience equally, or earned him the same payment from the art director. He chose instead a plastic raincoat that was challenging and time consuming to paint. My point was that he could have spent some of that time working on a second illustration and making more money, but instead opted for the artistic challenge (or perhaps it was just to show off his prowess). That's what I meant by the "less commercial" road.

Anonymous said...

apologies beforehand for this completely unrelated comment/question/request, but i wasn't sure how else to bring it up:

what do you think about Roger Dean? just out of curiosity, and since this theme of commercial illustration has been going on for a while...

spacejack said...

Surprisingly great idea for a topic. I loved the examples you chose.

Anonymous said...

unfortunately i can't find any online at the moment, but there's a contemporary painter named sangram majumdar who has done some beautiful work with transparent plastic raincoats. maybe worthy of a follow up post.

Jack Ruttan said...


I have good Google-fu as a result of having library experience. That painting is on the cover of a book of mine.

Apropos of nothing, have you done a post about Reginald Birch? Saw a pic by him in Guptil's book on "Rendering in Pen and Ink" (1976 edition), and he's great, though there's little on the web, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Dave Apatoff interesting stuff, I have been searching for info regarding Austin Briggs, and am glad I found you, I am the grandaughter of Robert Hallock, (Lithopinion) etc......, and grew up in the company of Austin, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Fawcett, etc...I would like to correspond with you directly, as I have a few of Austins paintings. Please leave a comment and an email as to where I can speak with you in a more confidential manner. Thank you, Bridget Battelle Hallock-Tuttle

David Apatoff said...

Bridget, I would love to hear more from you. I have great respect for Lithopinion and for the artists you mention. Please write me at Thanks!

Wendy Weiner said...

I have stumbled upon this blog after doing a search on Lithopinion and Bernie Fuchs. My neighbors came over last night for a dinner party and I showed them my complete edition of Lithopinion and how relavant it still is. They were impressed. Many of the artists hired by my grandfather for this strange 'magazine' I was introduced to while working for the Society of Illustrators back in the day.

Bernie Fuchs was my favorite back then. Followed by Fred Otnes.

It's refreshing to know that illustration is still alive and kicking.


Wendy Weiner said...

I have been to several studios of artists of this era. Monet didn't have the advantage of photography. Briggs would never hear of it.

Degas started it.

My grandfather was a neighbor of Norman Rockwell, at the time. One night, he got a call from Mr Rockwell. "Do you have a spare projection bulb?" In the middle of the night in his robe, my grand father gave Norman the bulb.

Colin said...

Try a peep at the previews on for transparent/translucent plastic raincoat paintings

Celine said...


Do you know who owns the right of Austin Briggs and Al Parker. Thanks

Celine said...

Do you know how to get hold of the rights of Briggs and Parker. Thanks ?

nato said...

Dear David,

We are trying to locate the Al Parker illustration which is featured on your blog. Curtis Publishing doesn't know what it corresponds to. Do you have a title, or a date, or the Post issue number ?