Saturday, July 18, 2009


A mediocre painter who wants to portray danger on the road ahead is likely to spell it out, portraying the ominous cliff and perhaps even highlighting it with some corny lightning bolt.

But talented artists achieve far more powerful results using more indirect and imaginative solutions to the same problem:

In the following illustration, all that Bernie Fuchs requires to create a sense of melancholy is a bend in the road and forlorn colors. Here he depicts the site where a football hero committed suicide by stepping in front of an onrushing truck. Fuchs' approach is subtler than painting a body lying in the road or an ambulance speeding away, but it is far more effective and universal.

Here is how the illustration looked when published as a double page spread in Sports Illustrated (teamwork by Fuchs and famed art director Richard Gangel).

Next, rather than paint the danger (or illuminate it with a lightning bolt), the ingenious Phil Hale understands that it is far more frightening to speculate about what waits in the darkness, just beyond the reach of the beam of light:

Below, the talented Greg Manchess takes a different approach: look at how effectively he uses fog and shadow and eerie light to cast a sinister aura on an otherwise normal road.

It's not that difficult to paint realistically; it must have been harder for Manchess to decide when to deviate from the safety of realism in order to disorient the viewer. He had to be selective in order to make us feel that the scene is taking place in an otherwise normal world where something is coming unglued. That is the point where an artist relies on judgment and imagination, leaving behind photographs and technical manuals on perspective and lighting.

Each of these artists recognized the inadequacy of a literal approach when it comes to conveying menace. Each of them used ambiguity and restraint to draw the viewer's imagination into the creative process. But each of them had the technical skill to craft just the result they wanted.


Matthew Adams said...

I actually think the painter of the exide battery did his job well. If he was to hint at the danger it wouldn't have worked. He had to be obvious about the danger that the driver of the car was fearlessly heading into because the driver could rely on his car battery.

Who wants to be stuck out on some muddy mountain road in a thunderstorm in the middle of the night because your battery died?

Drazen said...

Where is the danger and the menace in the Fuchs story if the player committted suicide? It conveys a lonely possibly, foreboding quality but for the artist to indicate some type of menace seems to me would be misleading the viewer like old shock paperback covers. I guess it seems like an odd example to me.

MORAN said...

What year is that Fuchs? "brilliant Bernie Fuchs" is right.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew, I tend to think of the battery illustration as a simplistic two dimensional diagram; you proceed on a horizontal axis from point A to point B, where you fall off the cliff onto the jagged rocks below. It may lack poetry, but like many diagrams it does have the virtue of being absolutely clear to potential customers. (By the way, if your battery dies, doesn't that mean you never get to the top of the cliff and risk falling off? Wouldn't this be a better ad for brakes?)

Drazen, I think the Fuchs painting conveys that the road was a dangerous place where bad things could happen. Rather than paint a body in the road or an ambulance leaving an accident scene, Fuchs was smart to paint an empty road from a vantage point very close to the ground and near the edge of traffic where you get a vertiginous sense of peril. It's not the obvious solution-- many illustrators would paint a truck with speed lines behind it, racing toward the victim.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN, I'm not sure of the year; I'm guessing 1980s? I've made no secret of my admiration for Fuchs here.

Drazen said...

I think its a beautiful illustration and I love Fuchs
but he was certainly literal and obvious with the title "Twilights last Gleaming."
Your words of danger and menace and just through me off. A road is always a dangerous place broad daylight or dark. The danger here is not the road at night like in the first illustration, which I actually like and has a nice gothic atmosphere appropriate or not, but what I'm guessing the suicide victim is to himself. It certainly evokes the sad passing of the day (a life) but vertiginous danger is not what I get from it.
I agree that your example would be obvious and misleading in tone, and probably unsympathetic from what I gather the story to be about.
I think both the first and second both
are successful. I guess I'm not sure I would like the first more if it showed a
just a baby car seat lying on the side of the road with just an hand in the corner or something.
It might be obvious but I've felt that danger in the car and want my battery to keep on keepin on.

Anonymous said...

where is howard? must have become ill - or worse, gone back to work...

Rob Howard said...

>>>where is howard? must have become ill - or worse, gone back to work...<<<

Even worse, getting more portrait commissions and being forced to deal with charming and gracious ladies.

David, that Fuchs piece doesn't do it for me. I think that you're bringing some backstory to it. If the backstory was an early morning on the road with the kids going to the vacation spot, it would have done equally as well. However, those pieces by Hale and Manchess were absolutely spooky. There's no possibility of injecting a cheery back story into those.

Where did you dig up that Exide illustration? It reminds me of the ton of dreck we'd see in the back of Sports Afield magazine. That's back when being a "commercial artist" was frowned down upon, because of stuff like that.

Squidpeg said...

Thank you for this. I think the Fuchs picture looks a bit eerie, but also simply a bit sad. Meaning looking at that road would make me a little sad. Perhaps because of the title on the two page print.

John C. said...

In a slight defense of the Exide battery illustration, people don't peruse magazine ads as they would a double-page feature story in their favorite magazine. The viewer's eyes would probably only scan the battery ad for a second or less. The lightning bolt is cheesy, but it's a quick symbol for electricity and viewers would associate Exide with electrical power, which means the ad did its job. Eveready battery promoted similar qualities in their old “9 Lives” campaign, where the black cat had a tail shaped like a lightning bolt.

Additionally, in a more subliminal manner, you'll notice that the Exide illustrator included an Alcatraz / Riker's Island style prison down in the water which is lit up. I'm not sure of the intent here. Perhaps it's to plant the seed in your head that the lights are on because a jailbreak has just happened, in which case a dead car battery means the possibility of having you and your passengers hog-tied and raped. On the other hand, maybe the lights are on due to a midnight execution in which the electric chair is powered by a very dependable source, and for that we can be thankful.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, I understand what you are saying about the Fuchs piece (and admittedly it is for an article for Sports Illustrated, not a fantasy or horror work, like the other two examples) but I think it contributes a different method of conveying peril (hopefully making my point about a range of creative alternatives). Being close to the ground at the edge of a highway with cars speeding around a bend is not where you'd likely find "kids going to the vacation spot." Besides, I have heard some people argue that Fuchs' color scheme during this period was consistently sweet, and I think his forlorn tincture here was really quite well calibrated to the story.

John C, you have persuaded me on the Exide illustration. Bravo!

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Anonymous said...

...Fuchs is my childhood!
Rob Howard, you are a spectacular painter."Barry" is tremendous. Was it commissioned by him?
Where can I see more of your work?
Derrick H.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Rob about that Manchess painting. "Absolutely spooky." Do you know the story behind it? The story behind the Fuchs painting makes a big difference in how we look at the art. How about a post with some of the more typical work by Manchess? I love his thick paint.


raphael said...

JL: they sell a videotaped session of manchess painting and talking about his painting at - the two parts clock in at 2 hours together, and, of course, is heavily cut down from a two-day painting process.

i watched the first part and was quite surprised that his paint doesnt seem to be applied as thick as it looks.

Anonymous said...

>empty road from a vantage point >very close to the ground

just a note, what do you mean by very close to the ground? Comparing that traffic sign at the right to the horizon level it seems the viewer is standing up and about of average height. I think it may seem lower because of how the road slopes as it bends away from us, but I think the viewer is not especially close to the ground. I haven't put any grids on it or anything, but at first sight I'd say so. (What do you guys think?)
I do agree that there is a sense of dread, though, but personally I get more sadness and loneliness than imminent danger. And its more to do with the weird colours, lighting, and texture. But anyway, great picture and very good illustration for the text.


David Apatoff said...

Antonio, I drew my conclusion largely from the angle of that big swoop in the road. I don't know if Fuchs adjusted the height of the road sign for compositional purposes or not, but you certainly raise a good point. As I reflect on it, I think much of my sense of being "low to the ground" may come from a personal bias: I am accustomed to taking the hands of two young children as they get close to a road so they don't rush out in traffic. I tend to see the world through their eyes.

Yung Kee Hui said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Howard said...

Thanks, Derrick. That started as a magazine illustration that was never returned. Rather than cry about it, I just painted another one for my own pleasure. Barry's the man but he didn't pose for it. I was given a few photos to work from and put that together. I thought that I'd go wild on the shantung jacket and was frankly surprised at the effect I was able to get with just three colors.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of textural stuff in the hair than can't reproduce but you can see that I was having fun with the paint. It's one of my favorites and I'm glad that you like it.

Anonymous said...

You find the best stuff to post and then add all these interesting thoughts after them...the comment(ers) ain't half bad either!

Unknown said...

another vote of confidence for the battery ad- while it's not going to set the artworld on fire, it communicates it's message effectively, and in the world of illustration, there is no higher praise. The art director of that magazine got his money's worth.

As for the Fuchs piece-the words that come to mind first are tranquility, nostalgia, peacefulness..without the copy I would never have guessed at anything sinister intended. I would suggest that knowing the intent of the piece irreversibly colored your interpretation of it.

now the other 2 pieces might haunt a guys dreams...

Anonymous said...

The Exide ad is cheezy spooky fun, like an OTR show or a B-movie. The Fuchs feels like a lazy hazy Sunday morning in southern California. Menacing? Maybe if I read the story and some Angels on bikes rolled up. All the others are foggy, and who's afraid of moisture in the air?

-Trolling for the Truth

Anonymous said...

hey rob, where can we see that awesome "barry"-piece?

Anonymous said...

My favorite Barry White production is The Banana Splits, 1 BANANA 2 BANANA 3 BANANA 4

heres BH by RH

Anonymous said...

>>hey rob, where can we see that awesome "barry"-piece?<<

I found it here:

Linda said...

B Horror Movie
A Sunday Drive

Always a pleasure to read here, David.

Rob Howard said...

>>>I found it here:<<<

That's okay but it's much too smooth looking. The paint is chopped in, not smoothed out like those "Living Masters" at ARC. Here's a detail that should show that its paint trying to look like paint, not like an airbrushed photo

Anonymous said...

dunno, i'd say its paint trying to look like fingercolors

kenmeyerjr said...

A couple of great choices there, David. Hale in particular chooses the strangest things and makes them even stranger, many times just by choosing a strange palette.

sycosses said...

Those last two paintings really hit the target, particularly that Hale piece. I can't quite make out what that is in the darkness but THERE'S SOMETHING THERE!

Anonymous said...

thanks for the close-ups, rob. incredible paint.

Anonymous said...

In the first image, my eyes were drawn to the battery road sign, not the cliff or the lightning bolt. I liked the first image. It's just in a very different style than the other ones.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

The Fuchs is brilliant. Look at the low point of view, and the big dark stripe of shoulder between the road and the crosswalk, and how it serves to exaggerate all the distances. That's how roads look when you're exhausted and on foot, stranded in a space made for cars to pass through. It feels like whichever direction you travel, it's going to take you forever and get you nowhere.

The stretch of road is comfortless and unpeopled: no one's destination. Fuchs has stripped it down to empty sidewalks, pointless roadside landscaping, an anonymous parking lot, more cars in the distance. Even the time of day is weary: it's the end of the workday, but you're not yet home.

It makes my bones ache just to look at it.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

The Fuchs is brilliant. The point of view looks low to me, and I'm short to start with. The low POV plus the big dark stripe of shoulder between the road and the crosswalk exaggerates all the distances. That's how roads look when you're exhausted and on foot, stranded in a space made for cars to pass through. It feels like whichever direction you travel, it's going to take you forever and get you nowhere.

The stretch of road is comfortless and unpeopled: no one's destination. Fuchs has stripped it down to empty sidewalks, pointless roadside landscaping, an anonymous parking lot, more cars in the distance. Even the time of day is weary: it's the end of the workday, but you're not yet home.

It makes my bones ache just to look at it.