Wednesday, September 14, 2011


It is easy to become dazzled by Chris Payne's technique but you should resist the temptation.

Payne's tight, crisp images are certainly eye-catching, and his technical skill stands out among contemporary illustrators.

However, if you get too distracted by the skill you'll miss the larger artistry of these pictures (which is the most important part).

There are plenty of illustrators who do highly detailed, photorealistic work.  Artists such as Rowena, Boris and Elaine Duillo are meticulous technicians, but for me their results are usually leaden and uninspiring (unless you count the inspiration that comes from watching honest manual labor).  Adobe Illustrator is helping a younger generation of obsessive illustrators take pointless detail to a whole other level.

But Payne brings something more to his pictures.  His skill is exercised in the service of a larger artistic vision, which is why his pictures positively glow in comparison.

Note for example his dramatic compositions for these excellent portraits:

Or look at the following portrait of Yogi Berra.  Payne must have labored over the details of that car, and the expressions on those faces, and making those figures interact, and creating the jaunty angle with the car hovering mid-bounce, yet all of these complex elements come together like a snap of the fingers.

 The picture has a cohesion and liveliness that makes the hard work look easy. 

To understand what distinguishes Payne's work, it might help to focus on a few details from this picture of a man floating away (a la Renee Magritte) :

At first it appears he is wearing a conventional gray flannel suit, but a closer look reveals that Payne used a purple(!) watercolor wash, with flowing striations deliberately left exposed:

A less confident artist would have painted the suit gray, and painstakingly drawn in the pin stripes.

Those trees and bushes in the background may look realistic but up close we see they are painted very free and abstract.  Rather than make everything in the picture uniformly detailed, Payne understands how to prioritize a picture.  He understands design:

As realistic as Payne's figures may sometimes seem, he frequently elongates and distorts them for the sake of the picture. Heads are stretched and extruded (see below) and ears are pulled out asymmetrically  (see portrait of Vladmir Putin, above):

It takes a strong center of gravity to work like this.  It's a far tougher job than merely capturing a likeness, and it's one of the reasons why Payne's work is so admired.


अर्जुन said...

He really captures that rascal Putin! (rah rah)

Beth said...

Chris was a professor at my art school while I was an illustration student (he is now the dean.) While there I got to observe some of his technique, which is incredibly meticulous and involves several mediums. Mixing oil and gouache and colored pencil even!

Hilariously, he's the drummer in the basement band of Dads image you're showing, and the guy in the flannel is another professor.

MORAN said...

Payne is brilliant, but you don't remember how brilliant until you see his work collected like this in one place. Thanks for the close up of that OJ ad, I remember it well.

What is he doing now? Is he still working for Readers Digest?

kev ferrara said...

Totally lovable work.

Wondering... how many "big head/small body" caricaturists there are. Quite a big niche, seems, and many of the best talents.

Matthew Adams said...

The illustration of the man at the OJ cooler is sublime.

Something wonderful and very creepy about those hands...

etc, etc said...

So easy for me to dismiss caricature but this is just too well done and irresistible. However, if he's in a band he should pay a little more attention the fretboard of a Stratocaster.

Anonymous said...

CF Payne is head and shoulders above all those shitty realistic paintings that are so popular in Spectrum.

Thanks for collecting these masterpieces in one place. "Dazzling" is the word for his art.


ScottLoar said...

"Payne understands how to prioritize a picture. He understands design."

True, and David Apatoff understands good work and knows how to explain it.

Laurence John said...

the way he selects those subtle, telling expressions is very Rockwell-ish (i see there are many knowing nods to Rockwell in his work too).

it's often difficult to see much real continuity with illustration of the past when looking at modern illustration.
when the 41 Illustrators And How They Worked book came out i was thinking 'however lovely this work is, it belongs to a different age, with almost no relevance to what is happening today'. Chris Payne seems to be someone with a genuine link to the past, who has learnt from artists like Rockwell and Fuchs, and moved forward within that tradition.

etc, etc said...

Oops. I meant:
However, if he's in a band he should pay a little more attention to the fretboard of a Stratocaster.

the way he selects those subtle, telling expressions

In the basement band, anyone who has played in a band knows what that perturbed expression of the woman on the stairway is:

"Can you please turn it DOWN?"

It's utterly delightful.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- I don't know how you keep coming up with these oddball songs. I can't imagine what age group or nationality or culture (or planet) would be aware of this cross-section of material. But it is always a welcome education. (For example, this time I learned that Fred Schneider of the B-52s is not the only goofy looking, no-talent front man who has somehow persuaded a group of more talented women to prop him up so he can preen on stage.)

Beth-- You must have been very fortunate to have him as a professor. I envy your experience.

MORAN-- I believe he has moved on from the Reader's Digest, but that was a fine series of pictures while it lasted. I think many people regard those as Norman Rockwell 2.0.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm glad you enjoy Payne's work the way I do.

The "big head/small body" approach seems the most logical thing to do for caricatures, where facial features have to be emphasized to establish a likeness and convey emotions (and the action of the body is far less significant). Contrast that with the "ideal" or "heroic" body proportions, where the body is 8 heads tall. If you look at Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon or Jungle Jim, his figures often have little tiny pin heads on long, lanky bodies-- the opposite of the "big head/small body" approach-- because the purpose is different.

Matthew Adams-- that OJ man is one of my favorites too. Payne did a whole series for the Florida Citrus Growers, and every one of them was a treat. I think this one won a silver medal from the Society of Illustrators in the mid 90's.

Etc, etc-- That's right, I recall from an earlier comment you made that you have rattled a few windows in your day.

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- for some reason, the science fiction / fantasy field seems to attract artists who are maniacs for detail. They obsessively paint big oil paintings showing every hair on every head (or on every fur pelt loin cloth), every leaf on every tree, every blade of grass. Some of it is technically quite accomplished, but yeesh...

ScottLoar-- Like so many who write in here, I take genuine pleasure from this art, and enjoy comparing notes with others about discoveries.

Laurence John-- I think your analogy to Rockwell is exactly right. Your comment reminds me of a story I heard from from Bernie Fuchs about Payne. Payne attended the very first of the legendary Illustrators Workshops taught by Fuchs, Bob Peak and the other giants of the day. Payne said the workshop had a big influence on him but Fuchs later told me, "There was nothing we could teach Chris Payne. He already had everything he needed to be a professional on the day he showed up at the workshop."

StimmeDesHerzens said...

"...facial features have to be emphasized to establish a likeness and convey emotions..."
Mr Payne has a lovable focus on the nose. The illustration of the aging dudes in the rockband reminds me of some of my musician friends around here (Santa Cruz Ca), who radiate absolutely the same musical smugness. Look at the drummer (the artist?!)-- obviously as infatuated in his drumming as he is in his art! The lead guitarist on the right (?) looks seriously COOL. Facial expressions show that rhythm and base players know their appropriate place!
I hope I have it right--the commentator who detected the "fretboard of a Stratocaster" can probably correct me!

etc, etc said...

In my experience you have it right. Guitar players tend to be laid back and cool, and drummers more aggressive and cocky. Sweeping generalizations of course, but seems to be true in a lot of cases, and many people have formed the same conclusion. All have to exude confidence to the point of being shtick if performing (for whatever reason most audiences respond better). The man in the plaid shirt appears to be playing a G chord and is apparently the rhythm guitarist, and the one in black appears to be soloing.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

Wow, truly inspiring.

etc, etc said...

And in my opinion, nobody exudes guitar player coolness like this guy.

Anonymous said...

CF Payne is today's Rockwell. They both observe America with humor and insight.

kev ferrara said...

American Standard Strat owner here... so many fender copycats that without the logo on the head, its impossible to tell the make of the instrument depicted. But with the bass looking very much like a Rickenbacker copy, the drums without logos, and the general jokey air of these "pretenders" jamming in the basement, I'd like to think that all the instruments are generic knock-offs.

Thanks for the intro to Timmons, etc. etc. Guy is a real phrasing phenom, something like a combo of Stevie Ray Vaughn's soulful fluidity and Eric Johnson's clean technicality. (I think you are right about the G chord in the picture, and it even looks like he's holding a D on the B string with his ring finger to get a chime-ier sound... no slouch in the integrity department is Mr. Payne!)

kev ferrara said...

Btw, the cymbal halo over the self-absorbed guitarist is pretty hilarious in that picture.(Cymbalism at its best!) Especially compared with the guy at the far left who sees the gig is up.

etc, etc said...

Cymbalism at its best!


David Apatoff said...

StimmeDesHerzens-- Yes,Payne is a master of facial expressions, and very funny.

Etc, etc-- And then of course there's Alvin Lee...

etc, etc said...

Etc, etc-- And then of course there's Alvin Lee...

I've been piously resisting the temptation to buy a guitar like Lee's, a Gibson ES-335. You're not helping.

You've heard of that young man from a nice Jewish family who was a legendary bluesman , I assume?

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- Yes, I have indeed heard of that legendary bluesman. I was always tickled by the story that Al Kooper wanted to play guitar on the recording session for "Like A Rolling Stone" (written by yet another nice Jewish boy) but when he heard Bloomfield warming up, he put away his guitar and went over to sit down at the organ instead.

अर्जुन said...

Now its finally coming together~

Rockwell 1.0

Norm & The Boys

Ten Years After exploding Al Kooper's I Can't Keep From Crying, includes; some classical jazz, scat, signature licks, fret tapping, Sunshine of Your Love quote

etc, etc said...

Wow, अर्जुन; that's downright touching. I would like to think it says something of the cultural significance of Bloomfield and Kooper now largely forgotten, and that not just any old blokes could get Rockwellized. In my teens I took guitar lessons from a guy who had been a NYC studio musician in the 70s. He was the one who introduced me to Bloomfield's guitar playing, and he spoke about him with absolute reverence.

अर्जुन said...

etc,etc~ I know what you mean.

Today the secret word is session.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- Nice knitting. Rockwell seems like such an unlikely choice for Bloomfield and Kooper... there must have been 10,000 illustrators who were more sympatico and less expensive. I wonder if they played a role in the choice, and I wonder what he thought of their music.

Etc, etc-- you and अर्जुन seem to know more about now-forgotten musicians than I know about now-forgotten illustrators. Some of these musicians had poignant stories and made beautiful contributions. Remember Peter Jameson who used to play with Spencer Davis?

etc, etc said...

Jameson sounds vaguely familiar. Guitar and musician magazines used to feature highly talented but relatively unknown artists, frequently referred to as the "musician's musician"; that, along with word of mouth at various music (instrument) stores, is how I know about such types (and your knowledge of now-forgotten illustrators is why you have to put up with me, btw).

Either अर्जुन has some type of musician connection, or he is one of the most knowledgeable and discriminating non-musician listeners I have ever encountered (a previous John McLaughlin link really impressed me).

अर्जुन said...

D.A., re: Rockwell, good questions. Somebody get me the answers! ""Rockwell seems like such an unlikely choice for Bloomfield and Kooper"", I'm not so sure, as etc, etc pointed out, the choice of Rockwell underscores their stature and it also reflects their fusion of traditional American idioms blues/gospel/jazz. Their music only contains a mild dose of freak-out psych-rock.

""Remember Peter Jameson who used to play with Spencer Davis?"" ~ I never heard that album!!!

Scanning his credits I would be most familiar with the Dory Previn albums.

That's him right, the blond guitarist?

D.A. said, "than I know about now-forgotten illustrators". ~ Will you be sharing that on this blog? I look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Michael Bloomfield's first manager and promoter in the early 60's became one of Chicago's best known illustration agents in the 70's until his death last year.

Before his career as an artist rep, Joel Harlib was a music promoter and arranged for Bloomfield's weekly gig at the Fickle Pickle. Joel also managed Bloomfield during his first recording at Columbia music's Chicago studio in the early 60's.

Pretty off topic for a post on Chris Payne but after seeing Bloomfield being discussed I thought the connection between Harlib and Bloomfield might be a bit of interesting trivia.

Tim Langenderfer

Anonymous said...

Hey, I finally know something David doesn't! That purple 'watercolor wash' you mention is most likely oil. I have done a few paintings using Payne's technique (surprising, not as long a process as you would think), and that violet is actually the oil wash that is applied after the 1) acrylic and gesso layer, 2) and the watercolor wash. After the violet oil wash layer, highlights are picked out, and then after that dries, other details and fixes are done with colored pencils and sometimes more oil.


Ken Meyer Jr.

David Apatoff said...

Ken Meyer wrote: "Hey, I finally know something David doesn't! That purple 'watercolor wash' you mention is most likely oil."

Ken, on the long, long list of things you know that I don't, this must surely rank fairly low!

I too have had the great pleasure of watching Chris Payne do one of his amazing demonstrations. After putting down a layer of watercolor, he did in fact cover it with a layer of mineral spirits and then come back again with an oil paint layer of dioxazine purple mixed with Winsor Newton green light. Then he added a couple of additional layers. Frankly, I shouldn't have speculated about where those particular striations came from. But the demonstration was certainly incredible to watch.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the striations are pretty hard to avoid, as those are the brushstrokes from laying down that violet soaks into the illustration board pretty quickly, even though it does take awhile to fully dry.

Payne was nice enough to do a pro bono painting of Tori Amos for a calendar I put together for a few years...a great guy.


TFJ said...

Really nice work!