Saturday, April 21, 2012


In 1810 the great painter Francisco Goya was commissioned to paint a portrait of King Joseph Bonaparte.

Goya didn't like King Joseph, who Napoleon had placed on the Spanish throne by force, but Goya needed the money so he swallowed his pride and painted Joseph in a gold frame with adoring angels blowing trumpets and placing garlands to his glory.

Shortly after the painting was completed,  King Joseph was driven from Madrid.  Goya seized the opportunity to paint over his portrait of Joseph, replacing his face with the word, "Constitucion."

Unfortunately for Goya, the wheel of fortune turned once again and King Joseph returned to  power.  Joseph's portrait was hastily repainted.

The following year, Joseph was booted out of Spain for good, and Ferdinand VII returned to rule Spain.  Feeling more confident, Goya once again painted over the portrait with the word "Constitucion."

Unfortunately for Goya, Ferdinand VII annulled the Constitution the following year.  Now it was time to paint Ferdinand's face in the hallowed oval.

Goya was spared further revisions to his painting by dying in 1828, but that didn't stop later art directors from coming up with more improvements.  After Ferdinand died, the city of Madrid hired another artist to paint over the portrait of Ferdinand, replacing it with the words,  "Libro de la Constitucion."

That revision lasted almost 30 years until someone else decided that the painting should be modified to read "Dos de Mayo."  That's how it stands today.

I frequently hear from both gallery painters and illustrators that illustration is a lesser art form because illustrators lack the freedom of "fine" artists.  Famed illustrator Robert Weaver used to rant: 
Until the illustrator enjoys complete independence from outside pressure and direction, complete responsibility for his own work, and complete freedom to to do whatever he deems fit-- all necessaries in the making of art-- then illustration cannot be art but only a branch of advertising.
Someday we can debate whether "complete freedom to do whatever [an artist] deems fit" is "necessary" or even helpful for making art.

Today,  I just want to say that those who argue commercial illustration is inferior to fine art need to come up with a better reason than that illustrators must answer to clients.


Blogger etc, etc said...

Debate is perhaps a permutation of the hierarchy of genres?

4/21/2012 2:45 PM  
Blogger j. w. bjerk said...

That's hilarious!

4/21/2012 6:00 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

Gee David, here I thought that dying was a good career move for a painter.

4/21/2012 6:31 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

On a more serious note, the field of portraiture much of the time involves pleasing (or at least satisfying) a client. Really famous portrait painters might have on occasion bulled their way past clients, but I suspect they would be the main exception.

Actually, almost any artist who was commissioned to paint this mural, that ceiling, or the altarpiece over there was subject to the risk of art direction just like any other illustrator.

4/21/2012 6:40 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Raucher said...

I am a tremendous GOYA fan. Thanks for the article.


4/21/2012 7:14 PM  
Blogger ARMAND CABRERA said...

Hi David,

I have always held the art of a piece is in the execution, not how it is used. I’ve seen plenty of crappy gallery paintings that could of used some forceful art direction. I do think that illustrators have a more collaborative process before the painting is finished. For a gallery artist that process is input free but the gallery doesn’t take everything an artist paints into the gallery, so you could say the collaboration starts after the painting is completed by the artist. The advent of artist and illustrator websites that allow direct sales to a world market help to remove some of this but not all.

4/21/2012 11:25 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- I am certainly sympathetic to the instinct behind creating a hierarchy of genres, at least on a personal level. It shouldn't surprise anyone that I think we should all try to be thoughtful and self-aware about our tastes. But it seems to me we have to be careful to avoid taking the process further than it can reasonably be taken (or even worse, building our hierarchy on the basis of demonstrably false criteria).

j.w. bjerk-- I agree, although I'm not sure poor Goya saw the humor at the time.

Donald Pittenger-- Yes, a good portrait painter certainly has to walk a tightrope between flattery and veracity.

There are lots of funny stories about this, from John Singer Sargent to Peter Hurd. I don't think the Goya experience reported here is an isolated incident. Some of the greatest painters in history, including some of the most admired geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, spent an inordinate amount of time scheming to find and please wealthy sponsors. It was certainly not the world free from commercial pressure fantasized by Mr. Weaver.

4/23/2012 6:42 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Benjamin Raucher-- me too, especially his etchings which I find absolutely breathtaking. Thanks for writing.

Arman Cabrera-- Hi, Armand, good to hear from you. I agree with you-- certainly the art that I personally enjoy most falls into the category you describe-- although I can think of some situations where the use or application of a piece of art contributes to its importance. Some of that Peter Max or Bob Peak psychedelic art of the 1960s doesn't hold up so well in the execution, but it was important art in capturing the tidal wave of the era. And there is certainly no justification I can think of for Bill Mauldin to be in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, except for the fact that he invented two popular World War II cartoon characters, Willie and Joe. His execution was pretty bad.

I, like so many others, am delighted by the arrival of artist and illustrator web sites.

4/23/2012 6:59 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

or even worse, building our hierarchy on the basis of demonstrably false criteria

Well David, it is a matter of aesthetics and art after all, something that isn't all that practical or reasonable to begin with. It deals in matters of quasi-statistical generalizations, judgment (something Kant distinguished from pure reason and practical reason), and taste, not syllogisms or exact formulas. If one were inclined to do so, most everything could be shown to be demonstrably false by a well chosen anecdote.

It works for me to think of it in terms of fine art as tending to prefer the decorative/formal over the narrative, and illustration tending to prefer the narrative over the decorative/formal, which does allow for some overlap.

While I don't completely agree with Weaver's rant, I do think there is some generalized truth in it.

Wikipedia illustration section in "Fine Art"

4/23/2012 11:11 AM  
Blogger Greg Newbold said...

Anyone who thinks a "fine artist" is immune to outside influence and need only answer to his own creative muse is delusional. As an artist now straddling the fence between illustration and gallery work, I can attest that the same influences that exist in illustration are paralleled in the fine art world. Yesdeayin you do have more freedom to express things in the way you want, but if you don't pay attention to what people are saying and buying, it will be a difficult path to any kind of sustainable income. Client or collector, art director or gallery owner, they are all cut from the same cloth.

4/23/2012 1:05 PM  
Blogger Greg Newbold said...

"Yesdeayin" wow- how'd I let that typo slip in there?

4/23/2012 1:07 PM  
Anonymous larry said...

If you are responsible, mature and not independently wealthy, you face choices in life. If you are irresponsible, immature, or lucky enough to be independently wealthy, you still face choices, there's just less debate.
Nice story.

4/24/2012 9:11 AM  
Blogger Black Pete said...

I once heard the saw "When anything goes, nothing counts." In other words, when there are no constraints of any kind, nothing of value happens.

I'd say that constraints of one kind and another drive our creativity in getting around them and achieving something of value. One could argue (and evidently, some people do) that satisfying a client is a constraint and that what is achieved is of lesser value than that which would emerge from a constraint-free environment. I don't buy that.

I'd say that your examples and those of others I've seen certainly indicate that very fine art may be achieved through the constraint of having to satisfy a client. Or indeed, work under censorship of one kind another...

4/24/2012 10:57 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

It works for me to think of it in terms of fine art as tending to prefer the decorative/formal over the narrative, and illustration tending to prefer the narrative over the decorative/formal, which does allow for some overlap.

Per. Sev. Er. A. Tive.

If you want to get definitional, "Illustration" means/meant a making clear. One makes things clear by making its constituent elements clear (pace Peirce). Things are made clear in order that they be quickly comprehended by the mind. In so clarifying anything according to this illustrative viewpoint, the subject is made more illustrious. That is to say, decorative according to the occasion being celebrated. (All True Art is Praise ~ Ruskin) This making clear is no more applied in an NC Wyeth picture than in any given Ingres. The contrast of the distinctions each draws in rendering is relegated to the margins of, and the relations between the forms... where they are different in kind, not in number.

So upon analysis, the illustation/fine art framework offers no qualitative understanding of the matter.

4/24/2012 5:46 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

"Illustration" means/meant a making clear.


I agree that is highly relevant to illustration, but I don't see "making clear" as the objective of fine art; it is rather the pursuit of decorative/formal beauty in and of itself. And it makes perfect sense to me that a fine artist, through expertise in formal beauty (assuming they possess it), would be far more likely to be deferred to when the objective is decorative/formal beauty. An illustrator, on the other hand, is a hired gun to express another person's specific wishes; supporting a text or presentation of a product. If I could hire Michelangelo to design and fresco a palazzo for me, I'd be stupid not to defer to his giudizio; however, if I were to hire him to illustrate my novel or advertise my product, I would not defer to him nearly so much if he did not at the very least "make clear" my basic conceptual intentions.

4/24/2012 7:27 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

You're missing the point.

Making a visual idea clear, the clarification of a conception is the very way in which a concept is made decorative (in the general genre of "realism" -- broadly defined).

So it is the illustrative aspect, the making clear, of fine art that gives it its decorative character.

The principle at work is called Breadth. It is operating at full strength in Ingres, Brangwyn, Wyeth, Sargent, Everett, Vermeer, Rubens, and Leyendecker just to name a few. The philosophy and manner behind the clarification of visual concepts is slightly different for every artist, which is what makes great artwork by great artists so fascinating to study.

Just in terms of form: For one it is a way to create ideality, for another it is a way to give a strong flatness for a mural, for another it is a way to achieve anatomic volume, for another it is a way to give a sense that existential solidity has been transcended, and on and on.

So the axis of distinction you are teetering on doesn't really exist.

Your last few sentences about deferring to Michelangelo for a fresco but not for book illustration misses the fact that a fresco is an illustration, and that a lot of the great book illustrators from the Golden Age were given great leeway in their work, perfect freedom sometimes among the top tier guys, far more than any artist illustrating a bible story on a potentate's wall ever had, I'm sure.

Overall, the fundamental insight you are failing to arrive at regarding commerciality is simply this; nature does not make blank rectangles. So all blank rectangles are products. Any work done to beautify said blank rectangles is done to increase their value as products. Variations in the size, nature or geography of any particular blank rectangle, who's paying for it and when, what the content is, that's all incidental to the basic nature of the thing.

4/25/2012 12:14 AM  
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4/25/2012 3:08 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Making a visual idea clear, the clarification of a conception is the very way in which a concept is made decorative

So "clearness" equals "decorativeness" according to you? Sorry, not buying that.

4/25/2012 8:17 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

So "clearness" equals "decorativeness" according to you?


Bloody hell, no. Please God read what I write for comprehension instead of hunting for phrases you think you can quickly turn around as argument tactics.

4/25/2012 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

I like your bringing up NC Wyeth in relation to this. I just finished his biography and his struggle between illustration and "fine art" was an odd one. Pyle kind of defined illustration for Wyeth, telling him he had to communicate quickly and clearly (but with great thought and craft)
Wyeth thought illustration was an intrusion on the real work he should have been doing (Like Mucha and Dore?)
But, when Wyeth did his "real" wasn't as good...or maybe even as personal as his illustration.
Then to throw another monkey wrench into things...along comes his son Andrew, and does his best work as fine art...and maybe surpassed his father in depth and subtlety (or maybe not...apples and oranges...)

4/25/2012 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Does anyone remember who said ," commercial art sells something else. Fine art sells itself"
I think a lot of illustration can fall comfortably under the latter description. Wyeth's illustrations may have helped make the books more attractive, and "sold" them that way...but when you take the book as a whole (illustrations and all) it really just exists to sell itself.

4/25/2012 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Ok...I should shut up now...but I just thought of another thing. You have NC Wyeth the fine artist, NC Wyeth the illustrator...and NC Wyeth the commercial artist too (didn't he do ads for Cream of Wheat or some such thing?)

And then there are murals...which, I'd think would go under the fine art heading...wouldn't they?

4/25/2012 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Norm said... my earlier fine art/commercial art definition:
T-shirt airbrushed with fake boobs= Fine Art
Leyendecker Arrow Collar ads= crass commercial art.

So...does this mean I can't slap easy labels on things?
That sucks, because taking each work of art on its own merits is time consuming and makes me think too much
(now, I'll really shut up...)

4/25/2012 3:14 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Please God

You're an atheist...remember?

Seriously though, Kev; are you not suggesting there is some correlation between "making clear" and "decorativeness"? Yet there are plenty of visual ideas that have been made perfectly clear, but, have no real decorative value by comparison. The decorativeness is correlated to (i.e inherent in) the concept, not of the process of "making clear".

4/25/2012 4:51 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Kev; are you not suggesting there is some correlation between "making clear" and "decorativeness"? Yet there are plenty of visual ideas that have been made perfectly clear, but, have no real decorative value by comparison. The decorativeness is correlated to (i.e inherent in) the concept, not of the process of "making clear".

You show me a visual idea presented without decorative value, and I will show you a confused artistic statement.

Inherent in each concept is its pure essence, the core, unique truth of it. It takes enormous sensitivity and understanding to appreciate such things, (the hallmark of the artistic sensibility before the culture went off the rails.)

The process of clarifying a concept is somewhat akin to clarifying butter. All the impurities are removed so that what is left is the essence of the thing. And pure essences are beautiful, always. Any concept reaches the height of its beauty when it stands forth in its natural perfection. (This understanding is as old as antiquity.)

Left unclarified, a concept is grubby with insensible additives. Like a photo is created grubby by its texture of facts.

One cannot clarify anything without having a sense of what the ideal sought might be. In cooking, the formulas are often known. In art, reflection and appreciation and taste and intuition and philosophy and knowledge all play a hand in the process. You can't reduce this to a bumper sticker by saying clearness equals decorativeness. Because the essence of anything is just as easy to "clear out" as the incidental elements if one isn't cognizant of the ideal sought.

4/25/2012 6:55 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

That last response lulled me into a stupor. Brilliant move. You win.

4/25/2012 10:48 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/25/2012 11:52 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc etc wrote: "While I don't completely agree with Weaver's rant, I do think there is some generalized truth in it."

If as you say, art includes an element of judgment and cannot be reduced to "exact formulas" (which surely seems right to me) that is all the more reason for Weaver to refrain from dictating the "necessaries" for art. And it is especially a reason for him to refrain from sneering at fellow illustrators who don't follow his particular formula. When Weaver is dealing with only "generalized truth," a little humility is warranted.

Greg Newbold wrote: "Client or collector, art director or gallery owner, they are all cut from the same cloth."

I suspect that's right, although every once in a while I cherish the notion that a little intelligent push back from a talented art director (such as a Dick Gangel) might serve a useful purpose for an artist working in isolation. But I generally agree with all your points except "Yesdeayin." (PS-- congrats on your piece in the new Spectrum!)

Larry-- Yes, and as with all choices if you make the wrong ones your are ultimately confronted with the consequences of your bad judgment. Those who are "irresponsible, immature, or lucky enough to be independently wealthy" may avoid having their noses rubbed in the consequences for a little while longer, but sometimes that just means the consequences are all the more brutal when they finally arrive.

4/26/2012 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the white text on black is really too difficult to read for long and leaves the eye highly strained.
could you consider some other colour background for the text.
am a big fan of your writing and blog.

4/28/2012 5:26 AM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

90% of what we see in galleries today is produced under tighter constraints than anyone in the commercial sector. The work is no more than a decorative formula, served from a recipe with slight garnish variations. It is only the art emperor’s new clothes that covers up the fact.

If I have understood Kev correctly, decorative is a by-product of clarity. Most of the pictures peddled in our fine art galleries are little more than ready made, template clarifications served up with a twist that is pretended to be the mark of artistic worth.

The only pictorial problem to solve is how to disguise the fact it has already been solved by someone else.

5/02/2012 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ferrara --- was that you on the gurneyjourney blog ??

If so , that must have been a great experence .

Al McLuckie

5/04/2012 1:59 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...


Yes, I've made a few cameo appearances on Jim TV. (I have no lines, and they only pay me scale. But the screen time pleases my agent)

Hope you're well! Any news from Frazetta-land?

5/04/2012 1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not much - Frank and Ellies deaths were faked , they have just wrapped filming a reality show and Frank is launching a painting blog .


5/04/2012 3:03 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Frank and Ellies deaths were faked


Turns out they faked the fakeness. :(

I meant, is there any news about the Frazetta museum moving to Texas? Or any plans for any of the works to be shown as a group anywhere? Any unseen gems turn up recently? Any word on who was forging sketches and attributing them to FF?


5/04/2012 4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure you follow Doc Daves blog - a ton of stuff i'd never seen and some of high quality has been posted . is , I think , Rodriguez's site and has info on the museum . I'm teaching in Dallas in june and hope to make it to Austin to check it out if it's open .


5/04/2012 10:32 PM  
Anonymous AJA said...

And there is certainly no justification I can think of for Bill Mauldin to be in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, except for the fact that he invented two popular World War II cartoon characters, Willie and Joe. His execution was pretty bad.

I was wondering if you could explain this. Based on a perfunctory glance, his execution doesn't seem as bad as you're making it out to be.

5/05/2012 11:51 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

AJA-- I'd divide Mauldin's work into two phases: his World War II series about Willie and Joe and his post war political cartoons. In both categories, he endeared himself to large audiences and displayed a lot of heart (winning a couple of pulitzer prizes in the process). In World war II, for example, the enlisted men loved him and the officers hated him because he made fun of the top brass and refused to back down when General Patton himself threatened Mauldin. So I give Mauldin huge props for that. However, his drawing talent was pretty much limited to the ability to achieve a decent likeness. There was nothing particularly imaginative about his pictures, nothing innovative or sensitive or striking in his art. For example, he was not nearly of the same caliber as MacNelly or Oliphant or a number of other political cartoonists. There are a million people out there who are capable of drawing two arms, two legs and a head as well as Mauldin did.

So the question becomes, does the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame include only the most talented artists, or does it also include popular culture figures who have struck a chord because of their writing or good heart or personal experiences? That's a definitional question that the Society has to resolve for itself.

5/18/2012 10:21 AM  
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5/22/2012 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I adore this blog. I had a browser crash, then a system crash, then my old computer refused to give up my old links. I bought a new MacMini and it runs like a sports car... But I still missed your great blog. Then my web mail got a message from one of the posters on... 'Bad Art.' Yippeeeee!! Now I'm back. All the opinionated arty artists are here again, all the work a day, real artists are back... and all the hot air bullshit artists, bless em... I love em all... Thank you for all the art. It's all a matter of taste anyway. It all works on some level. I had a look at a spanking art blog on Friday and the technical bits were shocking, lousy anatomy, perspective none existent, in short it was amateur night in Dixi... But they all wanted to illustrate their subject and on that level it was all ok... If you like that kind of thing.

Art Lover

6/03/2012 1:29 AM  

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