Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I like the choices in this tiny drawing by R.O. Blechman:

Blechman's figures are so small, his word balloons have to be larger than his drawing to make words legible.

The size and simplicity of Blechman's drawing don't shield him from the kinds of decisions and trade offs we associate with larger, more complex works.  In fact, Blechman's slender tools can make each choice even more significant.

For example, an artist who uses 25 lines to draw hair has a margin for error; a few lines more or less, or an occasional mistaken line, are hardly noticeable.   Blechman's patented two line haircut makes each line important:

 One line would not be enough, three would be too many. 

 Similarly, note what a difference it makes that the man's eyes are horizontal slits while the woman's eyes are vertical slits.  These are the simplest, most basic marks a human being can make, yet the proportional impact of his choice on the content of the drawing is substantial.

When we look at Blechman's original drawing close up we see him making some unothodox choices.

Since the world began, no art teacher ever said it was OK to leave the top half of a head unfinished in order to focus on the individual hairs of a beard stubble:

Similarly, who would leave an arm disconnected at the elbow, its line flowing away into space,  while focusing all that attention on the polka dot pattern of a bow tie?
Did the artist lose interest halfway down the arm?

Here he draws the leg all the way down to the ground, then chooses to leave off one foot:

And look at the way he chooses to draw hands: just enough information to suggest the possible existence of a thumb.

Today's comic strips are filled with tiny, simplified pictures that are mostly awful-- wooden and formulaic.  Their size is dictated by a number of practical constraints :  newspaper space restrictions, time limits, current fashions, etc..  But Blechman's work reminds us that art on the nano scale can still be sensitive and interesting.

A show of Blechman's art was recently exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts, and a  retrospective exhibition will be on display at the School of Visual Arts in NY beginning in October.


Joss said...

I too have marveled at the sense of integrity conveyed by Blechman's lines which seem to border on scribble, Brings to my mind Cy Twombly (whom I'm not always sure if I like) and Giorgio Morandi. There is no question of a clear and definite vision, personality and style. I suppose what I find myself questioning in an artist like Twombly is whether his work is just a facade or perhaps he himself is phony. This uncertainty devalues a work for me, though I admit it is very subjective. It's preferable when this sense never comes up. In an artist like Blechman, there is no question of fronting. It is what it is. Lovely details. Beard stubble, no forehead is a bold move.

kev ferrara said...

A little mint-chocolate candy can be just the thing.

MORAN said...

I'd like to see Blechman's originals and will definitely make it to the SVA show.

Richard said...
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Richard said...

"I suppose what I find myself questioning in an artist like Twombly is whether his work is just a facade or perhaps he himself is phony."

His work feels good, what does it matter if he's a phony? I'd give 10 artists who don't make me feel anything, but are the picture of authenticity, for a phony like Twombly.

The same goes for this R.O. Blechman. I don't know if he knows what he is doing -- he may be a big fat phony, but I love it! Give me all the squiggly people you want, I'll take them.

Look at the new kid on the block, Chinese cartoonist Afu Lee. He can't draw for shit, in a classical sense. He's a phony. But I'm right there with him every day of the week when he's doing a little fun cartoon.

Kurt Cyrus said...

I'm not sure what's gained by magnifying a tiny drawing and then critiquing the lines. Some of what you refer to as "choices" are really necessities at that scale-- for example, drawing every finger on the hands would have created a black blot, so he stuck to thumbs only. And the beard stubble with no forehead does look like a bold move when magnified, but not so much at the original size. You might as well say that giving the woman the head of a pig was a very bold move, except that her piglike appearance is less of an issue when seen in miniature. This is a fun exercise, but murky in its application.

David Apatoff said...

Kurt Cyrus-- "Murky" may not be the correct word here. There is always a legitimate question as to whether we see more from an airplane window or through a microscope, but I'm not sure either view is more murky than the other. If you can think of a better way of isolating and understanding Blechman's choices than zooming in on the individual decision points on an original drawing, I'd be interested. I agree that when you zoom back out, those points become re-integrated into the whole, as they should be. It really becomes a question of whether one cares how the artist achieved that look.

Joss-- Yes, Blechman's work looks so effortless from a distance that one might wonder how much of it is a lucky scribble. For me that's part of the charm of the drawing. (Of course, no one is "lucky" for 50 years.) I think when you look at the line work up close, and see how Blechman has distilled and simplified his subject, it is very thoughtful.

Kev Ferrara-- good description.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen Blechman's line close up like this. It makes me respect him even more.


David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Yes, it should be interesting. He had an earlier show at the Museum of Modern Art, but that was some time ago.

Richard-- Can you tell me how you came upon "the new kid on the block, Chinese cartoonist Afu Lee"? I see his youtube videos, but not much else that would explain how he gets the word out, all the way from China.

JSL-- Thanks.

Kurt Cyrus said...

I guess I didn't express myself well in the comment above. My intended point was that by zooming in so close, the lessons you learn would likely not be applicable to a larger drawing. So, if you're planning to make some teeny-tiny drawings, then sure, zoom in close to his teeny-tiny drawing and see how he did it. Just don't expect those same choices and techniques to work in your favor when drawing at a more typical scale. No offense intended!

Matthew Adams said...

Hi Kurt,

The same principle of what to leave out can be scaled up to bigger paintings, it would just be different choices.

The fact that he has drawn three very different people, who each have a character to match what they say, goes beyond nescessity. He hasn't just drawn a cartoon head with two lines for hair, he had drawn a person whose voice you can hear in your head when you read his speech bubble, distinct from the other two. His genius lies in the fact that with so little visual information he is communicating so much. Each one of his squiggly lines is worth a thousand words...

Ok, getting a little silly but I think you should get the gist of what I am trying to say, which is something Blechman could probably say with just one of his squiggly lines.

Kurt Cyrus said...

Well said, Matthew

Joss said...

Some of Twombly's work feels good, but for me the larger portion of it does not. Blechman's work doesn't leave that kind of wiggle room because it can not fall so far. It is not expected to be anything more than a silly little cartoon, but then by looking closer as David has done you are rewarded.

I don't see why you would call Afu Lee a phony. He has some skill, but neither Blechman nor Afu lee is trying to draw classically. I don't think Lee's work has nearly as much unique personality as Blechman's, but he is working in a more popular style from what little I'm seeing here.

Matthew Adams,
You do pretty damn well in under 150 words. Judging from Kurt's response. I often feel so helpless in my attempts at expressing myself here, and am amazed at how some people do it so well, with so few lines, as abstracted as written language is.

chris bennett said...

It is what Blechman's lines infer that distinguishes him from someone like Twombly.

Lines that buckle the paper into a world about the world.

'Meaning between the lines' as Jeff Jones said about why he loved drawing.

Richard said...


This goes back to the "problem" of not using Facebook, as I put it, at the Kelly house, and why I nudged you to join.

I'm mostly familiar with Afu's work (and this is true of most Chinese, Korean and Japanese artists I follow) because he is in the large extended network of Facebook-represented illustrators.

Especially for artists where there is a significant language barrier, like entirely different character sets, it is pretty difficult to delve into their side of the internet to find their work.

I know that in the Asian market he is popular mostly because he's regularly published in "dpi 流行設計創意雜誌", which is a big Mandarin language illustration magazine. He also runs a shop in Taichung, Taiwan (台中市) called Afu Dreamer's Forest. Beyond that, I'd have to, again, point you towards Facebook. XD

The amount of artists who use their Facebook as their primary working blog is rather substantial. In a lot of cases, even if they run public facing blogs or websites, it is their facebook where you'll get to see the interesting nitty-gritty of their processes.

That's true for even some bigger names; Sam Vanallemeersch, Hyunjin Kim, William Wu, Jean Jullien, Jorge González, etc

"I don't see why you would call Afu Lee a phony."

I must've misunderstood what you meant by phony. I thought you meant untrained/unskilled in a classical sense and trying to cover up for it with over-stylization or abstraction. It's a rather common way to attempt to denigrate an artist, so you'll hopefully understand why I jumped to that conclusion.

Richard said...

Sorry, not Hyunjin Kim, I meant to say Kim Jung Gi.

David Apatoff said...

Kurt Cyrus wrote: "by zooming in so close, the lessons you learn would likely not be applicable to a larger drawing."

I think I understand your point a little better, but I'm still not sure why the same principles would not be applicable at the micro and the macro level. At the micro level, we have to blow up the drawing 5x in order to see the artist's decisions. At the macro level, it's easy to see the artist leaving off a head or a hand ( such as in these great big paintings by Phil Hale). More to the point, in huge paintings the decision to make a single line vertical or horizontal, or to place it in one location or 6 inches to the left can make a huge difference (as in this painting by Barnett Newman: http://www.blueverticalstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/barnettnewmanimage001.jpg). I'd think it was kind of charming if the rules that govern Blechman's tiny drawings also governed huge paintings. It would prove there is no separate quantum mechanics for art.

JSL-- Yes, they're interesting to see. Following up on the point from Kurt Cyrus above, quantity IS a facet of quality, and capturing images in this feathery, trembling style does transform the quality.

Matthew Adams and Curt Cyrus-- I concur.

Joss wrote: "I often feel so helpless in my attempts at expressing myself here, and am amazed at how some people do it so well."

Yes, I feel the same way. We deal with some very weighty (and rewarding) issues around here, and when you combine that with the fact that words are merely a poor substitute for drawing, it's difficult to say something worthwhile. Nevertheless, I am often very impressed with the quality of the thoughts and images presented here.

António Araújo said...

>Kim Jung Gi

I was going to mention that guy. He posts some amazing stuff on facebook. Those sketchbooks of him are really tempting.

Also, his use of perspective is great. He uses cylindrical perspective in a really cool, natural way without making a show of it.

kev ferrara said...


Blechman has a nice cartoon style. I'm sure it takes no effort for him to draw like this. And if he makes an error on any given drawing, I'm sure he has no qualms about just throwing it in the trash and starting on a new piece of paper.

So while it is surely so that he is "using the power of the inductive imagination of his audience to complete his drawings", this sounds a lot fancier when put like so in big words rather than the simple act of what's going on when you're just doodling on a piece of paper with a felt-tip.

I mean, it is pretty darn easy to draw simply, as the human mind needs very little information by which to infer a human figure on a piece of paper. Even the worst artist among us can still draw a cartoon face on a napkin and leave half of it out and we'll get the picture.

All to say, the oohing and ahhing just seems wildly misplaced on this point, I think.

It is much, much harder to draw funny, and consistently so. And that is why we care about Blechman.

Speaking of blech, man, why do you persist in promoting this notion that Barnett Newman is anything more than a simple-minded designer? Is this the badge that says "See, David is open-minded and properly relativist? He is willing to think that the most banal graphic design imaginable is Art just the same as Brangwyn's Skinner Hall murals are Art."

Newman painted a blue line. He painted it one place and not another. The rest of the canvas was red. I'll alert the media.

Incidentally, do you have any more links to large scans of Phil Hale's work? Because I'm jonesing for some oohing of my own.

António Araújo said...

It's true that a single line will change a work and that this Newman painting illustrates that point in its most basic form. Having said that, the picture looks like something out of Ramachandran's lab rather than a gallery. :)

You could have a computer paint the dividing line in all possible positions and then check against the neural responses of a focus group of human subjects to see which they preferred. It is the easiest art - assuming that it is art - to be taken over by computers.

The fact that Newman chose that single variable all by himself somehow doesn't seem impressive. Are we sure that he really got the optimal placement? Have we checked how we feel about all other choices? I'd love for someone to actually go through the trouble of testing that. :) Without the comparison, I feel it is hard to give Newman any accolades for his good taste in interior decoration. I suppose it is good he didn't place it in the middle, although some numerologist nutjob somewhere is screaming that the golden ratio would the be just the right spot... :)

Tom said...

From your last post David
You have to wonder who benefits from these relations?



Richard said...
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Richard said...

"You could have a computer paint the dividing line in all possible positions and then check against the neural responses of a focus group of human subjects to see which they preferred. It is the easiest art - assuming that it is art - to be taken over by computers."

I'm wildly excited for this science to come into play.

As it is, it seems like a big part of what makes for a great artist is how well they can turn off their expertise, how well they can experience a *picture* with the wholistic experience of the novice. Wholistic because, when not caught up in the technical aspects of how the illusion is done, how the image is made, they see only the image itself. I think most of us have probably had the experience of being at a museum, and hearing as it dawns on someone that paintings have strokes -- "My god! Look, you can see all of the brush strokes!"

Does this change the audience's opinion of the work? Far from it, often the very next sentence goes along the lines of "Still, I don't know why someone would paint a picture of a bunch of dead brown pheasants."

For the most part though, it seems like even great artists can barely manage to turn off their expertise long enough to see the image as the untrained audience sees it. They lose the forest for the trees -- or to use David's analogy -- well-trained artists all too often see only the quantum interactions at play, and miss out on the classical physics of visual experience, the chemistry of it, and it is this *picture*, this surface chemistry, this illusion, that makes the audience swoon for a picture or walk on.

I think what makes photography so much more exciting than drawing to the public is that there are no artists to get in the way of the *pictures*. The audience at large drudges through the billions of photographs taken every year, and by way of crowd-sourcing, finds those images that turn them on, without any bothersome "expertise" getting in the way of that. The audience "checks against their neural responses ", but how much better off will we be when the artist can continually check again neural responses at the very time of creation?

Perhaps painters and draftsman will finally be able to make themselves valuable to the public when they've go this technology in hand. God I hope so, otherwise this artform is likely finished.

António Araújo said...


I agree about the part of turning off the expertise and enjoying the work.

Not only the technical expertise - I notice that in Paris it's usually the biographical expertise: "oh, he is such a geeenius!.... And you know, this is a drawing of his aunt with whom he was having an affair while sick with tuberculosis". Who cares, lady, let us see the painting!! :)))

But I don't think that artists really *need* any help from science. I think the science (apart from technique and inspiration) is mostly interesting for us to understand art in *one more* parallel, complementary way (and it is one more of those aspects like biography and technique that we should switch off for a while to just look at the painting :)). I get distracted when I notice Kim Jung Gi using panoramic perspective and wonder if his lines are "correct" :p

Also, do you really feel so pessimistic about art with all the cool stuff going around in your facebook feed and blogs (if not in galleries)? :) (lots of fun in those watercolors)

> how much better off will we be >when the artist can continually >check

I hope for the sake of curiosity that we'll be able to do that, but I don't think it will be necessarily good in terms of consequences. In a way, that is done in Pop music: every sentence in the lyrics, every note in the song is targeted at and validated by focus groups...and the result is something that will sell to the "average" audience, but in a safe, bottled, boring way. The misuse of that kind of science is rampant.

Can you imagine conceptart with neural optimization but never letting go of the endless alien monster pictures and the "cool! A girl with a gun" mentality, only optimized for the average buyer? (when we optimize, we gotta optimize for *someone*, and the average is more profitable). I cringe! :)) The perfect alien space monster is still just another alien space monster.

I still think it would be utterly cool to know, though :)... and I hope it doesn't bring much damage along with the good.

We're probably safe as long as there are cool artists making fun pictures of critters with their watercolors. :)

kev ferrara said...

It is the badly trained artist that gets so caught up in picayune technical matters that the gestalt falls out of focus.

Anonymous said...

This kind of drawing is fine if there's a brilliant joke or observation to go with it, but I don't see that here.

Anonymous said...

The lines make me uncomfortable; reminds me of Parkinson's tremors.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I'm sure it takes no effort for him to draw like this. And if he makes an error on any given drawing, I'm sure he has no qualms about just throwing it in the trash."

Kev, I don't know what kind of labor goes into these drawings, although when I had occasion to write about Blechman years ago I showed an original drawing where he had gone back with white paint to shave 1/32 of an inch off a man's nose (that's the difference between funny and not funny, I suppose. http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2010/09/drawing-attention-to-whisper.html). Many artists who try for a light and casual look have to work like dogs to achieve it, but I suspect you're right, Blechman's style probably comes more naturally to him.

Kris wrote: "This kind of drawing is fine if there's a brilliant joke or observation to go with it, but I don't see that here."

I know illustration is generally thought of as illustrating some text, but a sensitive line or an interesting composition can be judged even without having that text available. I think most of the art on this blog can stand alone, without an understanding of the content. Is there something different you see in these drawings?

Anonymous wrote: "The lines make me uncomfortable; reminds me of Parkinson's tremors."

I understand why you say that, but I refer you to my link for Kev Ferrara, above. If Blechman is making such miniscule adjustments to the length of a nose, then clearly he must have something very precise in mind.

Laurence John said...
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Richard said...

"In a way, that is done in Pop music: every sentence in the lyrics, every note in the song is targeted at and validated by focus groups...and the result is something that will sell to the "average" audience, but in a safe, bottled, boring way. The misuse of that kind of science is rampant."

No doubt it pushes stagnation in certain areas of an artform.

In Pop Music truly poetic lyrics are dying, if not dead. By the same token, the art of production has hit an all time high.

I would argue the quality of music production today has the underlying compositional complexity of the great classical masters -- if you're interested, there's a rather entertaining breakdown of Beyonce's All the Single Ladies here (http://blog.fixyourmix.com/2009/single-ladies-by-beyonce-a-compositional-analysis/)

What's more, celebrity has become more interesting. It's become an artform of it's own, and has given a lot of steam to high-level fashion designers. Music video production as well.

What's more -- knowing that they will not make it in the market at large, plenty of musical artists have felt freed from financial concerns, and are going to the extremes in pushing music, which they may never have done if there loomed the possibilities of profits -- e.g. Koennjihyakkei's Tziidall Raszhisst

António Araújo said...

>a rather entertaining breakdown of >Beyonce's All the Single Ladies

Whoa, that's impressive! Especially the comments sections. An exegesis of "all the single ladies" is the last thing I'd expect to be reading with pleasure today! :)

>celebrity has become more interesting

How so? Don't you think that following the antics of Jim Morrison or Iggy Pop was more entertaining than the endless pseudo-scandals over whether Miley Cyrus is showing another inch of skin today or Justin Bieber broke a nail? (Then again, maybe it's just that it was a more entertaining age - like going from Kennedy and Marylin to Clinton and Lewinsky)

Or did you mean something else?

>Music video production as well.


> knowing that they will not make >it in the market at large, plenty >of musical artists have felt freed >from financial concerns, and are >going to the extremes in pushing >music

Side effects have their own side effects. Yes, sometimes it's just better to be marginalized and forced into making a clean cut.

>e.g. Koennjihyakkei's Tziidall >Raszhisst

Tell... me ....you just made that one up :))

Richard said...

Unfortunately with a name that unusual, even an additional letter "n" will through off google spell check. The name is actually Koenjihyakkei Tziidall Raszhisst.

Richard said...

Or here, here's their "pop" track.


António Araújo said...

Thank you! :)

kev ferrara said...

Some nice new-sounding ideas in that song, very linear though. Ever groove to the Balinese Monkey Chant from Baraka?

David, I can imagine how a small matter like a line weight would be easier to correct rather than crumbling and starting over. I've met so many cartoonists over the years, and my experience has invariably been that the better they are the more what they do is like handwriting.

indiaartfair said...

Art can also help children work out any frustrations in their lives by offering a healthy, expressive medium. In addition, exposure to art and the chance to develop their own art provides children with a more diversified experience that can help them in the classroom as well, allowing them for more opportunities for an enhanced learning experience.


Richard said...

>Balinese Monkey Chant from Baraka

Yes, indeed. Great stuff.

If you're into atonal rounds like that, I'd suggest you check out "Zs" and their 2010 album "New Slaves", if you haven't heard it already.

It's basically an entire album of modern takes on that idea.

kev ferrara said...

On the issue of visual inference: Here's a minimalist composition which, it seems to me, really pushes the envelope. (1921 Saturday Evening Post ad.)