Monday, August 18, 2014

KNOWING WHEN TO LET GO

Neal Adams was probably the most technically skillful comic artist of his generation. He was justly famous for his ability to squeeze fine lines and complex poses into densely packed panels:

But skilled fingers don't always know when to quit.  They itch to add more and more of those beautiful lines, and sometimes overwork a picture.
 

 Consider this disastrous reverse profile from an Adams illustration for Playboy:

Adams couldn't stand to be confined to the smooth plane of a cheek; he needed more to draw, so he reached clear around to the other side of the face and clawed the chin, nose and other features into view.  The result is an overworked, exaggerated mess.

A subtler artist might have exercised restraint and implied what was on the far side of that face.  The truth is, it often requires more talent to draw a simple contour than to fill in supporting details.

With one crayon stroke, Austin Briggs brilliantly captures the reverse profile of a balding man

In the following drawing, Kathe Kollwitz buries all of Adams' details in a shadow.  Yet, there is more honest observation in the contour of the silhouette than in the hundred lines Adams drew.

 

 For Robert Fawcett, being a master of details included knowing when to stop.  As the head turns and facial features go out of the viewer's sight...

 
...Fawcett knew enough to let them go for the sake of the picture:


 I've previously expressed my admiration for this drawing by John Cuneo, who was able to use just a few skittering marks along the circumference of a circle to convey a face turning away:

 
Here are a couple of other examples of Cuneo's sensitive line giving us far more information through judicious restraint:
 
 


Last, another favorite I've shown on this blog before-- Richard Thompson's delightful drawing of Santa's spokesman walking away:


All it took was something as delicate as the perspective on the elf eyeglasses (behind the cheek, in front of the nose) to show us the position of his head. There's nothing heavy handed in Thompson's work.

I'm a big admirer of Neal Adams' draftsmanship but sometimes his technical skill seems to run away with the picture.  He seems to have drawn the reverse profile above like the man who searched for his car keys under the streetlight, despite losing them down the block, because "the light is better here."  Adams forced details where they did not belong because that was the only space he had. 

41 comments:

Donald Pittenger said...

From what I've read, plus a dab of introspection, deciding when to stop is one of an artist's most difficult skills to learn.

A while ago I read a biography of Ilya Repin, the Russian master. It seems that when he was old and living in the Grand Duchy of Finland, he spent a good deal of time reworking earlier paintings. Could it be that he mastered every skill save one?

Anonymous said...

Loved his early work for Warren DC and Marvel - that first wash job he did for Warren was impeccable .

I felt he lost something - the most important of things - in the late 70's when he started inking with a rapidograph , and began putting a sort of smirk on every face , using what looked like a Bob Peak like cluster of lines in the corners of every mouth he drew .
Al McLuckie

MORAN said...

Thanks for a nice group of faces.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I agree that knowing when to "leave it alone" is crucial. As many people stop too late as stop too soon.

Al McLuckie / Anonymous-- Yes, I think his work for DC, Marvel and Warren (the first original I show is from a Warren story) turned the entire field on its head. Beautiful work, and you still see its echoes throughout comic-con. Adams seemed to specialize in extreme clenched teeth and furrowed brows, and there must have been a thousand artists at Comic-Con mimicking that look.

MORAN-- Thank you, I am proud of this handsome collection of heads from a wide variety of artists with distinctive voices. In my opinion, all of them are beautifully done.

Tom said...

Maybe it is the lines that describe the folds in the pants behind the head that cause the disagreeable feeling. A plain background behind the head might better define the complex drawing of the head.

David Apatoff said...

Tom, I agree that the failure to prioritize between the face and the pants in the background is a big part of the problem, but it is symptomatic of a problem afflicting the whole drawing. Adams draws a band aid on the foot of a player in the background, or shoe laces on the shoes of players behind that. It's nice that Adams has the skill to draw such things, but why should that splendidly drawn hand in the center of the picture have to wrestle with such pointless details for our attention?

kev ferrara said...

Nicely made point, smartly illustrated. Thanks, David. This one was a service.

I think the issue comes down to Adams' fierce commitment to specificity, which, when unchecked by more painterly or gestalt concerns, can result in loss of perspective and rendering for its own sake. In my opinion Adams' lack of painterly concerns/training prevented him from becoming a worthy rival in his time to Frazetta, Jones, or Meltzoff as a fine art illustrator. He certainly had the talent and energy.

Harvey Dunn said an artist cannot help but reveal his every thought and concern at every moment of artistic creation.

AleŇ° said...

Nice post, David.

What also bothers me are the repeated face positions, two guys in the front, the guy with a towel over his shoulder and the black guy wearing 65 dress. Consecutively the smoking guy and the one holding shoe laces almost seem to be a pair too. There is something artificial about such coincidences and it appears unfitting in contrast to quite natural, spontaneous pose of the main guy. So I wonder why all this didn't disturb Adams's observational ability for particular.

Tom said...

David
I just started staring at the the larger cropped picture of the head, which seems pretty well drawn and I totally forgot about it's context in the actual picture and the larger context of your post. As Delacroix said, "we want a picture, not a grocer's list."

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Mr. Adams never heard of Alex Toth's mantra. "Less is more" or " Simplify, simplify, simplify."

etc, etc said...

I find myself adopting a more lenient stance over the past few years of reading your blog, David. I say let comic books be comic books; youthful, frenetic, and often wasted energy. Not to mention a disposition of mind that is far more inclined and better suited to visually rummaging the clutter for interesting details than arriving at a "gestalt", to use Kev's terminology.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- It's interesting, but I never thought of Adams as being a Frazetta / Jones / Meltzoff type of illustrator. Too many pictures of clenched teeth. I found his color paintings of Tarzan to be overwrought in a manner similar to this football drawing. But upon reflection I think you're right, he certainly had the talent and energy. He was so damn good that he had a syndicated strip as a teenager, and to the extent he had higher ambitions he devoted them to artists rights and entrepreneurship. Those are certainly worthwhile ambitions, but they didn't pay off in the picture the way that Frazetta's or Jones' or Meltzoff's higher ambitions did.

Ales-- I see your point. Personally, I am guessing that after Adams used photo reference or models for the main figures, he filled in the background with rote figures from his imagination-- repetitive prototypes that he felt comfortable drawing on automatic pilot.

Tom-- While my own opinion is that the head is not well drawn, when I go back and look at it I am impressed once again with what a fearless inker Adams was. He used those heavy brush strokes, combined with fine pen lines, in a way that could easily result in catastrophe for a less sure hand. Adams was such a daring inker, nobody (not even Tom Palmer) could ink him as well as he inked himself.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Yes, Mr. Toth was a completely different animal with a different set of strengths and weaknesses.

etc, etc-- I hope your new found leniency isn't the result of diminished expectations or lowered standards. (After all, many fine arts types are lenient toward illustration because they don't expect anything from it.) Those are certainly "youthful" attributes you describe, but there is still potential greatness in them. And energy that youth enjoys wasting is not wasted.

Ray said...

When I was a teen and into my twenties, I was obsessed with Neal Adams' style. And his stuff from the '60s and '70s was largely amazing. Dave, the full page you posted was beautiful. I could stare at his fluid, expressive and confident inking for hours.

His stuff now looks lifeless, busy, confusing and crude. He's forgotten how to ink. His current work looks like a lesser artist who is trying to ape Adams' look. He's become a pale "tribute band" imitation of himself.

I had a well-known comic artist tell me that he thought advertising ruined Adams' style. I don't know what happened, but he's not only not pushing himself artistically anymore, he can't even rise to the level of his own work from several decades ago.

Anonymous said...

Ray - "tribute band imitation " - a good description !

In terms of pushing himself and rising to his old level, well , he's in his 70's .

I admire him a lot for creators rights efforts , and shaking things up in his early days . Also in interviews he is the only artist I can think of that ever spoke of the need for balance in life - work family health - if one breaks down , they all break down .

If you really look at a lot of his early work , there is a lot more going on than clenched fists and gritting teeth angst . I see a sincere artist depicting a huge range of subtle emotion and interaction between characters , and doing it as well as anyone - Starr etc, ever did .

Back then, I would not have believed his work would have gone where it did.

Al McLuckie

etc, etc said...

I hope your new found leniency isn't the result of diminished expectations or lowered standards.

I'd call them appropriate standards.

And energy that youth enjoys wasting is not wasted.

Try telling that to the juvenile court judge.

Ray said...

Al McLucky, I agree.

He did a lot for creators rights, and if he has other interests now rather than pushing himself artistically, there's nothing wrong with that. His art now does suggest a certain disinterest in the actual making of art and rather it being the means to another end—whatever that might be. And that's certainly his prerogative. If he'd stopped doing comics in 1980 (which, in retrospect, he probably should have), he had already established a legacy.

David Apatoff said...

Ray-- I agree with you about that first page; as dense as it is, it is also beautifully rendered. The linework on the figure in the last panel or the back and shoulders in the first panel-- that's first class drawing where I come from. We shouldn't forget that he was a phenomenal talent. When you think about how many thousands of panels Adams has drawn over his career, it's probably amazing he can still find motivation to lift a brush.

Al McLuckie-- I admire the same things you do about Adams. His wildly influential talent, his important stand for creators rights, his emphasis on a balanced life... He did quite well for himself. It's hard to think of a modern comic book artist who can approach him. But I have not seen much of the "huge range of subtle emotion and interaction between characters" that you describe. Most of the work he illustrated, with the possible exceptions of Ben Casey and the Warren magazines, called for the gamut of emotions from A to B.

etc, etc-- Youth can afford to waste time so extravagantly because they don't yet comprehend their own mortality. You and all the juvenile court judges in the world can point out that their wealth is a mere illusion but that can't spoil the rich feeling that flows from their ignorance. Goethe's Faust was a pretty smart guy but he was eager to chuck it all in exchange for childhood innocence:

Give me back youth's golden prime
When my own spirit too was growing
When from my heart unbidden rhymes
Gushed forth, a fount forever flowing;
The world was shrouded in a haze
The bud still promised wondrous powers
And I would cull a thousand flowers
With which all valleys were ablaze
Nothing I had, and yet profusion
The lust for truth, the pleasure in illusion.
Give back the passions unabated,
That deepest joy, alive with pain,
Love's power and the strength of hatred,
Give back my youth to me again.

etc, etc said...

The world was shrouded in a haze
The bud still promised wondrous powers

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Goethe was writing Faust at the same age that Mike Judge was writing Beavis and Butthead. Tells you something about our cultural progress, don't it?

I don't deny that there are unbecoming aspects of youth, especially now that ten year old boys read Frank Miller's creepy fetishes and get introduced to females via the internet from a gynecologist's perspective before they have a genuine conversation with a girl. If you find the results a little snide and obnoxious, you can thank adults, not children.

But my view is that all that stuff doesn't touch the space Goethe is describing. For example, children can read all about mortality on the internet and know in theory that their time to waste is limited, but I think Edna St. Vincent Millay got it exactly right in her lovely poem, "Childhood Is The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies." She says it's one thing to bury your dead cat in a shoe box,
"But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!"

You don't get that realization from books or TV or the internet, you get it from life lived, and until you do you are unburdened by that particular wisdom.

kev ferrara said...

It seems to me that the whole point of the chronic media consumption that has risen to dominate civilization over the last 100 years is to unstintingly mediate our experience of the palpable existentialism of the everyday. The media is the modern religion. And it fought tooth and nail to supplant the previous religions. |

Mike Judge only rendered the results of this takeover in a comic way. He didn't invent these results.

etc, etc said...

the rich feeling that flows from their ignorance

I feel that ignorance is being exploited on an unprecedented level in human history; perhaps I'm wrong as that's quite a sweeping statement. But I do have enough perspective to know that I would not want to gamble on re-living a childhood in the current zeitgeist, for sure.

I'm not familiar with Miller and modern comic books, so it's hard for me to fathom that he deserves special recognition for cultural rot; how is it that he does?

Richard said...

I'd love to be a kid today, these kids are 'hella' wise and smart. Besides the particularly obnoxious points of liberalism that they buy into, kids today are f*cking great, at least in comparison to TV generation kids.

They may not be as literate as children growing up in the 40s and prior, but compared with Gen X and Y, they're geniuses.

Richard said...

"You don't get that realization from books or TV or the internet, you get it from life lived, and until you do you are unburdened by that particular wisdom."

Children aren't "unburdened" by that wisdom. Every child learns a real tangible fear of death in their early youth. They simply come to terms with it.

That they have to come to terms with again and again of the course of a lifetime doesn't speak poorly of children, it speaks poorly of the adult human's ability to hold on to lessons learned when young.

D.O.Jones said...

I'm not sure I see that the internet, pornography etc. is stopping anyone from maturing and having a real experience of life. If anything, the internet (and blogs like this one) seems to be one of the great resources for resuscitating our visual culture.

St Vincent Millay's poem strikes me as odd, too. Far worse things can happen to children than the loss of a pet. I think there are many adults still lose sleep over there childhood.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- If you truly meant that media consumption mediates (rather than "moderates") the existentialism of the everyday, then I'm not sure I see the problem with it. Isn't that a large part of the reason why people have turned to literature, music and art (both good and bad) from the very beginning? If, on the other hand, you mean that it moderates the bite and terror of existentialism by deadening our senses, that's a different thing. Am I reading you wrong?

I agree, Mike Judge didn't invent these results, but he preferred to profit from them rather than counter balance them.

etc, etc-- I didn't mean to suggest that Frank Miller deserves special recognition for cultural rot. Personally, I think that his Dark Knight and Elektra series were brilliant-- major milestones in comics. But then the ratio of creativity and content compared to dark perversion began to dwindle in projects such as Sin City and 300. I have nothing against dark perversion as a spice for audiences that already have a grounding, but when it is indiscriminately ingested by young audiences with no sense of proportion, I think you end up with more Beavis and Butthead style nihilism.

Richard said "I'd love to be a kid today."

I suspect there's not any lifetime for which a "best of all times / worst of all times" argument could not be made. To the extent we're talking about the external conditions for happiness and fulfillment (which probably account for less than 50% of what's needed) it seems to me that anyone born in the west in the past 50 years hit the jackpot.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote "Every child learns a real tangible fear of death in their early youth."

Well, I'm not so sure. They learn about death, and they have an instinctive fear of pain and the unknown, but none of that distinguishes death from dragons and monsters. I suspect one reason that armies have always recruited teenage boys is that boys haven't yet learned to fear death in important ways.

D.O. Jones-- I would agree with you that "the internet, pornography etc. isn't stopping anyone from maturing and having a real experience of life." I'm not sure anyone knows yet what the internet will do to the quality of our lives or the wiring of our brains. But I think it's not too soon to say that such activities (along with video games) provide potentially unlimited distractions in foolish pleasure. It requires real strength of character to resist.

I agree with you that "there are many adults still lose sleep over their childhood." I always assumed that was because childhood experiences are so new and quivering and raw, we are all as sensitive as open wounds. I suspect Millay and Goethe would agree with you on that, and I also think that's consistent with my point that children believe they have unlimited time. I'm not sure that sensitivity is the same as a profound understanding of death.

Anonymous said...

Those Kollwitz and Cuneo drawings are the bomb.

JSL

Richard said...

"they have an instinctive fear of pain and the unknown, but none of that distinguishes death from dragons and monsters."

Isn't an instinctive fear of pain and the unknown what adults have?

Sure, those instincts will take form as thought, and those thoughts can seem terribly grandiose from within, but I'm suspicious of the idea that those thoughts actually add substance to the fear.

The thought seems to me a mere holographic outgrowth of the instincts, so to speak.

kev ferrara said...

If you truly meant that media consumption mediates (rather than "moderates") the existentialism of the everyday, then I'm not sure I see the problem with it. Isn't that a large part of the reason why people have turned to literature, music and art (both good and bad) from the very beginning? If, on the other hand, you mean that it moderates the bite and terror of existentialism by deadening our senses, that's a different thing. Am I reading you wrong?

By media, I don't mean art, David. I mean the pseudo art of headlines, hype, gotcha, sensation, the pretense of starting "national dialogues" from rare news incidences, the merciless exploitation of anything and everything for the sake of "informing the public", fashion & fame, the packaging of half-truths and elisions as breaking news, or rank guess work as informed opinion, news-leading as a strategy (controlling water cooler chat), the constant dropping in of ideological beliefs into epistemological gaps (the insidiousness of smart propaganda), the pseudo art of news story structure and the pretentiousness of newsreading in general, the kabuki of politics, reality tv, PR newsreleases, the proffering of trivia as education, edu-tainment, the myopic results of education-to-order, etc.

Such mediation does result in deadening of the senses. But far worse is how it controls and limits thought and emotion. And the result is the destruction of, among other things, art sensitivity, moral contact with real life, and an ability to freely conduct original experience-informed internal dialogues about charged or complex topics.

I agree, Mike Judge didn't invent these results, but he preferred to profit from them rather than counter balance them.

Preferred to profit from it????? He made a fun work of comic art. He profited from the humor of his work finding an audience. He didn't profit from the mass stupidity of a few generations growing up in the grip of mass media. Mass media, the fame industry and their advertisers profited from that. And didn't we all agree quite a long time ago that often comic truth telling and mockery is an important counterbalance. (Also there are quite a few trenchant "counter balancing" ideas in Judge's Office Space, Idiocracy and Silicon Valley.)

kev ferrara said...

Richard, everything becomes more palpable and real as time goes on, the scales fall away from one's eyes and heart. One is increasingly left quite raw of nerve, like a cat's whiskers or an ant's antennae... in direct contact with the weather's emotional charge. Until you experience this, you won't be able to understand it or imagine it.

Richard said...

"quite raw of nerve, like a cat's whiskers or an ant's antennae... in direct contact with the weather's emotional charge"

That sounds like a description of childhood to me. It's in adulthood that we grow scales, and then perhaps by late adulthood they start to flake.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...
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Anonymous said...

Sitting cross-legged on your mountaintop again, I see?

You know, that feeling isn't wisdom, it's hypobaropathy.

-R

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks, I get it. I don't disagree with your point but I would be interested in your view of where this mediation originates. It seems to me that "the pseudo art of headlines, hype, gotcha, sensation," is a response to market demand from people who want to be spoon fed their own version of the facts in the most sensational way possible. If people with no political agenda started out to make the most money possible out of the media business, wouldn't they pick gorgeous blonde newscasters, put them in short skirts and make their audience feel good by giving them simplified content skewed to reinforce the audience's biases and superstitions? Audiences who are hungry to do some hard thinking about complex subjects can always turn to CSPAN or half a dozen other sources, but the ratings there are awful. So in a free market isn't your concern really with the nature of humanity, rather than the forces that supply what it wants?

As for Mike Judge, I am not saying he has to dedicate his life to inventing an ebola vaccine; I am a fan of Idiocracy and some of his other work. But I find Beavis and Butthead creepy (starting with the art) and lacking in humanity.

Anonymous / JSL-- I love 'em both.

Richard-- Perhaps the best way to see what I perceive as the difference between an intellectual understanding of the void on the one hand, and an intimate personal familiarity bred from experience on the other, is to return to art: How do you explain the difference between the work of the brilliant young Rembrandt and the melancholy old Rembrandt? Or between the young Goya and the old, tragic Goya? Or young, skillful Degas vs. old, isolated, half-blind Degas? In all those cases, young and old work is admirable, but life and sad experience clearly left its imprint on their old work. It has a richness that could not be taught in art school.

in 1954 Adlai Stevenson gave a speech to the graduating class at Princeton where he tried to explain to them what they did not know: "What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all." It is highly unlikely that the insufferable little twerps in his audience understood a word.

Richard said...

David,

Yes, I understand that you guys believe there is something valuable to all of that death worship. I don't buy it. As a homeless person I looked death in the face every day, I don't think there was any value to it at all, although at the time I certainly felt wiser for it.

Life/Joy is all there is. Death/Sorrow is merely a lacking. God is Love, baby.

Ecc 8:1 -
A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance.


If it doesn't brighten their face, it is not wisdom.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance. If it doesn't brighten their face, it is not wisdom."

It has been said that the young Rembrandt caused a sensation with his dramatic way of lighting faces, inventing a spotlight affect. But the old Rembrandt abandoned that approach and illuminated faces from within, instead.

Anonymous said...

Touché

-R

kev ferrara said...

I would be interested in your view of where this mediation originates. It seems to me that "the pseudo art of headlines, hype, gotcha, sensation," is a response to market demand from people who want to be spoon fed their own version of the facts in the most sensational way possible.

I guess I should admit that I really don't think that people know what is best for them. I think, without training and discipline and education, people will reach for twinkies, McDonald's, and ice cream over fresh fruits and vegetables and home cooked skinless boiled chicken every day of the week. And the result of this and other kinds of indiscipline will always be illness: physical, mental, spiritual, societal, etc.

A lot of this comes to down to exposure and access. And I think it is no accident that the history of popular culture is directly tied in with the perennial interest of youth in getting distance from their parents. The billion dollar industries of crap pop culture and illicit recreational drugs are in a tooth and nail war to stuff themselves further and harder down into that wedge thin gap in familial relations... In order to expose the naif to the sensations of their particular product, get them hooked, (widening the gap and automating the demand), and then go on to the next naif.

I guess what I am saying is that market demand for sensation is the result of an insidious virus-like strategy of personal intrusion and exposure. And it is the same for all sensation-based products.

Human beings are highly susceptible creatures. And they will be exposed and hooked by mindless, sensation-based products neverendingly, unless they have firmly and deeply embedded societal, familial, moral and ethical bulwarks in place. That the majority of mass information sources are peddlers of sensation (and by extension, a philosophy of hedonism) rather than discipline and values makes the problem intractable.





Anonymous said...

"""And I think it is no accident that the history of popular culture is directly tied in with the perennial interest of youth in getting distance from their parents. The billion dollar industries of crap pop culture and illicit recreational drugs are in a tooth and nail war to stuff themselves further and harder down into that wedge thin gap in familial relations... In order to expose the naif to the sensations of their particular product, get them hooked, (widening the gap and automating the demand), and then go on to the next naif."""

Awesome


-Richard