Saturday, February 21, 2015

WHEN DRAFTSMANSHIP IS IMPORTANT


When is good draftsmanship important to an illustration?

That question occurred to me when I saw the current cover of The New Yorker magazine:



The subject of the cover was challenging to draw: a packed theater audience captured from an angle that also shows the events taking place on stage.  In the past, such an assignment might've demanded the full tool kit of draftsmanship-- perspective, anatomy, foreshortening, etc.

Observe how those skills enhanced the same subject in the past:

Walter Appleton Clark showed the stage over the shoulders of an audience: a marvelous piece of draftsmanship.  And while the treatment may at first seem like antiquated realism, notice how Clark made an abstract design from the backs of heads and the arrangements of the bodies.

Gluyas Williams simplified the complexities of our subject with clear lines and geometric shapes, but always on a rock solid foundation
An engineering feat: capturing the faces of the audience and the act on stage at the same time.


Caldecott award winning illustrator Paul Zelinsky put a magic spin on the subject.  Note how he simplified the audience into small circles and ghostly profiles to avoid getting trapped in unimportant detail.  He achieved depth with those marvelous silhouettes, and managed to get both the stage and the audience into the picture by bending the time space continuum.  These are the judgments of a mature artistic talent

Mort Drucker was famous for his crowd scenes which he could rotate to any angle with uncanny agility.

Drucker always managed to have great fun with individual faces in the audience while still maintaining control over the larger sweep of the picture
Franklin McMahon (above and below) drew stylized pictures on site at political conventions

For me,  it's a pleasure to watch such great skill in action.  I think these illustrations were successful in part because the artists had the drawing ability to solve sophisticated problems of structure and organization and emphasis and coherence. 

Of course, some pictures don't require technical drawing skills.  For example James Thurber, William Steig and other illustrators made excellent pictures with flat, naive looking figures drawn simply on blank backgrounds.

Steig

Thurber

The trick, then, is to figure out when draftsmanship is important for the picture and when it isn't. Ultimately draftsmanship is only a means to an end.  It's a tool for delivering a concept more persuasively, or elegantly, or effectively, or economically, or powerfully, as the individual artist sees fit.

In the theater pictures above, good draftsmanship enabled artists to undertake a wider range of solutions. But you'd never find Thurber attempting such a complex composition.  He just didn't have the skill, and he knew it.   Illustrator Seymour Chwast said that he avoids attempting pictures “that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability I do not have.”  Illustrator Elwood Smith said that his inability to draw the scenes he imagines forces him to find other alternatives: “if I can’t draw it, I struggle to come up with a different idea that’s invariably more original." 

Returning to The New Yorker cover that launched us on this quest,  drawing skills were put aside in favor of a naive, unschooled look:






 
This unschooled style has become increasingly fashionable.  It is found on the cover of The New Yorker but also in graphic novels and mainstream magazines.  It is applied more indiscriminately, even to concepts that are not particularly elevated by such an approach.  Why?
  
One reason seems to be a general disillusionment with draftsmanship.  Audiences have noticed that some artists with impeccable technical skills never get around to addressing concepts of significance.  Also, some artists achieve the appearance of technical proficiency through suspicious mechanical means.  This could help explain why so many artists now seek authenticity in spontaneity.

On the other hand, another reason for the popularity of this look-- especially when applied to less suitable concepts-- may be that today's audiences have become more ignorant and less patient, and art directors have become better at catering to those traits.

If the desensitized readers of graphic novels or popular magazines can no longer recognize the difference, it doesn't behoove a publisher to work hard to stay on the right side of that divide.  But an artist who hopes his or her work will outlive our current fashions will need to make independent choices about what an artistic concept requires, and when draftsmanship is important, and when it isn't.
  






41 comments:

James Gurney said...

David, where do you think this "de-skilling" aesthetic in the New Yorker is coming from? I doubt it's being demanded by the audience. Surely there are artists who could deliver the kind of standards you're talking about—Mort Drucker and Jack Davis are still with us, and either of them could do a knockout job. Another person is R. Crumb. You might remember how his cover for same sex marriage was rejected because it made the editors uncomfortable but they wouldn't tell him why. There's no de-skilling trend in classical music or ballet. Why should the standards for cartoon draughtsmanship be lowered on the pages of New York's most prominent arts magazine?

MORAN said...

Mr. Gurney is right about how there are other artists for the New Yorker to use with better standards. I heard David Remnick likes Barry Blitt's jokes except Remnick doesn't know anything about art.

chris bennett said...

Regarding James' question, I'd hazard a guess that the blame is with the person in the big chair doing the choosing. In which case it could be nepotism along with text-centric blindness to the plastic language.

But this is pure guesswork along with some optimism on my part. if it is a fact that the general public have become desensitised to the eloquence of communication written in plastic forms then things are looking pretty gloomy for us artists.

Hopefully Mr Apatoff will put our minds at rest! :)

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- A tough question! I agree with you about the prominence of the New Yorker. No other national magazine buys cover illustrations every week and puts them before such an important audience. In this sense, The New Yorker has inherited the mantle of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's and Liberty all rolled into one. They also have a long tradition of showcasing talented artists (Steinberg, Searle, Steig, Booth, Getz, Saxon, Weber, etc.) which may be why we are especially disappointed today when they fall short of our high expectations.

I've written on this blog several times that I'm a big fan of "loose" drawing (think of Feliks Topolski or Paul Hogarth or Lichty) and of "naive" drawing (think of Jean Dubuffet or Steig) when they're well done. But I also think it's really, really hard to draw that way well. People who don't understand drawing might look at that style and conclude, "Oh, I get it-- it's okay for an artist to make a child-like scribble, so I no longer have to worry about connoisseurship in visual form. Now I can focus on the content instead, which is where I'm more comfortable anyway." This trend has emboldened literary types with verbal skills but no visual ability to be more aggressive about inserting their taste into the visual decisions. (It is common to hear people justify crap art in graphic novels and elsewhere with the explanation, "It's not about the drawing, it's about the concept.") In this environment, if an art director can't distinguish between "breezy" and "sloppy," they are bound to end up with haphazard results.

Not long ago I was making fun of the New Yorker's penchant for cover artists who use mechanical circles for heads (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2014/10/an-epidemic-of-circle-heads.html). Surely there has to be some middle ground between mechanical drawing and sloppy drawing.

I think the New Yorker currently has some very talented cover artists in their stable (think of Carter Goodrich or Bruce Eric Kaplan) but you don't see much of their work these days. Part of the reason may be because the NYer seems to be focusing on topical subjects-- whatever is peaking on twitter this week. (Remember when Ezra Pound said that "literature is news that stays news?" I think that used to be the philosophy behind NYer covers as well.) Topicality may be an economic decision related to circulation, in which case it's difficult to dispute-- a magazine has to stay in business.

[ N.B.-- I should add that it was not my intention to beat up on the individual artist who did the NYer cover featured on this blog post. My sense is that he is a talented guy who has done some nice line work in the past, and who struggles like everybody else working in a style where there are no solid criteria for success. He writes snappy jokes that obviously resonate with the management of the NYer, so good for him. My concern is with the larger trend.]

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- I don't know Mr. Remnick and I don't know anything about the inner workings of the NYer, so I couldn't say. I can say, however, that it would fit into a pattern of literary wonks behaving presumptuously about the visual arts. I recently made fun of Dave Eggers for asserting that Chris Ware is "the most versatile and innovative artist the medium has ever known." What on earth would motivate a bright and talented author to make such a sweeping pronouncement about a field in which he is so obviously clueless? Perhaps there is no one to stand up him and tell him that he is behaving like a moron. That's what this blog is for.

Chris Bennett-- I don't have any more inside information than you, but I do agree that there is a lot of "text-centric blindness to the plastic language" in these choices and that "the person in the big chair" is largely responsible. If I were an illustrator throwing ideas over the transom to the NYer, and some editor or art director said, "Your drawing of the academy awards is brilliant," I'm not sure I'd have the stuff to say, "No it's not." I fear I'd cash the check.

Anonymous said...

Those older illustrations are awesome. When were the Clark and the Zelinsky painted? Where did they appear?

JSL

James Gurney said...

Thanks for the thoughtful answer. We shouldn't forget to mention Peter de Sève, whose covers are consistently funny and well drawn. BTW, I loved your post on the Epidemic of Circle Heads. It's very likely that the NYer cover art director, Francoise Mouly, will read this post and these comments. She definitely read my blog post about the "New Yorker Unfinished Cover Contest" because after that the trend for blank covers came to a crashing halt. If she does read this, I hope she'll consider using some of the amazing talent out there (maybe some of the out-of-work DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Animation Artists) who could paint witty, moody and well-drawn covers satirizing contemporary life in NYC.

john cuneo said...

Isn't (aren't?) perspective,anatomy and foreshortening all evident in this drawing?
I recall a quote from Francoise Mouly, the NY'er cover Art Director, saying something about Barry Blitt's work as having "..a sense of urgency - as if he couldn't wait to get the IDEA on paper.."(my caps). I wonder if that quality is under appreciated in this forum, where drawing (understandably) takes precedence over concept?

Donald Pittenger said...

I've been away from art school since before Noah's flood, and seldom find the time to visit one to see what's going on there. And of course, different schools differ.

But I did take at look at the University of Washington's school a couple of years ago and posted a photo on my blog that I took of a hall display from a drawing class. One drawing of furniture got the perspective seriously wrong, and there was no indication that the instructor had the student make corrections.

This is an extreme example, but it harks back to my days at the same place when the faculty feared to teach us much of anything regarding basics.

So I sometimes wonder who among the currently active illustrators received thorough training and who got through by being "creative."

Though I do know that some skilled illustrators are quite capable of flipping a switch to successfully do "casual" appearing work.

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- Actually, I wrote this safe and secure in the knowledge that Francoise Mouly would never stumble across it in a million years.

I agree with you completely about Peter de Sève, but left him off the list because he seems to be in the rotation a little more frequently than Goodrich or Kaplan or some of the others. Thank you for raising the recent lay offs at Dreamworks and Sony. There were a lot of wonderful, talented, dedicated artists caught up in that process-- such a rich array of talent would be a great boon to The New Yorker or any other publication in need of fresh creativity.

John Cuneo wrote: "I recall a quote from Francoise Mouly, the NY'er cover Art Director, saying something about Barry Blitt's work as having "..a sense of urgency - as if he couldn't wait to get the IDEA on paper.."(my caps). I wonder if that quality is under appreciated in this forum, where drawing (understandably) takes precedence over concept?"

John, I think many of the folks on this forum appreciate the value of urgency or spontaneity in a picture, but may have a different idea of how to achieve it. A few years ago there was a discussion here about whether the best way to achieve that look is by wild, unrehearsed lines or by carefully planned execution. (see http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2012/08/magic-that-believes-itself.html)

john cuneo said...

Your right David, I didn't mean to insult any the folks in the forum, and I've very much enjoyed previous discussions here about the "spontaneous line" and such. My clumsy point was that Ms Mouly's quote might suggest that Barry Blitt's distinctive freehand, offhand, shorthand way of casting, arranging and drawing a scene, is not aesthetically compromised, but rather, it's the ideal stylistic and visual compliment to his irreverent, quicksilver wit. Is that a reach?
BTW, your mention of Carter Goodrich reminded me of his brilliant NY'er Oscar cover from several years back. Thanks for the memory.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous / JSL-- The Clark was done in 1898. He was such a talented illustrator, but died when he was only 30. I'm pleased to remind this audience of one of his accomplishments.

The Zelinsky was done in the 1990s. He is still in the middle of a robust career as a children's book illustrator.

Donald Pittenger wrote: "...the faculty feared to teach us much of anything regarding basics."

I think a number of people have shared your experience, and NYer covers such as this one are not likely to increase the appetite of faculty or students for the basics. After all, who needs basics in order to get juicy, important assignments? One topic I hope people will address here is whether that is a sensible conclusion to draw today. Which of the basics are still relevant in this day and age (especially since so many of the basics can be simulated with software?) Which basics will the viewing public care about, or even recognize?

John Cuneo-- Please don't hesitate to insult the folks on this forum, they insult me all the time and I'd like to see them get a taste of their own medicine.

I agree with you that it is quite possible for a "distinctive freehand, offhand, shorthand way of casting, arranging and drawing a scene" to be "the ideal stylistic and visual complement" to a concept. (I view Steig's work from the 60s and 70s as a successful example of that.) I just need help seeing how it does so in this case. I look at this joke and don't see why it couldn't be complemented just as well (or better) by Drooker or McCall or Goodrich or Kaplan or a dozen others. Is there something special about the awkwardness of this drawing that makes it ideal for this concept?

As long as we have examples in front of us, it would help to talk in specifics. Does that whole bottom section of faces (catch that guy with the mustache) help advance the premise? Does the imbalance between the dense left side of the drawing and the vacant right side deliver the message in a more effective way? (Thank goodness for that disastrously drawn oscar statue on the right border, keeping the composition from sliding off the page).

Rather than listing elements that I found offputting, I will shut up and ask-- sincerely I swear-- to be tutored by other readers out there on examples of why this visual treatment serves this concept especially well. I'm not trying to be a jerk, I'm trying to learn about something that others apparently see and I do not.

Joe Ciardiello said...

David, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the artists mentioned in your post. Mort Drucker in particular was a huge early influence on me. However, I also feel that Barry Blitt (who is a friend) has the sharpest wit in the business today and the drawing chops to back it up. Draftsmanship can take many forms. I feel this cover was handled beautifully, with economy, sophistication and expressiveness. I suppose it just comes down to a matter of personal taste.

etc, etc said...

I'm not a fan and by no means a connoisseur of this kind of art. But it isn't hard for me to presume that, with this kind of work, the premium is on simplicity and conveying the message as quickly as possible. As well, in general the work tends to be in the service of a spirit of a cynical, flippant, libertine mindset. So if rules and conventions (sound draughtsmanship included) are flaunted then so much the better. You're looking for art in all the wrong places, David.

Abraham Evensen Tena said...

Perhaps I am giving more to the illustration than the illustration is giving me back, but would this be as powerful a satire of the academy if this illustration was more traditionally crafted? The academy awards, where well framed, perfectly polished, form-over-content movies always succeed over the scrappy, opinionated ones? If the position from which this satire is coming from is of outsiders looking in, would having Carter Goodrich or Peter de Sève illustrate the cover be against message?(nothing against their work, I would die to to have an milligram of their talents :)

As you point out in the post, technology makes it easier than ever to have correct anatomy, perspective, lighting, material rendering and more, when crafting images. Popular animated movies, video-games, comic books and TV shows have been on a quest to eliminate "the error" out of picture-making for the last 20 years. Perhaps the less worked-over composition, perspective, or anatomy underlay a message on the many ways one can use to conveying a message.

But then again, I may be giving this to the illustration, rather than the illustration giving this to me.

David Apatoff said...

Joe Ciardello-- I'm a big fan of your work, and have great respect for your judgment (just as I have respect for John Cuneo's, above). I have no quarrel with 90% of what you've written-- let's assume that Mr. Blitt is "the sharpest wit in the business," that "draftsmanship can take many forms," that "personal taste" plays a huge role in these things, and that "economy, sophistication and expressiveness" are important virtues in art (usually more important than accuracy or detail). Furthermore, I'm certain that Mr. Blitt is an excellent friend and a fine human being who doesn't deserve to have this drawing used as an example for the larger point that I'm trying to make. So I'm already persuaded of all of that. I'm also doing my best to avoid being a sanctimonious jackass.

Putting those issues aside, I think we have only two areas of potential disagreement. First, while I agree that a lot "comes down to a matter of personal taste," I don't think everything does. The minute we accept that all personal tastes are equally valid, we relinquish the ability to criticize lazy, sloppy or downright bad work because everything is subjective. I wrestled with this issue early in this blog (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2006/08/standards_31.html) and in my view, we don't do art students any favor by letting them believe everything is beautiful in its own way. We don't do viewing audiences any favors by telling them that the opinion of an ignorant couch potato is worth just as much as someone with taste and judgment who studies and investigates. And we don't do good artists any favors by telling them that objective standards of quality are an illusion.

Sure there are risks that narrow minded autocrats will attempt to smother creativity by imposing cast iron rules on new and evolving tastes. But at this particular moment in our culture, I think there is a far greater risk to art from non-vertebrate art critics and self-indulgent, deluded artists who don't recognize differences between "good" art and "bad" (or between "loose" art and "sloppy.") I don't know where you come out on this question, but for me, this principle of broader "standards" is what makes the hard work of understanding our reactions to art, accounting for them, and articulating them so important.

The second area of potential disagreement I sense has to do with articulating our reactions to this particular NYer cover. When you say "this cover was handled beautifully," I yearn to understand this particular kind of beauty. I don't see all that much "economy" in the drawing; instead I see unnecessary architectural details, repetitive, scritchy lines on the screen, stage and audience areas that don't seem to advance the concept much, individual mustache hairs and eyebrows in the audience that serve no apparent purpose. I don't think it was so economical for the artist to set unnecessary challenges in perspective for himself (such as those twin stairs or the two oscar statues) if his solution was going to end up so ambiguous that it slows down our reading of the concept. Similarly, I have a hard time seeing "sophistication" here, although I agree that awkward, ungainly or child-like pictures can be highly sophisticated. I see the expressiveness you mention, but as I stated earlier, I have to struggle to see what this particular style expresses in furtherance of this concept that could not be expressed just as effectively by Drooker or McCall or Goodrich or Kaplan or a dozen others.

It makes me feel queasy pointing out specific lines or shapes or designs or solutions that I think are unsuccessful. I'd far rather that someone help me with the features that they consider particularly successful.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc wrote: "You're looking for art in all the wrong places, David."

If I can't look for art in a drawing, I'm not sure where else there is left to look.

I'm all for art that flaunts "rules and conventions (sound draughtsmanship included)" so long as the artist has the power to make it stick. Practically the whole 20th century of western art has been an exhausting effort to flaunt rules and conventions, from les demoiselles d'avignon to dada and surrealism to howling expressionists such as George Grosz. Many of them worked in far more subversive venues than the New Yorker, such as Simplicissimus.

By now, trying to flaunt the rules is a time honored tradition, but you have to do far more than abandon the laws of perspective to register on the Richter scale anymore. Looking back at the art of that century, it seems to me that only a small percentage of those would be rebels were artistically effective. I don't think that practitioners of bourgeois realism such as Dali left much of a mark, for all their blabber about their "concepts," but artists who could draw well (NOT necessarily realistically) were the ones who remain persuasive to me.

Sean Farrell said...

David, everything you say is true and I have similar desires to see good draughtsmanship, but the image does work as a New Yorker cover and as a design. That's part of drawing too. It is a quirky, stumbling style, but that seems to be part of the act.

Many of the criticisms of the circle heads regarding the feeble mindset probably apply here as well, but the design is not as unskilled as it appears.

I'm sure there are others copying the scratchy amateur type line work without any sense of organization and it may have driven home your point if we saw some of those too.

Sean Farrell said...

Specifically to your request:

The huge head and glassy reflection are successful, the black suit against the glassy arrangement is successful. The stage and arching red curtains naturally frame the central image and such is successful. The play between the oscar on the right and the televised image on the left is a successful secondary movement relating to the central image. The figures across the bottom recess into shadow and that's also successful. A projected image on a backdrop of a large stage is a design that should take care of itself, but to the artist's credit, he did some things to it that gave the image additional movement and interest.

chris sheban said...

For my two cents, I think Barry Blitt's New Yorker covers are some of the best (Chris Christie "Playing in Traffic" comes to mind).
Working in a tighter style, I am forever envious/jealous/mad-dammit, at those that make this type of drawing look effortless and easy -
it's not. Blitt, John Cuneo, Joe Ciardello, Richard Thompson, to name a few.

David Apatoff said...

Abraham Evsen Tena wrote: "Perhaps I am giving more to the illustration than the illustration is giving me back..."

That wouldn't bother me at all. In fact, one of the reasons I prefer drawing to more comprehensive, invasive art forms (such as film) is that drawing doesn't fill in all the blanks, it implies a larger reality, giving the viewer room to merge with the drawing, bring his or her own experience and personalize the art. So if the drawing persuades you to contribute more than 50% of the result, I say "bravo." I also agree with you that "perfectly polished" art is rarely as satisfying as "scrappy, opinionated" art. I guess my failing is that I just don't see this picture as "scrappy." It seems more lolling and lethargic. Is the artist fighting for his opinion here? Is that stage so lopsided because the artist wanted that effect, or because he couldn't be bothered? (or even worse, because he didn't know to pull off a complicated feat of perspective?) I don't know the answer, but most of the artists I admire who work in a slapdash style (such as Austin Briggs or Charles Schulz or Hank Ketcham) only got to that result through hard work and self-awareness.

By the way, nice web site.

Chris Sheban wrote: "Working in a tighter style, I am forever envious/jealous/mad-dammit, at those that make this type of drawing look effortless and easy -it's not."

I agree with you 100%. I love that "effortless" style and have rhapsodized about a number of those artists in this blog. It is largely out of respect for the difficulty of that type of work that I write blog posts distinguishing the child-like scrawl produced by hard work and talent from the child-like scrawl produced by free riders operating out of ignorance and laziness. I believe there is a significant difference worth defending. I believe that we can see the difference if we are willing to pay attention, although understanding and articulating it is as difficult as the devil.

As long as we share a bias in favor of that easy, "effortless" style, let me turn the question around on you: if we agree that it is agonizingly difficult to simplify an image and shed muscle memory to achieve that look, how do you distinguish excellence from the random, unskilled doodles of children, the ungainly drawings of untalented hacks, or even stray graffiti? I would be grateful to hear from you or anyone who has made more progress on this than I have.

chris sheban said...

Good question, David, and one I wish I knew the answer to. I also agree that understanding and articulating what distinguishes excellence from random children's doodles or hacks can be tricky
(more like impossible, for me) but I'd bet that most children and hacks can't draw like these guys!

Always enjoy your insight and interesting posts.


chris bennett said...

David Apatoff said: “if we agree that it is agonizingly difficult to simplify an image and shed muscle memory to achieve that look, how do you distinguish excellence from the random, unskilled doodles of children, the ungainly drawings of untalented hacks, or even stray graffiti?”

It is to do with their effectiveness as language. In this case the language of plastic form written in a series of changing visual conditions. Whether that language is spoken with a slang, loose, impatient and evocative tongue, or with a polite, measured, careful and fully rounded tongue, or anything in between, is only to do with its appropriateness to what the speaker is expressing. The doodles of children, ungainly drawings of untalented hacks and stray graffiti are distinguishable by their weakness as visual communication in whatever context they are viewed or delivered.

Tom said...

One thing I notice about the New Yorker cover you posted David, is the figures in the lower left corner (the last zoomed in image of your post) all the figures wearing glasses, their looking off to the right Kim-jong-um (that who is on the screen right?) which gives me a feeling unfocused attention, almost a zombie like feeling.

The stairs come off the stage but do not seem to land anywhere as a ground plane is not established. And how far is band from the audience? When I find myself asking such questions my experience of the picture beomes irritating or frustrating, it's almost like the actions of the artists are rejecting the viewer.

In contrast the Clark, Drucker and Williams seem to welcome the viewer. The big picture is clear and the smaller parts are clear. The eye is encourage to travel through the spaces of their pictures and if the eye wants to stop and examine a part it finds itself satisfied by clear structure. Figures action are related to other figures actions. Figures attitudes and emotions from smugness, boredom, annoyance, envy, and attention are all express with such clarity that one is encourage to hang around for a while.

The hands of the pianist in The Williams drawing are wonderful. As they move to the left in contrast to his head movement to the right and to the direction of the snapping bag. You can almost feel how delicately he is going to strike the keyboard with his right hand.

The value arrangements in the in the Clark and Williams are wonderful. I guess what I am saying once you get the initial "idea" of these pictures the internal relationships of the picture take you over, and the "idea," in my mind is forgotten. It's fun just to look. For example the light playing across the back of the female audience in the Clark picture, the shape of the shadows on the clowns suit, the silhoutted shape of the piano becoming fascinating in their own right.

Tom said...

Sorry the sentence should read to the right of Kim-jong-um, instead of "right Kim-jong-um."

kev ferrara said...

Firstly, I believe that there are some bad choices in this pieces that are preventing it from reading well. Firstly, I think the reflection down on the stage gives the effect of water and confuses things. And the screen on which Kim's visage appears seems to be some kind of curtain, which doesn't quite makes sense. It should be a bordered, stand alone screen, I think, with no reflection. That way we know we are seeing a projected image.

Beyond those errors, I'm not sure if the concepting of the idea itself is all that strong. I think the idea of Kim appearing at the oscars is great. But all he seems to be doing is raising a finger. Nobody seems to be reacting to his presence, so the whole thing just seems narratively dead.

I think the idea could have been concepted a lot better... just to spitball for just a second, what if the giant oscar statues were in some way cowering, or maybe saluting kim... what if everybody in the audience was genuflecting in obedience. What if the n. korean flag was being waved by audience members. Otherwise, why is the audience there? How do they play into the joke?

Essentially, I don't think the idea was cooked before it was served. The style is fine to me, a nice light comic tone to it... certainly better than Thurber's lazy woe-is-me doodles.

David Apatoff said...


Sean Farrell-- Thanks for your specific points about the visual strength of this image (which is really all I'm hoping to address-- I'm not trying to pass judgment on the humor or the politics or whether a New Yorker cover somehow gets a special license to be measured differently from other art.)

In response to some of your specifics:

You say "the black suit against the glassy arrangement is successful." For me, that black suit punches a hole in the composition. It is the single highest contrast, most dense, most jagged, most realistic, most detailed spot on the page and therefore sucks attention away from everything else. It seems to be a fish out of water; the artist had to temporarily abandon the style of the rest of the picture to achieve the content he needed. For me, this is an implicit admission of the unsuitability of this kind of style for this kind of concept. (PS-- I think this tiny figure also gets additional attention because Doogie Howser's broken neck makes us wince; the right angle of his head is a far cry from the soft, pillowy look of the rest of the picture).

You say, "The play between the oscar on the right and the televised image on the left is a successful secondary movement relating to the central image." Well, I agree they're a pair because they both go off the edge on opposite sides of the page but I don't think the oscar on the right is a successful secondary movement. (Believe it or not, I once did a whole post on naive looking drawings that violate convention by cutting a figure in half at the border of the image: http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2014/01/stepping-into-2014.html . I think it can be a great device. But this NYer cover chickens out, bending the oscar back into the picture to preserve the face-- the style is not so heedless and free as we are led to believe). I think that oscar has a heavy job to serve as backstop to keep the whole off- center stage from sliding off the page, and it is not up to the task. (Note how little gravitational pull your "televised image" offers on the opposite side of the page.) Finally, if we return to my exchange with Chris Sheban about how to distinguish a well drawn child like scrawl from a poorly drawn child like scrawl, I'll be damned if I can come up with a logical rule but I would offer this particular oscar as an example of a poorly drawn child like scrawl.

You say, "The figures across the bottom recess into shadow and that's also successful." For me, the figures in the orchestra pit are the best part of the picture-- I think those light and lacy suggestions of an occasional head or musical instrument, aided by that restrained, simplified watercolor presentation are terrific. I wish the whole audience had been handled with that approach, rather than the deformed heads that are larger in the background than in the foreground, that are inconsistent in their level of detail, and which do not recede toward the orchestra pit in the distance, but rather fall off a cliff.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I agree with you that "their effectiveness as language" is the heart of the answer to my question. I also agree that there are many different languages that might be suitable for any given concept, and that we should be open to "slang, loose, impatient and evocative tongue, or... a polite, measured, careful and fully rounded tongue, or anything in between." We should all strive to be polyglots.

However, this does leave us with unresolved issues: first, if two drawings are physically identical, but one of them serves as a language for an artistic concept while the other is a random scribble by a child, we are left in the very uncomfortable position of distinguishing the quality of the images based upon the underlying intent of the artist, rather than the physical appearance of the image.

If you are willing to go there (and I'm not sure I am) then many unskilled pictures could not stand alone; each would have to be be accompanied by a dossier about the artist's thoughts. (Note that this would be not be a problem with pictures manifesting deliberate skill, where the language-- effective or not-- is more apparent on the surface).

Also, separate from the language used or the concept expressed, I think that the visual quality of the image-- the design, composition, the quality of line, the color-- remains an important consideration. If an artist is going to use images rather than the sounds or words, they have an obligation to pay attention to and respect that medium. The choice of "slang" images need not free the artist from coming to grips with their medium.


Tom-- Once we've agreed in principle that an "unschooled" style can contribute many worthy things to a picture (such as power and spontaneity) we probably have to resign ourselves to losing the refinements of a picture, such as eyes that align with what they're supposed to be watching on stage.

Nevertheless, I think you make an important about "managing" the various elements of a picture so it is most effective. In the pictures you mention, the artist is like the conductor of a symphony orchestra; they make sure the various elements work together in harmony, that they take turns and prioritize. These artists lead our eye around the drawing in a sequence they have deliberately chosen. They have decided what merits clear definition and what can be implied. Because these artists manage their pictures, they are, as you say, "fun just to look."

Kev Ferrara-- I think the case of Thurber puts our musings to the test. If I'm going to like his drawings (and I do), it shouldn't be merely because I admire the content of his message so much. To be consistent, I should like him because his drawings stand alone, visually.

I agree Thurber's figures have no bones or muscle, but neither do the characters he is drawing. His drawings seem right for the themes he is illustrating, just as Fred Astaire's singing is right for his dancing.

But most importantly, I think Thurber has demonstrated some first class visual thinking, such as the famous drawing of the man coming home to his wife / house ( http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-CLuXIboa3DU/UcydjrkxGdI/AAAAAAAAAJY/S1javULyGAk/s393/Thurber+Cartoon.png ) The unpretentious, droopy little drawings that he does to accompany his writings strike me as "loose" drawings in the good sense of the word.


chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

David said, "Once we've agreed in principle that an "unschooled" style can contribute many worthy things to a picture (such as power and spontaneity) we probably have to resign ourselves to losing the refinements of a picture,..."

I can't say I agree with that. Understanding is what makes spontaneity and power possible. Otherwise one is just mimicking or slopping over what they don't understand, i.e. pretending. Refinement is development. The initial idea can be set down with great force and direction. Spontaneity without order is just a flourish, a weak thing. Drucker's work looks completely spontaneous, and effortless and he has not given up refinements for that spontaneity.

Tom said...

Hi Chris

I don't see how one can separated one's way of "speaking" from the content and meaning from a work of art. One's way of speaking is the content, isn't? What an artist values, how they create order, to my mind reflects a much more essential content then what the given subject is. Because if the way the artist speaks is just a container for content why is the container needed?

chris bennett said...

“first, if two drawings are physically identical, but one of them serves as a language for an artistic concept while the other is a random scribble by a child, we are left in the very uncomfortable position of distinguishing the quality of the images based upon the underlying intent of the artist, rather than the physical appearance of the image.”

It is precisely the ability of an artist to successfully write his intent in plastic form that distinguishes a good artist from the bad one; the masterful work from random scribble of a child. There is no such condition where two drawings can be physically identical and one convey meaning while the other cannot.

“I think that the visual quality of the image-- the design, composition, the quality of line, the color-- remains an important consideration. If an artist is going to use images rather than the sounds or words, they have an obligation to pay attention to and respect that medium. The choice of "slang" images need not free the artist from coming to grips with their medium.”

I agree that the intention of the artist, his meaning, is entirely conveyed in the drawing by the visual language you have just stated. That is to say he writes his meaning using the plastic means; shapes, tones, colours etc all in consort to form what is termed ‘composition’. The ‘manner’ in which the artist composes, whether it is with a slangy, jittery, whippy, sketchy handwriting or whether it be a careful, steady, controlled handwriting is merely the surface means. Our ‘style’, our accent, our ‘way of speaking’ is only the vessel holding the content and meaning, not the content and meaning itself. To put it another way; sometimes a plastic bag is better for carrying our things than a leather briefcase, sometimes it’s the other way around.

chris bennett said...

Tom said: “I don't see how one can separated one's way of "speaking" from the content and meaning from a work of art. One's way of speaking is the content, isn't? What an artist values, how they create order, to my mind reflects a much more essential content then what the given subject is. Because if the way the artist speaks is just a container for content why is the container needed?”

There’s an old truism I’m sure you’re familiar with Tom, “paint what you love and love what you paint”. And in thinking about what you’re saying; the pictures of Renoir spring to mind – the handwriting of his brush tenderly caresses and strokes everything it touches, the trees, the path, the girl’s wrist, the shadows under her chin, her boyfriend’s moustache, the glint on the shoes… everything. Euan Uglow said he wanted to “write his pictures across their surface in the even way of a typewriter”; and his nudes, pinned down with their little ticks of measurement, do indeed hold steady with an even, detached ‘all-over-ness’ that is redolent of a cool page of neat ink.

So yes, I agree, there is a deep relationship between the content of the picture and the way it is performed.

But think on this. You have no doubt seen students of Uglow or Renoir (or for that matter Kanevsky, or Diebenkorn, or Morandi, or Degas or Sargent etc) who adopt the manner of their idols. Now, even the best of these fall short of their masters; with something not feeling quite right, incomplete, or not properly authored* about their work. They impersonate the voice, but when undertaking a new song (think of the Frank Sinatra knock-offs who try something different from the usual repertoire) we realise their heart isn’t in it.

The reason, I believe, is that how you paint is a reflection of how you love. And ‘the subject’ of our love possesses us, and in so doing, possesses how we paint it.


*Thanks to Kev Ferrara for the word ‘authored’ in relation to work that exhibits integrity.

Kurt Cyrus said...

David, regarding your initial point about the technical challenge of capturing both the stage act and the audience in a single image: this is a great example of the limitations of linear perspective. The further you move from the vanishing point, the more apparent its distortions become. Zelinksy's cool picture doesn't "bend the time space continuum" so much as it forgoes the device of linear perspective in favor of something closer to the way we observe the real world. We turn our heads, looking down at the stage, then up at the ceiling, then across at the balconies opposite. Attempting to employ linear perspective would have destroyed that image, so Zelinsky went freestyle instead. Drucker's piece just below it also forgoes traditional perspective to give a very effective representation of what we would see as we turn our heads from the screen to the audience behind us. These guys knew the limitations of Perspective 101, and knew when to ditch it.

Tom said...

"The reason, I believe, is that how you paint is a reflection of how you love. And ‘the subject’ of our love possesses us, and in so doing, possesses how we paint it."

I agree with that Chris, the how though is where the real "love'" comes from. Imitators or people who adopt another's style don't want to pay the price that the originator did to bring their work into being. Comprehension is what gives work strength and can only be faked or copied so far.

chris bennett said...

“the how though is where the real "love'" comes from”

I think I get your meaning here Tom. It goes back to what I was saying about Dewing and Turner imagining their forms as if coalescing out of smoke or Constable interpreting the world in his pictures as a granular matrix assembling into all that takes place within them. Renoir, perhaps, saw everything as a sort of dappled blossom, Alma Tadema seem to like building his works as if he were compressing pollen. Cezanne saw things increasingly as a series of fluctuating armatures. And so on.

There is a very good feature film/documentary of Antonio Garcia Lopez spending a summer painting a Quince Tree in his garden ‘The Quince Tree Sun’. In it an onlooker asks him why he is tirelessly painting it day after day after day. And his reply is that it is not really to paint the tree, but to bring him closer to the tree. I’ve always understood this to mean that the language we use to materialise our pictures is the way in which a plastic artist communes with the world and speaks his love to it and in the process, to those who look over his shoulder at what he is doing.

Sean Farrell said...

David, thanks for your thoughts and I do see how the image wants for more.

I think the difference between a child's drawing and a bad drawing is that the child draws only what they want to say and because they only think of what they want to say and have no concerns for pretending, they often make very some very honest observations and statements.

Pretending to do primitive drawings is often less honest, because the clumsiness of being self conscious can get in the way.

Tom said...

"And his reply is that it is not really to paint the tree, but to bring him closer to the tree."


That's a great quote Chris. Almost like the making of the painting is a way to bring one into presence, or the effort of making the painting aligns or harmonizes you with what is.

Dale Stephanos said...

I agree with Mr. Cuneo that Barry Blitt is one of the sharpest wits in the business. In this case I just think he bit off more picture than he could (or would) draw in the given time. And that is a huge part of illustration. We're given a certain amount of time to execute to the best of our ability and there are moments when we realize that we simply don't have enough hours and minutes to pull off the epic picture we had in mind. It's happened to me often and each time I come away feeling like my fingers were scorched and I'll never work again. Until the next time.

David Apatoff said...

Kurt Cyrus wrote: "These guys knew the limitations of Perspective 101, and knew when to ditch it."

Thanks, Kurt, for an interesting and thoughtful perspective. As reinforcement for your view, the great draftsman Robert Fawcett claims that he never studied formal perspective and could not explain its rules, but relied on his powers of observation instead. His work was selected for use in two books on perspective, written by people who did study formal perspective.

I agree with your assessment of Zelinsky and Drucker here, although as I think the NYer cover demonstrates, that "freestyle" approach doesn't always work.

Sean Farrell wrote: "Pretending to do primitive drawings is often less honest, because the clumsiness of being self conscious can get in the way."

I agree. We work so hard to learn the skill, then we have to work just as hard to shed it again.

Dale Stephanos-- Thanks for writing, I have enjoyed your work for some time. I did not mean to suggest that Barry Blitt is not "one of the sharpest wits in the business" or that this picture is representative of his best work. It's possible as you suggest that he ran out of time (perhaps due to changes or unreasonable demands from the client) and if that's the case, it would hardly be fair of me to single this cover out for scrutiny.

My concern is a broader one: that artists who work in this "casual" style (whether on NYer covers or in graphic novels or spot illustrations) become so comfortable with the visual illiteracy of today's audience and the lack of artistic accountability that they no longer care about the strengths and weaknesses of that particular style. I think we have become sloppy about when it is truly effective to "draw sloppy." We often seem to apply that approach indiscriminately, as a default style. One could think of many social, cultural and even technological reasons for this, but I would've expected a more thoughtful approach from a premier venue like the cover of the NYer.

For example, I think Blitt's style is absolutely wonderful when he draws Iranian President Ahmadinejad in the confines of a men's room stall, but when he uses that style to capture complex scenes with perspective and architectural details and large groups, I'm not sure any amount of additional time could've saved the drawing from coming apart like wet tissue paper.

One additional thought about your "lack of time" point, which I agree is an extremely important, relevant issue: I deeply admire what cartoonists and illustrators are able to achieve working on a deadline. I am awed by what the Time Magazine portraitists such as Boris Chaliapin were able to accomplish every week, working with the same timetable as the NYer. (By contrast, when the "fine" artist Jamie Wyeth attempted to paint a Time Magazine cover of Jimmy Carter within Time's deadline, the result was disastrous). I knew a comic strip artist who compared drawing a daily strip to "running in front of a train." He told me, "You'd be surprised how good your drawing starts to look around 3:00 am. But ultimately, everyone's reputation must be built on the art they are willing to let go out the door." If people wonder what motivates me to be a pain in the ass about standards in art, it's largely to honor the illustrators who, faced with deadlines, made hard decisions about what to let go out the door.

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Michel Abrahm said...

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