Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Why did Maxfield Parrish spend so much time painting tiny crevasses in rocks in the backgrounds of his paintings?


Parrish was a fabulously successful illustrator.  He earned over $100,000 per year in an era when houses cost only $2,000.  His time was so valuable, you'd think he would've found a shortcut for the menial labor of painting tiny crevasses in dumb rocks. 

To get the proper "feel" for rocks, Parrish used to bring actual rocks into his studio, paint them a flat color and 
light them to accentuate their shadows.

The following detail from an original Parrish painting, photographed from 3 inches away, shows you how tedious it must have been for Parrish to paint all those damn crevasses:

Obviously Parrish decided that these details made an important contribution to his paintings, and that there was no simpler, faster way to achieve the effect he wanted.
Bernie Fuchs was another great illustrator whose time was very much in demand.  He was an economical painter who abhorred unnecessary detail.  Yet, he too seemed to believe that rocks in the background were worthy of his sustained attention.

There's nothing fake about these rocks; they required thousands of deliberately placed brush strokes.  If Fuchs tried to get away with random marks, we would've seen the difference.

This is not an issue of mere realism.  Fuchs wove more design into the details than Parrish did, but that was Fuchs's nature.

It's not necessary to paint rocks in great detail to be persuasive.   Illustrator Harold von Schmidt simplified desert rocks using black poster paint and a wide, flat brush:


Von Schmidt grew up spending a lot of time staring at rocks in the desert.


Like Parrish and Fuchs, Von Schmidt respected background rocks and put substantial thought into getting them right. As a result, they gave themselves to him in these wonderful drawings.

On the other hand,  when even talented painters disrespect rocks and attempt to fake it, as Frank Frazetta did in these two pictures, the rocks end up looking phony:


Frazetta put in the manual labor to draw tiny cracks in this wall but you can tell he wasn't looking at rocks when he did

Just like the rest of mother nature, rocks don't like being taken for granted.


Kevin Mizner said...

Any post that mentions Parrish makes for a good day by me. Parrish's treatment of rocks reminds me of what I read in Coy Ludwig's book on Parrish. On page 197 he writes: "M.P. had many other tricks for modulating and "patterning" glazes, such as the use of course-textured blotting paper... The glaze was patted on, and the blotter was then carefully blotted onto the surface once... When deftly done, and with random patterning, the similarity to a rough mountain side at sunset was quite striking."

To me, knowing the technique used doesn't diminish in the least the beauty of the painting. Fuchs is just as awe-inspiring.

David Apatoff said...

Kevin Mizner-- Thanks, Kevin. I love that book by Ludwig; I think it was the first great effort to resurrect the work of important 20th century illustrators who had fallen out of vogue. It was a smashing success and was quickly followed by books on N.C. Wyeth and Leyendecker, starting an important trend.

Thanks too for the reference to Parrish's technique, a great point for discussion. I think he cleverly used that patterning process to create a natural mottled look, not just on stone but on cloth as well. But of course, as we can see from that first example, the mottled effect was just the beginning. He made conscious decisions about value and hue and form for those rocks, indicating for example the natural formations that would be created by water flowing downhill over centuries, or the differences in lighting for different types of shadows, or the weight bearing structure of mountains. There is a lot of blotting going on there, but also a lot of dragging that brush around. I share your great enthusiasm for Parrish, and just want to make sure that no one thinks a secret gimmick was responsible for that total effect. Parrish worked his ass off.

kev ferrara said...

Agreed indeed, for artists just as much as for scientists, there are rewards in nature at every turn. Nothing is shallow, simple, or perfunctory. Everything has its identity and every identity has its own structure, development, dissipation, and emotional associations. So, truly, we shouldn't take the rocks for granite, we shouldn't be flip about the birds. We should bark-up the correct tree and when attempting to render skies, keep getting fronts to the drawing board.

Just to quibble: Parrish's rocks are utterly full of design. They tend, however not to be designed unto themselves to attract attention as unitary objects of narrative interest. They are designed rather as part of larger compositional structures, which can be more difficult to suss out for the uninitiated.

Kevin Mizner said...

Oh, absolutely David- fair points. Without a doubt he spent weeks working, readjusting, blotting and painting every square inch of his works. No one "Secret" technique could do it all. His genius (common with all the Masters) was his ability to think through the challenge and make the appropriate decisions with just the right touch.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks, Kev. I certainly agree that those Parrish paintings are beautifully designed. (Note how both Parrish's first painting and that Fuchs painting take liberties with the lavender color of snow, and both have broad expanses of almost flat color contrasted against smaller, intensely detailed sharp focused sections where the sunlight hits.) The point I was trying to make about Fuchs and design (and I don't think we disagree much if at all) is that when you examine the two up close you see Fuchs making little loops and swirls in white over a burnt sienna field, which look like he has surrendered some of the constraints of Parrish's realism for a more overt design.

Kevin Mizner-- Agreed. Looking back through that Ludwig book, I am struck once again by how brilliant he was, not just as a colorist (for which everyone remembers him) but for the full panoply of skills and imagination that make up a master painter.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for thoughtful topic and pointing out details only trained eyes would notice. I happens upon an intelligent blog to learn from be inspired by. I paint as an illustrator, strive to use a brush in a more painterly fashion, now I am a retired illustrator yearning for more "sightings" such as this, I continue to be drawn to historic influence. Thankfully Judith

Li-An said...

Rocks seems to be a problem for a lot of artists - I think about french comics artist working in fantasy field in the 90’s. They drawed rocks a little like Frazetta did. Very strange. I had a theory that these young artists did not have the opportunity to see real rocks - they were born and lived in cities. But Philippe Buchet, a successful SF comic artist had the same problem… and he was born and lived in the Ardennes, very wild country (for France).
Moebius was an obsessed rock illustrator

Sean Farrell said...

Parrish had an incredible sense of beauty and the Fuchs is also really fantastic for its sense of scale and the mountainous rocks bring a gritty psychedelia to the beauty. There's awe in the rock, its height and mass. Another surprise is viewing the world through the big chunky lines of Von Schmidt. Those donkeys have a lot of volume and are so well handled. The middle donkey really looks curled into itself making that careful downward step and the artist captured that time of sunset when the western light just falls into darkness behind that mass of mountain. The second image up the trail is psychedelic in its wildness and wow what a dangerous trek. A nice selection of images, very engaging. Yes, by comparison, the rocks in the Frazettas are like a toupee. They are there, but what's there? The rocks are a little too well behaved. Yes, by comparison, a missed an opportunity. Nice lesson David.

Donald Pittenger said...

From what I vaguely remember (It has been quite a few years since I read a lot about Parrish), it seems his entire painting-making process was a long one. For some of his nature paintings (and probably other subjects), he would start with a monochrome base image and then layer with glazes and perhaps opaques with time out for each application to dry. Lots of craftsmanship going on in addition to those rocks. A side-effect was that he usually had quite a few works in-process at any given time.

I was fortunate to see a large exhibit of Parrish's work in Reno back in 2005. Also fortunate a couple weeks ago viewing his King Cole mural at New York's St. Regis Hotel.

P.S. Huntington Hartford (of the mid-1960s Gallery of Modern Art in Columbus Circle notoriety) was also a big Parrish fan and tried to drum up public interest during Parrish's final years.

Laurence John said...

David : "Obviously Parrish decided that these details made an important contribution to his paintings"

yes, but the entire surface is treated with the same hyper detail, so why wouldn't he apply the same attention to rocks ?
i'm surprised his works are getting praise on a blog where photo-realism is routinely disparaged. to me, they look like hand tinted photographs.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous / Judith-- Thanks for writing and good luck with your painting.

Li-An-- I enjoyed the Moebius link, thanks. It doesn't surprise me that Moebius payed attention.

Sean Farrell-- Hah! Toupee is the perfect word. And I'm glad you enjoy those big "chunky" lines from von Schmidt. Today people favor a lot of fine lines made with crow quill pens, where you could make a mistake with 20 lines and none of them would be fatal to the drawing but with those big chunky lines, each mark was a real commitment.

Donald Pittenger-- Lucky you, to see a large exhibit of Parrish originals. I think they're even more extraordinary in person. Your description of the long, time consuming painting process is one more reason why Parrish would not survive in today's illustration market, where cover "paintings" on photoshop are given deadlines of 24 or 48 hours.

david apatoff said...

Laurence John-- As I see that first example of Parrish (which I think is more successful than the second example) the entire surface is not all "treated with the same hyper detail." To the contrary, there are vast expanses of snow in the foreground and sky in the background that are little more than flat color, which serve to cool down the hyper detail portions of the painting. I think they create a very nice contrast, and highlight the sunlit portions where Parrish wants your eye to go.

Regarding photo-realism, I think these mountains are probably the most photo-realistic things that Parrish painted, which is one reason why they intrigue me. I think he saves them by taking great liberties with color and design, but there's no question that these are pretty extreme in the realism department. I assume you've seen a broader range of his work, where fanciful designs, imaginative visions, and his extraordinary colors play more of a central role. I think in those pictures, he uses the realism of the background mountains selectively to make his fantasy worlds more believable. You recognize the reality of those rocks and you say to yourself, "Gee, maybe such a world could actually be. Perhaps it's just on the other side of those mountains we see in everyday life."

kev ferrara said...

"I'm surprised his works are getting praise on a blog where photo-realism is routinely disparaged. To me, they look like hand tinted photographs."

Every now and again I get a tincture of that feeling about his work. But then when I peruse his stuff a bit to test the point, I find the vast majority of his imagery so wondrous and overwhelming that the very idea of critiquing him goes and takes a nap. His landscapes are particularly deceptive because they seem so possible. But they're figments just as well as his illustration were, make no mistake. Parrish dreamt and brought to aesthetic life a world that never was and never could be. The camera can't do that.

I agree, David, about Fuchs' overt designing of his detail work.

I also agree, on the Frazetta ink piece, that the rocks are both overdone (obsessed over to the detriment of the piece) and underdone (under referenced to the point of bad fakery). Yet, like many works of classical art, the cringe-worthy dogmatisms of some parts of the picture don't stop the totality from being masterful and a joy to behold. (Frazetta's Ape Alp piece, on the other hand, should be placed in a very dark basement room facing the wall.)

Aleš said...

Those Frazetta rocks remind me of Ruskin who said that the first distinction between good and bad artist is the ability to observe the ruling of organic laws - the lines of force with which the rocks have risen, the lines of growth of leaves, the sweeps of associated curves of cloud movement and that tendency to error should only be in the exaggeration of their authority. While he granted a great perception of masses of form to Salvator Rosa and Gainsborough, he critizised their unacurracy inside the foliage groups because in the details they gave nothing but meaningless touches. He linked the importance of individual character and liberty of seperate rocks or leaves to moral aspects: he said that it would be wrong to see men subject to no ruling principle or common affection because that way they would loose power. And on the other hand it would be sad to see man oppressed into assimilation and without diversity of characters and hope because that difference would enable them life.

Also, someone has to mention Sargent. He painted a lot of rocks throughout his travels to the Italian Apennines, Switzerland, French Alps, Rocky Mountains and visited quarries too.


Tom said...

Just pop in my mind David from your last post on Menzel, the man on the toilet, an the German mind. Luther is reported to have had some of his greatest insight on the "john." A quote '“I’m like a ripe stool and the world’s like a gigantic anus, and we’re about to let go of each other.”

Harold VonSchmidt's drawings are great. I think you could do a whole post on how well he paints the forms of nature, from trees leaves, to ocean waves and the desert landscape. He has some fundamental insight into how nature arranges itself. His sense of volume and planes which underlaid all forms is exquisite. Such insight comes from lots of contact with the real world. You feel the wagon leaning with the road as it recedes into space. The simplicity of the handling comes from understanding not just looking. He senses the weight of mass in relation to gravity. You can put your foot down in any section of his drawing.

Like Ales, i thought of Sargent too, (and Bellini's St. Francis in the desert) especially the painting of Frank Weston Benson, Salomon Fishing. The second Fuches detail looks like a empty hole not solid rock.

I also thought the same thing as Laurence John, the paintings look like tainted photos. The snow in the foreground in the first picture looks like it has been cut out of a sheet of paper i don't feel like you could walk across the ground like one you could in the Von Schmidt.

In the Frazetta drawing it looks like he just drew a flat two dimensional plane which is the antithesis of the reality of rocks and space.

I remember seeing Mt St Victoire for the first time after years of seeing Cezanne's paintings of it. His paintings had so much weight and density that the actual mountain looked ephermal and almost weightless. As in Classical architecture the architect makes what is sensed in nature explicit.

Aleš said...

Regarding the first Parrish painting I like the front plane the most, I think that mushy bluish purple snow with soft light on the border and glittering sparks in the air feels magical. The small pine is comfortably sitting in the snow dimple while the big one is watching over the creation. The snowy hill is hiding the city in a way that makes the city seem like an isolated little corner of happiness on the earth and it makes you want to travel down there. The image has a bit of tender, carefree fairytale character in the air. There are no photos like that.

But then those mountains kill the experience for me. All those little rock shadows (that David isolated in OP) on the bright side seem deadly factual, just like a sterile photograph does. To me the snowy hill in the front plane, with it's composition of blue and purple mixtures, gradations, individual twigs looking through, bumps, flecks and light reflections seem more artistically digested than thousands of little shadows on the mountain. I find some of that factual deadness among the groups of pine needles too.

David said that flat color of the front snowy hill serve to cool down the hyper detail and highlight the sunlit portions where the focus is. I agree that Parrish achieved a good design that way, but I keep resisting his compositional pull towards the bright side because that's where the turnoff resides. So while my eyes are jumping across the image I tend not to focus past the middle ground, I just travel inside the empty air above the houses so I perceive mountains as blurry masses.

chris bennett said...

It's a question of how much flesh you put on the bones to make 'em live. And there is no one answer, not one that fits all artists anyway. For Parrish to believe in those rocks (and therefore the viewer) he had to do them the way he did them. For Sargent they were flabulating, kerffuffles of intertwining pigment. For Leonardo they were concrete smoke. For Monet they were melting ice cream. For Beardsley they were gigantic jelly moulds. For Cezanne they were chromatic armatures.

Frazetta uses a serviceable language to say 'Rocks', and that's that. Parish uses roughly the same language, but crafts it to speak of his love. Use whichever club it takes to get you to the green, even if it has to be twenty eight strokes of a putter. :)

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Paul Sullivan said...

I am surprised that no one has mentioned Parrish's method of building models of some of the scenes he was painting. I believe he used clinkers, the hard rock-like residue from his coal furnace, for models of some of the rocks he painted. At times he used photography and would project photo images directly on to his working surface. These "clinker models" could explain the porous texture of some of his rock forms, almost coral-like.

It has been a while since I've read about Parrish's technique. As I recall, in his later years his glazing technique was quite similar to the the sequence of four color process printing. One of his unfinished paintings was monochromatic, as Donald pointed out, but it was painted in a rich cobalt blue. It looked just like the cyan plate of a four color separation.

Tom said...


Wow those are some mushy analogies for rock. You make it sound like Monet, Sargent and Cezanne where just pushing paint around the canvas in some glib, loopy, impricise and arbitrary manner. Their brush handling (drawing) is so skilled because their conception of mass was so solid like a "rock."

Frazetta painstakingly draw a symbol for rocks. There is no flash of insight, no comprehension of the solidity of nature, there is no joy in the handling of his medium, the joy that one finds in drawings that are made with understanding. If all you want to "say" is rocks why not write instead?

Brevity is beauty, simplicity in execution is beautiful. A well thought out volume leads to simplicity in execution. Most people don't want to watch someone get to the green in 28 strokes if they can do it in two strokes.

chris bennett said...

Well Tom, it wasn't my intention to demean Monet, Sargent or Cezanne, only to highlight in a colourful way their different aesthetic intentions.

Sadly, much of the last 100 years of image-making has been little more than laborious alternatives to text symbols. In defence of Frazetta, it wouldn't have made any sense to write 'rocks' on his picture in the place of his illustrated rocks.

My sloppy analogy of the number of strokes to get to the green was misleading. So I agree with you about economy of means producing a more potent result. My point was that a large part of Parish's aesthetic was realised by producing something I can only describe as a sort of sentient texture, and this necessarily required a lot of stokes. Someone like Rockwell Kent (har har har) it could be said thought of rocks as knives in the ocean of space, so only a few slashes of the pen placed with informed finesse on the paper were required to communicate his particular aesthetic. The same principle apples to the other artists I mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! Keep up the good work!

Paul Sullivan said...

On the subject of Maxfield Parrish— his methods and color as we know it from reproductions:
Anyone truly interested should refer to James Gurney's posting of December, 31 2009.

Parrish's famous painting, "Daybreak", is discussed and reproductions compared. The comments regarding the post are excellent.