Monday, August 27, 2018

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, PART 58

Tom Fluharty named his new kickstarter project after a pencil. 

Fluharty discovered the Prismacolor 901 indigo bleu pencil, and was so inspired by its qualities that he used it to draw a rich symphony of drawings.

There's plenty to love in this collection:

Note how the hands are fully as expressive as the face


Fluharty found that with the indigo bleu, he could create highlights by scratching his drawing with an Xacto blade.  There is no Photoshop or white paint touches in these drawings.

Detail
But today's "one lovely drawing" is not one of Fluhartys "finished" drawings, instead it's a quick sketch from his series:


I love the way Fluharty maps out the knuckles on this hand:


It's a cinch George Bridgman never taught anyone to draw hands that way.  They display Fluharty's trademark speed and strength.

This sketch also reveals the first tentative swirls and whorls that Fluharty later develops into shading in his fully embellished drawings.


These swirls aren't an accurate representation of the subject matter, they seem to be Fluharty's way of feeling out the designs in the terrain.  Fluharty says, "The paper is very unforgiving and allows for no erasing so everything is exactly like it comes out of my hand."  By beginning with a light hand and bearing down for emphasis as he progresses, he avoids erasures or miscalculations on finished works:

Detail
The end result is nice, but I have a special fondness for the beginnings of the process, where Fluharty's eye first begins to establish priorities.  That's why I've chosen his rapid sketch for today's "lovely drawing."

Monday, August 20, 2018

ART THAT DOESN'T QUITE MAKE SENSE

Here are three hilarious drawings.  Each one employs simple lines to force us to reconsider the rules of the game:


Lynda Barry



Many years ago, Louis Magila snuck a little Theater of the Absurd into an unappreciative magazine for men


Basil Wolverton

When we look at these pictures, we start out processing them in our customary, linear way but quickly find our assumptions derailed.  They take us outside the realm of habit and into a realm of higher plasticity.  That's where creativity dwells.

 Oscar Wilde wrote that art that is "too intelligible" fails.  No matter how skillful, no matter how impressive the technique or great the virtuosity or precise the image, art that is fully intelligible will always be a closed box.  These drawings are not especially skillful, but each one opens that box.

They prod the viewer out of our universe of logic and experience, telling us "Your reflexive responses will do you no good here; get to work."  The incongruous juxtaposition of previously incompatible worlds-- even with a few simple lines-- is at the heart of creative originality and is probably a better investment of your time than the most detailed photo-realistic painting.

'Tis a fine thing to illustrate literature, but a mistake to do it literally.




Friday, August 03, 2018

SOCIALIST REALISM, 2018 STYLE

Compare these two illustrations of a swamp:

John Cuneo's Donald Trump golfing in the swamp

Jon McNaughton's Donald Trump and his cabinet "Crossing the Swamp." 

One is a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds.  The other is a cover for the New Yorker.

How do we evaluate which of these pictures is more "realistic"?  There are several different varieties of realism in art.  In the words of painter Burt Silverman, "realism has a long history and has, at various times in the past, been used to describe very specific kinds of art."

For example, a loose, distorted drawing by a caricaturist can still display more knowledge of physical reality than a painstaking, so-called "realistic" painting by a lesser talent:



Alligators by Cuneo (above) and McNaughton (below).


More importantly, if representational art is going to remain relevant in a post-modern world, it can't be content with repeating (however meticulously) what we already know (or assume we know) about the way things look.  It should contribute to our perceptions and alter our awareness of experience.  Contrast Cuneo's treatment of swamp water (below) with McNaughton's undifferentiated soup.





Even in a humorous caricature, Cuneo demonstrates better understanding of foreshortening, depth and color than McNaughton's "realistic" painting.

McNaughton's website suggests that he would like his brand of realism to be associated with Norman Rockwell's:
 Just as Rockwell painted inspiration into his scenes giving meaning and hope to Americans during the Great Depression, World War Two years and after, Jon McNaughton offers the same hope and inspiration for Americans facing moral, cultural, and political crisis today.
In defense of Rockwell, I would like to comment that these are the words of a moron.

No, Mr. McNaughton's version of realism is much closer to what is known as "socialist" or "heroic" realism, a 20th century enhancement of the timeless use of images to buttress a cult of personality.

Under Lenin, the "People's Commissariat for Enlightenment" sponsored sentimentalist painters who possessed the proper kiss-the-whip mentality for unquestioning worship of powerful bosses.  This school of art, later named socialist realism in Stalin's era, was further refined by Mao and other autocrats as a method of shaping culture.  It required artists with the technical skill for extreme realism and the commercial instinct for salesmanship to produce work free from any creative nuances or complexities that might make the art challenging for the lumpenproletariat to grasp.

                                    *               *                *                 *

All visual realism is something of a lie because it creates an illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface.  And from the very beginning, pictures have always put a subjective spin on editorial content.  Nevertheless, the 20th century witnessed a great leap forward in the use of "realistic" images against reality.

Realism as an art form was devalued during the 20th century, largely due to the incursion of modern art.  But I suspect realism played a role in hastening its own disrepute as it became increasingly glib using the tools of realism to manipulate mass audiences on behalf of authoritarian regimes, or to have no normative content at all.   These led audiences to reconsider the meaning of "accuracy" in art.  Sometimes "unrealistic" images turned out to be the more truthful.

Silverman wrote that for realism to be redeemed as an ongoing method of making art, "the form and the subject matter of the painting [must be] fused in an emotional matrix....  My difficulty with the current upsurge of "realism" is that much of the art lacks psychological toughness or great insight.... [This type of] rendering of the external world clearly seems superficial." 



   

Sunday, July 08, 2018

A DITKO TRIBUTE



Last week Steve Ditko left us to join the hoary hosts of Hoggoth.  He will be remembered worldwide for his role in creating Spiderman, definitely one of his lesser artistic achievements.

Ditko was a highly imaginative comic artist whose half baked political philosophies eventually led him to a role as a hermit and an outsider artist.  He would disapprove of any tribute that purported to interpret his work.  He felt his pictures should speak for themselves: "[I]t's not my personality that I'm offering the readers but my artwork. It's not what I'm like that counts; it's what I did and how well it was done."

So out of respect for the talented Mr. Ditko, I'll be uncustomarily restrained and let his pictures speak for themselves.  These are the kinds of wonderful pictures for which I think he should be remembered.


Note how Ditko's distinctive personality shows up in his drawings of trees, bushes, mountains, and smoke

What a marvelous page, dense with the hard work of excellent compositions and creative angle shots.   

It's difficult to think of a comic artist with better cinematic instincts.


When set free by Warren magazines, Ditko indulged in moody, Kafka-esque surrealism
Ditko was an enemy of compromise. That was both his strength and his weakness.
 

But in between those two extremes, Ditko deserves great credit for contributing excellent work to the field of comic art for decades.

Friday, June 22, 2018

ART, TRUTH AND ACCURACY

Not accurately drawn, but true:

That phase of a relationship where nothing fits and everything gets in the way and your feet are just too darn big.

On the other hand, accurately drawn but not true:

Artist Jon McNaughton uses realism to portray lies

Water, drawn as accurately as anyone could:

William Motta


Yet, Monet's treatment of water required the artist to look beyond accuracy, and seems even more true:




Two illustrations of foreboding houses.  It's obvious which one is more accurate, but which feels more true?

             


Art is no place to get lazy.

Meaningful truth in art is not a solid, and sometimes not even a liquid.

A picture's resemblance to what you see when you look out the window, or even into a mirror, can be a good starting place but it is only a starting place.



Thursday, June 14, 2018

THE SECOND COMING OF FLOWERS

In his essay, How Flowers Changed the World, famed anthropologist Loren Eisley described the first coming of flowers, 100 million years ago:
Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.... only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.
Alice Hargrave
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the age of reptiles, there occurred a soundless violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms--the flowering plants.... Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know--even man himself--would never have existed. 
Eisley explains that, in addition to covering the world with beautiful colors, the seeds from flowering plants created superior sources of energy which fueled new species with faster metabolisms and higher functioning brains: 
The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world.
 That was the first coming of flowers.

Once upon a time people lived without pictures in their daily lives.  Yes, there were a few select murals and paintings in palaces and temples, but people had no posters, prints, calendars, illustrated books or other pictures in their homes or workplaces or on their streets. From the beginning of the world until a few hundred years ago, people lived essentially without images.  

Then slowly another "soundless, violent explosion" occurred. The industrial revolution began in Great Britain in the second half of the 18th century and it brought new methods of paper-making and reproduction techniques that made volume printing possible. Signs, billboards and posters began to pop up on public streets.

Henry Sumner Watson 
Bigger and faster steam-powered presses, lithography, new systems of distribution, color reproduction, etc. combined with new prosperity from mass audiences to spread images around the earth.  Just as flowers transformed the plant world with colors and shapes, pictures transformed the human made world.

Harry Grant Dart
This transformation of our environment with bits of aesthetic meaning took place in what geologists would consider a blink of an eye.

 

The trasformation is far from complete.  Today images continue to proliferate at an increasing rate.  Hundreds of web sites such as pinterest, flickr and deviantart are dense with pictures accessible to anyone in high rez form with the push of a button.  Now images not only move, they're interactive and created by artificial intelligence.

The significance of these two great transformations is more than merely aesthetic.  Just as flowering plants provided concentrated fuel that helped brains advance, I suspect the democratization of pictures  affects minds with content, nuance, imagination and diversity in more digestible forms than words could do. Just as modern graphic design proved successful in stimulating new forms of consumer demand, images can stimulate a wide range of activity.

In view of what happened last time, who can say where it will lead?

Saturday, June 02, 2018

NICK MEGLIN (1935-2018)

My dear friend, Nick Meglin, died this morning.  For nearly 50 years Nick was the loving heart of MAD magazine and a tireless advocate for its astonishing stable of talent.  The following are some of Nick's classic cover ideas for MAD.





But Nick led a much broader life, full of professional accomplishment in varied areas (he was member of the Dramatist Guild, ASCAP, the Writers Guild of America, and the National Cartoonist Society).

The best way to summarize Nick may be with this story:

Last week Nick took me to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. With all the knowledge and sophistication of an experienced museum curator, he escorted me from piece to piece, explaining what made Rodin great, citing details from Rodin's life and pointing out subtle features of his bronze casting technique.  Then, as we were leaving he spotted Rodin's The Burghers of Calais  across the Courtyard.  With all the knowledge and sophistication of an 8 week old puppy, he went over to pose pretending to return a rude hand gesture from one of the Burghers.

"Meh"
As his sweetheart (and the most patient woman in the world) Linda Maloof snapped his photo, Nick explained that wherever he encountered The Burghers of Calais around the world, he had to get a picture of himself responding to that Burgher.  The joke never got tired for him.

I say that Nick was my friend, but Nick was everybody's friend.  If you ever read a copy of MAD Magazine or one of Nick's many books or if you ever took one of his art classes at the School of Visual Arts or if you ever went to one of his musical plays, or even if you just believed in decency and humility and kindness, or appreciated a good insult, you were a friend of Nick's.   He was a joyful and remarkable man, warm, funny and expansive.  Everyone gravitated to him.

Nick (far right), Sergio Aragones and Sam Viviano cracking each other up on a panel last week at the National Cartoonists Society convention.
Nick was generous teaching me about illustrators.  He seemed to know personally every illustrator of the past 60 years and he worked with many excellent artists at MAD; his memory was extraordinary and his taste was impeccable.

In recent years he began passing along to me his dusty files of tearsheets and clippings, like a relay racer passing a baton to the next generation.  He knew he wouldn't have time to write all of the books and articles that remained within him, and he expected me to do my share to honor and preserve the talent we both admired.

I told him several times I wanted to sit down and tape record him for two weeks, but he always had something more pressing-- and funnier-- to do.  It would have been a great service to the history of illustration and comic art.  Now I'll never have that chance.  Farewell, my friend.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE FACES OF TIME




Time magazine-- which was for decades the dominant news magazine in the world-- seems to be limping  toward its end.  It was purchased last year for a fraction of its former value and the new owners are  dismantling and selling off the assets.

The cover of Time was the showcase for thousands of remarkable portraits painted by talented artists such as Boris Chaliapin and Ernest Hamlin Baker.    

Time wanted its covers to convey an accurate, lucid magazine; it wasn't advertising creativity or imagination.  So it commissioned careful illustrations that inspired confidence and integrity. 



Week after week, decade after decade, these artists painted cover portraits with great integrity, sometimes on a 48 hour deadline.  (Baker reported "permitting himself only two hours sleep out of the forty eight allowed for the job." Sometimes they worked to the last minute, cutting it so close they had to race in their car to meet a delivery date.) 

The originals were about twice the size of the printed version.  Here you can see how Baker achieved those subtle skin tones: over a light wash base, he applied highly diluted tempera paint, built up gradually with a thousand delicate brush strokes.

Baker went back with white paint to separate eyelashes he thought were too close together





How in the world did Baker learn the face of his subject well enough to employ this approach?  He'd take the reference photos supplied by the magazine-- perhaps a dozen random pictures from different angles-- and study them with a magnifying glass to compile a composite map of the topography of the face.


Baker would then use his topographic map as his guide when painting the lines and crevasses and warts of the face.  That's a lot of work. 




I would not say these covers are works of inspired genius.  I've seen more beautiful designs.  But in my opinion they are consistently works of excellence, and opportunities to be excellent are rare enough in this world that they should not be taken for granted.



If there was a shortcut that could've achieved the same result, I'm sure these artists would've  been happy to take it, and to get back all those hours of their lives.  For example, decades later computers could've saved these guys time.  But regardless, I think artists should take comfort from the fact that time spent in pursuit of excellence is never wasted.