Thursday, January 17, 2019


For many years car manufacturers hired illustrators to paint photo-realistic pictures of cars in brilliant, eye-catching colors.

by the famous team of Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick

These pictures were designed to radiate power.  Their perspective was deliberately distorted and the cars were stretched to make the cars appear more muscular.  The colors were enhanced to shine like the sun.  The chrome was intensified.  These ads, which typically employed little text or white space, were masterpieces of propagandistic art.

But when cars were first invented, illustrators didn't have such tools.  They had no access to sharp, accurate color printing, photo projection or some of the other devices of later car illustrations.  They painted small, black and white pictures for text-heavy ads reproduced on inferior, uncoated paper.  These limits called for a different aesthetic but the illustrators made it work.  Here is an ad campaign for Packard from the early 20s:

Rather than show a photographic full view of the car, these artists selected an important detail-- a front grill or a tire or a silhouette-- to imply power and class.  Without a full color palette they relied upon the advantage of black and white art: stronger compositions.  Here are other illustrations from the same series.

There was one painting for each new ad.  They were done by different talented illustrators (such as the great Andrew Loomis) but in a similar style. 

What interests me is how, even without the tools that later illustrators employed to convey horsepower, these illustrations still conveyed their own strength.  There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs.


Sunday, January 06, 2019


Many people who saw the New York Times Magazine last week asked themselves this question privately.  Here at the Illustration Art blog, we dare to consider such questions openly.

At the end of every year the New York Times Magazine runs a special issue devoted to noteworthy lives that ended that year.  In this year's issue they included seven full page portraits by contemporary artists. I think they are, for the most part, astonishingly bad.

Why?  The magazine is an important forum with substantial resources and an intelligent art director who has had a good track record, at least for typography and design.  What accounts for this series of choices?

To investigate, let's start with this cover of the great Aretha Franklin.

This unflattering portrait is certainly no likeness.  The strange highlights and the apparently broken neck seem closer to the artistic tradition of depicting flayed meats than the tradition of portraiture.   

The facial expression could've come from Mantegna's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian  and the design seems clumsy and amateurish.  Still, these alone would not be fatal.  (Naive art has its place, and heaven knows most of the contemporary art world ceased caring about design long ago).   

No, what bothers me the most is the utter lack of observation and insight about the subject matter. The artist certainly talks a good game:
When you think of her, you think of this unabashedly free voice.  She really went for the things she wanted, artistically and personally-- and very much a black woman in all of that.  Her black womanhood informed and inspired her process and was the catalyst for so many explorations in the world she created for herself.
But there seems to be little correlation between these words and visual execution.  When it comes to translating concepts into an image, the effort seems to fail. 

This seems to be a common malady in what you might call the "post-visual" era of art: artists spin out ideas in their head but draw with their eyes closed.  And that I find harder to forgive.

Another example of this same phenomenon might be found in this ungainly portrait of Stan Lee:


The drawing simulates honest observation by including numerous random squiggles. 

Their dishonesty is revealed by the confusion they create (as with that neck).

Similarly, what is achieved by devoting so much effort to individual unruly hairs?  

So my objection to the Lee portrait is essentially the same as my objection to the Franklin portrait.  Neither picture offers the kind of insights I'd expect from honest observation and consideration of visual experience; neither picture pays the dues that come with the hard work of form-creating activity.  Instead, we are witnessing dialogues that artists have within their own heads, largely disconnected from hand and eye, for indiscriminate audiences who are primarily interested in words and concepts. 

Which brings me to "internationally acclaimed" artist Raymond Pettibon's portrait of Anthony Bourdain.  I'm a big fan of crude drawing with a rough edge; I believe that an insightful drawing could be made with a cigar butt.  However, I've always had a tough slog finding the insights in Pettibon's drawings.  Like Gary Panter, his popularity seems largely tied to his concepts-- his back story, his irony, his political views- rather than anything about his visual execution.  Like the previous two portraits, his powers of observation seem to me more verbal than visual.  

Worse, he seems to be an artist more in what radio technicians call the "transmit" mode than the "reception" mode.  Which is why it seems so odd that his written explanation says he "wanted to get the smile right."  I confess I don't understand what Pettibon means by the word "right."

Most of the other portraits in the series seem similarly undistinguished for a forum such as the New York Times.  

The photo collage of Linda Brown is, of course, in a different category and should be considered as such. 

There is a well designed, conventional portrait of Tom Wolfe in Milton Glaser's trademark style.  (Is there a shortage of under employed, hard working, innovative illustrators out there?)

But my general complaint remains that so many of these pictures, in keeping with the current disappointing fashion, are primarily about the concepts expressed in accompanying words.  Matisse once said that artists should have their tongues cut out so they won't be tempted to explain their pictures.  Most of these artists could easier put out their eyes. Without the verbal concepts, so many pictures in our conceptual, "post-visual" era would mean nothing.  

I've always thought of the NYT as a forum that could do better.