Saturday, March 09, 2019

LOOKING AT CLOUDS FROM BOTH SIDES

Before he became an illustrator, Harold Von Schmidt was a cowboy.  

He loved the old west: "I had a chance to be with the Indians, to take part in trail drives and get to know cattle and horses."  He also had long, long days to study the immense clouds hovering over the western landscape.  

Here are two very different ways he looked at those clouds: 

The first view used traditional tools of accurate painting, such as light, color and perspective to capture a likeness.


Illustration for the Saturday Evening Post

The second view forced every element of the landscape into either black or white.  No compromises.

Illustration of a goat herder watching a distant storm in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop
You can bet when Von Schmidt was riding the range, he never saw clouds with thick black outlines. Here he has created a strange binary world by pushing the contrasts in the landscape to the far end of the spectrum.  Like the hot desert sun, he bleached out the nuances of color and shading.  He annihilated any fine lines that might be used to create the crutch of a half tone.  You'll find no wrinkles or folds shading that goat herder's cloak:




The drawing was done big and bold, with thick lines on a large illustration board nearly 28" wide.  Who draws like that anymore?

Both views of clouds capture their immense scale and majesty. The painting achieves it primarily through a likeness but the drawing achieves it more through abstraction. Welcome to the wonderful world of drawing. 

Abstract art is nothing new; the first abstract art was created when our first human ancestor drew the first line in the dirt with a stick.



24 comments:

James Gurney said...

It's interesting to see such detailed scans of his Willa Cather illustrations. They look like woodcuts, but are clearly brush and ink. Somehow it's reassuring to know he used a lot of white-out.

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- One of the most interesting things about these originals is how huge they are. He must've had arms like a gorilla to hold them back far enough to take in the whole image at once. But the size makes them look much more bold and potent in person than they do in the book.

Some of them are completely clean of white-out like a Zen ink drawing, but he did use a lot of white-out, especially to feather soft edges on clouds and rocks.

chris bennett said...

Thanks for this post David. It rather begs the question; 'what is drawing?'

MORAN said...

Awesome art.

Li-An said...

Thanks for the images. Von Schmidt is one of my favorites.

Zubair Ahmad said...

Nice Info

Richard said...


I don't really "get" the black and white one. What's the draw?

James Gurney said...

...which leads to the question.....How huge are they?

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- As I noted, this particular drawing is about 28" wide but some are larger. I think what gives these their sense of scale in person is that some of those individual lines are 10 to 12 inches long, so what would be a flick of the wrist for Charles Dana Gibson or Orson Lowell or James Montgomery Flagg becomes a long tightrope walk. And a line that might be 1/32 of an inch from a pen nib is 8 times larger here, like drawing with a club. At that size, it becomes impossible to adjust or correct an errant line with an adjacent line. You need to resort to white paint. You can't hunch over these drawings; they seem to be first cousin to working on a bill board.

Richard-- Well this may be a matter of taste. As Walt Reed wrote in his book on Von Schmidt, the author Willa Cather personally asked Von Schmidt to illustrate her book. "He worked for two years on the project, and the resulting sixty illustrations helped to make the book a classic, now a prize for collectors." It was clearly a labor of love.

It might be useful to contrast Von Schmidt's drawings (which, as James Gurney notes, "look like woodcuts") with Franklin Booth's drawings which look like engravings. Both have chosen an unusual solution using the horizontal lines of another medium; both have a penchant for "epic" subject matters-- glorious billowing clouds, etc.-- but for me, Booth hedges his bets all over the place with countless little fine lines, any 50 of which might be incorrect. Personally, I prefer the backbone we see here in Von Schmidt's drawings. I see the powerful influence of Von Schmidt's teacher, Harvey Dunn, who trained Von Schmidt to focus on the big picture. l like the virility (if it's still acceptable to use such a term) of his choices, his clean, unsparing treatment of the desert landscape, his extreme simplification of forms such as that goat herder or the scrub brush or the goats.

His style may be less fashionable these days, when fine crow quill cross hatching and wispy pencil lines read so well on high rez computer screens but the bolder style is, in my opinion really hard to do. A good comparison might be the talented political cartoonist David Low, who started out working with fine pen lines but whose mature style involved fewer lines drawn with a bold brush. He talked about how the simpler style took him longer: "making a cartoon occupied usually about three days: two spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour."

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett wrote, "It rather begs the question; 'what is drawing?'"

That's a question that bedevils people far smarter than I. Drawing is both a noun and a verb; back when the tools for drawing were more limited and the purpose of drawing was more defined, it might have been easier for me to suggest an answer to your question. But over the last century our notion of drawing has opened up in both form and content. Today drawing is not just expressive mark making or visual perceptions of the world, it became the core of the conceptual art movement; it is a form of non-representational writing used to state concepts and ideas; it is a tool for philosophical exploration (As Sol Le Witt observed, "A drawing of a person is not a real person but a drawing of a line is a real line." )

Is it unhealthy for drawing to expand this way? Well, I agree with Katherine Stout who suggested that drawing has historically strengthened the gene pool of fine art by contaminating it with all kinds of "street" influences. Where would fine art be today if 19th century academy painting had not been corrupted by graphic arts, advertising, comics, graffiti, etc? These forms of drawing introduced directness, spontaneity, simplicity, raw expressiveness, economy and other virtues which have conquered fine art the way rock n' roll has conquered music. Since I celebrate subversive elements such as advertising art and comics on this blog, it would be unseemly for me to turn up my nose at other pollutions such as conceptual art and say, "That's going too far."

In the case of the Von Schmidt pictures, one could argue that, since he worked with a brush and poster paint (as well as a stick), this is not strictly a drawing. But clearly one can draw with a brush (just ask Lautrec). I consider the Von Schmidt pictures drawings because of his act of creating them with hand and eye; the wrist movement is linework, the eye abbreviates in high contrast, the aesthetic seems to me to be the aesthetic of drawing. But my feelings wouldn't be hurt if you wanted to call it something else. My point here is simply that it's a different way of looking at clouds.

MORAN and Zubair Ahmad-- Thanks

Li-Ann-- I'm glad to hear that. I think Von Schmidt is under valued today, and is overdue for rediscovery. He has not been promoted the way that Cornwell, Flagg, Remington and other favorites have been promoted, but he has done work of great quality. You have a discerning eye!

Tom said...

I have to ask why the painting is comprised? It’s the early afternoon, it’s hot, it’s empty, it’s the endlessness of space without any stimulus. He’s conveying a mood and a certain type of day the oppressiveness of heat. The low level horizon which runs the length of the picture is a perfect expression of boredom, of the endless lack of change the rider is experiencing. While the second picture is the effect of a storm which is all the drama of wind and clouds and violent contrasts. The subjects themselves are dictating the handling of the materials. One of boredom and no change except for the rising of heat lifting and creating the clouds. The drawing reflecting the entirely opposite experience of the movement, suddenness and activity of a storm.

Using more then two values in an artwork doesn’t mean the artist is comprised. In fact he is using the same drawing devices of line, edges, value, scale and perspective in both works. His sound understanding of drawing underlies both products and the same abstraction exsit in both subjects. His sense of stability is quite refreshing with his solidly conceived ground plane. What does it matter what tool you are using to draw with? It is how you conceive what will be drawn that guides the tool. Painting is as much drawing as drawing with a pencil is.

Von Schmidt is a great subject for a post (maybe a book David?) although I never got to excited by the oil painting either.

chris bennett said...

David,

Thank you for your considered reply to my question. From what I can understand of your position on this I think we agree that the act of drawing is not defined by the tool it is performed with. So a useful definition would have to apply to such things as the act of arranging pixels or pieces of collage or earthworks as well as red chalk on paper to resemble naked people or oil paint shaped to look like the end of Rembrandt's nose.

For me as a painter it is the act of relating one mark to another and another and another so as to make me aware of the form as strongly as possible. A description of this activity would be something like: a plastic organisation in order to induce a sensation. In other words: drawing is the 'sense' of form.

I believe such a definition would cover both the two examples you gave in your post as well as the act of bulldozing rocks around into an earth monument. Stonehenge would therefore be seen as fundamentally arising out of drawing, as would a Ferrari, as would a Batman comic, as would a Titian, as would a Coke can. As would, in fact, every human-fashioned artefact there ever was.

kev ferrara said...

I adore Von Schmidt's big ink pieces. I think what is so unique about them is just how bold they are, yet still realistic. The bluntness is actually deceptive, because there is so much information in the edgework, in the blocking, the massing, lighting, and the composing.

Von Schmidt conscientiousness, his ethic of always going back to nature to learn more, of taking sketching trips, and getting good reference, and imagining his work deeply... is what allowed for this kind of work to be successful. This isn't just a blunt graphic grunt; this work isn't done on a wing and prayer. The refinement of keen observation is all over it. He's proving some kind of point with them, I think, which goes to something Harvey Dunn taught him; that (paraphrasing)"You can paint a thing as loosely as you please, so long as you know exactly what it is you are painting; so long as you know its exact character and nature." The other relevant Dunn line, also paraphrased, is "Get all the detail you want in the edge of the mass. The character, weight, and movement can all be expressed via the edge."

And what this M.O. does is rid the work of fine detail, leaving the areas and their boundaries to tell the tale, with the odd descriptive stripe to give variety against the mass. This idea of realism-without-rendering has launched a lot of great realistic-yet-unrendered ink work subsequently, including much by Alex Toth and Jeff Jones' Idyll.

Franklin Booth is of course equally wonderful in the way he does things. And anybody who thinks there's "too many lines" in Booth's work is a salamander-licking cro magnon who wears pelts on his head.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- When I said the painting contains compromises I only meant that it had several layers of gradation on the scale between black and white. If something wasn't quite black, Von Schmidt could use several shades of gray. This "compromise" was a more accurate way to describe the scene. The drawing was an unreasonable manichaean process that forced Von Schmidt into black or white. There was no compromise between them.

Chris Bennett-- I like your notion of "drawing" and recognize the elements of drawing in each of the activities you describe, but I'm not sure then how you then articulate a boundary between drawing and painting.

Kev Ferrara-- I think Franklin Booth has made some excellent pictures, and he had a nice flair for grandeur and glory but personally I'd put him a in a lower tier. I have two reasons for that.

First, for me economy is usually an important virtue in drawing. Artists who seek to impress with over-worked, heavily detailed pictures in my experience usually fall short of the highest heights. (Think of Murray Tinkelman's rapidograph drawings or Roy Krenkel's exhausting fantasy landscapes.) There is a very small group of artists who could overwork a drawing and still pull it off because of their other redeeming strengths-- I'm thinking of artists such as Norman Lindsay, Berni Wrightson in his prime, Chris Van Allsburg when he was still drawing thousands of individual blades of grass, Robert Fawcett in the 1950s, Frazetta in his Canaveral Press period, and yes, Booth. But even those guys, with all their talent, sometimes didn't recognize when to stop and veered off into the "too many lines" ditch.

I think Booth was more susceptible to this hazard than many of the other artists on my list. That may be because, when you stripped away all those lines his unadorned drawing skills weren't as impressive. (The same could be said of Wrightson, whose later, simpler drawings looked denuded.) However, I suspect my feelings about Booth also relate to my second factor:

For me, a sensitive line is another important virtue in drawing-- I value variety in width, in character, in energy of application. I appreciate the alertness of the line's observations and the information it conveys. That's why I often jabber here about artists such as Noel Sickles or Austin Briggs. Booth's simulated engraving line is, for me, more of a monotone. In a substantial percentage of his work, his lines seem to be made on automatic pilot-- straight, even lines to create a half-tone. In comparison to an artist such as JC Coll, Booth's lines seem cold. Of course, Coll was not exactly economical with his lines either but there was a lot of violence and inspiration and judgment in them. Rembrandt's Hundred Guilder print used a lot of lines but his cross hatching (or wherever you want to call what he did) created rich, velvety tones that shimmered. To me, Booth's lines were sometimes consistent to the point of appearing mechanical.

Don't get me wrong, I think Booth was an important and talented illustrator with a distinctive style but I would not put him in the same league with Von Schmidt or some of the others I mentioned above.

Li-An said...

@Apatoff : very good analyse of Booth’s coldness.

chris bennett said...

David:

I do not consider there to be a boundary between drawing and painting. As I said, the distinction in this case is merely to do with the tool involved, not the cognitive function of each activity which, as an artist, I experience as, and know to be, exactly the same. One might as well say that when using the end of a conte crayon we are drawing and when using its side we are painting.

'Painting' is therefore to be considered as drawing with colour rather than drawing with monochrome. And this is true because the more artfully a picture is drawn the more its colours will resonate. Which is also why poorly drawn monochrome pictures, using, for example, pencil or charcoal, have a 'dirty' appearance. (And why the ink drawing/painting you posted looks so immaculately fresh.)


kev ferrara said...

I would put Franklin Booth alongside Von Schmidt, and Coll. I think Franklin Booth's work is beautiful, unique, and magnificent. And I find his technique fascinating and lovely, a unique means to an end. The idea that he was just aping an old reproduction process with his lines is ignorant, he blew past that around 1900. I think of his strokes in groups, as his brushstrokes. They actually do a lot of heavy lifting, expressively, just as with good painters.

Photo-hugging artists with faux-expressive crayon tracing techniques aren't even in Booth's league; they impress with "loose" photo-based drawing more than they express with their nonlinear (artful) composing.

This is not to say one shouldn't use photoreference, of course. More that both artist and viewer should not be fooled by shallow, linear-intellectual attempts to make a photo (or photo composites) into art by sensitive-cum-crude outlining. The perils of photo-aesthetics, if not acted against at depth, make everything go dead; "mere representation" becomes the inescapable undertow. Surface crayon tricks won't remedy that.

Although some people just can't get past the "expressive" accurate drawing sitting there for inspection. The expressivity in such work is akin to the "emotions" of soul singers belting out automobile jingles. May as well be singing from the phone book for all the connection between form and content.

Reminds of that Dunn quote when asked to view a selection of canvases by an acquaintance in the business, "I can see that these are excellent, but I feel that they are terrible."



Tom said...

I think I understand your point now, David. But the post did not quite read that way.

You wrote, "The first view used traditional tools of accurate painting, such as light, color and perspective to capture a likeness. The second view forced every element of the landscape into either black or white. No compromises." Then conclude that "The painting achieves it primarily through a likeness but the drawing achieves it more through abstraction."

The drawing certainly looks like the southwest. Are you saying by using more then two values and artist is being less abstract? All artist are forced to reduce the range of nature's value schemes to the much more narrower range of their palettes. VonSchmidt in his ink drawing could have easily added more detail into his drawing, i.e. carried it further by additional values having first set up the primary relationship of separating his dark pattern from his light pattern in the picture. Instead he choose to restrict his range to two notes at the extreme ends of his value range. Once an artist decides on the number of values he will use in his picture detail can be eliminated or be described. But the choice of that range will dictate the modeling of form. Which of course depends on the artist's decorative intention, the hyper realist is also forced to reduced his value scheme to a few manageable tones if he wants success. Even in VonSchmidt's "manichaean process," he does use a half tone to reduce contrast between forms and to heightened contrast where he wants to focus attention. He uses line to create a "shade," between the dark tone side of his objects and their light tone side. One only has to look at the gradation he puts into the sky, on the right hand side of the picture. Clearly the sky is darker on that side then it is on the left side giving the proper emphasis to the falling rain. The value of the gradation is also clearly lighter then the shadow side of the clouds in front of the sky and darker then the light side of the clouds. The use of three's almost always created a more harmonious feeling then the use of two's which simply creates division and opposition. What is truly amazing is how how much of the appearance of a scene can be conveyed with such small amount of means.

It fits nicely with Kev's paraphrase quote of Harvery Dunn, ""Get all the detail you want in the edge of the mass. The character, weight, and movement can all be expressed via the edge." Of course one has to remember that an edge is just the tip of the iceberg. The whole mass still needs to be conceived and oriented even if the artist only wishes to give emphasis to it's edge.

Kev wrote,
" I think of his strokes in groups, as his brushstrokes." That's good, I like that. Those 'brushstrokes," also create the values of his pictures (which he groups into a few pleasing distinct and proportional groups) while describing the oppositions and quality of nature's forces via the direction of his strokes. I like the VonScmidt 's drawings a lot but if I had to have something on my wall I think Booth's work would hold my attention a lot longer because it's rich in a way, that a simple black shape can't be, it's more airy more full of space, his work welcomes inspection while a form that is solidly inked blacked is flatten into silhouetted that just keeps forcing the eye to the edge of things and becomes limited in interest. Although in VonSchmidt's drawing as I wrote earlier he uses many devices to reduce that deading effect. His drawing is a lesson in the importance of simplification and choice.

Tom said...

David wrote
"..but I'm not sure then how you then articulate a boundary between drawing and painting."

I think Manet always claimed there was no "line" around the objects of nature and the impressionist seem to claim that drawing is values, which really only means that the visual distinction between things is determine by changes in value. Line does seem like the ultimate abstraction. So maybe geometry may offer a more insight to what drawing is, as it is not afraid to define the abstract elements that create forms in space.

kev ferrara said...

Many objects will have, upon observation, some kind of thin outline, which would not necessarily be black, or even dark. (Might even be a white edge-light.) Many objects will not have such an outline. It depends on the sculptural nature of the object as it reaches its boundary edge, the local color and value of the object, what objects are near it or surround it, and the lighting scenario.

Often in art "line" is a symbol of an abstraction. The actual abstraction is the imaginative feeling of an associational boundary that one carries in the mind, the sense of bodily distinction or physical pressure. (Which may be a metaphor for emotional pressure.)

Regarding drawing vs. painting...

Art drinks from two basic realms of graphic possibility: The flat surface of the canvas/field. And the 3 dimensionality of colorspace.

The locations on the flat surface offer the possibility of flat representations of various kinds of graphic relations: lines, areas, sizes, directions, orientations, proportions, proximity, distribution, pattern, and so on. One can easily say: This is the realm of "designo" or drawing.

The term "drawing" comes from the idea of "dragging" - as in dragging an implement along a surface, leaving a trail along the route of the implement's journey. A journey is a significant sequential movement between locations. A simple straight linear journey is always splitting a territory into two territories, the journey-line forming the boundary between the two territories. If the journey curves around some area, it is beginning to form a boundary around that zone, isolating it out from the surrounding space; also establishing the boundary separating two territories. So by its nature, the journeyline or storyline forms boundaries by marking trails. Another way to put it is that drawing is mapping.

The locations and relations between locations in the dimensionality of colorspace; articulated by distinctions of color, value and saturation, offer expressive possibilities related to the inherent dimensionality of that space. When setting these colorvalue locations on the flat surface, otherwise transcendental 3D information is manifested on a 2D surface, resulting in holography; volume, sculpturality, space, expansion, contraction, solidity, ephemerality, plus modulations of color emotions. And so on.

I would say colorspace is the natural palette of painting. Another way to put it is that painting is holographic sculpting using colorspace.

However, this holographic sculpting cannot manifest except by being mapped onto a surface. Equally true is that any drawing is accomplished on a surface by using contrasting notes from colorspace to make distinguishing marks. So we are afforded art by the synthesis of the two possibility spaces mentioned.

So, in summary, drawing is mapping on a surface using notes from colorspace, and painting is holographic sculpting captured through mapping on a surface.

Any actual physical sculpting of pigment or effects of semi-transparent layering, would be actual physical sculpting on top of the drawing and painting.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I didn't know Booth personally so I can only offer hearsay, but the story of Booth learning to draw by painstakingly imitating published engravings is stated with great certainty by Walt Reed, Arpi Ermoyan, Thomas Rugh, and every other credible biographer I know. I promise I didn't make it up.

I'm not sure how Booth could've "blown past" his engraving style in 1900 if his very first job was in 1899; virtually every drawing the public has seen by him was done after 1900, including those rather stiff drawings he did for Everybody's magazine in 1908, his ads for Proctor & Gamble in 1913 or his ads in the Literary Digest in 1916.

Please remember, I don't disagree with you that Booth did some excellent work. His drawings of the tiger hunt or the men in the bar were absolutely terrific. I just think that for a not insignificant part of the time, his engraving style was a handicap: It was an unnecessarily labor intensive way to articulate form and create half tone, and it gave some of his drawings a stiffness which was inescapable in wood engravings, but was unnecessary in hand drawings. (I find it interesting that Gustave Dore's engravers managed to reproduce his drawings with a flexibility and fluidity that often eluded Booth in his pen and ink drawings). But I emphasize that in the pictures where Booth's style worked for him, it added something very special.

I also agree with you that " Photo-hugging artists with faux-expressive crayon tracing techniques" are lesser artists. I don't put Sickles or Briggs (or Fuchs) in that category but the category does subsume hundreds of wannabe Briggs or Fuchs who copied that style. I'll bet that if we looked at a stack of artists working in that style (Ken Riley? Andy Virgil? Sawers? Handville?) we could quickly agree on who fell above the line and who fell below. The copiers who really fell short are blissfully anonymous today.

Chris Bennett-- I'm with you most of the way, but it's pretty bold to say, "I do not consider there to be a boundary between drawing and painting. " "Drawing" and "painting" are two different words; shouldn't we explore whether the reason we have two separate words has any impact on the cognitive functions you describe? To take an extreme example of painting with as few lines or contrasts as possible, what about Ad Reinhart's solid black paintings, or color field painting by artists such as Hedwig katzenberger where color, not form, is the point of the painting? Or what about Dubuffet's "texturologie" paintings of the 1950s which are entirely made up of speckles with no hint of human gesture by an artist, and no trace of a conscious form (almost like a painting of asphalt or dirt)?

kev ferrara said...

Regarding Booth: Sorry, that was a typo. I meant 1910, not 1900.

Yes Booth started out trying to mimic engraving, and then became a painter in ink-line using what he had learned. You cannot find an engraving that looks like what Booth was doing in 1920. He had evolved.

I like Sickles' work very much. His late crayon journalism is less interesting. I think Briggs is overrated.

chris bennett said...

David,

Another way of defining the act of drawing would be to say that it is the delineation of where something happens - thus a sequence of delineations of where things are happening is the graphic which explains the form (be it paint or pencil).

So to take your extreme example of a solid colour field painting; the drawing involved in such a piece will delineate where the gallery wall stops and the flat field of colour begins and ends. The most basic form of drawing imaginable, but drawing, I'm sure you will agree, it is.

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