Tuesday, May 10, 2022

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part 20

I’ve previously written about Alice and Martin Provensen, the husband-and-wife illustration team responsible for more than 50 children's book. From 1947 to 1987 this remarkable couple worked together seamlessly to create lovely, highly admired illustrations that influenced the direction of children's books.


Now a welcome new art book from the Provensen's daughter, The Art of Alice & Martin Provensen, collects hundreds of those illustrations, mostly from the originals, and combines them with photographs, sketchbooks and information about the magical lives of these two artists.

Married in 1944, the Provensens left jobs at big animation studios (Disney and Walter Lantz) to seek work in New York as illustrators. They carried their portfolio of samples from publisher to publisher until one day they bumped into someone on the street, causing their pictures to spill to the ground. By chance, the "someone" turned out to be famed illustrator Gustaf Tenggren.  As he helped them pick up the art, he was impressed with their work and helped them get their first job.


This was the start of a long and successful career. After illustrating classic books such as The Color Kittens, the Provensens were able to purchase a picturesque farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. They named their new home Maple Hill Farm and converted its barn into an art studio. There, surrounded by rolling meadows, old trees and livestock, they spent their lives working side by side illustrating children's books.


They became "trusted collaborators," passing each picture back and forth, merging their taste and judgment to improve the art.  How were two such creative and innovative artists able to work jointly on every picture? Alice said:

The question we are most often asked is, “how do you work together?“ Everyone asks this of us because the stereotyped image of an artist is that of a lonely, starving figure working in a Garrett. People have forgotten that the first book Illustrators, the illuminators of the middle ages, worked in concert, one to paint the flowers, one to paint the figures, another to do the background and the texts. All through the Renaissance, artist studios were little factories. 

One of the things I liked best about the new book is the wealth of previously unpublished work which demonstrates how the Provensens worked together. They traveled the world, taking their sketchbooks with them and recording ideas every step of the way:






As the Provensens worked on a picture, they would compare their judgments, playing off each other and gaining inspiration from each other.  Alice is quoted in the book as saying “a trusted collaborator is of immense value.… That a collaborator bolsters one’s own sense of security – helps one avoid mistakes."

The Provensens' method for creating art struck me as similar to the way couples compromise in creating a good marriage.  Each brought their own strong opinions,  their own artistic skills, their own vision, yet they recognized they might achieve a wider vision and a larger fulfillment by harmonizing with the right partner.

Two trees conjoined as one: the final resting spot for
Alice and Martin Provensen on Maple Hill Farm


Tuesday, May 03, 2022

THE FEARLESS NEAL ADAMS

 For the last few days, the comics world has showered tributes to the great Neal Adams who passed away on April 28.  There are many different reasons to celebrate this talented artist who transformed the comics industry.  

Personally, I've always admired his fearlessness.

Adams applied black ink quickly and boldly-- a high risk activity.  His eye invented ways to squeeze dramatic black shapes into pictures-- shapes that did not come from photo reference.  




In particular, Adams specialized in balancing delicate, light lines against those heavy, dense black shapes, as we see on the following face:  


It would be so easy to let those heavy inks slip out of control, but Adams never did.  He danced fearlessly on that tightrope. 

Another example of Adams' daring was that he routinely drew figures from the most impossible angles.  Even with the benefit of photo reference, most sensible artists steer clear of drawing the human head from this angle.  Why look for trouble when you're working on deadline?


But Adams seemed to enjoy showing off his talent.  Few could touch him.

This is not to say Adams was perfect.  Especially in his early years his glib, lightning fast draftsmanship sometimes trapped him in a corner, as with the placement of this word balloon:


And his brashness sometimes missed the mark in other ways.  A more cautious person would've been reluctant to propound some of Adams' loony scientific theories.  But that's part of what I liked about Adams-- his utter fearlessness when it came to drawing the line as he saw it.

He was a remarkable talent who made good use of his life.  He shall be missed.

   



Saturday, April 16, 2022

THE DIFFERENCE

Compare these two city street scenes:



  

Both pictures show cars parked on the street in front of row houses with metal fences.  Both use heavy photo reference.  Yet, there's a big difference.  For me, one is clearly more successful.  Why?

To start, look at the cars pasted on the New Yorker cover.  They hover weightlessly, without a common foundation.


The cars in the second illustration are planted firmly on the ground, in perspective.


The fence in the New Yorker illustration depicts individual chain links on top of individual leaves-- details without much effect or purpose.


By contrast, the fence in the second illustration adds vigor and controls the depth and perspective in the image.  Note that this fence is not drawn mechanically.  It creates a realistic impression but there is not a single straight or measured line here: 


Next, compare the use of color.  The color in the New Yorker cover seems to come straight from a Photoshop bucket.  The heavy use of black to control value has a deadening effect on the other colors. 


But look at the use of color in the second image.  The imprimatura of raw sienna gives even the scumbled black fence posts a depth and a radiance.  This is an artist who understands color.  


There is obviously no single recipe for a good illustration.  Different treatments can be used to achieve different moods or themes.  But in my view the ingredients I've listed above, combined with others, create a huge difference in the quality of these two treatments of a similar scene.

So what accounts for the difference?

Personally, I think a large part of the difference stems from the fact that the second artist-- Bernie Fuchs-- paid his dues learning how to paint cars realistically from every angle before he ever began stylizing them.  Fuchs never had the luxury of cutting and pasting photo-illustrations on a computer.  He busted his ass studying the features on cars, blending colors, learning about reflection and painting effects with chrome.  



That way, when it came his turn to paint impressionistically and stylistically, he had already earned his opinions.  He worked from a position of strength, departing from realism as a purposeful, conscious choice.  

The surprising result is that his abstractions and exaggerations were far more bold and inventive than anyone who learned with digital shortcuts.



Detail


This last painting-- a car Fuchs saw in Puerto Rico-- was one of his favorites. 
It hung on the wall of his studio for years, and was there the day he died.

It is open to debate whether the differences in quality noted above are worth the dues they require.  After all, if the audiences (including the art directors) no longer care, or are no longer able to recognize the differences, it might make little economic sense for illustrators living in an era of digital labor saving devices to subject themselves voluntarily to the arduous paths of their forefathers.

I offer no opinion on this question.  For now I simply note that there is a difference.



Wednesday, April 13, 2022

GARY KELLEY SHOWS CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS HOW IT'S DONE

 I love this picture by Gary Kelley:


Kelley contrasts the wild world outside with the civilization inside.  He has chosen his symbols artfully: a wolf howling in the night; a barely illuminated horizon giving us a glimpse of a savage terrain; indoors, a typewriter, a perfect symbol of order and civilization. 

But wait.  Something is amiss here.  The barrier between the two worlds has been breached, and the machine-- which once stood for the alphabet and straight, uniform rows of words-- has been trashed.  Kelley even used a cubist approach to tear the planes of the image asunder.  This is a disquieting theme for people who believed electric lights and climate controls would protect them.

What happened here? Has the wolf been in the house?  

Or was his feral call from outdoors enough to persuade the typist to renounce civilization?  Perhaps a writer concluded that intellect can only take art so far, and that, in the words of Nietzsche, "One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."  To Kelley's credit, in the spirit of the wolf there is no linear answer here, only a rich and rewarding range of oblique explorations.     
 
Today, "conceptual" illustrators have lost interest in many of the traditional challenges of literal imagery.  Their goal is to express more abstract concepts using diagrams, visual metaphors and visual puns.  Unfortunately, when the idea behind a picture becomes more important than its execution or appearance, many artists take this as a license to draw like crap.  

This doesn't need to be.  Gary Kelley continues to show us that an artist can explore abstract conceptual issues without abandoning the serious challenges of traditional form creating work.  These images present ideas drawing upon the full menu of color, design, exaggeration, prioritization, mood, composition, etc. 

Here are some lovely examples for you to enjoy:

    







Wednesday, February 09, 2022

COMIC STRIPS OF THE 1960s part 7: APARTMENT 3-G

 Another bright, shiny apple in the cornucopia of the 1960s comic page was Apartment 3-G (1961-2015).  




The strip was created and, for the first 30 years, drawn by the talented and hardworking Alex Kotzky.

Kotzky and his son, Brian, who would eventually take over the strip

Kotzky spent years illustrating comic books, advertisements for the renowned ad agency Johnstone and Cushing before serving as a ghost artist on strips as varied as Steve Canyon and Juliet Jones, he finally landed his own syndicated strip, Apartment 3-G, and from that moment on he worked like a dog for the privilege. 

The best history of Apartment 3-G and the other photorealistic strips of the era was Prof  Mendez's beautifully written The Look of Love: The Rise and Fall of the Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip, 1946-1970.  In it, Mendez describes Kotzky's exhausting work process:

Kotzky would rough out the week from the script given to him by Dallis then would go off to find "the right reference files," four layers in all. The first layer was the use of celebrity photographs--celebrities because of the ample supply available--for faces. Whenever a new guest star was introduced, Kotzky would spend considerable time finding the right actor to cast then developing how his version of the character would appear in his strip, his vibrant line masking the identity of the real person used. The second layer was instant photographs for body positions, the animation of the gesture into story, drafting family and friends for posing duty. Brian noted his father didn't deviate from using the camera until the very end of the strip. The third layer, mostly for women, was the transposition of the latest fashions from glossy magazines, necessary because the girls always had to look stylish and up to date.  The fourth and final layer was the use of photo scrap for concrete details-- telephones, lamps, desks, purses and briefcases, stairways and mailboxes.  

It's no wonder that Kotzky's son recalled,  "As far back as I can remember, Dad did nothing but work. No vacations, no hobbies, no sitting around reading the Sunday paper--it was a life spent at the drawing board." Kotzky died with an uncompleted Sunday page still on his drawing board.

Like every other illustrator who worked in the 1950s, Kotzky seems to have studied the great Al Parker's treatment of women:


Apartment 3G was never quite in the same league with the very top strips, such as Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby or Leonard Starr's On Stage, but that's not my point.  It was a smartly drawn, tasteful strip which year after year, demonstrated skill and craftsmanship.  There is no strip that comes close to it on the newspaper comic pages today.



Comics pages in the 1960s were overflowing with fine drawings.  A young boy who couldn't afford 12 cents for a comic book could still receive a fresh gallery of free drawings every day.  He could observe and learn from their use of line, their compositions, their solutions to problems, their anatomy lessons.  He might even cut out the strips he liked and carefully preserve them in a special shoebox.  Then one day in 2022 he might take them out again and fondle them, a little surprised by how they (and he) have turned brittle with age.   

Sadly, this is what Apartment 3-G looked like when it finally crawled across the finish line in 2015:

As Shakespeare said, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Young children who love pictures have to turn elsewhere for inspiration and guidance these days.  This school is closed.

  

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

COMIC STRIPS OF THE 1960s, part 6: GASOLINE ALLEY

Technically, the comic strip Gasoline Alley began in 1918 but by the 1960s it had been taken over by artist Dick Moores, who changed its look.  

Unlike other strips in this series, Moores did not use a photorealistic approach.  He clearly mastered the technical skills of drawing, so he was able to place figures in a setting and draw with perspective but his style was closer to the style of a children's book illustrator such as William Heath Robinson.  

In the 1960s, the size and pacing of comic strips enabled Moores to populate his panels with lots of characters and interesting details.  In the following strip note how Moores stages the introduction of a mysterious new character.

You won't find a similar example of the dramatist's art on the comics page today.  Comic strips have become a different kind of art form. 

To get a sense for what has been lost, enjoy some examples from a story about a character who was a cross between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Scrooge McDuck: 

Angle shots showing layers of privacy (door after door) details such as floorboards, cheap plumbing, cluttered desk, cracked plaster, broom and pail-- these are all essential for the story. 

Dangling locks and chains and a cartoonish vault worthy of the Tower of London

In a Christmas time delusion the Scrooge character impetuously gives away his money to the poor, enlisting the aid of two incompetent handymen.  Moores draws it from every angle.

As they reach shantytown, it starts to snow.  Every snowflake is a separately drawn circle, every shack has its own personality.  Moores no longer needs the facial expressions of the handymen so they are expendable.

Of course, the scrooge character snaps out of it and decides he's been robbed. How will this end?

The poor people are honest and return the money, receiving a laughable reward from the old skinflint.

During the golden age of comic strips, master storytellers were given the tools to keep large audiences mesmerized, with strips such as Gasoline Alley or Little Orphan Annie. Readers became emotionally involved with the characters and stories.  They couldn't wait to see what would happen next.  

Note that with a richer, more nuanced set of tools,  cartoonists could take up topics like the selfish rich,  the perpetual poor, the educated and the uneducated, or disputes between neighbors without immediately resorting to Defcon 1 the way political cartoons do.  The same human foibles existed, but sometimes they were just met with bemusement or used for a parable.



Today newspapers compete with TikTok and have different requirements for impatient readers with short attention spans.