Saturday, August 06, 2022

WHAT ART CAN DO, part 1

Maxfield Parrish's landscape of a still winter night gives us a feeling of tranquility. 


As you look at this picture, you're on a planet spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, or .3 miles per second.  (That's at the equator.  You can calculate your own personal speed by multiplying the cosine of your latitude by 1,040).  The earth spinning beneath your feet is at the same time hurtling around the sun at 18.5 miles per second.  In addition, your entire solar system is cartwheeling around the milky way at 140 miles per second.  Even at that incomprehensible speed, it will take 250 million years for you to complete a single rotation around the galaxy.

Pitted against these facts about your situation, this tiny picture nevertheless controls your psychological outlook.  It outweighs the cosmos and gives you a feeling of calm.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

PAUL COKER JR. (1929 -2022)

This week the great Paul Coker Jr. passed away at age 93.  Over a long career working for diverse clients such as Rankin/Bass, Hallmark cards and MAD magazine, Coker created handsome, well designed drawings of quiet quality while his peers were screaming for attention. 

Coker never drew naked barbarian chicks or musclebound heroes in spandex, but if you want to see what genuine strength looks like, study his work.




Coker's monsters for MAD's "horrifying cliche" series were better drawn than thousands of "serious" monsters drawn by other artists for comics and monster magazines.




I've previously written about how I admire Coker's linework:


In an era of micron pens, Coker reminded us what ink is for.

 

For his long career of quality and integrity-- scarce commodities today-- Paul Coker Jr. deserves our recognition and respect.   


Thank you, Mr.Coker.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

CLAES OLDENBURG (1929-2022)

Many of the most famous fine artists of the 20th century aspired to be commercial artists.  Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem deKooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Ad Reinhardt and yes, Claes Oldenburg (who passed away yesterday at the age of 93) all tried to make it as commercial artists but many lacked the skill or talent.  

Unlike several of his famous peers, Oldenburg really knew how to draw.

Ironing board monument for the lower east side of New York
  

His drawings are what I'd like to celebrate with you today.  

As a young boy in Chicago, Oldenburg was thrilled by his mother's clipping of images from American magazines.  After studying art at Yale, he found work drawing boll weevils for pesticide ads.  He eventually moved from illustration to pop art, and then became internationally famous for his monumental sculptures and proposed public works.  He proposed giant sculptures of unlikely subjects such as ironing boards, smoke, lipstick, and slices of pie.  But I agree with art professor David Pagel who observed that "More often than not, [Oldenburg's] preposterous proposals were primarily great excuses to make great drawings." 

For example, I love this drawing of immense dancers around a pile of other dancers:

Despite their bulk, the dancers are light on their feet.  They remind me of the prancing hippos in Fantasia:





I salute any artist who can draw landscapes this well from the shoulder:





At another time, Oldenburg did a series of drawings where he identified little snatches of design and brought them to our attention by isolating them within wide margins. 


Man carrying a large parcel


legs

His drawings were bold, creative, smart and funny.  In the late '50s he experimented with healthy doses of  whimsy and irrationality:


moon bop


ya bla with car

Even with these child-like drawings he never lost his great sense of design. 

I have mixed feelings about some of Oldenburg's later works and sculptures but his excellent drawings are a fine legacy. 


Saturday, June 18, 2022

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 67

Milton Glaser had guts.  Here is his unconventional drawing of Count Basie.

.

On this blog we've seen many imaginative pictures of a pianist sitting at a keyboard.


Peter Max

Joe Ciardiello

Nick Galifianakis

Bernie Fuchs

Some are clever, some are colorful, some are funny, some are sensitive. Each is excellent in its own way; but only Glaser had the audacity to turn the piano over to achieve this bold, flat design.  It takes a lot of design muscle to lift a piano.   

I love this immense paw, laid down wet.



Glaser was first and foremost a designer, and over a long, long career he kept flipping pianos upside down.  Gotta admire that. 




Saturday, May 28, 2022

BETTER WAYS TO SPEND YOUR TIME THAN CROSS HATCHING


I’ve previously suggested that cross hatching is rarely the best use of an artist's time. It involves much busy work in the service of an unremarkable artistic goal: achieving a consistent tone (as opposed to using lines descriptively to convey information or mark artistic judgments). A form of human zipatone, cross hatching is the kind of work that might often be delegated to an apprentice or a studio helper.

I’ve previously written about my great admiration for the brilliant draftsmanship of political cartoonist Mike Ramirez. His latest cartoon, after the slaughter of little school children in Texas, questions whether the increase in mass shootings is triggered by access to assault weapons or by problems with American culture:


Ramirez writes:
What is the root cause of these mass shootings? The AR-15 long rifle was developed in the 1950s, first sold commercially by Colt in 1964, and has been around for almost 60 years. Mass killings with AR-type rifles have mostly occurred in just the last 10 years.

Ramirez raises a good point.  What could possibly account for the increase in killings over the past ten years, if not cultural problems?  Well perhaps:  

  • In 2004 Congress eliminated the federal ban on assault weapons (Pub.L. 103-322)
  • In 2005 Congress immunized gun manufacturers from liability for harm caused by guns ( Pub.L. 109-92)
  • In 2008 the Supreme Court newly expanded the rights of gun owners under the second amendment, protecting them from regulation. (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008))
As I’ve said, crosshatching is not always the best use of an artist's time. Sometimes that time might be better spent thinking through a concept. Or reading a fucking newspaper.

Friday, May 20, 2022

THE WARMTH OF A MINOR SUN

"In the days of the frost seek a minor sun."  -- Loren Eisley

The 1950s and 60s were great decades for American illustration.  Magazine pages were getting larger, the quality of full color reproduction was getting better, editorial restraints were loosening, and creative experiments were encouraged.  

Yet, already the chill winds of photography and television were being felt, and markets for illustration were beginning to dwindle.   One by one, the large general interest magazines that previously purchased art by the bushel were dying.  

As glamorous jobs became fewer and farther between, illustrators were forced to accept lesser work.  One of the more reliable sources of employment between major projects was The Readers Digest.  It had smaller pages, low quality paper, and was limited to line illustrations, often with just two colors.  On the other hand, it paid illustrators on time. As a result, some of the greatest illustrators of the era, such as Robert Fawcett, Austin Briggs and Noel Sickles, eventually worked for The Reader's Digest.  

Robert Fawcett illustrated the same story twice, first for Collier's (left) and years later
for The Reader's Digest (right).  Note the difference in size and production quality.

Big shot illustrators who had become accustomed to basking in the public glow and driving fancy cars sometimes had to seek warmth from minor suns.  How did they respond to this reduced status? 

The great Noel Sickles, who had recently done such fine work for Life magazine, realized he would have to adapt his pictures for the simpler, humbler platform at Readers Digest. 

In the drawing below, the coarse pulp paper wouldn't hold a fine line well, even if The Readers Digest had the size or the budget for a detailed drawing of an immense jungle.  So Sickles solved the problem  with large, jungle-like shapes abstracted and screened. 

Rather than be timid with a paper stock where the ink bleeds, Sickles took full advantage of it:

 



Is the page too small for conveying a panoramic vista? Is the printing process hostile to smooth lines?  Not a problem.

Unlike some of his more slick and polished peers, Sickles was never afraid to go rough.

Sickles became a great illustrator by being tough and resilient and solution-oriented. He wasn't daunted by poor working conditions and he didn't reserve his favors for glamorous projects that afforded him a wide audience. He didn't view a smaller paycheck as a license to turn in second rate work.  That work ethic, those standards, were a large part of what put him above so many other illustrators regardless of where his pictures appeared.

The same thing could be said for Robert Fawcett:





And for Austin Briggs:


Briggs' distinctive linework was hugely influential at the time when young
cartoonists such as Neal Adams and Stan Drake were learning to draw


Horrible Readers Digest color

Preliminary sketch


And for Ken Riley:





To survive during the ice age of illustration, these resourceful artists had to gain warmth from such minor suns as they could find.  They didn't disrespect the sun gods by doing lesser work.  You never know how long that frost is going to last.

 Besides, as Fawcett said, 

The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client. 

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