Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Artists are most creative when they have to explain a missed deadline or a mistake in their artwork. This honorable tradition of excuses goes back as long as there have been artists. One of the best excuses came from Durer, an early illustrator.

The year was 1515, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Western civilization was awakening from centuries of medieval sleep, turning from superstition to the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance. Durer was tasked with drawing a rhinoceros but unfortunately, nobody had ever seen a rhinoceros in Europe. It was an almost mythical beast described by travelers from exotic lands.

Explorers captured a rhinoceros in the far jungles of India. They strapped the great beast into a ship and sent it back to Europe. It was on its way to Italy, a gift to Pope Leo X, when the ship went down at sea.

What could Durer do? He never got to see the rhinoceros, so in the time honored tradition of illustrators everywhere, he faked it from a description and from a sketch in a letter. His drawing (above) was inaccurate in many ways but there was no one to contradict him, so Durer's drawing established the European concept of a rhinoceros for the next 250 years.

I sometimes think about that primordial beast, plucked from its home in the jungle and carried off to a new world. It was destined to become the most famous rhinoceros in history, although that wasn't much consolation when that storm came up at sea. The ship sank, taking the poor, uncomprehending beast down to a watery grave.

Western civilization would eventually improve its technique for studying wildlife. But in 1515, when cultures didn't quite come together-- when the past didn't quite connect with the future, east didn't connect with west, faith didn't connect with rational inquiry-- there stood an illustrator astride the cultures, bridging the gap.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


In 1748, Thomas Gray stood alone at dusk in the crumbling remains of a small cemetery in the English countryside. He thought about the generations sleeping beneath the moss-- farmers and plowmen from humble villages where fame or fortune never visited. Soon the ivy would cover the last vestiges of their time on earth.

Gray wrote a beautiful
Elegy to these "unhonored dead" who have no monuments to commemorate their lives. He reminds us:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.
Their neglect, says Gray, is the way of the world:

Many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

I think of Gray's elegy when I turn the yellowed pages of old magazines or newspapers and see the valiant work of thousands of now forgotten artists: staff artists for newspapers, draftsmen working in the bullpens of commerical art studios, freelancers eking out a living. Much of their art is best forgotten, but many of these artists were great. They remain anonymous today for reasons unrelated to quality-- born too soon, born too late, drank too much, or perhaps just never caught that lucky break.

Before long, these brittle pages will turn to dust. The beautiful work of these artists will be remembered for only another generation or two by their families before passing on to obscurity. I have no idea how many of these artists are still alive, or what became of them, but I am posting a token handful of commendable drawings so the internet might rescue them from undeserved obscurity.

Gray wrote that in the absence of grand memorials, those who came before us at least deserve "the passing tribute of a sigh." I agree, and this is my sigh for these and other commercial artists who labored so hard in the name of excellence.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part five

The meanest illustrator who ever lived was surely James Montgomery Flagg, who was always quick with an unkind remark.

Flagg's autobiography makes fun of the contrast between illustrator Albert Dorne and Dorne's wife. According to Flagg, Dorne's wife was beautiful, petite and elegant while Dorne looked like a brute who might murder you in a dark alley.

It's true that Dorne carried the psychic scars from his childhood in the slums. He had to scratch and claw his way out of Hell's Kitchen not only for himself but for his mother, his two sisters and his younger brother. He worked as a boxer and dealt with terrible situations that, in his own words, left him "hard boiled." Not surprisingly, he became a heavy drinker with a difficult personality. He rapidly went through three marriages.

But somewhere along the way, Dorne began to outrun his demons. He seemed startled to find himself capable of a permanent relationship with his fourth wife. After fifteen years of marriage, he said "I am slowly and definitely being convinced that this is it." This self-portrait from Dorne was found among his wife's personal effects after she died:

In the safety of his marriage, even the "hard boiled" Dorne could be reborn as the nubile nymphette from September morn.

Biologists used to wonder why nature invented such a complicated, impractical process as sex, which requires two parties coming together to perpetuate the species. Compared to the asexual reproduction that worked so well for our single-celled ancestors, sex seems highly inefficient. Two separate organisms must overcome many obstacles to find each other and mate. And that's even before you take into consideration the problems caused by that time you showed up late for dinner.

The answer, biologists tell us, is that the parasites and bacteria all around us evolve more rapidly than we do and would soon learn to evade their hosts' immune systems if we did not rearrange our genes with each new generation. By blending ourselves with another person, we force our natural enemies to begin all over again.

The same observation might be made about relationships in general.

When two individuals combine, they have a chance to fill in blind spots and compensate for weaknesses that might otherwise harden during a solitary existence. It is not easy to "rearrange your genes" with another person (as Dorne's first three marriages demonstrate). However, the process can sometimes normalize thoughts and behavior which, if left to grow in isolation, might overtake us like the parasites and bacteria. As Bernard Malamud wrote, "if a man is not careful his own thoughts can poison him."

In the 33 years of his last marriage, Dorne overcame his childhood traumas. He ended up a nationally prominent illustrator, president of the Society of Illustrators and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He was an art collector and philanthropist, founder of the Famous Artists School (and then the Famous Writers and Photographers schools, with more than 50,000 students in 55 countries). He was appointed to the President's Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped and devoted substantial time to nurturing young talent. A well deserved happy ending for a very special and powerful man.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


When I was younger (and dumber) I didn't pay much attention to illustrations of cars.  Sure, the illustrators had great skill, but I viewed them as technical specialists rather than true creative artists. If there was ever a subject matter that cried out for photography, it had to be cars.

I began to pay closer attention when I realized that some of the best illustrators of the day-- Austin Briggs, Fred Ludekens and Robert Fawcett-- were doing car illustrations. But my eyes weren't fully opened until the day I heard the illustrator Bernie Fuchs discuss car illustrations the way a poet might rhapsodize about a flower.

Today Fuchs is famous for his lush, impressionistic paintings, but in the 1950s he worked in a Detroit studio painting car advertisements (including these).  He worked closely with car painters and still holds them in the highest regard. He recalls one car illustrator as "a great observer of light and color" and another illustrator as "terrific at painting values using payne's gray. He was able to create sunsets reflected in the side of a car, or a sky reflected in the hood."

Fuchs reserved special praise for the work of Ben Jaroslaw, the illustrator who worked on the car paintings reproduced here. Fuchs admired Jaroslaw's talent and high standards. He credits Jaroslaw with showing him the ropes and helping him develop into the artist Fuchs later became.

Photography made car illustration obsolete in the 1960s. However, it will not surprise you that many years later, the fine art community suddenly recognized the beauty and abstract qualities of realistic car paintings when "fine" artists such as Richard Estes began painting cars for upscale galleries and museums:

All it took to transform car painting from despised commercial art to revered fine art was to move the picture from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post to the walls of a museum and hang it in an impressive frame. does not mention Ben Jaroslaw, but it does heap praise on Estes:

Richard Estes is a god among artists today, with legions of followers acknowledged and unacknowledged, aspiring to his masterly style (and few, if any succeeding) and decades of lofty prices in the commercial market place also attesting to his preeminence.
In my view, Richard Estes is not as talented as Ben Jaroslaw, but Estes became independently wealthy because he had the good sense to package his art properly and sell to a less discriminating market.

Monday, September 04, 2006


The world offers unlimited numbers of cool things to draw. Yet, artists seem to have special affection for drawing folds in fabric.

Folds dominate so many pictures, it is clear that artists are fascinated by them. Their complexity, their movement and their abstract quality give artists a lot to play with. Sometimes folds are such fun to draw that artists go a little overboard:

Although folds in cloth have remained basically unchanged through the ages, the artist’s treatment of them has changed dramatically. Folds in medieval art were generally angular, while folds in Renaissance art were rounded. For a contrast between two different cultures, compare the carefully controlled, tightly rendered folds drawn by the great illustrator Durer in 16th century Germany...

...with the lush, spontaneous lines of another great illustrator, Bernie Fuchs, in the U.S. in the 1970s:

Today, Christo brings the artist's obsession with folds into the modern era with his brilliant wrapped works...

...or his running fence, where fabric stretched and flapped in the breeze:

When Christo wrapped the Reichstag building in Germany, he said:

From the most ancient times to the present, fabric forming folds, pleats and draperies is a significant part of paintings, frescoes, reliefs and sculptures made of wood, stone and bronze. The use of fabric on the Reichstag follows the classical tradition.

By my calculation, there are 8,743,921 absolutely great drawings of folds. When I woke up this morning, the following six were foremost in my mind:

Leonard Starr stoically insisted that writing and drawing his daily comic strip On Stage was "a business" but his pleasure in painting these folds is almost palpable.

Here, Austin Briggs' folds of cloth dominate the outline of the figure.

Any fan of the Godfather knows what Mort Drucker has concealed under these well rendered sheets

Kyle Baker takes a more restrained but very interesting approach to folds

Alex Raymond's bold treatment of the folds in this smoking jacket elbows everything else out of the picture

Finally, one more (very different) approach by Mort Drucker where the folds ran away with the drawing. Talk about a knock out ending!