Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Many people know the work of Edwin Austin Abbey from his famous murals in the Boston library. Still more people know him for his slightly fussy pen and ink illustrations that were so popular in the 19th century.

However, if you want to see what Abbey is really made of, check out his wonderful sketches and studies.

Note in the drawing above how Abbey draws with his eraser as much as his charcoal, in order to create the right values.

I prefer these studies to most of his finished drawings. They are very revealing and they have a powerful, mystical feeling to them.

Very few people ever see these studies. Many are locked up in the Yale University collection. However, I think they are almost as important as the Boston murals themselves when it comes to appreciating Abbey as an artist.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Cultured people are often offended by the vulgarity of illustration. Rocket ships blasting off, bombs exploding, damsels in distress-- such uncouth material could never qualify as fine art.

Yet, Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare loved sex and violence just as much as the authors of lurid pulp magazines did. Simone Weil noted in her famous essay on Homer's Iliad, "The true hero, the true subject matter, the center of the Iliad is force." She could easily have written the same thing about a Superman comic book.

Many great artists have been fascinated by the aesthetic possibilities of force:

Explosion by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1515

Leonardo da Vinci had a fondness for drawing explosions and cataclysms. His 16th century efforts to conjure up violent, powerful images seem almost quaint today. Here, Leonardo draws a picture of two battling armies:

Then he tries drawing a picture of a great big violent storm:

Then he says, "Ah, I know! How about if I draw two armies battling during a great big storm? That would really be cool!"

Leonardo's notion of power comes across as sweet and harmless measured by today's standards, but it was clearly not for lack of trying. If he had only known about exploding space ships, he would probably be drawing them right alongside Alex Raymond (above).

If you start disqualifying art due to uncouth subject matter, artists like Leonardo will end up in the dumpster alongside the illustrators. Better that we should focus on the quality of the image without getting caught up in censorious notions of suitable content.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


By popular demand:

I love the way Leyendecker studies water in the next three images. He never stops looking.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I'm sure I've alienated the James Bama fans out there by asserting that Bama belongs to a group of realistic painters who are unsuccessful as artists because they lack a strong sense of design, composition and other judgmental attributes of good artists. 

Instead of continuing to blather about what I find missing in Bama's pictures, I thought it would be better to share concrete examples of painting that I believe does go beyond mere realism to display design and grace and charm.

These are studies by the great J.C. Leyendecker. They have never been seen by the public before, but I think they are splendid and merit a wider audience.

Note that these are more than just realistic hands. Leyendecker is not simply copying a photograph he likes. He records visual data about shapes and colors and shadows, but he is also seeking out nature's designs and patterns. He is establishing priorities about what "feels" right. There is elegance and poetry in these three studies that is missing from so much of photorealistic illustration.

Here is another great hand, revealing the artists's keen aesthethic appeciation for the crispness of the glove (as well as the bone and muscle underneath).

As much as I respect the ability to paint realistically, in my view it is not the most important part of being an artist.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject. For example, this drawing shows the importance of hands to a child reaching out to pick flowers.

In this and other ways, children's art reveals our first pure perceptions of a world unconstrained by logic or physical appearance.

This world is sealed off forever to adults. Mature brains process visual information and spatial relationships differently. Our neurological systems have learned to mediate between vision and perception, and it is hard to unlearn what we know.

Of course, artists still recognize that pictures can be more effective when feelings alter physical appearance. They ain't exactly picking flowers here, but Jack Kirby and Hokusai both show that they remember how to enhance a picture by exaggerating body parts:

But going beyond mere exaggeration, it's interesting that the artists who strain the hardest to return to the purity of childhood drawings-- the ones who try to capture that early, pre-rational essence in a meaningful way-- are often the most intellectual. Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, Kandinsky and Dubuffet all worked with simplified child-like forms.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

They were all highly cerebral artists renowned for writing long, erudite treatises on art theory. I find it especially interesting that when they abandoned rationality to delve into the simple world of the child, the visual result was often frightening.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Scientists study embryonic stem cells because, unlike adult stem cells which have hardened into specific applications with limited adaptability, embryonic stem cells have unlimited potential to develop into any of the cell types of the human body, and to regenerate indefinitely. I think artists tend to return to early childhood drawings in the same spirit. They are looking for a place before our patterns of perception have hardened, to seek fundamental and powerful building blocks for new art.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


It is difficult to paint realistic, detailed pictures. However, artists don't really begin to earn their money until they start deciding which details to leave out.

This brilliant portrait by Chris Payne is a good case in point. The face and hands are tightly rendered, even down to individual hairs.

Yet, other parts of the picture are highly simplified and flat.

Payne recognized that it would be distracting to paint the man's coat with the same intensity as the face. Adding buttons and threads would subtract from the picture.
Contrast Payne's portrait with this different approach by the illustrator James Bama:

Bama is so intoxicated by his ability to paint realistically that he doesn't know when to quit. Here, the shirt receives as much attention and intensity as the face. Everything in the picture is equally important, so nothing is important. This is one of the weaknesses that prevent Bama from being a good artist, despite his obvious technical skill.

I'm not saying that a face is more important than a shirt. All I am saying is that good artists set priorities. Payne is able to achieve that intense, piercing look in the eyes partially because the eyes are not competing with a thousand itty bitty little circles. Bama has not yet set priorities because he is too busy saying to himself, "damn, look how good I am at painting itty bitty circles on the folds in this shirt!"

In my last posting on pin ups, we had a fun exchange on whether it is enough for an artist to paint realistically. While I certainly respect the discipline, my point was that the tougher part of art is the judgment to make choices about what is artistically important and what is not. As Leon Blum wrote,
Life doesn't give itself to one who tries to keep all its advantages at once.... Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice. One must pay for an idea as for anything else.
For me, the best pictures evaluate (that is, make a commitment by displaying the artist's judgment about the relative value or importance of forms and colors.)
Besides, to tell the truth I wanted to circle back around to this topic as an excuse for sharing this nifty painting by Payne.