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.


Anonymous said...

I love these studies, and love anything JC does.
Knocking on Bama blows my mind though.
To me, anything that is drawn represent something is still an abstraction of reality. No matter how 'photoreal' something is, it's an abstraction from reality because you are converting what you are seeing into a 2d image. All the paint in the world and all the rendering skills in the world can't exactly copy what you are seeing. Pigment doesn't have the color range that eyes color range actually takes in. Same with the range of contrast. Your eye can sense infinitely more nuance than you can "render".
Point is, all drawings and paintings, even photgraphs are abstractions of reality. There is no realism.
There was a study that researchers showed tribe members, who've never seen a photograph before, a photo of a man, and the tribe members coudn't figure out what the researchers were trying to show them. It seems like, reading shapes on as a 2d abstract pattern is partially a learned process. (With every artform, there is an audience learning curve to understand the media. Once people have a grasp on the medium, more complex things can be communicated through the medium).
So if we look at drawing/painting as abstractions, then all the little differences that we are talking about become very minute. From stylized and designed forms, to photo realistic rendering, there actually isn't much of a difference, especially in a Bama vs JC vs Payne paintings.
In the same comparison, a feature animation artist would call JC's drawings super realistic and not exaggerated/designed enough for their tastes. Again, this bring up the question of range. How designed/stylized does it need to be for someone to say that it's stylized/designed/exaggerated.
There's more in common with these minute artist than not. In terms of general public's knowledge of art, commercial illustration is illustration, and it is a very small part in the what the world considers art. Think about all of art's major movements and think about the contrast between classical to modern art, these are very different. If this sets the range, then Bama and Payne are in the same boat.
Saying that everything is equally important because you didn't supress details is also seemingly false. Every picture has a focal point that suggests something important to that picture. No matter what the picture is of. Look at any photograph that isn't manipulated by an artist. There will be a focal point, and it will say something about that picture. Whether or not it's what you want the viewer to look at, is the job of an artist. What i'm saying is, that if you put every single detail in the picture, it will still have meaning behind it. It may have a 'slower read' than a picture that has a couple of "bulls eyes" (meaning look at this face, this hand, then this costume detail- done- flip page). Bama's is a slower read. But it's highly designed by an artist. He plays the circles and organic shirt against the jagged cracks and geometric and coarse wall. His warm pallete is stylized the same way Payne's pallete is stylized.
The only people who think of these small differences in art technique are the people who devote their lives to studying art technique. But art technique isn't what makes art what it is. Techniques are only a necessity to convey ideas.
The general viewers (the public) do not make such distinctions in technique. Rather they are moved by ideas and identification.
It reminds me of Barron Storey saying that the problem with most illustrators is that they are illustrating for other illustrators (instead of what they should be doing, illustrating for people).
btw- When someone says they like a particular artwork, it is just saying that they agree with what an artist did on a drawing/painting. If you agree with what the artist did, you like it. If you disagree with what they did, you don't like the art. And really, you're being self indulgent by telling everyone how great it is. It's like saying, I'm great, because I agree with this great artist's vision. Real art appreciation is internal, and not telling other people what good art is (or what bad art is). Maybe it's better just to show the art, and not to tell the people what to think of it. Let the artwork speak for itself.

Anonymous said...

Wow, came here to write a comment, only to discover, that it has already been written, word by word... Great! Free time!
Thanks to anonymus!!!

stephen erik schirle said...

i pretty much agree with everything anon just said, and have been in agreement with most he's said in the past discussions, all good discussions btw, and I really love this blog!

Unknown said...

First off, thank you so much for sharing those Leyendecker studies. I would love to see more of those if possible and I'd also like to see further discussion regarding priorities in art. Great stuff.

Diego Fernetti said...

Great post, I love those Leyendecker studies. His brushtrokes make them appear as if everything was so easy and accurate! Even his alternative sketchs look like finished renderings.
I guess that being hyperrealist is no obstacle to get across a strong message. Style is irrellevant, if the idea and design is good.

Andrew Smith said...

The Leyendecker studies are great! His economy of brushstrokes always blows me away.
Anyway, If we are taking sides here, I have to agree with David on this one. What Bama does with 100 brushstrokes, Leyendecker did with 2 (I'm not saying Bama is bad, but I am saying that there is a great deal to be said for economy, simplicity and finesse of execution). In my opinion, Bama isn't even close to the level of JC, but then again, very few artists are (or were)

colin said...

I have to say, I think anonymous missed the point somewhat. Certainly Bama and JC both stylize (to different degrees), and there are differences in style, economy, and such. But I think the real point is that Bama's picture (while I don't think it is all that bad) isn't as well designed as JC's studies. It simply isn't as strong a picture.

Let's take draftsmanship and technique out of the picture (ha ha) for a moment, and just consider if you gave an instant camera with fixed settings to two people, one a talented photographer, and one... not so talented (e.g. me). I guarantee you the talented photographer would take better pictures, not because of any difference in the reproduction, but because of the images he chose, the composition, the quality of light. A good photographer, even stripped of all his tricks of F-stop and depth of field, will know how to use the frame of the picture, choose the moment and the light, and design a good picture.

Of course, then there's the comment about simplifying. Again, a good photographer will be able to create pictures which have a focus, which emphasize some parts and downplay others in a way that pleases the eye. Artists who paint have the opportunity to take this further. Otherwise, why not just take a photo?

I won't go so far as David and say that Bama is outright bad, and I do think that realism has its own appeal (like any parlor trick). But I do think that Bama seems to have been distracted when he created that picture. It seems likely to me that he did miss an opportunity to create a better picture because he felt the need to be like the camera and forgot his role as the photographer.

Anonymous said...

Hey - those sure look familiar! Fun to see them given such great attention.
-Mary M

Anonymous said...


Do you own these studies (lucky dog!)? Thanks for posting them. There were few artists like Leyendecker in all of art history. He had it all going.

Anonymous said...

Anon: I appreciate that you took the time to write that comment, but I can only hope you see the irony here. You've littered your comment with Bama-esque circles of redundant thought creating a convoluted argument in the reader's mind. You've only made yourself an example of David's point: distill the complex into lyrical simplicity and you have a bit of transcendent magic ... otherwise, you have an image reduced of its potential impact or a diatribe without a central argument.


constance wong said...

I've been a frequent reader of your blog for some time now, albeit a quiet one. I'm quiet maybe because (or rather, IT IS because) that I'm just too inexperienced and I've never learned art and study the history of art, etc...but I find both your observations/view and your readers' comments enlightening, informative and some, very thought provoking.

This first comment could have been triggered by what you've been posting since 'priorities'...for I couldn't agree more, that 'the ability to paint realistically, is not the most important part of being an artist'....

Martin Pate said...

Never been a big Bama fan but Leyendecker has always been on "pedestal" status. Great studies...thanks for posting them.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous (first one), Leonard and Stephen,

I would never insult an artist's work gratuitously, and if you ever catch me doing so you are welcome to smack me for it.

On the other hand, I can't pretend there is no difference between good art and bad art, even to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Growing up in a culture of false praise and easy hyperbole, we sometimes lull ourselves into thinking that Kinkade and LeRoy Nieman are just as good as Rembrandt and Hokusai. My friends, it is simply not true.

Anonymous, people with an aversion to standards claim that "real art appreciation is internal." In my view, this approach can only backfire. If everything is subjective, then we all become objects. We can no more communicate amongst ourselves than rocks and trees do. So despite the obvious problems with finding a common language to discuss values in art, it is worth the effort. The process of comparing and refining various versions of excellence is a large part of what makes civilizations. I like to think that's what we do together on this blog. If the words I use or the words of other contributors don't persuade you, you are welcome to disagree or offer alternative language. I'm all ears. But if your point is that we should disavow language as useless and stop trying to distinguish good art from mediocre art, then I am afraid you have lost me. Somehow, I don't think you feel that way because of the obvious time and care you have taken to articulate your thoughts.

Chris Ocampo said...

"A composition is not just a nice arrangement with everything filling in the space," he said in his American Artist interview. "No matter how satisfying it may be from an abstract point of view it is meaningless in illustration unless it is built around and wholly expresses an authentic idea that motivates the particular picture." -Dean Cornwell. Dean knows that design from an abstract point of view- is meaningless. He knows that the 'idea' that the picture is built around is what the design should support- it's not designing to have a good abstract design. Illustration is a form of picture making, so you could put it in line with photography/journalistic photography. Look at a Henri-Cartier Bresson- tell me that's not a good picture maker. There's tangents everywhere, high contrast areas in corners and edges of the picture---all a no no in classic illustration. But it's the idea and the composition that supports that idea that makes him a phenomenal photographer. Let's look at Norman Rockwell. He spent the majority of his life creating pictures that were designed around the false ideas of life, or highly idealized/romanticized pictures. And towards his end, when he really started to look at his humanity, (also being inspired by Roosevelt), he started creating pictures of civil rights struggle (The Problem We all Live with). Ideas that were real and apparent to his life found it's way into his artwork. Even though he did thousands of other idealized pictures, "The Problem We all Live with" is one of his most remembered paintings. Why? The idea---not the design. Even Speilberg, who's a collector of Rockwell, uses Rockwell's "Hoot" in Steven's movie "Empire of the Sun" as an idealized/sentimental picture that is exploited the imagery as being a lie as the film progresses. On a side note, Bama not being a successful?, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators hall of fame in 2000. I love Leyendecker drawings as much as the next illustator, but Bama is just as amazing. You could feel the emotional subtext of Bama's subjects. That is no small feat for any of the best painters who ever lived---yes ever. Both create beautiful artwork and are exceptional craftsman/draftsman. I'm into this blog and the discussions. Thanks for posting the pictures.

Anonymous said...

Ah, come on now people! JCL and Bama? No, no, no. They're miles apart from each other in style and treatment. Flappers and Gastbys compared to dusty cowpokes. Arrow collars and Doc Savage. Their audience would never be in the same room together. You won't hear Mozart at the Grand Ole Opry. Is JCL more dramatic in his compositions than Bama? Well, they ar in these examples, but not always. That signature soupy brushstroke is definitely iconic and mesmerizing, but gets old after awhile. At the end of his career he distinctly refused to budge, and paid dearly for it. Compare his body of work to Dean Cornwell. Now that guy can tell a story. Bama and.. I don't know... von Schmidt? Tepper maybe? Briggs?
To be fair I'm not so big a fan of Bama's art. I prefer seeing paint and mark-making that show the skill of the artist, and in Bama that skill disappears. Maybe that's what David's really pointing out. Remember, we're talking about art made for Directors and clients who have rather specific expectations. Like JCL, Bama became known, perhaps cursed, with a certain look, and stuck with it.

-David C.

lotusgreen said...

these are so great--thanks

Anonymous said...

Excellent work there!
Could you please give some tips on becoming at least as artistic?
It would be great to keep the spirit of art alive!