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.


Anonymous said...

A good artist will only emphasize folds in fabric that show the form and accentuate the gesture. Too many photocopiers out there passing themselves off as artists.

The great artists of the past knew the body and drapery so well that they could draw fabulously out of their heads. They used this knowledge in addition to the model to create their masterpieces. I don't see anybody out there today who can do that.

I think Payne is okay. Bama is just the photocopier I mentioned earlier. We'll never see great illustrators these days like we saw in the past--there's not enough money or time.

Thanks for the post, which I agree with. You've got a good eye, David. When are you going to post some of your work? It would be nice to see it.

Anonymous said...

Hi David, so what are your plans how to make through this week?
Payne is great, it's true, but he is mainly a caricaturist, isn't he? And in the picture you show us his choice is made according to some of the main habits in caricature: Over proportionate head, drawn or painted with perfect accuraty (as well as the hands), scarcely rendered body (just to inform us about the clothes, i.e. for instance the social status or self-assessment or the job of the portrayed person). I don't say it's not a pretty good idea to concentrate on the face here, but to me it doesn't seem to be so much of an artists choice anyway, it's obviously just a tradition in this genre.
Bama, on the other hand, well, is he a good choice if you want to equitably discuss realistic painting? Are you sure?
Ah, and, by the way, do you really think, painting everything in a picture with the same attention necessarily means that everything "becomes" equally important?
Anyway, I like your insistency...

Anonymous said...

And brian, "a good artist will"..
I'd say a good artist will mainly surprise you, unlike both, Payne and Bama...

Anonymous said...

I really like Payne, especially the way he bends realistic faces like rubber. I've seen his work but don't know much about him though. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Let do that Brama what he needs to do. He's walking his way (like you, like me, like them). You describe him as a absent-minded guy, but I'm sure he knows what is doing.

"But they don't begin to earn their money until they start deciding which details to leave out": this is wrong even if you think that Art is to earn money.

Can you continue your argument, but changing the main characters: Rembrandt vs. Adriaen Brouwer?
You've forgotten one thing very important: freedom to express what you want to express.

I'd say a lot of things, but just this: thanks for your blog.

One saludo!

Jack R said...

I met Bama at a one-man show many years ago and he related how some critics claimed he painted over photos, which naturally upset him. But at the show I recall clearly just how infatuated people were with the slavish detail Bama put into fabrics and wrinkles. (Remember those Doc Savage covers?) Apparently Doc never had his shirts laundered.

David Apatoff said...

Brian, your point about the difference between photocopiers and artists reminds me of a conversation I once had with Ben Jaroslaw, an old time illustrator who painted fabulous, precise car illustrations in Detroit in the 1950s. Jaroslaw worked with the young Bernie Fuchs when Fuchs was just catching fire, and told me about all the illustrators who tried to jump on the bandwagon by openly copying Fuchs' work. They tried to distinguish their version of the picture by adding lots of detail from reference photos. That was all they could think of to do. I still remember the contempt in Jaroslaw's voice when he said, "their added detail always made the picture worse. Bernie always painted his illustrations with the least amount of detail necessary."

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I agree that there are plenty of "realistic" painters who are also great artists (Vermeer, Caravaggio, etc.) but that is precisely because they don't simply report data indiscriminately the way a camera (or Bama) does. They invest themselves in the creative choices of the picture.

And in answer to your question, yes, I do think that when everything is equally important, nothing is important. My view is that in art (as in life), we have to sacrifice the lesser in order to achieve the greater. (Deciding which is lesser and which is greater is what makes you an artist or a human being). I wish it didn't have to be that way, but plenty of people have looked for a way around this rule for thousands of years, and I have not yet heard of anyone succeeding.

David Apatoff said...

Other Anonymous, I agree that "surprise" can be great, but are you sure you want to call it the main thing? What about pictures with depth that you like to revisit again and again? I think you are putting too much value on novelty.

David Apatoff said...

Nach, saludo to you as well!
Rembrandt vs. Brouwer is another good comparison. Rembrandt's portraits made many of the same trade offs that Payne made.

Anonymous said...

David, it's almost always the same anonymus :-)

I think I would largely agree to your answer (that when everthing is of equal importance, nothing is important) (though this doesn't seem to be a very "democratic" point of view), but it hasn't been an answer to my question anyway; My question was actually, if you thought it was a mistake to pay the same attention to the less important parts of a picture as to the important parts. There seem to be a million ways to distinguish between important and not-so-important, not just the one you promote here...
And the other point, it is nearly impossible to do something altogether new in art anyway, but I'm sure it is rather easy to surprise someone who thinks, he knows everything about what "a good artist will" do, at least if he is willing to look open-mindetly at something that doesn't at once fit into his catalog.

As an artist (talented, ridiculously under appreciated *smirk*) I feel myself a member of a numerous, quite illustrious family (and if I'll ever need some "consolation", this will do :-)
And, you know, as is probably not so uncommon within a family, I very much sympathize with literally everyone, who takes some pains to make something in many respects as pointless as a nice picture (or sculpture, or poem, or song, whatever);
In my opinion, and I'm absolutely serious here, they all do equally good, though, of course, some are more successful than others in selling or pleasing David Apatoff or Brian, or me; This is, however, of no relevance at all.

I've been visiting your blog (as many other art related blogs as well) quite frequently over the last years, and I sure liked many of your postings; It is allways a pleasure to read intelligently written articles in which someone talks about something he likes; It is even more so, if one shares many of the writers partialities; Having said that, the pleasure diminishes rapidly when the author begins to praise the qualities of Mr. Xs work (which he happens to like) at the expense of Mr. Ys work (which he happens to find "dull and inert");

jack r tells us, "how infatuated people were with the slavish detail Bama put into fabrics and wrinkles"; Now, maybe they were stupid people, not having "mature taste and judgment" as you once put it; as for me, I don't really like all those "itty bitty circles" in that Bama picture you show us, either; So what?!
(If he really was saying to himself:" Damn, look how good I am at painting itty bitty circles on the folds in this shirt!" I can only guess, and guess what? I guess he wasn't! )

I guess he is trying to do his best, as we all should,. so why ridicule him?

As I've told you before, my abilities to write readable English are near 0, I'm using a restive online dictionary and it took me the better part of an hour to write this comment;

I'm looking forward to read a lot more articles in which you present us your favorite artists and I hope, I've maybe made you think a little about leaving alone/unmentioned all those you don't find "good" artists. (You could be wrong, anyway...)

Hope for an answer,


David Apatoff said...

Dear anonymous (you would be surprised, I have 3 or 4 anonymouses and it is sometimes hard to distinguish them)--

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You do quite well with an on line translator.

I am afraid that I disagree with you that all artists "do equally well." It is important to keep an open mind, but ultimately I believe that without standards of excellence, art become self-indulgent, spoiled and rotten.

I did try to explain my position on "standards" earlier ( When I say that art is poorly done, I don't mean to be cruel. I do it to defend the truly talented artists who suffer and work hard for their art. There are people with no taste or brains running around saying that Kinkade is another Leonardo. I say no.

PS-- I only point out examples of bad artists who have become wildly successful and famous. If you are a bad artist and starving, you are safe from me.

Darren Di Lieto said...

Hello David,

Your blog is wonderful, but I couldn't find anyway to contact you.

My email is theape at thelittlechimpsociety dot com. If you're interested in what I've got to ask ;)


Anonymous said...

Dear David, thanks for your answer!

We are all working hard, aren't we?
And, no, I'm a pretty good artist who is not exactly starving, and I'm afraid, you ever come across some of my drawings, you'll sure use them as examples for what you like in art; can't help it :-)

Sincerely, your anonymus

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

you know what, I think, your kind of brickbatting here is appreciably getting out of fashion these days...
Anonymus is right. I think we all enjoy people displaying their love for art, but your elitist harping on about "standards" is just awfully annoying.
May I cite some words from your "standards" posting: "Taste in art changes, so an artist beloved by one generation might fall from grace in the next. Furthermore, wonderful art pops up in unexpected places-- from children, from the mentally ill, from primitive civilizations..."
And: "If people get genuine pleasure from mediocre art, one has to think twice before telling them they are wrong to do so."
But you're brave enough to tell them anyway, aren't you?
Come on, David, how could they "be wrong"? Did it ever occur to you that these people, "with no taste or brains", as you say above, probably get even more pleasure from "mediocre" art, than you'll ever get from your "good" artists?
Are you jealous?

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

Good God, David, you step once again into the minefield when you mention standards! Its become a dirty word in the arts, don't you know? EVERYBODY is special! Your local kindergarten is filled with the equals of Bernini, or Rubens, or Leyendecker. You just have to train yourself not to be so judgemental.

Boy o boy, Anonymous is high on himself! Post some of your drawings please so that we can see how amazing you are and let you win the argument. I myself would love to see them.

You're not the only one who can draw well. Speaking for myself, I can say that I study the masters in order to do better work, and that means figuring out what they are doing and why they are doing it. They don't waste a lot of time on non-essential stuff, rendering it lovingly because they are enthralled with their cameras.

You'll notice that the non-standards crowd certainly has standards and ways for people to do things when it comes to expressing an opinion they don't like. The freedom goes out the door and they shout you down. Makes you wonder why they say they support freedom of expression. Maybe they support something else which doesn't sound so nice, eh?

Anonymous said...

Ah, David, I love it when you are candid (saying you just wanted an excuse to show a painting)!

Your observations about the artist knowing what details to share, and what to leave out is valid in my opinion (and clearly in your's). Made me think about something I heard lately, to paraphrase, the portrait is less about the subject and more about the artist who is painting. Rendering an accurate image isn't the point, is it? The insight the artist brings, revealing that which is less seen, seems to me to be the point. Brings to mind Diane Arbus; she told the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor their dog had died just before "snapping" their portrait. The humanity in their faces was remarkable. Manipulative, or bringing her insight to the process and getting the subject to reveal the less seen? -pcp

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I read all the comments after I posted....Cummon guys, of course there are standards. Of course some artists are better than others. That's not elitism, that's setting some parameters, guidelines, opinions, call it what you like, but if all are equal, where is the debate? Where is the appreciation? What is the point???

The reason there is night is because there is day. You know you are happy because you know what it feels like to be sad. Time is measured by what has been or will be. Contrast and change makes life, not a banal leveling of experience.
-pcp (not anonymous, just don't have an account)

David Apatoff said...

Dear Tania,

Thank you for reading.

No one should expect to find a permanent home between Scylla, the rock, and Charybdis, the whirlpool. One of the glories of life is that you have to re-examine your location on that spectrum every day. If you stray too close to the rock, you become closed minded and brittle and set in your ways. If you stray too close to the whirlpool, you lose all standards and have no priorities or values.

But one thing I can say for sure. You won't find a home of any continuing sustenance at either extreme. It is fashionable during times of decay to gravitate toward the whirlpool, and claim that all art is purely subjective. You are welcome to argue that your neighborhood graffitti artist is as good as Rembrandt. I used to try out those arguments myself in late night dormitory discussions, just because I could. But ultimately I found that the real world continued on without me, undeterred by my eloquence.

Or, in the wonderful words of Phillipos Legras, "Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away."

I'm sorry if any of this seems mean or arrogant. I love all kinds of art from all different cultures. But I believe that it is one of the best parts of us, not the worst, that develops the vision and judgment to prefer one aesthetic object over another. It's part of the payment we receive in exchange for our investment in the world.

Anonymous said...

Whooo boy, this is getting kinda weird... Anonymus, nach, Tania, would you cut it out? I figure, good ol' Dave must be ready, basically, to jump out of his skin, right around now!..
This is HIS blog! He's the one who runs it, doing some awfully important work here, in my opinion. Important for those who are able to listen and want to learn.
You don't like his position, why not GET LOST then?
There are dozens of sissies on the internet who celebrate every undisciplined, hyperactive, imbecile finger color smearer as a wonderful artist! They all got sites where you can feel at home! They're all very "democratic" and nice people and not a bit elitist.
Just stick with your kind and let well-educated, upright men like David do their inspiring work in peace, will you?

Hector S. Leviton

David Apatoff said...

Hector, I appreciate your kind and protective words (although it was a shock to read that somebody out there thinks I am either "well educated" or "upright." You'd better consult my wife on that.) But thanks very much.

Personally, I like to think of this blog as a clearinghouse for ideas, like the noisiest street corner in the busiest market in Byzantium. I learn from people who come here to tell me I am stupid, obsolete and blind. If my ideas can't withstand challenge, then it's time for me to abandon them for better ideas. I hope that you and others will continue to speak out both pro and con. I value the cross currents of ideas and perspectives, and especially the suggestions of new artists to view.

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

"Reality is that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away."

This is a nice quotation, you know? Deeply philosophical, I like it!
Will you grant me that what we are discussing here is primarily a question of belief? Like you guys were a handful of devotees of the austere god of "standards", within a world of stubborn savages who don't actually give a damn and keep on enjoying themselfs and, not to forget, take delight in "mediocre art".
Don't you think this is an appropriate description?
There have always been (and presumably will always be) some chosen ones who see their mission in teaching us savages that we shall not get pleasure from the wrong things. That we should not have so much fun in the first place.
Which, all right, it obviously has to be this way;
I don't like your god though.
Eventually I blame it on the old greecs for making Apollo the god of art and not Bacchus. Big mistake.
Why not begin to correct it?

Your savage Tania

Anonymous said...

uuups, I meant Dyonysus, of course... Bacchus was a Roman :-)

David Apatoff said...

Dear Savage Tania,

I should have detected the aroma of Dionysus in your last note. Ah, well good for you!

I think your description is almost accurate. However, I promise that my mission is not to spoil the fun of savages. You are free to worship whatever deity passes by. Unfortunately, sooner or later savages discover that a religion with no standards leaves them hungry for meaning. That's when they sneak in the back of the church of austerity next door, to borrow standards from my gods. That's why we are told that Art Spiegelman is like "Michelangelo," Chris Ware is "like Bach," Kinkade is "a modern day Leonardo da Vinci," and all of god's children are "geniuses." You savages borrow these terms because of the sacred meaning they still retain in my church. I write from time to time to keep that meaning intact.

Tania, my young pagan friend, this blog is not for "teaching savages that we shall not get pleasure from the wrong things." Quite the opposite, I want more people to get pleasure from wonderful "low" art that museums and scholars probably view as "the wrong thing." But that game only works if you adhere to a meaningful and persuasive standard of excellence. In the words of the great Bob Dylan, "to live outside the law you must be honest."

If you ever feel like joining the real renegades, let us know!

Anonymous said...

I will. Promise ;-)

Anonymous said...

David, I've enjoyed greatly your site for some time now, but with respect I have a disagreement with you here.

I feel you’re doing a disservice to James Bama. First, comparing his work to Payne’s is silly. It’s too much of a stretch with his abstract caricature. The right arm in Payne’s businessman looks deformed, but since it’s a deliberately distorted figure, he could excuse away all errors. Aside from a distorted head, it’s a rather boring portrait. Even when he shows details they’re not on an equal level with Bama. I understand the point you’re trying to make, but it would be more effective comparing apples to apples, as it were. Perhaps you could compare Payne with another caricature artist like Drew Friedman who renders in a very detailed manner. Secondly, you’re celebrating the way Payne renders the features realistically and also oversimplifies the clothing, but to me that makes for a less cohesive and inferior work of art. If the clothing were more carefully rendered, or at least rendered to the same degree as the body, it could still be presented in a way that would not draw too much attention to itself. As it is, the artist has shifted gears in rendering styles, and it’s distracting. Also, you imply that in Payne’s figure the suit is not as important as the other elements. Nothing in an image should ever be treated as unimportant. Subordinate yes, but not less significant.

You focus on how time-consuming it must have been for Bama to render his image. That the importance lies in how much effort he exerted. What truthfully matters is how one presents the whole work as a structurally composed image. Step back from Bama’s art (or see it in this reduced format,) and all that detail goes away. What remains is how well the artist illustrates the character or scene as a whole. I’m not reading any less significance in the face of Bama’s figure because there are tiny circles on the shirt, or strands of hair, or a textured wall. I rather enjoy the variety. I’m not attempting to celebrate complete realism, just imagery that is well presented. Payne's is not.

Sometimes hyper-realism alone is presented as the impressive feature by lesser skilled artists, and the affect is as false as Payne’s exaggerated head. The people they represent look like lifeless manikins or taxidermy. Bama’s characters look alive. The details he presents actually add value, not just for the skill in their rendering, but as characters themselves. All the elements hold together because they’re rendered with equal attention, without detracting from the impact of the main actor.

My view...
-David C.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, make that "Subordinate yes, but not insignificant."

-David C.

Gina Matarazzo said...

I agree very much with David C. I think a better comparison would be in order. And I'm a little surprised using Payne as an example of an artist who leaves unnecessary details out of the picture. Any good illustrator is trained to do that, not as a means of necessarily creating a more effective picture, but in the necessity of getting the picture done and out for a deadline. I can pick out several Norman Rockwell paintings that Rockwell himself admitted he had finish the "important parts" to satisfy a deadline.

So, basically, as in many instances, we're not always thinking on a higher level as artists. Just going with our guts.

Also, most non-illustrators don't understand what it's like to paint from photographs. It's not a matter of merely mimicking a photograph. Sure, if you're painting a photo of a flower, yeah, you can copy a photograph pretty much exactly. But when people and other elements such as architecture are concerned, a trained artist knows that certain things need to be altered to make the picture work. There are distortions that happen in photographs that need to be accounted for and changed when translating them into drawings.

Also, your argument really only holds up if everyone agrees that a portrait is all about someone's face. Sometimes a portrait is about the essence of the subject. Perhaps it's the person's posture, the worn look of the entire body or dare I say - the person's clothes.

Bet you didn't expect such wide reponse to this posting? Or did you...? Haha.


David Apatoff said...

David C, thanks for your comments. I know that Bama has many passionate and loyal followers, and I fully expected them to be banging on my castle door with torches and pitchforks. So far, they seem to be a pretty civilized group.

I picked the portrait by Payne because (although it is something of a caricature) I think it shows that Payne has the technical skill to create a highly realistic image, similar to Bama's. In fact, in some ways I would say that Payne's picture is more realistic; if you look at the nuances in the skintones, I think Payne has a more appreciative eye for the variety of colors in human flesh than Bama. But unlike Bama, Payne chose to go beyond mere realism. His picture was clearly built around a sense of design. It reflects the artist's priorities, leading the viewer around the page. The face (of Dean Acheson) was reshaped by human hands and brain to create a more telling likeness than a photograph might convey. I like this kind of humanity in a picture.

You may or may not care for what Payne has added to realism. I can tell you that I have looked all the way through the hardbound Bama art book and personally, I did not find a pair of eyes as piercing and insightful as the eyes in Payne's portrait.

I agree Bama's painting is technically dazzling. I even like two of his paintings as art, his first Doc Savage cover and his RFK cover. But for the most part, I put his work in the same category with that of Elaine Duillo, Rowena, and Boris. How do you feel about their work?

David Apatoff said...

Dear Gina, I agree with you that "any good illustrator is trained to leave unnecessary details out of the picture," which is why I am surprised that Bama can't manage to do it. It is as if he puts himself on automatic pilot until his whole canvas is filled. A painting should be more of a struggle than that.

But I do disagree with you that my argument "really only holds up if everyone agrees that a portrait is all about someone's face." I don't care if the artists crops the face altogether and focuses the portrait on the subject's shoes. The point is, an artist should "evaluate" the subject, decide which features are important to the artist, and build priorities into the painting to reflect those features. Bama seems more like a camera.

Finally, you are certainly right, I did not expect this kind of wide response but I am happy to get it.

Anonymous said...

then again.... an artist might express something in giving every visual detail in his picture equal "importance". there might be a quality in painting photorealism beyond the sheer "perfectnes". because, basically you're saying: thorough photorealism makes art bad.

Anonymous said...

Well, since you asked, "Duillo, Rowena, and Boris?" Ewww. You're including Bama in that group? Do you include Bob Ross with Thomas Moran? I'd like to see you're record collection.

-David C.

Anonymous said...

I've often been fascinated with the idea of flattening or leaving out detail in one part of a picture and fully rendering another. About 2/3 of this fascination has to do with how the end result looks, the other 1/3 has more to do with my own laziness.

Magical realists like Bama amaze me. They have way more technical skill than I do, and way more patience. Jerry Pinkney came to my school once, and something he said struck me. He didn't draw perspective well, so he arranged the composition to create his own perspective. The picture was more interesting because it was inaccurate. He turned a weakness into a strength.

To me, technical skill is about third on the list of assets an illustrator should have. Creativity and a head for composition/storytelling come in miles ahead.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion as I am working on this same effect in my painting. The tug and pull of what you want to say is increasing important to me. Knowing there are a good many other "pairs" of paintings that you could have posted, you made your point very well with these two.