Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Some artists produce mediocre work because they just can't do any better. Others produce it because they're able to get away with it.

Jack Davis is a highly talented artist who has done beautiful work over a long and stellar career. He also churned out enough lame, half-hearted work to decimate an entire forest.

Davis' talent was obvious from the start. Note the confidence, humor and strength of the brush work in this early contribution to MAD magazine:

Davis was still producing excellent work for MAD decades later.

During those decades, his distinctive style became wildly popular. His work appeared everywhere, from the cover of Time magazine to cheap advertisements in the back of local newspapers.

Davis worked at lightning speed, and apparently did not believe in turning down assignments. He obviously knew the difference between good and bad drawing, but you might not know it from some of the work he pushed out the door:

Every artist is born to confront this same temptation. Artists need to eat and deadlines are remorseless. If a client will pay for a hasty, second rate job, why should an artist ever do more? A great deal depends on how an artist answers this question.

I've previously quoted the great illustrator Robert Fawcett, who was no stranger to this temptation. Fawcett fought back:
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.
Ben Jaroslaw, who worked with the famous illustrator Bernie Fuchs, recalled how Fuchs responded to the opportunity to coast along doing repetitive, lucrative work:
All the local art directors kept calling up saying, I want Bernie! I want Bernie! But Bernie got tired of doing pictures of people holding drinks and just said, "shove it."
Another illustrator who worked with Fuchs, Bob Heindel, made a similar observation:
I know Bernie has tried to choose his assignments, and I know he has done some work he is not so proud of....That's how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly if you care about it you learn to protect your work. Bernie was always very protective of his ability. Not that he was vain-- quite the contrary. But he knew what he had. And he always wanted the opportunity to do his very best.
Jack Davis has had a wonderful career, but his legacy would be different if he had been a little more protective of his great ability.

One of my very favorite cartoonists, Leonard Starr, once said that writing and drawing a syndicated daily comic strip was like "running in front of a train." He laughed,"you'd be surprised how good a drawing starts to look at 3:00 in the morning." The pressures are real. So where does an artist draw the line? When facing similar temptations, I often think back to this wonderfully instructive passage from Starr's comic strip, On Stage:

We are all entitled to lie down a little, but make sure you know how to count to nine.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Let's face it-- artists love to draw faces. Penetrating eyes, distinctive noses, expressive mouths-- these are often an artist's richest lode.

But when that face turns away and the artist no longer has facial features with all their emotion and meaning-- what does that leave? Just the simple line of a human cheek. What can an artist possibly make of that?

Well, my friends, that depends on the artist.

Look at the knowledge that Alex Raymond conveys with this sensitive drawing. This cheek demonstrates more wisdom than most artists could convey drawing a full face.

Next, Austin Briggs applies a cruder tool and a simpler approach to the same subject, yet still manages to convey just as much information. As I said in an earlier post, I think this is a thrilling piece of draughtsmanship.

In the following detail from an illustration by Robert Fawcett, the person drawn from behind was obviously a much tougher artistic challenge than the full faces drawn from the front.

Finally, the great Mort Drucker infuses personality and vitality into a face that is not only viewed from behind, but is also obscured by layers of scuba gear.

Despite the obvious drama of the human face, it can be a far greater challenge to draw the head using just the subtle contour of a cheek. Experienced artists recognize that it is difficult to draw the head from that perspective. For many, the result ends up looking like a blob of pastry dough.

Sometimes it pays to look for artistic greatness in the simplest places. The philosopher Santayana wrote,

Miracles are so-called because they excite wonder.

In unphilosophical minds, rare or unexpected things excite wonder, while in philosophical minds the familiar excites wonder also.

Lots of artists can dazzle you with flashing eyes or a dramatic expression. But the artist who can find the miraculous potential in the humble curve of a cheek and can convey that miracle to you-- that is an artist worth watching.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Today is the 90th birthday of Walt Reed, the world's foremost scholar and historian of illustration art.

Walt is author of the seminal Illustrator in America, 1860-2000, the foundation of all scholarship in the field, as well as Fifty Great American Illustrators, A Century of American Illustration, monographs about artists such as Joseph Clement Coll, Harold von Schmidt, John Clymer, Mort Kunstler, etc., and Famous Artists School books on Figure Drawing and other subjects. Each book is respected for its integrity of scholarship, soundness of judgment and clarity of expression.

When I was a young boy, I saved the money from my paper route for an entire month to buy The Illustrator in America. When I finally had that treasure trove of artists and styles in my hands, I nearly wore out the pages studying it.

Since that time, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Walt personally. The sincerity and the purity of his love for the art form is an aesthetic experience all by itself. He has the respect and admiration of all who know him. Who else can say that at age 90?

He doesn't go on the internet and won't see this, but happy birthday anyway, Walt!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


When I recently posted a drawing by Frank Brangwyn (1867 - 1956), I was surprised to hear how Brangwyn-- once one of the most famous artists in the world-- had faded from memory.

Early in his career, Brangwyn was touted as "the Rembrandt of tomorrow." Then fashion took a sharp turn toward modernism, and Brangwyn quickly became yesterday's news.

One such modernist group, the Futurists, wrote a wonderful manifesto:

We want to deliver [art] from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.

To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past....?

For the dying, for invalids and for prisoners it may be all right. It is, perhaps, some sort of balm for their wounds, the admirable past, at a moment when the future is denied them. But we will have none of it, we, the young, strong and living Futurists!
I get a kick out of the Futurist manifesto, but on my little oasis in blogland we do not judge art on the basis of manifestoes, fashion trends or market statistics. Strip away the politics of the art establishment and judge these once again as pure drawing.

Just as with the studies of Edwin Austin Abbey, Brangwyn's working drawings enable you to see his talent in mid-flight. Note his theatrical instincts as he searches for just the right dramatic pose.

He ain't no Rembrandt, but there's a lot still to be learned from a great talent like this.

Friday, July 13, 2007


The starting point for art is our five senses. Yet sight, touch and other senses are no help when it comes to one of art's most powerful subjects.

In his final play, Shakespeare laments, "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." The sleep that rounds us all-- vast, profound and impenetrable-- offers artists no clues. There are no colors or shapes or designs to portray. In fact, the signals we receive from our meager senses usually make the artist look silly.

In Robert Frost's poem Home Burial, a mother wails over her inability to comprehend her dying child:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short,
They might as well not try to go at all
Perhaps for this reason, most artists don't try to go at all, resigning themselves to depicting the detritus left behind:

Artists who do try to conceptualize what lies beyond consciousness usually get about as far as the veil:

Painter Arnold Bocklin employed a similar device-- a distant island-- but the point was the same: no sneak previews allowed.

If art cannot see past the veil, what consolation can it give us?

For me, one of the most successful efforts was George Herriman's lovely dialogue between Krazy Kat and the afterlife.  Krazy Kat used an ouija board to seek the wisdom of the spirits on the other side of the veil.

Herriman's strip was a mad, magical marriage of profundity and whimsy. His light touch enabled him to avoid the pitfalls of his lugubrious predecessors, but he was no less wise.

Any information we might glean from "the other side" will end up as whatever we decide to hear.   Herriman's humanity seems a far better response to our predicament than the grim visions of Bocklin or Brueghel.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Some illustrators, such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, went on to become famous in "fine art" circles for their amazing watercolors. John Gannam (1907 - 1965) remained an illustrator but his watercolors were still amazing.

Gannam's paintings adorned stories in popular magazines for many years. He also painted a popular series of advertisements for sheets and blankets.

Neither Winslow Homer nor Edward Hopper could hold a candle to Gannam when it came to portraying the deep emotional relationship between a housewife and her new blanket.

But don't be fooled. Look closely and you will see the work of a serious and accomplished watercolorist.

Many of Gannam's paintings were published in cropped form, accompanied by intrusive headlines and graphics like these:

But when you look at the originals, you see Gannam's mastery at work:

Little details like this row of flowers demonstrate how Gannam kept looking hard all the time. Gannam didn't use a rote formula or lapse into photorealistic tracing.

These watercolors could fit quite comfortably on the same wall with the work of Homer and Hopper.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


In both art and life, the sculptor Gaston Lachaise was famously devoted to his muse, Isabel.

Lachaise was working in Paris in 1901 when he first saw Isabel Nagle strolling through the gardens by the Seine. Isabel was a married woman on vacation from the United States. Lachaise later recalled, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...."

The young artist appeared at her door every day until she agreed to let him draw her portrait. By the time she left Paris to return home to Boston, the couple was in love .

Lachaise could not live apart from Isabel. He gave up his friends and family in Paris, learned to speak English and followed her to Boston with just $30 in his pocket. There, he persuaded her to leave her husband, a conservative local businessman.

Gaston and Isabel fled strict Boston society to romp nude in the remote woods of Maine. They swam and frolicked in the phosphorescent sea at night. They wrote bad love poetry to each other (as is every couple's right). A sample from Gaston:

I sing my hymn to you,
You the goddess for whom I searched,
Whom I express in my every work,
Have made me a God.

Isabel and Gaston were married, and Gaston devoted his entire career to sculpting monuments to her ample belly, powerful haunches and pendulous breasts.

Years later he wrote, “through her the splendor of life was uncovered for me and the road of wonder began widening….” It must have been somewhere along that wider road that he started sculpting Isabel opened up like some giant fecund orchid.

I used to think Lachaise's art was pretty uncomplicated. Then I read that Isabel was in reality just five feet, two inches tall and weighed a mere 110 pounds. Whoa.

Oliver Sacks observed that "the world isn't given to us-- we make it with our nervous systems." In art as in love, what we bring to and invest in the object of our affection plays a significant role in what we perceive.

Lachaise did not simply copy Isabel as nature created her. Through her he distilled abstract shapes and contours of eros.
Willa Cather once said we can find happiness by being "dissolved into something complete and great." As far as I can tell, Lachaise followed that formula to become a very happy guy.