Tuesday, September 25, 2007


You can tell a lot about an artist by whether they see forests or trees.

Some view a forest as a lot of individual trees. Others think that increasing the quantity of trees changes the quality of their appearance as well.

It's kind of like boiling water. You increase the temperature of water one degree at a time, until suddenly it changes from a liquid to a gas. Quantitative change turns into a qualitative change.

When artists draw a crowd, some choose to draw a lot of individuals:

Others don't draw every individual--but they like to imply every individual. Here, Frazetta puts a few representative figures out front, then uses stray arms and legs to suggest the balance of the crowd:

Here, Noel Sickles uses highlighting to carve individuals from the dark masses of crowd on either side of this painting. He is such a brilliant draftsman, he did not compromise on the individual characters the way Frazetta did, nor did he overwork the picture the way that maniac in the Renault ad (above) did.

Then all the way over on the "forest" side of the spectrum we have this lovely painting by Bernie Fuchs. He didn't even try to capture the individual personalities within the crowd.

He viewed the aesthetics of a crowd as totally different from a collection of individuals.

There's a point at which a bouquet of flowers is so large, it becomes a garden. Some artists persist in seeing the individual flower petals. Some create the illusion of painting every petal, using time saving techniques. Others step back and say, "my subject has now changed, from flowers to a garden."

Thursday, September 20, 2007



Morton Roberts (1927-1964) was a serious painter, a child prodigy who graduated from the fine arts program at Yale University and launched a career as an illustrator for magazines such as Collier's, Redbook and McCall's in the 1950s and early 60s.

A frenzied peasant dance becomes an abstract design

He was one of a small group of gifted illustrators selected to illustrate historical series for Life magazine. While still a young man, he won respect for this series on Russian history:

Lenin greets the troops

Arpi Ermoyan wrote about this painting,
Roberts' composition is so well conceived that although the main character of the story, Lenin, is off to the left side of the picture, the eye is immediately drawn to him by the strategically placed red flag. The horizontal line formed by the tops of the soldiers heads also leads the eye directly to him.
This is clearly an artist who knew what he was doing.

Roberts also painted a series for Life on jazz and a series on opera.

Scene from a Chicago jazz club

New Orleans jazz

Detail from series on Rigoletto

Then, as quickly as his career began, it was over. In his mid 30s, Roberts died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He had spent his short time well, and left behind a small but beautiful legacy of work. But who knows what he might have accomplished with another thirty or forty years to paint?

None of us has a guarantee that we will live long enough to realize our artistic ambitions. We should remember the lesson of Morton Roberts as we evaluate each day's work.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


When Norman Rockwell launched his illustrious career, his first studio was a small attic room in a brothel. All afternoon a piano played in the parlour downstairs.

Rockwell later recalled, "a rough wooden stairway without railings led up to a trap door in the third floor ceiling." There Rockwell painted in a room so small that whenever one of the prostitutes who lived downstairs wanted to come up to smoke a cigarette and chat, Rockwell had to move his easel so the trap door could open.

The famous painter Rene Magritte lived with his wife for 24 years in a cramped three room apartment in the industrial suburbs of Brussels. The only space for his easel was in their small dining room. There he painted most of his pictures that are now hanging in major museums around the world.

Even the great Michelangelo worked in a small space. For a while, he lived in a tiny room under San Lorenzo, where his charcoal sketches on the walls can be seen to this day. At one point in his career, Michaelangelo constructed a hat with wax candles on the brim so he could work in the dark. Guided only by those flickering candles, he made some of the most beautiful art in the history of the world. Irving Stone quoted Michelangelo as saying that a small room is better for working than a large one, because a small room focuses the mind.

Sometimes I think my own work would be better if I had big skylights with good northern exposure, or large surfaces to spread out on, or a more current version of photoshop. Then I think again.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Critics argue constantly about whether comic art qualifies as a fine art. Rather than debate which kinds of art win the "Fine Art" trophy, it is more interesting to compare the different strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of art.
For example, there are ways in which comics can be the ideal art form, better suited than painting or sculpture to bring out the strengths of an artist. It seems to me that no other art form in history has provided such fertile soil for true eccentrics to develop and display their personalities.

There is only a handful of truly famous eccentrics in art history: William Blake, the 18th century English mystic, recorded his dreams and religious visions in drawings and poems. Blake and his wife used to sit nude in front of guests and recite passages from Paradise Lost.

His distinctive artwork reflected his own odd personality and was not part of any school.

Other famous eccentrics include Richard Dadd, who was mentally ill, and Salvador Dali, who probably feigned being mentally ill. These noted eccentrics saw the world through a peculiar filter, often speaking in a language of their own. We pay attention because we learn something by viewing humanity from the outside.

I suspect that the comics medium has a higher ratio of true eccentrics than any other art form. George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, Gary Larson's Far Side, Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, Bill Holman's Smokey Stover, and many other strips display deeply odd and irrational ideas, using highly personalized artwork.

Krazy Kat is not just your typical love triangle between a cat, a mouse and a dog of indeterminate gender. Herriman's art was as peculiar and insular (and profound) as Blake's. Here Herriman talks about the beginning of the world, taking a slightly different approach from Blake's biblical version.

Chester Gould's Dick Tracy is equally bizarre. In this sequence, the criminal Mr. Bribery takes a break from murder and extortion to drown his cigar smoking cat because he can't stand the cat's breath.

Bribery's sister, the aptly named Ugly Christine, gets into a fight with Bribery because she does not want him to use her new $17 steam iron as the weight for drowning the cat. As the panel at the beginning of this post indicates, the cat gets the best of Mr. Bribery.

These stories go far beyond mere whimsy. No normal mind could make this stuff up. It is like a cross between Edward Albee and the Marx brothers. And Gould's art, like Herriman's, is really good.
For a while, Gould kept a graveyard in his backyard with a tombstone for each of the villains that he killed off. In addition to his odd characters and stories, Gould regularly used his strip to lobby for crackpot causes, such as industrial control of magnetism, or not using psychics for crime detection:

Gould also diagrammed his philosophy on crime detection and other newsworthy subjects:

In the course of just 100 intense years, comics have displayed the personalities of some deeply odd people with excellent but Quixotic art-- a far higher ratio than would ever surface through art museums.

Why is this? Perhaps the medium combines the privacy for artists to sit alone at their drawing board-- a little incubation chamber for their neuroses and quirks-- with a wide daily audience for the resulting work product. Or, maybe the pressure of putting out a daily strip for decades simply drove them nuts.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


You will be tempted to skip over this post because it has the word "moderation" in the title, and instead go looking for some juicy blog about extreme misbehavior.

You should resist that temptation, at least for a few paragraphs.

We tend to bristle at anything smelling like censorship or restraint. Moderation is contrary to the freedom that all artists crave, even when they have no important use for it.

In a recent post I quoted the war cry from the
Futurist Manifesto which ushered in the art of the 20th century:
We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks....Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry...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.... We want to demolish museums and libraries [and] fight morality... .
20th century art seemed to race through one extreme style after another:

Abstract Expressionism
Magic Realism
Color field
Post modernism

Each of these styles (along with many others in between) flashed and cooled after only a few years. Many of them were intellectually invigorating and fun. Very few of them were interested in moderation or the patient search for lasting value.

Those who focus on what is new and hot usually develop short attention spans. They lose patience for moderation, nuance and context. But the old masters recognized that-- in the end-- moderation is all there is. As Shakespeare exclaimed, everything is a matter of degree:

Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what dischord follows! Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe
In this painting by Vermeer, the girl's eyes and pearl earring really stand out, despite the fact that they are painted in quite moderate colors. The earring is not extremely white, nor is her eye extremely dark.

Both colors seize your attention because of their context. Vermeer has placed the light earring against a dark shadow and the dark eye against light skin. That's the way to achieve real highs and lows. In art, as in life, context is everything.

All of this brings us back to last week's post about moderating pornography. The metaphors of extremism are alluring, both in art and in sex. It is fun to contemplate a painting made up of nothing but highlights, or a state of perpetual ecstasy without all those "boring parts" in between. But as George Eliot warned, "all of us get our thoughts entangled in metaphors and act fatally on the strength of them." Pornographers and artists who need to chase novelty inevitably become colossal bores.

Those who say "I'll try anything once"
Seldom try anything twice
Or three times
Arriving late at the Gate of Dreams Worth Dying For.

---Carl Sandburg


Monday, September 03, 2007


Viewer warning: to illustrate our continuing discussion on censorship, art and pornography, this post contains a few images that are more explicit than usual. None of them qualify as "hard core." All of them are readily available to our children, so I figure you should be capable of dealing for a few minutes with what they are seeing.

A number of you seem to share my view that government censorship of art is unacceptable. At the same time, you also agree there are lots of trashy pictures circulating freely that might mislead or even damage young people in their formative stages.

As one of the commenters on my last post noted,
Young women, being more often than not blissfully unaware of the content of average pornography, are in no position to discover their sexualities with men of their own age who have already been exposed to objectifying depictions of the female body. And young men develop an unhealthy and false image of women through their exposure to this same pornography.
The following pictures are benign versions of images that are easily available to most children:

Children who consume such stuff may have a harder time developing the patience and sensitivity to search out the genuine poetry and lyricism in sex.
If we don't believe laws or moral standards are a suitable way of limiting the adverse effects of such material, do we have to accept it as the inescapable price of free expression? Or can we turn instead to the language of aesthetics for help?

Neither law nor morality are useful tools for policing art, but artistic standards don't have to be based on laws or morals. Personally, I don't view the above pictures as immoral, just stupid. Rather than making such art illegal or saying that people will burn in hell for viewing it, maybe it's enough to condemn such pictures as artistically shallow, lacking in taste, judgment and other aesthetic values.

The art critic Clement Greenberg made a similar criticism of modern art, saying that a "relaxation of standards" has led many to accept cheap thrills as a substitute for profound artistic value:
It's not just tastelessness. It's when instead of aesthetic pleasure you settle for kicks.
To me, the vast majority of explicit illustration today settles for kicks without aesthetic pleasure. This is not an indictment of explicit art, only bad explicit art. Compare the impoverished images above with the splendid historical sampling below. Some of the greatest artists in history, from Rembrandt to Hokusai to Picasso, have imbued explicit subjects with profound aesthetic sensitivity:

I think profound art-- no matter how sexually explicit-- enhances us.

As the old saying goes, morality-- like art-- simply consists of drawing the line somewhere. Here is where I draw that line:

Art offers a wonderful spice cabinet for people whose relationships have enough nutritional content to withstand the seasoning. But for children who have never had such relationships, images can delude them in ways that hamper their ability to have real relationships going forward. Arsenic taken in small doses is a wonderful stimulant, but change the proportions and it has the opposite effect.

To try to censor or abolish such pictures is silly. Rather than demonizing pornography, it makes more sense to ridicule it, along with the arrested emotional development of its purveyors. The best boundary line I know between pornography and literature comes from the sage Lee Siegel:
Disclosing the drama of personality succumbing to desire-- that's been the challenge to modern writers free to describe sex on the page....Erotic writings preserve the inner lives-- the individuality of men and women; pornography obliterates them....There is, in fact, nothing secret about pornography. It is the public caricature of a private act.
This distinction should be conveyed to young people to help fortify them and to put the images that surround them in perspective. But to fear such pictures is to legitimize them, and to enhance their appeal. We are far more likely to reach a sensible result by channeling human desires than by denying them.