Sunday, September 28, 2008


In this drawing, the great Saul Steinberg captures different lives in their journey from birth (A) to the end (B).

It's hard to imagine a simpler reduction of biographies to plastic form. I suspect you know some of these people. To understand the discipline that line imposes, you might try distilling your own life, or your own relationships, this way.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,
What can't be said can't be said and can't be whistled either.
But as Steinberg repeatedly reminds us, sometimes it can be drawn.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I'm sure there's a technical name for those squiggly black lines that artists put in the background to complete a picture.

Frank Godwin

Stan Drake

Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson

Unfortunately, I have no idea what they're called. More importantly, what rules govern their use? How does the artist know what shape to make them? How large or small should they be? What kind of lines work best in a particular situation?

Feliks Topolski

The great William Oberhardt (below) explained the rules about as well as they can be explained: "I follow only my feeling of harmony."

William Oberhardt

It's fun to watch the most tightly controlled, "realistic" artists use totally abstract splotches in order to round out a picture.

John Cullen Murphy

Al Williamson

I often think artists use this device the same way many animals use a tail. A tail provides counterweight and balance for animals, enabling them to walk along tree branches or make sharp turns at high speeds. It keeps the animal stabilized and on target. Similarly, once an artist has completed the primary subject of a drawing, he or she sizes it up and often adds whatever abstract shape or weight is necessary to keep the picture in balance. When the artist finds that the demands of content and realism have tugged a picture away from a good design, those little black squiggles often restore what Oberhardt called "harmony."

Plus, a tail often serves another function: when a dog (or an artist) is happy or proud, a tail is something to wag.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The last king of the Ashanti empire, Assantehene Agyeman Prempeh, was surrounded by victorious British troops clamoring for him to come out of his palace and surrender. The gods had abandoned Prempeh and all hope was gone. But before he went out to face his conquerors, he commissioned one last work of art.

Colonel Baden-Powell described the surrender in his memoir of the African military campaign. When Prempeh emerged, the soldiers commanded the defeated king to grovel before them:

It was a blow to the Ashanti pride and prestige such as they had never suffered before. Then came the demand for payment of the indemnity for the war.... The king could produce about a twentieth part of what had been promised. Accordingly, he was informed that he, together with his mother and chiefs, would now be held as prisoners, and deported to the Gold Coast.
Prempeh was marched off to jail. Behind him, soldiers plundered his palace and burned down the sacred Burial-Place of the Kings of Ashanti.

In those last days before Prempeh surrendered, he ordered his royal artists to prepare a glorious tunic for him to wear at the surrender ceremony. They worked long and hard to make a "regal robe of mourning" approximately 7 feet by 10 feet, covered with graphic symbols illustrating the culture and history of his people.

The cloak was organized in a series of squares, with ideograms depicting the legends, proverbs and histories of the Ashanti.

For example, the following design symbolizes the king encircled and protected by ancestors, warriors, and helpful spirits who support his reign:

This next symbol, called "hen's feet," relates to the Ashanti saying that "a hen treads upon its chicks but does not kill them," meaning that the powerful king stands on his people in a gentle, protective way.

Another symbol, the ram's horn, depicts strength but also corresponds to the proverb, "when a ram is brave, its courage comes from its heart and not its horns."

The soldiers were clueless about the meaning of these symbols or the significance of the cloak. However, one of them took a fancy to it and "obtained possession" of it. The king watched through jail bars as his conquerors walked away with the legacy of his people.

What in the world was Prempeh thinking? The beauty of his cloak couldn't protect his people. Why did he go through the trouble of creating art whose message wouldn't be understood? And why put one more precious thing in the hands of his enemies to steal or destroy?

One obvious answer is that people sometimes reach out to art when they have nothing else left. In moments of ineffable sorrow, when our five senses can't piece together the world in a way that is bearable, art sometimes helps us bridge the gap. This kind of art might fortify Prempeh even if his enemies didn't understand its meaning.

But I suspect there was even more involved. Friedrich Schlegel once wrote,
Through all the noise of life's multi-coloured dream,
One song sings to the secret listener.
It seems to me that a lot of art is created like a message in a bottle. We hope it will someday find its way to a secret listener who understands us. The Ashanti empire, with its rich cultural tradition, would end when Prempeh surrendered that day. It was quite possible that Prempeh's cloak would be carelessly destroyed by infidels. But if the cloak survived, there was a chance it might someday come to the attention of some secret listener, and they would know the Ashanti for what they were, and maybe even take pity for something that once was, but is no more.

Every day you and I walk unknowingly on multiple layers of such sadness-- desperate songs from previous generations of singers who never found a listener. But in Prempeh's case, his gamble paid off. After many years, his cloak was discovered and rescued. Now it is in the inventory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


The great French impressionists did not have plastic raincoats, so when Monet or Renoir wanted to study the reflections of light on translucent surfaces, they had to visit La Grenouillere, a local riverside spot, and paint the surface of the water.

By the 1950s, plastic had been invented and clear plastic raincoats became a fashion trend. Many illustrators were drawn to the challenge of capturing light reflecting on this new, translucent material:

Austin Briggs

Al Parker

Robert Fawcett

Monet brilliantly captured the essence of light on water by using bold daubs of fresh paint, rather than painstakingly blending and smoothing the colors.

Briggs brilliantly captured the essence of light on plastic using the same bold approach.

Briggs and Monet each realized that carefully blending with smooth brush strokes would have stripped the painting of its vitality without improving its accuracy. You have to be very, very good to get away with painting this loosely.

One other point about the illustrators who chose to paint translucent raincoats when it would have been far easier to paint a nice wool overcoat: Artists who produce art in exchange for food and shelter always develop tricks to be more efficient, save time, and (most of all) conceal any gaps or shortcomings in their skills. For example, artists who are not good at drawing hands tend to draw people holding their hands behind their backs. Artists who have trouble with perspective tend to draw pictures with a narrow depth of field. And of course, heavy shadows have long been a favorite technique for concealing a multitude of artistic weaknesses.

So I have special admiration for artists who, while working under a deadline, look for tough and interesting new artistic challenges. The centerpiece of the Al Parker illustration above is clearly the plastic raincoat. The same with the Austin Briggs illustration. These were not commercial choices, they were aesthetic decisions motivated by the same artistic ambition, pride and curiosity about the world that motivated Monet.

Monday, September 01, 2008


In 1886, Camille Claudel dictated a contract for her lover to sign. Claudel was only a young art student but her lover, the great sculptor Rodin, obediently wrote down every word:
In the future starting from this day of October 12, 1886, I will have as my Student only Mademoiselle Camille Claudel, who will be my sole protege.... I will accept no other students to avoid producing, by chance, rival talents, although I suppose that such naturally gifted artists occur very rarely.... Under no excuse will I ever go to visit Madame X again, to whom I will no longer teach sculpture. After the exhibition in May we will leave for Italy, remaining there at least six months together in indissoluble union after which Mademoiselle Camille will be my wife.
-- A. Rodin
Camille's contract doesn't specify what Rodin received in exchange, but his letters made it pretty darn clear:
I only had to meet you for everything to take on unknown life, for my gray existence to flare up in a bonfire. Thank you, for its to you that I owe the entire measure of heaven that I’ve had in this life.… My dearest, down on both knees I embrace your fair body.
Rodin met Camille when he was 42 and living with his long term companion, Rose Beuret. Rose was a seamstress who shared none of his friends or interests, but she took care of his daily needs and provided him with order and stability.

Camille took a job as Rodin's apprentice but critics agree she was so talented that she soon became a major influence on his art. The two worked side by side, creating beautiful and sensuous objects:

When the time was right, Camille disrobed for Rodin. Her nude form became the inspiration for some of his greatest works of art.

Rodin soon became a captive of his love for Camille. He followed her around, begging her to see him:

My savage sweetheart, Yesterday evening I scoured our usual places (for hours) without finding you. How sweet death would be!... I can’t take it any longer. I can’t go another day without seeing you.... I love you furiously. Rest assured dear Camille, that I have no liking for any other woman, that my entire soul belongs to you.
For years Rodin and Camille continued their partnership commingling art and love.

Statue by Camille

Eventually, the story of Camille and Rodin spiraled to a tragic end. He began to withdraw from the intense demands of their relationship, preferring the calm companionship of his "gray existence" with Rose. Camille became despondent, making angry sculptures about abandonment.

Before long Camille sank into mental illness, screaming in the streets that Rodin was trying to kill her and steal her ideas. She was placed in an asylum where she spent the rest of her life while Rodin married the talentless Rose and became wildly successful. His lack of passion for Rose did not seem to hinder his ability to make passionate art.

The fulgurous combination of Rodin and Camille emitted some illuminating sparks for us:

Rodin was better at creating art about love, but Camille was better at loving. She followed her passion for Rodin right over a cliff, while the more cowardly Rodin accompanied her only as far as the edge, then backed away.

If one thing is certain from the long history of art, it's that you can't make art and make love at the same time (or, in the words of Robert Coane, "you can't drool and draw.") Every artist who has tried to combine the two (and which artist over 18 has not?) ends up with artistic mush. Love requires acceptance and commitment while art requires discrimination and challenge. As much as we yearn to merge art and love, it seems that the price of great art remains detachment. Poet Peter Viereck wrote,

Art, being bartender, is never drunk
And magic that believes itself must die
Perhaps the separation between art and experience is the source of the very ache that leads to art.