Sunday, November 09, 2008


Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg once said that he spent only a small percentage of his working time making creative choices. The vast majority of his time was spent on the manual labor of implementing those choices. He would spend days and days painstakingly drawing individual blades of grass and leaves.

Artist Bernie Wrightson seemed to work the same way. He spent a great deal of time mechanically implementing his initial artistic decisions:

(In my view, this often resulted in a mountain of effort for a molehill of a result.)

Illustrator Robert Vickrey had a similar laborious style. Once he designed a picture, he would spend weeks filling in backgrounds such as concrete surfaces and brick walls.

I was thinking about this trade off as I was marveling at the paintings of Dreamworks artist
Nathan Fowkes. Fowkes works at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Note the simplicity and economy with which he created that notch in the nearest line of mountains, or the way he conveyed important gradations of color within a single brush stroke.

These are small paintings (most are less than 3x5") that were painted very quickly (usually in 20 to 40 minutes) yet each one contains the entire genetic code for a larger, finished painting.

These sketches demonstrate all of the hard artistic decisions (commitments to a composition and a design, selections of color and technique) by which a finished work of art might be judged. They are pure artistic choice in its most concentrated form, without all the numbing labor and secondary refinements found in the finished pieces above.

Don't make the mistake of thinking there is anything crude about these paintings just because they are sketches. The subtlety of color in this next little beauty is absolutely breathtaking:

While they are smaller in size and took a fraction of the time, Fowkes's sketches convey far more information, with far more insight, than the larger finished works of Van Allsburg, Wrightson and Vickrey above. Each stroke or color choice by Fowkes has real significance.

I particularly enjoy the rich variety that Fowkes finds in the view from his window. These tiny pictures are so dense with knowledge, they must have the atomic weight of weapons grade plutonium:

I find his curiosity about this view quite contagious.

Van Allsburg, Wrightson and Vickrey are all talented fellows and I admire their work, but there is a separate beauty to Fowkes's economy, and I commend his work to you.


Anonymous said...

I see you finally found this guy. Yes, his sketches are really great. I think they beat the plein air oil paintings of many more well known artists by a mile. It shows you can do an awful lot with a little.

Anonymous said...

Once again, excellent post David. Not to be a link whore, but I actually posted on a related topic here.
I'd be curious to get your take on the neuroscience of loose v. tight artwork.

Dominic Bugatto said...

I've always enjoyed Fowkes work and I'm envious of his ability to take risks and yet say so much.

'Less is certainly more.'

Some of his more abstracted landscapes have an almost Cezanne like quality. Especially when he re-visits a location repeatedly.

David Apatoff said...

Hey, anonymous! Instead of sitting back and wondering when I'm going to find some guy, how about speaking up next time???

Tom Scholes said...

I attended Mr. Fowkes color workshop at LAAFA just this past weekend and couldn't recommend it more. Very inspiring, insightful and educational.

Unknown said...

Beautiful work.

I think it was the British cartoonist David Low who, when asked how long it took to do a drawing, said 5 days - 2 days labouring and 3 days removing the evidence of labour.

But that craft and facility is not the same as when you can "feel" the artists hand and eye engage with their subject.

Anonymous said...

David, you've got to give the first sample of artists in the post one thing - as with anyone who has ever spent more than 50 hours on a single drawing, looking at the laborious, excruciatingly detailed pieces you posted does nothing less than make my wrist groan and ache under the pain of empathized soreness.

Anonymous said...

I really like this compare and contrast between these artists. The styles are so vastly different, and yet they're all breathtaking in their own way. Fantastic job.

ces said...


And Fowkes does something which I look for for in every painting - he leaves something to the imagination - something for me to fill-in, which makes the painting my painting too, as well as his.

Dreamworks is exceedingly lucky.

Li-An said...

I like the two way of work :-) As I am a lazy guy, I prefer to go fast and efficient but sometimes, I try to make a drawing with a lot of little work (like drawing a crowd). The pleasure is different (and the final aspect too).
There is a huge belgian comics artist named Franquin who could litterally draw a black sky with a rotring. He apologized because he knew it was something silly (and he said it was the clue he began suffering of depression) but it gives a beautiful dark night... Well in the original drawing maybe :-)

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, exocubic. I enjoyed your blog and left a comment there.

Dominic, I certainly agree with you. He is "exhibit A" for the philosophy that you can achieve more with less.

Tom I envy you, and would love to hear about what Fowkes said in his class.

Thanks, Mike-- Low is another favorite of mine.

David Apatoff said...

Brad-- not to mention how your eyes get bleary and you start to see double...

LuisNCT said...

Working like Allsburg, Wrightson and many other meticulous artists is more about patience (by the way I admire people with those amounts of patience)
But working like Nathan Fowkes is about the knowledge acquired through years of painting, looking at life and thinking about light, color... I really love his little paintings and I wish some day I could paint in a similar way!

Anonymous said...

Luisct said it best. I love Wrightson's work (and the other guy whose spelling I am too lazy to look up)...but these tiny paintings are freakin' incredible. The knowledge behind them is impressive...makes me want to give up art!

ken meyer jr.

Evil Dan said...

Damn. Those are some nice images. Now I feel inspired to do something based on economy of motion/stroke.

Unknown said...

I have no argument with your assessment of how fantastic Fowkes' work is - these quick studies are masterpieces, looking almost as if they were breathed onto the paper. I totally agree about them having the DNA of larger quote - finished - works, and thank you for bringing him to our attention!

However, I do take real issue with the way you compared Fowkes to Van Allsburg and Wrightson.

It seems to me that you're disparaging the time they spend on their illustrations, as if the age old standard for elementary school kids - your drawing is good because you spent a long time on it - is now flip flopped. Is a quick study, as brilliant as it is, given priority over pieces that take longer because it was done in less time?

I think we're artistically mature enough to refrain from looking down our noses at anybody's work based on the amount of time that was spent on it. That's an "either / or" viewpoint that really misses the bigger picture. Picasso and M.C. Escher don't need to be ranked, they can still both have valid contributions to the art world.

Van Allsburg's intricate draftsmanship and incredibly imaginative works are a totally different animal than Fowkes' landscape sketches. As you say, they're at total opposite ends of the spectrum.

But I can't agree that one method (or artist) is superior to the other, so I bristle at phrases like "far more information and insight" or "mountain of effort for a molehill of a result". I think that's insulting to these expertly executed compositions that could have only existed with hours of hard work. Are all those blades of grass important to those pieces? Absolutely!

I guess in the end, I think it would be a bigger compliment to Fowkes to let his work stand on its own - not imposing value on it because of how long it took or how big they are (though it is fun to marvel at their speed and size), and instead simply let the "simplicity and economy" speak to its beauty - all on its own.

David Apatoff said...

LuisNCT, I agree with you, and I do admire the patience and dedication of the artists who do such time consuming work.

Ken, I think your comment "these tiny paintings are freakin' incredible" says everything I was hoping to say, and better. That's exactly right. That's the whole point: they are freakin' incredible.

EvilDan, I think that is a very healthy reaction to this work, as well as to most of the art that we see on this blog. Digest it, and see how it affects your own work.

David Apatoff said...

Bredlo, you raise some fair points. As you might imagine, these are issues that I and others have struggled with elsewhere on this blog.

I agree that it makes no sense to try to compete a rose against a daisy. They aspire to different forms of beauty. But if you are properly respectful of that difference, I think you can still find many areas where you can learn from comparing and contrasting them.

Perhaps you think I am not properly respectful of the different forms of beauty from the artists mentioned in this post. I assure you that I enjoy art by Van Allsburg and Wrightson as well as by Fowkes. I recognize the virtues of patience, "intricate draftsmanship" and persistence in art but ultimately I think these are lesser virtues than the virtues of prioritization and economy.

Wrightson could make 50 erroneous strokes of the pen in that field of grass and you'd never know. No single line is all that important. But with Fowkes, a single mistake would be conspicuous and could turn the whole picture off key. In addition, the vast majority of Wrightson's work in that field of grass is mechanical and repetitive-- most pen strokes are virtually identical to the stroke before or after it, and require no real judgment or creativity. Such work may be physically back breaking, but very little of it requires an artist's sensibilities to be on full alert. Not so with Fowkes, who spends 99% of his effort on the non-repetitive, creative judgment calls where artists earn their real money.

There are days when I pause over Wrightson or Van Allsburg longer than Fowkes. But as I said in this post, I tend to think that "economy"--
the ability to do more with less-- qualifies as a separate artistic virtue, right alongside the virtues of beauty, sensitivity passion, etc.

Li-An said...

Well, in Moebius work, you can find very labouring work and he compares this to religious thibetain drawings. It's the loosing of concentration in the repetitive scheme that make the importance of the drawing. It's a point of view (you can compare this with Middle Age work in architecture or drawings) that is not obsolete.

David Apatoff said...

Li-An: Ah, that is a fascinating subset of issues. I have been in that trance, where the process of repeated rhythmic markings on paper is a vehicle for meditation (while at the same time, the act of sacrificing large quantities of your life on the altar of art becomes part of the art itself). I respect the power of that transcendental state too much to be flippant about it.

There are artists who have dedicated ten years to doing miniscule, almost microscopic repetitive work on a single painting. One example can be seen in the documentary Waiting for Hockney and another can be seen in my previous post on Ivan Albright's painting of a door. However, I think it is important to distinguish between an artistic process that is largely therapy for the artist (no matter how profound or important) and an artistic process that translates into an object of discernible value for the viewer.

Li-An said...

Well, in Moebius case, it does not consider it as "therapy". He says drawing is related to magic power. I'm not agreeing at 100 % but I can understand what he means. The fascination in the drawings of Whrightson comes not only "because it took a lot of time" but echoes with more philosophical themes. I'm reading about Kupka work and Gauguin at the moment and I'm impressed by the fact they consider their work in mystical/philosophical reflexion on the World.

Anonymous said...

Long time without visiting your blog, and then I found this awesome post...
I learn a lot here, from you and from the people that comment with you.
In general, the works you share here and all the details you highlight sometimes make my day kind of beautiful.
Thanks David!

Catherine A. Moore said...

Although Van Allsburg may have said he spends a small amount of his time making artistic decisions, the balance, composition, and design of his drawings does not suffer because of it. He may be using those same skills that Fowkes is in choosing a composition (since Fowkes can come up with one of his 3x5s in a half hour), but then taking it to another level by adding detail to it. I'm playing devil's advocate here, since I very much appreciate both Fowkes and Van Allsburg's work, but I remember reading Van Allsburg's books as a child and being enchanted both by the attention to detail as well as the striking composition and design of his pieces.
Thanks for the great post and also to exocubic's, which I read as well!

Anonymous said...

Great art. It all reminds mi a lot works of polish painter Jan Stanislawski. Most of his painting were sketchy, tiny works. Here you can see few his works:

squeen said...

Would it be enough if every piece of artwork was conceptual and lacked fine detail? I'd suggest, no, that both have their place.

One of Frazetta's strength was knowing where to add detail and where to leave the painting vague. These yin-yang concepts can coexist in a single piece of art.