Tuesday, December 29, 2009


One could easily devote a long, joyful lifetime to cataloging the differences between men and women without pausing once to consider the significance of those differences. That would certainly be the safest way to do it.

But as the astute Goethe noted, "Nothing is harder to take than a succession of fair days," and every once in a while (usually at the end of a year in which one hasn't met his full quota of foolhardy behavior) a person will deliberately risk life and limb by exploring the significance of those differences out loud.

It is in that spirit that I set out today to consider why it is more difficult to draw women's faces than men's faces.

Artists quickly learn that men's faces are easier to draw because men have bone structures and muscle groupings that are more pronounced than women's. Male heads are generally more blocky and angular; they tend to have stronger jaws, square chins and prominent brows. These features provide artists with easy opportunities to employ distinctive lines, strong shadows and recognizable shapes to achieve a resemblance.

From the Famous Artists School course materials, "Constructing the Head and Hands."
Women's faces, on the other hand, tend to be smoother and softer, with rounder shapes and subtler, more delicate features which require greater restraint.

Another difference that makes men's faces easier to draw is that, "as the man matures he develops larger, deeper wrinkles while the woman develops smaller ones because her skin is finer textured and her bones and muscles are less prominent." If an artist wants to capture a likeness using lines, it is much easier if the subject has lines that were already mapped by nature.

Note in the following examples how men's sharper angles, prominent facial muscles and deeper wrinkles have provided artists with more tools for describing a form.

Here, Mort Drucker sculpts the male face, but on the woman's face he stops with just the outline. Her features can't be rendered effectively using the same kind of approach, and must be implied instead.
Here, Leonard Starr puts a strong chin, nose, cheekbones and brow on the man (while making it clear from facial expressions that the woman has the stronger mind).

Here, Norman Lindsay tries to deal with the difference between men and women by using small dots to convey the woman's features, while using lines for the man.
The special challenge of a woman's face is that it compels artists to describe subtler forms with fewer lines and less obvious shapes, depriving artists of some of the most fundamental tools in their tool kit. In the following image, Leonard Starr limits himself to little more than an outline of the face but nevertheless gives us important information about the contour of her cheek simply by leaning more heavily on his brush on portions of the right side of her face.

So what is the larger significance of these observations about the differences in drawing the faces of men and women?

Part of the magical power of drawing is that it can lead us unexpectedly to larger truths. The principles we encounter in drawing the faces of men and women often seem rooted in fundamental realities about the sexes:

Like their faces, men's personalities are more easily reduced to a line than women's personalities. Like their facial features, men tend to be more obvious than women. (Artists frequently bear witness to such triumphs of physiognomy!)

Women, on the other hand, are sometimes best understood implicitly and indirectly; the discipline of describing form without heavy reliance on lines requires subtlety, appreciation and restraint but you can sometimes achieve a far better likeness that way.

Regardless of whether these larger principles resonate with you, I am sure we can all agree that if an artist lacks the patience for the complexity of ambiguity, you can't compensate for that lack by substituting more (or more emphatic) lines of the type that you use for a man's face. In such situations, "more" will invariably turn out to be "less."

Monday, December 21, 2009


The illustrator Henry Raleigh started and ended life in poverty and despair. But in between, he spent decades painting high society pictures and living the opulent life of one of the best paid illustrators in the country.

Born into a broken and destitute family, Raleigh began working at age 9 to support his mother and sisters. By the age of 12, he quit school altogether and found work on the docks of San Francisco, processing shipments of coffee beans from South America. Here, rough sailors and roustabouts filled his head with colorful and bawdy stories of life in far off places. At age 17, his knack for drawing landed him a job as a newspaper artist for the San Francisco Bulletin where he was assigned to some of the most seamy and gruesome aspects of the city, including executions, fires and fatal accidents. He later recalled learning a lot about human anatomy at the morgue sketching "promising looking corpses."

Raleigh's work soon attracted the attention of art directors and publishers who offered him better assignments. He moved to New York where he gradually progressed from newspapers to top magazines such as Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Colliers and Saturday Evening Post. Surprisingly, his trademark became his pictures of glittering parties and fashionable society life. He was sought after by some of the greatest writers of his day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote a fan letter saying, "Honestly, I think they're the best illustrations I've ever seen!"

At his peak, Raleigh was able to make enough money from just three or four months of work to enable him to spend the balance of the year traveling abroad with family and friends. American Artist magazine later wrote:
With distinction came affluence. In his best years his annual take was in the neighborhood of $100,000. Considering the then value of the dollar and the relatively insignificant tax on income, Raleigh probably had more cash in hand at the end of the year than any other illustrator before or since.
But Raleigh also spent money freely. He gave away thousands of dollars to friends, traveled lavishly, maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, styles changed (along with social values and taste in art) and his work dried up. Raleigh could not adapt; bankrupt and bitter, he committed suicide in 1944 by jumping out of the window of a sleazy hotel in Times Square.

One of the things that I find most interesting about Raleigh's approach is the way he often surrounds a core of careful drawing with a flurry of loose scribbles, repetitive lines and stray marks. My initial reaction to his work was frustration with what seemed like a lot of superfluous, fluttery lines. But I learned more about his objectives when I read a 1923 interview:
the most beautiful picture is one which the observer is left free to complete for himself. The illustrator should be able to select the essential elements in any subject which will convey to the layman the entire scene in the simplest and most direct way, avoiding mere details which tend to cause either monotony or confusion.
And indeed, the focal point of Raleigh's illustration often consists of a few sensitive, well placed lines to define the "essential elements" (proving he can indeed draw), encircled by increasingly loose and broad marks that create a general tone but offer few competing details.

Note how quickly Raleigh retreats from his careful handling of the central figures to the stray, wispy lines of the background couple (above) or the loose treatment of the balustrade (below).

Similarly, in the following illustration...

contrast Raleigh's careful treatment of the exchange between the two main characters:

With the loose, flowing treatment of the rest of the picture:

The majority of this picture seems to be made up of the chaos and scribbles you might expect from an abstract painter:

Finally, in the following detail, contrast the delicate linework in the faces at the top of the picture with the broad, rough treatment of the balance of the image:

I admire the fluid, seemingly effortless way that Raleigh was able to combine two very disparate ingredients in his art. If he had been able to accomplish the same thing with the disparate sides of his life, he might have had a chance at happiness.

Monday, December 14, 2009


When Jonathan Williams was asked to define art, he responded, "If you can kill a snake with it, it ain't art."

That definition has served me pretty well in the past. But recently, as conceptual art has become more complex, I have wondered whether Williams' definition requires additional refinement.

In each of the following three examples of conceptual art, an artist takes another artist's work and modifies it:

1. An erased drawing:

Artist Robert Rauschenberg famously took a drawing by DeKooning and erased it as his work of art.

2. A photograph of a photograph:

Artist Sherrie Levine photographed the work of another photographer, Walker Evans, and called her art, "After Walker Evans." According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, her copies of Evans' photos were "a landmark of postmodernism" as well as "a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism. Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine's works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions."

3. Exposing another artist's posters to light:

Illustrator Steve Brodner recently flagged this work by feminist artist Barb Choit, whose art consists of taking posters by illustrator Patrick Nagel and exposing them to light so they fade. The New York Times reported on the opening of her show at a Manhattan gallery: "Ms. Choit buys the posters online and then partly fades them, using a tanning bed, lamps and other skin-darkening products. Then she translates them into ink-jet prints and attaches them to clear plastic panels, creating tension between the risible imagery and slick format and her own sly conceptualism."
All three works are primarily conceptual, but I like Rauschenberg's best. His concept seems the least pretentious of the three and he at least leaves us with an object, made by human hand, with some nice texture and design to it. But between the three of them, there is enough "sly postmodern conceptualism" to choke a full grown python.

So what about Williams' definition of art? Does this mean it is obsolete?

I don't know enough about the definition of art to say that these three works don't qualify, but I feel confident I know enough to say when art is crummy. Ultimately this may be the more relevant judgment.

I agree that one can play interesting conceptual games with the theories advanced above, but personally I find that artistic principles are not at their best when hovering in mid air as concepts. They need to be embodied in something both perishable and difficult in order to achieve their fullest potential.

That is why conceptual art , which does not exist on a sphere where it is forced to compromise and commit, is inherently less interesting.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Stanley Meltzoff was a brilliant artist, scholar and author. At the peak of his powers, he painted a masterpiece for the cover of LIFE magazine: the legendary battle of Thermopylae, where a handful of Greek heroes sacrificed themselves to save their homeland.


After Meltzoff spent weeks perfecting the colors and composition, some moron from the marketing department decided LIFE might sell a few extra copies by slapping a bright yellow banner across the painting promising a "hot scandal."

Henrik Ibsen said, "To live is to war with trolls."

I could offer a thousand other examples of art that has been cropped, altered, vandalized or shrunk to make more room for a client's logo. An illustration passes through many hands before reaching the viewing public; clients, editors, art directors, printers, all serve separate functions but with the unified purpose of squeezing maximum revenue from the art. In fact, many of them got their jobs by recognizing that "hot scandal brewing" sells more product than artistic grace.

Even today, unscrupulous bloggers use these lurid words at the top of a blog to attract additional readers.

The illustrator Robert Fawcett once insulted his clients with a typically blunt "challenge to the advertising and publishing fraternities." He scolded that, "those who would pander to the lowest common denominator or make obeissance to expediency for temporary profit will stand revealed in their mediocrity...." But Fawcett also reminded his fellow illustrators that this was part of the deal they had made:
This is regrettable, but seemingly inevitable, in a group which has chosen to ally itself with industry, and having tasted the fruits of that alliance has no right to ask exemption from the conditions of survival which govern all business and industry.
Fawcett was a smart guy, and recognized that the "incubus of client dictation" is not limited to commercial art:
We always had the choice of a career of drawing and painting pictures for exhibition, but we would then have been subject to the vagaries of a career as competitive, and dealers in many cases no less venal than is charged against some of our present friends.
There is no question that fine art too has more than its share of morons. Consider Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Nightwatch, which was clumsily cropped by the owners to fit the wall where they wanted to hang it.

During World war II, some of the biggest morons of all were threatening the greatest art of the Italian Renaissance during the battle for Italy. The entire inventory of the Ufizzi gallery in Florence was hastily moved to a remote country villa to protect it from bombing. A young soldier named Stanley Meltzoff was stationed at that villa. Everyone else had evacuated the villa and Meltzoff was all alone while the shelling continued outside. He made his way down to the room where hundreds of defenseless masterpieces had been stacked against the wall. There he discovered Botticelli's famous painting Primavera-- the arrival of spring-- showing the beautiful Flora scattering her flowers.

Years later Meltzoff recalled, "I stepped up and kissed my ideal of beauty full on the lips...."

Meltzoff understood that art is not protected by its beauty.

To the contrary, the lips Meltzoff kissed were highly perishable. Art will always be susceptible to tampering by advertisers, art directors and fascist dictators. I hope his early confrontation with this reality consoled him decades later when he watched his own painting defaced by the editors at LIFE.

In my view, artists have to abide by the compromises and limitations that fund the creation of art, and also accept the mortality of the finished product. But those parameters still leave a lot of room for people who value beautiful things to defend them in the creation process and to speak up for them once they exist in this wicked world.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


This is why your grandpa spoke with such reverence about the great Al Dorne.

1953 illustration from Colliers about six greedy, shiftless sons waiting for their father to die.

These overalls alone are an act of utter brilliance:

Notice how sharply Dorne observed the folds at the knee and the waist, and how he used such a descriptive line to convey them. You can also tell from the way he drew those haunches that he understood perfectly the anatomy beneath the overalls.

Dorne's knowledge of anatomy did not hobble his imagination in any way. Look at the liberty he took in redesigning the human skull, placing ferret-like heads on the bodies of lummoxes.

In addition to the seemingly dislocated jaw, note the loving attention Dorne paid to the furrowed brow, the curve of the eye and the interaction between cheekbone and nose. This is a master draftsman at work.

Other examples of that fabulous Dorne line include:

But it would be a mistake to look at this drawing as just the sum of its highlights. Look at the total architecture of the drawing. Dorne has carefully placed these sons, leaning forward like vultures, to focus all attention on the dying old man.

Although he is the centerpiece of the drawing, you never see the old man's face. In a further act of stagecraft combining color and line, the old man's red sleeve draws your eye right where Dorne wanted it. (Admittedly, these watercolors have faded with the years, but even in 1953, that sleeve stood out).

For me, this is a lovely drawing with the kind of complexity that you rarely see in illustrations designed for today's shorter attention spans. The artist Leonard Starr recounts an exchange between Dorne and famed pop artist Andy Warhol: Warhol claimed, "Art today has to go beyond mere drawing" to which Dorne responded, "Excuse me, Andy, but there's nothing fucking 'mere' about drawing."

Monday, November 16, 2009


Bob Peak started out in the 1950s as just one of many young, capable illustrators.

But in the 1960s, Peak caught fire and began turning out radically different work. His line work had roots in the Viennese Secessionist movement (particularly Schiele and Klimt) and in the great Rene Bouche, but Peak's hot, fluorescent color combinations were unprecedented; his extreme angles, cinematic style, and space age dynamism were blazingly original.

Nobody else was doing work like this at the time.

Peak's work was "radical" in the truest sense of the word (defined as "going to the root or source.") Note in the following unpublished picture how Peak is not merely fine tuning details-- instead, he goes all the way back to the simplest most fundamental questions of design, composition and color and comes up with a striking result.

Literally, a "revolution" occurs when something completes a full cycle and returns to its starting place.

Peak's salad days in the 1960s were a remarkable, vibrant period, but he was too hot not to cool down. As Peak matured, he remained commercially successful but his innovations came fewer and farther between. He had a lucrative career making movie posters that seem to me to be repetitive and uninspired, the type of art that might be sold on vacation cruise ships.

Even if Peak's innovative period was not sustainable, there was a moment when he found the voice for his time and place. That was enough to establish a legacy that can't be taken away.

Monday, November 09, 2009


I love this drawing of a speeding police car.

Note the frenetic lines for the flashing light; the car's shape distorted by speed, with the ballast in the back and the snout lurching forward; and the way the car hovers above the ground, seeming to kick up gravel behind it. I love the line work (including the occasional ink smear). I love the design and the composition. Applying the same standards I apply to a Picasso, I consider this a terrific drawing.

Sophisticated artists who have mastered technical skills sometimes struggle to unlearn those skills. They hope that, by shedding their knowledge of anatomy and perspective and their hardened patterns of perception, they can draw the world with the same freshness as the child who drew that police car.




It's not easy to shed established habits of seeing. The process of dismantling skills-- abandoning assumptions, vanquishing muscle memory and starting from scratch-- can be as difficult as acquiring skills to begin with. You can't rid yourself of your assumptions about the world without first going through the educational process of figuring out where your assumptions end and the real world begins.

Today many prominent illustrators have concluded that technical skill will not take them where they want to go. Instead, they deliberately make their pictures ungainly and disproportionate. They use a primitive line, distorting and simplifying in an effort to simulate a fresh, unschooled perspective.





If an artist deliberately aspires to make pictures that appear awkward, sloppy or uneven, they obviously cannot be judged by traditional standards for technical skill. But what standards should apply? How do we compare a successful drawing by a mature artist with that child's drawing of the police car? Or more importantly, how do we distinguish a successful sloppy, ungainly, disproportionate picture from an unsuccessful one?

One thing is clear: standards for quality still matter-- perhaps more than ever, now that the more objective criteria such as technical facility or physical resemblance are no longer useful.

Some pictures in this genre are truly excellent (for example, I am personally a big fan of William Steig and John Cuneo, and I really like that Picasso picture,
Combat de Centaures). But there are other pictures in this category that I think are wildly unsuccessful.



What makes the good examples so rewarding and the bad examples so unconvincing? For me, design is always a crucial factor. Beyond that, do we measure such pictures by their purity? By their sincerity or authenticity? By the mature concept embodied in the child-like image? At a minimum, the artists who seem most successful at this "newborn" style of art aren't the ones who merely try to mimic children's drawings or who are willfully sloppy, but rather those who recognize and go after the raw, disturbing character of that pre-verbal, non-rational place where (as I've
suggested before) innocent children, raving lunatics and savage beasts all dwell.