Saturday, February 28, 2009


William Aylward's name doesn't stand out in the annals of illustration. Yet, if you skim through old pictures in books or magazines, his work stands out from hundreds of other anonymous illustrators because he was such a master of value-- the darkness or lightness of color.

Try it yourself -- if you scroll through a hundred thumbnail images, you are likely to find that the pictures with confident use of value-- more than other artistic qualities, such as accuracy, color, detail, or technique-- are the ones that seem to pop right off the page.

Passing the line to the "Potomac" from the Dock, published in Scribners, May 1907

It is not easy to control the "value structure" of a painting, balancing blacks and whites and grays. This next picture could easily have sunken into a black hole if Aylward had not been such a virtuoso.

Night watch from the Deck, published in Scribners 1907

Very little is remembered about Aylward today. He was a student of the legendary Howard Pyle-- here he is, sitting at the great man's feet:

Aylward loved the sea and specialized in nautical themes. He illustrated very few books, primarily The Sea Wolf and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Most of his work appeared in magazines of the day and will never be republished, which is too bad. You won't see any coffee table books about him soon. But his work still speaks for itself with honor and dignity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Artist Kerry James Marshall is a certified genius. The MacArthur Foundation confirmed it when they awarded him their $500,000 genius award.

But don't take the MacArthur Foundation's word for it. His work was also awarded places of honor in the Whitney Museum biennial, Venice Biennale, and the prestigious German Documenta show. Marshall's paintings sell for $400,000 to prominent museums and collectors.

People of great stature and prominence who pride themselves on their taste have bestowed upon Marshall almost every form of recognition that our society offers. His NY art dealer boasts, "He's kind of recession-proof." No wonder art critic Blake Gopnik writes, "Can an artist get much more successful than Kerry James Marshall?"

Marshall himself is not surprised by all these honors. He says, "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael.... my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists."

I hope that all of you would-be Michelangelos out there who aspire to recognition, museum shows, wealth and fame are taking notes on what it takes to ascend to the top of the pyramid in our time.

A sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay somehow comes to mind:

Country of hunchbacks! — where the strong, straight spine,
Jeered at by crooked children, makes his way
Through by-streets at the kindest hour of the day,
Till he deplore his stature, and incline
To measure manhood with a gibbous line;
Till out of loneliness, being flawed with clay,
He stoop into his neighbor's house and say,
"Your roof is low for me — the fault is mine."
Dust in an urn long since, dispersed and dead
Is great Apollo; and the happier he;
Since who amongst you all would lift a head
At a god's radiance on the mean door-tree,
Saving to run and hide your dates and bread,
And cluck your children in about your knee?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"I am for those who believe in loose delights."
-- Walt Whitman
Some of my very favorite drawings are free and spontaneous. Unfortunately, so are a whole lot of crappy drawings.

Is it possible to distinguish good loose drawing from bad loose drawing? Or from random marks on paper? It seems to me that there is not only a distinction to be made but also a good reason for making it. Loose, spontaneous art can be fun, but Ernest Hemingway correctly spotted the potential danger: "All our words from loose using have lost their edge." When sloppy or careless drawing masquerades as loose drawing, it eventually dilutes the meaning and potency of drawing.

Consider the following examples of artists who engage in the "loose delights" of drawing but who still preserve that edge.

The great George Lichty had a line like an unraveled ball of yarn:

Nevetheless, look at how beautifully that line conveyed a head, or the indentation of a pillow, or the folds in clothing:

You can tell that a lot of looking and thinking took place before Lichty was able to dash off a drawing like this. We are the beneficiaries of that looking and thinking, no matter how loosely it is conveyed.

Note how he understands the different postures of people sitting in chairs, the anatomy of fingers wrapped around an arm, the shadow created by a fore arm resting on a table:

William Steig is another great example. For decades Steig churned out mediocre cartoons such as this one, where he labored for some semblance of visual accuracy.

Then, in the 1960s he managed to shed these constraints and began drawing marvelous, meaningful pictures with a free hand.

The looser his touch, the better his drawings became.

James Thurber is a third example. He drew wispy nonvertebrates with a simple line that was the perfect complement to his brilliant writing.

In each of these examples, a seemingly spontaneous, haphazard style is employed to convey important insights without being obvious or labored about it. Technical skill is important, but it can also rob a drawing of the freshness and intimacy we see here . These are drawings with wings on, and they occupy a blessed place in the pantheon of drawing.

Monday, February 02, 2009


John Audubon (1785 - 1851) lived in the wilderness during the early years of the United States. He camped and hunted along the frontier as he studied birds for his illustrated masterpiece, The Birds of America. He kept a remarkable journal of his adventures along the Mississippi and down the Ohio River to western Kentucky.

After a year traveling along the Ohio river, Audubon came to New Orleans in 1821 and paused there to earn money teaching art.

One evening Audubon was approached on the street by a woman wearing a veil that hid her face. He wrote: "[She] addressed me quickly ... 'Pray sir... you are he that draws likenesses in black chalk so remarkably strong?'" When Audubon said yes, she replied that she had a task for him. He began to walk alongside her, but the woman became alarmed, saying "Do not follow me now." She wrote down her address and instructed him to wait 30 minutes before arriving. Audubon wrote:

I arrived and as I walked upstairs I saw her apparently waiting. "I am glad you have come, walk in quickly." My feeling became so agitated that I trembled like a leaf. This she perceived, shut the door with a double lock and throwing back her veil shewed me one of the most beautiful faces I ever saw.....

"Your name is Audubon?"

"Yes madam."

"Set down and be easy....I will not hurt you."

I felt such a blush and deathness through me that I could not answer...

"Will you keep my name, if you discover it, and my residence a secret?"

"If you require it."

"I do. You must promise that to me, keep it forever sacred....Have you ever drawn a full figure?"



Had I been shot with a 48-pounder through the heart my articulating powers could not have been more suddenly stopped.... She raised, walked the room a few times and sitting again said, "I want you to draw my likeness and the whole of my form naked.... The drawing will be completed in this room...."

She drew the curtains and I heard her undress.... I eyed her, but dropped my black lead pencil....
Thus began what John Updike called "the first known nude American portrait done from life." Audubon was amazed that the veiled woman seemed "not at all afraid to disclose to my eyes her sacred beauties." Such a brazen act was unthinkable in the America of the 1820s and Audubon had to struggle to apply himself to his work. He made clumsy mistakes but she smiled and favored him with patience and eventually the picture was completed: "She gazed at [my drawing] for some moments and assured me her wish was at last gratified...."

The veiled lady and her nude portrait are lost to history. She swore him to secrecy, paid him and sent him on his way. Audubon tried to return several times to see her, but servants always told him she wasn't home.

In addition to being a cool story, the psychodrama that took place between artist and model in that candle-lit parlour long ago reminds us how much of the picture-making process is psychological.

Audubon bravely faced death in the wilderness, yet he "trembled like a leaf" at the astonishing sight of the woman unveiled before him. He could draw under the harshest physical conditions, but in the comfort of civilization, emotion and adrenalin clouded his senses and confused his fingers. He was skilled at rendering the shapes of nature, but when he tried to transfer those skills from drawing the curve of a wing to drawing the shapes of a woman, he became flustered. Clearly, all geometric shapes are not equal.

The veiled lady was of course an active partner in the psychological exchange. Audubon was bold when he left civilization behind for uncharted territory, but she was equally bold when she defied society's rules of decency to do something so unforgivable. Audubon's bird subjects came without psychological baggage. This meant they were not hindered by human feelings of guilt or shame, but at the same time they weren't motivated by the human desire to be seen-- to be known completely through the eyes and neurons of another.

So much of this blog is dedicated to the physical mark left by the point of a pencil on the surface of the paper-- and there is certainly a lifetime's worth of discussion to be found in such marks. But every once in a while it makes sense to step back and acknowledge the psychology of art which, like undetectable dark matter in the universe, accounts for far more of the total weight of art than the physical object.