Sunday, May 24, 2009


"Mistah Kurtz, he dead"

Like Andy Warhol and LeRoy Neiman, Peter Max was a talented, hard working illustrator before he became a pop culture sensation. He studied for years with the great teacher Frank Reilly at the Art Students League in New York and learned the skills of a serious artist.

In 1963, Max was assigned to paint a jazz record cover. The young artist worked hard to finish the project on time, but his art director didn't like the result. Max begged for a one day extension and started over with a totally different approach.

He dug deeper, stayed up most of the night, and produced the following cover which won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators for the best advertising art of 1963:

One look at this lovely picture tells you that Max had what it takes. Note how the highest contrast and the sharpest focused lines are right on that piano keyboard where he wants to direct your attention. Beautiful.

Then a few years later, Max hit the jackpot with his "Cosmic" art style, which became wildly successful in the 1960s. His trademark psychedelic look soon adorned everything from perfume bottles to airplanes. Max sold millions of posters and limited edition prints and became wealthy.

Max soon enjoyed the celebrity lifestyle. His personal chauffer drove him around Manhattan in Max's custom designed Rolls Royce. He painted Ringo Starr's piano and performed painting demonstrations on the white house lawn. He was featured on the cover of Life Magazine.

Max now had complete artistic freedom. No more deadlines, no more unreasonable client demands, no more unappreciative art directors. He could just look within his heart and paint whatever he found there. His fan base would buy anything with his signature on it. He began making his signature bigger and bigger.

The funny thing is, as his signature got bigger, his talent got smaller:

The artist who started out as a sharp minded and keen eyed competitor became artistically flabby. Here is his crummy painting entitled "I love the World," depicting an angel embracing the planet.

Without the benefit of anyone to challenge or reject his work, Max sank deeper and deeper into a morass of narcissism. Here are some official quotes about Max offered by his web site:
He loves to hear amazing facts about the universe

Peter's early childhood impressions had a profound influence on his psyche, weaving the fabric that was to become the tapestry of his full creative expression.

This new style developed as a spontaneous creative urge, following Max's meeting with Swami Satchidananda, an Indian Yoga master who taught him meditation and the spiritual teachings of the East.

In the 1970s, Max gave up his commercial pursuits and went into retreat to begin painting in earnest....

[I]n October, 1989, Max unveiled his "40 Gorbys," a colorful homage to Mikhail Gorbachev. Prophetically, a few weeks later, communism fell in Eastern Europe....

Max could be forgiven for his nutty philosophy, but when he gained the freedom to say or do anything, his art clearly suffered.

Where oh where is that tough art director who once told Max to go back and try again?

Artists and critics chafe at any restriction on the artist's freedom. In fact, it seems that illustration is held in lower regard than "fine" art mainly because the illustrator's vision is subject to restrictions from some client or art director. There is some truth to that criticism, but Peter Max demonstrates how the lack of restrictions can be just as hazardous to the quality of art.

In my view, Peter Max, along with Andy Warhol and Leroy Neiman, are good examples of artists whose work was spoiled and made rotten by excessive freedom. Today's fine art scene offers many additional examples of artists whose self-indulgent work has little relevance or value outside their own cloistered circle. When the world provides resistance to an artist (whether in the form of a deadline, or a client's specifications, or poverty, or totalitarian censorship) it can have a beneficial effect on the art. As the old proverb says, "the wind in a man's face makes him wise."

Artistic freedom can help or hurt art. But if great art can be produced in a prison cell or a concentration camp, it's silly for the fine art community to suggest that it can't also be produced within the constraints of a commercial art studio.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


The great Joseph Clement Coll (1881-1921) drew like he was conducting a symphony orchestra.

From the Kelly Collection of American Illustration

Note in the following close up the range of effects Coll employed-- the difference between the fine pen lines and the broad brush strokes; the difference between the accuracy of the eyelashes and the almost abstract wiping of a dry brush on the cloak; and notice how Coll achieved the value he wanted for the background by first painting it with ink, then scratching it with a blade:   

Coll's line was vigorous and varied and confidently rendered.  No simple, monotonous shading here.  Look at how his line curls and twists and plays in ways that would not be visible to the reader of the printed page in Coll's era, but which nevertheless contributes to the overall vitality of the drawing.    

James Montgomery Flagg, another talented pen and ink artist, gave a good description of his superior, Coll:
There is no doubt that he was one of the few masters of pen and ink in the world.... He found romance in a story and doubled it, lavishly, prodigally.  He gave himself in his work instead of selling his signature on half-heated stencils. In short, he was a great artist.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


I got a huge kick out of Steve Brodner's version of Diogenes, the ancient philosopher who carried a lantern through the streets of Athens in broad daylight, searching for an honest man.

This drawing may appear casual, but it is razor sharp-- a highly skilled, witty execution of an intelligent concept.

Brodner's scraggly line perfectly conveys the belching smoke from the grotesque cigar, the monstrous paw holding it, the neck of the gluttonous monster, the porcine nostrils inhaling more than his fair share of oxygen; it would have been easy to overplay or underplay any of these touches but Brodner balanced them just right.

Perhaps his wisest touch of all is the vapid, uncomprehending expression on the face of the man. A heavier hand would have given him a sinister expression, but the more persuasive explanation for the man's offensiveness is his utter lack of concern.

These are the touches of a master story teller with line.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


I have a soft spot in my heart for artists who like to draw large crowd scenes.

It's not because crowd scenes require technical skill to handle perspective, foreshortening and complex interaction.

Gluyas Williams was famous in the 1920s and 30s for his clever drawings of large groups.

And it's not because crowd scenes require the creativity to come up with a wide variety of faces and psychological relationships.

The great Albert Dorne was famous for his crowd scenes. Note how he handled the complex architecture of this mob.

No, what I like most about artists who specialize in drawing crowds is their obvious pleasure in the act of drawing.

Most artists working under a deadline look for shortcuts. They do a good job, but they want to complete a picture as efficiently as possible and get paid. But some artists just seem to love making marks on paper, and they regularly create unnecessarily grand challenges for themselves, like these ambitious crowd scenes.

In this category, I know of no better artist than the brilliant Mort Drucker.

This panel from the MAD Magazine spoof of Beverly Hills Cop is a good measure of Drucker's talent:

Despite the effort that went into this crowd scene, the drawing never looks labored.

This drawing is a complex engineering feat, but it is delivered with the spontaneity of a spring popping out of a pocket watch:

Drucker, like Dorne, Williams and other artists in this rare species, draw with great abundance and generosity. You never get the feeling they are measuring their level of effort against the pay they are receiving for the picture. These are artists who love to draw, and it shows.