Monday, December 27, 2010


It is a fine thing to view the world with the fresh eyes of a child.


The colors are brighter and motives are purer.

No wonder Goethe's Faust was ready to trade his soul to recover his lost innocence:

Give me back youth's golden prime
When my own spirit too was growing
When from my heart unbidden rhymes
Gushed forth, a fount forever flowing;
The world was shrouded in a haze
The bud still promised wondrous powers
And I would cull a thousand flowers
With which all valleys were ablaze
Nothing I had, and yet profusion
The lust for truth, the pleasure in illusion.
Give back the passions unabated,
That deepest joy, alive with pain,
Love's power and the strength of hatred,
Give back my youth to me again.
But it is also a fine thing to view the world through the eyes of experience.
Raphael, the School of Athens

Experience enables us to get past the inanities of youth and start addressing the complexities of life. The world often loses charm in the process, but as James Gould Cozzens warned, it is foolish to try to hide in childish delusions too long:
Refusal to face the verities, though not without immediate satisfactions, carries penalties. There's a fool killer personifying the ancient principle, "Whom the gods would destroy..." in this world, and he has a list. And that's a good way to put yourself on it. Then the question is just one of time, of how soon he'll get around to you.
In the coming year we will receive many invitations to put aside wisdom so we can experience art through innocent eyes. This will always be a risky proposition as long as the fool killer walks, but sometimes surrendering our defenses is the only way to open ourselves to potentially worthwhile experiences.

Looking with new eyes as we travel familiar paths, we sometimes discover exits that our good taste previously prevented us from noticing. These exits may lead directly to the fool killer's prize flower garden, but they may also lead to discoveries of real value. Our challenge for 2011 will be to see with eyes both old and new.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


The National Gallery of Art reports that "For several months in the winter of 1816-1817, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld vied with his friends, brothers Ferdinand and Friedrich Olivier, in making precise drawings of dried leaves."

Julius created this tiny pen and ink drawing as part of their competition:

What a blissful way to remain warm: rubbing your impressions of nature up against each other.

There were plenty of dried leaves in 1816, which was known as "the year without a summer." Julius and his friends, isolated from the world and immersed in their game, had no way of knowing that on the other side of the planet, the most deadly explosion in recorded history had taken place: the volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. This "super-colossal explosion" was heard over 2,000 kilometers away. It belched massive quantities of volcanic ash into the sky, blocking the sun and creating volcanic winter as far away as Europe where Julius sat peacefully drawing. Leaves died and crops failed, causing the worst famine of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, different types of explosions were taking place in the political realm. The great Napoleon Bonaparte who had shaken governments to their knees and cast Europe into turmoil had recently met his downfall in the Battle of Waterloo. In 1816, Napoleon's entire family was banished from France forever.

The epic events taking place outside while Julius and his friends focused on dry leaves were so huge and momentous, they make us stop to ponder the grand sweep of things.

Yet, if you are seeking a finite expression of the infinite you are more likely to find it in this gentle little drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Richard Thompson's drawings make me happy, not just because he is so darn funny but because his work is a daily reminder that a beautiful line and a lively intellect are still enough to succeed in this wicked world. No software, Dolby sound or corporate financing necessary; just pure observations about human nature scratched onto bristol with a dip pen nib.

Thompson is an illustrator / cartoonist / writer in the tradition of James Thurber. If Ronald Searle and Bill Watterson got married and had a baby which was raised by Crockett Johnson, that would be Thompson.

His illustrations have appeared in the New Yorker, The National Geographic, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. I love this smart, witty series of drawings about superstition that appeared in the Washington Post:

Look at the marvelous way he handles the horizon line in this next image:

Thompson's syndicated comic strip, cul de sac, is regularly the most delightful space on the newspaper comic page. With the demise of Calvin & Hobbes, I feared that every possible comic strip idea had been exhausted, and that we were now doomed to an endless loop of formulaic gags of the type found in Garfield, Cathy and Family Circus. (The world's leading recycling industry is not Waste Management Inc. but newspaper comic syndicates.) But cul de sac views the world with a child-like freshness and offers a new, recognizably true insight every day. This is really hard work; it requires high standards and a hyper-active conscience. But Thompson understands the importance of making the end result appear effortless, and cul de sac floats lighter than air.

In the immortal words of Jessica Rabbit, "He makes me laugh."

Friday, December 10, 2010

HARVEY DUNN (1884 - 1952)

Harvey Dunn was a tall, muscular prairie farmer with a rare artistic gift. He started out plowing buffalo trails into farmland on the South Dakota frontier and ended up as one of the giants of the golden age of illustration.

A teacher at an a agricultural School noticed Dunn's talent and persuaded the 17 year old to travel to Chicago to train at the Art Institute. There he came to the attention of the legendary Howard Pyle, who brought Dunn to Wilmington Delaware where Pyle ran a school for gifted young illustrators. Among all of Pyle's talented students, Dunn was the young Prometheus who became inspired by Pyle's gift of teaching and passed it along to a whole new generation of artists, from Dean Cornwell and Mead Schaeffer to Saul Tepper and Harold von Schmidt. Dunn returned regularly to his South Dakota home for inspiration later in life.

Here are examples of Dunn's lovely work:

Until this week, Harvey Dunn was the last remaining giant among the "golden age" illustrators without a book memorializing his work. Howard Pyle, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell and others have substantial art monographs-- some of them have several.

I am happy to report that this gap has now been filled.

Walt Reed, the world's leading authority on illustration, has completed a splendid new book, Harvey Dunn: Illustrator and Painter of the Pioneer West. The book brings together an excellent collection of Dunn's art (367 plates, 294 of them in color) often with new photographs from the original paintings. I thought I knew Dunn's work, but this book came as a revelation to me (which is, I guess, a primary reason for reading a book). The book also presents Dunn's teaching methods and demonstrates the prodigious results of that teaching, with an illustrated selection of Dunn's more successful students.

I have always enjoyed Reed's writings for the integrity of his scholarship, the clarity of his prose, and especially for his impeccable judgment.

Just as sculptor Gutzon Borglum chiseled the faces of great presidents from the granite cliffs of South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, Walt Reed has done more than anyone else to define the Mt. Rushmore of great illustrators of the 20th century. His work is as solid and reliable as granite. I highly recommend his new book to everyone interested in this field.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The 1980 movie Popeye was widely panned by critics. (One of the more favorable reviews called it a "mess of a movie" and "unintelligible.") It quickly disappeared from the theaters but not before MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker dutifully captured it in a parody.

Drucker drew many important subjects for MAD, but he was also assigned to depict much of the raw sewage of American popular culture: third rate television shows that quickly imploded and movies that should never have been made. (Remember Alf? Who's The Boss? The Flying Nun?) By the time he drew Popeye, Drucker had been slogging through such subject matter for almost 25 years.

Yet, he drew these pictures with the same loving care others might reserve for the immortal themes on ancient Greek vases. Look at Drucker's beautiful work for Popeye:

I am awed by Drucker's talent, but separately awed by his dedication and consistently high standards over many decades.

Notice in the panel below how Drucker continued his drawing beyond the (blue) panel borders. The man couldn't stop himself.

Click on these drawings for close ups of a master at work.

Look how convincingly he conveys great mass in his figures:

Notice how adroitly he controls the architecture of this complex scene, and still has the capacity left over to add a gratuitous fish climbing the stairs:

While Drucker was drawing for MAD, the other two great caricaturists of the latter half of the 20th century, David Levine and Al Hirschfeld were drawing more highbrow subjects-- great authors and composers-- for prestigious periodicals such as the New York Review of Books and the New York Times.

Many think that art is enhanced by association with prestigious subjects. They presume that a drawing of Dostoevsky must somehow be superior to a drawing of Joan Collins, or that a caricature in the New York Review of Books must be more culturally significant than a caricature in MAD. One look at Drucker's glorious drawings from Popeye tells you it ain't so. As far as I am concerned, Drucker is the best all around artist of the bunch, hands down. His prolific career is an astounding artistic accomplishment and I think more of him, rather than less, for achieving it with subject matter such as Popeye.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The illustrator Jules Guerin had an unusual combination of strengths. He blended the careful precision of an architectural engineer with the exaggerated, romantic colors of an impressionist.

Guerin's technical drawing skills and mastery of perspective were much in demand by architectural firms around the country.

By infusing architectural drawings with color, he made them so appealing it almost guaranteed that the design would be accepted and the project funded.

At the same time, Guerin's vivid colors and stylized designs made him a popular illustrator of books and magazines. He specialized in painting exotic subjects.

Which art school could teach Guerin two such disparate skills? Or was it just natural talent?

Actually, Guerin learned from two guys he happened to meet along the way. First, In 1889, Guerin's mother was renting out a spare room in their home when a young artist named Winsor McCay showed up at their door. McCay had just been evicted by his previous landlady and needed someplace to stay. McCay and the young Guerin soon became fast friends, and McCay taught Guerin his special techniques for drawing in perspective. McCay went on to create the revolutionary comic strip, Little Nemo In Slumberland, where he proved himself a genius with perspective indeed.

A few years later, Guerin happened to meet another artist, Maxfield Parrish, who took Guerin under his wing, introducing him to the art directors at Century Magazine and teaming with Guerin on projects. It wasn't long before Parrish was a nationally famous colorist, with Guerin following in his footsteps.

So much depends on who you happen to meet, and at what stage of your development, and under what circumstances. Perhaps if Picasso had been evicted from a room in Chicago, Guerin would have a third specialty as a cubist.

Friday, November 12, 2010


These are portrait sketches by the great Russian painter, Valentin Serov (1865 - 1911)

While many of Serov's finished paintings are quite beautiful, I especially enjoy his preliminary sketches for their vitality and truthfulness.

Serov, who studied under the great Ilya Repin, was part of that astonishing Renaissance in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For centuries, Russian artists had manufactured religious icons to suit the rigid specifications of church dogma.

Icons were the opposite of western illusionist art. The church historically frowned on efforts to create physical images of the holy, so Russian artists went out of their way to avoid accurate, representational images. They stressed flat, distorted figures, inverted perspective and unnatural colors to emphasize that they were painting the ideal, dematerialized world rather than the natural world. (In 815 CE, if you tried to paint a realistic icon the troops of Leo the Armenian were likely to come along and thump you on the head). But starting in the 19th century, there was a period of sunlight and fresh air which inspired a flurry of cultural activity in Russia.

It didn't take more than a generation for the Russians to shake off the dust and produce world class artwork that was nimble and probing and insightful.

With the advent of Stalin the window closed again.

But I love these pictures by Serov, not just for the images themselves, but because they help me believe that, even after centuries of confinement, artistic abilities can be reawakened on short notice if they are given the right stimulus and the room to grow.