Friday, April 23, 2010


Watch the great Dean Cornwell collect the information he will need for a painting.

Cornwell has drawn thousands of hands in thousands of pictures, yet look how hard he still works to get the facts right:

The information in this drawing is different from the type of information that could be collected by a camera. Here is where Cornwell starts to select and digest certain facts to assimiliate them in his own personal style. Here is where he finds the contours of his future design. Here is where he establishes priorities.

Fritz Eichenberg once said, "what makes an artist create in his own particular style is an indefinable gift, almost a state of grace."

Maybe so, but I especially like preliminary sketches where you can see honest artists put that "state of grace" to practical use constructing a picture the way a carpenter might use tools to build a house. I love the candor and unpretentiousness of working drawings. Here is a nice selection by some extremely talented artists:

Frank Frazetta tries out two different positions for the leg of this rider. Yet, his attention always seems to stray back to the same thing...

In the final version of this image, Bernie Fuchs' lines will seem very spontaneus and natural. But here you see him explore, at a slower pace, how the width and variety of lines might work out.

Here, William A. Smith was not content with the break in the crease on that pants leg, so he went back and did it again. Below, we see him going back with white paint to reshape the lights and shadows in a dynamic fight scene.

This is a preliminary study by Oberhardt for an ad for Fatima cigarettes. Despite the briskness of the drawing, he manages to capture a surprising amount of the subtlety of the form. But he is clearly not collecting information the way Cornwell was (note the difference in the treatment of the hand). Instead, Oberhardt's primary interest is in the overall shape of the lights and darks.

Like many artists, Oberhardt apparently continued to work on images in the back of his mind even while he was reading the newspaper.

This concept sketch by Rockwell may be tiny, but he meticulously plans all of the ingredients of a Post cover, including his signature and the trademark Post bars.

I love the vigor of this sketch of Katie Couric by Thomas Fluharty. It may seem as if he drew it at 90 miles an hour, but look at how he slammed on the brakes to capture the information he wanted about those teeth.

Another terrific example from Fluharty, cut and pasted with no pretensions. Look at the bold use of that soft charcoal to take chances with the shape of Obama's cheeks or ears. Yet, observe how he came back with a computer to test color and add such insightful expression to those eyes.

There are many interesting stopping points on the road to a completed picture. In recent posts, we have spent a lot of time discussing critics, curators and gallery owners who project their fanciful notions of what the artist had in mind. As far as I am concerned, the most reliable way to discern the inner thoughts of an artist is to spend some time with the working drawings that led up to the final product.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Last week we enjoyed the work of glitzy art superstar Jeff Koons, who employs a factory of artists to create his supersized art. Koons is famous not for his personal hand or eye, but for his "enigmatic otherness" which conceives wry social statements (which others then execute in the form of giant balloon animals).

This week, for a change of pace, we leave Koons and look instead at a talented artist.

This lovely drawing is by the illustrator William Oberhardt.

Oberhardt did not specialize in wry social statements. He did not write the specifications for teams of workers to produce huge ironic paintings. Instead, he specialized in taking a single piece of charcoal in his own hand and drawing portraits which combined sensitivity with boldness and vitality.

After my last post about Oberhardt, I was fortunate to be contacted by his family. Today's images are from their personal collection.

To get a sense for the strength of this drawing, take a closer look at some of the details:

You can't achieve this kind of power if you stop to draw the eyelashes.
In the next picture, note how Oberhardt's hand floated above the picture, alighting from time to time apply darks for emphasis. These strange jottings are the language of visual abstraction:

It's a language I like.

So much of contemporary art is dependent on concepts and ideas for its validity. Armies of critics, pedants and grad students armed with thesauruses compete to explain the meaning of such art (and thereby demonstrate their own sensitivity). If you linger too long in front of their carnival booth, they will trap you into endless discussions of why an object is different, or more complex, or better than it looks.

I confess I like some of that art, and have even written some of that pedantic persiflage myself. But when I step back, no matter how immense or shiny or expensive it is, art that must be propped up with words seems etiolated in comparison to what an artist can achieve with just a hand, an eye and a piece of charcoal.

The great Walt Whitman put verbal rationalizations in perspective:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and of the truths of the earth.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


Has every bad thing that can possibly be said about the art of Jeff Koons been said already?

It is worth revisiting this question at regular intervals because you don't want to let an opportunity go by. You never know when someone might invent a new word for "stinks."

There are many reasons for disliking Koons' work. My personal favorite is that he pilfers images from honest, underpaid commercial artists, sprinkles them with an invisible layer of irony and resells them as "fine" art for huge sums.

Nevertheless, a person would need a pretty good excuse to expend fresh energy attacking Koons' work. By now most sensible people recognize that Koons' true talent lies only in his ability to mesmerize the tasteless rich. To revisit such well trod criticisms might cause one to be ejected from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dead Horses.

Well, here at the good ol' Illustration Art blog, we believe in accentuating the positive, so I have attempted to come up with three reasons to like Koons' work:

Reason no. 1: I like his attitude. Koons seems to have genuine fun with what he is doing. He takes explicit photographs of himself having sex with a porn star and displays them to the world. He spends lavishly on art by artists with more talent (but less marketing skill) than himself. He lives life large, taking full advantage of his superstar status. It's difficult not to respect that.

Cheeky, sold for $4 million

Reason no. 2: He inspires others to new heights of creativity. Koons' work is so bad, his marketing machine is forced to be highly imaginative to persuade people to buy such twaddle. Take for example the following frothy persiflage from Sotheby's shameless Alex Trotter promoting the sale of the painting "Cheeky:"
An outstanding example of [Koons'] satirical commentary on late 20th-century society, this work has his traits of technical excellence and common subject matter while invoking lingering questions of irony versus sincerity-- what is the intent of the artist? Is he serious or is there an element of mockery? This oil on canvas work is composed of disconnected images and high definition colors, executed with photorealistic perfection. The random association of food, landscape and sex is a metaphor for the bombardment of stimuli present in modern life, while the size and fragmentation of the images further impedes their comprehension.
Trotter bastes the painting with irony like a pastry glaze, preparing it for consumption by investment bankers (who only achieved their rank in life by being impervious to genuine irony). Koons of course insists that there is no irony or agenda beneath the surface of his images-- that is, until someone sues his ass for copyright infringement, at which point he reverses himself and swears under oath that his work was not theft because it was intended as a "parody." See, for example, Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301 (2d Cir. 1992); See also UFS Inc. v. Koons, 817 F. Supp 370 (S.D.N.Y. 1993); Campbell v. Koons, No. 91 Civ. 6055, 1993 WL 97381 (S.D.N.Y. Apr 1, 1993).

Reason no. 3: Koons' art performs an important social function. A private art market within a free society is one of the most finely tuned instruments for exposing the morons among us.  Art is so broad and subjective, and means such different things to different people, it is almost impossible to find an objective truth in art.  Koons' art can fill this vacuum, serving as an objective, unerring compass needle for identifying decadence and bad taste.  The Koons needle is not misled by commercial success; it is not confused by Wall Street quants who have outsourced their taste to consultants. It performs a valuable social function by pointing out those art "experts" who gush about the enigmatic otherness of a puppy dog sculpture, and who persuade credulous corporate moguls that if they spend millions on such crap they will be entitled to brag (as Mr. Brandt did recently), "my whole philosophy of life revolves around aesthetics."  With Koons as our lodestone, we will always have a surefire detector of artistic fraudsters.

The lesson of today's post is: you might not think it is possible to find something good to say about Koons, but if you keep a positive mental attitude, you can find some good in everyone.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


The surest way to breach the dividing line between gods and mortals is with girls gathering flowers by a stream.

Vassar college girls practicing their Greek dances, circa 1923

When mighty Zeus spied the beautiful Europa picking flowers by a river, he fell crazy in love and-- adopting the shape of a white bull-- carried Europa off across the waters to Crete (causing pandemonium amongst both mortals and gods).

Zeus and Europa gave birth to three legendary children and gave rise to the continent of Europe, a moon of Jupiter named for Europa, and a constellation of stars named for Taurus (the bull).

Who would have guessed that a simple girl gathering flowers in a meadow would transform the stars?

The story of Europa and the Bull is hardly unique. Roberto Calasso observed that gods have repeatedly been lured down from heaven by girls picking flowers:

How did it all begin? A group of girls were playing by the river gathering flowers. Again and again such scenes were to prove irresistible to the gods. Persephone was carried off "while playing with the girls with the deep cleavages." She too was gathering flowers... mainly narcissi, "that wondrous, radiant flower, awesome to the sight of gods and mortals alike." Thalia was playing ball in a field of flowers on the mountainside when she was clutched by an eagle's claws: Zeus again. Creusa felt Apollo's hands lock around her wrists as she bent to pick saffron on the slopes of the Athens Acropolis.
And those were only the beginning. In the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the Roman god of love broke the rules by falling in love with the mortal Psyche who, depending on the version of the story you read, was either picking flowers or receiving flowers given in tribute to her beauty.

Cupid and Psyche by Bouguereau

Meanwhile, over in Mexico the gods spied Princess Iztacihuatl taking "long walks picking flowers along...a lovely mountain spring" and were so smitten that when she came to a tragic end, the gods intervened and "turned her into a beautiful white mountain to watch over the Mexica people and bring joy to their sight with her beauty."

Princess Iztacihuatl and her mountain

Why do gods repeatedly abandon heaven to chase after mortal girls picking flowers? The gods are clearly unimpressed by earthly assets such as power or wealth, yet they are moved by the most gentle, delicate things-- sunlight on a particular face, or flowers in someone's hair-- to come down to earth and wreak havoc, creating whole mountains or scattering constellations across the night sky.

Sometimes things that seem small and mortal are in reality immense and divine. It's just that they can only be experienced in small and mortal increments.

You may wonder why any of this is relevant to a blog about art (apart from the fact that this is the first week of spring and at such a season, no topic other than girls and flowers is conceivable).

The answer is that the same types of inspiration that lure gods down from the heavens seem to raise artists up to divine heights.   Titian's loving depiction of Europa, her thighs spread and her helpless arms flailing, is nothing short of exquisite.  

In fact, history is full of scruffy lowlife artists who were inspired by  girls and flowers to create timeless works of beauty.  When Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, first saw his beloved Beatrice he felt certain that a god had come to earth. He famously declared, "Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi" (Behold, a god stronger than I, who coming, shall rule over me.) There's that crazy multiplier again: a humble artist's brief glimpse of a (probably not very bright) teenage girl sparks one of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world.

Such transformations by artists might even be more miraculous than Zeus transforming another of his mortal lovers, Callisto, into the stars of the heavens.

Gaston Lachaise spotted a woman he declared his "goddess" when she was strolling through gardens by the river Seine. He (accurately) said, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...." (and transformed him from a bum to an internationally renowned artist). Bonnard spotted a young woman who made wreaths and who went on to transform his artwork and his life. Gustav Klimt's affair with a housewife led to a $135 million portrait (the most expensive painting in history up to the time of the sale) and a quarrel among nations. Time and again the smallest, humblest most mortal experiences are transformed by this thaumaturgic process into something universal and divine.

Experiences that blur the dividing line between gods and mortals can be so slight and unobtrusive they sometimes escape the attention of humans, but it's pretty darn clear they haven't escaped the attention of the gods.

It's springtime. Pay attention.