Thursday, May 27, 2010


There are artists who make great big pictures of great big subjects:

Albert Bierstadt's "A Storm in the Rocky Mountains" is 12 feet wide.

And there are artists who make tiny little pictures of tiny little subjects:

A page from a gothic illuminated manuscript (circa 1494) at Peacay's superb Bibliodyssey blog.

But it takes a special talent to make tiny little pictures of great big subjects.

Observe how some of the masters of the graphic arts-- Mort Drucker, Leonard Starr and Noel Sickles-- squeeze a feeling of great space and weight into pictures that are not much larger than a postage stamp.

Here you see the difference between digital compression by a computer and artistic compression by a true draftsman. Mort Drucker had a mere 3 inches to convey a school bus crossing a yawning chasm. His radical foreshortening of the bus and his condensed treatment of the bridge preserve our sense of perilous height despite the miniature scale.

Look at the wonderful clarity in this small drawing. Drucker conveys the great distance between the two planes, and the even greater distance to the ground below. His description of the ground contains just enough information to explain our altitude, but not enough to confuse or distract us from the men performing various complex functions. This is an amazing example of visual problem solving.

In Leonard Starr's On Stage, the artist convincingly portrays a huge snowball rolling off the side of a cliff.

In just a few inches of space, Noel Sickles gives us the feeling of immense heft of a battleship listing.

All representational artists create the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. However, it requires an excellent draftsman to convey great scale under such extreme limitations.

These are artists who have slipped the bonds of space limitations. You get the feeling they have the technical ability to implement anything their mind can conceive.

Monday, May 17, 2010


They invented perfect beauty, those ancient Greeks.

Of course people made beautiful things before the Greeks, but it was the Greeks who dreamed there could be a perfect version of beauty out there waiting to be attained.

Aristotle made the first serious attempt at defining "perfection" but even before him Pythagoras and other pre-Socratics speculated about an ideal beauty. They pursued it with the language of mathematics, asserting that objects look better when proportioned in accordance with the "golden ratio." They believed objects would appear more "complete" and "perfect" if they were symmetrical, with clean shapes in harmony with classical archetypes.

They hoped these principles would lead them to perfect beauty. Unfortunately, they didn't get very far before the goat-god yanked them back.

The Greeks were so confident that their culture was superior, imagine their surprise when the good citizens of Athens began to lose interest in high culture and stray back to the more earthy, passionate cults of their barbaric neighbors. Historian Arthur Koestler claims that Athenian gods lost their attraction as they became more formal and detached from base human emotions:
At an unknown date, but probably not much before the sixth century, the cult of Dionysus‑Bacchus, the 'raging' goat‑god of fertility and wine, spread from barbaric Thracia into Greece. The initial success of Bacchism was probably due to that general sense of frustration ... [that] the Olympian Pantheon had come to resemble an assembly of wax‑works, whose formalized worship could [not] satisfy truly religious needs.... A spiritual void tends to create emotional outbreaks; the Bacchae of Euripides, frenzied worshippers of the horned god....
The Greeks discovered that their lofty aspirations were chained to their earthy goat-god origins. High culture could only take them so close to "perfection" before they ran out of chain.

Greek poets bemoaned the effect of Bacchism on their womenfolk: "Theban women leaving/Their spinning and their weaving/Stung with the maddening trance/Of Dionysus!"

Today we still admire the Greeks' smooth, classical ideals of beauty but we too remain tethered to the goat-god part of our nature. Art becomes less satisfying as it becomes too orderly, smooth and formal. We cannot polish and refine our way to perfection; beyond a certain point, perfection begins to weaken art rather than strengthen it.

Koestler described how the savvy Greeks absorbed and blunted the threat of wild Bacchism:
The outbreak seems to have been sporadic and short‑lived. The Greeks, being Greeks, soon realized that these excesses led neither to mystic union with God, nor back to nature, but merely to mass-hysteria.... The authorities seemed to have acted with eminent reasonableness: they promoted Bacchus‑Dionysus to the official Pantheon with a rank equal to Apollo's. His frenzy was tamed, his wine watered down, his worship regulated, and used as a harmless safety‑valve.
The Greeks' wise technique for co-opting wildness is still employed by artists today. A carefully controlled picture often includes an uncontrolled splatter or eruption or rough line-- not enough to lose control of the picture, but enough to show that wildness still has a seat in the artist's pantheon:

Jeffrey Jones carefully captured facial features, but then indulged in a frenzy for her hair

Note how the great Ronald Searle gains power with from uncontrolled spatters and ink drops.

This sensitive portrait by Jack Unruh would not be nearly as potent if he had not gone back and roughed it up with that dense black and spattering.

Even the erudite Steinberg bows to the virility of non-cognitivism: he draws the icons of civilization with a light and lacy line, but adds strength with a rough, black scrape of a brush.

Pictures still pay tribute to the goat-god, and are rewarded with his strength and vitality

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


When the great illustrator Howard Pyle died in 1911, his heartbroken disciples gathered in his studio. Pyle had been a phenomenal creative force, the illustrator of over 125 books (24 of which he had written himself) and hundreds of stories in the most popular magazines of his day. Vivid images of pirates, knights, soldiers and lovers flowed from his boundless imagination.

Pyle's students struggled for some way to prolong their master's presence. One student, Ethel Leach, painted Pyle's studio exactly as he left it, with his last painting unfinished on his easel.

Another student, Frank Schoonover, took that final painting and attempted to put some finishing touches on it.

Other students went on to imitate Pyle's techniques or use the same paints. But his magic was gone, and nothing they did could prolong it. Pyle had tried his best to pass along his artistic secrets to his students, but no one really knew where his gift came from. No one could say whether it resided in his eyes or his fingers or his brushes while he was alive. Now, no one could extend it after his death.

Comic artist Jack Kirby worked at this ratty, stained drawing board next to this crummy, battered credenza.

He stared at that brick wall and summoned up thousands of images of Norse gods in ornate armor, intergalactic empires swarming with alien creatures, super heroes and cosmic villains. The images he composed on this worn piece of lumber entranced millions. Then Kirby too was gone. Without his spark, Kirby's studio seems so sodden and inert we can scarcely believe it was ever the platform for such creativity. Whatever the source of Kirby's greatness, it won't be found amongst the tools and furniture he left behind.

Like Pyle or Kirby, Bernie Fuchs was another radiant sun orbited by epigones and myrmidons over his long career. Fuchs too kept coming up with fresh and beautiful ideas that none of his imitators could match, despite their long hours trying to duplicate his approach. If they went to his cluttered studio on the day he died and searched for clues in what Fuchs left behind, they'd be no closer to understanding the magic ingredient.

His empty studio, without his creative presence, has a particularly hollow echo.

Yesterday, the great Frank Frazetta passed away. Over a long career he used his formidable talent to create persuasive worlds of sorcerers and barbarians-- worlds where the four points on the compass were heroism, strength, adventure and great asses on women. What could be better than that?

Frazetta's hundreds of imitators wished they could inhabit that world but their colors were somehow never as perfect, their reptilian gods were never as convincing, their compositions were never as dramatic, their poses were never as striking.

If you look for the magic ingredient that distinguished Frazetta from his peers, you won't find any clues left behind in his studio.

Art like Frazetta's should have been created in a cave with flaming torches and skulls. Instead, it was created in a messy little room by a grandfather wearing short sleeve polyester shirts over his paunch, an artist who spilled coffee on his work as he raced to make deadlines. Frazetta's studio, like the studios of other great creators before him, was a place where a temporary and unexplainable breach in the laws of physics permitted true alchemy to occur. When the creative presence was extinguished, the familiar laws of physics closed in once again, and now weigh more heavily on us in that spot than they did before.

Co-posted with my friends at

Monday, May 10, 2010


Watch the design skills of the legendary Alex Toth in action.

Here, Toth had to squeeze a complex, vertical scene (an unscrupulous dealer in antiquities negotiating with a smuggler) into a tiny, horizontal space. He had to juggle an excess of dialogue. He needed to convey details about the nature of the character (so a drawing of small figures in a room would not do).

Many people think the artificial constraints of the comics medium-- size limits, word balloons, panel borders-- deprive artists of the freedom necessary for a legitimate art form.

But in any art medium, freedom (in the words of Sartre) is merely "what you do with what's been done to you."

I love Toth's imaginative solution to his challenges. Rather than whining about all that text, or using his constraints as an excuse for a weak drawing, look how Toth seizes on those constraints and incorporates them in a beautiful design, especially the aggressive way he loops the connections between those word balloons and the speakers.

This is a lovely drawing by a talented, tough pro.

Monday, May 03, 2010


The great Saul Steinberg never learned to paint clouds.

Compare Steinberg to English landscape painter John Constable, who became famous for painting clouds using techniques he developed through careful research. Constable's approach was based on his philosophy, "you only see something truly when you understand it."

Perhaps Steinberg smiled in doubt at Constable's notion that we can ever "truly" understand clouds. An artist with boundless curiosity, Steinberg worked in a state of perpetual inquiry and never found a formula for clouds that satisfied him for long:

All images © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Most artists refine their techniques over their careers, eventually settling on an approach that satisfies them. For example, Rubens gradually developed his distinctive treatment of human flesh until he settled on his mature style. Winslow Homer slowly mastered his famous approach to painting water. Georgia O'Keefe improved her method of painting flowers, each stage building on the last, until she arrived at the approach for which she is known today. But Steinberg's mind was too restless to linger over polishing his technique. Concepts interested him more than implementation, and he refined his technique just far enough to diagram those concepts.

Look at his wild, anarchistic variety of clouds.  Each picture views clouds with new eyes:

At an age when other artists worked hard to discipline their perceptions of the physical world, Steinberg's perceptions snuck out the back door to elope with his conceptions. You see the fruits of their marriage all over these pictures.

How can we take Steinberg seriously when his pictures all look so playful?

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz imagined the wild fun at the beginning of the universe when the gods began creating something from nothing. Milosz asks us to envision the hilarity when the celestial "Board of Projects" invented such things as hedgehogs:
Celestials at the Board of Projects burst into laughter,
For one of them has designed a hedgehog,
Another, not to be left behind, a soprano....

It is superb fun in the ocean of seething energy...
Buckets of protocolors gurgle, protobrushes labor,
A mighty whirl of almost galaxies beyond nearly windows
And pure radiance that has never experienced clouds.

They blow conchs, somersault in protospace....
The earth is practically ready...and every single creature
Waits for its name....

To invent length, width, height,
Two times two and force of gravity
Would be quite enough, but on top of it panties
With lace, a hippopotamus, the beak of a toucan,
A chastity belt with its terrible teeth,
A hammerhead shark, a visored helmet,
Plus time, that is, a division into was and will be.

Gloria, gloria sing objects called to being.
Hearing them, Mozart sits down at the pianoforte
And composes music that has been ready
Before he himself was born in Salzburg.
I tell you friends, when Steinberg calls clouds into being it's a goddamn exhilarating thing.