Monday, June 28, 2010


"Corel Painter X art software simulates a Bamboo Pen... without the drawbacks of traditional pens, which can clog, spatter, or run dry."
Young Ronald Searle and his friends enlisted in the British Royal Engineers at age 19 during World War II. They were stationed in Singapore when the city was captured by the Japanese in February 1942. Searle and his friends were taken prisoner and shipped to a dense tropical jungle to build the Burma-Siam railroad. They worked at forced labor in sweltering heat, hacking through miles of dense bamboo forests and chopping a path through granite mountains. On a starvation diet of less than 400 calories per day, plagued by insects and disease, victimized by brutal guards, the prisoners began collapsing in their tracks. The guards quickly killed any member of the ragtag group who fell behind. Searle recalled:
My friends and I, we all signed up together. We had grown up together, we went to school together and they all died like that. So few of us came out of it. Basically, all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertilizer for the nearest bamboo....
Cholera also took a terrible toll on the men, including Searle:
Between bouts of fever I came round one morning to find that the men on each side of me were dead, and as I tried to prop myself up to get away from them, I saw that there was a snake coiled under the bundle on which I had been resting my head.
His captors enforced a harsh discipline. The slightest infraction
meant a thrashing for someone with the ubiquitous bamboo stick - and being beaten with bamboo is like being beaten with an iron bar.
One such beating left Searle temporarily paralyzed. But there were even more insidious uses for bamboo:
Some of our overseers had an extremely primitive sense of humour. During the noon break on the cuttings, they would frequently relieve their boredom by calling us into line before we had barely gobbled down our rice, to watch the torture of one of us picked at random. The unlucky one might be made to hold a heavy rock above his head in the full sun, with a sharpened bamboo stick propped against his back. If he wavered, which he inevitably did, the bamboo spear pierced his skin.

Searle resolved that he was going to draw a record of his ordeal. He obsessively began drawing every day on smuggled scraps of paper.


He later described his sketches as "the graffiti of a condemned man, intending to leave a rough witness of his passing through, but who found himself - to his surprise and delight - among the reprieved." Searle could have been severely punished by the guards for his drawings. He sometimes concealed them by rolling them up inside the ubiquitous bamboo and burying them in the ground.

When the railroad was completed, Searle was among the few prisoners who survived the jungle. He was shipped back to Changi, a squalid and overcrowded jail in Singapore. There, the men continued to starve. Searle was especially taken by a pair of baby kittens at the jail:


 Searle fattened them up and on Christmas day, 1944, cooked and ate them. 

 In August 1945,  after the war ended, Searle was released went on to a long, passionate career as a brilliant artist. Thinking back, he said, "Everything goes back to being a prisoner. When I think how fortunate I was to survive that, to lose all one's friends at 19 years old - every day is a treasure. I decided when the war ended that I was going to do something interesting." Searle, now 90, drew distinctive pictures dipping an old fashioned bamboo pen into ink.


"Corel Painter X art software conveniently provides you with art and passion with none of the mess or drawbacks of a traditional Bamboo Pen... which can clog, spatter, or run dry."

Sunday, June 20, 2010


In 1863, artist Albert Bierstadt and writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow left New York on a camping expedition into the great American wilderness. Bierstadt dreamed of painting western landscapes while Ludlow dreamed of writing about them.

The two men also had something personal to work out between them: Bierstadt was in love with Ludlow's wife, Rosalie.

The men traveled together for nearly nine months. They picked up fresh supplies in Kansas and followed the Overland Trail, working their way through Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into what would one day become Yosemite National Park.

Nobody knows for sure what the two men discussed around the campfire at night, but things must have gotten a little testy in Colorado when they discovered a beautiful 14,000 foot mountain and Bierstadt named it after Ludlow's wife.

Bierstadt is reputed to be the first man ever to climb Mount Rosalie.

The travelers reached the west coast before winter. They found a steamer ship in San Francisco that returned them to New York, where Rosalie waited apprehensively.

Both men returned home steadfast in their love for Rosalie. Unfortunately for Ludlow, he also loved hashish (his most famous book was the classic account, The Hasheesh Eater). As drugs took an increasing toll on Ludlow's life, Rosalie turned to Bierstadt for consolation. Ludlow's cousin wrote at the time,
[Ludlow] is a pretty fellow to be cursing poor Rose. Whatever she may have done is no excuse for him and if he had done as he should she never would have been so fond of the attentions of other men. I don't entirely excuse her, but I will stand up for her against him. I have no patience with him.
Ludlow work on a book about their travels while Bierstadt worked on an immense painting of Mt. Rosalie, called "Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie."

In 1866, the year that Bierstadt unveiled his painting of her mountain, Rosalie divorced Ludlow and married Bierstadt. The embittered Ludlow removed every reference to Bierstadt's name from the manuscript of his book.

Bierstadt and Rosalie went on to live a happy life together. They traveled the world and the successful painter opened studios in London, Paris and Rome. Years later, Bierstadt took Rosalie back to California. They traveled on the newly built railroad, returning over some of the same ground he had traversed on horseback and by foot as a young artist.

If you look for Mount Rosalie today, you won't find anything resembling Bierstadt's painting. For one thing, after Rosalie died the Colorado state legislature renamed the mountain for the governor of Colorado, John Evans. (As surely as rain erodes mountains, bureaucrats and politicians will follow in the wake of lovers and pioneers, obliterating all romantic gestures and leveling all artistic achievements).

But apart from that, you won't find the mountain because Bierstadt's landscape was largely imagined. He painted accurate studies on site, but then exaggerated and romanticized them back in his studio.  He'd combine waterfalls from one location with cliffs from a second location and mountains from a third. For added drama he sometimes added fog, mist or dark storm clouds.

In Bierstadt's famous painting, you can see that he envisioned Mount Rosalie as a radiant heaven beckoning from beyond the clouds:

But a photograph of Mt. Evans today conveys a different feeling:

Geologists recognized that Bierstadt's paintings were composites, and art critics faulted him for concocting landscapes in his studio rather than capturing reality on the trail.

It's true that the farther an artist gets from his subject (whether the subject is a mountain or a girl) the harder it becomes to retain the facts about the subject.  Details begin to drop out, to be replaced by imagination and thoughts and feelings. This digestive process is what helps us find the larger poetry in our subjects. It's what makes relationships a shared reality.

After the first three or four months on the trail without Rosalie (imagine-- no letters, no skype, no sexting!) it's not surprising that Bierstadt began to see her in the mountains, or in the wildflowers or in the moon. I'd wager that both Bierstadt and Ludlow were baying at that moon before their trip was through.

How important are the factual details about the artist's subject? Bierstadt painted Mt. Rosalie more with his heart than his eyes, but that doesn't mean the result was less accurate. Bierstadt's idealized image of Rosalie as a pristine white mount of flowing waterfalls may have been more real than the facts about her that have dropped away with time. It may have been more true than Rosalie's own views of her sins from her first marriage.

Art critics faulted Bierstadt for concocting landscapes back in his studio, rather than on site.  But I think the most inspired part of his Mt. Rosalie painting-- the part that he painted with his heart-- was created on site, during those long nights on the trail thinking about Rosalie.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Anyone curious about the identity of the next great artist will surely want to tune in to the new TV reality series, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. In last night's debut, host and judge China Chow (ranked #54 on the Maxim list of the Hot 100 Women of 2001) welcomed a gaggle of artists who will be pitted against each other as they claw for celebrityhood. In the first phase of the competition, Chow told the artists how to create "a successful portrait."

"Chow: show the inner essence of the subject" 

Art lover Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City) then exhorted the competitors to "be brave."

But nothing quite compared to the the moment when the oleaginous, double breasted Simon de Pury, described as a "leader in the international art world," purred inappropriately over a nude portrait of a contestant half his age ("I seenk eet loooks vehreee appeeling"). The cumulative effect reminded me of Ambrose Bierce's observation,"So scurvy a crew I do not remember to have discerned in vermiculose conspiracy outside the carcass of a dead horse." It's not like we didn't smell this state of affairs coming. Mid-way through the 20th century, artist Raphael Soyer looked ruefully over his shoulder at the path fine art had recently taken:
The art world of the 1920s and 1930s was different from today's art world. Art was not the big business it has become today. It did not have the air of glitter and commercialism. Art was less sensational, reputations were not so rapidly made and lost. There were about 15 or so modest art galleries in New York, several of them filled with paintings by Eakins, Homer and Ryder. The well known, in fact, famous artists of that time-- Bellows, Sloan, Hopper-- were not celebrities.
Saul Bellow had a similar view of the way a foolish prosperity had undermined potentially serious writers:
Nowadays when a young man thinks of becoming a writer, first he thinks of his hairstyle and then what clothes he should wear and then what whiskey he's going to endorse.... The depression bred compassion and solidarity between people instead of breeding crime and antagonism. They were much less harsh or severe than in time of prosperity.
Even Soyer and Bellows didn't anticipate the path art would take. One of the contestants on Work of Art: The Next Great Artist created performance art where white males in her audience were invited to apologize for oppressing indigenous people by biting a burrito attached to her substantial hip. 

 Decadent, superfluous art seems especially difficult to tolerate because of what art has the potential to be. As Shakespeare noted, "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." 

But the purpose of this week's post is not to shoot fish in a barrel. There is actually an interesting point here. It is worth considering why illustration has largely escaped this type of putrefaction. Illustration admittedly has many limitations, but it also seems to contain antibodies that protect it from the decadence and self-indulgence which have infected much of the fine art field in recent decades. The relentless efficiency of the marketplace strips illustration of a lot of potential qualities, but at the same time it seems to scrub away a lot of pretensions and illusions. 

Illustration art-- in the service of robust commerce-- doesn't have as much latitude for the vices displayed in so many of today's temples of fine art.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


"Vertical Hold" by Sterling Hundley

Somewhere between the art you have not seen yet and the art you have stopped seeing because it has become too familiar...

Between the veteran artist running out of original ideas and the child who believes his every crayon line is unprecedented...

Between the artist who aggressively competes with all his peers and the artist who is oblivious to where he stands...

Between the professional who desperately depends on art to pay the mortgage and the amateur who resorts to art to fill an idle Sunday afternoon...

Between the expert who is hamstrung by too much knowledge of art's long history and the airy ignorance of the novice...

Between the artist who is shackled by the demands of unreasonable clients and the heedless freedom of an artist with no audience at all...

Between the investor who views art only in financial terms and the fan who is insensitive to the economics that make art possible...

Between the person who ignores art and the person who is so obsessed with art that it diminishes his experience of life...

........................................lies a sweet, sweet spot.