Monday, October 25, 2010


In 1923, C.B. Dodson of Richmond Virginia entered this painting in a competition for young illustrators:

Alas, he came in second and nobody ever heard of him again. Of course, nobody ever heard of the first place winner either:

C.B. and Florence took their places in that long, long line of anonymous artists who yearned for a whiff of artistic immortality.

It is easy to spot such artists. They're the ones who remain hunched over a drawing board or computer, continuing to improve a picture even after someone was willing to buy it.

For some, this dedication paid off.  Norman Rockwell traded his personal life for his art, often working twelve hours a day, six days a week on his paintings. Near the end of his life he observed, "The story of my life is, really, the story of my pictures." Rockwell may not have spent much time with his kids or lingered in bed with his wife on cold New England mornings, but future generations would remember his name and respect his achievement.

Rockwell's fame is the exception, not the rule.  For most artists,  all that hard work and the decisions that seemed so momentous at the time-- that innovative color choice or that crucial brush stroke-- will be erased forever.  When most artists arrive at their final destination, they'll understand that the extra hours they robbed from life to invest in their craft, hoping for a return on their investment, is equity that will never be repaid.

It's not as if the gods have hidden the price of glory.  Long ago, the gods explained to Achilles that if he wanted to be remembered, he would have to sacrifice his life.

From The Iliad by the Provensens

If he fought in the Trojan war, he would be killed but his name would live forever in glory. On the other hand, if he turned and sailed for home he could enjoy a long, happy life surfing internet porn in his bathrobe but no one would remember his name.

You can bet that Achilles loved surfing internet porn just as much as you or I, so he raged against the unfairness of this choice. The pain in his ancient soliloquy remains fresh today:

The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks and the one who works to exhaustion.... Two fates bear me on to the day of my death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy my journey back home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the home I love, my pride, my glory dies, true, but the life that's left me will be long....
When his hour of decision arrived, Achilles chose to sacrifice his life on the hardscrabble soil of Troy. (If he hadn't, we wouldn't still be talking about him now).

Achilles got a better deal than poor C.B. Dodson. The gods promised Achilles that his sacrifice would be rewarded with eternal glory, but artists get no such guarantee. They must gamble their lives away like a poker chip at the Casino d'Art. There are plenty of talented, hard working artists who die anonymous deaths, and plenty of untalented hacks who hit the jackpot and become legends. Who among us would play a slot machine with such crummy odds?

Furthermore, our options are beset by human disadvantages that Achilles did not have. We are surrounded by mortality on one side, which requires us to make haste with our commitments, and total uncertainty on the other side about whether those commitments (and their accompanying sacrifices) will have any meaning.

As a result, we are forced to work harder to find solace than Achilles did. Our glory is sadder, more poignant and more fragile than the glory earned by Achilles.

Yet, I'm convinced it is no less glorious.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


At some point-- I'm not sure when-- traditional drawing skills seem to have become unfashionable.
  • Perhaps it's because artists today see no percentage in competing with 1,000 years of talented, obsessed draftsmen.
  • Perhaps it's because photography and other short cuts have made the labors of drawing seem less inspiring.
  • Perhaps it's because illustrators have seized the license of gallery painters who proved that you don't need traditional skills to sell a picture.
Whatever the reason, other ingredients of art (such as concept or design) have become so dominant that today many artists no longer even pretend to be able to draw. (Consider the talented cartoonist Garry Trudeau who has drawn like crap for 40 years. You'd have to try mighty hard to avoid picking up some skill in all that time.) Some contemporary artists seem to go out of their way to draw in a crude or naive style, perhaps to avoid any comparison with traditional artists.

That's one reason I take pleasure in the work of Peter de Seve, an excellent, decisive draftsman who draws with great character and imagination.

Note de Seve's eye for the small details that create personality, for body language, for animated facial expressions and revealing gestures. His drawing ability enables him to give form to his insights in a way that many other contemporary illustrators cannot. He integrates these ingredients seamlessly using a loose, energetic line.

In an era when the greatest demand for images seems to be CGI in movies or computer gaming, I find it interesting that de Seve's old fashioned pencil drawing have become an essential building block for major animated movies such as the Ice Age trilogy or a Bug's Life. He contributes the flavor to character designs which (so far) no computer has been able to simulate.