Sunday, July 31, 2011


Cartoonist Chester Brown stood in front of a room full of people at Comic-Con and described his sex with prostitutes.  As he went through the details, he displayed drawings from his new book, Paying For It:

Brown belongs to that class of oddballs and misfits with a fierce compulsion to share the most scatological, sexual and personal details of their lives.  After Brown showed us drawings of his penis and described how he paid women for sex because he could not obtain sex as part of a well rounded relationship,  I asked whether he considered any part of his life too personal to put in a book.  He responded, "Not as long as it makes for a good story."

The extreme candor of such artists, combined with their vantage point on the outskirts of society, sometimes makes for interesting reading (and occasionally provides insights we couldn't get from more conventional sources).

However,  I don't think Brown's large audiences are lured by his artistic talent.  Most of the time, he draws just well enough to satisfy prurient gawkers looking for unearned intimacy.  Brown is at his best when he is channeling the work of the more talented Harold Gray (in work such as Louis Riel).  

His writing is only a little better-- he manages some nice touches-- but his treatment of sex in Paying For It  has all of the depth, profundity and imagination of a 1970s Playboy Advisor column.

 If you want a sense for how truly insubstantial Brown's work is, compare his treatment of visiting prostitutes with the writings of Henry Miller or Arthur Koestler.  If you want to see vastly superior explicit drawings of the dark side of the soul, check out the work of George Grosz, R. Crumb or John Cuneo.  For me, Brown remains squalor lite.

Friday, July 29, 2011


 I have previously written about the work of Nathan Fowkes, a talented artist for DreamWorks Animation, a fine landscape artist, and an art teacher at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art.
I ran into Fowkes at Comic-Con, where he was demonstrating charcoal drawing for an enthusiastic audience.

I have always been impressed with how Fowkes works seamlessly between different media. He uses Photoshop to create wonderful concept, visual development and production art for state of the art CGI movies:

copyright DreamWorks
He also works in oils:

My favorites are his watercolors.  he creates light and elegant landscapes, each one a tiny gem:

At Comic-Con, he displayed his approach with charcoal:

At this point in the demonstration he is saying, "I'm desperately trying to keep it simple. You've got to keep it simple."

I think one reason Fowkes is so successful with a variety of materials is his philosophy,  "There are dozens of ways you can apply the medium. It's the principles of value (light and shadow), structure, edges and composition that really matter."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


I just returned from Comic-Con in San Diego.  This week I will write about five of the artists I encountered there.

One of the best things about Comic-Con is that when 43,000 teenyboppers stampede to the far side of the convention hall for a glimpse of some teenage vampire heart throb, you might be lucky enough to grab a quiet half hour with a legend such as Seymour Chwast.

Chwast is internationally renowned as one of the great innovators of 20th century graphic design:

Together with Milton Glaser and Ed Sorel, Chwast founded the famous Push Pin Studio in 1954.

He is the author of many excellent books including the bible on the history of graphic style, which he co-authored with Steve Heller. They wrote:

[T]he new movement in illustration from the mid 1950s to the present can be summed up in one word: conceptual.  Illustration evolved from explicit and romantic realism to conceptual symbolism because the issues and themes covered in magazines were becoming more complex, more critical.  Prior to this, illustrators rejected illusion, metaphor, and symbolism in favor of explicit vignettes.  But by the late 1950s, photographers had vividly captured the surface of life, leaving the depiction of the interior, subjective world to illustrators.
As I have written before, I'm not as quick to write off art that "captures the surface of life."  I'm still a sucker for artists who express their opinions about natural forms using sensitive line, perceptive colors or an insightful composition.  As far as I am concerned, the melodies that arise from the perception of natural form can rival the most elaborate intellectual contrivances.  (I also disagree that there is such a bright line between the "surface of life" and its underlying meanings.)

Still, you could not ask for a better exemplar of the "conceptual" point of view than Chwast, who was among the earliest and most effective exponents of this trend in the US.  Here is his brilliant illustration for an article on impotence for Playboy:

Last week this blog discussed the contortions of "realistic" illustrators trying to conceal parts of human anatomy.   Chwast's illustration not only solves that problem with creative symbolism, he adds an important layer of psychological insight with the tangled cord that prevents the plug from reaching its goal. Traditional illustration offered nothing to compete with this.

I have said some unkind things on this blog about illustrators in the "I'm-so-smart-I don't-have-to-draw-well" school of illustration.  Too many of them ain't that smart, and the concepts they bring to the table turn out to be a poor substitute for a decent sense of design or an ability to draw.  But Chwast is a conceptual illustrator who does it right.  He has the same winning formula that made Saul Steinberg great: a first class mind, a spirit of playfulness that keeps him overflowing with creative ideas, and a true gift for drawing and graphic design.

Our tastes turned out to differ in several instances, but it was a privilege to spend time with him and hear his thoughts on a variety of subjects. I learned a great deal. Those who heard him at Comic-Con were fortunate indeed.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Ever since civilization invented modesty, the fig leaf has created special challenges for artists.

One of Denis Zilber's typically fun solutions

The awkwardness of Durer's early efforts...

...eventually gave way to more natural looking solutions by artists such as Frank Schoonover, Harold von Schmidt, Al Parker and James Avati:

But the motivations remained the same: to make the censor's prohibition seem like a mere coincidence of nature.  Each artist lies to us, suggesting that our view is being obstructed only by a random spoon or a fortuitous branch.

Art succeeds by directing our curiosity, and sometimes even by satisfying it, but never by thwarting it.  That's why artists attempt to disguise limits imposed on them by the censor.

Below, illustrator Geoffrey Biggs tried using randomly flapping clothes to satisfy his editor's restrictions.  Like most efforts to appear spontaneous, this required careful planning.  Biggs studied the text of a story in which a woman impetuously removes her outfit and  throws it at a man; he then carefully designed a solution which was technically compliant, but which still looked a little too natural for the editors of the Saturday Evening Post.  They went back to the author and demanded that he rewrite the scene to put underwear on the woman, then returned to Biggs and instructed him to change his illustration to conform to the text:     

Before                               After
The mere act of concealing something often attracts our attention.  Viewers may devote as much creative energy to imagining what is behind the fig leaf as artists devote to concealing it.  Some artists take advantage of this human reaction, deliberately playing up the fig leaf with symbolism or colors or shapes.

In the 1950s Illustrator-turned-religious-painter Harry Anderson used a lion for a fig leaf in this painting of the Garden of Eden:

Talk about attracting the viewer's attention... I don't know a single male who doesn't grow uneasy about the proximity of that lion's teeth (which certainly distracts from Anderson's original intention for the painting).

The elements of a painting don't stand still.   We cannot simply place one inert shape in front of another with no visual or psychological consequences.  Objects are imbued with significance, and this is part of what makes our world such a wonderful place.  So we should be neither surprised nor disappointed if an object we employ to conceal something strikes up a dialogue with the thing we are concealing.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Thomas Hart Benton was a serious painter whose allegorical pictures of slow country life showed skill and intellect:

Thomas Hart Benton. Persephone

So what in the world was he thinking when he tried to paint a rock n' roll party, with people dancing to "the Twist" by Chubby Checker?

The Twist (1964)

Check out those bongo drums.  Benton was so clueless, you have to laugh. 

N.C. Wyeth was an immensely talented artist.  The range and depth of his illustrations are awe-inspiring: 

But despite all his talent, he couldn't design a decent Coca-Cola ad to save his life:

Robert Fawcett was a fiercely talented draftsman who chiseled his subjects with an aggressive line.   His powerful black inkwork often overwhelmed his colors:

Robert Fawcett, detail from Big Business

So who in their right mind would select Fawcett to paint a dainty watercolor advertising women's cosmetics?

Fawcett, Palmolive ad, 1935

What on earth were these artists thinking?  Were they on drugs?  Desperate for money?   Deliberately stretching to expand their range? 

Sometimes you can tell in advance that, no matter how talented or how hard they work, an artist is just not the right person to handle a particular subject.  So when someone tells you an artist is "great," it doesn't hurt to ask yourself, "at what?"

Sunday, July 03, 2011


Illustrator Henry Raleigh had a thing for shoulders.

Other artists loved to draw hands.  Al Dorne, Steve Ditko and Mort Drucker all emphasized hands in their pictures, building compositions around them and infusing them with significance.  Amedeo Modigliani's tastes were a little different; he seemed to have a thing for necks, extruding them to achieve the effects he wanted.   And Robert McGinnis consistently painted women with weirdly elongated legs.  He apparently found these proportions pleasing.

But to return to our story, Raleigh had a thing for shoulders.  Many artists didn't see much potential in shoulders, assuming that they were generally symmetrical and level.  Raleigh looked closer and saw them swooping and dipping like languorous gulls:

When Raleigh needed a figure in the foreground, sometimes it was little more than a shoulder in the "debutante slouch." 
Time and again, he placed women's shoulders at center stage, plunging and ascending to guide the viewer around his picture:

Most artists use facial expressions to convey attitude. Raleigh could convey it with shoulders:

Every chance he got, Raleigh looked for excuses to draw bare shoulders and backs (regardless of what he was being paid to illustrate).  Look at his loving treatment of these women and there is no mistaking his personal tastes:  

Why is one artist smitten by the lines and shapes of bare shoulders, while another lavishes attention on hands, and a third finds creative potential in necks?  Some say these preferences stem from cultural conditioning or climate or endocrinology or childhood experiences or intellect or sexual desire.

Whatever the explanation, pictures highlight the features that most appeal to the artist's personal taste.  You or I might walk through this world overlooking the special beauty of shoulder blades and  clavicles, but it's hard to do after viewing them through Raleigh's loving eyes.  We might not end up completely sharing his fetish, but we certainly have a heightened appreciation for what shoulders can be.  And that's a good thing.