Thursday, August 25, 2011

ROBERT RIGGS (1896 - 1970)

Nobody talks much about Robert Riggs anymore, but he was once one of the nation's most highly regarded illustrators.

As Walt Reed wrote, "Robert Riggs was awarded the Gold Medal for Excellence by the New York Art Directors Club for ten consecutive years and received many additional awards." He was elected to the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame.  His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts and the U.S. Library of Congress.

What made Riggs so special?  If you went through a checklist of factors that normally make an illustrator stand out, Riggs seemed to have none of them.   His work was not flashy or innovative or glamorous.  He had no special talent for anatomy or facial expressions.  His compositions and colors weren't stylish or bold.  If anything, he favored basic, symmetrical compositions with conventional color schemes:

Note how frequently Riggs plants his subject right smack dab in the middle of his canvas.

Furthermore, his subject matter was hardly topical or crowd-pleasing.  No one would describe his work as romantic or witty or trendy--  no pretty girls, no heart-warming family scenes, no attractive couples in passionate clinches.  And Riggs didn't try to show off with a lot of details and frills.  To the contrary, he simplified and stripped away unnecessary detail.

For me, the special appeal of Riggs' work is in its distinctive weight.  He imbued every subject with a great feeling of solidity and substance-- what Reed calls "monumental" compositions.  Riggs' figures in the following picture are made of the same granite as the mountains behind them.

Riggs didn't follow the recipe for popular illustrations of his day.  He viewed the world in a powerful, muscular way and conveyed his vision as honestly as he could.  That was enough to capture audiences and the respect of his peers. 

Riggs had very few imitators, perhaps because other illustrators just didn't see the world through his eyes.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Illustrator James Gurney wrote:
"Yesterday I took my car to the shop because it needed an inspection. The rain was pouring down. There wasn't much space in the waiting room. So I sat under the awning out back between an old rusty engine and a forklift.
While I waited, I sketched the mud puddle beside me. The rain streamed off the corrugated roof  and splashed the water, making big bubbles. The puddle was a sea of overlapping ripples."

I love this little study, not just for how it looks but for what it signifies. 

Gurney is the creator of the famed Dinotopia series, whose books, calendars, posters, prints and collectibles have become a publishing sensation.   He is renowned for his illustrations for National Geographic and his more than 70 book covers, as well as stamps and animated films.

Gurney working on one of his carefully researched illustrations for National Geographic,
with his parakeet on his shoulder 

He authored two excellent books on art, Color and Light and Imaginative Realism and in his spare time he writes one of the best, most informative art blogs around.    I get exhausted just reading about his accomplishments.  Here is his work plan for the 160 illustrations he created for Dinotopia: The World Beneath:

So when Gurney finally gets a few minutes of respite from the easel to take care of routine car maintenance, what does he do?  He becomes so intrigued by the effect of rain drops in a mud puddle that he pauses to produce the lovely study above.

Gurney's fans ask him about his work habits.   He tells them, "I typically work from 8:30 to 5:30 five or six days a week."


The problem with Gurney is that he can't distinguish between work and play.   Robert Frost wrote about that state of grace, where the thing we need to do and the thing we love to do "are one."
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Some of the most successful artists are the ones whose eyes can't help but see-- and whose hand can't help but investigate-- the beauty of a rain puddle even while they are waiting in a dreary line for their car to be inspected.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


A superb new book about illustration, written by the well known expert Fred Taraba, has just been released by Dan Zimmer's Illustrated Press.

An instant classic, the book describes the art and the working techniques of 41 great illustrators in loving detail. It provides a wealth of information you won't find anywhere else, including preliminary sketches, reference photographs and other helpful materials.

The reproductions are beautiful, many from the originals. The production values are excellent.

Taraba wisely chose to sidestep the illustrators who have already been covered exhaustively (such as Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish or N.C. Wyeth) and focus instead on brilliant but slightly lesser known illustrators who deserve greater recognition today.  Austin Briggs, Joe de Mers, John Gannam, Andrew Loomis, Alice Barber Stephens, Saul Tepper, Coby Whitmore... this book is a goldmine of under-appreciated talent.   I recommend it highly.  It is available through the publisher.  

Saturday, August 06, 2011


Every year at Comic-Con I check in at the booth of Craig Elliott, a talented artist who works for Disney and Dreamworks on animated films such as Mulan, The Emperor's New Groove, Treasure Planet, Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Bee Movie, and Enchanted, Monsters vs. Aliens, and The Princess and the Frog.

I like the strong designs in Elliott's visual development and layout work for the movies.

But  I especially like that Elliott is one of those artists with the ambition, energy and curiosity to keep growing after his day job is through.   Every year when I see him, he seems to have broadened his horizons further.  

His core style is in what he calls "the grand tradition of American illustration, Japanese scroll paintings and woodblock prints, fantasy illustration, and great artists of Europe."  He works in both digital and traditional media, including oil paintings (for exhibition in Paris and the US), sculpture, landscape architecture, and he has now started designing jewelry as well.

Elliott is one of the artists featured in the new Flesk Prime book from Flesk Publications and is the subject of the upcoming book, The Art of Craig Elliott.  If you don't know his work, it's certainly worth a look.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


Ashley Wood's energetic pictures have spawned an entire industry.  He went from drawing comic books to multinational production deals with development partners and global media outlets who produce video games of his characters, toys, collectibles, movies and books.  Wood seems to be everywhere, from art galleries in China to movie studios in Hollywood, and shows no signs of slowing down.

In his talk at Comic-Con, Wood proved to be as energetic and blunt as his art.  He said that not long ago his career "really sucked balls"  but he found the right publisher who believed in him, and teamed with the right people.  Mostly, he worked hard.

Sometimes Wood seems to crank out art like one of the gattling guns on his robots, spewing explosive rounds.
I work every day, it's a compulsion.  People say I'm prolific, but as far as I'm concerned people who say I'm prolific are just fucking lazy."
Wood is not the most refined, cautious artist you'll ever meet.  But despite an occasional misfire, Wood continues to generate large quantities of very good art.  He has a strong sense of design, good color, and he knows how to draw and paint.  Says Wood, "I like what I do, but I can  be better.  I am still trying to boil it down to its essence."

When asked where he found his inspiration, Wood responded,
I'm inspired by the fact that I'm going to die.  The clock is ticking, and time is against me.  You can't just wait for an opportunity to come, you have to go out and chase your dreams.  Some people hang out in cafes and talk about doing something, but I'm out there working every day.  I go out on weekends and take pictures of clouds I like.
He was extremely likeable and quickly won over his audience.  Unlike many commercially successful artists who pull the ladder up after them, Wood displays a healthy lack of pretentiousness:
A lot of the art made in the last 30 years was kind of shit.  The idea-based art gets kind of boring if you need someone to sit next to the art and explain it to you.  I've never seen a "lower class" to art.  When comic art becomes more valuable, that's what makes the fine art world gravitate to it.
But Wood's most endearing comments had to do with his family.  He said, "The best thing about making movies is that my kids will think I'm cool."  And his wife?  "My wife is my muse.  If the hair changes on the women in my paintings, it's because my wife changed her hair."