Monday, July 09, 2012


James Williamson for the Saturday Evening Post (1949)

There is a gap, at least 12 tugboats wide, between what an artist can imagine and what that artist can actually put on paper.

It does no good for working artists to imagine a picture they lack the technical skill to implement. Famed illustrator Seymour Chwast confessed that he avoids pictures “that require craftsmanship and a drawing ability I do not have.” Elwood Smith maintains that his inability to draw the images he envisions forces him to be more creative: “if I can’t draw it, I struggle to come up with a different idea that’s invariably more original."

Lots of artists today seem limited by their skills to a depressingly short menu of alternatives.  Many pictures are reduced to elementary line drawings with basic compositions (or even worse-- Photoshopped montages).  In graphic novels or syndicated comic strips-- art forms that once attracted skillful draftsmen--  a simplistic approach has become common.
We live in a culture that is forgiving of poor execution skills, and sometimes that's a good thing.  I love many pictures that have a raw, unfinished look, pictures where accident plays an important role, or pictures where simplicity and economy leave more room for the concept.

Nevertheless, there's an undeniable attraction to pictures where an artist has the skill to be fearless.  Artists who can can confidently rotate angles or force perspective to overcome the constraints of tiny spaces, artists who can manage large amounts of information in a picture without overcrowding it --such artists don't need to keep their imaginations on a short leash.

James Williamson constructed the above illustration like a master carpenter.  To convey newlyweds separated by a domineering mother-in-law, he cleverly staged a three tiered opera: 

The sobbing, ambivalent bride sequestered by her mother (and visually, by her illustrator)

All shapes and colors lead to the dominant mother in law, who bifurcates the couple and the picture.  Her hand gesture and open mouth are framed in stark relief for emphasis.

The diminished figure of the husband at the bottom of the totem pole by the ironic "welcome" mat

Williamson uses the architecture of the house as architecture for his drawing.  It simultaneously gives him an abstract design and makes a complex drawing intelligible.  The viewer could easily become confused by a less skillful artist, but we read this in exactly the sequence Williamson intended.

One current artist who seems free to go wherever the job and his imagination take him is the always entertaining Denis Zilber. You never get the feeling Zilber has to hold back because he doesn't know how to draw.

 Zilber bends perspective and anatomy to simultaneously show us the expression on the face of this lecherous old goat, his pot belly, and the object of his attention.  Quite a tour de force.

Here Zilber makes shadows do his bidding, superimposed on extreme (but convincing) angle shots and foreshortening.

Plenty of artists do overhead shots, but how many do them in the rain?

An image I've shown before, but one which helps to make this point.

There's no guarantee that skills will result in a great picture; it does no good to draw what you imagine if you lack imagination.  But I am constantly reminded by work such as Williamson's or Zilber's that it sure helps to start from a position of strength,


Donald Pittenger said...

Nice point, David. I suppose most of us are aware of the role limitations play in our lives and work, but being reminded of it from time to time is helpful.

That said, do you have some examples of art that goes beyond the capabilities of the artist or illustrator? I'd start looking at interiors of old pulp magazines and community art shows for starters, but there ought to be examples from well-known professionals as well.

MORAN said...

I did not know Zilber's work. He's a real find.

norm said...

I think a lot of the best artists got in over their heads early on...trying to reach and grow by going beyond their capabilities at the time.
Some may have never reached what they were aiming at...but I think it still made for more interesting work.
One example would be Jeffrey Jones trying for the Waterhouse type of level of work. I'm more than happy with the level Jones reached...but some have made convincing arguments that he fell short of his target.

Alex said...

If art schools no longer give training in perspective and picture-making it stands to reason you'll see little evidence of these skills in modern illustration.
Don't blame the artists,blame the colleges.
Btb.I hate this character rcognition system!

kev ferrara said...

The Williamson is well drawn, and composed , if a little bland. Seems influenced by Mario Cooper and a few other standouts from the prior generation.

Alex, the problem goes so much wider and deeper than the colleges. The entire civilization can be indicted.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- My guess is that the best are "aware of the role limitations play" and agonize over them. (I remember talking with illustrator Robert Heindel shortly before he died; he said. "You realize when you get to be my age that you aren't really as good as you wanted to be. You have to confront the question, "How good am I? Why can't I be better?") But I suspect the people who aren't so self-aware simply start to think about artistic solutions in a rut. It becomes like one of those invisible electronic fences that keeps dogs in a yard. After a while, they just don't think about going to the boundaries anymore. And that was the central concern of my post. There are lots of examples of artists who reach beyond their capabilities-- in fact, I have examples of very early illustrations by greats such as Al Parker, Al Dorne and Robert Fawcett that look awkward and ungainly. The larger tragedy, I think, is the huge number of rote and repetitive pictures from artists who don't even try, and never think too much about why.

MORAN-- I agree. His work really stands out in a crowd.

norm-- Good point. Personally I think Jones's work was highly erratic, and while he could never have been Waterhouse, there are Jones paintings that I would rather have on my wall than a Waterhouse.

Alex-- If students wanted to learn drawing skills, wouldn't the colleges offer them? As for that character recognition system, sometimes it shows up and sometimes it doesn't. I never asked for it, and I have no clue why it arrived. I wil look into it.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I suppose that the Williamson picture is a little "bland" by today's standards (although by 1949 standards,I think the extreme angle was very unusual and adventuresome, and pulled off quite well).

There is so much more to indict the entire civilization for...

Alex said...

ystpowtI think the art students hope that the colleges know which skills they're going to need in the modern workplace.
And by the time you know what skills you need it's too late.

Alex said...

That's the character recognition thing at the beginning.Apologies.Grrrr.

Donald Pittenger said...

Alex, don't blame David (entirely) for those fuzzy, messy-looking letters. It's Google or whoever hosts the blog. The idea is to have the system screen spam while allowing legit comments to appear nearly instantly. The main alternatives are (1) spam comments appearing that have to be zapped later and (2) holding comments in limbo until the blogger can get around to screening them by hand.

I don't enjoy facing them any more than you do, but finally allowed their use on my own blog because i travel a lot and can't tend to comments are readily as I would sometimes like to.

Jesse Hamm said...

What bugs me about the captcha (character recognition system) is that it DOESN'T deter spambots (e.g., "Arts cad" from the Carter Goodrich thread).

"If students wanted to learn drawing skills, wouldn't the colleges offer them?"

I frequently encounter art students who would LOVE to learn more than their schools teach. They pick the best school they can, and do their best with what's offered, not knowing either that it's inadequate or what to do about that. Meanwhile, the school hires teachers who lack skills (because their qualification is that they, too, attended art school), rakes in the cash, and assumes all is well. Then the student ventures into the world, and you teach them a few tricks or show them a Loomis book and it blows their mind.

Then again, I also meet students who just don't care. I carefully explain how to draw inclined planes in perspective, and they carefully explain that such scenes can be avoided: "See how simple it is? I just cut to a close-up."

Five years later, Mrs. Why-Didn't-I-Know-About-Loomis-Sooner is earning a living from her art, and Mr. I-Just-Use-Close-Ups is serving her coffee. The tragedy is that the diligent student wasted 4 years at school.

kev ferrara said...

although by 1949 standards,I think the extreme angle was very unusual and adventuresome

Leaving aside all the extreme angle picture ideas that arrived earlier in the Golden Age, for a good indication of how mainstream "extreme" angle-shots were in 1949 check out the Saturday Evening Post covers starting in February 1940.Then the railroad ads by Frank Reilly (no innovator he) from the mid 40s.

Tom said...

I like the use of patterns in the picture also, from the interior rug to the roofing and the clap board on the house.  The house itself feels like it coming down on the poor guy  because of its perspective,  like a kid being dressed down by an elder. 

I think space is the key and it gives the artist the longest " leash" and the most strength.  And since everything is space I don't think the size of the space matters, because once you draw through and around things you can you can do it a large or small space.   The harder thing is developing the ability to draw dimensionally.   But when you can it really releases the imagination. 

David Apatoff said...

Alex and Don Pittenger-- I feel your pain. I don't recall turning on any security feature or doing anything different- those fuzzy word recognition challenges just showed up one day. Like Don, I travel a fair amount and it is dismaying to come back and find you have 7 comments from a robot in Shanghai. On the other hand, the security feature seems to depress the number of real comments, so I will try to work out a better solution.

Kev Ferrara-- I haven't seen the Reilly railroad ads, but would certainly like to. You're right, I don't think of Reilly as an adventurer. As for the 1940s Post covers, your comment gave me an excuse to put aside a legal brief and look through Cohn's excellent compilation of all the Saturday Evening Post covers (which I just happen to keep at my desk). I have to say, I did not see any covers from the 1940s that looked to me like Wiliamson's vertiginous angle shot. Starting in February 1940 I see occasional covers where the viewer's perspective is raised or lowered (and the big surprise for me is that Norman Rockwell seems to be more aggressive with this new approach than anyone else-- see his radical aerial shot on 5/15/48, or his angles on 8/16/1947 or 4/6/46). But it seems to me that Wiliamson went further, hanging you upside down by your ankles and twisting that scene so that you can simultaneously look in just the right window and down at the front porch. Actually, that seems to me to be a pretty complex message to put on a cover where it would have to compete on the newsstand against a dozen other magazines.

Jesse Hamm wrote, " Five years later, Mrs. Why-Didn't-I-Know-About-Loomis-Sooner is earning a living from her art, and Mr. I-Just-Use-Close-Ups is serving her coffee. The tragedy is that the diligent student wasted 4 years at school."

Is it still that way? I'd like to think so, although looking at current illustrations I wonder how much of commercial success today depends on knowing what Mrs. Why-Didn't-I-Know-About-Loomis-Sooner learned. Much of the field seems to be dumbing down visually (just as it did during the "big head" era after World War II) although the top artists are still superb.

My general view is that it is a wise student who knows that he or she knows nothing, and who is willing to pay the dues to start to remedy that situation. But applying that rule to myself, we live in an era where the rules are changing fast (in this field as in others) and I don't want to take for granted that paying old fashioned dues will reap rewards in the future.

Jesse Hamm said...

To be sure, I don't think knowledge or skill translate to success these days; I think it's a matter of luck: knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time. But in a game of luck, the diligent/persistent have a much better chance than the layabouts. So "Mrs. Loomis" would succeed for the same reason she draws well -- adaptive persistence -- though not *because* she draws well.

kev ferrara said...

My point was that the cover of the SEP was the definition of mainstream. And strange perspective angles, which were widely used in the golden age in adventure stories, were now, in the 40s, also being used in domestic narrative situations. I think that is simply a factual statement.

Whether this mainstreaming of "odd angles" came through movies, photography, or adventure illustration, or all three, I can't say. But if it was being used in ads by Frank Reilly types, one can be sure it was no longer radical.

I did not mean to say that the precise perspective angle used by williamson was old hat. Surely the expertise and craft involved in that picture was not widespread in 1949 nor in 1919. And each difficult angle requires its own solution, and in that sense is unique. (But the same can be said of every aspect of every decent picture ever made.)

But if you want to be diligent and precise in researching whether this piece is in any way innovative perspective-wise in the realm of domestic narrative illustration, I'd check the interior illustration of the major magazines rather than the covers, starting with the upscale Hearst publications of the 20s. And I think you would concede that the odds that no such radical bit of perspective appeared prior to 1949 in an interior illustration in a major magazine is not high.

Understand, I am not disputing that how Williamson used the perspective as a means to get the 3 figures on different floors into the same storytelling shot without using a cutaway of the building is a clever solution. But that alone strikes me as the ingenious aspect of the picture.

This discussion brought to you by the irresistable lure of Dog Toys™.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm wrote, "in a game of luck, the diligent/persistent have a much better chance than the layabouts."

Agreed, and that is one of the few reasons for a glimmer of hope about the universe.

Kev Ferrara wrote, "if you want to be diligent and precise in researching whether this piece is in any way innovative perspective-wise in the realm of domestic narrative illustration, I'd check the interior illustration of the major magazines rather than the covers, starting with the upscale Hearst publications of the 20s."

I agree with your point. In fact, I would love to spend some quality time conducting exactly the test you propose. Unfortunately, I haven't found a way to fit all those magazines in my office.