Monday, June 10, 2013


99.9% of our DNA is identical for all human beings.  Yet, there is enough variety left in that remaining 0.1% to make each of us unique.
Your individual DNA gives you your distinctive appearance-- your height, nose, skin color, eyes, hair...even your peculiar toes.  It's the only thing that distinguishes you from that goofy looking guy over in the corner.   

Similarly, it's amazing how illustrators working in the same medium and painting the identical subject can end up with such widely divergent results.  Somewhere in that .1% resides an infinite variety of styles.  Here are some examples of how talented illustrators responded differently to the same subject: in this case, a few people in a small boat on the water.

In this first splendid illustration, Tim Bower envisions waves like rows of pyramids...

Contrast Bower's treatment of water with Coby Whitmore's more fluid approach...


Then compare both of them with John Gannam's approach in this 1938 illustration.  Gannam uses a dryer brush to make thrusts like a Franz Kline abstract expressionist painting.

N.C. Wyeth (who understood plenty about water) painted the following boat in profile in order to highlight the water splashing off the bow.


 Bernie Fuchs (who understood plenty about design) perceived the same water off the bow very differently.

Here is another Fuchs variation on our theme, this time arranged from a great distance:

Another talented illustrator, Robert M. Cunningham, was famous for simplifying his pictures to their essence.  Here he displays his distinctive form of brilliance: 

Note the wisdom in Cunningham's deckled surf

Below, Austin Briggs shows he too can perceive the world in flat shapes and colors, but with a very different, impressionistic result:

It would be easy to continue with another hundred variations of people in a boat. All these artists started out composed 99.9% of the same DNA, yet look at the rich, marvelous variety of their work!

I tell you, it's a glorious damn world.


M. said...

Another case of "Different (brush) strokes for different folks" ... great post, and wonderful blog!!

MORAN said...

Bower and Cunningham are two new names for me. They are excellent. That's why I come here.

plaisanter said...

Just wonderful, all of them. Thank you!

chris bennett said...

Wonderful post David.

I've not seen any of these before either!

Matthew Harwood said...

My new word for the day - preterhuman.
Thank you David for your long line of inspirational posts.

Untitled said...

Wonderful post. Great examples.

I was looking up Joe & Beth Krush. I had never heard of "The Borrowers" but I had loved an illustration of a Will Stanton Story in an Indian Readers Digest from 1968 ( or so). I finally looked up Krush on Google and found some information about them.

Another illustrator who is I love is Victor Ambrus. Hungarian by birth and has illustrated about 300 books in the UK.
best wishes

Tal said...

Beautiful examples of individual vision.Whatever your preferred era of illustration it's no surprise that the best illustrators usually get it 'right'.

Unknown said...

They are all such beautiful pieces. I am in awe of their talent.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Bower and Cunningham are two names that are definitely worth getting to know better.

M., Plaisanter and Chris Bennett-- I'm so glad you like these works. Spreading the word about great artists and sharing cool pictures is the most fun aspect of this job.

Matthew Harwood-- Thank you for coming by, I do appreciate it.

David Apatoff said...

Amitabh-- Thanks. I'm an Ambrus fan too.

Tal-- That's right, no matter what their style is, you can really tell the quality work from the lesser work.

Eric Noble-- Glad you like them. More to come.

Richard said...

Great works, and I appreciate your metaphor, but I'm concerned that young artists might read this post and honestly believe that art skill comes down to genetics or "talent" (as opposed to skill).

That is just not the case.

When one artist seems to be quite more advanced than another, even without practice, what you're missing is the non-drawing visualization practice going on.

If one artists spends their days looking at things critically, they don't need to be drawing, they'll be a more advanced artist seemingly without practice, then another artist who practices actually drawing twice as much, but doesn't do much critical looking.

kev ferrara said...

Great post David. This is just the kind of thing I love to look at myself, the differences between artists being all the more clear when concentrating on particular kinds of elements. And always, the wonder of artistic variety strikes me.

If one artists spends their days looking at things critically, they don't need to be drawing,

Don't know about this, Richard. I agree that the more observant artist will have added artistic quality. But, too, the more sensitive artist will be better at observing. And sensitivity is innate, an ambient cultural influence, and something practice-able.

As well, better artists can feel the world in their imaginations to a greater degree. And thus can bring forth to canvas qualities that the "critically looking" intellect would not register. The critical mind may absorb fact after fact in compartmentalizing the visual world, but he will not perceive truth.

Also, in the act of drawing is the true act of understanding, quite often. Actually trying to draw what you think you know is quite a corrective to artistic hubris. Rationality is often the enemy of the artist's ability to be receptive to the world. Critical thought is terribly reductive and moribund.

chris bennett said...

Yeah. Someone can listen to ten thousand piano pieces, yet if they have not touched a keyboard will be put to shame by a five year old with only two hours of first grade study behind them.

That stuff only starts to take effect when you are doing it in practice.

Anonymous said...

Kev and Chris - Just finished a book that bears out your respective points . The Body Has a Mind of Its Own - How body maps in your brain help you do everything better .

Chris , really enjoyed the art on your site !

Best , Al McLuckie

bill said...

What a great post David. Being familiar with all of these artists it was great to see them compared and contrasted. And I'm going to have to go with Kev and Chris on this one Richard. This talent vs. practice discussion is often misconstrued to mean that everyone starts with equal footing. Simply not the case.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

its too bad Gibby didn't give his impressions of water, since he focussed more on large noses (including his own).
But his frozen pond in The Skater is also glorious!
Glücklicher Vatertag
best, Beth

Richard said...

Of course to actually be proficient at drawing requires drawing.

What I mean to say by "they don't need to be drawing" is that they don't need to be drawing to acquire some of the image-making skill, there are other ways to obtain some of that skill. This, I believe, is the reason for those people whom have skills which appear to come from nowhere. That thing we call talent, merely because they have not spent much time making physical drawings.

Perhaps I should have said exactingly rather than critically? I in no way mean to associate "critical looking" with "critical thinking", as thought seems to often get in the way of seeing clearly.

By critical looking I mean a certain type of looking with a specific intensity that I believe leads to visual understanding. Kev, as a proficient artist I am sure you will agree, that one can "draw" in their head without actually having paper on hand. This is what I mean by looking critically. Yes, it's important to work on the mind-eye-hand cordination, but the actual understanding is much more important I would argue, and it is that understanding, that skill, which is so often mistaken for talent in the visual arts.

That skill, call it visualization, imagination, looking critically, whatever, it's a combination of things, and some youngsters are taught or accident upon it at a very early age, and thus are given a tool which makes them look quite a bit more talented than their counterparts.

Chris, two five year olds, one who has listened to thousands of piano pieces and one who hasn't will on the day of their first lesson have very differing skill levels. Their teacher will no doubt chalk it up to talent, and ignore that the skill of active listening is strongly developed in only one of these children.

Bill, I don't mean to argue that everyone starts on equal footing, I'm just explaining that I think the unevenness of footing is almost always from nurture, not nature, and I think it much more likely that the strong belief in talent across our culture has a lot more to do with successful people's desire to explain their success as the result of great innate qualities rather than the luck of their upbringing.

Richard said...

It's important to note that genetic abnormalities are almost always negative, not positive, to a human's well-being. Beneficial genes will generally express themselves, so, it would simply not make sense for their to be latent artistic talent genes that are by and large not expressed except in the occasional person.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Stolterman said...

I am so glad i just found this blog!

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- It might help focus the discussion to distinguish between different styles on the one hand, and good or bad art on the other. I think all of these pictures are excellent but I was especially struck by the fact that these artists had such different modes of thinking, feeling and expressing. Is that the result of nature or nurture? Or is it the result of climate, diet or geography? In addition to our DNA being unique, so is the iris of your eye, your fingerprints, your voice and your brain waves. Could they be responsible? Whatever the cause of the different styles of these artists, the result is a damn fine garden of alternatives.

Also, I agree there is some value in painting several pictures in your head for every picture you actually paint, but I think we all agree that theory must be tethered to practice or it becomes useless. (Remember in the Broadway musical, The Music Man, Professor Harold Hill's "think method" for learning to play a musical instrument?)

Ken Ferrara wrote: "trying to draw what you think you know is quite a corrective to artistic hubris."

It is a humbling and important lesson indeed. Those lines just never seem to connect properly, do they? The great draftsman Noel Sickles said that he didn't need photo reference to draw a stagecoach, but he did need to understand the structure of a stagecoach from all sides-- how everything connected and interacted-- and to be able to pull it up in his mind and rotate it to get the angle he needed.

Tom said...

Don't you think the medium has a big impact on how an artist decides to portray something? Then again maybe the choice of medium is part of the .1 percent difference. If you ever do a post on painting "ground" you have got to include Harold Von Schmidt.

chris bennett said...

Chris, two five year olds, one who has listened to thousands of piano pieces and one who hasn't will on the day of their first lesson have very differing skill levels. Their teacher will no doubt chalk it up to talent, and ignore that the skill of active listening is strongly developed in only one of these children.

Yes, that's true. But technical practice structures the imaginative stomach for its nourishment by the cultural diet. I do not believe it happens the other way around.

Richard said...

Roughly 20,000 genes make up the human genome, and some fraction of that make up the
brain, and some fraction of that will affect personality. Thought and feeling, and as a
result expression, are most certainly affected to some degree by that fraction of a
fraction of active encoding genetics.

To what degree? The science generally points to nurture being the larger affector by
leaps and bounds (if ignoring a handful of studies, like the Norwegian Institute of
Public Health's twin study, that have very basic procedural problems, like not adequately
dealing with race or class).

And so we're to personality, but personality itself does not even necessarily decide on
artistic style. I would maintain that just as often one's personality will be the opposite of the personality of their art.

I grew up the oldest of seven, and thus was always surrounded by young children, and
young children's art. I don't think it is a coincidence that today my artwork leans towards a childish buoyancy, which those who know me will attest is very much missing from my day-to-day personality. My mother nicknamed me "Law and Order" when I was a child, yet my artwork is much closer to a Quentin Blake-esque sprezzatura than the rigidity of my personality would suggest.

Take, opposite myself, the late Andrew Wyeth who had an exceptionality lighthearted childish personality even in his old age, and yet makes incredibly dry and serious images.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it is slightly dangerous to overplay into the ideas of genetics, and therefore talent, even when talking about style. Style can change. Style can be designed quite purposefully. To point to genetics lends itself to a type of hero-by-birth worship, which is the child of anti-intellectualism and more importantly, anti-work.

kev ferrara said...

Richard, I agree that consideration of experience over the long term can yield insights for the artist. But only in making art, year after year, does one realize what your art requires of your experience, and the extent to which, and by what means, your art may portray and express that experience.

It's important to note that genetic abnormalities are almost always negative, not positive, to a human's well-being. Beneficial genes will generally express themselves, so, it would simply not make sense for their to be latent artistic talent genes that are by and large not expressed except in the occasional person.

Richard, that sounds like the ideology of “everybody is born as talented as everybody else.” But experience flies in the face of such feel-good notions.

Let us postulate (provisionally) that talent is the sensitivity to unsconsiously notice similarities among different things, and differences among similars and to be able to express such comparisons in the form of fictions. That is, to communicate metaphysical relations in the context of a believable artificial reality created of mere symbols.

In order for your thesis to be so, all human beings would be born with the exact same capacity to:

kev ferrara said...

1. ) Notice metaphysical relations. (That is, each is born with absolutely equal capacity to recieve information as percepts, transform percepts into concepts, and absolutely equal capacity to correlate/anticorrelate these concepts in terms of their symbolic qualia.)

2.) Express conceptualized metaphysical relations to other human beings. (To communicate, basically)

3.) Inhabit a belief in their own fictions, to “live” in their waking dreams.

4.) Foster belief in an audience in their performed/acted fictions.

5.) Do 1 through 4 inclusively: Both notice metaphysical relations AND express these metaphysical relations through believable fictions of their own creation with sufficient conviction and realism to hold an audience in a suspension of disbelief until the communication exhuasts itself.

If you accept that there might even be slight differences in the innate abilities of two different people in these perceptual, conceptual, creative, and performative capacities, you essentially accept that among any group of people there will be the person who was born with the most capacity for such mental gymnastics, and the person who has the least. Thus you also accept that for any group some such uneven distribution of “innate talent” will hold. And by common sense most people will fall within the middle “bell” of the bell curve distribution, with exceptionally talented people and exceptionally untalented people manning the tapering ends of the curve.

Singling out the top of the bell curve of “innate talent” as due to “genetic abnormality” misses the point that the difference between the innate capacity for “talent” of the people in the 25th and 26th percentiles would also be due to “genetic abnormality.” There is nothing abnormal about genetic abnormality. We are all of us different, genetically.

Aside from genetic variation, what about simple anatomic variation? Peoples brains aren’t the same anatomically. Nobody’s is. From birth. This is as simple to prove by analogy as reminding you that no two human beings have the same fingerprint.

kev ferrara said...


Don’t presume to know Andrew Wyeth’s personality from what some handful of interviews in print or on camera lead you to believe. Also don’t presume to know Andrew Wyeth’s childhood from some handful of stories you’ve read.

Finally, don’t presume that just because Andrew Wyeth’s work has a lot of dead grass, dead leaves, and abandoned houses, that he isn’t having fun with his art. That he isn’t having fun spooking out the quilting ladies or confounding his critics. There are many stories of artists cackling with glee at the thought of their audience being horrified and thrilled by their fictions. There are many different shows a showman might put on.

chris bennett said...

Al McLuckie: Chris , really enjoyed the art on your site!

Thanks Al, That's very kind of you to say. I'll try and get hold of a copy of "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own".

I believe that the only immutable consensus by which we relate to art is found in how it transposes our interpretation of the meaning of our world in terms of our own bodies.
The counter argument to the Post Modern relativistic dogma.

Ian Schoenherr said...

One more little boat, in case you haven't seen this one:

David Apatoff said...

Ian Schoenherr-- Thanks for your Pyle entry, always happy to see another picture by Pyle. I actually considered including a different Pyle painting of men in a small boat ( which could well be the single greatest book illustration of the modern era, but it has already received so much exposure, and I try to show pictures here that deserve more attention than they get.

By the way, thank you for your excellent blog about Pyle. I read it regularly.