Monday, October 21, 2013


Vacationing in Italy, illustrator Bernie Fuchs was struck by these shadows on the wall of a building.  He took this photograph...

...which he later used as reference for this painting:

Fuchs squeezed colors into the painting that were nowhere in the original photograph:

The photo preserved important information, yet the special quality that Fuchs saw in the Italian light, and the hidden forms it revealed, did not come from a camera.  They only emerged after Fuchs digested the photographic information and began his painting. 

Fuchs was trained in traditional drawing and painting skills, without photographs. However, when he worked in a Detroit commercial art studio in the 1950s, he was visited by an illustrator from the famed Cooper Studios in New York who urged him to make more use of photography.  The illustrator explained that all the top illustrators in New York were now relying on photo reference to satisfy modern client demands.  He told Fuchs: "It makes no sense to paint the way you are doing it.  You'll never be able to keep up with the competition."  From that point on, Fuchs used his camera as a reference tool, especially in situations where he had no time to sketch or paint details:

Fuchs photographing President Kennedy in the oval office

Fuchs photographing the action at a sports events for Sports Illustrated
My work on the upcoming book on Fuchs has heightened my appreciation for how Fuchs used photo reference.  The parts of his paintings that mattered came from the artist, not the camera.

Note how Fuchs subsequently pushed those Italian shadows even further.  He uses them as a vehicle for meditations on color, value and design. 

In this final painting, the last residue of the photograph has been stretched and distorted.  The shadows on the building have been completely stylized. 

The old man hobbling off into the distance is Fuchs' invention.


MORAN said...

I didn't know he did landscapes.

chuck pyle said...

He did many, but I think the point is aesthetic: What Fuchs did with every surface, shape, and value to take it beyond simply representational into a complete and satisfying film of local color, temperature, and design that reinterpreted the view through the artist's eye, making it singular and beautiful, and very edited

Anonymous said...

People who don't like photo reference mostly aren't artists and don't know what matters in making a picture. There is good photo reference and bad photo reference.


Anonymous said...

"No one gives a fuck about Bernie Fuchs anymore."

- Commercial "artist", Sam Weber on his podcast

MORAN said...

I had to look up Sam Weber to see who the fuck he is. What a fucking joke.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for this book.

Donald Pittenger said...

I wonder how many of those color variations were Fuch's invention and how many had to do with his observation of other light-shadow patterns.

Did he ever explain this to anyone?

David Apatoff said...

MORAN--Yes, in later years he did hundreds of them. He developed a fascination for the Italian terrain.

Charles Pyle-- Yes, he really did. If you go back 40 years in his career, you can find some of the same aesthetic in the hoods of cars that you later see in Italian sunsets.

JSL-- I agree. So many of the people with an instinctive antipathy to photographs don't understand where the real challenges in picture making lie.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- If Sam Weber said that, I suppose a lot depends on what he meant by it. He could have been complaining, "there are a lot of ignorant children in the business who are only able to feel good about their pictures by blinding themselves to the accomplishments of their predecessors who built the field."

Anonymous 2-- I hope we're coming into the home stretch on the book.

Donald Pittenger-- I always wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of what Fuchs' eyes processed. I am guessing that he observed light-shadow patterns throughout life, and then pushed it up a few notches with inventions and exaggerations.

chris bennett said...

Fuchs was like some sort of wizard tailor to whichever photograph came under his consideration.

They would leave his studio wearing an enchanted suit that whoever saw it, recognised Fuchs's label instantly.

kev ferrara said...

Only a truly poetic soul could make work so dreamlike and emotive. I don't think any of his legions of imitators ever came close to Fuchs' depth of feeling.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett and Kev Ferrara-- I agree. I think all of the truly great illustrators were great in their own distinctive way. Each had a unique persona. And I think Fuchs' hallmark was exactly what you've said. His work wasn't the most daring or political or literary or best loved or intellectual or avant garde, but he was the Paul McCartney of the illustration field-- he found beautiful melodies in absolutely everything he touched, and I can't think of another illustrator who even comes close. He sustained that poetic, lyrical quality for 50 years, and his well never ran dry. During that period, beauty went in and out of fashion, and there were many artists who worked in a "deliberately ugly" style (some of whose work I quite enjoy). But after going back over 50 years of Fuchs' designs, I was struck by how timeless their beauty was, and how well they held up through all the fashion changes.

Constance said...

I've been following your blog for many years now and I learnt about Bernie Fuchs here. His works are so beautiful and like what others have said - poetic. Thank you so much for the posts and do hope that i'll be able to afford the book when it is ready. I think I've never commented here but Bernie Fuchs works made me do it :)

Matt Dicke said...

As always David Great blog. Love the process posts and add Fuchs to that mix and they become timeless. I hope you are adding this photo/finished art comparisons to the new book. would be great to see his process from the 60's to the 2000's. And the Sam Weber quote if I remember correctly was in the Tim O'brien interview from his podcast, your dreams my nightmares if you missed that one.

Anonymous said...

The actual quote, from Weber's interview with Connor Willumsen:

"...In the 1960's when Robert Crumb was eating canned soup and living in Cleveland, Bernie Fuchs was making a million dollars every year and now... no one except for illustrators gives a fuck about Bernie Fuchs and everyone loves Robert Crumb. So... there is a narrative at least in our culture that the suffering for what it is that you believe in early on does pay off down the road."

David Apatoff said...

Constance-- Thanks very much, I'm glad you stop by, and I appreciate your chiming in. I hope I'll hear from you again when the book comes out (if not sooner).

Matt Dicke--I'm glad you enjoy the process information. I do my best not to recycle published material here, and I share your view that the background process is sometimes very illuminating.

Anonymous-- I am traveling for a few days and not in a position to listen to the full podcast, but if the quote is as you describe, I believe I understand the point being raised, and it strikes me as an interesting and worthwhile one.

I think the questioner might have sounded a little less callow if he had phrased his question differently. When he said, "no one except for illustrators gives a fuck about Bernie Fuchs and everyone loves Robert Crumb," he obviously missed the half hour television show broadcast nationally in Japan this summer about Fuchs' fine art paintings, which continue to sell robustly in galleries in the US and overseas. Many of the patrons of those galleries would decline to wipe their butts with the work of R. Crumb for fear of contracting something nasty. Similarly, the questioner obviously did not read the newspapers and books in the US and Britain about how Fuchs' aesthetic was driving the current Mad Men craze, or the recent publications by car enthusiasts and sports enthusiasts overseas and in the US featuring Fuchs' work.

Perhaps the better way to phrase the question might have been, "In the limited circles in which I travel, no one except for illustrators gives a fuck about Bernie Fuchs and everyone loves Robert Crumb."

But the interesting part of the question remains: Fuchs' work clearly resonated in an era of dynamic expansion, while R. Crumb's work clearly resonated in an era of disintegration, where audiences enjoyed watching damaged human beings display their personal pain in shocking ways. It's difficult to claim that one style has now been vindicated over another, just as it's difficult to say that the classical beauty of the golden age of Greece was less "authentic" or "true" than the more explicit and scatological taste of Rome during its decline (where R. Crumb's focus on human depravity would be right at home.) Both have truths to offer, but the fact that we currently live in an era which delights in the latter should not delude us into thinking that we are witnessing the final verdict of history. The wheel continues to spin as empires rise and fall, and even the most decadent, cynical cultures may be replaced by fresh, optimistic taste.

My own view is that the admittedly huge audience for Crumb's work is just as juvenile and naive and blind to reality as the audience for Fuchs' 1950s women's magazine illustrations. I think a more interesting comparison of the two artists might start there.

Laurence John said...

the Crumb / Fuchs quote above doesn't really say anything illuminating about either of their careers.

the idea that every artist who 'suffers' will get some sort of later 'pay off' is clearly absurd.

it's true that Fuchs work is mainly appreciated by an illustration savvy audience and won't be recognised by the man in street, but equally true that Crumb's work doesn't appeal very far beyond the comics and counter culture crowd.

both artists do completely different things and i don't think it's helpful to pitch the two in a 'who's best' competition.

MORAN said...

Everyone loves the subject of Crumb's pictures and no one remembers the subject of Fuchs pictures which says nothing about the artists.

kenmeyerjr said...

I wonder if Sam meant that is is a shame that "no one cares...etc" Sam is an excellent artist, and I would be very surprised if he dismissed Fuchs truly.

Fuchs is a superstar for me and, David, don't you have a book on him coming out soon?

ken meyer jr

Anonymous said...

This was the last time an illustrator was invited to the White House.


Anonymous said...

I had the distinct pleasure of having Bernie visit my fourth grade classroom for a few years in Westport. I look forward to your book coming out.

Robert Hunt said...

I am quite sure that Sam was commenting on the nature of success in illustration, and about the audiences different types of work reach. Knowing Sam, I believe it is a misconception to think he was disrespecting Fuchs in any way, I think he was talking about the fleeting nature of institutional fame.