Thursday, September 04, 2014



The ancient Greeks lived in a world of danger and unrest that make our own exciting headlines look tame by comparison.  They created artistic masterpieces in the midst of prolonged wars and invasions, plague, political chaos, coups, and the scheming of scoundrels.  No wonder Thucydides wrote, "You could sum up Athens by saying they were born never to live in peace and quiet."

The Greeks were forced to become warrior-poets; their ideals of beauty and virtue had to withstand almost daily bloodshed and death.  Yet they set a world standard for sophisticated, delicate beauty.   They were the first to dream there was such a thing as "perfect" beauty out there waiting to be achieved.

Which brings me to the lovely drawing on the urn above.  (Actually, the "one" drawing has two sides):

There are tugboats full of scholarship about Greek vase painting-- its evolution, its subject matter, its historical significance, its master painters, etc. .  People have strong feelings on the subject (as became obvious in the comments to last week's post about the Provensens).  I won't try to deal with that material here, but perhaps there's room to say one small and pure thing about this small and pure drawing.

There are urns with complex and violent drawings of mythological figures or wild animals. Many are cluttered with layers of decorative geometric patterns.  But personally I prefer the serenity and simplicity of this exquisite design. 


Look at what the artist did with just two colors: that black slip negative space makes the glowing abstract shape of the figure dominate, far beyond what those descriptive lines contribute.  The artist also had to unify the flat drawing with the rounded vase design, and did so with grace, restraint and confidence.

For me, this is the real heroism of Greek drawing-- not pictures of Achilles bashing his enemies.  In a violent world, the Greeks explored proportion and balance and composition looking for "ideal" beauty.  They groped their way toward the "golden ratio" and built classical archetypes for us.

The renowned scholar Herbert Read makes a respectable case that the ancient Greek synthesis of  human activity with formal beauty first introduced humanism to the world.


Anonymous said...

Elegant and exquisite.

Great post David.

MORAN said...

This doesn't look like Neal Adams drawings. It's more a flat design. A pictures worth a thousand words.

Laurence John said...

Moran, you've missed the point of Tom's last comment (in David's previous post) if you only see flat design.

docnad said...

I think the paintings are placed too high on the vase. Having the figures's heads up on the shoulder of the vase creates a situation where the heads--and the helmet--appear too foreshortened when viewed from the side. It might help to view the piece from higher up, but the truth is I don't think there's a perfect viewing angle here. The urn is the wrong shape for the painting. Think of how much better it would look if the mane of the helmet could hang straight down the side of the urn.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Yeah, ain't they something? A few weeks ago we were talking here about how important it is for an artist to know when to stop. One way I think this artist makes the drawing "elegant and exquisite" is by carefully choosing his mark, applying it gracefully, then knowing enough to leave it alone.

Laurence John and MORAN-- I'm going to need some additional help from Tom and Laurence John if I'm going to understand this point about volume and Neal Adams. I appreciate that these drawings displayed "volume" because we can see fingers wrapped around an object, or a limb in the foreground blocking a limb in the background, or the folds in a garment curling around the form underneath. That's all fine, a lovely innovation made possible in part because of increased sensibilities and in part because of technological enhancements, as the Greeks no longer had to incise their lines in black slip, but could paint them more expressively.

However, I am still struggling with Tom's point that the Greeks were focusing on drawing "volume" rather than on abstract design. Tom wrote, "I wasn't saying the Greeks were drawing more accurately I was trying to say what is emphasized in their work, what part of reality was given importance and value." For me, the "emphasis" of this picture is primarily on the outline of the figure, the composition created where positive and negative space meet.

In any image, our eye naturally gravitates first to the places of starkest contrast. Here, the artist orchestrated the highest possible contrast between that black slip background and that glowing figure. It's all we see as we approach the picture, and I only begin to notice those subtle lines describing volume after I have picked myself up off the floor from that knockout shape. If you asked me what I thought the artist considered "important," I'd look at all the effort involved in carefully painting that dense black background around the figure (if the picture was all about the descriptive line, why not leave the background red and simply draw on it?) I'd also look at the artist's restraint in avoiding anything that might distract from a dramatic confrontation between the positive and negative space-- no extraneous details or background shapes, no soft or blended edges, no lines that extend beyond the figure into the domain of the black background. For me, this puts the abstract shape in the spotlight. The silhouette of that long feathered crest on the helmet means far more to me than the the volumizing lines painted on it. Perhaps your reaction is different.

docnad-- I think distortions are inevitable when we flatten a 3D image into a 2D image. Our mind has to adjust for the curve (just as the artist had to adjust for drawing on a curved surface originally). If you had the urn in your lap, the heads might not appear too foreshortened. For me, it is very intentional that the swell of the urn coincides with the most important content of the drawing-- the head and shoulders of the figure, the helmet (just the way you would center an emblem on a human chest rather than on a knee). Think how awkward it would look if the figure's feet were drawn on the most prominently projecting part of the urn. For me, this urn was fashioned by someone who spent a fair amount of time studying the forms of nature-- the chest, the shoulders, the hips-- and picking the elements that worked for him.

Tom said...

Sorry David swamped with work.  That's a beautiful vase!
I wasn't disparaging the Provensens.   I just feel the comparison to a Greek vase ring false. The arrangement or composition of their figures  on the page is nice.  

Laurence's comparison on the pervious post gets to the heart of the matter.  One thinks spatial or one thinks flat.  It is almost the same point you made about Arp and Cornwell in one of your pervious posts. Cronwell shapes are a product of thinking dimensionally.  One could never draw those Greek figures with much conviction using negative space or a Betty Edwards drawing method.

Delacroix said the classical artist captures form by their centers. Don't you see a line of thought, or a way of doing things in drawing that extends from Michealanglo to Burne Hograth and back to Greece?  I am not making any judgement about quality, I just talking about the way of doing things.

It would be great to put the Proverson's drawing ofthe two warriors dierctly next to the figure on the vase you just posted.  Their lack of strength would be more keenly felt.

I will try to say a little more later.
Thanks for the post.

kev ferrara said...

This is nice decorative work, elegant in its simplicity. Amazing how many deep design principles were known so long ago.

I presume these were meant to be placed on the floor. So that, for the average passer-by looking down at the images at about a 45 degree angle, the distortions of the side view seen here wouldn't be so pronounced.

Tom said...

I did not mean to imply strength as violence, but in the sense of  something well put together, a well made thing, fully conceived and independently standing  Some of the strongest painters caress their forms with the gentlest touch, like Rubens drawings of his children.

I agree the black background makes the figure glow. (Black and orange like Halloween).  I agree the whole figure is what is important, it is what the painting is about, the bodies beautiful rhythm.  The figures pop  like the painted sculptures of the Parthenon. The contrast and sharpness of a bright clear day. The contrast brings you in for a closer look, and in the closer look the clarity is maintained, the clarity of the parts matches the clarity of the whole. Everything tends toward sharpness.  Didn't Ingres greatly admire Greek vase painting? Atmosphere doesn't seem to have any reality.

Even if your not that interested in the interior lines of the figure, the interior volumes are still responsible for the shape of the silhouette.  And the interior development is what makes it so much more satisfying then those 19th century black paper silhouette profiles.  And my eye doesn't freeze on the contour like you are describing I feel the presence of a whole being when I look at the figures, including it's internal arrangement.

Just look at the back end of the helmet where the concave armor meets the plume of horse hair; the snake head negative shape it creates is a product of beautifully  concieved  positive forms. And as all bodies are subject to gravity look how the rhythm of the falling hair keeps S curving across an unseen vertical line. Is there any doubt in your mind that the helmet is convex and round, although there is not a single cross contour drawn on it?

The figures rib cage and gluts breath outward with the same convex volumes. And all these volumes combined together make the drawing of such a beautiful silhouette possible.  Like Laurence said about Disney, they draw with volumes and yet they where obsessed with silhouette.

Thinking in terms of convex volumes is abstract design.  The aspect  of reality,  given importance and value by the Greek painters is the solidity of the human body. The emphasis of the work is the volumetric nature of the physical body and so he conceives his picture in terms of volumes.

Without the shape of the contour of the vase  all that black would be monotonous.  The black not only brings out the silhouette of the figure but it also brings out the body  and the silhoutte of the vase.

Look at the back of the neck in the Neal Adams drawing in your early post.  See how the muscles rise and fall like cylindrical waves back into space one after another, or like the folds in an accordion. Isn't it similar in conception in the cloth  on the backside of the figure holding the helmet? If you where to run your hand across either surface  it would rise fall from the top of the hill and back down into the valley before rising again.

Now lots of people use brushes to paint pictures but not everyone turns their brush strokes around a form.  That is much more a product of outlook then technology.  

As far as Gods and superheros, they have great power, as far as abstract design, volumes have great power, it is only natural that the two would work together.

Laurence John said...

David: "For me, the "emphasis" of this picture is primarily on the outline of the figure, the composition created where positive and negative space meet"

"The silhouette of that long feathered crest on the helmet means far more to me than the the volumizing lines painted on it."

David, you seem hung up on the amount of black background, which creates a stark silhouette of the figure's outline.
if the figure had a highlight side and some shadows added to reinforce the fabric folds would it still be 'flat design' ?

have a look at this page by Giordino you only see 'flat design' or do you see figures with volume, despite the flat colour and lack of highlight and shadow ?

look at these sketches by Toth

...are they 'flat design' or are they shorthand descriptions of volume encased in line, without rendering the volume in terms of highlight and shadow ?

when i look at the top right one of the woman's breasts, i 'see' the volume and weight of the breasts even though there's no illusion of volume in terms of shading.

same with the figures on the vase, black background or not.

Anonymous said...

The vase is meant to be taken both ways.

There is no "emphasis", there is a work that is both easily consumable silhouetted design for daily decorative use, but also a complete drawing upon closer inspection.

The Provensens' work is the weaker of the two, without a doubt, but not because it doesn't have volumetric content. Pure design can be just as sublime as art.

The Provensens' work is lesser because the design itself is weak.


kev ferrara said...

The vase is meant to be taken both ways. There is no "emphasis"...

Translates as: No entiendo epistemología

Anonymous said...

I don't speak a lot of Spanish, but; Usted es un hombre miserable y poco.



kev ferrara said...

Richard, you are the most consistently unwise (yet intelligent) poster I've ever come across on the internet. Your errors have been legion, you never admit any of them, you simply leap to the next contention, and then when somebody points this out, you go for a personal attack. That makes you the "little man" not me, bro.

Just in the post I responded to above you made a wild claim (clearly the vase does not read properly when the heads are bent out of sight), and you spoke it with absolute authority ("the vase is meant to be taken both ways.") "Meant?" Really? So you know what a designer 2000 years ago meant to do?

Nope. No you don't. Epistemology 101.

So my crit of you as having no sense of epistemology is SPOT ON. As a poster, not as a human being because I don't know how you are in life, but as a poster, you are consistent in your lack of appreciation for epistemology.

Now you can get offended by this, as is your usual habit, or you can learn to be less annoying and more circumspect.

To add, now and again, "I think" or "maybe" to your most current surety is very very simple matter to do.

kev ferrara said...


Thanks for those links.

I was really struck by the almost offhand way that Giordino captured that jumpsuit. And of course, Toth is masterful beyond belief. I completely agree with what you were saying about how he is capturing depth with nothing more than line. A world apart from the flat greek vase designs.

kev ferrara said...


Surely you don't think that these Greek figural designs come even close to capturing the volume that Toth captures in his simple line drawings that Laurence linked to?

Overall, I can't agree that these decorations have all that much more volume encoded into them than the Provensens's work does. I think they have a surer sense of classical beauty and repose, and that's the real difference.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I can see how my always being sure and not apologizing for my mistaken claims after having been sure about them could get annoying. Especially after a few years. So let me take the opportunity now to man up to that. Hard for me to say, but, I do apologize. And I'll do my best to be a little bit more aware of that tendency going forward. I'm just trying to enjoy myself here and sometimes I get carried away with my enthusiasm for an idea I get. Happens.


docnad said...



Patrick said...

Wow, Richard you just leveled up in my book with that apology. That's the real deal.

Laurence John said...

Kev, i wouldn't say that the Greek figures have as much volume 'encoded' in them as the Toth drawings. i was pushing the point to the extreme with that comparison.

they are also full of physical distortions, cartoony facial features, and weightless poses, which gives them a kind of jointed 'doll-like' quality.

i would say that they have WAY more volume than the Provensen's work though, which look to me, as if they were conceived almost entirely
as solid silhouettes then had some flat eyes, and patterns added.

kev ferrara said...

They are also full of physical distortions, cartoony facial features, and weightless poses, which gives them a kind of jointed 'doll-like' quality.

By "they" I'm assuming you are referring to the Greek figures.

I agree that the Provensen's work seems conceived as solid silhouettes. They seem very cartoony to me compared to the Greek, almost Saturday Morning Cartoon-cartoony... like Hannah-Barbera. Whereas the Greek images have passing nods to muscular tension, gestural realism, and the pull of gravity upon a variety of drapery fold types.

Tom said...

Richard said
"The Provensens' work is lesser because the design itself is weak." Then tell me how and why the Greek design is better.

My point is the of the design of the  Provensens' is weaker because they did not think in terms of volumes. That is what makes their work weaker.  One thinks in terms of volume so one can design. How do you separate design from the depth of space?

"Surely you don't think that these Greek figural designs come even close to capturing the volume that Toth captures in his simple line drawings that Laurence linked to?"
All I am talking about is how they conceived their design how they thought about reality.   The relative use of volume throughout art history, weather one artist expresses  more  or less volumes in their work that seems beside the point as we are then only talking about the relativity of something then.

 The insistence of the vertical  weight of gravity in the Greek painting is not felt in the Toth drawings.  The Greek painter also does not seem to want to disrupt the surface of the vase by his volumes.  Tooth seems to be drawing for a canvas space. 

I think Laurence's response gets it right.  Also the Toth line doesn't feel as if it is under the influence of the  same sort of forces that the the Greek painter's is IMHO.

kev ferrara said...

One thinks in terms of volume so one can design. How do you separate design from the depth of space?

There are many ways of thinking about design. A concern for depth of space is not included in all methods.

This goes back to what I was saying last time out; that there are modes of visual design that adhere only to the plane, or only exist as line. (One might say that text writing is only about the concept, and so has no visual aesthetic dimension at all.)

I agree that toth isn't particularly concerned with gravity in that linked sketch page, more like the balloon-like quality of plump flesh. Which he seems to have been interested in, as a visual theme, as he doodled the page. You can see gravity, and just about any other force possible to evoke, in other of his works.

Richard said...

Haha, sorry Patrick & docnad, that apology wasn't mine, it was the work of an internet imp.

Kev, I've responded to that particular complaint of yours before, but I guess it bears repeating. I don't write "I think" or "I believe", because if I've written something it generally implies it is a belief of mine. Think of it as an extension of Strunk & White's "Put statements in positive form" and "Omit needless words". If my writing style, as a result, sounds in some way immodest to you, that is the result (I think, maybe) of your own internal voice, not something inherent to my style.

"Pity the world, or else this glutton be, I think,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee, maybe."

Tom sez "How do you separate design from the depth of space?"

What is typographic design in your vision of the world?

kev ferrara said...


Strunk and White, in the very book you pretend to be versed in, constantly distinguish between rules, principles, common usage, preference, and opinion. And if they give preferences or opinions, they either provide their reasoning or cite the authority they are following, whether person, publication, institution or what have you.

So, given the above fact, do you really think that Strunk and White mean by "put statements in positive form" and "omit needless words" that they are speaking about the distinctions they themselves are taking care to note as they provide the information in their book?

Tom said...

I did not even think of typographic design. So I guess that is flat design. Although lots of letters have been cut into stone and and the Chinese move their brush toward and away from the paper when writing their characters.

But you still have't told us why or how the Greek design is better.

And here is an old smiling face wisdom, you talked about in a pervious post.

Tom said...

Heck even all the type the printers used to measure out with pica rulers where solid and dimensional like the tyoebars on a typewriter.

Aleš said...

David and Tom, I enjoyed your debate in the last two posts. Can you two recommend a book about Greek vase art that holds good photos of narrative drawings like the one in this post?

Sean Farrell said...

As a lover of line, the last three posts have been a pleasure; Toth, Giordino, the contour, Provensens, Adams and comments, all great stuff.

The Provensens' style unites the movements of different figures, sometimes with a continuity of movement going through the figures. In one image, two warriors wrestle with a long stick connecting the two pages as a longer movement careens over them. In others, movement is formed by two interacting figures, or horns, etc. The Athenian vases, like those on the Metropolitan Museum website, also use movement between figures to unify the designs, which isn't readily apparent in the two single figures on this vase.

The two figures on the vase are united by the stylistic consistency in the lines of the gently falling folds, anatomy, etc. The more realistic proportions and accurate anatomical references, which Tom describes leaves the work of the Provensens looking almost silly by comparison, but of course they were never meant to be compared and were meant to make the learning of new words an interesting experience.

The Provinsens' illustrations are truly wonderful and as an adult I greatly admire them, but as a young person I can recall feeling cheated by stylistic affectations which interfered with getting lost in a sense of space or place. Exactly how much reality creates a sense of place, or when style interferes with that sense of place might be a tricky thing to define, but I think a younger person does sense the difference.

Richard said...

Tom -- "But you still haven't told us why or how the Greek design is better."

It’s difficult to be exacting in a comparison, because the problem of designing in a rectangular panel is so unlike the problem of designing a free-floating figure on a black vase, but anyway...

So… the Provensens’ figures feel unbalanced, beyond the point of expressing exaggerated action, to the point of limpness (the man on horseback, the warring figures), and generally, wherever the anatomy is exaggerated it doesn’t seem to be toward any aesthetic benefit (particularly egregious with those god-awful hands).

They’re not using value to separate objects, often relying on chroma alone (the horse and rider are the same value, most of the warring figures are the same value, the rock in the river) which makes for illegible images.

When they do use value, it seems without sense, often putting the greatest value contrasts between objects of little importance to the image. E.g. the background trees and building in the river picture, the back side of the rider’s saddle is heavily accented for no reason, etc.

Texture is used indiscriminately, toward no great effect other than to make the images less readable, which for a children’s book is inexcusable.

The colors are all of roughly the same level of desaturation, which in most cases would be unfortunate, but here is actually almost positive, because if they were more saturated, it would become more obvious how senseless the palette choices were to begin with.

Figures veer off in directions that kill the flow of the page.

Scenes are set thoughtlessly, e.g. there is no good excuse I can see for the archer in the herald to be facing away from the legionnaire. Are they in battle? What are they even doing?

The Greek design succeeds where the Provensens’ fails no so much by doing those things better, but by not doing them at all. Where the Provensens’ work makes a mess of texture, the Greek removes it entirely. Where the Provensen’s fail at value, the Greek removes value from the equation. Where the Provensen’s fail at framing their figures, the Greek removes the frame, or rather, makes the frame the vessel’s silhouette. Where the Provensens’ fail in the exaggeration of anatomy, the Greek leaves the anatomy to speak for itself.

Sorry I can’t be more thorough, lunch is over. Cheers.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence John said...

full marks Richard.

one day i'm going to do a similar trashing of Bob Peak.

Sean Farrell said...

Richard, you've made some valid and interesting points. I was also wondering why the woman's hair was so close to the edge on the right side in the image of the three women and the man by the river. Then I recalled that David said they both learned their trade at Hollywood animation studios, one being Disney.

Donald Graham was a major influence as a teacher at Disney. It would account for the use of darks as foils, as points to draw attention around in a radiating way. The larger opened areas and texture as passage moving through negative spaces would also be part of Graham's thinking. Using the edge as tension points may have accounted for the hair I mentioned earlier and this too was part of Graham's non-geocentric picture making. That is, the pictures didn't rotate off the center point but would be joined by tension to some edge or edges. The tilting figures came from cubism as taught by Graham as well.

In short, Graham was interested in the disturbance as a design element. If Martin learned from Graham then such unorthodox approaches would have been intentional.

kev ferrara said...


Style points.

As for your content points, I disagree mostly. The Provensens are not exaggerating, but stylizing, and all over the place and in every facet of their work. Critiquing their drawing makes little sense in this light. The crudity is the style. The pattern is the point. Saying you don't like the style because it takes too many drawing liberties is fine. But saying the drawing is awful is like saying a sushi chef is bad because you don't like fish.

The stylized action seems quite successful to me; The feeling of unbalance and shape-tugging is the key to what they are doing. There is a deliberate crudity to the way the figures are being composed, all in keeping with the angularity of the style. Value massing is a common compositional tool, so hard to crit that. Texture is used all over the place to evoke age, sand, time, celebration, and dust. All quite sensibly and effectively, as I find it anyway. The colors seem to me to be also chosen for evocative effect, to feel regal, ancient and distant equally (thus the golds and faded purples).


Forgive me, but I think Donald Graham was a fraud. His work is terrible and I think his (highly sought after) book on composition is mostly sophistry. (His analyzations of compositional forces are constantly in error. Which is not surprising given that his training in art was practically nil. Just a bunch of rationalizing and book reading.) So it is hard for me to let your generosity toward his ideas (you've listed none that originate with him, btw.) above go unchecked. As well, crediting Cubism with tilted figures is ahistorical. And geocentrism, per se, well, I don't even understand why you are talking about that. Are you trying to suggest that geocentrism was some kind of dominant pictorial philosophy?

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I was pointing out that Graham was an influence on Disney artists and Martin Provensen was a Disney artist. After looking at more work by the Provensens, the disturbance as design element aspect of Graham's teaching appears consistent in their work. The generous use of tilted figures and objects in their work is characteristic of Graham's teaching on tilting and shifting movement which he explained with examples of cubism among others and Richard did observe this and other valid curiosities of style which may have had as their influence this teacher to Disney's artists.

I mentioned geocentrism because it was something Graham specifically referenced in comparison to Malevich and it came to mind when observing the woman's hair so close to the edge which I found a little odd.

Graham was speaking as a teacher, not an originator and yes his book has things in it I don't agree with either, but if his work was of no value, or fraudulent intent, then the people at Disney were very good at fooling themselves and everyone else. Whichever is true, his teaching may have influenced the Provensens given the coincidences. Thanks.

kev ferrara said...


Donald W. Graham taught drawing for a while at Disney, station points for draping cloth, keeping solidity, and some stuff about animating action, but not pictorial composition by any account. The material he was teaching was stuff he picked up from his teachers in California and the senior animators at Disney, plus some analysis of his own. Graham was at Disney for a short time, with some overlap from when Martin Provensen was there as a very young man. Maybe Martin Provensen took a few drawing pointers from Graham at that time. Maybe.

Composing Pictures is a book published in 1970, which Graham spent 4 years writing, researching, and drawing during the mid-late 1960s. The presumption that Graham taught the material from Composing Pictures, which he put together in the late 60s, in 1940 as part of drawing curriculum for neophyte animators is highly doubtful.

kev ferrara said...

Note: Wanted to clarify that I didn't mean that Graham was a fraud at teaching drawing to animators, but a fraud at understanding how to compose pictures.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, Thank you for the interesting information. The back of his book claims he taught hundreds of artists in the formative years of Disney and mostly professionals in a night class for 25 years thereafter.

His book doesn't actually teach composition as you know, but plucks out little visual phenomenon which can be used as one desires. I have no idea what he learned and shared up until 1966 when he began working on his book. But if he was teaching multiple station points in 1940, it's not hard to consider he might also have been teaching the multiple station points of cubism well before 1970.

Art and teaching is a small world and if the man had anything going for him across those years, it was going to get around, because the art markets of all kinds were filled with excitement for novelty and advantage. So the maybe may have a bit more stretch to it than being a remote possibility.

kev ferrara said...

Martin Provensen is at Disney for a short while, 1937 to 1941, then moves to D.C. (out of Graham's orbit), then to upstate NY. A small window for influence, not 25 years. A bio I just looked at said that Martin was in the Story Department, and was not an animator, fyi.

As I understand Graham's undertaking at Disney, the problem was that the animators were mostly commercially educated, and didn't really know how to draw. So we're talking basic functional anatomy, understanding volume/drawing around the form and through, getting the features to map correctly on a face being turned, how drapery demonstrates gesture, getting a feeling of weight, analyzing actions, etc.

The odds that Graham was teaching cubist techniques to Disney's animators must be zero, my friend. Walt Disney despised modern art, and cubist techniques would have had no practical value anyhow. (The "station points" I referenced are the points at which a the pipe of a fold begins to form as it falls off an anatomical volume. It is a drapery thing, not a perspective thing.)

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, Thanks for the information, good points.

The falling slants or angles are all over the Provensen's work. It's a major part of Graham's teaching in regard to movement. It's a visual devise applied to cartoons, hardly the remote formalism of modern art that Walt Disney would have despised. The multiple station points of falling drapery serve a non-traditional modern form of perspective used to increase a sense of volume.

It's not like the Provensens went to art school in Bangladesh. Disney is all over the Provensen's work and falling angles are also all over their work.

I admit it's possible that the influence might not have happened, or might not have happened directly, but you're saying it is very unlikely despite commentary claiming Graham had a real influence on animation.

We have different evaluations on this matter, just as a few feel the Provensen's work is wanting while you find it mostly successful. I greatly admire it, David loves it and thousands of librarians, teachers and millions of kids loved it too. Nobody has dethroned these books which are still on library shelves and read today. That speaks for itself and is pretty amazing. Does that mean that the comments of those who found the illustrations wanting are of no value? No, not at all, but it does mean that one answer may not be satisfactory for everyone. That's where we are on this matter.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- sorry to be rejoining the discussion late. The weekend has been a long time coming.

I appreciate your adding the Giordino and Toth images to the discussion; I do think they are helpful. For me, Giordino conveys volume using a variety of lines that are largely absent from the Greek vase. It is easiest to notice in Giordino's largest panel, where thicker lines on the undersides of those lapels and on the folds at the elbow create shadows and volume, while lighter lines fade into dots.

For me, the Toth drawing presents a slightly different case. If we look only at the tops of the two figures on the bottom left (say, from the breast up) Toth doesn't seem to convey volume at all; they come across as flat designs. It's only when he starts drawing those butts and thighs, and presses down harder for a wider line to communicate the swells, tapering off to nothing at the ends, that his lines create volume. Furthermore, his shapes contribute to the sense of volume by exaggerating those parts in a way that the Greek artist didn't. So I agree with you that Toth does not use "highlight and shadow" but he only achieves volume when he departs from the techniques of the vase painter.

None of this should come as a surprise; the Greek painting was done following centuries of purely geometric decorations and before the Greeks had learned the tricks of foreshortening and perspective and exaggeration that allow modern artists, employing subtler tools, to create volume with line.

I agree with Richard that the vase is not 100% flat design or descriptive drawing (Richard said it is "both easily consumable silhouetted design for daily decorative use, but also a complete drawing upon closer inspection.") It seems to me the Greek lines show early traces of those volume conventions but they are a lesser aspect of the total vase painting. I continue to think that the emphasis is "primarily" on the design, and that accurate descriptions of rounded volumes are sacrificed as necessary to make the design work.

I suppose it is possible that I'm "hung up on the amount of black background," but on the other hand it doesn't seem fair to the artist to ignore such an overwhelming choice made with such a clear dramatic effect. (ask
Robert Motherwell).

Tom said...

Now everything Laurence John and I  said is a design issue. You do not seem to look or maybe a better way to say it is feel your hand across the surface of a form. A line is  the farthest point of a mass, it's the outer boundary of a mass, the volume exists between the lines. Just like a plane is part of the surface of the mass.  

The mass is the design or it makes the design possible, because the mass carries the rhythm, the emotion and the effect.  Whether the artist uses light or shade or just line, doesn't really matter. If the volume is well conceived  you will know how to tone the volume  depending upon the direction of the light. And what is a shadow when it comes to drawing, expect a cross contour of the mass it rests upon.

 The restraint  or tautness the Greek expresses compared to the Toth drawing, is just that restraint.  Depths can be like mountain and valleys or the side of a piece of paper, the difference is only in measure.

Perspective and foreshortening are not tricks,they are a way to think about reality. It is amazing how few people can seat down and make a dimensional drawing of something they are thinking about.   It sounds like the kinda of thing your non drawing conceptual artist college professor says. The statement implies there is something much deeper to art then tricks.  And what is much deeper?  How an artist conceives their "designs?"

Here is another way to put it. You could make a scuplture of a well conceived drawing of the human body.  The greek paintings undulate across the surface of the vase. You could run a horizontal cross contour from left to right and your cross contour line would rise to the middle of the figures and then it would descend backdown to the further edge of the figure. In harmony with the surface of the vase,  like a relief sculpture.  One should not forget one's sense of touch. The rhythm runs across the surface not just along the drawn line. The figures head  profile look at each other and the extended arm of the figure holding the helmet directs your eye around the surface of the vase. All is in harmony, all is calm and not overwrought with excessive personal emotion.

The bodies are like the flex surfaces of today's cars. The way a car door raises in the middle as it surface descends from the bottom of the window back down to the bottom the car's carriage. Or like the leaves on plants and trees who's curves express their own inner aspirations and their response to the forces that exist outside them.

The  horizontal ground plane under both figures and their insistence of the vertical through both figures implies a "mind sense," that thinks architecturally and of stability.  A world of volumes that are subject to  forces outside themselves like gravity.

  My examples about the thumb, the thickness of the body where not use as an expression of being more "realistic'" but as expressions of what these artist found beautiful about "form."

The Provensens  at best only have a passing  interested in "form", they are much more concerned with invoking some vague emotional mindset about the past in some simple and acceptable "contemporary  1950's style," then in the specificity of "form."

You wrote, "Does that mean that the comments of those who found the illustrations wanting are of no value"

I don't think that was the point, what I found of little value was comparing the 
Provensens art work to the work of Greek vase painters.

By the way the Degas linked you posted a while back of the two dancers was really  beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Now everything Laurence John and I said is a design issue.

Nonsense. After several posts all you've been able to articulate is that you value rendering of sculptural form and anatomy to such a degree that you can't notice anything else, a la classical realism.

Sean Farrell said...

There was value in the implicit comparison of the two posts and it did ignite your explanation of form, which you did very well. Also, thanks for visiting the Degas post and your compliment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Any kind of comparison forces one to take a more intimate look at something, even when the comparison seem senseless. A passionate assertion, whether right or wrong, can also get things going. I look forward to that thrashing of Bob Peak by Laurence John if it should ever happen. It sounds like an engaging one.

Kev's challenge to my assertion that Graham may have influenced the Provensens made me read Graham's biography and see as I hadn't before, the connection of his teachings to the development of animation, which he was awarded posthumously an Annie Award, animation's highest award. It didn't help me in my assertion, but it was beneficial to look more closely at something just the same.

It's all good, if there's a willingness to learn stuff.

Laurence John said...

David, i won't labour the point, but i don't believe those tapering line-weights are doing as much to convey volume as you do.

i agree that tapering line is useful for suggesting where a raised edge fizzles out, or which side is the highlight side, but in those Toth examples, he avoids
loads of opportunities for line variation.

here's a drawing with varied line weight but the volume is much harder to 'read'. what exactly would these characters look like from the side ?
we can make a guess, but we can't feel really sure because we're not familiar with their specific shapes.

in the Toth drawings i think we 'see' volume because the interlocking shapes accurately correspond to those we recognise from real life and our imagination 'fills in' the volume (literally).

i would suggest that the line is simply encasing a volume which we recognise immediately as 'believable' or not.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: After writing my last note I took a peek at Graham's drawings which were like Kryptonite.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "When [the Provensens] use value, it seems without sense.... Texture is used indiscriminately.... Figures veer off in directions that kill the flow of the page."

I would say that some of the factors you describe are only "without sense" when it comes to describing content with western conventions, but on the other hand they seem to make good design sense. Figures may "veer off," but that was not unusual in the late 50s and 60s when illustrators such as Austin Briggs, Bob Peak and others would place central figures way off in the corner at extreme angles, cropping off key body parts (and the way that Phil Hale today crops off heads of central figures, to good effect.) I don't have a problem with that look, especially when the Provensens are combining it with the historically stiff, flat look of much of the figurative art from that ancient period. I think it is an interesting, worthwhile combination of styles, and I am glad they are offering children more than the traditional pablum. (So many of the best children's book illustrators, such as Sendak or Ungerer, don't make concessions to childish taste.)

You also note, "Where the Provensen’s fail at framing their figures, the Greek removes the frame, or rather, makes the frame the vessel’s silhouette." I think the Greeks had a different task when framing the figure because (unlike the Provensens, Briggs, Peak and Hale) they weren't trying to come up with something new after 2,500 years of artists developed conventions for framing the figure in millions of pictures. The Greeks were trying to get it right for the first time, like striking the perfect note on some long ago lute.

With one isolated figure starkly contrasted against a black background, they had just one shot to get it right. There was no fudging or evasion or dissembling with backgrounds or blending. To me, it was like the zen of a Barnett Newman stripe, you got it right or wrong, but if you misplaced it there was no way to cover your footprints. And oh brother, did those Greeks get it right.

Laurence John-- I'll be interested to read your treatment of Peak when that day comes. For me, he didn't care enough about the drawing part of his job to draw well consistently (which is a shame, because he did some superb drawing early in his career). As an innovator designer, he was hugely influential but I always felt let down by his later movie posters. I find him an erratic, frustrating, but significant artist.

Sean Farrell-- I don't have a problem with the woman's hair being so close to the edge of the picture, for the design reasons stated above. Rockwell or Rembrandt would not handle it that way, but the Provensens were trying for something different. For me, it's a good counterbalance to the distinctive red hair of Ulysses, showing the women recoiling.

I don't know Graham's work, but I have enjoyed learning about him through this discussion.

kev ferrara said...


Donald W. Graham understood that there is a language of art, but he just didn't have the stuff to investigate it himself. Where a Tytla or a Babbitt could lay the graphic forces bare so anyone could see them plain as day, (squash, stretch, tension, action follow-through, timing, etc) Graham could appreciate them profoundly, and then teach them. Where he had to investigate these forces on his own, without real talent and hard-won mastery of craft, he was mostly hopeless.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, thanks for the references to Bill Tytla and Art Babbit and your all your thoughts in this conversation.

David, I was also thinking on the purposes of the hair close to the edge and agree with your observation.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: Kev, I hope my short answer didn't lead you to think I was being patronizing. I have been thinking a lot about your comments over the last week.

I find this whole thing perplexing because multiple station points must have been unorthodox for the time in a commercial setting. It is similar to the large dark background shadows used in fashion drawings or more closely to the reverse perspective that Hockney did with his polaroids. They each share the same principle of reversing the large to small movement, forcing the eye forward rather than into space with perspective as we move through space from large to small. A zoom lens also has a similar effect of forcing the background upon the foreground and is very effective when for example, shooting a dragster coming toward one, as you know.

The notion that large empty areas recede while smaller activity comes forward is the opposite of the principle just mentioned and yet Graham presents this in terms of active and medial (passive). He does so without distinguishing it from the multiple station points principle which he leaves as a separate subject of volume. Such makes the book difficult and I wouldn't recommend his book to a young person for this reason. Principles with multiple or reversible uses and effects are presented without context or explanation of their opposites.

The tension of close but not touching is a basic principle learned in art school with Michelangelo's God and Adam nearly touching fingers. In Graham's book, the picture plane is given its non-geocentricism as he referred to it, by showing the gravitational pull of the tension points of a sphere to the edge of the picture. A young student is generally taught to beware of the close but not touching tension in designing their images and that is why the unusual use of the hair to the edge in the Provensens piece struck me. The Provensens did have a design reason for doing so as David said and it was unorthodox which reminded me of the Graham lesson.

Degas also did things we were taught not to do in art school, such as place objects from different depths of space together forming an ambiguous seam, but he did so intentionally forming a novel hinge like movement. Trying to explain such to a beginner would result in some very unusual designs.

I find Graham's descriptions in his book convoluted and separate from what one might call first principles. Some parts are incomprehensible to me, but there are examples on volume verses graphic area which are interesting and unique, and basic things like overlays which are immediately useful. The book might have been better titled, Explorations of Volume and Graphic Space. Anyone buying a book with a such a title would expect to be tortured and confused going into it.

kev ferrara said...

The book might have been better titled, Explorations of Volume and Graphic Space. Anyone buying a book with a such a title would expect to be tortured and confused going into it.

Haha! That's great, Sean. That would be perfect.

I'm a Brandywine illustration lover/researcher, and the amount of interesting and peculiar effects one sees in the Pyle legacy is off the charts. Every good picture in the tradition is unique and strange in some aspect or another. But it all works because the principles were soundly understood; Pyle was a brilliant practical craftsman and compositional forces were no playthings to him, but were a serious part of both his art and his business. Graham was an amateur noodler and a professional egghead. So he had the luxury of fooling himself.


Sean Farrell said...

The difference between knowledge and wisdom. I have to look into Pyle's teaching. Thanks.

Tom said...

Etc etc said
Nonsense. After several posts all you've been able to articulate is that you value rendering of sculptural form and anatomy to such a degree that you can't notice anything else, a la classical realism.

All I have said is artists conceive and created shapes via volume. I am writing about the abstractions that make art possible. You can draped whatever style you want on it. But the only one who sees classical realism, (what ever that is) in what I said is you.

kev ferrara said...

That isn't correct Tom. Shapes are a more primary sensation than volume.