Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The illustrator Dean Cornwell was so damn good that when he painted a moonlit scene, he didn't need to show the moon, or the night sky, or any sky at all.

Instead, he was able to convey moonlight using his exquisite control over the hue of skin: 

And the reflections on those bracelets:

and even his treatment of shadow:

Photos courtesy of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration

Cornwell wasn't following any formula. You'll never find a tube of paint labeled "moonlight."  For a different approach, look at Frederick Remington's palette for moonlight:

 Another painter, William Metcalf, offers a third treatment:

But perhaps the most luminous painting I've ever seen is this illustration by N.C. Wyeth, at the Brandywine Museum in Pennsylvania:

Reproductions don't do it justice, but Wyeth treats light differently on the billowing sails, the water, and the sea spray.  

Contrast Wyeth's close, careful observation of the properties of light with the rough violence of that long horizontal scrape of a palette knife through thickly applied white paint:

 I think Wyeth's painting is nothing short of brilliant.

There's a lot of magic in that moonlight.

Saturday, February 13, 2016



I've never met an illustrator who didn't fantasize about being a fine artist.  (I have my own thoughts about whether this is a worthy ambition, but that's not today's topic.)

Very few illustrators go on to have careers as gallery painters. By the time they're finally able to pull it off, they're either too exhausted or too broke or too accustomed to accepting instructions from paying clients.  Perhaps they never had the backbone.  Perhaps they tried it and didn't like it.  (The illustrator Robert Fawcett was a successful gallery painter in NY who turned to commercial illustration because he found it less dishonest and vulgar than the Manhattan fine art scene.)

Mark English was one of the premier illustrators in America, beginning in the late 1960s.  He won numerous awards from his peers and had a huge influence on the field of illustration, working for all of the major publications such as McCallsTimeSports IllustratedRedbook, and Atlantic Monthly.

But in the 1990s, he made a change and began working as a fine artist.  Today his paintings are sold in a number of galleries internationally and his fine art has been compiled in books dedicated to his work.

It is interesting to note how his work changed when he was no longer answerable to a client or art director and was able to paint whatever he wanted, to his own personal standards.

For example, compare these two portraits, the first painted as an illustrator and the second painted as a fine artist: 

Clearly, English spent a great deal of time and effort developing the technical skill to paint realistically, but after hundreds of pictures, he no longer felt that such a skill was important for his work.  Instead, he chose to distill and simplify, to change his color palette and put a stronger emphasis on design.

Or compare these two paintings of partially dressed women:

One difference is that a commercial client would never tolerate a frontal view with an open kimono.  But more important, English now takes a far less literal view; he clearly puts priority on the abstract design with a more stark, high contrast composition, flattening out the shapes and making the image less accessible.

English grew up around horses in Texas and probably has more first hand experience with them than any other major illustrator of his era.  His illustration of a horse below is very tight, but once English jumped the fence and escaped from the corral, his treatment of horses became very loose and free.  For me, this later picture is reminiscent of the simplified cut out designs that Matisse made in his later years.

Here are a few of my favorites from among his more recent "fine art" paintings.  You will see that, especially in his landscapes, he looks for the abstraction in nature and brings it forward, almost (but not quite) to the point of obliterating his subject matter:

Were these paintings in English all the time?  Would he have preferred to work this way from the start?  Or were they only decocted from a long career in commercial illustration?

It's difficult to say.  But it's clear that English is making artistic choices now from a position of strength-- he has the technical skill to make any kind of picture he wants, and he is no longer the starving young artist that had to find ways to satisfy the client's taste.  English says he no longer has to make concessions to the taste of employers: "I think all artists are limited by fear of failure, even more so as an illustrator than as a painter. Today, I don't much worry about it."

Under these conditions, it's interesting to witness a strong artist's new priorities.