Sunday, October 22, 2017


The Renaissance brought fresh excitement about the physical world.  Art awoke from its long medieval fixation on the afterlife, and began to study the details of nature with an almost fanatical obsession. 

Durer (detail)

Centuries later there are still artists who find meaning painting individual hairs with a fine brush.

Julie Bell
The Bible says "the very hairs of your head are numbered" but that doesn't mean artists must count each one. It's interesting to see how differently artists have summarized and abstracted fur, taking a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach.  Here are some artists I admire:

J.C. Leyendecker:

J.C. Leyendecker

Rather than paint individual hairs, Leyendecker uses his trademark diagonal slashing brush strokes.

Mort Drucker:

Rather than draw individual hairs, Drucker uses his trademark bouncing line:

George McManus:

Rather than trace individual hairs,  MacManus stylized different furs with his art deco designs:

Ronald Searle:

Searle uses a field of watercolor as a substitute for painting individual fine hairs, which allows him to  give greater emphasis to a few scraggly hairs with an ink pen.

Leonard Starr:

Mindful of the smaller size and lesser reproduction quality of newspaper comic strips, Leonard Starr creates a darker fur, feathering the hairs with drybrush 
Andre Francois:

There was a time during the Renaissance when following individual hairs from follicle to tip could be an exciting part of understanding the natural world.  No one had done what Durer did.  

However, today I find the artistic interpretations of fur far more interesting and rewarding.  


Laurence John said...

the Durer Hare is a masterpiece. you could pare back much of the fur detail and you’d still have a very solid painting of a hare because the linear under-drawing is so solid. not the case with the Julie Bell which is full of weak drawing and tries to impress with a photo-real depiction of fur.

although the Durer is detailed, it’s not photo-real or overworked. he’s really painting graphic statements of clumps of fur which are organised by tone and variety of mark making to suggest the fur’s various properties, and describe the understructure of the animal (again, unlike the Julie Bell which only glancingly describes the physique of the wolves).

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chris bennett said...

I agree with Laurence wholeheartedly about the Durer compared with the Julie Bell.

The business of how to suggest complex forms such as hundreds of hairs becomes even more involved and problematic when dealing with hundreds of leaves because of the differing orientations of the twigs and branches from which they sprout. Indeed, the aggregate movements and relationships divined from within chaotic structures such as vegetation, fur, water (in other words; three dimensional textures) and abstracting them into concise graphic statements is a test of an artist's true metal.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I completely agree. There are some drawings and engravings by Durer which, judged by today's standards, seem to go to nutty extremes. (Think, for example, of the robe in Melancholia). Still I tend to excuse those excesses as part of the new Renaissance pride in technique and the new joy in empiricism.

Underneath all that detail on Durer's hare-- detail which could easily fragment a lesser drawing-- is a rock solid structure which binds the detail together beautifully. It is, as you say, "a masterpiece." I posted the Julie Bell painting for contrast. It is definitely no masterpiece.

chris bennett-- I agree, hairs and leaves are excellent examples of huge data sets which usually must be abstracted or decocted in order to be depicted coherently. Another example is crowds of people ( ) or bricks in a building. So much of the quality of art lies in prioritizing to "suggest complex forms." Good artists quickly learn not to waste time drawing individual eyelashes but these examples-- thousands of hairs or leaves-- present the ultimate quantitative "test of an artist's true metal."

I'd qualify my response by suggesting that it's not all chaos theory-- there are some underlying patterns to "structures such as vegetation" which may only begin to reveal themselves after close scrutiny of what is seemingly chaotic. But I agree that ultimately it's the abstraction that's most important. Isn't it interesting how different artists have abstracted those hairs in such different ways?

Anonymous said...

Where - but on this blog - could one find a comparison of Julie Bell and Durer ?

The best depiction of fur I can recall is Bruno Lijefors Hound and Fox . Barely a single hair depicted , yet you can literally feel it .

Al McLuckie

Anonymous said...

I love Leyendecker!


Anonymous said...

Maurice Wilson had a good technique for fur too.
For examples:

Don Cox

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Now was that a pun David? Counting 'Hares."

I agree with Laurence and Chris. The solid sense of form underneath Durer's drawing of the Hare really makes it masterful. I really like the hare's eye lids, the top lid is an "S' curve and the lower lid is a "C" like the moldings on a building. He defines shapes as opposed to copying information as in the Bell drawing. I'm not even sure what is happening between the wolfs.

I think if I put any of the pictures on a wall and had to live with them for awhile the Durer would be heads and shoulders above the rest. The patterns of fur in the other artist's work looks great, but the longer one looks the less satisfying they feel relative to the Durer (except for the Leyendecker).

In the Durer the fur on the head rolls away from the eye like gentle waves incoming to a shore. The work seems to reveal more of the universe. Although the shapes in all the works are pretty fascinating. Especially the shape of the ladies hat in the Leyendecker painting and how he manages all the wonderful color temperature and value changes in the orange brim. Constant change but in a very calm pleasing way. The black bird feathers above the brim are also quite compelling, really wonderful shapes.

Drucker uses the same "S" curve and "C" curve like Durer, but he does it in drawing Streisand's lips. I like the big egg shape he uses for her cheek bone also. The shapes in the McManus drawing are graceful and have a lot of dance to them, they actually have a simplified Leyendecker quality to them. The negative shapes in the Durer, Leyndecker and McManus are large enough to balance all the refinement and interesting shapes the objects which creates a great sense repose in their pictures.

Thanks for the post and the pictures.

Susan Coulby, DCAD said...

Wanted to email this to you, but couldn't find a way to do so on your blog, so I apologize for hijacking the comments!

DCAD’s ‘Big Picture’ exhibition spotlighting vintage ad poster illustration

An array of rarely displayed commercial posters from the 1890s through the turn of the 21st century will adorn the Delaware College of Art and Design’s Toni & Stuart B. Young Gallery as the site’s final exhibition of 2017.

The large-scale pieces making up “The Big Picture: Illustration Art in the Printed Poster” encompass a range of subjects, artists, printing methods and styles. Curated by David Pollack of David Pollack Vintage Posters (, the show includes work by some of poster illustration’s greatest masters, including Frank Brangwyn, Ben Shahn, Bernard Villemot, Roy Besser and Tomi Ungerer. Often crossing the border between fine and commercial art, this work didn’t merely sell a product – it also stood as visually powerful imagery worthy of preserving and displaying as an art form in and of itself.

“In many cases, the creators were first and foremost commercial artists,” Pollack says. “Others were known during their careers as leading fine artists, but, when called upon, created illustrations strongly commercial in nature, serving the needs and aims of a client. In the long run, whether by design or accident, the artistic importance of the illustration is what survives.’

Among the pieces to be shown will be a full-sized billboard for the Parisian Lido Cabaret from the 1960s. Created by Rene Gruau, best known for his fashion illustration, this masterful graphic offers an extraordinary example of poster art and design and measures more than 10 feet by 7 feet. Also included will be a pair of rare Shahn CIO voter-registration posters, theater posters by Paul Davis and James McMullan and numerous American and foreign travel, advertising and propaganda posters.

DCAD Professor Alexi Natchev, who serves as the area coordinator for the College’s illustration program, coordinated the exhibition’s appearance in the Young Gallery.

An opening reception for “The Big Picture” will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 3 in conjunction with the monthly Art Loop Wilmington. “The Big Picture” will continue in the Young Gallery, 600 N. Market St., Wilmington, into January.

Admission is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

For more information, contact DCAD communications director Susan Coulby at 302-622-8000 (office), 302-983-5710 (cell) or


Lucas Machias said...