Monday, January 22, 2018


"Perhaps the crescent moon smiles in doubt at being told that it is a fragment awaiting perfection."
                               -- Rabindranath Tagore

Most people realize by now that a quick, rough sketch...


... can be better art than a careful, detailed oil painting.


...and that an "unfinished" painting can nevertheless be quite complete.


Last week the participants in this blog had a robust debate about the kind of detail necessary to create a "well executed" picture.  In attacking the loose drawings of H. J. Mowat, one commenter claimed,
[Mowat] simply couldn't draw well. His struggles with basic anatomy, even basic drawing, are written all over his pictures.... This has to do with distinguishing between informed anatomy and bluffed anatomy....  [R]ough indication, like all suggestions, can be informed or uninformed. One type of uninformed suggestion results simply in vagueness. Another signifies bluffing/pretension. 
 The debate soon came to focus on the quality of Mowat's hands, as a test:
 [M]ost illustrators I know could easily knock out a good hand, in line, from the model, in a minute's time... And there isn't a single well executed hand in the lot. 
 When I offered several examples of drawings by Degas with a similar treatment of hands, the commenters responded that the Degas drawings, like Mowat's, are "shitty."

Are they?  Or are they just a different type of artistic solution, equally valid, with their own standards of quality?

One commenter wrote,
 I feel similar regarding hands which Kev criticized many times.  [In the following image]  her palm on the floor looks childishly crude, a complete mess, while the other one on her lap seems kind of acceptable to me, the area between the wrist and knuckles has an indication of a solid shape... but the fingers sadly end up quite weak. There is no artistic purpose for these anatomical conditions, they were not Mowat's thoughtful decisions, so I think if somebody fixed these things in front of him he would be pleased. 
Mowat (detail)

 I disagree with these assessments, and as I indicated last time, I thought the only way to have a constructive  discussion was with real live examples of quality art in front of us.

Few people would argue that Toulouse Lautrec did not understand the anatomy of a hand:


Yet, look at how he chose to treat the hand in one of his most famous finished pictures:

Kinda makes Mowat look like Vesalius.

Bernie Fuchs is another example of an artist who clearly understands the anatomy of the hand:

 Yet, as he became older and wiser as and artist, he chose to experiment for important assignments, such as this full page illustration for Sports Illustrated:

Compare this hand to the much-vilified hands drawn by Mowat:

Henry Raleigh, a contemporary of Mowat, sometimes rendered hands in a looser, more amorphous way than Mowat did:

Nobody disputes Rodin's mastery of human anatomy...

Rodin cherished his watercolors, such as this one where he deliberately took liberties with a hand to create the design he wanted.  Compare this hand to Mowat's:


Finally, here's one more example from our old friend Degas.  In this early work, the hand is rendered with precision...

But later, in Degas' period of greatness, several hands look like mittens.


The examples above can't all be "incomplete" drawings or work that was intended for the artist's trash can.  And even if some commenters insist that they are, I can pull out a hundred additional examples of work by excellent artists who decided that the anatomical truth of phalanges was subordinate to the expressive truth of the picture.  These artists are not, in the words of last week's commenters, "fudging" their drawings of hands.  And it is my view that we cannot properly evaluate their work by saying, "the size of the area between the wrist and knuckles is too small, and fingers are too short," even if that is factually correct.

For me, this is like looking at a crescent moon and waiting for it to become a perfect full moon. I think that each of the works above has its own perfections.


Thursday, January 04, 2018


At the end of last year I offered one lovely drawing by an illustrator you've never heard of, H. J. Mowat.   Mowat has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the loose, scribbly fashion of the day.  But I think he was really good.

To give him a fair chance, I promised some commenters I'd show a broader range of his work.


Mowat's pictures may seem a little fuzzy compared to today's sharper, hard edge fashions.  But plenty of mediocre illustrators can make sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts.  It's harder to create successful fuzzy pictures of sharp concepts.  

Take for example the drawing, "She used to come into the Petrovski barracks and empty her pistols into the poor devils who wouldn't bend."

I think this is a well staged picture, with selective use of lights and contrasts to direct your eye.  The figures are well posed and integrated to show how the professional soldiers are queasy about the bloodthirsty woman.  But most importantly, Mowat has made some highly unusual but smart choices: the "poor devil" has no face yet Mowat chose to emphasize his cowlick (which conveys his rumpled condition).  Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears.

Just as Mowat drew rumpled hair, the man's clothing is one big wrinkle.  He has a defiant tilt to his head combine with a posture of resignation waiting for the bullet.  Mowat did not focus on the facial expression, which would preoccupy a more obvious illustrator.  For me, this is excellent, subtle drawing.

Note how, in 1927, ordinary Saturday Evening Post readers were presumed to be cultured enough to know the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." 
Mowat used a bag of tricks to compensate for the cheap paper and primitive black and white printing of his era.  His medium would not permit him to display a blushing cheek or a steely glint in the eye, but he seemed to make maximum use of a tilt of the head.  

Many of the illustrators of the 1920s are best forgotten, but I think H. J. Mowat is one worth remembering.