Tuesday, October 16, 2018


If Professor X ever goes looking for a super powered mutant with control over color, I recommend he make a beeline for Nathan Fowkes.

For years I've admired Fowkes' astonishing facility with color.

 This recent painting of a rainy London street knocked my socks off:

That jagged lightning bolt of color may look spontaneous, but it has at least ten kinds of smart in it:  

Contrast the color of the reflected light on the sidewalk with the warm light from the traffic headlights behind it, and then the bright light from the clearing skies behind that.  Note how the soft peaked roof of the purple building in the distance is halfway between an urban silhouette and a cloud; it supports, but doesn't compete with, the focal stripe of the painting.  Notice how the pedestrian in the foreground, while high contrast, is reduced to an abstract design which again supports the total painting.  Fowkes doesn't waste our time painting shoe laces (or even feet). 

Each individual pedestrian in the crowd scene is a separate creative invention-- understated, but still worth an appreciative look:

the shadows, too...

 And the glue that holds all the elements together: a great sense of design.

How does Fowkes go about orchestrating a painting like this?  He was kind enough to share his process photos: 

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

 That's the kind of painting that should get you magna cum laude at Professor X's school.

 Josef Albers (1888-1976) worked at Yale University rather than the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.  At Yale he reigned as a leading 20th century authority on color.  His treatise, The Interaction of Color (1963) is internationally famous, as are the hundreds of paintings and prints in his color series, Homage to the Square
 Image result for albers

These pictures, some of which have sold for millions of dollars, were carefully designed by Albers to explore what he called "chromatic interactions."

In my view, Albers' tedious explorations under laboratory conditions can't begin to compete with the crackling electricity of Fowkes' paintings.  Albers listens in while his color swatches do all the work. Fowkes, on the other hand, employs color with a spirited, nimble brush.  For Fowkes, color is a means to an end, integrated into real life rather than a laboratory test.  

Fowkes also seems to have a superior appreciation for the role of value.  Look at what he has accomplished with value alone in this marvelous sketch of a tree:

A big, wet, sloppy brush wielded with exquisite control
The "homage to a square" spares Albers from some of the the hardest tests of color--  tests of prioritization, tests of contrast, tests of motion.

Rather than paint 27,489 palm fronds, Fowkes selects a few fronds he wants to prioritize, highlighting them against a high contrast background and alters their color accordingly. 

Mighty fine work.


Donald Pittenger said...

Okay, I'm viewing these images on an iMac and they're small. Perhaps it's the flatness of color areas in many of them such as in the street scene ... but on my computer at first glance I thought I was seeing digital artwork.

This is not criticism. I just wonder if other readers had the same reaction.

chris bennett said...

I thought they might be digital at first too, but the process shots point very strongly to physical paint, perhaps acrylics.

Lovely post, I really enjoyed that, thanks.
Like most 'colourists' their secret lies in the super-subtle mastery of value (tone) - your inclusion of the palm tree painting is a demonstration of this, I feel.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- Fowkes is expert in both traditional and digital media. He takes watercolor and gouache into the desert and makes hundreds of plein air paintings and fills sketchbooks. I show some of those sketchbooks so you can see the compact scale of some of those paintings in this old blog post:https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/11/perspiration-and-inspiration.html .I think they're really quite remarkable.

At the same time, as an artist for the top digital animation studios, Fowkes has done a great deal of top notch digital work. I'm virtually certain that the third picture I've shown here, the city at night, is digital but I wanted to include it to show how Fowkes is conversant with color in both media. If you follow my link to his web site you can read his discussions of the media he uses.

Chris Bennett-- Thanks, I'm glad you see what I see in Fowkes; I agree with you about the role of value. Fowkes is certainly well known in his circles but deserves an even wider audience.

Anonymous said...

As much as I enjoy the blog, i'm beginning to be more and more frustrated with the tendency to disparage one artist to praise another-- an appreciation of Fowkes' work is enough on its own.

Gianmaria Caschetto said...

The contrast between between Josef Albers and Nathan Fowkes reminds me the relationship between the character of the primary-shapes-obsessed-art-school-treacher played by John Malkovich and his pupil Max Minghella in the movie Art School Confidential (a movie I did not like all that much, to be honest)

nayrasingh said...

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kev ferrara said...

Fowkes' work is always a treat.

I'm beginning to be more and more frustrated with the tendency to disparage one artist to praise another-- an appreciation of Fowkes' work is enough on its own.

Normally I would agree with you, but Josef Albers wasn't an artist. He was a designer and (a rather banal) design researcher. The lofty cultural stature he has been granted, as well as the high monetary values attached to his work deserve not only reassessment, but, frankly, ridicule. As they have been caused, respectively, by shallow-yet-supercilious culture vultures and deeply exploitable tax laws that began screwing up the culture in the 1950s.

MORAN said...

I learned about Fowkes here and I'm glad to see him back.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous wrote: " I'm beginning to be more and more frustrated with the tendency to disparage one artist to praise another."

You raise an important issue, one I've thought seriously about. Like you, I'm certainly opposed to gratuitous disparagement; I try to walk on the sunny side of the street. However, I've gradually concluded that distinguishing the good from the bad or the fake from the genuine sometimes requires us to acknowledge the existence of the bad or the fake.

Why? Well, for one thing, the language of art criticism today is so polluted with hyperbole that it becomes impossible to speak meaningfully without first putting a stake in the ground for standards. Everyone's a genius: Kinkade "is a modern day Leonardo da Vinci or Monet," and Art Spiegelman is like "Michelangelo" and Richard Prince is "revered" and Jeff Koons is a "creative genius" and McNaughton is another "Norman Rockwell." In my experience, many of these extravagant opinions come from careless or ignorant people who hide behind the notion that all art is subjective, so they need offer no support for their views. I'm not like them. Unfortunately, their panting opinions leave no oxygen in the room for serious discussion. When we learn that Chris Ware is another Bach ("There's glory there. We look at his work and we think of words like sumptuous and exacting and rhapsodic") what is left to write about an artist who is merely another Scarlatti?

For another thing, I believe a great deal of mediocre art is rewarded while good, honest art is undermined, by our reluctance to speak the truth about overrated art. The fine art market has little regard for the type of art I often celebrate on this blog; it is typically dismissed as "too commercial" or "lowbrow" until the day when it is appropriated by a "fine" artist who adds a glaze of irony or social commentary and marks up the price by 10,000%. (e.g., https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2015/06/recent-developments-in-parasitology.html ) It should not surprise that an honest and objective critical mind would investigate the nature and value of that glaze, to learn what it contributes. I've tried to be conscientious about doing so; I've read the flowery prose from Gagosian and attended the Jeff Koons lectures and Sotheby's auctions, to see things first hand. It is my view that many of these genius artists are unimpressive; some of them are outright thieves who prosper from a decadent, distracted and largely superfluous culture. Too harsh? Maybe, but I always explain the reasons for my views, and happily engage in calm discussion with anyone who can explain what I've overlooked.

Why is it my job to point out these perceived failings, instead of keeping my big mouth shut? Strangely enough, it's because I have no role in this fight. I've had the pleasure of meeting many talented artists whose work has been plagiarized by their inferiors or eclipsed by superior PR marketing machines. These artists never utter a word of disapproval, perhaps because they might seem petty or competitive. But they make clear in subtle and indirect ways that they recognize that the difference between good and bad art is not an illusion. I, on the other hand, am free to speak my mind. I don't work in the art field so I have nothing to gain or lose. I have often quoted William Blake: "When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do."

Joss said...

While we are questioning the underpinnings of your personal opinions....Did you ever consider that your art criticism would be improved by commercial incentives? Ha I love your blog. But what's the monetization strategy. I mean year after year just for the love of it. You fine artist!

Joss said...

I do also think you take your personal opinions and try hopelessly to form them into rules. But you love so much great art, much of the fun of your blog for me is your small mindedness at times it is so lovable and infuriating because we all do it in our own ways. I like Chris Ware and I hate him at the same time. I can appreciate Art Spegelman's art as a unique nervous system and yet I can think it is lame too. I see how art loses value in sentimentalism and yet I consider Norman Rockwell a master.

Clifford Lizarraga said...

I like how the photos were painted.
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David Apatoff said...

Gianmaria Caschetto-- I confess I've never seen Art School Confidential. The first half of your comment made me think I'd better see it, but the second half of your comment made me think, maybe not.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree, Fowkes' work is always a treat. I'm always generally aware that his work is out there, but every time I go back and really take a close look, I'm impressed all over again. Spending time trying to understand what he has done always produces freshly rewards.

MORAN-- Always glad to help spread the word about artists who deserve it.

Joss-- You're probably right, commercial incentives could help by forcing me to moderate my reckless and irresponsible views. Once this blog achieved a certain traffic level, I started getting approached about carrying ads but I share Bill Gaines' attitude about advertisers. Besides, as a lawyer I might sell my soul to the devil five times before breakfast; I'm glad to keep this little space as pure as I know how. As for trying to form rules about all this stuff, that depends on the day of the week. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I steer toward Scylla, the rock. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I steer toward Charybdis, the whirlwind.

It may surprise you to hear that I agree with you about Ware, Spiegelman and Rockwell.

Jesse Hamm said...

David -- Just popping in to say I love the contrast you draw between the shallow crap of Albers and the mastery of Fowkes. The bad throws the good into sharper relief!

I've enjoyed other recent posts as well. Blogspot is pretty quiet these days but I'm glad this blog is still active.