Tuesday, September 17, 2019

BERNIE FUCHS, TEN YEARS LATER




The artist Bernie Fuchs passed away ten years ago today.  I was fortunate to get to know him; I interviewed him for weeks and listened to his reflections on life and art before he passed away. 

I never met anyone with a greater gift for color and design.  He was a truly humble man, but he understood the nature of his gift-- how could he not?-- and always tried his best to respect and protect it.   A generous spirit, he never resented the legions of artists who imitated-- or copied-- his work.  He simply hunkered down and moved on to something new.  He died with his astonishing strengths undiminished.






Surveying the art scene ten years after his death, Bernie's artistic strengths are no longer as fashionable.  The oversized, glossy magazines which showcased his art died long before he did. "Concept art" and "idea illustration" arose in an effort to make content more relevant and thought-provoking than the corny romantic fiction sometimes illustrated by Bernie's generation.  But as content took center stage, visual skill, and even talent itself, became suspect. Polished images were viewed as a distraction from the message. The stature of visual form shrank as simpler images and deliberately careless drawings served as vehicles for thought.  Meanwhile, "photo illustration" proliferated in response to economic demand, and computer gaming art arose in a symbiotic relationship with viewers with short attention spans.

Audiences eager to avoid being accused of narrow mindedness concluded that the safest path was to abandon all standards. 

No one can be certain where art will be in a hundred years, or how visual quality will be valued in the rectifying mirror of time.  But as I take stock after the first ten years, Bernie's radiant images still stand out for me across a carnival yard cluttered with weak, shoddy and sensational quasi-art.  On the tenth anniversary of his death, his status as a giant in his field remains secure.









Thursday, September 12, 2019

DANIEL SCHWARTZ PAINTS AN ORANGE


When Daniel Schwartz was commissioned to "paint an orange" for an advertisement, he didn't reach for the orange paint.  Instead, he required a full palette:

He also didn't feel limited to a round shape; he used his imagination to come up with something far more interesting.


Paint labels and dictionaries are merely a constraint when you aspire to paint at this level.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

NEW BOOK ABOUT AUSTIN BRIGGS, part 2

Austin Briggs studied hard to become a full fledged painter.  He mastered color theory and pigments and painting technique, and for years his full color paintings were in high demand from the top magazines and advertisers in America.




But at heart, Briggs was a "drawing" guy and as he developed, his line work kept pushing its way through the paint to dominate his pictures.






Briggs' career took an unusual turn.  He started out using basic drawing tools, like every beginning student, and worked his way up to using a full set of Winsor & Newton oil paints.  But at the peak of his success he began to find greater satisfaction in using the simpler, more humble tools-- a litho crayon or a piece of vine charcoal-- this time, with all the wisdom gained from decades of experience.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

NEW BOOK ABOUT AUSTIN BRIGGS

The very first book about the great illustrator Austin Briggs has just been published by Auad Publishing (previous publisher of books about Robert Fawcett, Albert Dorne, Henry Raleigh and other classic illustrators).


I had the great pleasure of writing the text for the book.  

Briggs was one of the true greats of 20th century illustration.  I've often written about him on this blog, especially about his drawing which I greatly admire.   But Briggs worked in every kind of medium and played a significant role in every type of illustration from comic strips (Flash Gordon) to pulp magazines to the early movies to magazines, books and records. He ended his life painting landscapes and gallery paintings in Paris.

I was able to delve into his fascinating life with the cooperation of the Briggs family.

The Briggs book is  9 x12, 160 pages, $34.95, available from the Auad web site.

In the days ahead, I'll be posting additional images by Briggs that I particularly like, to supplement the new book.  



Friday, August 16, 2019

SOME THOUGHTS ON MARK ENGLISH (1933- 2019)



The great illustrator Mark English, who played a dominant role in American illustration for decades, passed away on August 8.

Through a rare combination of moxie and creative talent, English worked his way from picking cotton in the fields near Hubbard Texas for $1.50 per day to becoming a nationally renowned illustrator who received more awards from the Society of Illustrators than any other artist. 

He was the last remaining member of a small band of artists who clawed their way up from small towns, secured low paying jobs in Detroit working on car ads, and from that rigorous training ground launched hugely successful free lance careers.  That path is now closed to young artists, but while it was still available, audacious young talent such as English, Bernie Fuchs and Bob Heindel were able to distinguish themselves and come to the attention of the top art directors in the country.










Like Fuchs and Heindel, English took big gambles.  I've previously quoted his recollections of the chances he took moving his young family from Detroit to become an illustrator in Connecticut:
I had moved to Connecticut and in my first year there I made 20% of the salary that I had made in my last year.... It was a tough year and I had a lot of time on my hands.  I think not having much work enhanced my career more than anything else.  I spent a lot of time experimenting, trying to come up with something unique and different, and I think toward the end of that year I managed to do that on a job for the Readers Digest [for the book, Little Women]....I think that three or four of the illustrations were accepted into the Society's annual exhibition that year.  One of them won an award and got me a little attention.  After that I got into magazines and my career was launched.
English recalled that during that dry spell he went eight months without getting a single assignment. His wife became worried as money became very tight but he wouldn't turn back. "I think [it was] the best thing that ever happened to me, but at the time I didn't think so.... I don't think that I ever worked harder at anytime than I did during those eight months, trying to get better and be more competitive."

When the lucrative illustration market began to dry up, like Fuchs and Heindel English didn't quit or become paralyzed with fear.  He boldly pushed forward in new directions and became a highly successful gallery painter.



English was the last of a truly remarkable generation of artists in America.  He made excellent use of his years so that, in the words of John Milton, he could present a true account of his talents to his maker.  For this, he deserves to be remembered and celebrated.  I highly recommend his biography by Jill Bossert.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

DISAPPEARING INTO FOG

The esteemed illustrator Robert Andrew Parker is 92 years old, and his vision has become so poor he can no longer read or draw from a model.  Still, he goes to his studio every day and paints from imagination and memory.  This is his recent painting, "Plane Disappearing Into Fog."




Parker had a long, prolific career before macular degeneration began stripping him of his precious eyesight.  I especially like his etchings-- rich, imaginative works with strong compositions.  They take full advantage of the grainy textures and special "look" of the etching medium, something very unusual for the field of illustration.




Parker also made some striking images expressing his political views:




Most people regard eyesight as the crucial requirement for a visual artist, but there are other compensating qualities that can help to offset diminishing sight.  One is imagination.  Here is Parker's recent painting of a dogfight between a plane and a bug:


Another is the strength of character to continue working at age 92.

I've previously quoted Tennyson's famous poem, Ulysses, which describes the hero's resolve, at the end of a long life of adventure, to set out once again. He rousts his aging comrades to accompany him to see if "some work of noble note may yet be done."
Ulysses admits that old age has robbed his crew of much, yet he glories in what still "abides":  
 Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.







Saturday, July 13, 2019

R.I.P. MAD MAGAZINE-- POSTSCRIPT

Better than words could convey, this illustration from today's New York Times demonstrates the significance of the passing of the era of MAD:



After a week enjoying examples on this blog of the beautiful craftsmanship of the MAD artists, this drawing in the Times feels like a nutmeg grater on the eyes.

The fact that such a mishap was selected by the New York Times to illustrate the end of MAD reveals more about today's audiences than perhaps the paper intended.  MAD was irreverent yet it revered good drawing. The "usual gang of idiots" was never the "gang of lazy slobs."  They had high standards, excellent taste and they worked their asses off-- a trifecta that enabled them to clobber dozens of competitors, decade after decade. 

If MAD must depart, perhaps it is partially because audiences such as the NYT readership no longer understand, or even care about, standards in the visual arts.


Friday, July 12, 2019

A GALLERY OF MORT DRUCKER ART FROM MAD MAGAZINE

For my final gallery of art from the late beloved MAD Magazine, I've chosen the brilliant Mort Drucker.

Drucker's talent graced the pages of MAD for 50 years. Looking back, his long legacy seems almost supernatural.  

The Godfather
The Godfather

The Godfather
Drucker always said he loved his job.  There's no other way to explain the overflowing generosity of his drawing or his sustained high standards.

Most other cartoonists would draw this next panel with just the two heads of the speakers.  Drucker added twelve additional figures and a complex background, just for kicks.



Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.  Unlike other caricaturists, Drucker had to draw multiple likenesses of each face with expressions that matched whatever was happening in the scripts he was given.

Beverly Hills Cops




Patton: even the tanks are drawn at a jaunty angle


MAD Magazine will be forever enshrined in the annals of great and important American magazines.  As we've seen, many excellent artists contributed to that reputation.  But in my opinion, no one contributed more than the great Mort Drucker.





Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A GALLERY OF JACK DAVIS ART FROM MAD MAGAZINE

Jack Davis was a star in the MAD Magazine firmament from the very first issue.  Davis was 25 years old, with a fearless ink brush and a precocious talent for converting a human being into a splat.  (This was an important skill for the infant magazine).


Davis could work simultaneously for MAD and several other comics because he was fast as lightning.  Bill Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman recalled Davis penciling and inking three or more entire pages in a day.

Here for your enjoyment is a selection of lovely drawings by Davis spread across many years of MAD:




In later years, Davis simplified and streamlined his work for MAD.  He applied tones through loose washes rather than tight cross hatching.



Yet, the pictures usually retained Davis' underlying quality.

Another brilliant artist selected for the formidable MAD talent pool.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

A GALLERY OF PAUL COKER ART FROM MAD MAGAZINE

Paul Coker's art was not as broad or slapstick as the art of most other MAD artists, but in his own quiet way he was every bit as brilliant. 

Look at this lovely little drawing of a boy standing. He's not being carried off by a gorilla or balancing a ball on his nose.  Yet, Coker keeps his subject from being dull and symmetrical by adding a dozen charming touches: notice the unusual shape of the bottom of his sweat shirt, or the interesting shape of his collar, how only one pant leg is rolled up and the other has a patch.  Notice the confidence of Coker's folds over the boy's stomach or at his elbow.  





In an era when the New Yorker features a bevy of untalented cover artists who use lifeless mechanical circles for heads, look at how much sensitivity Coker puts into this "almost' circle head-- the subtlety of that chin, those little boy cheeks, the treatment of that vacant ear, the shape of that hat-- all before you even get to that marvelous facial expression described in so few lines.  In my opinion, Coker's better than all of them.

Another splendid drawing now shows the boy in motion.  Notice how beautifully Coker captures the running figure, with those over-sized shoes kicking up pebbles.

You won't find the silhouette of that leg and disjointed ankle in any anatomy book.
If you have any question about how many of the subtle touches in that figure are intentional, look at the way Coker used white paint to trim back that shoe on the left.  He felt that 1/64 of an inch made enough difference that it was worth going back to tweak.  Clearly Coker is performing micro-surgery in these drawings.

It's to MAD's credit that, amidst all the clang and clatter of the Don Martin and Al Jaffee and Prohias, it appreciated the quiet brilliance of Coker.

Here's a gallery of other Coker drawings, enlarged so you can better see what he was up to.

Note how Coker handles the small boy clinging to his mother's leg: no eyes, just nostrils and a very unusually shaped mouth.  There are great powers of observation and great artistic courage in these small choices.






The father's eyes might be a predictable facial expression, but his nervous smile is quite an innovative design. 
And dig those shoes!