Tuesday, October 29, 2019

PLUS ÇA CHANGE...

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first message being sent over the internet.  On this date in 1969 a small team in a UCLA lab sent a message over a network of ARPANET computers. 


Once the concept was proven, ARPANET quickly exploded into today's global internet.

The internet is most famous for conveying the Illustrationart blog to a needy world.

However, some have expressed dismay that so much of the promising new technology is devoted to trading nekkid pictures.  Looking back, this was to be expected: in 1956, during the infancy of the computer age, the first human likeness to appear on a computer screen was a pin up illustration by George Petty:

Cathode ray tube screen of an experimental military computer developed to fight the cold war

1956 Esquire magazine calendar page by George Petty.  Va Va Voom.
As computer journalist Benj Edwards reported, "During a time when computing power was so scarce that it required a government-defense budget to finance it, a young man used a $238 million military computer, the largest such machine ever built, to render an image of a curvy woman...." 

The technological revolution, from Polaroid cameras to betamaxes to camcorders to cell phones to blogs, has never strayed far from this central theme.  People now ask: Have all these tools corrupted our values by spreading such scandalous pictures?

33,000 years ago during the infancy of art, our ancestors used their new tool called "drawing" to decorate their cave with pictures of the human vulva.  In a riveting paper entitled, "Context and dating of Aurignacian vulvar representations from Abri Castanet, France," a team of (male and female) scientists recently detailed how-- even without the benefit of the internet-- prehistoric people drew vulvae all over  the ceiling of their cave.  Another artist, lacking paper, etched a vulva on the molar of a woolly mammoth.

This urge wasn't limited to drawing; prehistoric sculpture followed the same theme-- the first known sculpture of a human was a naked female.

In light of this long tradition, it's surprising that the internet is ever used for anything besides naked pictures.

Okay, but you ask: what about the ominous future?  New artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies threaten to erode the distinction between truth and lie. These so-called deepfakes can falsify historical events and corrupt our political dialogue.   Spread over the internet they could start wars, topple governments, and undermine science... but apparently not just yet.  A recent survey indicates that 96% of deepfakes are not about any of these things, but rather about sex.  



Monday, October 21, 2019

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 61


I love this drawing by Tom Fluharty of George Bernard Shaw holding his dog.



Fluharty's famous drawing workshop came to our town last week.  I attended in the hope of learning how Fluharty achieves some of his marvelous effects, such as this ingenious beard:



But rather than coming away with magic tricks and special effects, I came away with something better: wisdom about the nature and challenges of drawing to help students invent their own special effects.

One of my favorite messages from Fluharty's demonstrations:

"Never coast just because you think you already know how hands look. Never punch the clock. Always continue to look for the story; hands are a story. Ears are another story.  Hair is a story. There's a story to tell everywhere; don't take anything for granted."
 

Sunday, October 06, 2019

ROBERT FAWCETT'S LIMP FIGURES

It has been a while since I've shared another reason why I like the work of illustrator Robert Fawcett.

Even at the height of his career, Fawcett continued to sketch from the model every week.  At the end of each session, he'd open the lid of his model stand and toss in the day's efforts.  When he died, there were several hundred drawings stashed there.




One result of Fawcett's continuing commitment to observation is that when he illustrated a figure, he was not content with the usual simplistic shortcuts: symmetrical people standing perpendicular to the ground.  Instead, he observed that people are often bent or lopsided, reflecting life's tug of war between gravity and organic matter:   




One of the ways Fawcett's life drawing regimen paid off is when he received an assignment to depict a limp figure--  someone whose muscles went slack and who collapsed in a jumble-- Fawcett was able to capture such figures in a very convincing way.  Again, no stereotypes here.





Wednesday, September 25, 2019

ART AND RAGE


Kathe Kollwitz, The Peasants' Revolt

In these divisive political times, words can't seem to keep pace with our anger.  Insults on social media are so prevalent that words have lost their sting.  Hyperbole is so overused that it no longer impresses, so people have resorted to lies instead. (As Nietzsche observed, "no one lies as much as an indignant man.")   Many people have given up searching for words that persuade, and settled for words to offend.

But when words become ineffectual as a means of expression, we can always rely on good ol' drawing to raise the decibel level.

Unlike words, drawing is not a polite game ruled by grammar and punctuation.  Drawing is a more primal mode of communication with a broader range of expressive tools.  In this sketch from Kollwitz's shattering series about the peasants' revolt of 1524, her charcoal strokes on paper are the equivalent of those arms flailing in rage and despair.

Kathe Kollwitz, study for The Peasants' Revolt
Goya's series on the disasters of war vents his feelings of anger and impotence using graphic forms that are more compelling than words.

Goya, a gang rape by soldiers

Amsterdam artist L.J. Jordaan penned this blood curdling image of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands:



Oceans of words about the Vietnam war were written by armies of talented writers, yet Tomi Ungerer's stark drawings remain vivid in people's minds.


The talented Tom Fluharty could've made a career out of his blistering portrayals of Hillary Clinton:




It is not sufficient that an artist feels anger.  Quite the contrary, anger usually causes art to go astray; it creates a stress test for the connective tissue of art, and artists who aren't up to the task find that anger has left them with an ineffectual mess.  But artists with the ability to hold it together can channel their outrage into truly scalding works of art.

Today's polarized environment has revved up talented, indignant artists, such as Michael Ramirez on the right or Ann Telnaes on the left.  But I can think of none more unsettling and brilliant than John Cuneo.  His pen seems the sharpest, his ink the most acidic, his imagination the most outrageous.

A response to Donald Trump's statement that his opponents should "go back to where you came from."
An artist friend told me about this drawing,  "Cuneo can always make me gasp before I laugh. The cartoon’s idea is just a crude taunt, but his willingness to really GO there and SELL it is, ...well, frankly, a bit scary. "

This next Cuneo drawing-- simultaneously brutal and brilliant-- is an excellent example of what I mean by artistic powers strong enough to contain rage:






It's extremely difficult to balance art and anger, but when properly fused, the two make a powerful alloy.

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.