Sunday, June 23, 2019


When ancient Rome needed guidance on crucial issues such as whether to go to war or whether crops would fail, a priest called an augur was summoned to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds.

The augur would look for omens in the direction that birds were flying, whether they flew in groups or alone, and the noises they made as they flew. These observations required great skill and inspiration.

If you think about it, this system would make no sense if the augur tried to watch the entire sky: he might spot one bird or a thousand depending on where he looked or how long he remained. The behavior of the birds could appear to signal good omens or bad depending on whether the augur happened to view them from the right or left.  Such a system would be completely arbitrary.

That's why the whole key to the augur's art was choosing the right portion of the sky to observe. The augur used a stick called a lituus to mark out the sacred part of the sky.

Lituus held by an augur
The passage of birds through the selected space determined the life-or-death outcome.

Like an augur, an artist's decision to draw a perimeter around a selected space in an otherwise  seamless  universe may be the single most important decision in the creation of a work of art.

Just as the sky has no obvious boundaries, the world around us can be seen as either infinite or infinitely divisible.  The artist's decision to select some of the features from that world, choosing  what to include, what to exclude, and how to crop it, determines where the rest of the world ends and the art begins.

The great illustrator Al Parker would've made a dandy augur.  Look at the portions of the world he has chosen to frame here:

Parker chops away the entire background, silhouetting his subject against a plain white background.  Then he chases his dramatic content off the edge of the page, using that big chunk of nothing to push our eyes right to the crisis in the upper right hand corner.

Despite the fact that Parker has excluded a background, look at the odd items he has chosen to include in the foreground: a cuckoo clock and an old fashioned phone.

Their content may have little significance, and they may even seem counter-intuitive because they distract from the high emotion of the scene.  But visually these items are crucial to the composition, scooping up our eyes and leading them along the floor and up to that upper right corner.
When Parker used his lituus to cordon off a meaningful part of the universe, some of his selections were for purposes of telling the story and some of them were for purposes of composition.  Some of them were patterns and colors for purposes of design. You can see him thinking through some of his choices in this prelim:

Parker got rid of that attention-getting pattern on the rug,
so it wouldn't slow down the movement of your eye upward and to the right.

Parker was good with anatomy and perspective and color, but so much of the strength of this image comes from his threshold decisions about what to include in the frame and what to leave out.

Monday, June 10, 2019


Very few artists have been stirred by the challenges presented by a vacuum cleaner. 

Here are two:

Jeff Koons

Phil Hale

The mountebank Koons, mayor of Niflheim, offers the unremarkable insight that industrial design does, in fact, incorporate "design." His marketing genius can be observed at work in this presentation:

Renowned herpetologist Graham Peck has observed a comparable technique at work in the snake kingdom:  
There Is a certain power to fascinate in a snake's eyes and movements.... I saw a ground squirrel fascinated by a black gopher snake. The forked tongue darted out of the snake's mouth almost as regularly and rapidly as the needle of a sewing machine rises and falls. The squirrel seemed to watch it spellbound... I believe implicitly that all snakes have a certain degree of power to fascinate their victims to death. 
In contrast to Koons, Phil Hale uses a vacuum cleaner-- a routine object from daily life that you or I might step around-- as an opening to the unknown. His beautiful painting is reminiscent of the lines from poet Peter Viereck:
So many dark things are not night at all:The cupboard where the cakes and poisons are.... 
Hale's vacuum cleaner is a potent original vision. His powers of observation are transferred to us through his strong personal choices and probing brushwork.

Koons too wants to elevate our attention to a vacuum cleaner but he does so by placing someone else's design in a lucite showcase and shining a spotlight on it. This antiseptic presentation offers no original opinions in the form of composition or palette, creative distortion or expressive energy, angle or design. In fact, any contribution that wasn't stolen from the original designer comes solely from Koons' accompanying jabber.

Artists love to paint flowers and landscapes and nudes but they've been remarkably silent on the subject of vacuum cleaners. As Hale proves, there is meaningful content even there. As Koons proves, even if you come up with nothing meaningful there are still a nice couple of bucks to be made.

Saturday, June 01, 2019


Young artists are impatient to find a distinctive voice or style.   They distort what they see, not out of any expressive need but rather to develop a trademark "brand."  To accomplish this they often try borrowing eccentricities from mature artists.  Unfortunately, unearned and imitative styles often look inauthentic and unpersuasive.

The comic book artists in the golden age were not concerned with developing a personal style, they were concerned with drawing so they didn't starve.  Jules Feiffer fondly recalled cranking out pictures fast enough to survive:
Artists sat humped in crowded rooms, knocking it out for the page rate.  Penciling, inking, lettering in the balloons for $10.00 a page, sometime less.... Working blind but furiously, working from the advice of others who drew better because they were in the business two-weeks longer...
Reading old crime and horror comics, I was struck by the strange, interesting drawings that emerged not from a self-conscious search for a "style," but from untrained artists working in a pressure cooker.

I've previously quoted a friend who said, "Bad drawing, even bad bad drawing, almost always has character.... the vision has a weird purity you kind of have to admire, no matter what."

Quickly drawn faces by unskilled, underpaid artists ...

...sometimes resemble the studied, careful distortions in the mature styles of fine artists:

Saul Steinberg 

Seymour Chwast 
Even without trying to build a brand or a trademark style, many of these crude comic drawings have undeniable power that makes them the envy of "high class" artists.

Returning to the memories of Jules Feiffer, the early comic book artists didn't acquire that power, or improve their drawing, by searching for a distinctive trademark "look."  They did it by drawing all the time:

[O]ne suddenly learned how to draw. It happened in spurts.  Nothing for a while: not being able to catch on, not being able to foreshorten correctly, or get perspectives straight or get the blacks to look right.  Then suddenly: a breakthrough. One morning you can draw forty percent better than you could when you quit the night before.  Then, again you coast.  Your critical abilities improve but your talent won't.  Nothing works.  Despair.  Then another breakthrough.  Magically, it keeps happening.  Soon it stops being magic,  just becomes education.