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.


Smurfswacker said...

Just for the record, the telephone is a story point. In the story the woman is reacting to a threatening phone call.

kev ferrara said...

Al Parker's clean graphic commercialism often masks just how solid his artistic thinking was. Even though this piece lacks any sense of mood down in its bones, it is very well thought out.

Untitled said...

Great lesson on framing.

David Apatoff said...

Smurfswacker-- You're right. A better example would've been the lamp on the table. I liked that phone because Parker obviously enjoyed the shape of that old candlestick model, isolating it way out there on the edge, against a white background.

Kev Ferrara-- For me, Parker's great strength was his extraordinary range. He did make pictures with "mood," but he also made pictures out of flat patterns and designs. He painted highly realistic, well composed paintings but he also drew very loose, wildly expressionistic drawings. His colors were sometimes sensitive and nuanced and at other times bold and psychedelic. I've spoken with illustrators who were art students in the late 40s and early 50s, and who said that they always rushed to the newsstands to see what Parker was up to each month. Parker was experimental and innovative in a way that made him "the man" in the eyes of young talent, far more than any other famous illustrator of his day. He never seemed to run dry.

Untitled-- Exactly! Selecting a piece of the world as the subject of a painting is a process as subjective and nebulous as selecting a piece of the sky. Yet everything, in both form and content, depends on what we choose to select, and how we say "no" to the rest of the world that clamors nonstop for our attention. Framing is all.

Richard said...

Do you have the final layout once the text has been overlaid?

Would be useful to see if his gamble about balance paid off.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully it paid off - Parker would rest more easily knowing you approved .

Richard said...

Huh? The article is about how great this artistic gamble was, but we don't get to see the result because there's no link to the finished piece.

kev ferrara said...

For me, Parker's great strength was his extraordinary range. He did make pictures with "mood,"

I'd be interested to see a moodier picture from him, if you have an example.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Actually, I did look for the printed version to post. I've been fortunate in that a number of old time illustrators bequeathed their collections of clippings and tearsheets to me, in the hope that I would carry the torch forward. I found two or three copies of the right half of this illustration, but nobody bothered to keep the left page with the text on it. Chalk it up to the pragmatism of the old illustrators; if there was nothing useful to them on the left side, why bother to keep it?

My belief is that the text on the left side slightly offset the charm of the composition, but because the text was only black white, in small even lines, it didn't totally counterbalance the bright pink figures on the right.

chris bennett said...

Yet everything, in both form and content, depends on what we choose to select, and how we say "no" to the rest of the world that clamors nonstop for our attention. Framing is all.

I agree with this except for the last sentence. 'Framing is all' would certainly apply to photography where the limits of the viewfinder and when to activate the shutter are the only controls prescribing the content of its image. But this is not true of the plastic artists.

Having made pictures both 'from my head' and 'sur le motif' I can say that even in the latter process the gilded (or hi-tec brushed steel) frame held up to nature in the imagination's eye is little more than a reassurance at best. The 'all' of the business is in plucking from the noise those notes with which to compose the song.

Richard said...

Chalk it up to the pragmatism of the old illustrators; if there was nothing useful to them on the left side, why bother to keep it?

That's surprising. I would have assumed the old timers would see the left side as a key feature of the composition itself -- Parker's preliminary sketch seems to suggest as much -- hence my "no finished piece".

A canvas with half of it totally blank in juxtaposition to a beautiful rendering of human figures is certainly an interesting composition, fitting of a more postmodern era.

But if the old timers always intended to have the weight of an illustration offset by type, the eccentric and unbalanced type-less panel like this is not an intentional composition at all.

With Parker this is particularly true, because he gave such sublime and virtuosic attention to how the type would effect that composition:

As he does here, leaving huge negative space so that the type can really sing.

Here, making the window a flat square of yellow-white, and gave us a broad orange wall down the side. Absent the text, the intention is gone -- we might think him dabbling in neoplasticism.

Or here, where the type actually gives us insight into the girls mind -- she's absentmindedly holding the text in the air with her feet while doing her maths. The sort of gesture that parents know at a glance: children doing something strange with their body to distract them for a menial task.

Here, with an exciting use of the blue underpainting. Absent the type, we might think he was just dabbling in expressionism. With the type, we see that the use of the underpainting is to allow the type to fit seamlessly into composition with the figures.

And as I suspect he did here, having the character peak through the page like a bolt of lightning, although I don't have the type to prove it.

Absent the type in these illustrations, we might think him just your average rebel. With the type, we see he's more like a fine-design auteur.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- We don't disagree. By "framing is all" I didn't mean anything other than "The 'all' of the business is in plucking from the noise those notes with which to compose the song." You just put it far more poetically. Framing is not just how many objects you choose to include within the frame, or how you choose to crop the content to create a composition with the frame, but also whether you allow color within the frame, whether the world you capture includes half tones or only line, whether your frame is 4 inches or 4 feet, etc.

kev ferrara said...

Abstract balance is a design idea, not an Art principle. Harvey Dunn famously taught that "a complete statement is always well-balanced." Which is a narrative-linguistic formulation, not solely a graphic one.

This picture is a complete statement insofar as vignettes go. In fact, Parker has put a great deal more work into this vignette than one might expect, as vignettes were generally considered second class to standard rectangular images. Vignettes are not supposed to be finished. They are supposed to have a surprising shape that creates a visual delight for the reader. (Dunn said that shape of vignette should be like a splash of ink on the page. He wasn't being literal. He meant, it should look like a kind of accidental event that breaks up the text.)

Richard said...
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Richard said...

His preliminaries show that the type was forefront in his design, and when his work so playfully works around and is even driven by that type, the vignette story doesn't seem to have traction.

It may be a complete statement absent the text, but it wasn't the complete statement. He knew perfectly well that his audience would be consuming his illustration as part of a larger artwork with multiple authors.

Do you judge every comic book page absent the speech bubbles, and argue that there's empty space in each panel because the artist was really into jarring negative space and vignetting?

No, the speech bubbles in the case of the comic book artist, or the typography in the case of the great illustrators, are part of the work.

A good comic book artist knows exactly how their pencils will interact visually with the bubbles. The speech bubbles and the pencils together make the statement.

Parker wasn't a fine artist, he was an illustrator. Illustrators and comic book artists are not merely fine artists forced into lesser artforms. You rob Parker of something by making him into a fine artist, just as you would rob a comic book artist of pretending that they just like drawing tiny facial vignettes in squares.

Richard said...

Which I suppose, if true, is a fairly depressing thing to say, since it would mean that if this final layout is lost, the work is as lost, as Tarzan would be lost if we only had Hogarth's pencils. Or the Venus of Willendorf is lost, in a way, even with the figurine in hand.

kev ferrara said...

I think you are reacting to a secondary problem, not the vignette itself. By this I mean; David has left a huge amount of meaningless white space in his representation of the vignette art to make a point, which bothers because it has no narrative meaning. And equally disturbing, he's cramped the right border against the art, in the process creating a terrible stress tension there.

If the piece were cropped just left of the phone receiver on the floor and a little more white space (or whatever is to the right of David's crop) were added in, the work would be framed more to its benefit.

Obviously this piece was designed to have the white space filled with a block of text that would act to stabilize the vignette, like a foot stomped down on the hem of a dress pulling away. The text though would not balance it in any sense; as you can see in his text design that he is not countermanding any forces in the illustration. Which again, goes to the point that the vignette itself is already in state of narrative completion. Which is to say, it causes the sense of uncomfortable suspense it intends in a world it sufficiently evokes, provided it is not burdened with white space it cannot activate or with stressful forces caused by overtight cropping it was not intended to deal with.

comicstripfan said...

“Bequeathed their collections”? The passage containing this phrase is very affecting - so much excellent art has been lost in disposable clippings and tearsheets - thank you for your custodianship Mr. Apatoff.

Richard said...

It would be cropped more to its benefit, but that also wouldn't be the composition that Parker created or intended.

kev ferrara said...

You are confusing design and composition.

Richard said...

It would be cropped more to its benefit, but that also wouldn't be the design that Parker created or intended.

Richard said...

(You could crop a comic panel for its benefit when it's missing the speech bubble, but that wouldn't be the panel design the artist created or intended.)

kev ferrara said...

It would be cropped more to its benefit, but that also wouldn't be the design that Parker created or intended.

Yes, but that's a different argument than saying that the vignette itself is incomplete as a narrative statement. Parker has considered both the total design and the composition of the narrative vignette unto itself. And this is to be expected. It is a truism/principle of both design and composition that framed sub-units must be considered as designs or compositions in their own right.

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Richard said...

On second thought, I think I just understated my core thesis. Not only is it not the design that Parker intended. It's not even the same art form that Parker intended.

Again, it's a comic book without the speech bubbles. It's reading Shakespeare as a book.

And sure, Willy may make for some fine reading in his own right, but that isn't the art form that Shakespeare was working in or intended.

One will end up making some egregious misinterpretations if they forget that Shakespeare intended his scripts to be acted.

Is it Ishiguro or Murakami who wrote the famous novel where there are no descriptions of any of the characters, and very little description of the setting? Either way --

The modern reader of 16th century playwrights might think them innovative modernist authors, since their strangely formatted novels don't describe the characters' dress or facial features and barely any setting.

Richard said...

(And they might even describe Shakespeare's "novels" as Narrative Vignettes, impressions, since they set no setting, describe no characters, and leave large areas of the background a flat light gray. )

Richard said...

(In this case, I think you are confusing "vignetting" with "a vignette". Parker used vignetting, but the piece was not a vignette -- it was an illustration always intended for type.)

kev ferrara said...

Dear Professor,

Not only have I been interested in, reading about, and drawing vignettes for a long time, but by a strange accident of fate, I've recently researched and written an essay on vignetting and vignettes - their use, techniques, and history - for an artist's monograph. So do forgive me if, at this particular salon, I choose to sky your frames.

Long Cy