Saturday, December 28, 2019


We've come to the end of another year.  

Specialty drawing by Leonard Starr for the Detroit Press Club in a different era

My sincere thanks to all of you for your interesting comments and suggestions throughout the year, especially for those insults intended to shake me out of my reveries. You've broadened my experience and sharpened my vocabulary, and I appreciate it. 

Here's wishing you a joyful 2020!

Thursday, December 19, 2019


This full-page illustration from a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine required the combined talents of four different creators plus a computer

The New York Times separately credits the photographer of the tower, the photographer of the trees and the photographer of the vulture, as well as the "illustrator" who glued them all together on a colored background. 

Let's face it, this picture required only limited artistic choices:  which photo of a vulture to pick from the internet? Whether to paste that cupola a little further to the left or the right? How far to push the color balance slider?  These are the art choices of decoupage. 

I welcome the computer as an artistic tool when it enhances an artist's expressive range.  Even added efficiency is a welcome contribution.  But that's not what's happening here.  A capable illustrator using traditional materials could've completed this job in a day.

Why is so much illustration like this today? It fills its allotted space just fine, but what is there to admire about the talents required for this kind of image?  Are we seeing creative responses to genuine artistic challenges?  Are we witnessing the quirks or eccentricities of the human imagination?  Are there any manifestations of admirable manual skill or dexterity or taste?  

The golden age of illustration-- a glorious century in the history of art--  was only made possible by new technologies, but ultimately the age was ushered out again by newer technologies, more efficient but less hospitable to the artistic imagination.  

The golden age began when high quality reproduction, new kinds of paper, better methods of printing and distribution encouraged unprecedented enthusiasm for images.  These innovations spawned a veritable Cambrian explosion, with hundreds of glossy full color magazines creating an unprecedented platform for illustrations.  On this new platform, artistic quality was still tested by what I consider a higher set of artistic challenges: 

  • Artists had to master the hydrology of liquid media (learning to control liquid, but not too much). 
  • Artists had to take tincture from minerals in the ground and wrestle with their obdurate molecules to transform them into the appearance of totally unlike substances: water, clouds, organic matter, light 
  • Artists had to master the physical gestures of art-- impulses that started with the human nervous system and found expression through the wrist, elbow or even the shoulder (as opposed to the touchpad or keyboard).
  • Because they were wrestling with physical media in the physical world, artists had to risk starting over if a picture didn't work out because the consequences of a failure couldn't be contained in a separate Photoshop layer. This gives different meaning to an artist's willingness to gamble and to the psychology of maintaining high standards.

It's no wonder that these artists-- Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Charles Dana Gibson, Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington, James Montgomery Flagg, and many others-- were folk heroes in ways that today's "photo-illustrators" can never be.  For all the gross inefficiencies and manual labor involved in working with physical media in the physical world, creativity seems to come out of constrained circumstances.  If you compare the images from these different periods in the history of illustration, it would appear that the process of wrestling with the angel summoned a grander set of choices and commitments.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Steve Martin has a comedy routine about how to make a million dollars without paying taxes. "First," he says, "get a million dollars. Then, don't pay the taxes."

I figured that a "how-to" book on painting from Nathan Fowkes would be similar: First, pick up a brush. Then use your exquisite sense of color, your natural gift for design and your light, nimble touch to make a picture."

As a result, I wasn't expecting that his new book would be much more than a portfolio of his watercolors. Still, that was sufficient reason to order it.  The paintings in this book are quite beautiful and the reproduction is excellent (which is crucial for any collection of Fowkes' art).

But I was especially pleased to find a thoughtful book full of practical, insightful suggestions.

For example, I've always admired Fowkes' ability to simplify complex colors and forms, distilling his subjects to their essence.

On this subject, he recommends "finding a simple statement" by honing in on the quality that made you choose to paint that particular scene in the first place, then editing anything that might distract from that quality.  How exactly are we supposed to do that? He offers tips ranging from squinting your eyes, to forcing prioritization by giving yourself a firm 20 minute deadline to paint a complicated subject, or starting with a basic value statement and adding only a few strategic details.  As another exercise in simplification, he talks about limiting your entire painting to 20 brush strokes.

He also offers personal commentary such as his decision to get rid of his TV: "the TV would call to me from the next room, and when the inevitable frustrations of learning something new would hit, the TV was just too tempting of an escape.  I realized I could never have the level of focus that I needed as long as there was a constant distraction right there in the next room."  The book even talks about  dealing with mosquitoes when trying to paint on site.

An excellent book by an excellent artist.