Thursday, September 09, 2021

SEVEN LESSONS IN SEVEN SENTENCES

An 18 year old cartoonist named Charles was exhausted and disappointed after being rejected by every employer in town, but before giving up he decided to give art one last try.  

His father waited impatiently for Charles to abandon cartooning and get a "decent," financially stable job. 

Charles knocked on the door of a struggling start up magazine, fully expecting another rejection, but to his shock the editor purchased one of his cartoons.

Thinking he'd finally found his market niche, Charles hastily prepared twelve more cartoons, all of which were quickly rejected.

Charles was devastated, so the editor took the young cartoonist to lunch and coached him about life and art.

Eager for attention, Charles drew a brash cartoon insulting an author at a rival magazine; the rival magazine complained about the "tasteless" cartoon, but then tried to hire Charles.

Charles declined the lucrative offer, staying loyal to the editor of the start up who took him to lunch.

                                    *                *                *                *

The "Charles" in my story was Charles Dana Gibson.  He was paid a total of $4 for that first cartoon, which he sold to a start up magazine called Life.  His "insulting" cartoon (published on January 6, 1887) depicted writer Robert Louis Stevenson as gay.  Rival magazine Puck attacked Life for the tasteless cartoon, but tried to lure Gibson away with a long term contract.  Gibson turned down Puck because he was so grateful to the editor of Life for taking him to lunch.

As Frank Mott wrote in his epic five volume History of American Magazines, Gibson's decision "turned out to be very lucky for Life."

Three years later, in 1890, Charles invented the Gibson girl, which became an international sensation.

  Gibson's cartoons turned out to be hugely profitable for Life and helped solidify its position.  It also made Gibson fabulously wealthy-- wealthy enough to please even his father.  As Susan Meyers noted in her book, America's Great Illustrators, 

All this fanfare over Gibson's work represented a major turning point in publishing history.  Never before had an illustrator so influenced American business; never before had so much money been earned from the creation of a single artist. As magazines competed for his services, the stakes grew higher and higher.  

Collier's magazine agreed to pay Gibson $1,000 per drawing for 100 drawings, but Gibson "categorically refused to desert Life, ever loyal to [the editor who had taken him to lunch]." 

Gibson ended up owning Life magazine and living on his own private 700 acre island. 

His example contains lessons for everybody.





In addition to his "Gibson Girl," Charles became an excellent draftsman capturing a
wide variety of faces, expressions and archetypes for his social commentary.



Monday, August 30, 2021

THE DOLLAR IMPACT OF CARTOONS


This week an appellate court in New Jersey ruled on the economic impact of cartoons. (Michelle Migut v. State of New Jersey Administrative Office of The Courts, Docket no. A-2787-18)

A woman claimed she experienced pain and suffering because she had to walk down a flight of stairs during a fire drill.  She said that a prior foot injury gave her a rare condition known as "complex regional pain syndrome" (CRPS). This CRPS caused her to experience "a lot of pain" when she had to use the stairs rather than the elevator, so she sued her employer for millions of dollars.  

 The lawyer for the plaintiff, perhaps doubting her ability to persuade the jury with mere words, commissioned three cartoons to use with the jury:


The cartoons must have been effective because the jury saw them and awarded $2.5 million in damages.  This confirms what I've long suspected: cartoonists are underpaid.

On appeal, the defendant claimed the drawings improperly influenced the jury. This forced the appellate court to analyze key issues of aesthetic theory that have long puzzled the sages.

The court decided to overturn the verdict for several reasons.

The court was obviously no fan of artistic license.  It ruled, 
The cartoon of a woman in a wheelchair with no legs sitting in front of a closed elevator with smoke bore no resemblance to the plaintiff, who has legs and does not rely on a wheelchair. It also mischaracterized the circumstances of the events, which unfolded in the context of a fire drill, not an actual fire. 
This is a very literalist approach to art by a court that is apparently steeped in the traditions of 19th century realism. We are forced to ask: Would an abstract expressionist court have been more open minded?

Second, when the cartoons were used at trial the judge instructed the jury to disregard them because they were "inflammatory and misleading." The appellate court nevertheless overturned the verdict because it believed the jury would not be able to forget the pictures. "The instruction to ignore... after the jury had already seen them was not sufficient." In other words, the prejudicial effect of a picture cannot be overcome by mere words. The court's ruling goes straight to the heart of aesthetic theory about the relative impact of words and pictures.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the trial court might have avoided reversal if it had used 3,000 words to instruct the jury. However, if 3 pictures are worth $2.5 million, we may have entered a new paradigm in faded bromides about art.

Finally, the appellate court, warming to its new role as art critic, disapproved of the way the drawings distorted the jury's view of reality and thereby "inflated compensation for the plaintiff's alleged emotional distress." One cartoon depicted the plaintiff's employer as a "buffoon." Another cartoon of "a woman covering her face with her hands under the title: 'Compensation for Emotional Damages' was an appeal to sympathy intended to inflate compensation...."

Philosophers and aesthetes may haggle endlessly about the metaphysics of art, but as I've said before, if you need a concrete answer you're always better off consulting a lawyer.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

GARTER BELTS, THEN AND NOW

Compare this picture of a garter belt by Olivia de Berardinis...

...with this one by John Sloan:
 
John Sloan, Subway Stairs, 1926

Why is the Sloan illustration more suggestive and provocative?  What makes it a more successful work of art?

In Sloan's picture, a random updraft reveals a small, brief glimpse of thigh in an otherwise cold, impersonal sea of travelers bundled in winter coats.  Look at the narratives that radiate from those few inches of flesh:  Only one person (presumably Sloan) among hundreds is positioned to witness this unexpected gift:


The experience clearly left an impression on him.

The woman catches him looking:



Is he embarrassed?  Does he avert his eyes?  What is she thinking?  She can't hold down her dress because her arms are full.  Does propriety even matter any more if they're anonymous ships passing in the night?  Her face, her exposed thigh and the back of the man's head form a narrative triangle here.  It took Sloan seven versions of this drawing before he felt he got the balance just right. 

Olivia's fantasy trambo, on the other hand, has no such narratives.  She's too one-dimensional to contain penetralium. 

Amorous pictures today have become fairly predictable, even from masters of the skill such as Frank Cho or Adam Hughes.  We see the same routine provocative poses with the same anatomical distortions.  We see nudity, or at least an abundance of flesh, drawn with the same smooth, rounded lines.  We see soft, blended colors.  When censorship disappeared and printing quality improved, the same formulas became more and more entrenched. 

But 100 years ago, artists working with far less freedom and more primitive tools created pictures that were more intense than much of what is produced today.  Creativity, like passion, often comes from constrained circumstances. 

For example, etchings-- an inky black medium full of smudges and scratchy lines-- could be quite steamy, especially capturing moments of passion in a gritty, urban world.       


Edward Hopper (above) and John Sloan (below) show us couples grasping for intimacy in a crowded city.  These drawings capture serious moments that we know were preceded by hours of anticipation and followed by hours of reflection.



In Sloan's etching, Turning Out The Light, we see a woman preparing to remove her nightgown but simultaneously turning out the light.  There will be no unearned intimacy for us here; our imaginations will have to work for it.  But these are figures with real humanity, and the expression on her face as she looks over her shoulder at her partner shows us that there is another worthwhile narrative taking place. 


This last etching by Hopper, Evening Wind, is a sensuous tour de force.  Once again an errant breeze plays a central role.  


This time it brings relief from the heat of the city in an era before air conditioning.  Hopper didn't need spandex or corsets or stiletto heels.  He didn't need huge breasts.  His evocation of the sweetness of sticky summer sweat is enough to demonstrate the difference between a real artist and amateurs.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

ALL YOU NEED ARE FEET

Feet can tell you everything you need to know about a relationship.

Jon Whitcomb sells silverware

ad for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau
 

In these two pictures, the women are obviously in control while the men dither.  

But linger a while.  Consider the subtler shades of meaning that pictures are able to communicate:  In the first picture the woman leans in, but her hands remain clasped demurely over her knees because she ain't giving anything away until the deal is sealed.  


The man leans in too; his legs are spread and his arm buttresses his stance-- he knows what he wants.  Yet, his wobbly feet betray his confusion because he's not in control of the negotiations and doesn't know what it will cost him.  

By comparison, the woman's legs are aimed like an Exocet missile.  He has the color of putty while she has the high contrast, red and white coloration of fight-or-flight.  Fire.  Blood. 

All this is conveyed without a single facial expression or word.

Now contrast the first picture with the second picture.  The ring box on the floor tells us why the woman is acting with more abandon.  The lighting in the apartment is lower.  The man's feet go from wobbly in the first picture to almost panicking in the second picture.  (Is his leg even raised a little defensively against the angle of her attack? He knows what he wants but seems a little unsettled by the prospect of getting it.) The sponsor's coffee only appears at the very edge of the picture, a product the company somehow wants us to associate with happy times on a sofa.  And of course, couples can enjoy coffee without requiring a bridal registry, unlike silverware.

In this next picture, we know right away we are dealing with a younger couple.  The artist has shown us malt shop chairs and bobby sox.

ad for Griffith Shoe Polish

Even at this younger age, the girl understands things the boy doesn't.  We don't need to see the boy's blushing face to tell that he is tense and confused.   His feet are straight, rigid and facing forward, rather than mirroring the angle of the girl's feet.  He knows he likes it but he isn't clear what he's supposed to do.

Art equips us with a richer vocabulary for exploring the range of complex human emotions.  The language of pictures can use feet to convey complicated feelings but it can also use hands, or folds in clothing, or shadows on a wall, or the tilt of a picture or its coloration.  It can use activity or quiescence, it can convey meaning with gaps or overlapping layers.  It might even use facial expressions.  The language of words can't hope to keep up.  And if we look at pictures with some self-awareness, we may get sensitized in the process.

What's going to happen to the people in these relationships?  Perhaps some of the women pictured here will get married, become disappointed in their loutish husbands and ultimately decide they can't take it anymore.

Well, feet can tell that story too: 



Monday, July 19, 2021

NEW BOOK FROM TOM FLUHARTY

 Tom Fluharty is an artist with great enthusiasms.  

When he became enthused about dogs, he produced a torrent of drawings and paintings of dogs.  


They were marvelous-- funny, smart and truly insightful about the nature of dogs.




Then for a while he became infatuated with sharks.  He also produced a series of pictures of rock stars, and then a series of orchestra conductors.  Each time, he burrowed into his theme with enthusiasm and energy.  You can see in his drawings the pleasure he takes in playing with the character of his subjects.  

Now it's time for cowboys.

Fluharty has produced a brand new book full of drawings of cowboys.  

As with his previous infatuations his cowboy pictures are a delight, full of loving details, hilarious facial expressions and a variety of situations.  


The book contains 72 pages of new drawings in Fluharty's trademark indigo blue pencil.  I recommend it to all connoisseurs of draftsmanship.  

Fluharty's web site offers two options.  You can either order the regular book, or for those interested in owning an original, Fluharty is also offering a special inscribed edition of the book with an original drawing.    

Monday, July 05, 2021

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 66

 I love this tiny (221 × 152 mm) etching by Paul Klee, Suicide from the Bridge.

Smart, funny, compact, dense with meaning-- this little doodle from 1916 is everything that conceptual art today should be but rarely is.

There's sparse room for detail, so Klee chose to define our hero by his hat and moustache-- excellent choices!

Here Klee shows us the weight of time as the moment of destiny approaches:



The path from the bridge down to the water below is filled not just with wind currents and birds... 




... but also with gods and demons.




Splat!!!


X marks the spot

100 pounds of content in a one ounce package.




Tuesday, June 29, 2021

DRAWING ON A SHOPPING BAG

 The brilliant Mort Drucker had the world's greatest arsenal of faces.



Detail





Where did all those incredible faces come from?  

Drucker said that when his wife went shopping for clothes, she'd take him along to sit outside the dressing room with other husbands while she tried on different outfits.  As long as he was stuck there, he took advantage of the time to study faces and sometimes sketched them for future use.   




Detail

There's no guarantee that, if you remain constantly observant and draw on every available surface, you too will be able to draw great faces.  But it sure couldn't hurt.  

Sunday, June 20, 2021

UNCONQUERABLE SOULS

Andrew Wyeth painted this picture shortly after the muscles in his shoulder had been severed.  He couldn't even hold a brush without supporting his hand using a sling suspended from the ceiling. 


Wyeth suffered from bronchiectasis, a frequently fatal disease, and had most of a lung removed in a major operation in which he nearly died.  During the operation, doctors severed his shoulder muscles and it was questionable whether he would ever paint again.  While recuperating from his operation, Wyeth struggled to paint this picture. Every blade of grass must have been painted in pain.

Bernie Fuchs painted this next picture seven years after three of his fingers had been sliced from his drawing hand in an industrial accident.


When he got out of the hospital, he couldn't even figure out how to hold a piece of charcoal with his remaining fingers.  No one believed a career as an artist was remotely feasible.

Degas suffered from poor vision his entire adult life, and by his forties was virtually blind in his right eye.  By the time he turned 60, he frequently wore spectacles that were completely blacked out except for a small slit in the left lens.  It was under these conditions that he painted several of his masterpieces, including this picture:


It's amazing how many great artists started out with bad breaks and terrible odds.  

The fabulously successful Al Dorne was born in the slums of New York and grew up fatherless in abject poverty.  As a child suffering from tuberculosis, malnutrition and heart disease, it appears that he only survived because a social worker ordered him removed to a charity hospital.  Dorne quit school after 7th grade to support his mother, two sisters and younger brother by selling newspapers on a street corner.  He taught himself to draw by looking at the pictures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Even the aristocracy of illustration such as Norman Rockwell or Mead Schaeffer or Henry Raleigh scratched and clawed to overcome the odds as starting illustrators after their peers had became daunted and gave up.  Rockwell spied on his idol J.C. Leyendecker to learn his techniques.  He lied to the art director of Collier's, claiming to be from San Francisco because he heard the art director favored artists from San Francisco.  Mead Schaeffer snooped on an art director's desk and intercepted an assignment intended for another artist.  

Perhaps because they grew up in a dog-eat-dog world with no illusions about what it took to survive, these great artists also tended to seek out the toughest most demanding teachers they could find, teachers who'd regularly beat the stuffing out of them.  


Robert Fawcett went on a pilgrimage to London to study for two years at the Slade School, which was in those days a grueling, medieval type institution famous for teaching students to draw through old fashioned traditional methods which Fawcett described as "torture."  Norman Rockwell took lessons from the demanding George Bridgman who scolded his students that they'd end up shoveling coal for a living.  Rockwell also valued the critiques from Leyendecker who taught by "tearing my pictures to pieces."  Rockwell said, "You never ask [Leyendecker]... what he thought of your painting unless you wanted a real critique; he thought nothing of [saying]...You'd best scrap it and start over."  Mead Schaeffer walked away from a scholarship at Pratt to learn by cleaning Dean Cornwell's brushes for free because he valued Cornwell’s blunt criticism: “[Cornwell] didn’t pull any punches. I learned so fast that I did three years in one. It was a great stroke of luck.... Dean Cornwell was the single most important contributor to my development.”


Andrew Wyeth said that he submitted himself to not one but two harsh masters: "Jesus, I had a severe training with my father, but I had a more severe training with Betsy [his wife]."  


Perhaps these artists had heard the call from Walt Whitman:

Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

I've thought about this in recent years as I've read about disputes at some of today's prominent art schools for illustrators.  I've read complaints on social media from students who say that their instructors don't make them feel "validated" and aren't sufficiently "encouraging."  I've read web platforms that have been set aside as "safe spaces" where art students can complain about their schools or instructors without the school or instructor being permitted to respond or dispute the story.  I've read complaints that instructors have given poor grades without due consideration to how students have been traumatized by the recent political environment.

As a general matter, I think everyone should treat everyone else with sensitivity and fairness. I also think the priorities now being expressed are likely to increase the number of art students who feel validated. However, looking back at the types of artists who not only survived but thrived in changing markets, these recent exchanges don't seem destined to foster resilient, successful illustrators.

Perhaps an art history class on basic survival skills should be added to the modern curriculum.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

BLACK AND WHITE AIN'T BLACK AND WHITE

 What great powers reside in black and white!


Bruce Eric Kaplan


Jeff MacNelly's view of mideast peace negotiations


Gerard DuBois


 "Which Way?" etching by Martin Lewis: Darkness as uncertainty



Detail, Martin Lewis



 "Who Are They?" by Saul Steinberg: Mystery emerging from blackness
Thousands of years ago, Egyptians priests stared up at the stars and mapped their notion of the cosmos in black and white:


Astronomical ceiling in the tomb of Senenmut, Dynasty xviii, era of Hatshepsut

Ancient Egypt was divided by the Nile river: the east side of the river, where the sun rose, was considered the side of life.  The west side, where the sun set, was the side of death.  
The sun god Ra made his daily journey across the sky, from light to blackness, in "The Boat of Millions of Years." When Pharaohs died, they were transported across the Nile to the mausoleums and the funerary Valley of the Kings, on the side of the setting sun.  


Ra  proclaimed: "When I open my eyes it is light; when I close them it is dark."  From this black-and-white duality, Ra earned a thousand additional names: "I am the Sole Creator, the child of the watery abyss. I am the god with a thousand names, but my secret name was only spoken once, before time began."  Ra's spoken names included:


The Renewer of Earth
The Maker of Time
The Exalted One
The Wind in the Souls
The Shining One
Spark of the Fire of Life
The Giver of Festivals
Setter of the Horizons
The Maker of the Heights and the Depths
The Hidden One

All these roles are facets that arise from the richness of black and white.  The ancient Egyptians understood why black and white ain't black and white, but sometimes I fear we've lost touch with that wisdom.  


These days, artist friends rush to adopt the digital sculpting toolZbrush.  This amazing software enables beginners to skip over years of training, frustration and thinking so they can make photorealistic images in a year. The tool can be used for modeling, texturing and painting. It manages the lighting, color, material, orientation, and depth for every object in a picture.  Yet with all these new superpowers, some artists are afraid to be left naked and alone with black and white.


Digital tools have become so powerful it's sometimes impossible to tell who did what. Are we witnessing the genius of the artist or the genius of the software engineer?  There's a sameness to the work of the software, but one can't tell for sure until the electricity goes out.  


I value each of the black and white pictures in this post as a personal expression of the true artist.  Here is the creativity that springs from the fertile dichotomy of black and white.  The edges are a little rougher but you can tell from a mile away that you're seeing the artist, not the tool, at work.



Harold von Schmidt,  Death Comes For the Archbishop