Friday, January 22, 2021


Most of the illustrators called upon to do reportorial pictures had the technical skills to capture many of the details that a photographer might have captured.  That was the whole point-- to help readers visualize a situation.  But Hank Virgona was different.  Many of his pictures were impressionistic clouds of nondescript businessmen in dark suits.

He illustrated articles about a jury's deliberations or about cocktail receptions where business executives discussed illegal price fixing schemes-- situations where a camera could not go, but where readers might benefit from images.  Virgona's images conveyed a tone or a mood, and broke up the text with designs, but no one would look to these illustrations for details of what occurred.


Virgona didn't need to interview witnesses and reconstruct the scene the way Burt Silverman, Harvey Dinnerstein and others in the this series did.  He could do many of these mood drawings without leaving his drawing board.  Still, they complemented the words in important ways and Virgona was employed by many of the important publications of his day.

His example highlights the range of roles that a reportorial illustrator might play.

In both subject matter and tone, many of Virgona's pictures seem to me to follow in the tradition of Daumier.


Virgona was fortunate among illustrators because at age 87, long after he retired, his grand nephew Matthew Kaplowitz made a prize winning documentary about Virgona's life and work, now available for viewing on Amazon Prime. The documentary interviews Virgona and his neighbors shortly before his death and shows how, without fame, fortune or good health, Virgona continued to commute to his studio in Manhattan to draw six days a week.  


Tom said...

David wrote,
"In both subject matter and tone, many of Virgona's pictures seem to me to follow in the tradition of Daumier."


Wes said...

A little muddy to me; but I like that he used various greens alot. Whats the deal with green? I had an art instructor that said green was the most challenging color to use effectivley. Why it that, if true, that is?

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Daumier's satirical cartoons and lithographs were how he first gained fame in France, so it's how many people think of him today, but I think his serious drawings and paintings are much stronger. Fortunately there is a comprehensive registry of his work which shows his drawings, watercolors and oil paintings, which tend to be much looser and more fluid than his political cartoons. I think if Daumier deserves our continued attention for artistic (rather than political/historical/sociological) reasons, it will be for lovely drawings such as this drawing of a lawyer pleading for his crooked client than the example you cited. His oil paintings are certainly very shadowy and dramatic and powerful, but when he turns to a combination of ink drawing and wash, he comes a lot closer to the tonal paintings that Virgona did.

Wes-- I understand your point; I think some of these examples are a little darker or muddier than I would normally prefer, although that seems to be a common failing among artists looking for a particular mood, from Rembrandt to Coppola's Godfather.

I've hear the same thing about green, that it is the most temperamental color, difficult to mix and use consistently, more likely to be fugitive after it has been applied. Perhaps some of our painting experts have an opinion on this?

kev ferrara said...

If this is journalism, that certainly explains journalism.

kev ferrara said...

Regarding Green, pigments variability isn't my area. But I think the aesthetic problems with it are interesting, stemming from distant instinctual hard wiring.

To start, because green is so ubiquitous in nature, and the widest band of the visible color spectrum by far, it is naturally the most banal color. (Gray and Brown are equally banal and rival green in ubiquity, but I'd classify them more as neutrals than colors per se.)

Yet, there is no more necessary color to support life than green. (green implies water and plant growth, thereby food sources.) So green is also quite intensely attractive to our attention. Not as intense as fruit colors, but fruit colors are very rare, so they are more of a relief to the monotony of green (and grays and browns) that appear in nature. Finding green is generally the long prelude to finding fruit colors (thus fruit.) If it weren't for the ubiquity and banality of green, fruit wouldn't be so striking.

So green is ubiquitous and easily obnoxious. Thus not an inherently good sensation to proffer to an audience. (I imagine the only people who delight in seeing greenery per se at the Botanical Gardens, are people who live lives surrounded by concrete, asphalt, plaster, metal, and brick.)

Next, because the natural world gives us yellow sunlight and blue distance, these colors, more or less, give us the two poles of a constant and naturally occurring color gamut. Equally important, colors of light in Nature mix additive. When blue and yellow light combine, what is formed is a very neutral lighter color, maybe only somewhat tinted toward green. Meanwhile, on the palette, if one mixes blue and yellow, the result is a decidedly strong green. So to get a natural effect on the palette, neutrals need to be interposed between the blue and yellow poles of the gamut; that is the natural color filtration found in nature in daytime.

Which is by way of saying that Green is outside of this naturally filtered gamut. The greener the green in a scene, the more likely it is to be far out of scheme and thus irritating and ugly. I am speaking about the out of doors here. In enclosed settings, primordially, generally green means mold and slime; not a healthy sleeping environment.

For all these reasons, I would guess green clothing is the least-worn color.

In terms of flesh, green flesh tones signal either slovenliness or a dangerous disease. Because green pigments tend to be so far out of scheme (and also so strong, like Pthalo) only a teensy tiny amount of green pigment can be used to mix into a flesh tone to get it feeling 'greenish.'

Which brings me to my last point; what is often thought of as a 'green' flesh tone is usually not. The actual color is a yellow that has been neutralized. This color only looks 'green' in the context of pinkish and peachy flesh tones.

Tom said...

That registry is great David thanks for posting it.

The first painting in the register of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a perfect example of my point. The pelvis of Don Quixote's horse is painted and drawn with perfect clarity. One doesn't draw a horse's pelvis in perspective without having put in his dues. Just like the lithograph I posted. A knowledge that Virgona's drawings clearly lack. I'm not saying Virgona's drawing are not good but I doubt he could execute the finished work Daumier accomplished. It's that knowledge that gives Daumier's quicker loose work it's quality. The reason I choose that picture to link too is it represents how much ability Daumier had as an artist not because it was representative of how people think of his work today.

Sloppy or loose execution does not automatically mean that there is a shared aesthetic between two artists. Once and artist has developed the skill of a Daumier it almost prevents poor execution. It is probably hard for Roger Federer to execute a sloppy backhand even though he may execute it loosely.

It's funny how moderns want to escape the work of the past by being original while at the same time claiming a link to that past with out really comprehending or developing the skills that pervious generations accomplished. Daumier doesn't disappoint the mind of the viewer when he leads the eye to the specifics of the forms he is representing.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I wholeheartedly agree with you that the artists who arrived at looseness by traveling through discipline end up making better art than lazy slobs who start loose and never get beyond it. Some of my favorite artists, such as Bernie Fuchs and Austin Briggs, traveled that hard road. Bernie once said that for him the difficult part was learning how to "control looseness." Some artists master control only to find that it has mastered them; we've seen lots of examples of artists who never escape in the "bad art" posts around here.

I also agree that Daumier's free, fluid line with colored washes slopped over it benefits greatly from that fact that Daumier "paid his dues."

Whatever you think of Virgona's drawings, I don't think his background is as far from discipline as you assume. Many decades ago he was doing oil painting illustrations for 17 Magazine which were much tighter. One of them, published in the Society of Illustrators annual (I'm guessing from the 1970s), was very different from what you see here, but I'm afraid I can't find it amongst my tearsheets just now. Virgona also did realistic oil paintings like this.

I'm always interested in the transition from tight to loose, for Virgona and for other artists. When is looseness the result of technical ignorance and when is it the result of expressive necessity? We often see artists reach the point where they realize that mere accuracy can no longer map the emotional landscape they're trying to confront. When artists get too definite about painting eyelashes and fingernails, they tend to get too definite about other elements that are better left less defined.

It seems to me, the question is where to stop on the road to looseness? And if you do go down that road, what kind of "Ariadne's string" do you leave behind so you can find your way back if you overshoot?

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks, I knew we'd have somebody out there who knew about green. The next question is, whats the deal with the color terre verte (green earth) which classical painters mix with other colors (including skin tones) to give everything a more natural, organic look?

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- PS: I tried to give you a link to the fourth of four paintings that Virgona did, a fairly tight still life, but could only manage to link to all four bundled together. Sorry about that. It was the fourth painting I wanted to show you.

kev ferrara said...

Terre Verte origanates as a neutralized brownish-green mineral, a color likely to be in-scheme right from the tube.

It was often applied as a glaze over an umber or dead color underpainting, which created only an even more neutralized earthy green, but with some glaze-depth. Then, after that stack of layers dried, its effect would be painted over/glazed over with flesh tones. The effect is to make pink and peachy flesh tones more vibrant and projective by comparison, where the terre verte subtly peeks through from underneath. Sometimes the undertone suggests veins seen through transclucent skin.

Now and again, we see terre verte glazes over skin tones in classical art, but never so opaque as to read as green, especially at viewing distance. These glazes tend to read as a fleshy soft gray tone with commingled sensations of pink and green. The same goes for its use in creating shade areas over deeper skin tones. Depending on the particular green-ness of the pigment, sometimes its glazed into the halftone region to suggest reflected light from the sky or from nearby greenery.

Wes said...

Thanks, Kev -- really insightful and interesting.

I was reading about problem and someone noted the fact that the most effective greens have orange in them, and sure enough, the first illustrations with greeens have quite a bit of earth tones and even orange. For an amateur like me, I would never "see" these things without the experts saying how to see them.


Anonymous said...

You can tell from that second picture that the artist understands bone structure and volume. Even the person with his back turned toward us is spot on. That's a very hard angle if you don't know what you're doing.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Thanks for the link David!

That is a nice painting David, but as we can only make comparison between things I don't think Virgona's painting reveals the knowledge and understanding that Daumier's lithograph does. But of course they grew up in different cultures that valued different things in art and received very different educations.

As far as looseness and control, that is why comprehending what you want to draw is so important. Then if you want to use a broom or a etching needle the work will meet with success. Comprehending is relating many parts at once or having the parts submit to one overriding idea that exerts control over details. The artist can then decide just how much "finish," he wants to give the work. One follows their feelings according to the outward nature of things. If one doesn't have an idea to express then a natural tendency is to fall into copying what one sees or hoping some sort of accuracy will lead to something artistic and of course the viewer senses that when they look at the work.

Looseness and control are points on a line so to speak. They don't cancel each other out. It might be better to think of them as complimentary. They enhance each other. Interestingly to get into the Beaux Arts in the 19th century one had to produce a fast drawing to gain acceptance as one's abilities would be revealed instantaneously. Even the architecture school required the fast sketch in the form of an Esquisse that was to be produce in short amount of time without the use of reference material. If the esquire was approved the architect had to bring the idea of the work to complete highly polished finish drawing in the form of an "analytique."

The harder job would be to put into words what actual qualities in the Virgona's drawings can be found in the Daumier drawings.

David Apatoff said...

The green illustrations were for a 1969 report in Fortune magazine about dirty money in corporate meetings behind closed doors. In fairness, the choice of green could be money related, and the muddy color could reflect the fact that these moguls were working in the shadows, behind closed doors.

Kev Ferrara-- As for "that certainly explains journalism:" to the extent that the purpose of journalism is to report facts, Virgona is certainly one of the most impressionistic of the artists doing reportorial work in those days. Still, I wouldn't say that these drawings are incorrect, I think they did a good job of supplementing the text and wooing readers into visualizing what transpired.

Also, in the last few months I've increasingly redirected my opprobrium from journalists to their audiences. There are an astonishing number of superstitious, loony people out there who pick their facts in whatever flavor makes them feel best -- chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. If one journalistic source won't make up stories they'd like to hear, they'll instantly migrate to parler or Qanon or any other goofy source. Can't blame journalism for that.

Wes-- Yes, it's especially interesting since green and orange nearly qualify as complementary colors (technically, green and red or blue and yellow). Yet, I'd remind that "effective" is as "effective" does. Bob Peak blew up the color wheel, juxtaposing new colors in ways that violated all the old assumptions and was quite effective.

JSL-- I agree. They are boldly simplified but the brow, cheekbones, eye sockets are all there.

chris bennett said...

I can add a few footnotes to Kev's excellent explanations on why 'it isn't easy being gween' when trying to appeal to the gallery going audience.

The ancient 'Apelles palette', and one adopted somewhat by Titian in his late years consisted essentially of four pigments: white, vermillion (a bright red), yellow ochre (an earthy yellow) and black. The old masters used an extended 'earthy' version of this mainly because anything approaching an intense blue was not available to them unless they could afford ground up Lapis Lazuli gem stone, a colour known to us in its synthetic form as French Ultramarine. All to say that anything approaching 'blues' in their paintings was mostly achieved with 'optical greys' wherein a lighter grey pigment is glazed or scumbled over a darker area to produce the cool colour effect seen when smoke drifts across a dark background. Thus greens were basically arrived at by an array of painterly tactics involving black, white and yellow ochre. So this colour in old pictures was, by circumstance, muted.

This is often argued to be the reason we find green problematic in paintings, that's to say; the programming of our expectations on what paintings should look like based on the past. But I believe this to be, fundamentally, an aesthetic choice regardless of pigment technology and entirely to do with the human mind's evolutionary hard wiring in relation to the natural environment, as instanced by Kev. I can only add that for painters, because green experienced in nature (with the exception of turquoise) is a textured chromatic sum of vegetation and rarely seen as a flat surface expanse, so its appearance in pictures, when unvariegated, tends to evoke flatness rather than a volume. This is because unadulterated greens are mostly associated with leaves seen close up. Turquoise, blue and violet behave in the opposite way.

kev ferrara said...

There's a difference between reportorial illustrations and illustrations that decorate reports. These are the latter.

There are an astonishing number of superstitious, loony people out there who pick their facts in whatever flavor makes them feel best...

Mobs are full of dumb people. Cults are full of smart people.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "Looseness and control are points on a line so to speak." Granted, but if those two points are the opposite ends of a spectrum the "relationship" may be more like a war.

"The harder job would be to put into words what actual qualities in the Virgona's drawings can be found in the Daumier drawings." Well, that's often a hard job, and people often sound foolish attempting to find words about pictures but making a sincere effort is what we try to do around here. My view is that both Virgona and Daumier combine a hard ink line with broad wet washes; both seem to like the "tidemark" from the puddle and make no effort to conceal it. With both, the line can be very loose and meanders all over the place, yet it always comes back and bites down hard at strategic points to let you know that the artist was never really lost. They both seemed to have a fondness for dark earth tone colors, employed dramatically for emphasis. Both seemed to get assignments to draw rows of faces of professional men; jurors, lawyers, government officials, etc.

I understand that Daumier did a lot of very different work for his published cartoons and political drawings, but his work that I described was what I meant when I saw a connection.

chris bennett-- I take your point about the qualities of green found in nature. Many of the artists I know hang around green pool tables and would faint if they were ever exposed to the great outdoors.

Kev Ferrara-- I'm not sure I understand either of your aphorisms. Most good reportorial illustrations decorate the text, among other things. If art directors didn't think illustrations made pages of text more attractive and approachable, there'd be no illustrations except maps or diagrams.

The opposite of your second aphorism is equally true; there are plenty of smart people in mobs and plenty of dopes in cults. But I'll give you points for pithiness, if nothing else.

kev ferrara said...

Most good reportorial illustrations decorate the text, among other things.

*Illustrations* decorate the text, among other things. Reportorial illustrations journalize a moment, while decorating the text, among other things.

I mean, reporters... journalists... they have a remit, no? To set the scene as it was; the characters, the era, the weather, the time, the atmosphere; offering small true and telling details, curious particulars, used to evoke more than what can be said. A particular kind of tie. A piece of branding or signage. The usage of a technology unique to that time and place. A habit unique, an affectation of dress, a recurring hand gesture, etc.

To illustrate a 'kind of scene' from imagination is not to document it from experience. Except insofar as any imaginative work of art, which relies upon memories and feelings and whimsy, can be said to be journalistic. A stretch by any stretch to call a Peter Max painting journalism.

That second green picture with the grim men conferring... What caption wouldn't fit its vague generalities? "The weary officers drank coffee 90 feet below the combat on the street." "Dr. Freud soon found he was tired of The Dresden Café." "Jack Benny's writers had simply run out of ideas." "The experimental Lodge meeting in the woods bore little fruit." "The scuttlebutt was that the Yankees were going to trade Maris." "The Rabbis discussed Speilberg's movie." "The Danish Parliament..." "The Russians...." "The Clockmaker's union..." and so on.

There are plenty of smart people in mobs and plenty of dopes in cults.

As a general matter, 'intellectuals' tend to absorb complex verbal indoctrination into systemic and ideological paradigms and to conspire amongst their confreres as to how to fight the other through proxies. While knuckle-draggers take direct physical action based on hyper-agitating fake news stories and emotion-eliciting speechifying.

Since a cult without a mob under its sway has no power, and a mob without a demagogue has no direction, I agree there is overlap.