Tuesday, June 29, 2021


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


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.   


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


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 become 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 felt 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


 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

Sunday, June 06, 2021


Not every good idea finds a client, despite the fact that plenty of bad ones do.

His royal highness, King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) was a wealthy patron of the arts.  He prided himself on commissioning work from the finest painters.  He learned of a promising artist in Rome, Federico Zuccaro, and summoned him to Spain for an audition: to paint an altar painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds.  

As Zuccaro unveiled his finished masterpiece in front of the King, he promised, "Your majesty, this is the highest that art can get."  But Phillip noticed a shepherd holding a basket of eggs, and felt there were too many eggs in the basket.   So he fired Zuccaro and sent him packing, ending the artist's golden opportunity.

The king is the boss, so his taste governs.  

However, it turns out that every boss has a boss.  Philip also commissioned six paintings by Titian prominently featuring nude women.  Philip's wife Elizabeth didn't like that one bit, and forced him to cover Titian's paintings with drapes whenever she was home.

The path of art is altered by bad clients.  Like a rogue ball bearing, they affect the careers of artists and the direction of art in unexpected ways.  

I've previously written about how artist Frank Brangwyn was fired from his commission to paint the epic Empire panels because certain members of the House of Lords felt his art was too "colorful."  Lord Crawford in particular complained that there were ''tits and bananas'' in the paintings, so the lovely work was never completed.

Brangwyn learned his lesson and the next time a client complained about a mural, Brangwyn changed the painting and got paid.

I've also written about how artists such as Norman Rockwell and Austin Briggs chafed under the racial censorship policies of their client, The Saturday Evening Post and eventually left that client. The artistic innovations of Bernie Fuchs were spurned by bureaucratic art directors who insisted on following a corporate formula so eventually Fuchs became a freelancer painting Italian landscapes.

Rather than submit to changes demanded by his client, Diego Rivera said he preferred that his mural be destroyed.  And it was. 

And of course, over the centuries morons on the left and morons on the right have substituted their politics for aesthetics.  

On the other hand, sometimes clients have a legitimate gripe.  British shipping magnate Frederick Leyland refused to pay artist James Whistler for a mural because Whistler was probably having an affair with Leyland's wife.  ("If I find you in her society again," he snarled, "I will publicly horsewhip you.")

Claes Oldenberg was commissioned to draw a poster for the Passloff Dance Company.  He came up with this:

I kind of like it, but the client rejected it because they seemed to think their name was "illegible."

My point is that, while most art historians don't pay attention to the issue, the gravitational pull of clients can have a significant impact on the resulting work.

That's why many of the artists I respect the most are the ones who recognize that there will not always be a client for every good idea.  If an artist has the guts to pursue good ideas to the best of their ability, they'll sometimes have to do it on their own.  

Nathan Fowkes said, "Sometimes at work I just want to stare blankly out the window, but I had my whole palette of paints right in front of me so why not turn it into a sketch? So all of these images are a careful chronicle of me doing something other than what I was being paid for."

The lesson he learned from this?  "The variety was quite surprising; changes in weather and atmosphere made the exact same scene have quite a different mood from day to day."

Another good example is John Cuneo, who is widely known for his New Yorker covers but whose highest art is his personal work, which could never make it through a corporate de-flavorizing machine.   

Multinational clients have poured hundreds of  millions of dollars into digital art, yet the path of digital painting has been transformed by the personal work of artists fooling around in their spare time.  Craig Mullins, the father of digital painting, has reshaped the field with his innovations.

Mullins speaks insightfully about the value of experimentation and play, free from the deadlines or specifications of a client: 

People are always asking me, “what’s your process?“ I think it’s unfortunate when artists can answer that, and come up with a linear process. I'm always trying to fit things together in strange ways.  That’s what I’m doing when I play around.  Of course, it has a very low chance of success so I can’t do that when I'm on deadline.   I have to set aside time in order to break things and experiment.... If I experiment and get something to work, then I can move it over to the A-list. 

 Mullins has worked for many of the biggest clients on some of the most important and influential digital projects, but he has to hold those clients at bay and take time off from juicy assignments to develop as an artist.