Saturday, April 16, 2022


Compare these two city street scenes:


Both pictures show cars parked on the street in front of row houses with metal fences.  Both use heavy photo reference.  Yet, there's a big difference.  For me, one is clearly more successful.  Why?

To start, look at the cars pasted on the New Yorker cover.  They hover weightlessly, without a common foundation.

The cars in the second illustration are planted firmly on the ground, in perspective.

The fence in the New Yorker illustration depicts individual chain links on top of individual leaves-- details without much effect or purpose.

By contrast, the fence in the second illustration adds vigor and controls the depth and perspective in the image.  Note that this fence is not drawn mechanically.  It creates a realistic impression but there is not a single straight or measured line here: 

Next, compare the use of color.  The color in the New Yorker cover seems to come straight from a Photoshop bucket.  The heavy use of black to control value has a deadening effect on the other colors. 

But look at the use of color in the second image.  The imprimatura of raw sienna gives even the scumbled black fence posts a depth and a radiance.  This is an artist who understands color.  

There is obviously no single recipe for a good illustration.  Different treatments can be used to achieve different moods or themes.  But in my view the ingredients I've listed above, combined with others, create a huge difference in the quality of these two treatments of a similar scene.

So what accounts for the difference?

Personally, I think a large part of the difference stems from the fact that the second artist-- Bernie Fuchs-- paid his dues learning how to paint cars realistically from every angle before he ever began stylizing them.  Fuchs never had the luxury of cutting and pasting photo-illustrations on a computer.  He busted his ass studying the features on cars, blending colors, learning about reflection and painting effects with chrome.  

That way, when it came his turn to paint impressionistically and stylistically, he had already earned his opinions.  He worked from a position of strength, departing from realism as a purposeful, conscious choice.  

The surprising result is that his abstractions and exaggerations were far more bold and inventive than anyone who learned with digital shortcuts.


This last painting-- a car Fuchs saw in Puerto Rico-- was one of his favorites. 
It hung on the wall of his studio for years, and was there the day he died.

It is open to debate whether the differences in quality noted above are worth the dues they require.  After all, if the audiences (including the art directors) no longer care, or are no longer able to recognize the differences, it might make little economic sense for illustrators living in an era of digital labor saving devices to subject themselves voluntarily to the arduous paths of their forefathers.

I offer no opinion on this question.  For now I simply note that there is a difference.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022


 I love this picture by Gary Kelley:

Kelley contrasts the wild world outside with the civilization inside.  He has chosen his symbols artfully: a wolf howling in the night; a barely illuminated horizon giving us a glimpse of a savage terrain; indoors, a typewriter, a perfect symbol of order and civilization. 

But wait.  Something is amiss here.  The barrier between the two worlds has been breached, and the machine-- which once stood for the alphabet and straight, uniform rows of words-- has been trashed.  Kelley even used a cubist approach to tear the planes of the image asunder.  This is a disquieting theme for people who believed electric lights and climate controls would protect them.

What happened here? Has the wolf been in the house?  

Or was his feral call from outdoors enough to persuade the typist to renounce civilization?  Perhaps a writer concluded that intellect can only take art so far, and that, in the words of Nietzsche, "One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star."  To Kelley's credit, in the spirit of the wolf there is no linear answer here, only a rich and rewarding range of oblique explorations.     
Today, "conceptual" illustrators have lost interest in many of the traditional challenges of literal imagery.  Their goal is to express more abstract concepts using diagrams, visual metaphors and visual puns.  Unfortunately, when the idea behind a picture becomes more important than its execution or appearance, many artists take this as a license to draw like crap.  

This doesn't need to be.  Gary Kelley continues to show us that an artist can explore abstract conceptual issues without abandoning the serious challenges of traditional form creating work.  These images present ideas drawing upon the full menu of color, design, exaggeration, prioritization, mood, composition, etc. 

Here are some lovely examples for you to enjoy: