Monday, April 22, 2024


This drawing by James Montgomery Flagg is as confident and brash as Flagg himself.

The drawing is large-- nearly 30 inches (76 cm) and appears to have been drawn mostly from the elbow.

Like Franklin Booth, Flagg created values using numerous parallel lines:


However, unlike Booth, Flagg used bold lines, aggressively combining pen and brush.  Booth carefully planned his drawings, but you can see from Flagg's pencil lines how loose and fluid his preparations were.

This is not digital drawing.  You don't see much like it these days. 


Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Franklin Booth (1874-1948) learned to draw by studying wood engravings in magazines while he was growing up on a farm in Indiana.  He mistakenly thought the engravings had been created with pen and ink, and so developed his highly unusual drawing style simulating engraving lines.

I usually prefer drawings with a more direct and expressive line, as opposed to  clusters of lines used to create values.  There always seems to be more painstaking effort than necessary in Booth's drawings.  Still, when you look at extreme closeups of what Booth accomplished, you have to respect his consummate craft.  


I'm impressed that as a wrangler of all those lines,  Booth is able to maintain such control over lights and darks.  That's not easy:

Contrast Booth's drawing with the work of other, lesser artists who let their lines get out of control: 

John Buscema, inks by Alfredo Alcala

Reed Crandall

Some fans are impressed by the sheer level of effort in drawings containing thousands of fine lines, as if the level of work gives the picture credibility.  But Booth's gift has nothing to do with making lots of scratchy little lines.  It's not the manual labor,  it's the control.

Saturday, April 06, 2024


The stories in comics, pulp magazines, science fiction and fantasy were never subtle about the proper roles for men and women.  Here is Flash Gordon by the great Alex Raymond:

We see a similar perspective in Prince Valiant (1972), drawn here by John Cullen Murphy:

In 1959, Hal Foster drew our hero taking a more hands on approach:

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

The politics of these stories have been the subject of robust debate.  I leave that debate to others. 

What interests me is that the words are only one small part of narrative art, and the non-verbal portion-- the lines, colors and shapes-- can express a gender orientation of their own.  

In the 1950s, illustrator Albert Dorne was commissioned to illustrate a story for Cosmopolitan magazine. The story involved a barn that burned down at night, a cow, and a young couple confronted by crooks.  Dorne turned in this powerful illustration:

But Cosmopolitan rejected the picture.  Dorne recalled the phone call he received from the art director:
"Albert, your drawing is swell but we are afraid our readers will not like it.  The violent fiery red is a bit frightening, the interpretation too literal.  We have found from our readership polls, etc. etc. Would you mind doing it over?" 
Dorne was irritated.  He recalled, "The audience in mind being primarily women, I knew I couldn't actually show fire, so I... created the illusion of fire by lighting the picture with a deep fiery glow from off stage."  But that wasn't sufficient.  The picture's strong, high contrast treatment, with pointed fingers, sharp angles, extreme positions and facial expressions was still viewed as too yang for a female audience. 

Cosmopolitan presented Dorne with "a layout designed in a much lighter vein and quite gay in its concept."  The art director explained, "This is the sort of thing our readers like."

Dorne (a powerful, cigar smoking man and former prizefighter) bitterly started over and this time turned in a much softer, pinker, friendlier picture:

To his amazement, Dorne received a flood of compliments for the revised illustration, not just from the readers of Cosmopolitan but from art directors of other women's magazines who thought that Dorne's light and charming style would be well suited for their audiences.  

This was not a conspiracy between a male artist and a male art director.  The patriarchy had nothing to do with these aesthetic choices.  These were the colors, lines and shapes proven to induce more women to buy and read the magazine. 

Friday, March 22, 2024


There's a long tradition of wars with-- and about-- ink:

 (The Ink Battle by Utagawa Kuniyoshi 1843)

Ink has left a trail of rivalry, braggadocio, hostility and sometimes just general commotion.

Ink as a weapon can be flung, spattered and scrubbed; it can be a tool for slapstick and a tool for marking rivals with an indelible stain.  

(Toshikage, 7 Gods Fighting with Ink, 1888)

(The Ink War)

There's no denying the yang in ink. Even when it's not literally ammunition, it frequently serves as metaphorical ammunition. It settles scores.  It inflicts harm.  It leaves a fossil record of violent action.  

(Ralph Steadman, the Malevolence of War)

But when it comes to the heart of ink, Alice Mollon may have a wiser understanding. 

Alice Mollon's illustration of ink slipping nude into the world

It's not that Kuniyoshi is wrong; it's just that there are more important truths in Mollon's delicious picture of ink taking form from the brush.

Look how smart this picture is. At first it seems simpler than the pictures above-- flat blank background, simple digital colors, one figure, few details, uncluttered.


But the few subtle details are so well chosen, anything more would've been less.  The toes turned inward, the brush that doubles as hair so effectively, the raised arms that help create a feeling of liquid flowing from the concealment of the brush, to take shape on the dry surface below.  This picture reminds me of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.   

Nicely done.

Friday, March 08, 2024


 "To live is to war with trolls." -- Ibsen

Anthropologists tell us that primitive cultures believed art had supernatural properties. Prehistoric tribes thought that striking a drawing of an animal on a cave wall would give them luck in the hunt. 

Diorama from the Field Museum in Chicago

Apotropaic images were believed to contain protective magic. Ancient Egyptians believed that images had the power to connect them with the gods, and that carvings in tombs would come alive in the afterlife.   

They also believed that a person would be destroyed if his cartouche was obliterated.

It's a measure of the lasting power and mystery of art that even in modern times, superstitious and ignorant people continue to believe that destroying an image will obliterate their enemies.

Moron destroying a painting of Lord Balfour in Cambridge.

The epidemic of primitive brutes fearful of art's magic seems to have spread from
the deserts of Syria to the learned halls of Cambridge.

Thursday, February 29, 2024


I like Tomi Ungerer's drawing about the nature of men and women:

The lines may appear light and slapdash, but the ideas have genuine weight.  It's an excellent example of conceptual or “idea” art, which transformed the field of illustration in the latter part of the 20th century.  This type of art abandoned the traditional, literal approach to picture making in favor of visualizing ideas using metaphors, symbols, visual puns and word play.  

Perhaps the greatest conceptual illustrator of all, Saul Steinberg, said: "drawing is a way of reasoning on paper."  

Steinberg explains, "The vulnerable part of the man in danger is the cry for help, which is the part 
by which the crocodile holds him and which has the function of an appetizer.  
What do I want to say? That he who cries in terror becomes the victim of his statement."

Here, Melinda Beck creates a devastating image with the simple line of a twisted coat hanger:

Conceptual illustration began to gain momentum in the 1960s, led by artists such as Steinberg and the gang from Push Pin Studios.

 illustration of "Impotence" by Push Pin's Seymour Chwast

Some argue that conceptual art was a life raft for artists in a diminished market for illustration beleaguered by photography, digital art and video.  There was no longer a demand for beautifully crafted oil paintings by master painters.  Another explanation is that today's dumbed down audience simply lacks the taste or patience to appreciate the kind of art that made the golden age of illustration great. 

But even if conceptual art was pushed by those negative forces, it was also pulled by the brilliance of artists such as Steinberg and Milton Glaser.  Fans such as Steven Heller argue that "idea illustrations made the art more relevant and thought-provoking."

I like a great deal of conceptual illustration but I have two problems with conceptual illustration as it reigns today.

The first is that the great conceptual artists tended to simplify images in order to highlight an idea-- complex, substantial, playful, clever-- without undue distractions of style, skill and technique.  This was an intentional prioritization of elements.  But today mediocre concepts are used on a mass scale as a justification for low skill in drawing and painting.  For example, the talentless flimflam man and self-professed conceptual artist Richard Prince “redefines the concepts of authorship, ownership and aura.”  Not everyone can be an intellectual like Steinberg, but hollow and pedestrian ideas fall short of the original justification of idea art.

My second (and greater) gripe with much of today's conceptual illustration is that as the idea became increasingly important, the visual form began to wither unnecessarily.  We’ve lost a lot by devaluing traditional elements such as design, color or a sensitive line.  My bias is that artists who elect to work in a visual medium should respect the challenges of form-creating work.  Otherwise, why not work with ideas as a writer?

Rather than show a selection of illustrations that embody my two gripes, I thought it would be nicer to end on an upbeat note with a sampling of conceptual artists today who still know how to deal with both form and content.

John Cuneo-- one of the smartest and funniest illustrators today-- established himself as a talented draftsman before evolving into in a looser and more expressive style.

A nicely designed Istvan Banyai

You have to look twice to get Antje Herzog's drawing

Friday, February 23, 2024


"To live is to war with trolls." -- Ibsen

The United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space strictly forbids "harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies." It explicitly prohibits placing weapons of mass destruction in outer space.

Despite this prohibition, sculptures by marketing con artist Jeff Koons landed on the moon yesterday in the NASA-funded moon lander Odysseus.  Koons now crows that he created "the first authorized artwork on the moon." 

As if this act of extraterrestrial vandalism wasn't enough, each of the sculptures on the moon has two counterparts on earth: a larger statue and a digital NFT (nonfungible token), thereby dispelling any ambiguity about the mercenary core of this art.

Just as the planets may align on rare occasions, this project represents a rare alignment of corporate greed, bad politics, self-aggrandizement and execrable taste. 

Carolyn Russo, the credulous Museum Specialist at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, gushed: “Why wouldn’t artists look to the moon as a new place to offer a new cultural understanding of who we are as a civilization?”

Let us hope that space aliens never stumble across Koons' "understanding of who we are as a civilization," or they may feel compelled to retaliate for our littering their front lawn.

Monday, February 19, 2024


When I first saw the ceilings of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I was gobsmacked by their ornamentation -- nearly a hundred galleries dense with weird figures, mysterious symbols, grotesque creatures, bizarre landscapes and mythological tableaus, stretching as far as the eye could see.  (Virtual tour courtesy of Google Maps available here ).   

The ceilings on the Uffizi corridors were painted by teams of artists starting in 1579 and took hundreds of years to complete. But the ornate style originated in the ancient palace of the Roman emperor Nero, the inspiration of fresco painter Famulus.  With the passage of time, Nero's palace was buried under rubble and forgotten but it was accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 15th century when a boy fell through a hole in the ground and landed in a strange grotto surrounded by eerie painted figures. 

The rediscovered paintings became a sensation.  The greatest Renaissance artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo, were lowered down shafts to study them.   Around this time, the Medici family began constructing the Uffizi and decided to decorate the ceilings of the corridors in this latest fashion.  

During my first visit to the Uffizi it was impossible to linger over details or even take take a decent photo because other visitors, similarly gawking at the ceilings, kept bumping into me. But now I'm pleased to report that the nearly 100 ceiling galleries have been carefully photographed and catalogued in a book, Le Grottesche degli Uffizi by Valentina Conticelli.

The book enables us to see the details of these frescoes for the first time, and they confirm what we always knew: that you can't put that many artists together for that long without generating all kinds of mischief.

In the next detail, some long ago scamp subtly beheaded the figure on the left:

We also get a better look at the thousands of tiny, imaginative creations invented by hundreds of artists lying on their backs.

More than one artist turned their portion of the ceiling into an open air trellis.

Just as the frescoes on the ceiling of Nero's palace were buried out of sight for centuries, the frescoes on the ceiling of the Uffizi were hidden in plain sight for centuries, obscured by their height and by their overwhelming volume.  Valentina Conticelli's book corrects that, and puts these images at your disposal.