Thursday, November 27, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 4

I am one of those who ranks the drawn line alongside the discovery of fire and the invention of agriculture on the list of human advances.  However, I have learned after years with this blog that a number of you actually believe painting, not drawing, is the true test of an artist.  As I understand this rather remarkable claim, an artist must work with the full symphony of elements presented by a painting in order to ascend to the higher tiers.

It is with this audience in mind-- the people who incomprehensibly remain unseduced by a jaunty line-- that I've selected a painting as today's example from The Art of Richard Thompson.


Santa's Sweatshop
 Although Richard's medium of choice in more recent years has been pen and ink,  The Art of Richard Thompson contains a number of works in full color, ranging from oil paintings and watercolor to pastel and colored pencil.
 


In my opinion, Richard's full color work contains excellent touches,  reminiscent of an artist who has worked full time with color and has developed a painterly way of viewing the world.  Another example of the breadth of his talent.






Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 3

Thompson loved to write and draw about events at county fairs.  

 

One of my very favorites was his blue ribbon prize for "Worst Entertainment," awarded to Squinto:


I don't know what kind of mind invents "Squinto the wandering astigmatic stiltwalker and his flaming yo-yos," but I feel certain that if the Department of Homeland Security were aware of it, Richard Thompson would not be a free man today.

The fact is, I lobbied to name the entire book Squinto the Wandering Astigmatic Stiltwalker and His Flaming Yo-yos but my co-authors thought The Art of Richard Thompson made more sense.  Just one of the ways in which their lack of vision held me back.





Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON, day 2

Thompson's piece, Neighborhood of Mystery, is a good example of the talents that combine to make his work so special:

On the one hand, Thompson sees everyday occurrences with the fresh eyes of a child.   What adult still notices a loose plastic shopping bag caught in a tree?

 

 Who pauses to think about the significance of trash in front of a house waiting to be picked up?


Thompson sees such things as if for the first time.  His perspective opens him up to the mystery and magic in mundane things.

On the other hand, when it comes to drawing his ideas, he goes from innocent to sophisticate.  He can apply the tools of his trade to manipulate our responses the way a veteran actor might.  For example, look at the way he staged that panel with  the streetlight:


With a few casual looking lines, Thompson creates an aura of mystery-- the twilight descending from the sky, the silhouette of the man disappearing over the hill, leaving us alone with that ominous street light.  If the streetlight were drawn properly with right angles, or if it were drawn only with lines rather than a scruffy brush, it would not have enough personality to be sinister.  Thompson leads us by the nose to the exact spot where we need to be to participate in his joke, and we don't even recognize that he's doing it. 

And that is the inconsistency behind so much of Thompson's magic: conceptually he sees things with the naivete and the openness of a snowflake, yet his technical execution is as shrewd and calculating as a highly experienced artist's.  I don't know how it's possible for two such attributes to coexist in one person.  It's a rare combination, and (as you will see from his new book) a highly fruitful one.

Monday, November 24, 2014

NEW BOOK ON THE ART OF RICHARD THOMPSON



If you hear a fanfare of celestial trumpets this week, it might just be for the release of the new book, The Art of Richard Thompson-- 224 pages of Richard's brilliant work in color and back and white.  I was fortunate to be a co-author of the book, one of the most fun projects I've worked on in a long time.

An excellent video about Richard and his art has been prepared by GVI in connection with the release, and can be viewed here.

Each day this week I am going to show you a different picture I like from the book and discuss what I think makes it special.  

This illustration of a smoker is a good place to start:


No normal cartoonist draws heads like this:
 

The head has been re-invented to look more like a suction device designed by a production engineer for the Hoover Vacuum Cleaner Company than a human cranium. 

Similarly, conventional cartoonists don't draw cigarette smoke this way: 

Kandinsky might draw smoke like this, but it clearly violates the Official Manual of Cartoon Cliches and Formulas (last revised in the 1950s by Mort Walker).
And that's a good first reason to pay attention to Thompson's drawings.   His original ideas transcend the conventions of cartooning.  Look at the bold way he has conjured up forms to represent amorphous fumes.  They dominate the sky and indeed the whole picture.  Those forms don't come from any recipe book, they come from genuine creative thinking.  This is, in my view, first class opinionated drawing.

And the cool thing is, having invented this look, Thompson did not return to it as his "style."  I am unaware of him ever using anything like this approach again.  Instead, he skipped off merrily to invent new things for his next job, as we shall see in other drawings this week. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

JOE DE MERS AND THE "BIG HEAD" SCHOOL


 

Jim Silke has written about the style of illustration "derisively called the 'big head school of illustration,' a name derived from the fact that every picture was dominated by a huge close up of a beautiful woman...."  These 1950s illustrations, often painted on a plain white background, were sometimes viewed as less ambitious than the fully painted scenes from previous years.  Illustrator Al Parker explained the popularity of this style:
Readers demand pretty people in pretty settings forming a pretty picture. The larger your audience, the more limited its taste. It prefers subject matter to design and girls to men. It wants no message other than girls are cute and men like cute girls.
But take a look at the details of this original painting by the great Joe De Mers  and you will see how much wisdom and talent and even audacity went into some of those "simplified" paintings.
Note the bold palette and abstract brushwork in the woman's hair.  Note the wild difference in hue between the shadows beside her nose and in her nostril; this is an artist who knows what  he is doing.

At first glance that hand looked tightly painted, but study it in isolation and you'll see that De Mers conveyed accuracy using loose and spirited brush strokes.  These hands frame the face but they are not painted as tightly or realistically as the face, lest they t distract the viewer from the focal point of the painting. De Mers understood priorities.

 



Ahhhh...

The three top illustrators in this genre-- De Mers, Coby Whitmore and Joe Bowler, were each brilliant in their own way, and were very close friends.   They worked together at the famous Charles E. Cooper Studio, learned from each other and stayed close after retirement. 




A friend recalls that after De Mers died, his two comrades Whitmore and Bowler got together and looked through all his artwork.  They concluded that De Mers had been the best among them.

You can put De Mers high on my list of under-appreciated illustrators who are long overdue for a renaissance.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

STAN DRAKE

Fifty years ago, comic artist Stan Drake needed to draw an unscrupulous director trying to bed a pretty young actress. We can tell the director is up to no good because he flatters her acting, which is horrible:

From the Heart of Juliet Jones, 1966

Drake's audience immediately got the joke.  The girl's way of demonstrating rejection (sticking out her hand and turning her head) was so simple minded, the director's compliment couldn't be sincere.

Fifty years later, when it was illustrator Ivan Brunetti's turn to draw a woman rejecting a suitor,  he employed the exact same body language.  Only today it's no longer a joke:

Today's version of "rejection of mute futility" with circle heads

Many people like to believe that today's comics and graphic novels are more sophisticated and mature than the soap opera strips they replaced (such as Drake's).   Brunetti's work (unlike Drake's) is collected in books by the prestigious Yale University Press and translated into seven languages.  Brunetti lectures in colleges and wins  awards (such as The Eisner and Ignatz awards) that didn't even exist in Drake's day, when the medium was less self-congratulatory. 

But take a closer look at Drake's work.    Note how he assumes his newspaper audience is familiar with the story of King Priam from the Iliad.  How many comparable literary references do you see in today's comics?   Note too that in Drake's panel, the words are not to be read literally-- they are a lie.   Only by contrasting the words with the drawing do we understand the wicked intention of the director and the lack of talent of the actress.  Fifty years later it's rare to find this type of creative tension between words and drawing, in part because most artists of graphic novels and comics don't draw well enough to pull it off.  Note how Drake's mastery of facial expression, body language and staging give him a range of communication tools that aren't called upon today.

Of course, Drake did employ the now unfashionable photo based realism.  But if you take a look at the great variety in Drake's line, his editorial choices and expressive exaggerations, you can decide for yourself what value comes from the artist and what comes from the camera.  


Whatever Drake's tools,  it seems to me that he was able to achieve a result with more layers of awareness,  more irony and humanity, and with greater aesthetic quality than the result we see from Brunetti and many of his peers.  

So, for those of you who still enjoy good linework, this week I'm offering a collection of Drake's drawings from an era when comics were less chic, and drawings were expected to carry their own as a full partner with the words:







No mechanical lines here: you could always tell that Drake's favorite time of day was when it came time to draw Eve Jone's hair.  There is undisguised pleasure in the act of drawing which is often missing from today's flatter efforts.


Monday, November 03, 2014

SEYMOUR CHWAST, BABIES AND BATH WATER

 American illustration used to be dominated by a sharp, stylish realism.

Roswell Keller

However,  that style was gradually replaced by a simpler look that emphasized concept over technical skill.  For example, this 1950s treatment of a couple going to bed...



...might be replaced by this flatter, simpler approach to the same subject:


Seymour Chwast

Not as pretty to look at, no obvious skill required,  the latter picture could easily have been executed by any mildly competent artist. It would never have passed muster at the great illustrated magazines that dominated the first half of the 20th century, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Life or Redbook.  Yet, thanks to illustrators such as Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser at Push Pin Studios, it became a dominant style.

What led to such a drastic change in taste? 

There is more than one reason for the transformation, but such a change could not have occurred if the new look didn't bring something new and valuable to the table.  Here are two excellent examples of that "something," Chwast's clever perspectives continuing our theme of "a couple going to bed:"


"Impotence" by Chwast

"The Wedding Night of Art and Literature," by Chwast

The old realism of Norman Rockwell or J.C. Leyendecker would not have been suitable for such artistic solutions.  Chwast earned his exemption from the old standards because he gave us something meaningful in exchange.

The old realism would not permit Chwast to give smoke a gender

Despite his lack of traditional drawing skills, Chwast shows a genuine appreciation for the importance of visual elements.  A survey of his art demonstrates a lively, creative mind at work.


Illustrations for a poetry collection





Even when Chwast draws flat, stilted figures, he can turn that to his advantage with his content.  This bland livingroom scene is a perfect foil to show how we live every day with the existence of the bomb.


I enjoy Chwast's sculptures, which show he is not confined to simple diagrams on a printed page.



I have said some unkind things on this blog about contemporary illustrators who (in my opinion) don't draw well. (For example, last week we had a brisk conversation about artists who mechanically draw circles for the human head).  By contrast, I think Chwast is an example of what illustrators were able to accomplish by ridding themselves of the constraints of the first half of the 20th century.  Chwast understood that if you are going to take liberties, you have to give something in exchange.  Chwast used his liberties to achieve worthwhile results that could not have been achieved within the confines of traditional skills.

My gripe is that the second and third generation of artists following Chwast lose their appreciation for the trade off.  Some have become accustomed to the loss of discipline and technical skill as a way of life.

Illustration by a current illustrator from Businessweek November 2014: even simpler and flatter

They unthinkingly accept lowered standards with little recollection of why the standards were lowered to begin with.  Few of them offer any offsetting or redeeming profundity or creativity, in part because many of their viewers have become satisfied with banalities.

Chwast threw out the bath water, but he knew to keep the baby.