Wednesday, November 25, 2015


These days we are blessed with many new and wonderful tools that enhance our expressive powers. We can employ digital high def 3D animation to create persuasive flying dragons or pink worlds with green skies.  We can animate huge armies of marching trolls that would've been virtually impossible to draw by hand.

Where Dr. Seuss once penned an ink line to suggest a field of flowers, today his field is projected on a movie screen in high rez with colorful flowers that sway in the breeze:

Similarly, animators have given new life to the simple drawings of Charles Schulz... adding what the studios call "a richness of technique."

In some ways these new tools unleash our imaginations; they free us from practical constraints that imprisoned previous generations.  But as G.K. Chesterton warned, "You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes."
It's easier to persuade viewers that they're seeing miracles when you depict miraculous subjects using miraculous tools. But the best artists, and the ones who are truly blessed, are the ones who can recognize the miracles in everyday life. There are miracles in the blades of grass at our feet, and we don't need digital tools to present them.

The great illustrator Richard Thompson lives in a small, ordinary suburban town but through his eyes it becomes a world of mystery.  He finds enchantment in the commonplace things that you and I ignore every day.  I've previously written about one of my favorite pieces, his Neighborhood of Mystery:

We've all seen plastic shopping bags lying in the gutter or caught in a bush somewhere. We do our best to ignore them. But here’s what Thompson thinks about:

Or, you walk by your neighbor’s house where they’ve left their garbage at the curb.  You've trained your mind not to think about it, but Thompson's mind recognizes the potential:

Now that we can animate pixie wings and magic dust so persuasively, we no longer have to work hard to see enchantment. We've certainly stopped looking for it in places like a pile of garbage left at the curb. But so often, what we find depends on what we're looking for.
In Thompson's neighborhood, construction workers mark up the street just like they do in your neighborhood.  When did you ever pause to consider the possible ramifications?

Thompson's Neighborhood of Mystery represents a world of mystery and it all begins with his imagination. I admire the way he keeps his eyes open and finds enchantment in the ordinary.
Another wonderful example is Thompson's series on local restaurants that have violated health  ordinances.  One day Thompson saw a notice in the town newspaper that a diner had been closed by the Board of Health.  This spurred a years-long acid trip in which Thompson mused about the kinds of restaurants that might be shut down and the reasons why:

These may seem like humble little jokes because there are no Thunder Gods fighting alien lizards to a Dolby soundtrack.  The drawings make no use of the wonderful tools described above.  But Thompson's fantasies gain strength and relevance and even truth from the fact that they are rooted in a human nature that we can all recognize.  They represent a different kind of miracle than the type found in fabricated digital universes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Frank Frazetta's painting of the Egyptian Queen...

...inspired the famous Princess Leia slave costume from Star Wars:

The costume designers originally specified 25 yards of fabric to create a long, flowing harem skirt similar to the one in Frazetta's painting.

Costume designed by Aggie Guerard Rodgers and Nilo Rodis-Jamero
However, they quickly found that Frazetta's concept made no sense.  That long blue drape looks great in the painting but in real life "the costume department could not make the concept work."   You don't realize how ridiculous it is until you try to translate it from image to reality.

In this next picture, Frazetta paints a demon about to strike a blow...

...except the blow could never land because his horns are blocking the way.  Part of Frazetta's brilliance was that he was able to portray imaginary characters as solid, muscular beings who lived in a real world governed by laws of physics.  But Frazetta often broke those laws for visual effect.

In this third example,  note that Frazetta has planted the archer's foot firmly on thin air.


This was not a mistake.  The painting would not have looked nearly as powerful if Frazetta had changed that stance to place the foot on something solid.

Such liberties are not uncommon in Frazetta's paintings, but somehow they don't keep his work from looking realistic.  In fact, his paintings are far more convincing than the work of his imitators who meticulously follow the laws of gravity, lighting, anatomy, etc.

Part of Frazetta's art was that he understood when the laws of appearances take priority over the laws of physics. 

Monday, October 26, 2015


I've noted on this blog that many of today's illustrators seem to devalue artistic elements such as design and composition that were so important to previous generations of artists.  At some point, awkwardness and ungainliness came into style, as audiences became suspicious of beauty and skill. 

I'm a big fan of awkward and ungainly art when it is done well, but too often I find this style becomes an easy excuse for laziness and lack of talent.  I also think we underestimate the continuing value of design and composition.  One of the best ways to remind ourselves is to take a look-- close up-- at the work of illustrator Mark English.

When was the last time you saw a composition this powerful in contemporary American illustration?  English has simplified these forms to their basics.  Don't go looking for fingernails or individual eyelashes in this painting.  But at the same time, his little touches of control make clear that English understood exactly where those fingernails and eyelashes would have gone.  They were removed out of strength, not out of weakness.

English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as internationally renowned fine artists such as Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still.  In my judgment, he usually did a better job.

We can appreciate the strength of the first composition from a mile away.  But let's look at another picture up close, to see the subtler elements of design at play.  Here is an illustration from 1969 about the participants in a funeral:

To understand the nature of English's accomplishment, look at some of his details:

Even the most abstract quadrants of the painting are impressive close up. 

Looking at Mark English' work up close makes me think twice about what we've lost in contemporary illustration.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


There are thousands of reference books about drawing faces, but only the good ol' Illustration Art blog will talk to you about drawing the backs of heads.

Most people sitting in an auditorium will ignore the rows and rows of dark, featureless, identical ovals in front of them.  Nothing to see, right?

But recently I had the privilege of viewing the sketchbooks of illustrator William A. Smith and was impressed by the number of times he sat in large audiences and studied the backs of the heads in front of him.  Looking at his insightful sketches, I realized that a subject I thought was uniform and uninteresting was really overflowing with variety and choices. People slouched in different ways. Their shoulders were uneven.  They cocked their heads in various postures.  And Smith's razor sharp eyes caught it all.

I have only a few isolated examples here, but Smith did some some superb detailed drawings containing multiple figures at what would otherwise have been a pretty dull lecture. They are in the collection of the Michener Museum.

Robert Fawcett is another illustrator who found challenges in the backs of people's heads.  He never drew on automatic pilot.

If you study these heads with the same open eyes that Fawcett employed to view the originals, you'll recognize that no two are the same.  Fawcett came up with some surprisingly wild and jagged ways to depict a subject the rest of us never even notice:


There's no such thing as a dull subject matter when Fawcett picks up his brush.

I love the way that artists such as Smith and Fawcett were constantly observant.  While the rest of us  sleepwalk, they have the energy to keep looking and it seems their search is always rewarded.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Whenever I travel to New York City, I make a point of visiting the Society of Illustrators' Museum of American Illustration.  The current show is comprised of classic masterpieces from the Society's permanent collection, most of which are rarely seen. I heartily recommend it to anyone in the NY vicinity.

The star of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is this muscular tour de force by Harold von Schmidt:

Von Schmidt was a genuine cowboy and came by his knowledge of horses honestly.  He understood their anatomy, their movement and their spirit and it showed in his paintings.

This large oil painting (over four feet wide) was greatly reduced for publication in a 1933 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.  It must be seen in person to be appreciated.

The Society's exhibition showcases a cross section of other strong artistic personalities.  William A. Smith is represented by one of his gritty noir paintings.

There's a striking Bob Peak employing his trademark psychedelic colors

And illustrators such as Orson Lowell and Henry Raleigh show off their draftsmanship.

The illustrators in the show included many bold, opinionated artists who helped shape the popular taste of their generation.

When I left the Society I walked down the street to the Museum of Modern Art where I viewed the work of conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer.  His exhibition consisted of 195 pages from the 2009 Montevideo phone book with the names of victims of political repression in Uruguay.  


The pages were framed and displayed in rows:

 I had to fight my way through the crowd of art lovers in order to admire Camnitzer's photocopies  close up.

It is not hard to come up with a definition of art broad enough to encompass both Harold von Schmidt's horse race painting and Camnitzer's phone book pages.   We've already accepted a perimeter for art sufficiently far flung and porous to include almost anything.  Our real challenge now becomes to articulate standards-- any type of standards--  sufficient to make such diverse "art" cohere as a category.  For the term to have meaning, it must stand for something more than random jumbles of unrelated molecules.  Even Clement Greenberg, the leading advocate for abstract expressionism, wrote that the aesthetic validity of nonrepresentational art can only come from "obedience to some worthy constraint."

Judging from my mail, our culture is nowhere close to a consensus on standards that would impose a worthy constraint.  Readers frequently complain that I'm wrong to to pass judgement on certain artworks.  They say, "You're not allowed to criticize a lack of skill or crummy drawing or poor design, because this picture is above such cosmetic concerns-- it's more about the concept, or about irony or cultural observations.  Its visual execution is secondary."  Or they say,  "You can't claim one picture is better than the other because all standards are inherently subjective.  You should accept a picture for what it is.  If you don't like it simply pass it by."
I agree that each artwork is entitled to be judged by its success or failure in achieving its own ambitions. (I go one step further and believe the quality of its ambitions are also fair game, but then I'm old fashioned.)  In my view, none of this means that two works of art with very different ambitions can't be fruitfully contrasted.  I believe apples and oranges can be weighed on the same scale, just as I believe the art at the Society of Illustrators and MOMA can be meaningfully compared.  An excellent image is still superior to a mediocre concept most days of the week.  Many of the anemic intellectual puzzles found at MOMA melt away in the face of some of the bold artistic choices  at the Society exhibition.

For better or worse, we seem to be living through a period when it is popular to focus on concept over visual execution.  But anyone who believes conceptual art is categorically superior should visit the Society of Illustrators to refresh their memory of what creative design, composition, harmony balance and other traditional aesthetic experiences have to offer.