Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE FACES OF TIME




Time magazine-- which was for decades the dominant news magazine in the world-- seems to be limping  toward its end.  It was purchased last year for a fraction of its former value and the new owners are  dismantling and selling off the assets.

The cover of Time was the showcase for thousands of remarkable portraits painted by talented artists such as Boris Chaliapin and Ernest Hamlin Baker.    

Time wanted its covers to convey an accurate, lucid magazine; it wasn't advertising creativity or imagination.  So it commissioned careful illustrations that inspired confidence and integrity. 



Week after week, decade after decade, these artists painted cover portraits with great integrity, sometimes on a 48 hour deadline.  (Baker reported "permitting himself only two hours sleep out of the forty eight allowed for the job." Sometimes they worked to the last minute, cutting it so close they had to race in their car to meet a delivery date.) 

The originals were about twice the size of the printed version.  Here you can see how Baker achieved those subtle skin tones: over a light wash base, he applied highly diluted tempera paint, built up gradually with a thousand delicate brush strokes.

Baker went back with white paint to separate eyelashes he thought were too close together





How in the world did Baker learn the face of his subject well enough to employ this approach?  He'd take the reference photos supplied by the magazine-- perhaps a dozen random pictures from different angles-- and study them with a magnifying glass to compile a composite map of the topography of the face.


Baker would then use his topographic map as his guide when painting the lines and crevasses and warts of the face.  That's a lot of work. 




I would not say these covers are works of inspired genius.  I've seen more beautiful designs.  But in my opinion they are consistently works of excellence, and opportunities to be excellent are rare enough in this world that they should not be taken for granted.



If there was a shortcut that could've achieved the same result, I'm sure these artists would've  been happy to take it, and to get back all those hours of their lives.  For example, decades later computers could've saved these guys time.  But regardless, I think artists should take comfort from the fact that time spent in pursuit of excellence is never wasted.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A TALE OF THREE LANDSCAPES

Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?


George Inness

Sean Lynch

Well, the pink version is actually a photograph, taken with film which reveals near-infrared light.  We don't normally see near-infrared light because our puny eyes are limited to the spectrum of light waves between 400-720 nm long. But near-infrared light is always there, part of the richness of nature bathing every landscape.

So I'll ask again:  Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?

Many painters take great pride in their accuracy, but their work is not "realistic" in a scientific sense.  It is faithful only to a distorted appearance of nature that we see through the limited filter of our eyes.

As long as we're content to accept such a subjective definition of reality,  that should open up the conversation.

Here's another landscape, this one by the great Jean Dubuffet, called "Ecstasy in the Sky."




 Like the landscape by George Inness above, the Dubuffet landscape offers only a limited slice of reality, clearly filtered by the artist's perception.  But is it less real?

Friday, May 11, 2018

PAINTING FOR THE ANGELS

The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.                                                                                                 -- Thomas Merton

This little paint box was used by an Egyptian artist 3,300 years ago:


The artist had seven colors:  blue, white, ochre, hematite (dark red), hematite mixed with calcium carbonate (lighter red), and two grades of charcoal black.  


According to the hieroglyphs on the label, these colors only came in CMYK. (RGB was apparently unavailable with this model.)  I couldn't find the USB port for connecting with the Wacom Cintiq Pro (it must've broken off around 1,000 BCE).  And heaven only knows what obsolete version of animation software this thing ran.

The artist fashioned a little tray to hold water and a brush. The sliding lid is decorated with a genet (a small rodent-like mammal that lived in the papyrus thickets along the ancient Nile).  The artist even painted the lid to look like papyrus. 




What could anyone accomplish with such a primitive tool?  These crummy colors would embarrass any self-respecting kindergarten class today.

According to the RISD Museum (where I found this paint box) "Painters used these same pigments to decorate statuary and the walls of temples and tombs." So here are a few samples:



                                                                                        
These artists lacked what we would consider the most fundamental tools necessary for making a  decent picture-- for example, electric light for painting the walls of a dark, underground tomb-- yet they created works of astonishing beauty that still give us chills thousands of years later:

How many works of art created today will evoke a similar response in 3,000 years?

The first two lessons from the tiny paint box are obvious:  

1.) Art does not "progress" the way other human enterprises do; an ancient drawing in a prehistoric cave may be more beautiful and sensitive than a work of art by today's most "advanced" artist. 
2.) Fancy and expensive tools don't necessarily result in a better work of art; a drawing scratched on a prison wall with a bed spring may be artistically superior to the latest Pixar high tech multi-million dollar extravaganza.

Everybody already understands those first two rules.  This week I'd like to propose a third lesson: 
3.) the power latent in a tiny paint box can be unleashed in part by the beliefs of the painter.  
In an age of faith, when true believers devote their talents to honoring their gods (or their pharaohs, or their one true love) that higher purpose sometimes imbues their art with larger and more important qualities.  Today's artists who are motivated by the press reviews for their next gallery opening or their copyright contract or their royalty fees may produce brilliant, complex material. It may be dazzling in its presentation and clever (although often snarky) in its tone.  But that work often seems thinner and more transitory than the work of artists who, working with the humblest tools, are motivated by fear and dread of their gods...  


...or by the radiance of divine bliss...


...or by the soul flying from our body at the hour of our fate.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 57

I love this very cool drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex by Ike, age 6.


I spotted it at an art exhibition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

In response to my most recent post of a drawing by Ronald Searle, various commenters wrote:
I think that is the most important in any drawing, draw what we feel instead of what we see, connections and relationship instead of objects
 [B]rilliant! He draws the way the old man FEELS rather than the way he LOOKS.    
Ike may not be an experienced professional artist like Searle, yet he has done a wonderful job of drawing what he feels.  Get a load of those teeth! Unlike the standard "lightning bolt" line most people use as a shortcut for drawing teeth, Ike has lovingly outlined each tooth separately.  Each tooth has its own unique, scary shape.

Ike couldn't fit this many teeth in his picture if he was constrained like an adult by the conventional proportions of a T-Rex.  Because his patterns of perception haven't hardened yet, he was able to unhinge the jaw and expand the mouth to make it as big as the entire rest of the dinosaur.  It appears that when he wanted still more teeth,  he added a third row above the dinosaur's head.  Ike is a creative artist with strong priorities.

And it doesn't end there. Not content to draw the dinosaur's body with a simple contour line the way many people would, Ike intuitively draws a jagged body like the roar of a thunder lizard shown on an oscilloscope (or the shock to your nervous system when you see a dinosaur coming toward you).



Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject.  There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art.


Monday, April 02, 2018

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 56

An elderly gentleman sitting quietly in his armchair reading a newspaper-- could there be a less exciting subject for a drawing?

Well, that depends on the artist.

Here's how Ronald Searle handles the topic:


Look how Searle has re-invented the human form:  posture in the shape of a question mark; a sagging mouth that exceeds the limits of the face by extending all the way down to the jawbone; and legs like matchsticks.

For another artist, those pants legs would be a straight vertical line.  Look how Searle chips away
with what may have been a bamboo stick, giving them the character of rotting timber.

The hands have no bones, yet the gnarly lines grasp the newspaper perfectly. 


Searle's drawings always contain valuable lessons, but the one I'd like to emphasize here is that the subject matter does not necessarily limit the quality and originality of form. 

In an era where so many artists are convinced they don't have to draw well as long as their concepts are cool, Searle is a welcome reminder of the opposite truth: that quality in visual form can stand alone, proud and tall.

Monday, March 12, 2018

THE MEANING OF "ICONIC"

After the recent school shootings in Florida, rival cable news channels and political factions chattered away day and night.  They spewed words of explanation or blame, words of solace or rage, words of hopelessness or words proposing solutions.  (For example, the mentally deranged executive vice president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, proposed that school teachers pack heat, the better to shoot future gunslingers.)  It's doubtful those words persuaded anyone.

In all that noise, one silent image went viral: Norman Rockwell's classic painting of a school teacher, altered to make a point:

                      
Clear as a bell, it wordlessly reminded audiences of what we are at heart, and what we risk becoming.

Here is Rockwell's original version:


In the same month, the Smithsonian Institution published a cover story about the changing state of America.  The benchmark it chose? Norman Rockwell.


 The Smithsonian asked four brave illustrators to try their hand at updating the themes in Rockwell's  famous "Four Freedoms." series.  (They did not do so well):


At the same time, the Chicago History Museum unveiled a prominent new installation showing  Rockwell's take on the legendary cause of the Great Chicago Fire: Mrs. O' Leary's cow which supposedly kicked over a lantern: 



The new permanent display, "Rockwell's Chicago."
There's nothing surprising about any of these uses for Rockwell's work.  Not a week goes by without some prominent publication or institution invoking Rockwell as a standard.


They know their audience will immediately recognize the reference.

In fact, forty years after Rockwell's death, there are still websites that collect dozens of new spoofs and commentaries on Rockwell's pictures.

Despite his lasting popularity-- or perhaps because of it-- we still hear the thin voices of postmodern art critics fulminating that Rockwell dealt in cliché. But if Rockwell dealt in mere clichés, his art would not continue to play such a significant role in today's vital discourse. His style may be out of fashion but his statements about human nature are undeniably true and enduring.  This is the difference between clichés and archetypes.  

Peter Viereck emphasized that archetypes must never be confused with stereotypes. Archetypes, he wrote, are the enduring values and traditions that have “grown out of the soil of history: slowly, painfully, organically.” These may be easily recognizable but they are very different from cliches or “the ephemeral, stereotyped values of the moment" that have “been manufactured out of the mechanical processes of mass production: quickly, painlessly, artificially."  

The great Herman Melville shared this "reverence for archetypes." He believed archetypes to be at the core of the classic architecture of the golden age of Greece, claiming they saved Greek art from "innovating willfulness." (Innovating willfulness might well be the slogan for our culture.)

Rockwell was hugely prolific, and sometimes resorted to clichés during his long career.  But in his stronger work he was an artist of archetypes.  We find ourselves borrowing the power of his silent archetypes when the clamor of our turbo-charged, 3D digital video presentations with Dolby sound cease to hold our attention.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of an "iconic" artist.

  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

THE COLLECTOR'S EYE: PETER DE SÈVE

When Rembrandt declared bankruptcy in 1656, an official from the Amsterdam Insolvency Office showed up at his house at No. 4 Breestraat to inventory Rembrandt's possessions.

The possessions would have to be auctioned off to pay Rembrandt's debts.  Moving from room to room, it didn't take long to figure out why Rembrandt had gone bankrupt.  As Anthony Bailey wrote in his book, Rembrandt's House:
The house was crammed with pictures, stacked against and hanging from the walls.... [T]he collecting trait appears to have become an ungovernable compulsion. 
Bailey reports that these pictures included "bits and pieces," scraps and sketches that Rembrandt fancied by his contemporaries,  drawings from Italy, paintings from different periods in a variety of styles.
In part he collected... pieces that he could use in his works, not just for themselves but as pointers and touchstones.  [B]ut his collection of pictures was huge and diverse.  Rembrandt's collection was almost a museum.
I thought about poor bankrupt Rembrandt recently when I viewed the current exhibition at the Society of Illustrators of the art collection of the illustrator Peter de Sève. The exhibition includes work from greats such as Rackham, Searle, Kley, Frazetta, Frost, Sullivant, Disney artists, Winsor McCay and many others.

Unlike a typical museum exhibition organized by a curator or art historian, de Sève has assembled work that appeals to his artist's eye.

He includes working drawings that reveal the thought processes of the artist:

Jules Feiffer

Preliminary sketches that reveal the original spark of inspiration before the concept has been refined and diminished.

Frazetta

Another Frazetta.  Note how, even in this preliminary rough, each of the seven "green women" has a distinctive pose and role.  Frazetta doesn't lump them all together in the background.  This prelim contains all the DNA for the finished painting.


Frazetta
As one of the leading character designers for animated movies, de Sève seems to have a special interest in the evolution of sequential drawing, starting with the A.B. Frost's series of pen and ink illustrations in the 19th century...


A dog racing down the road...

...leaves disaster in its wake.

and moving on to Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur at the dawn of animation...



...before turning to great Disney art such as Preston Blair's famous hippopotamus ballerina from Fantasia and art from Lilo and Stitch.


There's strong pen and ink work by artists such as Heinrich Kley:


... and work by Arthur Rackham that reveals the artist's underlying sensitive pencil lines:
De Sève writes, "It's thrilling for me to see the half-erased pencil lines that reveal clues to the artist's thinking process and detours he or she traveled to get to the final artwork."

The exhibition also contains final work with interesting solutions by fellow illustrators:

Nick Galifianakis shows all we need to know about the child prodigy Mozart: the top of a wig and those tiny dangling feet.  Note how the artist draws our attention to those little beribboned shoes by making them red against a stark white background. 
And of course there are a number of examples by the master, Ronald Searle:


As fearless with watercolor as he is with ink. 
As an example of de Sève's irreverent eye, he displays the work of his young daughters side by side with the work of the world's top professionals, and for perfectly legitimate reasons.   He explains how he gains inspiration from both: "I know it’s a cliché to want to draw like a child, but honestly, look at the sheer inventiveness and variety in every heart on that page!"


Valentine from de Sève's daughter Paulina when she was five years old.

Paulina's picture exemplifies what makes an artist's exhibition so interesting.  De Sève isn't misled by the pretensions and superficial considerations that preoccupy so many curators and art historians.  Instead, he hones right in on the nutritional content; all marks on paper are judged on a level playing field.

At the entrance to the exhibit, De Sève writes: "The artist I've become is a result of the things I've learned, and continued to learn, from others."

When the Amsterdam Insolvency Office finally shows up at de Sève's door, you'll want to be there for the auction.