Saturday, December 30, 2006

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part nine

There is obviously no such thing as the single greatest drawing in the history of the world. It would be foolish to think about rating art that way.

However, if there was such a drawing...



...it would probably be this one by Michelangelo. It is a preparatory drawing for Michelangelo's illustrations of the Bible for the Sistine Chapel.



I can't think of any object with more grace or beauty with which to end 2006.

This drawing is of the Libyan Sibyl who foretold "the coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed." She had the power of prophecy because she was by birth half mortal and half divine: "An immortal nymph was my mother, my father an eater of corn."

I am just a lowly corn eater myself but I have enjoyed sharing these lovely images with you in 2006 and I wish all of you the happiest of new years.

Monday, December 25, 2006

THE SOURCE OF ARTISTIC INSPIRATION

One item that made all the press in 2006 was the story of the counterfeit Norman Rockwell.

The Norman Rockwell Museum was embarrassed to discover that a painting they displayed as a masterful Rockwell was forged by a local cartoonist, Don Trachte.



According to the New York Times, Trachte purchased the original painting from Rockwell in 1960 but secretly painted a duplicate when he feared his estranged wife was going to take his beloved Rockwell in a bitter custody battle. Trachte hid the original behind a secret panel in his home and hung the fake in plain sight. Only after Trachte died did his family discover the genuine painting, which they promptly sold for $15.4 million.

There are lots of potential lessons from this episode. Some pundits had great fun taunting the "experts" who could not distinguish betweeen a Trachte and a Rockwell. Some were impressed by the skill of the unknown Trachte. Some focused on the detective work in uncovering the original, while others focused on the economics of the sale.

For me, the interesting part was Trachte's motivation. For 50 years, Trachte drew the dreary comic strip Henry-- a simple minded strip whose success was based on the fact that it took less effort to read than to skip over.



Year in, year out, Trachte was content to churn out these mediocre drawings. He was apparently never inspired by a beautiful sunset to find some higher purpose for his talent. He could not find sufficient motivation in money, pride, artistic integrity, or even sheer boredom to put aside the comic strip he inherited from its creator in 1948. But when it came to thwarting his ex-wife, the man found the inspiration to become another Norman Rockwell.

Many sublime works of art were inspired by petty rivalries, lusts and revenge rather than the glory of mankind. As a general rule, those who need to believe in the grandeur of the creative process would do well not to inquire too deeply into the source of artistic inspiration.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

ADVICE FROM ARTISTS

I generally sympathize with Matisse's view that artists should cut their tongues out so they won't be tempted to explain their work. It may not show, but I do try on this blog to avoid adding to the sum total of BS written about art in the world.

Here are some comments about the artistic process from illustrators or other artists that I think are particularly insightful:

Don't stop to admire a partly completed sketch.
--Robert Fawcett

On always doing your best work: The argument that "it won't be appreciated anyway" may be true, but in the end this attitude does infinitely more harm to the artist than to his client.
--Robert Fawcett

On being accused of making art like a madman: There is only one difference between a madman and me. I'm not mad
--Salvador Dali

What one has most to strive for is to do the work with a great amount of labor and study in such a way that it may appear, however much it was labored, to have been done almost quickly and almost without any labor, and very easily, although it was not.
--Michelangelo

I ain't yet worked out whether I like girls because I like curvy lines or if I like curvy lines because I like girls.
-- some artist on the internet whose name I forgot to write down

On when to put the finishing touches on an illustration: The longer the idea can be considered in the abstract, the better.
--Robert Fawcett

There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor.
-- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

TWO TYPES OF FOG



100 years ago, women were thrilled by Redbook magazine's romantic stories about dark and mysterious men, exotic perils from the orient, women in danger, sublimated passions and heaving bosoms. The stories were illustrated by marvelous pictures like these.





Often the heroine watched as powerful men struggled over her virtue, or were reduced to helpless tears by their love for her.





The pictures, like the stories, were often shrouded in fog which left room for the reader's imagination to fill in the details. I love these art noir drawings by Gayle Hoskins, Frank Street, E. Ward and Leone Bracker.



Today, Redbook has replaced illustrations with bright, clear photographs. The articles are in sharper focus as well. There's no ambiguity in titles like 35 Sexy Places to Touch Your Man, or Get In The Mood in 5 Minutes. Recently, Redbook provided instructions for sex in an airplane bathroom the way GM might describe maintenance on an internal combustion engine ("For maximum maneuverability, stand with one leg on the toilet with your man embracing you from behind.") Despite the new candor, Redbook's modern readers don't seem any closer to meaningful truths than their great grandmothers were 100 years ago.

I'm not sure whether it's better to have a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept or a fuzzy picture of a sharp concept. Choose your fog.


Friday, December 15, 2006

EVERYBODY HAS TO START SOMEWHERE



The brilliant illustrator Bernie Fuchs is famous for his sleek, ultra-cool pictures that transformed the face of illustration in the 1950s - 1970s. The following details from an original illustration demonstrate one of his traits that I admire the most-- his ability to combine bold, innovative designs with rock solid traditional drawing skills.



The following detail is of Fuchs' close friend Austin Briggs, reflected in the window of an old car.



Nobody is born with this kind of facility, not even the great Bernie Fuchs. The proof is in Fuchs' childhood drawings which were carefully kept by his high school sweetheart-- now his wife.



Fuchs was seven years old when the movie The Wizard of Oz came out. It obviously made a big impression on him.


I like these childhood drawings, but at some point Fuchs went from drawing like lots of other kids to becoming the superstar illustrator of his generation. As Walt Reed wrote, "his pictures are probably more admired-- and more imitated-- than those of any other current illustrator." Fuchs is very modest about his accomplishments, but he is not afraid to talk about the importance of commitment in a young artist:

I was working in my grandfather's basement at night. I had set up a table there to do my art assignments. It was hard for me. I'll never forget throwing the paint,the brushes, the drawing board and everything across the basement floor and against the wall and crying-- literally. Finally I pulled myself back together, picked up the stuff and started over again.

And thus, a star was born.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

THE ARTIST'S CONSOLATION


This illustration by Maxfield Parrish recently sold for $7.6 million, making somebody very wealthy. Parrish could've used some of that money toward the end of his career, when he fell out of favor with the public.

After Parrish died, two rival art dealers entered into a bitter tug of war over his artwork. The battle raged in angry lawsuits from coast to coast. (cf Cutler v. Gilbert) Each dealer claimed to be protecting the Parrish legacy as charges of fraud, counterfeiting, slander, libel and profiteering flew back and forth. Among the accusations traded in the Boston Globe:

One of the dealers was a "convicted swindler" who pleaded guilty to a felony.

One of the dealers was selling fake Parrishes to unsuspecting buyers

One of the dealers was reproducing Parrish's art without permission

One of the dealers defrauded a store owner by charging $10,000 for the right to call her store the "Parrish Connection" and use the artist's signature as its logo.

One of the dealers was trying to create a monopoly to control Parrish reproductions out of pure greed.

One of the dealers burned down Maxfield Parrish's house

Sometimes being a shrewd art dealer pays better than being a talented artist. One of these fine ladies lives in a mansion modeled partially after the palace at Versailles. The other ran several corporations (sometimes going under the pseudonym "La Contessa De La Gala"). Both were moved by the beauty of Parrish's art to fight over his copyrights like two scorpions in a bottle. Meanwhile Parrish slumbered peacefully beneath the soil.

It's hardly news that illustrators are commercially exploited. Art that never found its way back to the artist from the printer today sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Rockwell just sold for $15.4 million. An N.C. Wyeth sold for $2 million.

Meanwhile, young illustrators face new kinds of adversity, as they struggle with clients who demand work "for spec," or find themselves competing with ready made stockhouse images. It's a difficult career. As Dan Pelavin wrote:

Illustration as a career is most successfully pursued by those to whom no other option is acceptable. It takes that kind of motivation to overcome the inevitable and constant stream of obstacles. Some frankness about the nature of the illustration market and the people an illustrator will have to work for would go a long way in discouraging all but the most foolhardy and desperate from pursuing this glamorous and enviable career.

So what's in it for the artist? What consolation can he or she take from this historically unfair process? I'm not sure, but I suspect the deal is that artists get to look out of their eyes onto a world like this:



Perceiving the world the way an artist does may not help much when it comes to buying a house that looks like Versailles or even feeding your family, but it is not totally without its rewards. As Erica Jong wrote:
In a society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos, the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A FEW SMART DRAWINGS

The illustrator Fred Ludekens said "drawing is thinking." Here are some wonderful examples of what makes visual thinking better than verbal thinking:


copyright The New Yorker

Images can convey complex thoughts with more immediacy, universality and ambiguity than words can offer.



For example, William Steig's drawing above of the blissful young lovers in the cottage makes a wicked statement about the darker, proprietary side of bliss by chaining the flower in the front yard:



As another example, the Foote Cone & Belding drawing below shows that creativity and logic are two sides of the same phenomenon by placing them on opposite sides of a moebius strip-- which only has one side.


copyright Foote, Cone & Belding

Next, the symbols chosen by the brilliant Saul Steinberg-- Uncle Sam facing off against a fatted Thanksgiving turkey in the bull ring, presided over by the statue of liberty and Santa Claus-- juxtapose categories rich with meaning in ways that words with definitions just can't.


copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

How many sentences would it take to explain such thoughts in words? Good visual ideas dance where words cannot go. More importantly, how many related ideas would you miss along the way if you were led to a conclusion by linear sentences, rather than by rolling these images around in your mind?

Some sequential artists and graphic novelists seem to think that intelligent drawings are merely drawings accompanied by word balloons containing intelligent words. For me, this view surrenders the real strength and potency of the visual medium.