Saturday, April 21, 2012


In 1810 the great painter Francisco Goya was commissioned to paint a portrait of King Joseph Bonaparte.

Goya didn't like King Joseph, who Napoleon had placed on the Spanish throne by force, but Goya needed the money so he swallowed his pride and painted Joseph in a gold frame with adoring angels blowing trumpets and placing garlands to his glory.

Shortly after the painting was completed,  King Joseph was driven from Madrid.  Goya seized the opportunity to paint over his portrait of Joseph, replacing his face with the word, "Constitucion."

Unfortunately for Goya, the wheel of fortune turned once again and King Joseph returned to  power.  Joseph's portrait was hastily repainted.

The following year, Joseph was booted out of Spain for good, and Ferdinand VII returned to rule Spain.  Feeling more confident, Goya once again painted over the portrait with the word "Constitucion."

Unfortunately for Goya, Ferdinand VII annulled the Constitution the following year.  Now it was time to paint Ferdinand's face in the hallowed oval.

Goya was spared further revisions to his painting by dying in 1828, but that didn't stop later art directors from coming up with more improvements.  After Ferdinand died, the city of Madrid hired another artist to paint over the portrait of Ferdinand, replacing it with the words,  "Libro de la Constitucion."

That revision lasted almost 30 years until someone else decided that the painting should be modified to read "Dos de Mayo."  That's how it stands today.

I frequently hear from both gallery painters and illustrators that illustration is a lesser art form because illustrators lack the freedom of "fine" artists.  Famed illustrator Robert Weaver used to rant: 
Until the illustrator enjoys complete independence from outside pressure and direction, complete responsibility for his own work, and complete freedom to to do whatever he deems fit-- all necessaries in the making of art-- then illustration cannot be art but only a branch of advertising.
Someday we can debate whether "complete freedom to do whatever [an artist] deems fit" is "necessary" or even helpful for making art.

Today,  I just want to say that those who argue commercial illustration is inferior to fine art need to come up with a better reason than that illustrators must answer to clients.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Eddie Bauer catalog cover, 1982

The career of famed illustrator Mark English can be divided into three phases.

His first job was picking cotton in the fields around Hubbard Texas for $1.50 per day.  There were no museums or art galleries in Hubbard, but one day English saw a picture on a sign in a store window saying "Welcome Rodeo Fans."  He escaped the cotton fields by teaching himself to paint those signs and earned a living chasing rodeos around the Texas countryside.  After being drafted into the Army he was able to put his experience to work lettering signs for latrines.

In the second phase he became a nationally renowned illustrator who received more awards from the Society of Illustrators than any other illustrator.

English's beautifully sensitive portrait of Dracula

Victorian Interior

In the third phase he became a fine artist, selling his artwork in galleries. 

Right now, some of you are probably saying, "Hey wait-- go back to that part about going from painting latrine signs to being a nationally renown artist.  How the heck did he manage that?"

Well, studying at the Art Center in Los Angeles after he got out of the army surely had something to do with it, but when he was asked about his "biggest break in becoming a nationally known illustrator, " he responded:
[T]here was one job.  I had moved to Connecticut and in my first year there I made 20% of the salary that i had made in my last year.... It was a tough year and I had a lot of time on my hands.  I think not having much work enhanced my career more than anything else.  I spent a lot of time experimenting, trying to come up with something unique and different, and I think toward the end of that year I managed to do that on a job for the Readers Digest [for the book, Little Women]....I think that three or four of the illustrations were accepted into the Society's annual exhibition that year.  One of them won an award and got me a little attention.  After that I got into magazines and my career was launched.
English recalls that during that dry spell at the beginning, he went 8 months without getting a single assignment. His wife was worried and money became very tight but he didn't surrender. "I think [it was] the best thing that ever happened to me, but at the time I didn't think so." English studied Vuillard, Bonnard and other painters, and gradually developed a style that worked for him. "I don't think that I ever worked harder at anytime than I did during those eight months, trying to get better and be more competitive."

That, friends, is how you go from painting latrine signs to becoming a nationally renown illustrator.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Everyone knows the story of how two Cleveland boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created the character of Superman and, short of money, signed all their rights away to a corporation for $130.  That corporation went on to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from their creation while Siegel and Shuster went hungry.

The infamous check which purchased the rights to Superman is now being auctioned.  As of today the bidding stands at $36,000.

The check is one of those wonderful avatars that remind us how artists will always be prey to accountants on the food chain, and that the largest share of the profits will always go to those with the cunning to exploit someone else's creativity.

(It also reminds us why corporations should not have the legal rights of a natural person.  In the words of  Lord Chancellor Thurlow,  a corporation is not a person because it "has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked.")

 Lots of people (and also lots of lawyers) have spent years debating the lesson of the check for Superman.  In long drawn out court battles and press campaigns, the corporations that prospered from Superman have been shamed or pestered into making supplemental payments and concessions to the families of Siegel and Shuster (who seemed to have the typical artist's penchant for mishandling their affairs).

But today I am interested in the other lesson of the check for Superman.

It is difficult to place a value on art because art has no inherent value aside from the value created by its context.  A few years before selling the rights to Superman, the creators themselves placed little value on it; artist Joe Shuster burned pages of superman artwork because he couldn't find a single publisher willing to touch it.  Then, a few years after buying the rights to Superman, the new owner had to sue those same publishers to keep them from infringing on the now valuable idea.   What created the "value" in the art?

John Chipman Gray noted, "Dirt is only matter out of place," and the same point could be made about art.  What is important and valuable art in one context may be worthless as dirt in another.

Much of the art we talk about here is art "out of place"-- it is located in ads for dish washing detergent,  in faded magazines of fiction for housewives, or scratched on the wall of a hermit's basement apartment rather than hanging in a gold frame on a gallery wall.  Art out of place-- unrecognized, misunderstood or unappreciated-- seems to have very little meaning or value.

Rather than being cause for despair, this should serve as a reminder to keep our eyes (and minds) open.

The next time two boys down the block tell you they have invented a really cool superhero, don't wait for some grandee of the art world to transport their creation into its "proper" place before you are capable of seeing it.