I've noted on this blog that many of today's illustrators seem to devalue design and composition that have been 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 this style is an excuse for laziness and lack of talent. We let ourselves off the hook too easily by underestimating the continuing importance of design and composition. One of the best ways to remind ourselves of its value 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's work up close makes me yearn for what we've lost in contemporary illustration.