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March 21, 2003

Ignored no more


In 2blowhard’s eternal quest to poke into the nooks and corners of the arts, fearlessly setting aside blinkered prejudice and received dogma, I would like to announce the first public recognition of an entirely (heretofore) ignored genre of painting: the art-instruction-book illustration.

As you know, these proletarian products of the art publishing industry are ubiquitous. Just about anywhere books on art are sold, books on the technique of art crop up. They crowd the shelves of book stores, libraries and art supply shops. And yet, to date, they have been the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world, getting no respect. Well, by God, I’m here to change that.

Granted, their careful, step-by-step illustrations often look better at step #2 (the rough blocking-in) than at step #6 (the finished composition, with all the wood-grain of barns, trees or tabletops fetishistically rendered). Granted, they often have strange ellipses from one step to another in which simple egg-shaped heads miraculously transform themselves into recognizable likenesses. Granted, even the more accomplished artists in this tradition have generally worked up their way through the history of art no farther than a sort of shadowy Baroque Realism (with a heavy emphasis on dark brown backgrounds) or to a sort of relaxed Impressionism. Nonetheless, at times the illustrations have a genuine charm, or at least oddity, that makes them worth looking at.

For example, Joseph Sheppard manages to highlight the spatial contradictions of the “free floating” or context-less nude in a demonstration from his book, “How to Paint Like the Old Masters.”

J. Sheppard, How to Paint Like The Old Masters, 1983

While the rather silvery young lady in his illustration appears, at first glance, as a sort of bas-relief against the picture plane, closer inspection reveals that she’s not “glued on” to a horizontal background but rather slightly “sunk into” a substance below her, even though I can’t make myself read the orange-brown background as a receding horizontal plane. So an intellectual food fight occurs, in which part of my brain says “no, the background is perpendicular to my line of sight and thus vertical” and in which another part of my brain says “it must be horizontal because it’s holding up her obviously volumetric mass” and another says “I wonder if I could get my wife to look into silvery body makeup for special occasions.” And as we all know, such unresolved contradictions are the heart and soul of the true artistic experience.

In another example, Charles Sovek in his book, “Catching Light in Your Paintings” wins my plaudits for his still life illustrating the impact of reflected light off of highly colored substances.

C. Sovek, Catching Light In Your Paintings, 1984

First, Mr. Sovek rather wittily points out the significant stylistic continuities between Impressionism and Rococo painting (and does so while managing an overall cool color scheme, always one of my favorites.) Second, his bravura brush treatment adds to the spatial ambiguities of the right-hand portion of the picture, in which the red drapery is supposed to lie behind and below the statue, but which is visually fighting its way off the canvas and out into space, both by virtue of its chromatic tendency to advance toward the viewer and its energetic if rather enigmatic shape. (Frank Stella should have used this picture as an illustration of spatial dynamism in “Working Space.”) Finally, the whole image—strongly reminiscent of advertising art—looks good enough to eat, and cheerful advertising art is another downtrodden artistic genre that deserves its day in the sun.

So, why don't you liberate images from your library of art instruction manuals that you know are dying to fight their way out into the cultural spotlight? (Don’t pretend you don’t have some.) We can launch a whole new movement here: “Art-instruction illustrations arise—you have nothing to lose but your chains!”



posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2003


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