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« Mini-Memoir Elsewhere | Main | Cargo »

March 25, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Illustration

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm pleased to report that our friend Donald Pittenger continues to respond to my proddings and coaxings. His new mini-memoir/essay concerns a great topic: illustration and fine art. As ever, Donald's reminiscences and ruminations raise all kinds of juicy questions. For instance: it's a simple fact of life that illustrators are often far more skillful as craftspeople than contempo fine artists are. What's to be made of this? What, more generally, is the role of technique and skill in the visual arts?

Further lines of inquiry: most of us who get hooked on looking-at-visuals start off with the commercial and popular arts -- CD jackets, ads, magazines ... How and why are we led from such interests and pleasures into the Fine Arts? Is Fine Art a better thing, or just a different game? Given the wealth of hyper-talented, striking visual material that the commercial world generates, why should we bother with Fine Art at all?

These are just a few of the questions Donald's essay set off for me, anyway. I think many readers will find the piece as informative and provocative as I did. Please be sure to click on the images; most are pop-ups. Donald's previous Guest Postings can be seen here, here, and here.

***
Fine Art and Illustration
by Donald Pittenger


I've enjoyed looking at well-executed pictures since childhood. But I’m surprised I didn’t curb this early enthusiasm, especially as a youth.

You see, youth is when one is most susceptible to subtle pressures in the form of High Culture expectations regarding Proper Art Consumption. Yet somehow I never felt guilty about savoring drawings by Austin Briggs, Noel Sickles and their ilk: mere illustrators, not in the Pantheon of Fine Art. Worse, in the early part of their careers they actually drew comic strips!! (For the record, Sickles did the aviation strip "Scorchy Smith" and Briggs took over "Flash Gordon" from Alex Raymond. Later they became illustrators and their work appeared in major publications such as Life and Saturday Evening Post.)

By Austin Briggs
By Noel Sickles

Sometimes illustrators themselves felt the High Culture heat. Here's a quote from a letter sent by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth to Sidney Marsh Chase, an artist friend (originally quoted on page 171 of David Michaelis' book "N.C. Wyeth: A Biography", Knopf, New York, 1998):

"Painting and illustration cannot be mixed -- one cannot merge into the other. The fact is you have got to drop one absolutely before attempting the other."

From the context of Michaelis' book, this was written around 1910 when Wyeth was in his late 20s and embittered after a falling-out with his teacher and mentor Howard Pyle. Although he had to illustrate to support his family and enjoyed the act of illustrating, Wyeth kept trying to prove himself as a Painter (capital-P) for the rest of his life.

Wyeth the illustrator

My take from the biography is that one thing that distinguished illustration for Wyeth was an imperative to tell a story of some kind. However, Painting, (I'll use the book's capitalized term here rather than the longer form, Fine Art) did not necessarily require a story, examples being portraits, landscapes and still-lifes. When Wyeth acted as a Painter, he usually did landscapes, often including people doing mundane tasks such as fence-building.

Wyeth the artist

Even though educated people eventually come to feel the vibrations of High Culture imperatives about Taste, their lives seldom start inside the High Culture cocoon. For example, as a pre-television, pre-internet child of the 1940s, my first exposure to graphic art was through children's books my mother read to me.

As I approached school age, it was newspaper comics that included work by Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth and Alex Raymond -- all highly talented delineators. We had an edition of the "Book of Knowledge", a children's encyclopedia that contained a lot of illustrations, all in black and white. Some were reproductions of engravings, others were half-tone cuts of paintings famous or otherwise, and photographs. Non-photographic sources were mostly from the 19th and very early 20th centuries: no Deco or 30s Social Realism stuff.

By Hal Foster
By Alex Raymond
By Burne Hogarth

After I began to learn to read, I would look through Saturday Evening Post and Collier's magazines, both of which used a lot of illustrations. In those days even magazines that featured photography, such as Life and Look, were filled with advertisements adorned with the work of illustrators. The balance did not tip from illustration to photography until around 1960.

While illustration was plentiful, there was little opportunity to see original Painting (remember, I'm using this term as shorthand for Fine Arts or Fine Arts Painting). I lived in Seattle, in those days not the world-class place it is today. Aside from occasional traveling exhibits, all we had in the way of original classical art was a room at the Seattle Art Museum that contained long-term-loan paintings from the Kresge collection. As best I remember, these were representative Italian Renaissance works, but nothing first-rank. By the Fifties the Fry Museum had been established, based on a permanent collection of mostly 19th Century Bavarian paintings from the meatpacking family benefactors. The museum has always championed representational art, and this meant that we late-50s art students avoided it like the plague if for no other reason than to avoid the shame of being seen entering or leaving.

What Painting I did see was mostly those half-tone reproductions in the Book of Knowledge at first and, later on, color reproductions that Life and Time magazines were kind enough to feature from time to time. Time contained at least one page of color reproductions in most issues during the 1950s. A lot of this was what was hot in the New York art scene, an invaluable resource for us artistic types in the boondocks. And there were books with color reproductions, but they tended to be expensive in those days so the best place to see them was at the Seattle Public Library or at the School of Art library at the University of Washington.

I graduated from the University of Washington with a major in Commercial Design (their term for commercial art) in 1961. During my student years and for a while after I would tear out examples of what I considered good illustration; I still have some of these tear-sheets. The market for illustration was entering its state of collapse at the time, yet some of the very best work was being done. This included advertisement art (for instance Van Kaufman's backgrounds for Arthur Fitzpatrick's renderings of Pontiac cars in a famous, long-running series), illustrations of historical scenes in Life magazine and illustrations for fiction pieces in McCall's and similar magazines. Bob Peak, Burton Silverman, and Bernie Fuchs, among others, did outstanding work; more will be said about Silverman and Fuchs below.

By Van Kaufman and Fitzpatrick
By Bob Peak

So yes, I hold no disdain for illustration: I grew up with it and considered it as a career field. Furthermore, I don't remember my fellow Commercial Design students being upset at the idea that they were training to become mercenaries rather than artistes. I don't know what became of all the dozen or so of us in my graduation cohort. Some of the women probably simply got married; early marriage was popular then. One guy was actually able to make a living at commercial art until his accidental death. I eventually became a demographer and computer system designer and programmer. At least one fellow got a Master of Fine Arts degree following his army service and went on to teach college and produce paintings on the side, but as an undergraduate he had no hangups about artistic purity; I suspect, like me, he doubted that he could make a living as a commercial artist.

The illustrators I admire are those with first-rate drawing or painting skills; no, I don't care for hack-work. Having a background as a practicing artist, I know how fiendishly hard it can be to capture a likeness with the dash of flair that raises the effort from mere notation to art. Let me clarify: for folks like me, the difficulty is indeed fiendish; but there are a select few with enough inborn talent to evaporate the difficulty factor entirely.

Remember the 20-80 rule? Twenty percent of practitioners perform 80 percent of the work. Or 20 percent of the group is capable of doing superior work. The split might vary to 10-90, 5-95 or whatever (I wonder what it might be for Rap music). Although the Saturday Evening Post -- the apex of the illustration world in the '40s and '50s -- could be highly selective, a lot of what appeared there was no better than above-average competent work. I can't place John Falter and Steven Dohanos in the same league as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth (for story-telling) or Bernie Fuchs and Burton Silverman (for sheer artistic skill), yet their work was popular and appeared in the Post for years.

By John Falter
By Stephen Dohanos

Norman Rockwell, the archetypical American illustrator, remains hard to evaluate. Although elitists sniff at his subject matter, he was good at telling a story in a single painting. Furthermore, he was highly skilled. I visited the Norman Rockwell museum near his Stockbridge, Massachusetts final home last July and found his technique well worthy of study. And he certainly had his own style. The one thing he lacked, in my judgment, was FLAIR. The true greats have flair.

FreedomOfSpeech_72.jpg By Norman Rockwell

The 20-80 (or whatever) rule also holds for Painting. I won't beat this dead horse other than to mention that museums have warehouses full of works that seldom see the light of a gallery due in part to lesser quality (setting aside the question of fashion).

Even famous, basically well-done works of art sometimes contain flaws. I just got a book from France via Amazon.fr about the painter Theodore Chassériau (1819-56) whose work is returning to favor (the Met had an exhibition of his work in 2003). Chassériau was perhaps the first artist to consistently paint female nudes that appear beautiful in terms of 20th or 21st century tastes. (Bodies are not overweight, breasts do not seem to be placed too high on the chest, etc.)

Chasseriau's "Esther"

Perhaps his best-known work is a bible-inspired scene with the short-title "Esther at Her Toilette." If the viewer can get past her stunning body, he might then notice something odd about her face; her head is slightly tilted to one side yet her eyes align parallel to the ground, her right eye being placed higher on her head than her left. Chassériau, to judge by his drawings, was an excellent delineator; perhaps the anatomical unlikelihood was an intentional trick to keep the focus of the painting "in balance." Or maybe he was simply sloppy. Or not skilled enough: the painting was done early in his short career.

John Singer Sargent was an ace portraitist -- in my opinion, the best. Yet a quick flip through a book with reproductions of his work reveals the occasional odd detail. This was probably because he produced a large number of paintings and seldom spent as much time on any given one as he was able to devote in his early career when he was trying to paint work that would be accepted into Academy exhibits (he labored for months over his "Madame X" portrait).

Sargent's "Madame X"
"El Jaleo"

And I sometimes think Sargent never quite nailed the oddly-positioned right arm of the Spanish dancer who is the focus of his huge painting "El Jaleo" which can be seen at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This was in spite of a number of sketches and at least one trial painting; I think Sargent maybe bit off more then even he could chew. (I'll admit that Sargent just might have gotten it right; I’ve never seen the kind of Spanish dancing he depicted. Yet I've tried to duplicate the position of the dancer's arm using my own, and I can't: that's why I question Sargent.)

When considering the "20" part of the "20-80" situation in illustration and Painting (actually I suspect 5-95 is closer to the mark in both), I see no advantage for painters over illustrators in terms of sheer artistic skill employed in creating the work.

If a culture snob takes a step back and sneers that illustration is "mere story-telling", that criticism does not hold water. Aside from still-lifes, landscapes and portraits, nearly all Painting before the 20th Century illustrated one story or another.

I think that there are two major distinctions between top-notch Painting and first-rate illustration. The first has to do with the art's patron and the second concerns the dissemination of the art. Painting was patronized for the most part by the Church, the State and wealthy individuals, whereas illustration was commissioned by art directors in advertising agencies and art editors in publishing houses. Illustrations were reproduced in the thousands and sometimes millions, whereas paintings were mostly one-off articles. I'll leave aside the matter of reproductions that can be found in any respectable museum gift shop or the new giclée technology that is starting to revolutionize the practice and meaning of reproduction.

These factors can be boiled down to the following crude formulation: Painting is a scarcity that is accessible to the discriminating few who can afford to possess it or who make the effort to seek it out in galleries and museums; illustration is mass-market, commercial product. The artistry and skill of the picture-maker is of lesser consequence, so the distinction is an elitism/snobbism thing. Poor Wyeth (who lacked higher education) was seduced by the notion that Painting was intrinsically superior to illustration and allowed himself to suffer for it. (Actually, Wyeth and many in his family were bundles of psychological quirks and defects, but go to Michaelis' book for the details.)

Nowadays I judge that there is less distinction between illustration and Painting than in Wyeth's time, if for no other reason than the commercial collapse of illustration in the 1960s. If there isn't much illustration out there now, the distinction might just as well be ignored. In any case, many of the better illustrators jumped the sinking ship by becoming Painters, often of portraits. Examples include Coby Whitmore, Burton Silverman and Bernie Fuchs. I'm not familiar with Whitmore's post-illustration career, but I find that I equally like the work of Silverman and Fuchs regardless of whether it is illustration or Painting.

By Coby Whitmore
By Burton Silverman
By Bernie Fuchs

In summary, I believe that draftsmanship, painting technique and artistic flair are what count. Other considerations are generally of much less importance where artistic merit is concerned.

Although I have held these views for many years, I was pleased to have them corroborated by Burton Silverman in biographical notes to the exhibition catalog Sight and Insight: the Art of Burton Silverman (New York: Madison Square Press, 1998). On page 38 he recalls from childhood that "It also seems quite interesting to me now that, as a nine-year-old, I could not very well distinguish qualitative differences between Edward Burne-Jones’s and N.C. Wyeth’s pictures. Howard Pyle’s richly graphic drawings of King Arthur’s Knights seemed not far from an Albrecht Durer or Peter Breughel drawing. All of them presented an astounding ability to re-create the world with astonishing veracity, and so I did not discriminate between fine art and illustration".

By Howard Pyle
By Albrecht Durer

He goes on (page 39) to mention his early (mid-1940s) training at Pratt Institute and the High School of Music and Art:

"This was the beginning of my art training, most of it through the auspices of a small group of talented students –- my new classmates – who grouped together to defend their drawing skills against the dogmas of the modernist education. It was then, and still is, part of the teaching mentality of this very progressive school, one that urged creativity without craft and self-expression without perception. A few of my classmates would become lifelong friends who remain constant in their devotion to the ideal of realist imagery."

The phrase "creativity without craft and self-expression without perception" nails the problem I had with my own (late 1950s) art training exactly.

***

I can't resist passing along a link to an amazing site I ran across while arting Donald's piece: A. E. Mendez's "The History of the Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip." What a beautiful resource. Here's a page that A.E. has devoted to a fave of mine: Jim ("Modesty Blaise") Holdaway.

Many thanks once again to Donald Pittenger. Donald has promised to respond in the comments to questions, reflections, musings, etc. So please don't be shy about joining in.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at March 25, 2005




Comments

I don't think I've said how very much I've enjoyed your postings, Donald. I've learned to really appreciate commercial graphic art through my interest in poster stamps (mentioned under hobbies below), and always enjoyed the kinds of illustration you mention having loved as a child -- NC Wyeth, Howard Pyle, etc. I keep my eye out on eBay for books from that era, and recently got a mythology book with illustrations by Willy Pogany that I love.

I'm glad you mentioned Norman Rockwell, too. I agree with your assessment -- solid, but with little flair. But I have used with great success his "Triple Self-Portrait" in a class I teach on memoir -- his painting illustrates a host of theoretical issues with respect to written memoir, and leads to great class discussion. Then I follow at the end of the semester with Disney's parody of the Rockwell painting, with Mickey Mouse painting a "self-portrait" of Walt. Good for a few laughs.

Please continue your series! I've learned much and look forward to more.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 25, 2005 2:47 PM



I'm surprised to hear that NC Wyeth thought there was such a chasm between illustration and Painting. One of the things that seems apparent to me on my annual trips to the Mecca of the Wyeth family-- the Brandywine Museum-- is how similar NC and Andrew are. Sure, telling a story is NC's goal in his beloved illustrations which many of us know from Treasure Island. Even if we don't know we know them.

But if you look at Andrew's paintings, especially Christina's World, Afternoon, the newer Messiah, and (one of my favorite all time paintings) Spring the viewer is tempted to supply a story. So many Paintings do that for us if they're representational. I suppose the only difference is that Andrew's Paintings are not pre-conceived in a 'literary', 'academic' or 'historical' way. Because in technique and composition that apple did not fall far from the tree in the case of the Wyeth family. Which is not suprising given how close they were.

Of course, using Andrew Wyeth as an example of a Painter just exposes me for the retrograde philistine that I am. I understand the Art World runs hot and cold on him, although we seem to be in a warming trend.

Posted by: Awbnid on March 25, 2005 3:28 PM



Donald,

Thank you so much for another terrific posting. What advice would you give a young artist? Do you think it's better to get just commercial art training or do you think some combination of art school plus commercial art training would be best?

Posted by: maryse on March 26, 2005 11:18 AM



This is brilliant, beautiful stuff. Why did I waste so many years of my life slogging through fashionable B.S. in search of some sign of intelligent life?

Posted by: Steve Burton on March 26, 2005 7:24 PM




Thanks! Your posting was a very interesting "look" into a world that is (was) all around but appears to be seldomly discussed seriously.

I agree with your thoughts about why Painting has been valued more highly than illustration, but I'd like to say it slightly differently -- and speculate about some additional reasons too:

1) Original paintings (especially oil paintings) are relatively permanent and are seen as a long term "investment." Naturally, the investment community, which happens to consist of wealthy, highly educated people, is going to try and "talk up" the value of these commodities (and perhaps denigrate the competition).

I'm guessing, but I suppose original illustrations (unlike art lithographs), are done to be seen at their best as inexpensive mass produced reproductions, so the original works of art used to create the mass produced reproductions were not generally seen as valuable commodities themselves.

Although, I suppose this has changed -- now there seems to be a market for some original illustrations: Al Hirshfeld drawings, original gels for Disney cartoons, etc.

The Margo Feingen Gallery used to be near me, so I use to go in and take a close up look at some of Al Hirshfeld's drawings. I noticed that a number of them -- especially, I think, the early ones -- didn't look so "good" in person. Don't remember exactly why, but I think sometimes he used to cut and paste, and the work that was printed in the newspaper looked different and "better.")

2)Illustration is "commercial" art and one of the tenets of modernism is being "anti-bourgeois." Therefore, illustration is tainted by its connection to commerce.

3) The skill to paint realisticly became more "common" over time, as it became easier and easier as time went on (as more and more artists learned from their predecessors). When Leonardo da Vinci, et al. were painting, realistic painting wasn't yet an "easy" thing to do -- artists were, in a sense, scientists. These painters were "inventing" realistic painting as they went along. So part of the value of realistic Paintings is the artifact aspect -- these are the very (beautiful) artifacts of a time when mankind was learning (or relearning?) how to paint realistically.

Once it became "easy" to do and "common," the art world had to find a new "skill" to value. So they switched to, among other things, less-realistic or non-realistic paintings: Impressionism, etc.

Modernists perpetrated the idea that realistic/representational illustration was a dead art -- saying that realistic painters/illustrators were doing something that had already been done to death. (This is similar to the accusation leveled against non-orthodox modern architecture.)

If an artist wants to traffic in realism, the new "approved" artistic frontier was photography and cinema.

Which brings to my mind questions like, If someone painted the Mona Lisa or Sistine Chapel, today, would it be art? (Let's say an devilish archaelogist and amateur painter finds a Leonardo or Rembrandt that no one has every heard of and tries passing it off as his own. He is successful at this ruse; people accept the fact that it is his. Is the painting a great new work or art -- or kitsch? (Same holds true for a new "Jupiter" symphony, etc.)

- - - - -

I've always loved Norman Rockwell. In a way I'm surprised that he wasn't more popular with modernists because he seems to me to be a supreme "symbol" maker and creator of iconographic images (something that I imagine the modernists value highly). In my opinion, his paintings went beyond realism. They captured and communicated an "essence" (and were therefore similar to another favorite artist of mine, Edward Hopper). I think if his message had been more obscure (like, to an extent, Edward Hopper's), popular among fewer people (more elite) and had been a leftist one (rather than an establishment one), modernists would have hailed him as one of the great artists of our time.

By the way, I could be wrong about this, but I think Edward Hopper's reputation has grown over the years. In the 1960s, I got the feeling that the art world kind of looked down at Hopper (who was still alive) as a has been and never-all-that great-to-begin-with.

I'm surprised that people feel that Rockwell lacked "flair." Are there examples to show what is meant by "flair"? Or, using another approach, how might his illustrations have been done differently if he had done them with more flair?

I'm not that knowledgable about art, but when I looked through a book of Rockwell illustrations I was surprised at how clever, well composed and "artistic" some of them were. (I'm thinking, for instance, of an overhead "shot" of a card table with people playing cards.)

- - - - -

There is this famous artist who does medical illustrations (Netter?). I was taken by his work when I first saw some of his drawings in popular healthcare books -- and was pleased to discover that he actually had a reputation and following. (I think I got this info in a NY Times profile.)

Does his reputation extend into the world of illustrators that your' edescribing, or is his reputation and fame part of a different world?

There are some other illustrators who have, to a certain degree, captured my fancy. I remember at the time of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair there were two artists (don't know their names) who had "looks" that seemed to be very popular in World's Fair publications and in general circulation publications.

Again, thanks for your interesting "alternative" history of art essay.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 26, 2005 11:56 PM




P.S. -- There is an art gallery on Spring St., between Broadway and Mercer, that currently displays oil(?) paintings done in what I'd call a 1940s illustrator style. They almost look like paintings of stills from a movie about life in the big metropolis or a film noir.

So apparently there is a market for high art illustration these days (as was also true, in effect, with "superrealism" of the 1970s and pop art of the 1960s).

I guess this "illustrates" some other parts of the "story" -- 1) the importance of timing and 2) it's not so much what you do but who you know (and whether they are currently the powers that be in the art/architecture establishment).

In other words, it seems to me that if someone like a Rem Koolhaus submitted Edward Durrell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle design for a new MAD museum (assuming that Stone hadn't already done it) with the right "lingo" to back it up, it would probably be praised to the skies by its orthodox-modern enemies as something creative, new, austere, yet urbanistic, culturally pluralistic (especially post 9/11), etc.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 27, 2005 12:31 AM



You've got me thinking about skill. Why do we want skill in a work of art? I've got a professor who says that it's only insecure people who want an obvious sign of "skill" in the art they look at. According to him, people who are in the know have no need for that. But I've read anthropology books that claim that people in other cultures demand shows of skill before they can accept something as a work of art. So are we more advanced? Or are our art teachers fooling themselves? And how did we get into this position anyway?

Very nice essay, by the way. Didn't mean to overlook that.

Posted by: Billy Tantra on March 27, 2005 1:14 AM



Okay, as a total ignoramus about art, I'll bite -- if we're not appreciating some measure of skill, then what are we appreciating? Or are we somehow divorcing "art" or "artistry" from "skill"? (You see how ignorant I am.)

This is what the evidently insecure, unwashed masses fix on when they scorn modern painting, right? "I could have done that!" "My three-year-old could have done that" And then are able to dismiss Painting as a complete hoax -- at least drawing and illustration shows some skill.

Someone help me understand this. I look at a Jackson Pollack and *do* see skill/artistry, because I know if I dripped paint on a canvas, in a million years, it would never look like his.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 27, 2005 10:51 AM



Don't forget about the great Arthur Rackham:

http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/rackham.htm

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 27, 2005 1:13 PM



And Kay Nielsen.

http://nielsen.artpassions.net/nielsen.html

Posted by: missgrundy on March 27, 2005 2:02 PM



This book sums it all up:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0810926946/qid=1111956162/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-1096534-0039069?v=glance&s=books

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 27, 2005 3:44 PM



Are there examples to show what is meant by "flair"?

All I know is that we require at least 15 pieces, but we encourage more.

Posted by: jimbo on March 27, 2005 6:52 PM




Perhaps I should clarify my question: In some of the non-Rockwell illustrations shown, I see the use of brighter colors, and drawings that are less realistic and more stylized. Is that what people are meaning by the world "flair"?

To me, it seems that flair would be something different, though -- something along the lines of displaying virtuosity with one's talent. It's doing something difficult with ease and style.

Since Rockewell has his own distinct style which emphasizes realism -- not bright colors or stylization -- I would see "flair" in his paintings as his using his talent for realism in a vituostic way. So for me his self-portrait (where, if I remember it correctly, he shows himself looking in the mirror with an unfinished painting of himself on a nearby easel) and his overhead shot of people play cards would be examples of "flair."

Other examples of what I think of when I think of "flair": The way Vermeer captures light and reflections; Andrew Wyeth painting gauze curtains flapping in the wind. I also have a cheap poster that was popular in the late 1960s -- it's a blowup of a painting of Napoleon in uniform with light being reflected off of his gold braiding. I've been told that this is really a tiny painting. If so, that would be another example of "flair" in my book.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 27, 2005 8:30 PM



Miss Grundy -- Thank you for your kind words. I'll write more if Michael is willing to let me continue.

Awbnid -- One major difference between Wyeth pere et fils is that N.C. mostly painted in oil whereas Andrew prefers water based paints. This and the normal stylistic quirks of individual artists make each Wyeth distinct. Plus Andrew has pretty much always been a Painter and is free to select his subject matter, whereas N.C. was fairly constrained (by editors and by himself) in much of his commercial work. This said, I do agree with your observatons.

Maryse -- I am so distant from the practice of commercial art that it's likely that any detailed advice will mostly be bad. As for good general-purpose advice, I suggest: (1) Familiarize yourself with the current market to understand what sort of illustration is being done, but understand that this market has always gone from fashion to fashion. Looking at publications should be helpful, but I believe there is an illustrators society that publishes an annual book containing prize-winning work. The point of this is to offer a yardstick against your taste and abilities. (2) Then, if you live in or near a major commerical art market such as NYC, Chicago, LA, etc., try to talk with practicing commercial artists to get their take, but keep in mind that some might not wish to encourage future competition. (3) Finally scout out schools that offer commercial art and illustration as majors. For those that do, look at the curriculum they offer in order to determine how much overlap there is with fine arts training (i.e., painting in various media). If possible, visit the school to see what sort of work students are doing and assess the quality of same; sometimes this can be done via the Internet. My gut feeling is that some classical drawing and painting experience plus a decent dose of technical info does more good than harm (see my most recent posting before the current one).

Benjamin -- Regarding your point (1), there seems to be a healthy market for the work of well-known illustrators. Simply Google a name or two and you'll find that many of the leading links are to dealers. As for original art vs. how it looked when published, this depends on the era. For instance, N.C. Wyeth's early work (ditto other artists around 1910) lost a lot of color and detail on the way to the press. Most magazine cover art and story illustration before about 1950 came in the form of fully-realized oil paintings or pastel drawings (though watercolor was popular in the late 30s). This was true of all Norman Rockwell originals that I've seen. By the 50s, the Cooper Studio group, following Al Parker's lead (see Michael's link to Prof. Mendez), used partly-realized illustrations in water-based media that often had a lot of what we call "white-space". Where white-space exists, the commercial artist will often need to tidy up illustrations through use of white paint on parts of the illustration board. When reproduced, such corrections do not show, but they are easy to spot in the originals. This goes back 40 years to that Aubrey Beardsley exhibit I saw at Huntington Harford's museum on Columbus Circle (see my comment to the Francis Morrone posting on same), but I think I might have seen a few examples of whiting-over in his pen-and-ink illustrations.

(2) Agreed: I avoided this point in order to keep the posting from getting really, really long.

(3) Also agreed, basically (though I'll have to mull over the details more). This gets us into the last 150 of the history of art: Calling Friedrich! Help!!

As for Rockwell, this is another huge topic that deserves a separate posting. My understanding is that Hopper started his career as a commercial artist and then switched to Painting. He did receive noteriety not too many years before his death in the form of a Time magazine cover (hard to beat that!), though I faintly recall that this publicity did not "amuse" (in Her Majesty's sense) the art establishment.

The matter of medical illustration or technical illustration of any kind is interesting because it is one of those transition-zones between art and techncal or clinical description (though engineering drawings also can have beauty). Architectural plans and elevations are often beautiful; see almost anything from Frank Lloyd Wright's studio. Industrial designer/illustrator Syd Meade also does interesting stuff, though his humans have tended to be sub-par. In many respects, what Meade does isn't far from what sci-fi book cover artists do. Again, grist for an entire posting.

Billy -- The point about your professor is interesting. I would argue that to create Art, skill is "necessary but not sufficient", as they say. In my posting, I argued that "flair" was also needed. Your prof would probably argue that creativity alone would be "necessary AND sufficient". Hmm. Maybe I should write something on this for Michael's consideration.

Miss Grundy -- See my comment to Billy. Yes, assuming he wasn't blind-drunk at the time (and the results suggest he was sober or nearly so), Pollack indeed used a lot of skill making his drip-paintings. BTW, Pollack did hit the sauce more than he should have -- espcially the night he crashed his car and died.

Benjamin -- Ditto the Billy comment: Since I chose to use the word "flair", I think I should hunker down and try to elaborate and clarify and then hope that Michael finds it fit to post.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 27, 2005 9:38 PM



This is a very old fashioned. Skill went down the toilet once Duchamp hit the scene in the art world.

Now, don't get me wrong - there are some incredibly skilled painters out there in contemporary art... just look at John Currin's work. He definitely paints with Old-Masters' technique. And right now, specifically now - there are loads of highly talented fine artists in the contemporary art world pumping out really technical work - starting with Lucien Freud (whom is in his eighties now) and ending with Jenny Saville.

But it's not necessary and does not define good art. Jeff Koons might know how to draw, I haven't the slightest clue. But he's an ideas man and farms out the work to a team of craftspeople who pump out the goods. Then it sells for 4.5M. He's a genius. And he helped set the stage for many other artists to follow in that path.

Of course art has gone beyond technique in a mighty big way because there are other horizons past realistic painting. There's a whole big wide abyss of possibilities for expression.

One beautiful example of this is artist Yoko Ono. I have a limited edition box which reads: "FLY" on the top - and inside are little objects wrapped in tissue paper. One is of two acorns and the tissue paper they are wrapped in reads: "Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around the branch of a tree. Ask your friends to do the same. Keep wishing until the branches are covered."

Yoko Ono was the only female artist in a group called Fluxus which broke away from modernism to help begin the post-modern movement. The group followed in the spirit of Duchamp.

Art and painting needed wider possibilities. Illustration is a commercial tool. Of course illustrators should be incredibly skilled - it only increases their ability to get work, as they are hired on skill, style and speed.

In saying this though, illustration has also morphed in wonderful ways by the eighties. Check out illustrators like Michael Sowa, Peter Sis, Daniel Adel, Lane Smith and the uber talented - Tim Burton (one of my main influences). Wish I could add some ladies to the mix, but sadly I don't know of any abstract illustrators which are women.

FYI, if you take a close look at many original illustrations (especially from the post-eighties world), there are many mistakes covered by white-out, tape, paper, etc. It was all fine for magazine copy as it didn't show up when it went to print. This obviously does not happen with Painting.

Both worlds hold merit and both worlds are valid - but they are so very different. I just saw a contemporary group show in Chelsea which had a few commercial artists included. You can flip over from the commercial side as an illustrator and have a show - but it is next to impossible to be a fine artist and jump into the commercial world unless you are a huge art star like Murakami and plant your little characters all over a Louis Vutton hand bag. For fine artists like me, it's just too mentally dificult to hop over to the other side and crank that machine. In saying that though, the great thing about contemporary art these days is that so many worlds are colliding and crossing over - boundaries have become a thing of the past.

Posted by: Turbokitty on March 28, 2005 8:51 AM



This word "flair" has a touch of ambiguity about it-- it sounds like something you'd want in an artist, yet also like the very thing you DON'T want in a Rockwell. Something like speed in a ballplayer; it's desirable, but don't look for it in your cleanup hitter, and definitely not in your catcher.

Another illustrator who's outlasting his critics, and more serious contemporaries, is Maxfield Parrish. He seems to be nothing but flair.

Recently I've been wondering how Thomas Kinkade will hold up compared to these fellows, since he's certainly racking up their kind of sales figures. (In Kinkade's case, "flair" might be changed to "flare"!) I bet I'm the first to compare him to Edward Hopper. But really, there's that same great psychic distance between his rare human subjects and the viewer-- he's Hopper-on-Prozac.

Mr Pittinger's comments on Kinkade would be welcome. But I've found a guaranteed method for the appreciation of his works-- think of where they're bound to be hung. That's right, in those suburban tract houses with the giant garages out front facing those culs-de-sac. Really, I think Kinkade should retire from painting and go into land development, the sooner the better!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on March 29, 2005 5:22 AM



Turbokitty -- When I was about your age (I'll guess you are 30 plus or minus 10) I would have generally agreed with your take on things, making allowances for differences in the art world since 1970. When I was young I TRIED to like what the NYC art establishment held was to be liked, but I couldn't sustain enthusiasm for it. That's just me, like it or not. What's more, I DON'T CARE whether or not I am "old fashioned"; I have what I think are better things to do than working at being trendy.

Marcel Duchamp was an amusing poseur who did a lot of silly things, but eventually he realised that he preferred chess to art, and since it isn't easy to be a chess poseur I assume he was being serious for once. Yes he was influential, but that does not mean his influence was beneficial.

My quality test generally is: Would I like to have the painting in my living room, and how many of my finite number of disposable dollars would I spend to have it there?

Of the artists you mentioned and that I was able to find work examples for via Google (children's illustrators aside), the only work I would consider buying if I had the money would be Daniel Adel's portraits. The remainder struck me as being un-serious. Again, c'est moi.

Reg -- Kinkade, and any really popular painter makes it difficult for an art critic. The tendency among self-styled (and most other) intellectuals is to jerk their knees and condemn anything that's TOO popular. (In Britain for example, Jack Vettriano is very popular but the Tate won't buy his stuff.)

Some popular art is good and some is bad, in my warped judgment. An example of bad for me is those painting by Keane -- waifs with huge eyes --that were hot 30-40 years ago. Kinkade is a college-trained artist, for whatever that's worth. And he's religious, which is blood in the water for most big-city art critics. I myself don't care for his paintings for the most part. However, I saw a picture not long ago of a (1920s?) New York street (well, avenue actually) scene that wasn't bad. If the guy would just paint something besides lighted windows at dusk, we might be better able to judge his true worth.

Oh, and I like Parrish a lot.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 29, 2005 9:34 AM



Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, and that Time cover of Brando by Fuchs---all my favorite stuff! I finally feel like I have Cultured Taste! Instead of simply being hopelessly Bourgeouis! Thanks!

Posted by: annette on March 29, 2005 1:20 PM



Great post!

I never gave it much thought, but thanks to great illustrators, my childhood favorite books (A Child's Book of Verse, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Goodnight Moon) are fondly forever engraved in my memory. Without the wonderful illustrations, the stories would just be so many words.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on March 29, 2005 11:02 PM



wow the artwork is really good i enjoyed it.


Posted by: tracie bartleman on March 30, 2005 4:13 AM



Hi Donald -

I'm simply stating that we can't all look at these groups of painters versus these groups of illustrators and dissect painting versus illustration when we're leaving an insane section of the art/illustration world out of the loop here. Most of your painters versus illustrators are my dead grandfather's age. Maybe I should have used the word "classical" versus "old-fashioned" but in my mind they are the same thing.

My grandfather was a progressive artist but a conservative man. He was a cubist painter who trained at The Art Student's League for 12 years with folks like Thomas Hart Benton (whom apparently he couldn't stand). But I still found books of Duchamp in his library, as well as Chagall, Goya, African Art and all the Great Masters. He was skilled up the wazoo but still understood that art should be expansive and vast. Without Duchamp, we'd still be looking at dreadful, serious landscapes. Artists like Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray and Duchamp flipped art on it's head. Then it happened again in the late fifties when art split into several directions (thank you Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono... I could go on and on).

The Twentieth Century was all about breaking boundaries and opening new doors. That's exciting, passionate stuff and why I have chosen the fine art world versus commercial art (much to my better judgement) - because I want to explore a huge, wide space of possibilites and have the freedom to do so. Illustration is too restricting, although I have enjoyed the works of many contemporary illustrators and some earlier twentieth century ones as well. I certainly don't knock illustration, I considered going into it as a career for a long time.

My examples of current illustrators are all serious professionals making good money. In fact, I worked for Dan Adel for just under a year moonlighting as his assistant. He is wicked fast when necessary and can belt out an amazing piece under impossible deadlines. I have much respect for the craft and talent of good illustration.

I love process. I think it's important and part of art making. But getting hung up simply on process is looking at art through a classical lens only. The Art Student's League is a perfect example of this school of thought. As students, we were not allowed to comment on art beyond technique. But in my book it's just part of the pie. It's not realistic and places art in a conservative, pre-Manet, pre-Goya world... art before photography.

In saying this though - I do enjoy this debate because it's good to ask the occassional question: Painting or Illustration?

BTW, Cowtown, I love Goonight Moon. Makes me think of my grandmother and sleeping at her house in Laguna Beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean.


Posted by: TurboKitty on March 30, 2005 9:50 AM



Wow, amazine piece. This is like a parallel universe essay. I wrote about the topic of illustration vs. fine art a couple of weeks ago. Competely different subjects (I mean as in the subject of a critique), but I hope you will check it out - I just started a graphic design blog a couple of months ago and am trying to get more readers (and contributors!) who love art, design and advertising.


http://designity.blogspot.com/2005/03/sibling-rivalry-between-visual-art-and.html

Posted by: artdiva on March 30, 2005 5:07 PM



Donald: David Ligare is a Chicago-born artist, now based in Calif, who paints in the neoclassic mode. Here's a look at him:
http://www.davidligare.com/

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 1, 2005 7:25 PM






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