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May 19, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Flair, Part 2

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today we continue with the conclusion of Donald Pittenger's musings on flair in art and painting. Please click on the images that accompany Donald's words: most will pop up in a larger window. You'll be able to eyeball the art in much better detail.

Part one of Donald's essay is here.

***
Skill and Flair in Painting, Part Two
by Donald Pittenger

The matter of artistic "flair"

Confession: I tossed the word "flair" into the original article on the spur of the moment. I gave it almost no thought, yet I used it because it struck me as being apt.

What do I mean by flair in painting? Several things.

Flair might be a dramatic sense created by the artist. In David Michaelis' book "N.C. Wyeth: A Biography" (Knopf, New York, 1998, pages 199-200), Wyeth's version of a scene in "Treasure Island" (where the pirate Israel Hands climbs a mast to attack Jim Hawkins and is killed by Jim) is contrasted with Walter Paget's earlier illustration of the scene.

By N.C. Wyeth
By Walter Paget

[Editor's note: Since I couldn't find the specific images Donald refers to, I had to settle for the above comparison instead. Apologies to all.]

Michaelis notes that Paget depicts Hands starting his fall after the shooting, with Hawkins higher up the mast, smoking pistols in hand. But Wyeth, he explains, heightened the drama by selecting a moment just before Hawkins fired. In the Paget version, the viewer quickly sees what happened whereas the Wyeth version leaves the viewer wondering if Hawkins will fire or whether the sword-wielding pirate will cut him down instead.

Flair might be how paint is applied, the quality or nature of the brushstrokes. Consider Maxfield Parrish and John Singer Sargent.

By Maxfield Parrish
By John Singer Sargent

Parrish's technique was essentially classical. His paintings were carefully planned, sometimes using Golden Mean geometry in their composition. Human figures were drawn from carefully-staged photographs of costumed models taken by Parrish himself.

His usual model for many years was his ultimately shabbily-treated mistress Sue Lewin. Sue posed for both male and female characters. A byproduct of this is that many people in the paintings -- often in the same painting -- look somewhat similar, like Sue actually. For example, see his "The Lantern Bearers."

Parrish: "The Lantern Bearers"

Once the composition and photos were in hand, Parrish painted the grisaille (monochrome-tonal) layer. Then he would apply layer after layer of thinned-oil colored glazes until the work was completed.

Parrish: "Dreaming/October"

His unfinished version (there is also a completed work) of "Dreaming/October" contains both grisaille and completed areas, allowing us to glimpse how he constructed his paintings. There was no drama or flair in how the paint itself appeared in isolation from the context of the work as a whole.

Sargent, like most other Post-Impressionist era painters, dispensed with grisaille and simply slapped on oil paint pretty much as it came out of the tube, mixing colors and perhaps using a thinning medium as needed. Sargent's flair lies in the visible manner of how the paint was applied.

Sargent: Lady Agnew
Sargent: "Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children"

This is most apparent in his treatment of clothing. For example see "Lady Agnew" or "Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children." The viewer sees brushwork that seems almost casually applied yet is controlled so that the effect, at a normal viewing distance, appears energetically realistic. I think I've seen the word "bravura" used to describe his technique: the term fits.

But Parrish's art does have flair. As just noted, the flair is not in how paint was applied. Instead, Parrish exhibited flair in his use of color and to a lesser extent in his compositions. Still, most Parrish paintings are of static scenes with little or no narrative drama; nothing like the action-filled illustrations of fellow Howard Pyle student (though not contemporary) N.C Wyeth.

Even Parrish paintings depicting motion such as his mural "The Pied Piper" are pretty sedate. His paintings have their greatest compositional flair where he features deep-space in the form of stacking several layers of atmospheric perspective. Examples with dark or starkly-colored foregrounds contrasting with generally lighter backgrounds are "Romance" and "Daybreak".

Romance.jpg Parrish: "Romance"
Parrish: "Daybreak"

And it's in his use of color where Parrish exhibits his greatest artistic flair, most famously his "Parrish Blue" skies. Aside from purposes of perspective, much of his color virtuosity was used for creating moods related to times of the day (see "Daybreak" again and "Moonlit night: Winter.")

To me, the common element in the examples of flair I just offered is a sense of theatricality. And by this I don't mean something excessive. To my taste, only a dash of flair is all that's really needed unless the purpose of the painting is to illustrate an inherently dramatic scene or, for aesthetic reasons, to isolate and exaggerate some aspect of the appearance of something. A hypothetical example of what I consider dramatic excess would be an oil painting with the style and subject matter of a superhero comic book cover: exaggerated perspective, contorted poses, dramatic lighting, garish colors.

Art not needing flair

Another way to examine flair is to consider art that lacks it. One class of art that almost by definition does not need flair is technical illustration. A mundane example of technical illustration is the drawings that can appear in automobile owners manuals -- for instance, showing how to operate the jack for tire-changing.

The whole point of technical illustration is to depict essential (for the purpose at hand) features of an object as clearly as possible. Normally this means the object is simplified, sometimes almost to diagram-status. Its shape must be shown realistically in terms of arrangement and dimensions, but color, surface texture, reflected light effects and shading are either eliminated or else only hinted at.

This is not to say that technical illustrations can't have flair. Some are indeed works of art where the skill and technique of the illustrator shine through. I fondly recall cut-away illustrations of sports and racing cars by Yoshihiro Inomoto and illustrations of aircraft -- admittedly with less flair than Inomoto used -- by John Weal and Mike Badrocke.

By Yoshihiro Inomoto
By John Weal

A good deal of non-technical illustration and representational painting seems to be created with the intent of depicting objects or scenes with great detail and fidelity to the subject, subordinating other artistic considerations. Sometimes the pursuit of fidelity results in important works of art. Examples include Canaletto's Venice cityscapes and early Pre-Raphaelite paintings such as Millais' "Ophelia."

ophelia_millais.jpg Millais: "Ophelia"
By Canaletto

Canaletto and Millais succeed because of their skill and personal style. Their paintings have focus thanks to composition and use of tone and color; aesthetics ranks at least equal to fidelity to detail for these artists, unlike the case of artists whose main goal is to chronicle parts of a locomotive, say.

The usual result of fidelity to detail, however, is a painting or illustration that seems to be all-detail and little artistic quality. I tend to see this in book illustrations for a hobbyist audience. The subject might be a steam locomotive, a World War 2 bomber or a Napoleonic-era hussar, but the result is similar. The steam locomotive picture will be full of hard-edge details of the driving wheels, rivets on the boiler, handrails, and all the rest. Similarly, the airplane's rivet patterns, insignia, camouflage paint pattern and so forth will all be given equal emphasis. And the hussar's buttons, belts and braiding will upstage the usually stiffly-posed and not-quite-realistic human wearing them.

As a result, such pictures do not seem very realistic, even though everything shown is "true." I don't know for certain, but my best guess is that publishers are catering to actual or suspected hobbyist preferences. The hobbyist cares about the details most, and is willing to sacrifice atmospheric realism if that's what it takes to present details clearly. (An alternative explanation is that publishers can save money by hiring less-skilled illustrators.)

The middle-ground between hobbyist books and mainstream art is the framed print of hobbyist subjects. Here one can find examples of detail-dominated and atmospheric-realist pictures coexisting in the same genre, though the latter style seems to be squeezing out the former. What do I mean by "atmospheric-realist"? It's an ad hoc term referring to depictions of trains, planes, automobiles, whatever, where one part of the subject is in sharp focus and the remaining areas might be slightly blurred, much as our eyes see things. Also, details such as rivets might largely disappear to be replaced by reflections of sky, clouds, ground, and nearby objects on shiny-surfaced subjects such as cars and planes. Atmospheric-realist aircraft artists include Keith Ferris, Jack Fellows and Dru Blair: the latter two do so with considerable flair.

By Dru Blair

A branch of painting that could, in theory, be devoid of flair is Photorealism. These are paintings that at first glance seem to be extremely large color photographs, but in fact are oil or acrylic paintings.

By Chuck Close
richard estes111.jpg By Richard Estes

Sometimes the photographic basis for a painting might be unexceptionable such as Chuck Close's self-portraits. (Close achieved a kind of drama, though not actual flair, by painting his face four or so feet high.) Richard Estes favored large city scenes that appear starkly realistic, yet attain a degree of flair thanks to theatrical use of composition, tone and color.

So what about Norman Rockwell?

Let's return to art that has no inherent reason to lack flair and examine the genre of magazine cover illustration, focusing on the Saturday Evening Post and Norman Rockwell, its iconic cover artist. (This is in response to Benjamin Hemric's comment to my post on illustration.)

What I haven't been able to directly document is the extent to which that magazine's editorial policy influenced the artistic quality -- aside from the subject matter -- of its cover art. (For now, all I can do is make inferences by looking at cover images from Curtis Publishing's site, the source I'll use regarding Post artists.) I raise this point because the Post's covers in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s strike me as being better art than those of the late 40s and 1950s (I leave out the 1960s, when the original magazine was on its death-march and began using photography on its covers).

From 1923
From 1924

Until around the end of World War II, Post covers tended to be poster-like. Sometimes there might simply be a picture of a pretty girl. Or there might be a hint of a story such as a woman reading a letter or a boy doing handstands at the end of the school year. Wartime covers moved away from vignette-like compositions, but generally retained a poster-like focus and compositional simplicity.

From 1948

Covers from roughly 1945-1962 tended to feature gentle-humor-cartoon ideas depicted using fully-realized story-illustration style art that favored workmanlike representation over artistic flair. Close-ups of individuals were scarce or gone, being replaced by scenes containing several people posed in mid-drama against a background featuring a street or building or interior.

By Thornton Utz

Clearly the subject-matter requirements had changed, and along with it the artist crew. Prolific post-war cover artists included Constantin Alajalov (active 1945-62), Thornton Utz (1949-62), John Clymer (1949-62 plus two 1942 covers), John Falter (1943-61), Ben Prins (1953-62), Richard Sargent (1951-62), Amos Sewell (1949-62) and Coby Whitmore (1950-61). Artists in this group whose work strikes me as being adequate yet usually lacking drama or flair (besides Clymer and Stevan Dohanos, cited and illustrated in my initial essay) include Sewell, Prins and Sargent.

By Coby Whitmore

Alajahov's covers are essentially cartoons. Whitmore was a glamour artist whose Post covers were a sideline. Some of his early covers (such as 9 December 1950 and 12 April 1952) seriously toned down his normal style, but his remaining covers were notable exceptions to the Post's apparent anti-flair rule (though they still fell short of the pizzazz of his normal illustration work in that era).

Many artists contributed covers frequently before the mid-40s, but comparatively few bridged the change and they did so only partially. "Bridge" period frequent-contributers were Stevan Dohanos (1942-58), Mead Schaeffer (1942-53) and John Atherton (1942-61). Many of Atherton's covers were still-lifes, including one of a bust of Benjamin Franklin that was repeated for many years; otherwise, the last cover of his that I can document appeared in 1948. For practical purposes, Atherton did not really survive the transition period in Post cover art.

By Mead Schaeffer

Schaeffer's wartime covers were not done in the poster or vignette style of 20s and 30s Post covers, but were almost all tightly-framed full or partial-figure views of a single military man engaged in his trade as anti-aircraft gunner, submarine captain, etc. After the war, his covers moved in the direction of the post-war genre.

By Steven Dohanos

Dohanos' first (7 March 1942) cover was a poster-like view of searchlights and ant-aircraft guns, but his next one (4 December 1943) was essentially in story-illustration mode; thereafter, he was turning out postwar-style covers.

The only cover artist who was prolific before, during and after the transition was Norman Rockwell (Post cover artist basically 1916-63, with a few later examples).

Rockwell, in my judgment, was a better artist than most other contributors of Post covers. Certainly he had great skill in realistically depicting people and settings. Plus, he had an easily-recognizable style or, as I'll shortly note, closely related set of styles.

What makes it hard to evaluate Rockwell as an artist is his subject-matter. No doubt this is true for most artists, but for Rockwell the problem is compounded by the fact that most of his subjects were not "serious."

By Norman Rockwell, 1949

Actually, most of his work was based on themes of gentle humor regarding everyday situations faced by country folk and broadly middle-class city and suburban people. Some of this lack of seriousness might be due to the fact that his clients were not the Church or the government or even rich patrons, but instead were magazine art editors and advertising agency art directors whose imperative was to appeal to a mass market audience.

But the nature of his clients isn't the sole explanation: much of the focus of his art came from Rockwell himself. I assert this because not every successful Post cover artist used Rockwell's subject-matter. For example, John LaGatta (who I think had a lot of flair, by the way) liked to paint elegant, upper or upper-middle class women, usually in non-humorous situations. And in the 1930s, Post editors allowed him to do just that for their covers. Rockwell therefore painted pretty much the subject-matter he preferred or else got himself boxed into using the subject-matter that brought him initial success.

By Norman Rockwell, 1925

Through the 1920s Rockwell usually painted humorous vignettes, sometimes with cartoony or caricature-like subjects (see covers 21 November 1925, 22 October 1927, 23 June 1928). During the 30s Rockwell occasionally included what I'll call pretty-girl and semi-glamorous women in his covers (30 January 1932, 13 July 1935, 7 March 1936) but in humorous situations with other figures in the composition. In other words he didn't do "beautiful woman" covers, though the 7 March 1936 cover hints that he just might have been able to do so.

By Norman Rockwell, 1932

Let me assert that successful "beautiful woman" pictures almost always incorporate artistic flair because most beautiful women themselves have personal flair as part of their attractiveness. (The main counter-example is "serene" beauty, perhaps exemplified by the Venus de Milo.) Rockwell, however, depicted either "ordinary" women or "conventionally pretty" women in narrative settings. By grounding his women in ordinariness -- his commercial franchise -- he avoided the need for theatricality and flair.

All things considered I think that Rockwell, despite the hint I suggested above, really couldn't move beyond "style" to "flair" in his art. As evidence I cite cover portraits of presidential candidates (Dwight Eisenhower, 11 October 1952, 13 October 1956; Adlai Stevenson, 6 October 1956; John Kennedy, 29 October 1960; Richard Nixon, 5 November 1960) and other men (Bob Hope, 13 February 1954; Nehru, 19 January 1963; Jack Benny, 2 March 1963).

By Norman Rockwell, 1954

Of these, only the portrait of Bob Hope shows spark -- as one would expect, given Hope's strong, showy personality. The other portraits are technically well-done, but lack any flair. Compare these to works by important portrait artists such as John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn and the ineffable meaning of artistic flair and how Rockwell lacked it should become clear.

UPDATE

After finishing this essay, I stumbled on a Paul Giambarba Web site featuring his views on illustrators. (Giambarba had a career as cartoonist, Polaroid corporate image designer, and illustrator. Look for the link to "100 Years of Illustration".) One of his topics is Norman Rockwell, and Giambarba states that Rockwell could paint pretty women. I think so too, but most of his pretty women appeared in humorous settings with other characters. And while I think Rockwell could do nice naturalistic depictions of pretty women, they lacked the flair of work by other artists mentioned above. But we're dealing with taste and opinion here, so go look at what Giambarba has to say and show.

***

As I gathered the art to accompany Donald's essay, I ran across a website that people who enjoy highly-accomplished figurative art might enjoy exploring: a couple of online galleries organized by Brian Yoder. Brian's a very interesting guy -- as well as a very accomplished scanner. These are beautiful reproductions. Here's one of Brian's galleries, and here's the other.

What Donald has got me thinking about is the way there can be many kinds of flair in the visual arts: flair in terms of paint-handling, for instance -- but also flair in terms of staging, or color choices.

Perhaps flair can play a role in the avant-garde gallery scene too. The much-reviled Damien Hirst, for instance, strikes me as having a lot of showmanship. He plays the avant-garde game with brio. And Jeff Koons often makes me laugh; I find him a hilarious card, with a lot of comedy flair.

But Hirst and Koons, if they can be said to have flair, have flair of a conceptual sort. Donald seems much more drawn to flair of the picture-making sort. Which leaves me wondering what Donald's thoughts are about the role preferences in flair play in the kinds of art-worlds you eventually find yourself becoming involved with. Today's avant-garde gallery scene, for instance, is a place that someone with a love of paint-handling-flair won't find very rewarding.

Please feel free to pitch in with observations, musings, jokes, and questions.

Our thanks once again to Donald Pittenger.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 19, 2005




Comments

Donald said that, of several portraits, only Rockwell's one of Bob Hope showed 'flair', and that wasn't surprising given Hope's big personality. He also said other Post cover artists may have been better with "pretty women" because "pretty women" by definition have flair, and these other artists had more 'flair.' I'm confused---if he's crediting Hope's personality with creating the 'flair' in the Rockwell portrait, and not Rockwell as painter, then why not credit the pretty women subjects of the other artists' work, rather than those artists themselves? Why give the 'flair' to the subject in one case, but the artist in the other? (I mean, if a portrait by Rockwell had 'flair', it had 'flair.' Or it was simply the subject matter that did. One or the other). Particularly since without seeing the original models in the "pretty women" covers, I don't see how you can judge whether they were artist-enhanced or the flair was simply in the subject. Everybody knows what Bob Hope looked like.

Especially since, I think Sargent's painting shows 'flair' regardless of subject--even if you can't see the subject's face, as is the case in one beautiful Sargent painting of an Indian (or Muslim) woman looking down, dressed in white robes--can't remember the name of it. "Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children" don't appear exceptionally attractive, and the 'flair' in Sargent's painting seems evident. Regardless of subject. So I don't think his impression of the presence or absence of 'flair' has much to do with subject---"serious" or not. You could certainly make an argument that portraits of rich women weren't an inherently "serious" subject--or any more so than going to the pharmacy--so the difference in his opinion of 'flair' between Sargent and Rockwell can't really be in subject matter.

PS--I think Parrish is icky and depressing. I guess that means it lacks 'flair'!

Posted by: annette on May 19, 2005 2:51 PM



Big thanks to Donald and Michael.

I like most everything, so I like Parrish, tho not as much as I used to.

Sargeant was a genius. Flat out. I can stare at "Lady Agnew" for at least as long as "Irises" or "Waterlilies". There is a ton going on in those portraits. I downloaded most of Sargeant a couple months ago, and was pleasantly surprised by his later watercolors. Fun to see "Sargeant" and "Post-Impressionists" in the same sentence, considering the Roger Fry exhibition.

At Art Renewal, you can compare Sargeant portraits to Chase, Paxton, Boldini besides Zorn.
Boldini had a ton of "flair." I know a lot of names and paintings, but I don't yet know how to think about painting, or talk about it, or even probably look at it. This helps thanks.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 19, 2005 3:46 PM



I want to second the appreciation expressed for Sargent. A wonderful, wonderful painter.

Posted by: jult52 on May 19, 2005 4:06 PM



The first axiom of all creative art: A presentation of forms, images, or ideas in such a way that they will communicate, not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact. -Joseph Cambell Primitive Mythology PG. 42

I think if an artist can show he has the first axiom down, then all the rest follows. Rockwell is good because he produces an impact.

Yours,
Nicanor

Posted by: Nicanor on May 20, 2005 6:06 AM



Is lack of flair then, synonomous with bland? I can see Rockwell's technical ability but I get nothing from him. He has no zing, seems insipid, doesn't speak to me as it were. I love Sargent and enjoy Parrish, too, though they affect me differently. Parrish has an immediate impact--his zing is upfront. While Sargent's work has a more long-lasting effect: the more you look the more you find. As for technical illustrations with their fidelity to the details, they're really porn for the enthusiast, no? But what about Redoute and Audubon? Do they have flair? Or do I just have a thing for birds and flowers?

Posted by: Rachel on May 20, 2005 9:40 AM



"...my best guess is that publishers are catering to actual or suspected hobbyist preferences. The hobbyist cares about the details most, and is willing to sacrifice atmospheric realism if that's what it takes to present details clearly."

While I can't speak to the motivation of the publishers, I can speak as such a hobbyist. In art of the sort used in the color plates in Osprey's Men-at-Arms series, for example, I'm looking for very specific things. Artistic merit really isn't one of them. Give me a picture that unambiguously shows the difficult details of uniform and weaponry, and if that requires an awkward pose or unartistic composition, that is small sacrifice.

These pictures are true technical illustrations, intended to show specific details, not the sort of marketing illustration you (or Michael) have shown in this article. If I'm trying to install a part on an engine, I want to know where it goes, where the bolts attach, and have clear information about the precise order of attachment and the part numbers. (I should note that I do this sort of technical illustration as a part of my job.)

This should not be taken as indicating that I have no interest in art that covers the same subjects, nor that my standards for art have any relation to my standards for technical illustration. There are many artists who paint subjects that I have a technical interest in that do not paint in a manner that satisfies my technical interest. Some of those paintings are hanging on the wall of my office right now.

On Rockwell: Is there anyone here who has any difficulty immediately bringing to mind at least one Rockwell painting? What percentage of the population over the age of, say, 20 would be unable to recall at least one such painting? (I will leave aside how many would be able to identify Rockwell by name; it's the art, not the artist, that I'm interested in.) I claim that's a pretty reliable measure of the impact, and thus the greatness, of Rockwell.

That he painted many well-known paintings is another such indicator. How many people (other than art historians) could identify any painting by Grant Wood other than "American Gothic"? How many paintings by JAM Whistler will anyone other than a historian remember beyond "Whistler's Mother"?

I guess I just don't understand why Rockwell's work is so little appreciated, at least by critics, while it is so broadly understood and venerated by pretty much everyone else.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 20, 2005 4:22 PM



I second Doug in regards to technical illustration and art.
Years ago when I was in college, classes on Architectural Rendering were a mandatory part of the curriculum - as well as Drawing in various mediums, and the two subjects were always treated differently by instructors: former required reproduction of tiniest details, texture, color, close resemblance to portrayed materials, etc. Latter paid attention to composition, mood, various effects of light on colors, etc. Different tasks - different end product.

It has been noted many times on this blog how sleek and transparent modern buildings appear on renderings presented to the public and how different they look when built in urban environment. That is the result of different task on part of architectural renderer: his goal is to show materials and details of proposed building most realistically, not effects of the environment the building will be built into; sometimes he doesn't have any idea in what city the building will be situated. That's why the glass reflects the clouds and not the 100 yo red brick church next door. The client has paid for curtain walls - let's show the exterior unmistakably glass to him.

Another thing, tangentially. This grisaille technique Mr. Pittenger described as part of the charm of M.Parrish's art, is used as foundation for purely illustrative architectural rendering, mostly in markers (I prefer to use it even in mixed media. My favorite part, actually, is when after using 8-9 various marker greys for depicting various intensity of shade I add watercolor to the drawing, and the room comes alive). I wouldn't say the end product has flair, though, even if the sense applied to Parrish -in fact, flair (or spark, or what have you) is harmful in rendering: it draws attention from stated purpose of work.


Posted by: Tatyana on May 20, 2005 5:15 PM



Oh, forgot to add.
Doug, count me in: when I read "Rockwell" first in the original post, who jumped to my mind if not David Rockwell, famous hi-end hotel/restaurant architect (see rockwellgroup.com)?
Mea culpa.
I'm not a typical case, though: firstly, I'm an ignorant foreigner (that always comes handy), and 2nd - I'm a halfwit interior designer (what those 'applied arts" majors know about The Art?)

Posted by: Tatyana on May 20, 2005 5:22 PM



Tatyana: "...firstly, I'm an ignorant foreigner (that always comes handy), and 2nd - I'm a halfwit interior designer (what those 'applied arts" majors know about The Art?)"

I wouldn't leap too quickly to denigrate myself if I were you. Just saying "Rockwell" is almost certainly a mistake (which I made above). It's a common name, also shared by a prominent American Nazi. If I contributed to your confusion, I apologize.

My comment wasn't specifically about your take, but rather intended more generally. Bashing Norman Rockwell seems a very popular sport; this isn't by any means the first time or first place I've argued about his importance.

As to credentials, I suspect yours (however limited you think they are) are better than mine. I'm a technical writer and illustrator with an education in physics, not art. On the other hand, I'm not especially convinced that the opinion of someone with an MFA is inherently better than mine or yours. By the evidence, I'd say the correlation between an art degree and taste is negative (as a statistical matter, and allowing for any number of individual exceptions, of course).

But then I suspect that I'm becoming a curmudgeon in middle age -- not that that's a bad thing.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 20, 2005 6:13 PM



Many thanks to Michael B. for "arting" this post. He put in a lot of time, and the results are excellent.

Annette -- Let me start by reminding folks that I'm using the term "flair" to refer to a (somewhat restrained) sense of theatricality. I mention (explicitly or otherwise) the depiction of drama, the staging of a painting in terms of light, shade and color, the dynamism of the brushwork, and the overall effect. Admittedly, these things are hard to express in words: it's easier to show examples. And ultimately it's a matter of personal judgment and taste -- for example, The Lady Friend disagrees with me about Rockwell, insisting that he shows flair. Now to address your points more or less in the order you raised them...

The matter of Bob Hope and the pretty woman thing is kinda subtle, but here's my take. I think pretty women generally do have personal flair that is part of their attraction (though I cited the Venus De Milo counter-example). If an artist does a reasonably decent picture or portrait of such a women, it's pretty hard not to have a work reflecting her flair. In order to portray Bob Hope, Rockwell was almost compelled to include some personality spark. As it happened, I think he took things to the very border of the cartoony work he did early in this career (see the football SatEvePost cover Michael included). On the other hand, he seems to have nearly always held back in the flair department when painting pretty women. Maybe this had to do with his self-image or his view of himself as a "product" -- don't be what you are not thought to be and thereby wreck your franchise.

Sargent is a case where flair is often operating on all cylinders -- subject, color, paint application, you name it. So if one potential aspect of flair is missing (a pretty model, say) another (perhaps brushwork) will kick in. Or so I think. Oh, that picture of a woman inhaling vapors (Fumee d'Ambre Gris) is set in North Africa; the main painting is at the Clark in Williamstown, and a study version also exists.

Regarding Parrish, I give him flair-points only for composition (a little) and (mostly) use of color. Some of his works look drab because they have yellowed over time and cannot easily be restored for technical reasons I'll skip for now. I just saw a Parrish exhibit in Reno, and some works were dazzling. Michael asked me to do a write-up, and that's in progress.

Nicanor -- Agreed that Rockwell had an impact. He was a skilled artist-storyteller and is beloved for it. When I was young it was always a big deal when the Post arrived in the mail sporting a Rockwell cover (as opposed to Dohanos, Falter, Clymer, etc.). Well, maybe I should take back the Clymer inclusion; Mom attended college in Ellensburg, Washington which was Clymer's home town, so she was also happy to see his work.

Rachel -- I generally agree, except that I wouldn't place Rockwell totally in the bland-box. After all, he was truly a skilled painter, and that skill adds a good deal of interest to his work. If you want true bland, link to the Curtis Publishing site and check out some of the covers from the 50s done by lesser artists -- though Michael already dropped a couple representative examples into the posting.

Doug Sundseth -- When mentioning technical illustration my prime example was the owner's manual for a car, or at least the kind they once had that had drawings. As for the illustration, Michael did the best he could given what he could Google on. In future articles, I plan to work a little harder and try to locate web-based images before citing specific objects -- this should eliminate some guesswork on Michael's part. When I wrote the essay I had in mind those Osprey (and similar books), but couldn't recall the name of the publisher. Wish I could have remembered a source for pix of steam locomotives and other hobbyist grist. I do think the Osprey illustrations are unnecessarily crude, even for technical illustration. One nice compromise is found in a series of French-published books on the Maginot Line ("Hommes et ouvrages de la ligne maginot" tomes 1-3, par Jean-Yves Mary et Alain Hohnadel). They use color "diagrams" of uniforms, but supplement this with plenty of black & white contemporary photos of officers and men of various types of units. Obviously this can't be done for Roman or Napoleonic armies. In any event, technical illustration was a sidebar, counter-example of flair-not-needed to my main subject. FWIW, I'm planning a series of paintings set around the year 1930 and am collecting a lot of semi-technical illustrations as well as contemporary photos of fashions of that period, so I fully understand the need for such references.

I think critics have been unfair (condescending at best) to Rockwell while simultaneously going orgasmic over stuff that ought to become nothing more than artistic footnotes in 50 years. This is an issue that seems perennial here at Blowhards, so I'll now hold my fire till art criticism becomes the subject of a posting again.

Tatyana -- Yes technical illustration, given its function, need not and probably should not have "flair", though it can be nice if it sneaks in just a little (i.e., Inomoto). For a long time, I've considered architectural presentation rendering problematical because they oftem make glass 'n' steel curtain-wall buildings look a LOT better than they actually turn out. I find this especially worrysome in the case of the World Trade Center replacement, a truly important addition to the skyline.

But flair has existed in architectural rendering. The guy I always liked was Hugh Ferriss, at least his work up to about 1935.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 20, 2005 9:09 PM



Rockwell and Parrish were both subjects of big travelling exhibitions in the same year, 2000. Wonder how the sober Quaker tradition spawned this "flair"? Parrish went to Haverford and Swarthmore; Rockwell's son Peter, a sculptor who lives in Rome, and his grandson Geoff also attended Haverford.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 21, 2005 12:04 AM



Every time I read the word "flair" I giggle a little bit in memory of Office Space.

Also, I'm relieved to see "flair" more properly defined as I was beginning to wonder if it was just "branding".

The Maxfield Parrish paintings strike me as being wonderfully executed but they barely have flair. They are so close to being treacly shit. They escape that destiny by a hair. For some reason, the landscapes make me think of Thomas Kinkade! Obviously though, they're much better than Kinkades!

Posted by: lindenen on May 21, 2005 4:13 AM






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